Saturday, June 26, 2010

Miscellany: Lyman Turbo Tumbler 600 review

For the average person, vibratory case tumblers are primarily associated with that basement scene from “Tremors”:

For us Burt Gummer types, tumblers are the best way to clean cartridge cases for reloading. Sure, there are other ways of polishing that dingy brass you picked up off the floor of the local range, but none are as simple as a tumbler. Pour in some dirty cases, cleaning media (invariably crushed corncob or walnut), screw down the top tight, press the “on” switch, then go watch "Tremors." By the time the Graboids are defeated, you'll have a bagful of shiny brass.

Today, we'll be featuring the Lyman Turbo Tumbler 600, a great entry-level tumbler that won't break the bank. The Lyman 600 is relatively compact and quiet, two practical concerns that get overlooked when people buy the latest and greatest Tumble-O-Tron Pro 5000. In my experience, it doesn't "walk," either - when placed on a rough concrete floor, the unit didn't budge an inch, even when running for more than 5 hours straight.

The Lyman can handle about a pound of media and 100 or so .38 Special size cases, and it gets them nice and purty:

Downsides? Well, the 600 is a little small compared to other tumblers, but unless you have a nice (read: expensive) progressive loading setup, you're not going to need to polish more than 500 cases per day, anyway. Plus, if you find you do need more capacity, you can swap in the 1200-size bowl without buying or changing anything else.

I can think of one more negative: giant worms might invade your basement. But with the Lyman 600, at least you'll have good-looking reloaded ammo to fight 'em off with...

Miscellany: On A (Tri) Rail

If you want to get to downtown Miami from West Palm Beach, you can either (A) take a car down I-95 or Turnpike like a sane person or (B) experience South Florida's commuter railway system.

The journey starts with Tri-Rail, a straight stretch of railroad going from West Palm to Miami. Unlike the commuter trains in big cities like Chicago or Paris, South Florida's railway only has one line, and it runs strictly north-south. With that kind of forced simplicity, you'd assume the trains are always on time, but Tri-Rail always seems to be running late anyway.

The trains themselves are hit-and-miss. One might have modern cars with clean plastic seating, another might have '80s-style upholstery (try not to hit one of the trains with no A/C – unless you enjoy being baked inside a tin can in the middle of the Florida summer). From the windows, the view is almost unrelentingly bleak: industrial zones, poor neighborhoods, and homeless people zoom by. It makes sense - the only people who live near railroad tracks are the ones who can't afford to live anywhere else.

When you finally hit Miami, you have to transfer to the city metro system. It's akin to going to another country, because most of the people riding with you will be speaking crisp, unaccented Spanish. Once you get to downtown proper, you can take the Metromover elevated trains for free.

All in all, the trip is “fun” in an exploratory sense, but completely impractical for actual commuting. I just can't see anybody making the three hour round trip everyday, unless you absolutely, positively can't afford a car. Even then, you might be better off hitch-hiking. It comes as no surprise that Tri-Rail needs to be propped up by (who else?) the government:

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Sports: Drama on the grass

Despite its reputation as a way to escape the workaday world, sport contains all the harsh reality you could ever ask for. There's a winner and a loser, there are runs of good and bad luck that have nothing to do with the participants, there are games or matches that are just plain boring (even for the players).

Take the longest tennis match ever played, a grueling 10-hour Wimbledon first round encounter between John Isner and Nicolas Mahut (it's unfinished even as I type this). The media tried to play up the heroism, grit and professionalism of the two players; though the praise got a bit hyperbolic, the sportsmanship and competitive fire on display was evident.

Actually watching the match, though, was depressing. Around 80(!) games into the fifth set, the 6'9" Isner started to lumber around like a zombie, seemingly capable of only a lurch to the left or right. When Mahut asked to stop play because of darkness, Isner wanted to continue on. At first I wondered why Isner, who was physically spent, wouldn't welcome an 18 hour delay to rest up and recharge.

But then it hit me: He's a professional tennis player, and no matter how extraordinary the match is, it's still a job. Whatever happens, win or lose, there'll always be another round, another opponent, another tournament to grind through. Might as well finish this one now, and get it over with.

* * *

Interestingly enough, though, on the same day Isner and Mahut were grimly duelling in London, the U.S. soccer team defeated Algeria, scoring an improbable last-minute goal that looked like something out of a poorly scripted Jerry Bruckheimer movie.

