Saturday, July 30, 2011

Links: Lazy Range Day Edition

When the sky is as sunny and clear as it has been in South Florida, there's really no excuse to be stuck inside. As I make the trip to Markham Park and attempt to down a few flights of clay pigeons, here are some random links for those inclined to stay at home and watch web videos:

hickok45: One of the most famous of the gun videobloggers, and for good reason - hickok45 is an affable guy who has access to a seemingly neverending supply of firearms and a killer homemade shooting range:

He's also got a weird sense of humor, as displayed in this crossover video with another prominent YouTube gunblogger, FateofDestinee:

lara6683: There's no shortage of people doing covers of anime and video game music on YouTube, so it takes a lot to stand out nowadays - like simultaneously playing DDR and the violin:

or playing the Tomb Raider theme while cosplaying as Lara Croft:

"Gunpowder and Lead": For obvious reasons, this is one of my favorite Miranda Lambert songs; sadly, there's no official music video of the track. This fan-made video, made for a college class project, has amassed over three million views(!)...again, for obvious reasons:

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Guns: Warm Weather CCW

"Summer concealed carry" is a bit of a meaningless concept here in South Florida. For about half the year, it's hot and humid enough outside that you'll be warm no matter how light your clothing is. Depending on how much you sweat, it can become a huge challenge to conceal a firearm using traditional carry methods.

For me, a waist holster is impractical when the weather's boiling. IWB rigs attract too much moisture from the body, while OWB rigs require a covering garment that'll make you even hotter. Consequently, I pocket a J-Frame revolver in the summer months, and it works well enough.

Even pocket carry requires certain clothing, however; it's impossible with athletic shorts or sweatpants. For those who absolutely need to carry a gun in such garments, a SmartCarry/Thunderwear type deep concealment holster may be the answer:

There's also the option of off-body carry, usually inside a purse or bag of some sort. There are plenty of reasons to shy away from this type of carry (e.g. if you lose your purse, you lose your gun), but it's better than not carrying at all:

A final option for summer CCW is the unconventional waistband holster, one that encases the gun itself. Examples include the Wilderness Safepacker or this BullDog cellphone-style belt case:

Monday, July 25, 2011

Music: Alpocalypse review

I've been a "Weird Al" Yankovic fan for a long time (the claymation music video for "Jurassic Park" is still a highlight of my youth), but even I have to admit that he's been off the radar for the past few years. 2006's "Straight Outta Lynwood" was such a smash hit that it seemed like Weird Al might have finally wrote himself into a corner - how can you top "White and Nerdy," a parody so good it was actually a top ten song in the Billboard Hot 100? As it turned out, Weird Al was just waiting for the next beat in the musical zeitgeist, in the form of a meat dress-wearing, egg-hatching Tisch School of the Arts dropout:

"Perform This Way" is one of the new tracks in "Alpocalypse" (many of the album's songs were available on the EP "Internet Leaks"), and it neatly embodies the problems Weird Al faces when pastiching today's pop. You see, Yankovic has been around for so long that the musical acts he's parodying now are actually influenced by artists that he has parodied in the past. Since Lady Gaga is a Madonna disciple, "Perform This Way" feels a lot like something Weird Al could have written in his "Like A Surgeon" days, and that robs Al's music of some of the freshness it had when it was aping Michael Jackson and Nirvana.

Moreover, with modern technology, everyone from "The Lonely Island" to your next-door neighbor can put a parody song on the Web; it's become harder to separate yourself from the herd. Thankfully, Weird Al still has a gift for musical mimicry, and most of the tracks on "Alpocalypse" put it to good use. Take "TMZ," an assault on paparazzi and the badly-behaving celebs that fuel them. It's a pitch-perfect recreation of Taylor Swift's "You Belong With Me," down to the banjo plucks and drum hits, though the lyrics only obliquely criticize Swift's penchant for roasting celebrity boyfriends in her songs.

