Monday, May 30, 2011

Memorial Day

"A man can be destroyed but not defeated."
- Ernest Hemingway

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Miscellany: D&D 4E Essentials impressions

People who play pen-and-paper RPGs have long been skeptical of "revised" editions of established games, and for good reason - much of the time, these rereleases are just another opportunity for publishers to cash in on an existing game system. While I liked the rebalancing in D&D 3.5, for instance, I'm also cynical enough to note that it forced everyone to go out and buy all new rulebooks.

Over the past year, Wizards has released a "D&D Essentials" line of 4th Edition products aimed at new players, and my friends and I tested it out with an all-new Wild-West-themed D&D campaign. Is it worth your hard-earned gaming dollar?

One of us played a Hunter, a rejiggered version of the 4E Ranger. The Essentials classes are designed to be simpler to play than their vanilla 4E counterparts, while being roughly as effective in terms of combat performance. In game, the Hunter seemed like a decent, Controller-flavored take on the Ranger archetype, trading in the uber-efficiency of the Twin Strike power for the ability to control mobs and effectively target single enemies.

I played a Thief, the Essentials version of the 4E Rogue. Playing a Thief is all about using "tricks," at-will move powers that allow you to somersault, sneak, and shift your way across a battlefield to do massive damage. Your actual "attack" is usually a basic ranged shot or melee swing - all the complicated stuff is contained in the power descriptions of each trick.

As far as being less complex than regular 4E classes, I think both the Hunter and Thief were a success. Instead of having daily powers, for example, the Thief has better and more reliable encounter powers, as well as more useful at-will powers. Best of all, the new classes fit right in with the old ones and none of the old 4E rules have been changed. Someone can bring their old PHB into a newfangled Essentials campaign (and vice versa) without anyone feeling out of place.

By far the most impressive Essentials product in our playtest was the Monster Vault. The Vault contained a separate adventure, a book of monsters (sort of a Monster Manual Lite), and numerous cardboard monster tokens. Unlike the standard MM, there was a lot of interesting, well-written flavor text for each monster entry - perfect for newbie DMs looking for story hooks.

Overall, the Essentials line is a good place for anyone to start playing 4th Edition. The books are full-color, in a handy trade paperback size, and are reasonably priced. The standard 4E hardcover books haven't been obsoleted, they've been supplemented - and, as any hardcore RPG fan will tell you, there's nothing wrong with buying more supplements.

Guns: Don Hume Front Pocket Holster review

A great pocket holster should achieve four things:

1) Conceal the outline of the gun in the pocket;
2) Keep the gun in the same position inside the pocket;
3) Allow the gun to be drawn in a reasonable firing grip; and
4) Release from the gun as the gun is drawn.

The latest stop in my endless quest for J-frame pocket holsters is the Don Hume front pocket holster. It's a design I've never tried before - it uses a molded leather shell (like a traditional belt holster) with a hook that's designed to be caught on the edge of a pocket, like an Emerson Wave. How does it stack up against the Four Requirements?

1) Conceal the outline of the gun

Unfortunately, the Don Hume doesn't do much for concealment. It's molded leather, so the shape of the gun is pretty visible through the pocket, at least on my J-frame model. On the plus side, with some other gun shapes, the flange and hook at the bottom of the holster might make it less obvious that you're carrying.

2) Keep the gun in the same position

Ideally, your pocket holster should prevent the gun from flipping over, falling out, or turning around as you move. The Don Hume is actually pretty good at this - the raked carry angle and protruding hook make for a pretty stable base for the holster to rest on, both when you're standing and when you're sitting. I've found that the Don Hume works best in taller pockets - YMMV.

3) Allow the gun to be drawn in a firing grip

I never buy pocket holsters that cover or block a gun's grip. The pocket draw already asks a lot of your motor skills (stick hand in pocket, find gun grip, and fish it out without the holster coming along for the ride, all under stress), and it doesn't make sense to add extra flaps or straps that you have to push out of the way. The Don Hume is perfect in this regard.

4) Release from the gun as the gun is drawn

Some pocket holsters tend to "stick" to the gun as it is being drawn, so much so that in some cases you have to knock the pocket holster off the gun as you present the weapon - an extraneous step that could lead to disaster in a defensive shoot.

