Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Movies: Peak Oil Double Feature

There are some who believe that America's interventions in the Middle East are a result of our dependence on their oil. Notwithstanding the truth of that premise, today's two documentaries paint bleak portraits of what will happen to the U.S. when world oil production hits its peak...and then starts to decline...


"Collapse" is essentially one long monologue delivered by Michael Ruppert, a former LAPD officer who has written about politics and energy crises for decades. Ruppert is filmed as if he was in an interrogation room: harsh lighting, a single lonely chair, and a skeptical inquisitor (the director, Chris Smith). During the course of the film's 82-minute runtime, Ruppert ruminates about ethanol, social unrest, and government debt, but mostly lays down his case that declining oil production will lead to the collapse of modern society.

It's a lot to swallow, of course, but that's part of the appeal - Ruppert senses that this will be the largest audience he'll ever have, and he packs several years worth of newsletter/blogpost alarmism into the documentary. If humanity really is doomed, at least we've doomed ourselves in the most thorough, complete way imaginable.

Rating: 6/10

Blind Spot

"Blind Spot" is a documentary about the modern world's inability (or unwillingness) to examine peak oil. The strongest moments of the movie come in the beginning, with stark shots of hundreds of cars and trucks gliding along busy freeways. If you know anything about the premise, it's a rather chilling opening.

Unfortunately, the movie somehow finds a way to make the total collapse of modern civilization boring; it dwells too much on the sociological aspects of why people ignore the world's dependence on fossil fuels, and doesn't spend enough time on the aftermath. Recommended for only the most hardcore, face-colander apocalypse-heads.

Rating: 4/10

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Guns: Shoot Straight range review

Shoot Straight is a chain of shooting ranges that operates throughout Central and South Florida. I visited the recently-opened West Palm Beach location in order to see how they compared with other indoor ranges and gun stores in the area.

As a gun shop, Shoot Straight occupies a certain niche - it's smaller and a little more user-friendly than big-box sporting goods stores like Wally World and the Mountain of Geese, yet the selection of guns is larger than a single-location mom-and-pop gun store. Unfortunately, the prices on guns, ammunition, and accessories at Shoot Straight are uniformly high - usually 10% or so above market price. If you absolutely must buy a gun from them, I'd stick to their "sale" items, like a Ruger LCP for $299 or a S&W Airweight for $399.

Shoot Straight fares much better when considered as a shooting range. Annual memberships are $225, so even if you only visit once a month, your cost per visit is less than $20, no matter how many hours you spend shooting. Conveniently, they let you shoot your own ammo, instead of forcing you to buy range ammo. Most impressive is the fact that four of the eighteen shooting lanes are equipped to handle rifle rounds (a rarity in South Florida; AFAIK, Shoot Straight is the only rifle-friendly indoor range in the whole county).

On the downside, Shoot Straight isn't the most advanced range out there. The ventilation is hit-and-miss; if the air conditioning's switched off, the smoke from multiple gunshots can build to a suffocating haze, especially in the rifle section of the range. Finally, since Shoot Straight is fully open to the public, you'll see your fair share of morons shooting up the walls, the target clips, the range lines - anything but the targets. Unless you're wearing a good pair of Level IV plates, I'd advise caution during peak hours.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Links: Eschatology Edition

I admit that the news has been pretty gloomy lately. The global economic malaise was bad enough, but the fallout from the Japan earthquake, an "intervention" in Libya, and general unrest in the Middle East have stirred up some pessimism in the blogosphere. Today's blogroll additions deal with that sentiment head-on:

Foseti - A blog about politics, both of the moment and in the abstract. If you've ever wondered why elections don't seem to change anything but the letters after your representatives' names, there's plenty of insight here into the bureacrat state. The overall philosophy of the blog is best summed up by the following quote: "Remember, democracy never lasts long. It soon wastes, exhausts and murders itself. There never was a democracy yet that did not commit suicide." - John Adams

Two-Four - The herald of the Endarkenment, Billy Beck is almost, but not quite, entirely unlike Glenn Beck. The posts on Two--Four are short, simple, and to the point, usually commenting on some disturbing economic fact or marveling at the ignorance and corruption of the political class. Unfortunately, in this day and age, Billy Beck posts a lot.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Movies: The Lincoln Lawyer

One side effect of becoming a lawyer is that you lose the ability to watch a courtroom drama like a normal person. Legal "thrillers" turn into giant law school hypotheticals, like the sticky situation presented in "The Lincoln Lawyer":

Based on the novel by Michael Connelly, the film follows Mick Haller (Matthew McConaughey), a shrewd criminal defense attorney who's not above letting a client sweat in jail in order to get paid. Mick is so smooth (and so alcoholic) that he works from the back of a Lincoln Town Car (if there was ever a movie that counted as a "star vehicle," "The Lincoln Lawyer" is it).