"Party in the CIA," a take-off on Miley Cyrus's "Party in the USA," is a more direct parody: Al takes the plot of the sunny pop hit (where the narrator moves out to L.A. and tries to fit in) and translates it to the dark world of intelligence gathering. There's something distinctly Weird Al about combining a sugary pop melody with lyrics that reference waterboarding terrorists and overthrowing third-world countries:

Better put your hands up and get in the van,
Or else you'll get blown away!
Stagin' a coup like yeah,
Brainwashin' moles like yeah,
We only torture the folks we don't like,
You're probably going to be OK!

Yeeeaaahhh, it's a party in the CIA!
Yeeeaaahhh, it's a party in the CIA!

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Movies: Captain America - The First Avenger

Courageous, clever, and compassionate, Steve Rogers is everything the U.S. Army is looking for in the dark days of WWII...except that he's an asthmatic, 98-pound shrimp. By sheer luck, however, Rogers crosses paths with Dr. Abraham Erskine, a scientist who has developed a serum that turns men into super-soldiers. When the Nazi deep science division known as Hydra threatens the safety of the world, Rogers is pressed into battle - as Captain America:

"Captain America: The First Avenger" is actually the first time Cap has truly made it to the big screen in the U.S. In some ways, that's not surprising - Captain America has always been a little two-dimensional, especially for a Marvel superhero. Steve Rogers knows where he came from, knows what he's supposed to do, and usually doesn't have any doubt about who's good and who's bad.

The movie is no different - while Chris Evans gives Cap earnestness and likeability (through some gentle, non-cynical wisecracks and several scenes worth of aw-shucks dialogue), we never learn much about Steve except that he wants to help America win the war; you don't see where he lives or what he does for a day job. Director Joe Johnston (who helmed "The Rocketeer," another WWII-era superhero flick) deliberately paints Steve Rogers with a broad brush ("I'm just a kid from Brooklyn"), and helps keep Captain America as the Everyman symbol he was intended to be.

Sometimes this approach backfires. In many scenes, the admittedly big-name character actors dominate, and make Captain America the least interesting persona in his own movie. Tommy Lee Jones chews scenery as a gruff colonel, Hugo Weaving slips into Agent Smith-world-destroying mode for his turn as Red Skull, and Stanley Tucci injects Dr. Erskine with fatherly faith.

There are also parts of the movie that feel forced. Hayley Atwell plays a gorgeous British intelligence officer, and I heard multiple groans when she strode across a battlefield firing a Tommygun, hair perfectly coiffed and ruby red lipstick perfectly applied. Similarly, Rogers' band of "Dirty Dozen" commandoes is conspicuously multiethnic, and the Holocaust is never mentioned. All in all, though, this is a crowd-pleasing square-jawed superhero movie, and easily the best adaptation of Captain America ever made.

Rating: 7/10

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Guns: A topsy-turvy world

In Canton, OH, a concealed handgun licensee complying with the state's notification requirement was handcuffed, put in a squad car, berated, and threatened by police:

In Oslo, Norway, in a country with no concealed carry and no protection of the right of self-defense, with full registration for all guns and limits on the number of guns one person can possess, a crazed maniac just killed dozens of kids with nary any resistance:

The only thing that stops a gun is a gun. If you can lawfully carry a concealed weapon, please carry your gun with you...all the time:

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

TV: Breaking Bad

In "Breaking Bad," mild-mannered Walter White is diagnosed with terminal lung cancer, and so he does what any self-respecting high school chemistry teacher would do - he starts cooking crystal meth with a former student in order to secure his family's financial future...

Vince Gilligan, the creator of the show, pitched the series as "Mr. Chips becomes Scarface." Like a chemical reactant, Walt is transformed through the course of the series, making a series of choices that lead off the straight and narrow path and down into a violent criminal underworld.

Everything about the series bespeaks craft: the way the show uses Albuquerque, New Mexico as a character, littering the production with local landmarks and radio stations; the use of color to highlight certain characters and objects, changing their palettes from season to season; and, most importantly, the pitch-black humor that'll make you laugh at exploding severed heads and bodies dissolved in acid.

Sure, the show is manipulative and slow-paced (Gilligan was a writer for "The X-Files," which explains a lot), but at least it's trying to manipulate you, to tell a story that draws you in. In an age of reality TV, "Breaking Bad" is a reminder that well-written, well-performed fiction is still the most addictive drug out there.

Miscellany: The Wizarding World of Harry Potter review

The final "Harry Potter" movie has already made a bazillion dollars, and, coincidentally, I got the chance to visit "The Wizarding World of Harry Potter" with my cousins last weekend. They're Potter fanatics (made the trip all the way from Houston just to visit), but I thought I'd offer a review from the perspective of a casual fan of the series:

Islands of Adventure has always felt more like a mishmash of unrelated, separate areas than a cohesive theme park (one of the most popular sections of the park, Marvel Super Hero Island, is actually licensed from Universal's main theme park competition, Walt Disney Company). The WWoHP takes it one step further - the 20 acre area is basically a mini-theme park all its own, with enough rides, shops, and sights to occupy a good chunk of a typical vacationer's day.

The centerpiece of the WWoHP is "Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey," a motion simulator ride that's one part "Haunted Mansion," one part "Soaring," and one part Ford assembly line (the ride uses KUKA robotic arms to twist and turn riders through the dark). It's an enormously entertaining ride, with a lavish queue that takes you through Hogwarts and impressive, nausea-inducing simulated acrobatics. Be warned: the wait times can hit the two hour mark during peak periods (and when the ride experiences technical difficulties).

The other rides in the WWoHP are reskinned holdovers from the old Merlinwood area that used to be here; the twin inverted coaster Duelling Dragons is now Dragon Challenge, and the gentler family coaster The Flying Unicorn has turned into Flight of the Hippogriff. Since these two rides have been around for awhile, they're less popular, and they can be good choices if the lines for "The Forbidden Journey" get too long.

Aside from the coasters, the other major draw of the WWoHP is a painstaking recreation of Hogsmeade, a magical village that featured heavily in the book series. Universal spared no expense here; the place looks like it was ripped straight out of the films, albeit with hundreds of sundrenched tourists added in as extras:

Hogsmeade might look enchanting, but every shop is filled to the brim with expensive Harry Potter memorabilia (made in the magical land of Zhōngguó). Maybe I'm being overcritical, but I found it difficult to get in the wizarding mood while being surrounded by shops peddling $30 plastic wands and $50 Gryffendor quidditch polos. Conversely, the foodstuffs in Hogsmeade were excellent - peddlers hawk delicious frozen butterbeer, pumpkin juice (basically apple juice spiked with pumpkin purée), and chocolate frogs, all at relatively reasonable prices.

To sum up, I'd say the WWoHP is a must-visit for Potter fans. Every part, from the "Ministry of Magic" motion sickness warning signs to the moving newspapers in "The Forbidden Journey" queue, is designed to make you feel like a muggle who's gotten a glimpse at a parallel world. If you can excuse the merchandising, you should have a lot of fun.

Friday, July 15, 2011

Music: Hearts of Space

Hearts of Space

During freshman year at college, I usually spent Sunday nights doing schoolwork I had put off till the end of the weekend. There wasn't much to my dorm room - a bed, a desk, and an FM radio atop a mini-fridge-turned-nightstand. In those long stretches of quiet, "Hearts of Space" kept me company.

For those who've never heard the show, "HoS" is one of the world's most popular New Age music radio programs, so popular that it was actually parodied in an MST3K skit ("Music from Some Guys in Space"). Each week, producer Stephen Hill serves up an hour's worth of ambient music from a variety of genres: downtempo electronica is the show's staple, of course, but there's also the occasional Celtic, choral, and orchestral-themed shows. I particularly liked the episode "When Rock Meets Space," which featured atmospheric cuts from Coldplay, Portishead, and Sigur Rios.

With the thousands of 24/7 free streaming ambient music stations on the Internet, you might ask why I would bother to tune in to a radio show. Truth be told, HoS features one thing all those anonymous music channels don't have: Stephen Hill's laconic opening and closing narration. At times, it's more soothing than the actual mood music, leading one blogger to admit, "I would pay for an album of Stephen Hill talking for an hour."

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Books: Moneyball

Unlike the other three big professional sports leagues in the U.S., Major League Baseball has no salary cap or salary floor. Teams can essentially spend as much or as little on their rosters as they like, and, as a result, the big market teams like the Yankees and the Red Sox can have payrolls that are several times the size of their small market opponents. "Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game," by Michael Lewis, explores how the Oakland Athletics managed to win enormous amounts of games despite having one of the cheapest teams in the league.

Lewis attributes the difference to the Oakland A's use of sabermetrics to buy undervalued players while discarding established notions of what a big league player should look like. To this end, the book dutifully describes the Oakland A's as a ragtag assortment of defective players: Scott Hatteberg has a ruptured nerve in his throwing elbow and average hitting ability, Chad Bradford has a weird underhand delivery and a crappy 84 mph fastball, and so it goes.

I'm not really a big baseball fan, so I have no idea if Lewis slanted the characterizations in order to fit his narrative - the David-and-Goliath narration is pretty thick at times. The success of the 2002 Oakland A's, though, is pretty inspiring, and it lends credence to the book's overall message:

...if gross miscalculations of a person's value could occur on a baseball field, before a live audience of thirty thousand, and a television audience of millions more, what did that say about the measurement of performance in other lines of work? If professional baseball players could be over- or under-valued, who couldn't?

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Miscellany: Stuff to See in St. Augustine

Orlando and Miami get the lion's share of tourists' attention, but there are plenty of other places to visit in Florida. I recently spent a day with my friends in St. Augustine, the oldest continuously occupied European settlement in the continental United States. The city is a weird mix of the historical and the hysterical - you'll see classic 19th century architecture...occupied by cheesy gift shops and haunted house tours. Check out some of what you can find there:

Castillo de San Marcos National Monument - Our first stop was the imposing Castillo de San Marcos, a star fort first built by the Spanish during their colonization of the New World. It has changed hands several times through the centuries - to the British, the Confederate and Union Armies, and finally, to the United States of America.

The walls of the Castillo are made of coquina, a sort of limestone made up of ancient shells and mortared together. It sounds flimsy, but it's actually a pretty good material for building walls to withstand cannon fire - cannonballs would get "stuck" in the soft walls instead of puncturing or shattering them. Maybe that's why, in its entire existence, the Castillo de San Marcos has never been conquered when it has been defended.

Casa Maya - Downtown St. Augustine is a culinary bazaar - you'll see plenty of seafood joints and Spanish restaurants, as you might expect, but there are also English pubs, pizzerias, and fast food vendors vying for customers. We settled on Casa Maya, a tiny Mexican restaurant on Hypolita Street.

The food was decent. We tried the Mayan soup and a couple of sandwiches and came away satisfied. I was most impressed by the refreshing cucumber-lemon-lime-tinged water (hey, it was a hot day).

The Hyppo - Right across from Casa Maya is The Hyppo, a perennially crowded gourmet popsicle shop. There isn't much too the place, really - just a cash register, a freezer full of interesting popsicles, and some places to sit and enjoy them:

My favorite popsicle was the pineapple cilantro, for its combination of sweetness, sourness, and cilantro. You can kick up the refreshment factor by opting for one of the spicier flavors, like mango habanero.

St. Augustine Pirate & Treasure Museum - If you're interested in the days when piracy wasn't perpetrated by teenagers with AK-47s, you might want to stop at The St. Augustine Pirate & Treasure Museum:

The Pirate & Treasure Museum is a neat example of how to maximize a visitor's experience with very little floorspace. Every nook and cranny of the place is filled with authentic pirate paraphernalia like weapons, gold bars, and compasses. Highlights include an interactive touch screen encyclopedia of pirate knowledge (more interesting than it sounds), one of the world's few surviving Jolly Roger flags, and an immersive audio experience that recreates the death of Blackbeard.

News: Fear, uncertainty, doubt

The Obama administration and many economists have warned of economic catastrophe if the United States does not raise the amount it is legally allowed to borrow by August 2.

Lawmakers from both parties want to use the threat of that deadline to work out a broader package on long-term deficit reduction, with Republicans looking to cut trillions of dollars in federal spending, while Democrats are pushing for a more "balanced approach," which would include both spending cuts and increased revenue through taxes.

