Monday, February 28, 2011

Music: Two-Man Band Melancholy

They say there's nothing new under the sun, and, when it comes to songs about the daily grind of industrialized life, they're probably right. Whether it's teen angst, métro-boulot-dodo ennui, or just plain sadness, today's songs - one a Gen X classic, the other a current single - are the perfect mantras. Curiously enough, both of today's featured bands only have two members.

"Bound for the Floor"

Pretty much anyone growing up in the '90s is familiar with this track by Local H; the song's opening riff is a sharp, staccato series of stings that instantly lodge in your mind. Like a lot of '90s post-grunge, there's a shout-along chorus that goes over well when work, school, or The Man gets you down:

"New Low"

Middle Class Rut is a rock band out of California that's been around for awhile. "New Low" is their breakout single, and it's very different than anything the band has ever done - sort of a midtempo meditation on cubicle life. I think the video is pretty interesting...they even throw in a nice little bit of narration at the end:

Friday, February 25, 2011

Guns: Markham Park Target Range

A few months back, I had the opportunity to visit Markham Park Target Range, a public shooting range in Sunrise, Florida. Markham Park is one of the few outdoor ranges in South Florida, so it attracts visitors from miles around; even though I had to drive over an hour to get there, I wound up running into several other visitors who lived around my neighborhood.

The main range is a 100-yard affair that can support a lot of shooters - 66 stalls, according to Markham Park's website. Each stall has a bench and seat, as well as a metal target stand that can be staked into the ground. There are few restrictions in what you can shoot - black powder, shotgun slugs, and handloads are all allowed. On any given weekend, you'll see plenty of people with AR or AK-pattern rifles (side note: I think combining Drowning Pool's "Bodies" with shooting videos is about as creative as completing a coloring book):

For those who favor the scattergun, Markham Park is equipped with a sporting clays course and plenty of skeet and trap fields:

For the most part, the staff there was attentive and courteous. The range officers weren't in a corner texting their friends; they were walking up and down the line, checking to make sure all chambers were empty, and occasionally helping out when people had a question or problem. In terms of service, Markham Park was about as good as most privately-operated ranges I've been to.

Of course, given that this is a government operation, there were strange quirks and regulations. The waiting room to get into the range was packed to the gills - it felt like the DMV, only with more guns. Even more apoplexy was suffered when I brought my Rossi 20 gauge to the shotgun fields, hoping to shoot a little trap. It turns out they don't allow any shotguns with barrels under 26 inches. Their reasoning?

"With a shorter barrel, people are more likely to accidentally point their muzzles in unsafe directions."

Hmm. Where's my bowcaster?

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Sports: Tennis in the Village by the Sea

Far from the glistening emerald lawns of Wimbledon are the Newports, the Brisbanes, the Bastads - the smaller tournaments that bring pro tennis to the masses. Since they don't yield large amounts of rankings points or prize money, they usually attract only one or two big names, perhaps because of some personal connection (Federer regularly plays in his hometown tournament in Basel, for instance) or because they serve as convenient warmup events for the Grand Slams.

The Delray Beach International Tennis Championship is one such stop on the ATP World Tour, and I managed to catch some of the first round action. The sea breeze Delray is known for was absolutely whipping through the grounds; the flags on top of the stadium were snapping back and forth violently the whole day. While the outer courts had some interesting matchups between fairly obscure players (I'm a tennis fan, and even I couldn't identify half the participants), the featured match of the day session was a battle between Sam Querrey and Dustin Brown.

Querrey is the third-ranked American, behind Andy Roddick and John Isner, and he's coming back from a tough first round Australian Open loss. Querrey's serve is usually a major weapon for him, but it's not clicking at all today in the windy conditions; he rarely tops 120 mph with his first serve and throws in a few double faults for good measure. Sam's not ranked in the top 25 for nothing, though; like the rest of the top pros, his movement and groundstrokes are usually enough to overwhelm lesser foes, and they're enough to allow him to take the first set.

His opponent is Dustin Brown, a thin, dreadlocked journeyman who looks about as German as I do. Brown has a sneaky, flat serve with a low ball toss, and it wins him plenty of free points. The serve also sets up some volleying opportunities, and Brown takes advantage of them. I can even hear his coach bark encouragement in German a few seats away. After a few loose service games from Sam, Brown takes the second set and goes up a break in the third; it looks like an upset is brewing.