In that moment, all the negative parts of sporting competition fell away. There wasn't even really the sting of defeat for the losers, as Algeria would have been out of the tournament if the match had remained a tie. Instead there was just elation, for a team and for millions of fans around the country. If Isner v. Mahut echoed the endless slog many people find themselves in during the workday, U.S. v. Algeria represented the passion and emotion that you feel after a job well done.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Miscellany: Spyderco Tasman Salt review

Oceans cover more than 70% of the surface of the Earth, and, for obvious reasons, they are a harsh environment for knives. Unfortunately, you're actually more likely to need a good knife on the high seas than on land (just ask the survivors of the Deepwater Horizon rig explosion). This has led to a whole category of dive and mariner's knives for use in the aquatic realm. Today, we'll look at the Spyderco Tasman Salt, one of my favorite water knives:

Why is the Tasman Salt such a great dive knife? It's completely rustproof, for starters. The Tasman, like the rest of Spyderco's "Salt" line, has an H1 steel blade. H1 is an austenitic stainless steel with high amounts of chromium and low amounts of carbon relative to other cutlery steels. The lack of carbon essentially means the blade can't rust, even with constant saltwater immersion.

The next thing I love about the Tasman is the blade's hawkbill shape. The hawkbill or karambit blade has been in use for centuries in one form or another. The concave edge draws material into the tip as the blade is pulled, which allows for excellent cutting power, especially in awkward positions (like cutting a rope or branch at arm’s length). For divers, the ability to slice entangling netting, rope, and vegetation could be the difference between life or death. But don't take my word for it - here's Spyderco rep and knife expert Michael Janich to explain:

Like the discontinued Spyderco Merlin (another hawkbill folder), the Tasman Salt has linerless FRN handles and pinned construction, leading to a feathery 2 ounce weight (especially considering the 2-7/8" blade length). Despite the light weight, the titanium pocket clip and integral lanyard hole make the knife easy to retain. And, if you do lose it, the bright yellow FRN handle is easier to spot than a run-of-the-mill black folding knife.

The knife does have some drawbacks when it is pressed into everyday use, mostly owing to its hawkbill blade. The hooked point causes incessant wear to the tip of the blade (part of the reason I opted for the plain edge - easier sharpening). The blade is also genuinely bad at some tasks, like slicing food on a cutting board or skinning game. Finally, the closed knife has a fat profile, making it less easy to carry than a conventional spear or drop point folder.

Overall, though, the Spyderco Tasman Salt is a great knife and a perfect Father's Day gift for fisherman and sailors.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Politics: "To Serve the Public...It's a cookbook!"

Rep. Bob Etheridge (D-N.C.) has been thoroughly pilloried in the blogosphere for his over-the-top reaction to a pair of camera-wielding reporters. Heck, even in the HuffPo, the condemnation has been swift and sure.

But it shouldn't be a one-shot deal. Every politican, whatever their party or positions, should be subject to this kind of constant, public questioning. Polite, honest, but relentless questioning. You wanna be part of the 535-member group that makes laws for 300 million people? Get used to random reporters and gossip-hounds bugging you at town hall meetings, on the street, at restaurants, in grocery stores. Maybe then we wouldn't have Congresscritters "serving" us for such extended terms.

It shouldn't be hard to fix. We already have paparazzi hounding Miley Cyrus everywhere she goes, after all.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Music: The Symphony of Science

John Boswell's passion for science and music led to the creation of "The Symphony of Science," a series of music videos featuring the likes of Carl Sagan, Stephen Hawking, and Richard Feynman.

Not your first choices for stellar vocal performances? Have no fear, because Boswell cobbles together clips from TV science documentaries and uses (what else?) Auto-Tune to fit the words together into a melody. Oddly enough, the robotic pitch perfection that I usually hate in mass market pop works great in the "Symphony of Science" vids - a robotic voice connotes the future, I suppose. Anyway, the effect, when combined with a good beat, is downright hypnotic:

Sports: Hey, What's That Annoying Buzzing Sound?

The good news: The 2010 FIFA World Cup has finally arrived, with 32 nations competing for soccer's most coveted prize. Hundreds of millions watch each match, and the cumulative audience is in the billions.

The bad news: This year, it's being hosted in South Africa, which means every TV broadcast of the World Cup is drowned out by the noise of vuvuzelas.

Of course, American indifference to soccer is well-documented, as is our relative futility in the World Cup. That's starting to change (and once someone is willing to pay soccer players the sort of salaries MLB superstars command, the U.S. should become a soccer powerhouse), but for now, TV broadcasters will have to drum up excitement:

Wednesday, June 09, 2010

Guns / TV: Top Shot

History Channel has run dozens of awesome firearms-related shows in the past ("Extreme Marksmen," "Mail Call," etc.), so it makes sense that they're the first out of the gate with a "Survivor"-like shooting competition:

"Top Shot" features 16 seasoned marksmen (Caleb from Gun Nuts Media is one of the competitors) who are competing for a $100,000 grand prize. As in the original "Survivor," they're divided into two teams, and each show features a team competition and a head-to-head elimination round between two members of the losing team. Of course, this being 2010, all the participants are cooped up into one house and filmed before and after the competitions.