Mick's ethics and morals are tested when he agrees to represent a wealthy realtor (Ryan Phillippe) accused of rape and assault. What looks like a straightforward case soon becomes a primer on the attorney-client privilege and the California Rules of Professional Conduct, and demons from both past and present manifest before the credits roll.

"The Lincoln Lawyer" has a ton of megawatt acting talent - Oscar winner Marisa Tomei (who again finds a role where she gets to take most of her clothes off), Emmy winner William H. Macy, John Leguizamo, and so on. There's so many good character actors here that Bryan Cranston (of "Breaking Bad" fame) gets about two minutes of screentime.

The real star of the show, though, is McConaughey. From minute one, you're basically slathered in his trademark Southern drawl, and he gamely channels all of his boyish charm into his character. It's not quite enough to save the movie from the lackluster third act plotting all legal thrillers suffer from, but it's good enough to earn "The Lincoln Lawyer"...

Rating: 7/10

Thursday, March 17, 2011

A Shangrila St. Patrick's Day, Finale - Lament

Jeff Danna has had an eclectic musical career, to say the least. He's scored a wide range of films, from action movies like "The Boondock Saints" and "Resident Evil: Apocalypse" to thinkpieces like "The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus" and "The Kid Stays in the Picture."

Danna's also collaborated with his brother Mychael on a couple of well-received Celtic albums. In "A Celtic Romance: The Legend of Liadain and Curithir" and "A Celtic Tale: The Legend of Deirdre," the Danna brothers created "soundtracks" to old Celtic myths, leveraging their knowledge of film scoring to evoke emotions out of well-worn source material.

The latter album, "The Legend of Deirdre," actually received its own episode on "The Thistle & Shamrock." In a marked departure from Thistle's usual format, Fiona Ritchie narrated the legend as tracks from the album played; the end result was an interesting, modern version of the oral storytelling tradition. The song I remember most came near the end of the legend, as Deirdre grieves over her love, Naoise:

A Shangrila St. Patrick's Day, Part 3 - The Thistle & Shamrock

St. Patrick's Day is both a religious holiday and a celebration of all things Irish. This year, I'd like to do a three-part post (yes, like a shamrock) about a haunting song I heard on the radio one day...

NPR has taken a shellacking of late (and deservedly so), but, despite the slant in their news reporting, I still enjoy listening to a lot of NPR music programs. One of my favorites is "The Thistle & Shamrock," a long-running weekly radio show hosted by Fiona Ritchie.

The show is named for the national emblems of Scotland (thistle) and Ireland (shamrock), and, unsurprisingly, that's where most of the featured musicians hail from. Ritchie doesn't just play Celtic music, she narrates and curates the proceedings in a warm Scottish accent. Her obvious love of the material shines through the most when she conducts interviews with the musicians, perfect for taking a break from the constant jigs and fiddles.

If "Thistle" sounds like something you'd enjoy, check out Thistlepod, a short 5-10 minute podcast sampler of each week's show.

A Shangrila St. Patrick's Day, Part 2 - Deirdre of the Sorrows

St. Patrick's Day is both a religious holiday and a celebration of all things Irish. This year, I'd like to do a three-part post (yes, like a shamrock) about a haunting song I heard on the radio one day...

Deirdre of the Sorrows is one of the best known Irish myths. Rather than summarizing it myself, I've taken parts of the story from several tellings and weaved them together; the names and particulars change from story to story, but it should be fairly intelligible...