After awhile, though, some unforced errors creep into Brown's game, and Querrey rattles off a run of five straight games in the third set to win. There's a tinge of melancholy here; a win would have meant much more for Brown than a loss would have meant for Querrey. Even in a small tournament, though, the top dogs play to win.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Music: Beauty and the Beast on Tour

For most folks, flying to Broadway and getting tickets to a popular musical is about as practical as flying to the moon. Fortunately, sometimes Broadway comes to you, as it did for me in the NETworks presentation of "Beauty and the Beast," directed by Rob Roth, staged by the design team who worked on the original Broadway run, and starring Liz Shivener as Belle and Justin Glaser as Beast.

I saw the show at the Phillips Center. The crowd that night was obviously packed with children, but there were also a fair number of UF students who had grown up on the popular 1991 Disney film. Though some scenes and songs were reworked, all the famous songs from the Disney movie were present.

The production was campier than the original Broadway run (Gaston literally stopped mid-song and delivered a Gator chomp, which received cheers from the crowd but felt a little cheesy to me). The second Act also felt a little light; they excised the battle between the enchanted objects and the townspeople, one of my favorite parts of the movie.

Still, it was a fun show, and Shivener makes for a charming Belle. The highlight of the evening came early, in the opening number "Belle." Though the visuals and sets were downgraded compared to the full-blown Broadway production (everything has to be portable, after all), the frantic motion of the folding village scenery actually helped to add a frenzied feel to the song:

Miscellany: Jonathan Dickinson State Park

As parks go, Jonathan Dickinson State Park is a rather homely specimen. It'll never be featured on a Travel Channel special, or written up in National Geographic; heck, even the promotional video below has a hard time making the place look exciting:

If you're looking for a place to snap photos that will amaze your friends, this ain't it. Instead, park visitors are confronted by acres and acres of featureless scrub and pine, as far as the eye can see. There is a river, the mighty Loxahatchee, but it's essentially a flat dark blue road surrounded by forest. No grizzly bears, no waterfalls, no canyons, no's nature at its most mundane.

But therein lies Jonathan Dickinson's charm - since of the park's visitors are locals, you don't have a crush of tourists despoiling the place. In other words, it's the same trees and terrain as the rest of South Florida, but without the people.

The difference is subtle, to be sure. When you're plumbing the depths of one of Jonathan Dickinson's off-road bike trails (which are extremely difficult to navigate due to the 6" diameter shrub roots that grow inconveniently across the trail), you start to notice that there aren't cigarette butts or beer caps littering the ground. When you're canoeing on the Loxahatchee, you can hear your own thoughts, not the thrum of traffic on I-95.

Best of all, the place is cheap and accessible - right off of Federal Highway in Hobe Sound, Florida, only about an hour's drive from the maddening sprawl of Palm Beach County. So, if you're in the area, and if you're sick of trying to "get away from it all" only to run into the crowds at Yellowstone and Yosemite, try Jonathan Dickinson State Park - a homely place you can spend some time in.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Guns: Magpul Dynamics - The Art of the Dynamic Handgun DVD review

Not too long ago, Magpul Dynamics introduced "The Art of the Tactical Carbine," a three-disc set of DVDs that raised the bar for firearms instruction videos. Prior shooting videos were often dull and lifeless - a guy in his basement talking about guns, a flat range with a single shooter. In contrast, "The Art of the Tactical Carbine" featured professional photography, outdoor live fire sessions, and the popular duo of Travis Haley and Chris Costa conducting a couple of carbine courses with their usual aplomb.

In "The Art of the Dynamic Handgun," the pair are at it again, this time with handguns:

All the glitz you see in the above trailer would be useless if the instruction wasn't good. Thankfully, the handgun lessons are well-organized and well-delivered. You may not agree with everything being taught, of course, but it's obvious there's been a lot of time and effort spent into developing the training.

The four disc set covers the fundamentals of handgun manipulation. Disc 1 is the most content-packed, as it basically goes through the nuts and bolts of shooting a handgun (stance, grip, sight picture, trigger - and the instructors do demonstrate what happens to your shots when a few of those are out of whack). Disc 2 covers more advanced topics, like shooting on the move, and introduces a number of scenarios themed aroud law enforcment, military, and concealed carry pistol usage. Disc 3 is a basic introduction to concealed carry, including drawing from concealement and some brief clothing considerations. Disc 4 consists of drills, equipment advice, and bonus material.