Thursday, July 07, 2011

Guns: Comp-Tac Minotaur MTAC review

One of the biggest trends in inside-the-waistband holsters is the hybrid Kydex/leather holster, exemplified by models like the Kholster, Crossbreed SuperTuck, and the subject of this review, the Comp-Tac Minotaur MTAC holster:

The hybrid design tries to combine the rigidity of a Kydex holster with the comfort of a leather holster; in the Minotaur MTAC's case, an interchangeable Kydex shell is attached to a standardized leather backing piece, with Comp-Tac's IWB clips providing two attachment points to the belt. This setup allows the holster to be tuckable, fully adjustable for ride height and desired cant, and adaptable to different body shapes.

Comp-Tac also touts the MTAC's ability to switch out its Kydex half-shells, made possible by the fact that the holster shells are independent of the leather backing. I suppose you could theoretically buy one MTAC holster, multiple Kydex shells, and use it for multiple guns. In practice, though, it's a pain to switch out shells (they aren't cheap, either), and you're probably better off buying one holster for each gun you plan to carry.

As far as wearing the MTAC goes, it's easily one of the most comfortable IWB rigs I've ever used. The holster has a distinct "padded" feel (the leather backing covers the holster's screws and extends to cover your handgun's barrel, preventing them from abrading your side but also adding bulk to the holster). The MTAC capably carried my S&W M&P9C in the traditional 3:00-4:00 right hand position just behind the hip, and concealment, drawing, and reholstering were all pretty straightforward.

The only criticism I can level at the MTAC is its retention system - the holster features an adjustable screw, but, even after adjustment, the gun isn't held very tightly by the holster (a plus or a minus, depending on how much retention you need). Overall, though, if you need to carry a concealed compact or subcompact autoloader, the MTAC should be on your list of IWB holsters to try.

Tech: Portal 2 review

It's always tough when you make a sequel to a popular video game, but the challenge Valve faced in making a follow-up to "Portal" must have been daunting. The original game came out of left field in 2007 as part of "The Orange Box" and became a smash hit, to the point where phrases like "The cake is a lie" and "This was a triumph" became part of the gamer lexicon. Thankfully, Valve found a way to expand on Portal's pitch-perfect puzzle perspective: partners.

In "Portal 2," you and a friend can traverse a lengthy co-operative campaign that'll take around four to six hours to complete. From the very first room, the puzzles require the use of two pairs of portals, and, as the game progresses, you'll use these portals to form conveyor belts, bridges, launch tubes, and even shields for each other. There are plenty of smart gameplay features designed to facilitate this teamwork, too: you can see from your partner's point of view, ping locations in the game world for your partner to portal, and initiate a shared countdown for tricky timing puzzles.

It's not just the mechanical features of the co-op that are impressive. The two silent robot protagonists provide plenty of "Laurel and Hardy" slapstick humor, since mistakes by either player can send both bots to their oblivion. To take one example, when you and your partner are standing on a light bridge over a giant chasm, and the bridge disappears, for one Wile E. Coyote moment, you'll look at each other in mid-air before plummeting to the ground.

After playing through the brilliant co-op campaign, Portal 2's single-player mode is a little underwhelming. Though the story is artfully told (it continues where "Portal" left off), the actual puzzles are less complex and less interesting than the ones Valve cooked up for multiplayer. "Portal 2" therefore gets a big thumbs-up from long as you have a friend to share the journey with.

Rating: 83/100

Monday, July 04, 2011

The 4th of July

I recollected that her eye excelled in brightness, that of any other animal, and that she has no eye-lids. She may therefore be esteemed an emblem of vigilance. She never begins an attack, nor, when once engaged, ever surrenders: She is therefore an emblem of magnanimity and true courage. As if anxious to prevent all pretensions of quarreling with her, the weapons with which nature has furnished her, she conceals in the roof of her mouth, so that, to those who are unacquainted with her, she appears to be a most defenseless animal; and even when those weapons are shown and extended for her defense, they appear weak and contemptible; but their wounds however small, are decisive and fatal. Conscious of this, she never wounds 'till she has generously given notice, even to her enemy, and cautioned him against the danger of treading on her.

- An American Guesser, Pennsylvania Journal on December 27, 1775