The Don Hume uses a hook that catches on the inside of your pocket. I found that the hook was unreliable at first, since the leather was such a tight fit on my J-frames. As the holster broke in, drawing the gun became more and more reliable, and now the Don Hume never fails to release the gun inside the pocket.

One unique feature of the Don Hume is that, in certain pockets, the post-draw placement of the holster is such that the gun can be readily reholstered (the Don Hume comes out partway at the lip of your pants pocket, in other words). I could see this feature coming in handy if you need to reholster quickly.


For the people who are paranoid about pocket printing, the Don Hume is obviously not a great choice - you'd be much better served with a synthetic pocket holster like the DeSantis Super Fly. In all other ways, it's a decent pocket holster, and a good addition to your stable.

Friday, May 20, 2011

Movies: Thor

Marvel Studios enlisted Kenneth Branagh to direct "Thor," and, at first glance, it's a strange choice. Branagh is best known for his Shakespeare adaptations (his extravagant version of "Hamlet" is one of my favorites), and would seemingly be ill at ease at the helm of a big-budget special effects-laden summer blockbuster.

On closer inspection, though, Branagh attracted a bevy of talent to an otherwise unremarkable superhero film script: Oscar winners Natalie Portman and Anthony Hopkins signed on because of him, as did veteran Stellan Skarsgård (whose silly astrophysicist character often steals the show). Not everyone gets a chance to shine (Kat Dennings spends the whole movie marveling at Thor's body; if you're a guy, you'll probably spend the whole movie marveling at her body), but it's impressive star power nonetheless.

"Thor" is at its best when it focuses on the celestial, green-screened realms of Jötunheimr and Asgard; the action unfolds like a D&D campaign or a Shakespearean epic. In comparison, the events on Earth seem lightweight and flimsy - it's hard to get worked up about Natalie Portman's discovery of wormholes when gods are battling for supremacy a scene away. The hijinks with S.H.I.E.L.D. that occupy the middle of the film, for instance, are about as interesting as watching ants crawl on a sidewalk.

Rating: 6/10

Food: Sloppy Joe's Daytona Beach

Sloppy Joe's is one of the most well-known bars in Key West, but the place has always exhibited a streak of shameless capitalism. Ernest Hemingway was a regular customer, for instance, and now his face is unceremoniously plastered on Sloppy Joe's logo (sort of an alcoholic, literary Colonel Sanders). Rubbing salt in the wound, the bar actually hosts a Hemingway lookalike contest every year.

Apparently, someone decided that the historic Duval Street location in Key West wasn't making enough money on its own. Whether by franchise, license, or simple expansion, there is now an official Sloppy Joe's location in Daytona Beach. The place is located inside the Ocean Walk Shoppes, one of those multilevel waterfront tourist-type complexes that house restaurants, movie theatres, and not much else. :

In terms of food and drink, Sloppy Jone's Daytona isn't anything to write home about. The menu is comprised of standard sports bar fare with a Key West twist - the titular Sloppy Joe is decent, the salads are big, and the drinks are cheaper than you might expect for such a touristy locale. Add in a decent beachfront view, and the acoustic punk rock/reggae stylings of Greg Stryker (there's live entertainment five nights a week), however, and you have a fun evening.

2/4 stars

News: RIP Macho Man

"Macho Man" Randy Savage killed in car accident.

I'll always remember the Macho Man for his over-the-top Slim Jim commercials. It takes a larger-than-life personality to make me want to eat a flavored tube of processed beef, and Randy Savage pulled it off. Despite the fact that a real life Slim Jim is about as crunchy as a bowl of overcooked spaghetti, the Macho Man was able to convince an audience of impressionable youngsters that these were the ultimate food.

In the commercials, every "snap" of a Slim Jim sends out shock waves powerful enough to destroy light armored vehicles and other materiel:

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Shangrila Towers is on vacation...

...see you guys on the flip side!