My biggest gripe with the series is that the revolver stuff seems like an afterthought: there is no discussion of the best way to carry revolver ammo or how different types of speedloaders work. Only one method of reloading a revolver is shown, when there are at least three or four distinct methods that can be employed.

Aside from my wheelgun bias, I think the concealed carry disc (which the instructors acknowledge is just an introduction) is a little slim - if you're going to cover the bare fundamentals of manipulating a concealed handgun, you can't get away with not showing how to draw from a shoulder holster, an ankle holster, etc. It seems like they could have fit a lot more material into this disc (expect "Magpul Dynamics: The Art of the Concealed Weapon" to be released in the near-future :-P).

Overall, though, this is a good set, with sufficient content to justify the (steep) $50 asking price. And, lest the main course get too serious, it's nice to see Magpul Dynamics throwing in a little fanservice via Willie, the lone female student in the class:

Mulliga's Combat Tip™: A miniskirt probably isn't the most practical choice for gunfighting attire.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Tech: Big Blue's Chinese Room

Tomorrow, you'll get the rare chance to see a philosophical thought experiment come to life as IBM's Jeopardy!-playing computer faces off against two illustrious former champions on national television:

The thought experiment in question is John Searle's Chinese room. Here's the original version:
Suppose that I’m locked in a room and given a large batch of Chinese writing. Suppose furthermore (as is indeed the case) that I know no Chinese, either written or spoken . . . Chinese writing is just so many meaningless squiggles. Now suppose further that after this first batch of Chinese writing I am given a second batch of Chinese script together with a set of rules for correlating the second batch with the first batch. The rules are in English, and I understand these rules as well as any other native speaker of English. They enable me to correlate one set of formal symbols with another set of formal symbols, and all that "formal" means here is that I can identify the symbols entirely by their shapes. Now suppose also that I am given a third batch of Chinese symbols together with some instructions, again in English, that enable me to correlate elements of this third batch with the first two batches, and these rules instruct me how to give back certain Chinese symbols with certain sorts of shapes in response to certain sorts of shapes given me in the third batch. . .

Suppose also that after a while I get so good at following the instructions for manipulating the Chinese symbols and the programmers get so good at writing the programs that from the external point of view—that is, from the point of view of somebody outside the room in which I am locked—my answers to the questions are absolutely indistinguishable from those of native Chinese speakers. Nobody just looking at my answers can tell that I don’t speak a word of Chinese. . .

. . . it seems to me quite obvious in the example that I do not understand a word of the Chinese stories. I have inputs and outputs that are indistinguishable from those of the native Chinese speaker, and I can have any formal program you like, but I still understand nothing. For the same reasons, Schank’s computer understands nothing of any stories, whether in Chinese, English, or whatever, since in the Chinese case the computer is me, and in cases where the computer is not me, the computer has nothing more than I have in the case where I understand nothing.

IBM's Watson operates in much the same way as Searle's Chinese room. IBM's programmers have fed it enormous amounts of data, including enyclopedias, novels, plays, the Bible, and, of course, thousands of past Jeopardy! questions and answers (there's nothing unfair or foreign about this - human Jeopardy! players do the same kind of research, after all).

After receiving the Jeopardy! clue, Watson runs a large number of independent search algorithms in parallel on its databases, and then picks whichever answer is reached by the majority of the algorithms. It then takes this result and runs it back through its databases (including the past Jeopardy! questions) to see whether the answer conforms to past correct answers.

As you can tell, the way Watson "thinks" is completely unlike how a human being thinks. When Ken Jennings gets a Jeopardy! clue about a Gilbert and Sullivan opera, he doesn't have to eliminate "What's Eating Gilbert Grape" or New York Times Co. v. Sullivan in order to get to the correct answer.

In essence, Watson is a Chinese room - it can divine the grammar behind the question only because it has a huge set of complex rules telling it the grammar to follow. For Watson, there's no difference between a straight Jeopardy! clue and one laden with corny humor - they're treated the same and answered in exactly the same fashion.