In terms of interpersonal antics, "Top Shot" isn't the most interesting reality TV show in the world. The people on the program are all good shooters, which requires a certain level of self-control and mannered restraint. Granted, that kind of civility might be boring to some people, but this is supposed to be reality TV, not fantasy people really expect ex-police officers and Army Reserve snipers to whine like spoiled teenagers for an hour?

The gun pr0n is good, with high speed photography and exploding targets to add visual interest to the shooting contests. You can watch full episodes of the show from the History Channel website, as well as additional material that was cut for TV. The show can be a little slow at times, but all in all, it's a decent program that portrays shooting in a positive light.

[SPOILER ALERT - the gun blogosphere is abuzz over what happened in the first episode, where a very skilled shooter had a mystifying series of misses. Some blamed the rifle sights, some blamed the spotter, some questioned the target. Me? I think if you're picking up a rifle that has not been zeroed for you, it's going to take a while to hit a small target 100 yards away, no matter how good your gun fu is.]

Thursday, June 03, 2010

Books: The Android's Dream

For the truly thrifty, new hardcover books can be purchased for a song at the local dollar store. As you might expect, the selection is limited - you'll find plenty of potboiler thrillers and political screeds (these have short shelf-lives for obvious reasons). Once in awhile, though, you'll come upon a book that's actually worth the dollar, like "The Android's Dream" by John Scalzi.

In the book, humanity teeters on the brink of interstellar war caused by malevolent flatulence, and our only hope is a genetically modified sheep. Harry Creek, a low-level Department of State worker who specializes in delivering bad news to alien diplomats, becomes embroiled in the hunt for the sheep, thrusting him into the middle of galactic political intrigue and derring-do.

The influence of "The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy" can be keenly felt throughout the book. I liked Douglas Adams's droll asides better, but Scalzi does a good job creating a coherent world and populating it with interesting characters. Unfortunately, when it comes time for all the humorous plot setups to pay off, the novel disappoints. The action scenes in the latter half of the book are particularly bland; it feels like you're watching "The Fifth Element" as directed by Woody Allen. Still, "The Android's Dream" is an okay sci-fi novel, especially for a dollar.

Movies: Best Actress Grudgematch - The Blind Side vs. Julie & Julia

Sandra Bullock came home with the Oscar for her role in "The Blind Side" a few months ago, but many thought veteran Meryl Streep deserved a win for portraying Julia Child in "Julie & Julia." How do the two movies (and the two performances) stack up? Through sheer chance, I recently saw both films back-to-back, so let the battle begin:

The Blind Side

You wouldn't think a book about football strategy would make for a watchable character drama. After all, to the non-fan, the Xs and Os of a football playbook are about as interesting as watching paint dry. "The Blind Side," directed by John Lee Hancock, avoids this dilemma by neatly condensing all the gridiron gobbledygook from Michael Lewis's book into the first two minutes.

The remainder is an "inspiring sports film about overcoming racial prejudice," a trope so well-worn that I did a blog post on it. Michael Oher is a black kid from the wrong side of town who beats the odds through integrity and hard work (and football). Sure, sure, it's based on a true story, but the details have been massaged and manipulated for mass consumption. Heck, there's even a precocious football-obsessed kid (think Hayden Panetierre in "Remember the Titans").

As for Bullock, she plays Leigh Anne Tuohy, a well-to-do Ole Miss booster who adopts Michael Oher into her family. As some critics noted, it's not the most challenging material since the role garners easy sympathy. To her credit, though, Bullock brings all her tough-gal charisma to bear, whether it's expressing righteous indignation at the casual racism of her friends or confronting one of Michael's seedier acquaintances using tough talk, an NRA membership, and a Saturday Night Special that "shoots just fine every other day of the week."

Rating: 6/10

Julie & Julia

Nora Ephron has always been a hit-or-miss director. For every romcom hit like "When Harry Met Sally..." or "Sleepless in Seattle," there are critical blunders like "Bewitched" and "Lucky Numbers." Ephron's latest flick, "Julie and Julia," is interesting because it represents both a hit and a miss. The mixed review comes from the attempt to tell two separate stories during its runtime: chef Julia Child struggles to get her book published, and, decades later, blogger Julia Powell attempts to cook (and blog) her way through said book.

Meryl Streep does a good impersonation of the iconic chef, but she doesn't quite capture the warmth, intelligence, and humor that Child exhibited on-screen. Playing a real person is always a tough ask, though, so it's hard to knock Streep's performance. Still, there's a fine line between paying tribute and lapsing into SNL-style parody:

The most problematic part of the movie, though, is Amy Adams' annoying character, the blogger Julia Powell. The insular, narcissistic nature of a blog doesn't make for particularly compelling drama ("Shangrila Towers - The Movie" wouldn't work very well, either). Ephron gamely tries to spice up Powell's life with small-scale obstacles, but Powell's life ends up feeling hollow compared to Child's. Maybe they'll put out a special edition of the movie titled "Julie," with all of the Amy Adams scenes cut out.

Rating: 6/10