From all about deirdre:

A girl-child was born to Siobha on the night of a full moon. Her proud father, Feidhlim cradled her gently in his arms and named her Deirdre. He took her to the druids and asked them to foretell his infant's future. The druids looked towards the stars and glanced sadly at the newborn. "What do you see?" Feidhlim asked the druids anxiously. They answered "This child will cause great trouble. She will grow up to be the most beautiful woman in Ulster but she will cause the death of many of our men."

When the Red Branch Knights heard the druid's prognosis, they were uneasy and wanted the child immediately killed. They journeyed to the King and urged him to take action. King Connor was reluctant to deny the child's life and came up with a plan. "Deirdre will be reared far away from here and when she comes of age, I will make her my bride." This was deemed a satisfactory solution all 'round and King Connor set about finding an appropriate guardian for the child. He sent her deep into the forest to stay with a wise old woman called Leabharcham, who would care for and teach her.

From Little Shamrocks:

Despite the best attempts of Leabharcham to influence Conchobar not to marry her, he was more determined than ever. However, prior to her wedding to Conchobar, Deirdre met a young warrior called Naoise and fell in love with him. Deidre, Naoise and his two brothers, Ainle and Ardan, all the sons of Uisnech, fled to Alba (Scotland). For several years, they were happily married and had a daughter, Aigrene. No matter where they went, the local King insisted on having her as his wife and tried to have Naoise and his brothers killed. After fleeing to a remote island, they felt safe until Conchobar eventually tracked them down.

Conchobar lied that he had forgiven Naoise and Deirdre and sent Fergus mac Róich, an honorable warrior, to invite them to come back to Ulster and to guarantee them safe passage. Fergus was detained on the return journey and sent them off to Emain Macha with his son to protect them. After they arrived, Conchobar sent Leabharcham as a spy, to see if Deirdre had lost her beauty in her many years away. Leabharcham, to protect Dierdre from a marriage to Conchobar, lied to him, telling him that Deirdre had lost all of her beauty. However, Conchobar sent another spy named Trendhorn, who told him that Deirdre was as beautiful as ever.

From A Song in the Night:

Deirdre begged not to go, but Naoise was a warrior and he missed his place in the hall at Tara, and eagerly agreed to accept Fergus' vow of safe conduct. But Connor used cunning treachery to make sure that the foursome were left alone on the shores of Ireland.

None of the Fionna would fight against one of their own, and many stood beside Naoise and his brothers in defense of his wife. But at the end of the day all had fallen to treachery or to the mercenaries called out by the King. Then Connor looked at the bloody field outside his door and regretted what he had done. And he sent to Naoise and his brothers, who remained standing in a tight shield wall around Deirdre, and offered them his friendship and asked for their pardon. The brothers laughed in relief and lowered their shields and sheathed their swords and went forward to greet their king. When their guard was down Connor gestured to his mercenaries and said, "Kill them."

Deirdre stood over the grave of her husband and her brothers. The man she loved was dead and the man she now hated she was to marry. She had no more will to live.

From Celtic Fairy Tales, by Joseph Jacobs:

Deirdre kept sitting on the brink of the grave, constantly asking the gravediggers to dig the pit wide and free. When the bodies of the brothers were put in the grave, Deirdre said:—

Come over hither, Naois, my love,
Let Arden close to Allen lie;
If the dead had any sense to feel.
Ye would have made a place for Deirdre.

The men did as she told them. She jumped into the grave and lay down by Naois, and she was dead by his side.

The king ordered the body to be raised from out the grave and to be buried on the other side of the loch. It was done as the king bade, and the pit closed. Thereupon a fir shoot grew out of the grave of Deirdre and a fir shoot from the grave of Naois. and the two shoots united in a knot above the loch. The king ordered the shoots to be cut down, and this was done twice, until, at the third time, the wife whom the king had married caused him to stop this work of evil and his vengeance on the remains of the dead.

A Shangrila St. Patrick's Day, Part 1 - The Boondock Saints

St. Patrick's Day is both a religious holiday and a celebration of all things Irish. This year, I'd like to do a three-part post (yes, like a shamrock) about a haunting song I heard on the radio one day...

"The Boondock Saints" is a hard film to categorize. For the most part, it's marketed as an action movie - the movie poster and trailer definitely play up the violence. Between (and sometimes during) the gunfights, however, there is plenty of offbeat humor - from watching someone get hit by a toilet to seeing Willem Dafoe in drag. Many of the big setpiece fights are filmed in slow motion, giving everything a surreal touch:

The movie follows two ordinary brothers, played by Sean Patrick Flanery and Norman Reedus. The brothers survive a barfight with Russian gangsters, and make a vow to hunt down evil wherever they find it, starting with the mob. From there, things get even more zany, thanks to the supporting actors; Billy Connolly plays a heavily armed hitman named "Il Duce," David Della Rocco plays a skittish low-level mobster, and Willem Dafoe plays the same wild-eyed character he always plays.

Written and directed by Troy Duffy, "The Boondock Saints" was a disappointment at theatres but became a huge hit in the home video rental market. It's the only action movie I know of that has St. Patty's Day as a plot element; as such, if you feel like seeing an action-crime-comedy with sprinklings of Irish Catholicism and family drama, it's time to let the Saints come marching in.

Rating: 6/10

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Music: A prayer for Sendai...

...from one of my favorite composers, Yoko Kanno, who was born in Miyagi Prefecture:

I am worried for you,
and the world is worried for you,
searching for your name

Together with you
The world is always with you
I'm coming to see your soul

Your mind, your body,
Hold yourself in your arms
I pray that you are safe, and please be yourself,
Till I will see you.

If you haven't donated to help, now's a good time.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Guns: Get Down With The Thickness - S&W M&P9C review

Introduction - Second Time's the Charm

Long ago and far away, Smith & Wesson introduced the Sigma, a polymer-framed pistol so close to the popular GLOCK series that GLOCK actually sued for patent infringement. Gaston and Co. didn't need to waste their time; the Sigmas were notoriously unreliable pistols when they were first introduced (S&W has supposedly ironed out the bugs, but, to this day, many people derisively refer to them as "Smegmas").

S&W's M&P pistols have built a far better reputation, and have made serious inroads into the competition and law enforcement sectors. In almost any gun store in the country, you'll see M&Ps and GLOCKs facing off, with very similar price points and models.

So, when faced with a choice between a G26 and the M&P9 Compact for a new carry gun, I decided to try out the latter. Will the M&P takes its rightful place beside my beloved S&W J-Frames? Or is it just another GLOCK wannabe?

First Impressions

If the M&P9C was a person, it'd be one of those morbidly obese people on "20/20" that only gets filmed from the chest down. I realize double-stack service 9mms are invariably chunky, but the M&P's 1.2" wide slide still feels fatter and bulkier than most. In terms of total area, the slide profile is actually comparable to a J-Frame revolver cylinder:

Despite the thickness of the slide, the M&P's grip is pretty comfy. It's got a more oval cross-section than a GLOCK, and the gun comes with three interchangeable backstrap inserts. I stuck with the small backstrap - for me, the grip's thick enough as it is without adding more material. The large backstrap has side palmswells and extends up into the M&P9C's tang, which seems counterproductive for recoil control unless you have enormous hands:

In addition to the backstrap inserts, the M&P line has a laundry list of features that are sure to make it popular with institutional customers. Depending on what their needs are, a police department can configure the M&P with a thumb safety, an internal lock (boo! hiss!), and even a magazine disconnect. The M&P is also completely ambidextrous right out of the box; the mag release can be reversed and the slide lock is accessible from both sides of the frame.

The M&P pistols use a sear deactivation lever for disassembly without pulling the trigger. It's a little chintzy, since it's a mechanical solution to a training issue (you should always chamber check a firearm before handling it). Still, I can see how a PD might be excited about preventing officers from shooting themselves with unloaded GLOCKs. In order to access the sear deactivation lever, you have to retract the slide, which essentially forces you to unload the gun anyway. You can see the lever in the picture below (the greenish-yellow squiggle):

The M&P9C has one feature that the G26 does not: a mini rail for mounting a light or laser. This accomplishment is tempered by the fact that there's really only one good weaponlight that fits on the rail - the ultracompact Streamlight TLR-3, which uses smaller CR2 batteries instead of the traditional CR123s. Here is the light on someone else's M&P9C:

The M&P9C comes with two magazines; one has a flat floorplate, and the other has an extension for your little finger. Both hold 12 rounds of 9mm, and are ridiculously stiff and hard to load out of the box (getting 12 rounds in is a chore). They do loosen up, however:

Sights & Trigger

The M&P9C sights are a basic three-dot Partridge arrangement. I think they're a little on the large side for precision work, and I've always found three dot sights to be too busy for my eyes in general, but those are personal preferences. Both the front and rear sights are made of steel and dovetailed into the slide - they're extremely solid and tough. The rear sight even has a slight stepped portion to help you snag it on a belt or holster for emergency one-handed slide manipulation.

Like most striker-fired pistols, the M&P's trigger is mushy and spongey, with a fair amount of creep. It's miles better than the S&W Sigmas, but, at least in my hands, the reset is a little bit vaguer and longer than a GLOCK's. For its trigger safety, S&W uses a hinge mechanism instead of a separate lever. I don't have any problems with it, but some complain about the slop and side-to-side play of this system compared to other striker-fired guns:

Range Report

All told, I've fired over 700 rounds of 9mm through the gun. Most of that was 115 gr. range FMJs - Winchester White Box, Federal, PMC Bronze, cheapo Tula steel-case - but I also blew through an entire 100-round value pack of UMC JHPs. All rounds cycled fine, with the only "failure" being a light primer strike on one of the Tula rounds (in Soviet Russia, the primer strikes you).

In terms of shootability, the M&P9C is one of the best compact pistols I've ever handled - right up there with a GLOCK or M1911-variant. Despite the gun's relatively small size, I was able to hammer rounds downrange in much the same manner as with a G19. Felt recoil was very modest with range ammo and only slightly more snappy with +P loads.

Accuracy was hard to evaluate, since I was still getting used to the trigger. I was able to squeeze 2" 5-shot groups at 15 yards with most ammo, but there were also some not-so-great "groups" (more like patterns) that I attribute either to myself or to the fact that I was basically emptying magazine after magazine through the gun, hoping to stress it a little by getting it good and hot.


The M&P9 Compact is sort of like the U.S. Honda Accord; a thoroughly American variant on a foreign design that's fatter, heavier, and has plenty of optional junk you can order on the side. With the well-documented failures of the Gen4 GLOCKs, S&W has a golden opportunity, and at this point I'd actually recommend the M&P over a Gen4 GLOCK. I won't get rid of the J-Frames, of course, but they're now accompanied by a rather portly cousin.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Food: Shingo's

In a quiet little strip mall in the west of Lake Worth, an old Japanese man labors at the back of a small restaurant. He cuts fish after fish into small pieces, flitting from place to place. You can see him in the picture below, behind his younger assistant. His face is blurred in the photo; not even a camera can freeze the old man. This is crunchtime. This is Shingo's:

Shingo's won't win any awards for ambiance or service - the restaurant is a clean, plain tan box, and there are no more than two servers at any one time (all that a small family-owned restaurant can afford these days). And, in point of fact, the food at Shingo's is merely average, maybe better than most of the Japanese places in Palm Beach County but paling in comparison to what's available in the wider world.

The wider world doesn't exist here at the corner of U.S. 441 and Lake Worth Road, though. There's only the old man, and the nightly dance when the dinner rush hits. If you're the type of person who likes watching other people cook, and cook with a purpose, Shingo's is a fascinating look into an inner universe of swiftness.

2/4 stars

Sunday, March 06, 2011

Tech: Konami's ReBirth Series

The success of Capcom's "Mega Man 9" proved there was an untapped market for retro-styled sequels of classic games. Companies have finally figured out that the average 18-34 year old gamer grew up on Nintendo and Sega, and will readily excuse simple graphics and stripped-down story for nostalgia's sake. Today, we'll take a look at Konami's ReBirth series, a trio of retro games available for the Nintendo Wii's WiiWare service. Each title is $10 and can be played with the Wii Remote, the Classic Controller, or the GameCube controller.

Castlevania: The Adventure ReBirth

For me, the 2D linear Castlevania games hit their peak with 'Vania III on the NES and the PC Engine's "Rondo of Blood." These two games refined the formula of the original "Castlevania" with hidden secrets, branching paths, and multiple playable characters.

In comparison, "Castlevania: The Adventure ReBirth" seems like a step backwards. There's only one character, the whip-wielding Christopher Belmont, and he plays exactly like every other 'Vania protagonist. The level design is similarly uninspiring - while you can sometimes find alternate paths within a level, all of these paths eventually merge and dump you into the same place. In short, this iteration of the series won't win any awards for originality.

If you don't mind retreading familiar ground, however, you'll find plenty of heart-collecting, axe-throwing classic Castlevania gameplay here. The first three levels are sort of a tease, with boring, simple layouts and weak enemies. Things get much more interesting in the massive fifth level, a lengthy trek through Dracula's clock tower and a fight against Death; it's as challenging as any Castlevania level I've ever played. For a certain kind of gamer, that alone is worth the $10.

Rating: 79/100

Contra ReBirth

Even in the golden age of gaming, action games revolved around setpieces. Who can forget April's burning apartment in "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles," or the zero-G mine cart stage in "Gunstar Heroes"? I'm happy to report that for those of you who like over-the-top scenarios, "Contra ReBirth" is chock full of 'em.

In the first level, for instance, you fight a giant centipede monster on pieces of a space station entering Earth's atmosphere. In the third level, from the top of a speeding army truck, you fight soldiers riding robotic camels. On every stage, there is something exploding, moving, or collapsing - it's wacky, it's silly, it's Contra.

"Contra ReBirth" also shares one other major characteristic from Contra games of yore - rock-hard difficulty. Touch something dangerous - whether it's an enemy, a tiny enemy bullet, or a stage hazard - and you instantly lose a life and your current weapon. The game becomes much easier if you wuss out and up the number of lives per continue to 7...but beware, there's no Konami Code.

Rating: 83/100

Gradius ReBirth

Shoot 'em ups tend to follow set conventions: "R-Type" games usually have a battle against a giant battleship, "Raiden Fighters" games have a convoluted scoring system, etc. In my opinion, though, no shooter series is as formulaic as Gradius (heck, even Konami made fun of the set-in-stone rules with the Parodius series).

In most respects, "Gradius ReBirth" isn't so much a game as an outline of the Gradius design document. The stages are all well-crafted, well-executed...and utterly predictable. By the time you're dodging Moai heads, you'll wonder why no one's tweaked the whole "powerup-main stage-panic segment-boss fight" structure of a Gradius level.

Standard Gradius rules apply, too - if you die once, you lose all your powerups, so the easiest way to win the game is to not die. Should you get skilled at not dying, "Gradius ReBirth" features an online score attack ranking system, so you can see how you compare with everyone else. It's a good reminder that you aren't the only one reliving your childhood.

Rating: 73/100

Wednesday, March 02, 2011

Miscellany: Wilderness Frequent Flyer Belt review

I've been using the Wilderness Original Instructor Belt as my go-to CCW belt for the past five years, and I have nothing but good things to say about it. It's durable, low-maintenance, much more adjustable than the typical leather belt, and stiff enough for most gun-carrying duties.

Unfortunately, the Instructor Belt is 1.5" wide with a heavy steel buckle, making it almost completely incompatible with dress slacks. That big steel buckle also lights up metal detectors like Christmas trees, which can be annoying if you move in and about government buildings on a day-to-day basis.

The Wilderness Frequent Flyer Belt was designed to address both of those problems:

The belt uses polymer rings to stay secured. While they aren't as stable as the old rigger's buckle, they work pretty well, and they're extremely light. The rest of the belt is made of the same high-quality stitched nylon used in other Wilderness products; I've found it to be pretty bombproof in everyday use, though the Velcro does lose its stickiness after awhile (Wilderness will re-Velcro a belt for a nominal charge).

The Frequent Flyer isn't just a courthouse or airport belt, though - it's actually sturdy enough for light CCW use (say, carrying a holstered single-stack 9mm or J-Frame revolver and extra ammo). To illustrate, here's a typical dress belt:

Now here's the Wilderness Frequent Flyer with the same load. The added stiffness makes a huge difference in overall comfort and concealability:

Wider and stiffer is better in the gun belt world; I wouldn't recommend the Wilderness if you need to tote a full-size steel-frame 1911 and three or four extra mags. Overall, though, the Frequent Flyer is a great choice for its particular niche.