All of this does nothing to lessen the fine achievement of IBM's designers; Watson is doing something that was once considered impossible. The applications are tantalizing - if a personal computer of tomorrow could "understand" human speech and commands the same way Watson does, it would be revolutionary (imagine a doctor being able to search for contraindications simply by feeding a patient's chart to a computer and asking it questions). Still, given that a 36 year-old computer scientist can match a computer with 16 terabytes of memory and ten refrigerators' worth of processing cores and networking hardware, I think we're a long way from SkyNet taking over the world:

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Miscellany: Spyderco P'Kal review

The Concept

At first glance, the Spyderco P'kal seems like something that belongs in one of those glossy, ridiculous knife magazines - the kind with double exclamation points in all the article titles ("Year's Best Street Blades!!," "Jungle Steel Goes for the Jugular!!," etc.). After all, the P'Kal's knife blade and choil look like they were put on the wrong side of the handle by mistake.

There is a theory behind the peculiar shape of the knife, though. As you can see from these two videos by Southnarc, an undercover narcotics officer and martial arts instructor, the P'Kal is designed for for reverse-grip edge-in thrusting and rapid deployment with the Emerson Wave opener. Because Spyderco is a reputable company that rarely puts out useless knives, I decided to try out the P'Kal to see if that fancy theory actually translated to a working product.

The Blade

The P'Kal blade is made of CPM S30V, a medium-to-high quality stainless steel that's pretty common on good production folding knives. S30V is a decent all-around performer, with a grain fine enough to take a good edge (out of the box, the P'Kal made confetti out of a Post-It Note) and plenty of vanadium to make it tough and chip-resistant (cutting through some staples produced no noticeable damage to the edge).

The blade's shape is sort of a cross between a Wharncliffe and a hawkbill. Unlike most other Wharncliffes, the P'Kal's cutting edge is set at an angle to the handle, which elevates the point for efficient thrusting and, perhaps more importantly, withdrawal. The P'Kal's blade also has a hawkbill-esque reverse curve to help its shearing performance. The hawkbill is pretty subtle, though, so it shouldn't be too hard to sharpen the P'Kal.

The Handle

Synthetic G10 scales are de rigueur in folding knives these days; the P'Kal sports two black slabs that are a little more grippy and textured than other G10 scales I've tried. As you can see, the scales are beveled for comfort.

The P'Kal's steel liners are very well-designed. First of all, they have had considerable portions drilled out to skeletonize them, which helps explain why the P'Kal only weighs about 3-1/2 ounces. Even more impressive are the proud liners - they are ridged to stick out from the G10 slightly, to improve your purchase on the knife.

The handle shape is intended for reverse grip edge in, and the P'Kal is really only comfortable in that grip (reverse-edge out works okay, but it's less secure since the concavity of the handle doesn't fit the hand). Slip your pinkie into the back choil near the spine of the blade, wrap your thumb over the top of the handle, and you have a pretty secure grip.

Spyderco has been putting pocket clips on its folding knives for decades now, so it's no surprise that the P'Kal's clip is pretty much perfect. It's a low-profile wire-type clip, reversible for left or right side carry. For reasons discussed below, there's no provision for tip-down carry.

The Lock

The P'Kal sports one of the later iterations of Spyderco's caged ball lock, which uses a ball bearing encased in polymer to lock the back of the blade into the handle. Designed by Eric Glesser, the lock is fast and positive. I particularly like the fact that it's difficult to actuate the ball bearing when the knife is locked open - an extra measure of safety when the P'Kal is plunged at high velocity into a material.

The Wave

Ernest Emerson's patented Wave opener receives one of its best implementations on the P'Kal. In case you're unfamiliar with the principle, the Emerson Wave opener is a small hook attached to the back of a blade that catches the edge of a pocket when a folding knife is drawn - the resulting resistance "waves open" the blade. Obviously, the Wave only works when a folder is carried tip-up.

Here, the opener is removable in case you opt not to use it, a feature which I believe is unique to the P'Kal. Carried in the right rear pocket of a pair of jeans or shorts, the P'Kal can be drawn into reverse grip fairly easily. The Wave is a little rough on your pocket; as Spyderco warns, don't try it with your $400 pair of Armani slacks.

The Conclusion

I didn't expect to like the P'Kal so much, but it's a well-thought out, well-executed design, built right here in the good old USA. Even without the martial trappings, the P'Kal remains a functional, if unique, utility knife. Though I'm certain opening up packages is the most violent thing I'll ever do with the P'Kal, it's reassuring to know that a whole team of knife experts labored over the design beforehand.