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Guns: Carbine Musings, Part 2 - Sling Theory

In olden times, when firearms were so long and heavy that they doubled as polearms, it didn't make much sense to connect a long gun to a shooter's body with a sling. A typical version of the famed "Brown Bess" musket, for instance, weighed ten pounds and was more than forty inches long - not something you wanted hanging around your shoulder and neck for an extended period of time.

In contrast, modern slings attach long guns to the shooter's body for the purposes of retention. The one-point sling (like the excellent Wilderness Single-Point) makes it easy to move the firearm around the body (for switching to the support shoulder, firing in awkward positions, or malfunction clearing). The two-point sling (such as the Viking Tactics VTAC) offers more control of a weapon's muzzle during movement, as well as more comfort, since the full weight of the gun isn't only being supported from one point. (There are also three-point slings which introduce another strap to the two-point sling, but they have a number of disadvantages. I find them to be a little too complex and finicky for a lightweight carbine.)

The new kids on the block are the convertible slings like the Magpul MS2 Sling and the Mission Spec Irene Adaptive Sling. These try to give you the best of both worlds - a sling that can quickly switch from the comfort and stability of a two-point to the freedom of a one-point. But what if you already have a decent two-point sling? Here's the best solution I've found:

IWC Triglide 2 to 1 conversion review

The IWC Triglide (available direct from the manufacturer - they ship really fast, too) is a keeper that incorporates a QD sling swivel attachment point on the side. When you plug in the front QD swivel of your two-point sling into the Triglide, you immediately get a very functional one-point sling.

It's a simple, effective piece of kit, and it fit fine on my Vickers Combat Applications two-point. I didn't find the Triglide to be a nuisance when the QD slot was not in use, and it's obviously built to last (billet aluminum with Type III hard anodizing). It's slightly pricey ($20), but it's made in the U.S.A. and works exactly as advertised.

Monday, May 09, 2011

Food: Benny's On the Beach

On Mother's Day, the line of people waiting to eat breakfast at John G's stretches to ridiculous, Ralphie-in-the-department store-in-"A Christmas Story" lengths. We were in a hurry, so I opted to take Mom to a place on the nearby Lake Worth pier - Benny's On the Beach.

Benny's has a great view, and the food is generally competent. We don't visit regularly because, to be honest, it's sort of the Slugworth to John G's Willy Wonka - it's serviceable food, but everything is just a little bit worse: the grits are dry and thin, the omelets aren't as well-cooked, and the corned beef hash servings are a bit paltry. Pretty much the only thing I really like at Benny's is the stuffed French toast:

2/4 stars

Sunday, May 08, 2011

Happy Mother's Day

Top Five Ridiculously Awesome Things About My Mom

1. When we were strapped for cash, she pruned the palm trees in our front yard herself. Picture a petite Vietnamese woman wearing goggles and workgloves, swinging a chainsaw atop a 20 foot ladder, with sawdust and dirt streaming down.

2. At a fancy restaurant, Mom tried foie gras for the first time. Despite how much it cost, she spat it out unceremoniously, proclaiming it too gamey and rich.

3. Mom sewed Halloween costumes for my sister and me all through grade school. The highlight? A complete Robin Hood & Maid Marian pair of costumes, along with handmade working bow and arrow (Dad had a hand in that one, too).

4. We were swimming inside a tourist attraction in Mexico, the Xcaret park in Xel-Há. My sister was hanging onto Mom, but Mom pushed her off and swam ahead. "Get off of me - you're slowing me down," Mom said.

5. One time, early on in third grade, I received a subpar mark on a midterm report card. Normally, this would have provoked a typical "Tiger Mom" reaction, and I dreaded the entire ride home from school. Instead of chewing me out, though, Mom just said that I should work harder, and we watched "The Parent Trap" (the original version) that same night, over a couple of Cokes.

Thursday, May 05, 2011

Cinco de Mayo

"El Jarabe Tapatío," known as the Mexican Hat Dance in English, has an interesting history. Appropriately enough for the purposes of Cinco de Mayo, the piece was composed by Jesús González Rubio in the 19th century, making it a contemporary of the stalwart defenders at the Battle of Puebla. In 1924, the Mexican government declared it to be the national dance of Mexico, which means that every time Mexican culture is referenced in a TV commercial, football stadium, or buddy cop film, you'll hear this familiar melody:

Wednesday, May 04, 2011

Guns: Places to Shoot - Off the Beaten Path Edition

In a state as big as Florida, you're going to find shooting ranges in some out-of-the-way places. Here are a couple that I visited after the conclusion of my quest to see Space Shuttle Endeavor's last flight...

APHF Shooting Center review

Most museums rate pretty low on the interactivity scale. For the most part, the American Police Hall of Fame & Museum in Titusville (confusingly located across the street from the U.S. Astronaut Hall of Fame) doesn't break the mold - there are exhibits talking about forensics labs, a memorial for LEOs killed in the line of duty, and your standard historical pieces on the lawmen of the Old West and the Roaring '20s. Interesting stuff, sure, but not exactly the most hands-on experience you can have.

Then you notice that there's a shooting range on the premises...

It's small (50 feet is the maximum distance), but the equipment is fairly nice. Unlike most of the indoor ranges I've been to in Florida, the APHF range had electronic target movers, decent air filtration, and clear lane dividers that helped cut down on the "shooting in a closet" feel you get from most indoor stalls. Out-of-towners (especially those who hail from anti-gun cesspools like NYC and Chicago) will likely dig the combo pack - for around $35, you can get museum admission, range time, a rental 9mm, a box of ammo, eye and ear protection, and even a little instruction on how to use the darn thing.

Due to the crowds for the shuttle launch, the range was pretty slow at the time I visited. One of the staff even had time to demonstrate a new-to-me technique for reloading my S&W 642 (stick the ejector rod between the left fingers and rest the cylinder on top, essentially palming the gun). Overall, the APHF Shooting Center is worth a look just for the sheer novelty of being able to shoot inside a tourist attraction.

Indian River Skeet & Trap

Clay shooting is extremely popular in certain areas of the country. I've seen factory-like range facilities, with dedicated pullers and shooters lined up three deep to wait their turn.

Indian River Skeet & Trap is at the other end of the spectrum: intimate, secluded, and family-operated:

Your first clue comes from the trip in - a dusty, winding dirt road that leads you past open fields and a sand mine. There's no paved parking, and the "clubhouse" is an air-conditioned shipping container/trailer where the owner/operators spend much of their time (their kid was playing on a computer). Despite the no-frills approach, IRS&T manages to pack in skeet, trap, wobble trap, five-stand, and two sporting clays courses.

I shot skeet and trap with a gentleman named Thomas, a birdhunter from Georgia. The range uses a Briley automatic token system for its fields and doesn't have pullers, which was a foreign experience for Thomas (I was used to it - Gator Skeet & Trap didn't have dedicated pullers, either). There weren't any bonehead restrictions on what shotgun you could use, so I busted out my Rossi 20 gauge (Note to self - a 20 gauge kicks like a mule when you chamber it in a 5 pound, 18.5" barreled shotgun with a hard plastic stock). Good shooting and good company - not too much more you can ask for in this world.

Tuesday, May 03, 2011

TV: Kolchak - The Night Stalker

To most people, Darren McGavin is the lovable goof who played Ralphie's dad in "A Christmas Story." For me, though, McGavin's greatest role will always be "Kolchak: The Night Stalker":

McGavin plays Carl Kolchak, a reporter who investigates the paranormal; every episode, he crosses paths with some mysterious menace. Unfortunately, Kolchak's editor (played with bombast by Simon Oakland) and the authorities don't believe him, so Kolchak is invariably forced to confront the monster alone. Even more unfortunately, Kolchak never seems to retain any hard evidence of these supernatural encounters.

If the premise sounds familiar, that's because "Kolchak" is the primary inspiration for "The X-Files." Both shows feature a mix of the fantastic and the mundane, and both shows have a streak of black humor. The best laughs comes from McGavin himself - like his previous turn as hardboiled detective Mike Hammer, McGavin injects Kolchak with wry sarcasm. Just check out this clip, where Kolchak fights a deadly werewolf on a cruise ship by handloading his own blessed silver shotgun slugs:

Monday, May 02, 2011

News: Karma's a b****...

U.S. forces kill Osama bin Laden in Pakistan: