Saturday, April 30, 2011

Miscellany: Successful Failure - The Scrubbing of STS-134

The Space Shuttle program is winding down, and I've never seen a launch live, so I drove up to Titusville to see STS-134 take off yesterday. As you can imagine, I was pretty bummed when NASA delayed the launch to Monday because of technical problems. The trip was, in one sense, a failure - but it gave me plenty to write about:

10:30 AM - Without NASA, Titusville would just be another sleepy little town on Florida's east coast. Today, though, as many as 700,000 people are slated to come watch the launch. There are tourists from around the country (I was sitting next to two kindly retired couples from Pennsylvania and Oklahoma - we talk about tornadoes). People are in a jovial mood, for the most part.

12:30 PM - The crowds begin to get pretty thick. There's a line for everything - the Porta-Potties, the food stands, parking. It's a captive audience, too, so everything is expensive: $20 parking spaces, $5 glasses of lemonade, $3 sodas. Seeking some lunch, I go to the Caffe' Chocolat, a diner in the city center. The service is good, but the food is not. Someone announces that they scrubbed the launch, and the whole place groans.

2:00 PM - The tables are turned when a launch is scrubbed. That guy who charged $3 for awful hotdogs? He's selling 'em for a buck apiece now, desperate to get rid of his inventory. The T-shirts that were going for $30? They get slashed to $10, since most of these people will not be back. Traffic is horrendous as folks scramble to get out of the city. I elect to bike around the waterfront to kill some time.

3:00 PM - Everyone is pretty testy; some have come long distances to see this event. I see no less than three traffic accidents, one of which is a fender bender that happens twenty feet away from me at an intersection. Methinks it's time to ditch the bike and drive the hell outta here.

3:30 PM - I'm finally out of Titusville's downtown, and the traffic thins out. I pass by Knights Armament, which is headquartered in Titusville. I've heard Mr. Knight maintains a museum inside the factory, but it isn't open to the public. I'm tempted to drive in anyway, but the "DOD Contractor Only" signs stop me. Maybe next time, I think. Maybe next time.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Miscellany: Adventures in Customer Service

The fan on my HP Mini 210 went toes-up a few weeks ago, so I had the opportunity to get acquainted with the current state of HP/Compaq's customer support.

My first stop was a text chat with a support rep named Manas. Refreshingly, neither he nor HP tried to mask the fact that Manas was in India. Manas took me through the standard tech support flowchart (we updated the netbook's BIOS, to no avail), and arranged to have HP ship me a box so I could return the computer.

I shipped out the netbook, and got it back about a week and a half later (though I shipped it to Texas, it was actually repaired in Mexico; ain't NAFTA grand?). The process went smoothly, and the computer works fine now. My only gripe is that HP didn't cover the cost of shipping the unit back, even though it was clearly under warranty. I had to eat the $12 FedEx charge - not cool, HP.

I also recently returned something to Brownells, which features a "100% Satisfaction Guarantee" on all their merchandise. That might be overstating things a bit, since there is some dissatisfaction involved (you have to include your purchase invoice with the return, and they don't cover the return shipping, either). Despite these qualms, Brownells refunded my money as soon as they got the return.

So, overall, I guess both companies did right by me, considering the realities of the marketplace (there are aplenty of cranks out there who'd feel no pangs in exploiting a lenient repair/return policy). I'd do business again with either of them.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Guns: The Best of Both Worlds? S&W 638 revolver review

Introduction: Evolution of the Snag-free Snubbie

When people started carrying snubnose revolvers in jacket pockets and ankle holsters, a problem emerged - the hammer spur of a traditional double-action revolver has a tendency to snag on clothing. In the old days, there were only a few solutions: some altered their draw to put their thumb on top of the hammer, some cut or bobbed their hammer spurs, and some chose grips that shrouded the hammer:

All these approaches had drawbacks of their own. Placing your thumb on the hammer as you draw means you can't get a full-firing grip on the initial draw stroke. Bobbing your hammer can lead to light primer strikes (there's less mass driving the firing pin into the primer). Hammer shroud grips tend to be bulky, which negatively affects both concealability and speedloader access.

After Smith & Wesson introduced the Centennial internal hammer design (a logical extension of its old top-break "Safety Hammerless" line of revolvers), it seemed like the problem was solved once and for all - a full-power .38 Special snub with no exposed hammer and no snagging:

Even after the Centennial line was produced, however, there remained some who missed having the ability to manually control the hammer. For these shooters, Smith conceived the "Bodyguard Airweight," now known as the S&W 438/638.

S&W 638 Bodyguard Pros and Cons

Compared to the Centennial, S&W's most popular snubnose revolver design, the Bodyguards have a number of inherent advantages:

1. You can control the hammer during the reholstering process. After a lawful defensive shoot, you'll need to reholster, lest you get mistaken for the violent criminal you just took down. The 638 allows you to put your thumb on the humpback and behind the exposed hammer nub, so if something gets in the trigger guard, you can stop the gun from discharging. This is not a theoretical concern.

2. You can thumb the hammer back to fire single-action. For most people, single-action will be impractical in a gunfight - it takes time, and time is one thing you probably won't have when you need to defend yourself or your loved ones. Still, the 638 Bodyguard gives you that option, while the 642 Centennial does not.

3. You can check for high primers. I don't use this particular technique, but it's still something to note.

There are also some intrinsic disadvantages to the Bodyguard variants:

1. Worse sight radius compared to the Centennials. Not by much, but it is worse:

2. Slightly lower backstrap. The internal hammer frame allows you to get a very high grip, which lowers the bore of the revolver relative to your hand and improves recoil control. Because my hands are small, I don't shoot with this high of a grip, but it is a consideration:

3. Exposed action. There is a very, very tiny possibility that dirt or debris could find its way into the shroud to jam the hammer. If you use a holster, this is a vanishingly small theoretical possibility rather than an actual problem. Personally, I wouldn't worry about it.

Range Report

At the range, there weren't any surprises with the 638 Bodyguard. Like all of S&W's Airweight revolvers, the 638 was tolerable with light .38 Special target loads, a bit snappy with regular-pressure .38s, and somewhat hard to control with .38 +P defensive ammunition.

There are some simple things you can do to make these snubs more shootable. First, I like to paint the front sight ramp, otherwise the sight picture is a dark grey-on- light grey that is almost impossible to see in low-light environments. I use white Testor's as a base coat, and then follow with a couple coats of bright orange, all carefully applied with a toothpick:

The next change is to find a good set of grips. S&W puts decent boot grips on their new production snubs; there's no reason to change them if you like them. Depending on your hand size and concealment needs, though,you might be better served with a pair of classic walnut stocks that leave both the frontstrap and backstrap exposed.


Despite what the gun store guy tells you, this is a hard gun to shoot, and not something I'd recommend for a new shooter or someone who won't practice constantly. That said, this is about as small a firearm can be while still maintaining reliability and durability (for every instance of internal lock failure in a new Smith Airweight, there are about a gazillion instances of a P3AT failing to extract or an LCP straight up breaking). I've searched long and hard for pocket autos that can replace a J-frame snubbie - and I haven't found any yet that are quite up to the task.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Happy Easter

He knows our poor strength
and is aware that we are only dust,
like the grass, swept away,
a flower and falling leaves,
the wind has only to blow over them,
then they are there no more:
so mankind passes on
His end is is near to him.

from "Nun lob, mein' Seel', den Herren"

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Links: Random Stuff Edition

I try to think of some unifying theme for my aggregation posts - a trio of mediocre movies shown on New Year's Day, a quartet of Batman comics on the clearance rack of the local bookstore/comics shop, etc. Unfortunately, I wasn't able to come up with a theme for today's links; hope you enjoy 'em anyway...

Better Book Titles - This blog (run by comedian Dan Wilbur) takes the plot of a famous book, summarizes it with a pithy phrase, and slaps it on the book's cover: "Watchman" becomes "Be Flexible or Be Incinerated," "Botched Home Invasion" is subbed in for "The Night Before Christmas," etc. If you're well-read, you're probably going to find this site hysterically funny. Wilbur accepts reader submissions on Fridays, so you can get in on the fun, too.

Armed and Pregnant - Lima is a fairly well-known YouTube personality, and she's decided to blog her latest pregnancy in real-time, along with personal protection tips for mothers-to-be. The posts can be a bit verbose, but I can't think of anyone more qualified to write about what to expect when you carry when you're expecting.

Typography for Lawyers - The printed word is a big deal here at Shangrila Towers; I once watched a documentary on Helvetica, for pete's sake. This website, run by lawyer and graphic design major Matthew Butterick, takes it one step further. If you ever wonder how a san serifs font, poor kerning, and straight quotation marks affect the readability of your briefs and legal correspondence, this is the site for you.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Good Friday

Then Jesus went with his disciples to a place called Gethsemane, and he said to them, “Sit here while I go over there and pray.”

He took Peter and the two sons of Zebedee along with him, and he began to be sorrowful and troubled.

Then he said to them, “My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death. Stay here and keep watch with me."

Matthew 26:36-38

Movies: French Rom-Com Double Feature

Americans don't have a monopoly on utterly predictable romantic comedies. If the box office performance of today's two movies is any indication, even the supposedly-sophisticated French enjoy harebrained boy-meets-girl plots. Of course, the French romcoms are a little different (most of them have a chauvinistic streak), but the wacky premises of the two films below would fit in fine at an American multiplex:

"I Do" (Prête-moi ta main)

Henpecked middle-aged bachelor Luis Costa (Alain Chabat) is tired of the constant criticism he gets from his mother and sisters for not marrying. In a desperate move, he hires his best friend's sister Emma (played by Charlotte Gainsbourg) to pose as the perfect girl. Costa's scheme is maddeningly complex - he'll pretend to fall in love with Emma and she'll jilt him at the altar, souring him on marriage and hopefully getting his family off his back once and for all.

The plot of the movie is ridiculous, of course, but that's like complaining about a horror flick because it has too much gore and violence. What really sinks "I Do" is the lukewarm chemistry between the two leads, Costa and Gainsbourg. They've been in a number of films together, and it really looks like they're just collecting a paycheck in this one.

Rating: 4/10

"Heartbreaker" (L'arnacoeur)

Alex (Romain Duris) specializes in breaking up relationships for profit. Concerned family or friends hire him to split up people who aren't right for each other. Despite the unscrupulous work, Alex only targets unhappy couples, and avoids the ones that are in love. When Alex falls deeply in debt and gets hired by a wealthy man to kill his daughter's wedding, though, he might be forced to break that rule:

"Heartbreaker" has two big things going for it: gorgeous scenery (it was shot in Monaco) and the charming comic-relief couple of Julie Ferrier and François Damiens. They play Alex's partners-in-crime, and they completely steal the show from the lead couple.

Rating: 5/10

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Guns: Carbine Musings, Part 1 - Shooting Stance

I first learned to shoot a rifle from Jeff Cooper. The Colonel's offhand stance went something like this:

1. Blade your body to your target, support foot in front.
2. Point the primary hand up to the sky.
3. Bring down the primary hand to the grip of the rifle, keeping your elbow at shoulder height, like a chicken wing.
4. Set the rifle stock into the shoulder, taking care to bring the stock up to your head, rather than moving your head down to the stock.
5. Your support hand holds up the rifle's foreend from the bottom, like a bridge support:

For working a bolt-action or lever-action rifle, this stance works great, since it allows for good leverage when you're shucking a manual action. Over the years, though, people began to use a squared-up stance for shooting autoloading carbines. Instead of chicken-winging your elbow, you tucked it in tight to your body. Instead of bringing the gunstock up to your cheek, you tucked your chin down like a boxer. Most importantly, you tried to keep your shoulders square to the target. These changes are subtle, but have noticeable effects - for a lot of people, the squared-up stance makes it easier to control recoil, easier to shoot with body armor, and easier to shoot on the move.

Magpul AFG2 review

Typically, people use a vertical foregrip with the boxer-style stance, since your support shoulder is farther away from the gun (and since your foreend real estate could be limited by all manner of ninjafied Picatinny rail gadgets). I never warmed up to the traditional VFG, though. Since most or all of my hand was gripping the VFG and not the actual foreend, I felt like I had less control over the muzzle than with a traditional offhand grip.

Enter the Magpul AFG, a rail-mounted foregrip that facilitates a thumb-forward-over-bore grip on the foreend: your entire palm (including the critical fleshy part at the base of the thumb) rides alongside the side of the foreend, with your thumb locking down the gun from the top:

Using this grip, I have a lot more control over the muzzle when recovering from recoil (actually, depending on my shooting position, the sights move to the right and down slightly after a shot). It's also more intuitive when snapping a shot off at a close target from the low ready, since I'm using my fingers and thumb to stop and point the gun rather than my arm.

The AFG certainly isn't for everyone, and even if you like the thumb-over-bore grip, the unit isn't perfect: there's no storage compartment, quick-detach mechanism, or tape switch integration to speak of, and, depending on your body shape and the physical characteristics of your rifle/shotgun, the default grip angle may not work for you. Still, with all the gimmicks being peddled in the AR world, the AFG is worth a try.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

TV: A bit of the old ultrabias...

The gun rights movement has had enormous success over the past decade, so it was sort of quaint seeing HBO's "Gun Fight," a documentary by Barbara Kopple (check out her IMDB page to get an idea of her politics).

The film was interesting in that it was old-school gun control propaganda of the '90s vintage, with all the buzzwords in place - "gun show loophole," "assault weapon," etc. Now, I suppose it's not too surprising HBO would show an anti-gun piece with such an obvious slant, but this is a movie where they literally dance in the blood of innocents (there are clips showing the blood of murder victims on screen).

The protagonist of the tale is Colin Goddard, a guy who hid under a desk during the Virginia Tech shooting and now shills for the Brady Bunch. Their lone pro-gun person is Richie Feldman, a former gun lobbyist who got burned by the NRA and is now out for revenge. I was waiting for Bill Clinton to be presented as a common-sense middle ground.

There are some fairly comical moments, though. I laughed when anti-gun researcher Garen Wintemute showed how he leaves his last will and testament out before he goes "undercover" at a gun show; apparently, he thinks gun show promoters hate him so much they're willing to murder him in public. Wintemute even documents a straw purchase at a gun show, acknowledges that the individuals broke existing federal law, and doesn't even bat an eyelash when he advocates more gun control laws.

With such an old-school documentary, I thought it appropriate to bring an old-school response: I bought a case of .223 from Molōn labe like it's 1999!

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Food: Fettucine Alfredo

I have a pretty big extended family, and the only dish my cousins can all eat is fettucine alfredo. It's a pretty simple dish to make, but a lot of the recipes you see on the web are ridiculously heavy (Giada de Laurentiis's version had so much butter that the leftovers literally bled yellow oil when we heated them up).

After (a lot of) trial and error, I think I've hit upon a decent recipe. The lemon juice wakes up the proceedings, and the butter, cheese, and cream are all under control. Works best when paired with a protein, like chicken or fish, and a green vegetable, like broccoli rabe...


1 pound fettucine (best if you make it fresh)
1 cup heavy cream (for an even lighter version, use half and half)
1 whole lemon's juice + lemon zest (you can tone down the lemon if you find it too strong)
6 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 cup Parmesan cheese
Salt and pepper to taste


Cook the pasta in boiling water till it's up to the edge of doneness. Mix cream, lemon juice, butter, and cheese in a big pot over medium heat. Drain the pasta and immediately add it to the sauce. Start tossing the pasta and season with salt and pepper.

Saturday, April 09, 2011

Sports: The Invincible Woman

Esther Vergeer is like any other female professional athlete: she wins tournaments, gives talks to kids at schools, and even poses for the occasional nude ESPN picture. And she does it all from a wheelchair, as she's had paraplegia since childhood:

In the realm of women's wheelchair tennis, Esther Vergeer has no equal. She's won 412 straight matches, a run of dominance that boggles the mind. Her sphere of athletic invincibility came rolling through Boca Raton this past weekend, as I watched her play fellow countrywoman Jiske Griffioen at the Florida Open (a stop on the USTA's wheelchair tennis circuit).

"Play" is perhaps a little kind - this was a street mugging. After observing her defeat Griffioen 6-1, 6-1, it wasn't hard to see why Esther Vergeer hasn't lost a match in eight years:

First and foremost, she's an incredible athlete. Don't let the wheelchair fool you - from the waist up, Vergeer is every bit as muscled and fit as Samantha Stosur. During long rallies, Vergeer was often able to simply outhit her opponent, mostly with heavily top-spinned one-handed backhands that drew appreciative murmurs from the crowd. Most recreational players can't get the kind of pace Vergeer gets on her shots - and she does it while sitting down:

Being bigger and stronger will win you a lot of matches, of course, but Vergeer also had more touch and court sense than I expected. Whether it was defensive slices to buy time, overhead smashes(!) at the net, or simply mixing up her serves, Esther's play exhibited guile and strategy.

If all wheelchair tennis players were as good as Esther, the sport would be as exciting and watchable as pedestrian tennis. Overall, I came away impressed with her prowess but also hungry for more - more players like her, more young paraplegic female athletes good enough to challenge and beat her. Heck, I'd bet even the Invincible Woman would appreciate a challenge now and then.

Thursday, April 07, 2011

Books: "Green Eyes & Black Rifles" review

Ever read one of those skimpy instruction manuals that ship with production AR-15s? Ever wish for somebody to cut through all the Interwebz BS about operating an AR? If so, then "Green Eyes & Black Rifles," by SGM Kyle Lamb (RET), is the book for you; it's a nuts-and-bolts guide to setting up, shooting, and maintaining an AR-pattern carbine.

Lamb is the founder of Viking Tactics and one of those guys who has "been there and done that." That combat experience is reflected in every chapter of the book. For instance, when describing malfunctions, Lamb goes in-depth and succinctly describes the many ways an AR system can fail. I mean, anybody who makes up a drill to clear three separate types of failures-to-extract has probably been in quite a few gunfights:

The bulk of GE&BR is occupied by demonstrations of various shooting positions. Lamb demonstrates some of the usual suspects (squat, prone, urban prone, etc.) and some that are rarely covered (the "Brokeback" prone that comes in handy when you're wearing full infantry kit). There is some light discussion of tactics, but you'll need to look elsewhere if you want a full-blown treatise on urban warfare.

Like a lot of these kinds of shooting books, GE&BR is a little rough around the edges. For the (considerable) money you pay for the book, I also wish there was a little more content with regard to hold-overs, ballistics, and shooting technique. Still, there aren't too many books like this on the market, and even fewer written by people who can shoot at this level:

Tuesday, April 05, 2011

Work, work, work...

Man, sometimes I wish my blog title didn't mirror real life so much. Got quite a backlog to get through at work, so posting's going to be slow. More actual content soon, I promise.

Friday, April 01, 2011

Guns: Ultimate Carjacker Defense - Taurus Judge review


Studies have shown that, sooner or later, we're all going to be victims of a carjacking. Whether it's Mexican drug cartels, terrorists, or just garden-variety hoodlums, there are a lot of evil people out there who would love nothing better than to take your vehicle for their own nefarious purposes.

Thankfully, Taurus has manufactured a revolver that is quite possibly the ultimate tool for carjacker defense. It's called the Taurus Judge:

The Taurus Judge got its name because judges in Miami started carrying the revolver in the courtroom as a way to deal with violent criminal defendants (talk about a "speedy trial"!). As you can see from the video, the Judge makes an absolute mess of Shoot-N-See targets. Of course, anything can cut holes in paper - how about a little Gallagher action?


The Taurus Judge bears the patented Taurus Ribber grip - one of the most comfortable handgun grips ever developed. The sights, cylinder release, and trigger are all made with the quality you've come to expect from Taurus, the world's foremost pistol maker - I imagine some wizened old Brazilian artisan in the Taurus factory hand-fitted each part for accuracy and precision:

The Judge has an extra long cylinder in order to fire .410 shotshells; this makes the gun almost unbearably intimidating. Plus, if the sight of a cylinder full of these bad boys doesn't make your assailant soil his pants, then a pull of the trigger will provide some instant "attitude adjustment."

Range Report

Supposedly, the Judge will shoot .45 Colt, but let's be honest: the whole point of the Judge is to pelt an attacker with enough lead to go deep-sea fishing with. Heck, I didn't bother to test the Judge beyond 3 yards. This is a street gun; in a crisis, time-is-life, life-or-death, lethal force-type confrontation, you'll likely be shaking so hard that you won't be able to use the sights on the gun anyway.

The Judge has a healthy kick, but I managed to keep most of the .410 shotshell's pellets on target. There was a distinct void in the center of the pattern - I think this is actually intentional on the part of Taurus, so that you can wound and maim an attacker without actually killing him (and thus avoiding a wrongful death action by the miscreant's family - very clever).


If you saw "Max Payne," you've already seen the Taurus Judge in action. My review just confirms what I suspected originally - this is a vicious weapon for intense CQB urban combat, enough so that I wonder why the U.S. military isn't arming our troops with it. This April Fool's Day, I hope you go out and get a Taurus Judge to protect yourself and your loved ones...and their cars.