Wednesday, February 09, 2011

Books: Comic Noir Trifecta

hard–bit·ten adj \-ˈbi-tən\
1: inclined to bite hard
2: seasoned or steeled by difficult experience : tough

The enduring popularity of film noir has influenced plenty of works in the comics industry, and today's entries offer three different takes on the genre. The common denominator? The hardbitten, world-weary protagonist who's in too deep...

Britten and Brülightly

"Britten and Brülightly" is the debut(!) graphic novel from Hannah Berry. Her gloomy, hand-painted take on 1940s London instantly sucked me in, but surprisingly, there's an above-average story here, too.

The book follows Fernandez Britten, a self-described "private researcher," as he slowly unravels the mystery behind the suicide of a wealthy client's fiancé. As is par for the course in this type of story, not all is what it seems, and family secrets, blackmail, and betrayal all rear their ugly heads. Moments of levity are provided by Britten's curious partner, Brülightly, but overall, this is a dark book about dark things.

You Have Killed Me

The most notable twist of "You Have Killed Me" is that there is no twist: in an age of neo-noir, tech-noir, and post-noir, the book mostly plays it straight. There's a hardboiled detective, a femme fatale, jilted lovers...the works.

The comic was written by Jamie S. Rich and illustrated by Joëlle Jones. I'm a fan of Jones's work - she has a knack for drawing attractive dames, square-jawed heroes, and shifty ne'er-do-wells. The panels have clean, black-and-white images and exhibit a good sense of negative space. Which is good, because "You Have Killed Me" has its fair share of bloodletting.


If you're only familiar with the forgettable film adaptation starring Kate Beckinsale, you might want to check out the original "Whiteout," a graphic novel written by Greg Rucka and illustrated by Steve Lieber.

That's not to say the movie deviated from the book in terms of plot - actually, it's a pretty faithful adaptation, all things considered. The tone of the two works is markedly different, however - where the viewer never quite buys pretty Kate Beckinsale as a disgraced U.S. Marshal stuck in a dead-end posting in Antarctica, Lieber's artwork and Rucka's writing convey the portrait of a flawed, tough-as-nails woman caught in the middle of some nefarious dealings.

Monday, February 07, 2011

Music: The Band Perry

Family acts have been a staple of country music for decades - the chemistry and camaraderie of having your relatives onstage just lends itself to singing country songs. Carrying on the tradition of groups like the Carters and the Judds are the sibling trio of Kimberly, Neil, and Reid Perry, who formed "The Band Perry."

Their self-titled debut album is a cross between Janis Joplin, Loretta Lynn, and David Grisman; practically every song has blues, rock, rockabilly, or bluegrass elements. In the main, though, "The Band Perry" employs the country-pop sound that dominates today's airwaves, ensuring that they'll have a broad appeal.

I watched TBP perform at the South Florida Fair recently, and it was a fun time. The setlist included most of their debut album, along with a smattering of covers and new material. Thanks to relentless airtime on local country radio, most of the crowd was familiar with TBP's #1 hit, "If I Die Young":

The Perrys were also quite friendly; they stayed after the show for two hours to sign autographs and take pictures with the fans, including yours truly:

As a final note, I leave you with my favorite TBP song, "Independence." It's a song about leaving home to find your fortune, and it describes my current situation pretty succintly. Methinks it's time to borrow a posting style from my fellow gunblogger Borepatch - here is the music video and a few of the lyrics:

Emancipation or paper chasing
Leaving with question marks and Momma's blessing
Put her picture in my pocket along with her rosary
Oh, some say I'm crazy, a little loco
and most of my friends will live and die in this zip code
It might be for me but until I go
How am I ever supposed to know?

I gotta get gone, gone, gone
shooting like a gun, a gun, a gun
skipping like a stone, stone, stone
Far as I can run to where freedom is free
There's a road like a long gray ribbon far as I can see

I'm busting out of Independence
Independence busting out of me

Wednesday, February 02, 2011

Links: Talk about turning lemons into lemonade...

John W. Myers (author of "God, Guns and Grits") was recently released from the hospital after being diagnosed with stage IV cancer.

It would be understandable and natural to be depressed, to not want to even get out of bed. Instead, John went out shooting, and got an interesting blog post out of the whole thing. As it turns out, shooting from a wheelchair is an art in and of itself, and it makes for fascinating reading.

With a little faith and a lot of practice, you can do incredible things...check out this Marine: