Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Tech: Lenovo ThinkPad X120e review


The Lenovo Thinkpad X120e is part of a new budget ultraportable segment that's positioned somewhere between the traditional netbook and the mainstream thin-and-light laptop. Instead of packing a low-voltage Intel Atom processor (which sips electrical power but doesn't have much computing muscle), the X120e has an out-of-order execution, dual-core AMD E-350 processor with integrated graphics acceleration. The result is a computing experience that supposedly feels much more like a real laptop:

Slick marketing videos are well and good, but how does the X120e actually perform? Can you get some semblance of the ultraportable experience for under $500?


It might have the ThinkPad logo on it, but there's a lot separating the X120e from Lenovo's mainstream laptops. You won't find any fancy magnesium rollcages, magnetic latches, or LED-lit full-size keyboards here - in most respects, the chassis of the X120e is like any other budget netbook.

Despite the loss of some of the signature enhancements of other Lenovo computers, the X120e's build quality is still fairly solid overall. The unit has a matte black finish, and basically looks like a shrunken ThinkPad. On the left side of the X120e, you'll find space for a security lock, an HDMI port, a USB port, an Ethernet port, and an audio jack.

The right side has a card reader, a powered USB port, and a regular USB port:

The rear has the power jack and a VGA out. Aesthetically, I'm not a big fan of the way the 6-cell battery juts out of the case, but it does keep the hinge area slim:

The X120e comes equipped with an 11.6" matte anti-glare 1366x768 LED-backlit LCD. It's not the world's brightest screen (don't believe Lenovo's marketing - you'll have trouble using it in bright daylight), but the absence of the glossy finish found in a typical netbook removes a lot of distracting reflections.

Here's a shot of the X120e next to some miscellaneous items: Season 2 of "The Adventures of Pete & Pete," a Maxpedition-branded Nalgene bottle, an Al Martino CD, and a pack of Trident White.


The X120e ditches the famed ThinkPad keyboard; in its place, there's a chiclet keyboard that's much closer to those found in other netbooks. I found the keys to be responsive and comfortable, and Lenovo even found the space to include dedicated PgUp and PgDn keys (a huge boon for browsing long documents and webpages). The only real quibble I have is that the left Ctrl key is shifted inward - a pretty pointless departure from a typical keyboard layout.

Here is a closeup to give you an idea of the key size:

In the middle of the keyboard, Lenovo has placed the distinctive red TrackPoint pointing stick, which was sensitive and responsive enough to use for playing first-person shooters (with practice). There's also a standard touchpad, and two sets of mouse buttons; the pointing stick's mouse buttons are more responsive.


The Intel Atom gets stellar battery life, but you pay a pretty hefty price in terms of performance. Loading up a big PDF or even a rich webpage can be an exercise in staring at the Windows busy cursor. In contrast, the AMD Fusion chipset powers through streaming HD video and office productivity tasks with ease. You can even use it to play last-gen games like Team Fortress 2:

One thing that most reviews of the X120e don't discuss: out of the box, the unit is blissfully free from the bloatware that gets shoveled onto other laptops. All you get is Lenovo's helpful ThinkVantage utilities (including a neat stress test for the components and a battery health indicator) and a clear blue screen.

Battery life on the X120e is decent, in part due to Lenovo's aggressive screen-dimming and standby schemes. With continuous use, including downloading files, playing web videos, and installing programs, I was able to squeeze about 5 hours of life from the machine - not too far off from the advertised 6.6 hours.


The X120e and others of its ilk are going to gut the netbook market. While it "only" runs about five hours with realistic use, the X120e is so much faster than a typical netbook that, after using them side-by-side, even a casual user would be persuaded to drop the extra $100-$150 for the X120e. It strikes the right balance between power usage, price, and performance, and gets a thumbs-up from me.

Friday, August 26, 2011

Guns: RRPSI Firearms review - a friendly local gun shop

The independent gun store owes its existence, at least in part, to gun control. After the passage of the Gun Control Act of 1968, federally licensed firearms dealers were granted a virtual monopoly on the sale of new firearms; in practical terms, the only way for the average Joe to purchase a new gun nowadays is to physically transfer it from an FFL. Consequently, a brick-and-mortar gun store doesn't have to compete against the likes of ginormous e-tailers like (not that the profit margins on guns are all that high in the first place).

That's not to say online firearm sales don't exist. Places like Davidson's allow customers to purchase new guns over the Web, and have them shipped to a local FFL to do the final transfer and background check. That's how I found the subject of today's post, RRPSI Firearms:

The shop can be found inside a small building across from Boynton Beach City Hall, and, amusingly, next door to a Chinese take-out restaurant. Rather than try to stock every gun known to man, RRPSI sells an interesting mix of brand new firearms and consignment pieces, with the selection changing from week to week as things come and go. They usually have various flavors of combat Tupperware (GLOCKs, M&Ps, XDs), but you might also run into a classic 6" Model 29, a new AR-10, or a Kel-Tec PMR-30.

The store is relatively small, so the holster selection isn't that great. On the other hand, there's quite a few concealment purses to choose from. Like most gun shops, RRPSI offers CCW classes - check their Facebook page for more info.

Most importantly, RRPSI is a family business run by Bob Renault (and, on occasion, his wife Laura). Bob'll give you frank advice about firearms, try to help you fix problems you might have, and will send lemons back to the factory for repair, which has happened to me more than once. So, if you're tired of the disinterested clerk behind the counter at MegaMountainMart or Guns'R'Us, and you're in the Boynton Beach area, I'd recommend going to RRPSI for your firearm needs.

News: Battening down the hatches...

As a lifelong South Floridian, I've become inured to hurricane panic. At the beginning of every season, my family (and pretty much the entire area) stocks up on water, canned food, batteries, and the like, to the point where a tropical storm or Category 1 doesn't even raise an eyebrow around these parts.

For my readers up north, who are facing the novel threat of Hurricane Irene, here's a nice primer called "Surviving the Storm" by local station WPTV:

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Books: NPR's Top 100 Science-Fiction and Fantasy Survey Results

More than 60,000 people voted for the 100 best sci-fi and fantasy books at, and bloggers around the Web are commenting on the list. Like a whole bunch of other people, I've reproduced the list below and bolded the works I've read all the way through (partial reads don't count - I've read a bunch of the Robert E. Howard Conan stories, for instance, but I've never gotten close to reading all of them). Not surprisingly, many of the works have been featured here at Shangrila Towers...

1. The Lord Of The Rings Trilogy, by J.R.R. Tolkien

Nearly all of the conventions of epic fantasy, good and bad, can be traced to Tolkien. Expansive casts of characters? Self-indulgent digressions in the form of poetry or song? Side volumes that have nothing to do with the main story? Writing a mythos that is so lengthy and complex that you die before finishing it? It's all here, baby.

2. The Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy, by Douglas Adams

The last entry in the series, "Mostly Harmless," is one of the rare instances when a writer visits a long-dormant work and successfully concludes it, albeit in the bleakest fashion imaginable. Really, you could read the first and last book and ignore the stuff published in-between...and afterwards.

3. Ender's Game, by Orson Scott Card

Since it stars precocious kids, this is a perennial favorite of introverted, bookish youngsters.

4. The Dune Chronicles, by Frank Herbert

I've read "Dune," of course, but never completed the rest of the series. Despite having authored plenty of other fine works (I liked "The Jesus Incident"), the Dune series came to define Herbert.

5. A Song Of Ice And Fire Series, by George R. R. Martin

I should really start into this one, but I'm not even finished with #12 on this list...

6. 1984, by George Orwell

I'm not sure what's scarier - that Orwell could write such a prescient book, or that such a book could exist and everyone would ignore it during the long, slow slide to dystopia.

7. Fahrenheit 451, by Ray Bradbury

A booklover's sci-fi novel, for obvious reasons. The movie, directed by François Truffaut, is a classic, too:

8. The Foundation Trilogy, by Isaac Asimov

It's a little choppy in the beginning (having been originally serialized in "Astounding Magazine"), but this is one of my favorite sci-fi series. The second and third books, "Foundation and Empire" and "Second Foundation," feature one of Asimov's coolest characters: the Mule, a mutant with the power to change the emotions of other people.

9. Brave New World, by Aldous Huxley
10. American Gods, by Neil Gaiman
11. The Princess Bride, by William Goldman
12. The Wheel Of Time Series, by Robert Jordan

A series so long the author died before he could complete it. I first started reading the WoT in elementary school. The 14th and final volume, co-written by Brandon Sanderson from the notes and outlines of Robert Jordan, is due next year.

13. Animal Farm, by George Orwell
14. Neuromancer, by William Gibson
15. Watchmen, by Alan Moore
16. I, Robot, by Isaac Asimov

17. Stranger In A Strange Land, by Robert Heinlein
18. The Kingkiller Chronicles, by Patrick Rothfuss
19. Slaughterhouse-Five, by Kurt Vonnegut
20. Frankenstein, by Mary Shelley
21. Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep?, by Philip K. Dick

Every work by Philip K. Dick will eventually get made into a movie, and this one turned into "Blade Runner." Like all PKD adaptations, the movie is better (or at least more accessible) than the book.

22. The Handmaid's Tale, by Margaret Atwood
23. The Dark Tower Series, by Stephen King

I'll get around to reading the post-"Wizard and Glass" volumes eventually. King keeps adding more to it, though.

24. 2001: A Space Odyssey, by Arthur C. Clarke
25. The Stand, by Stephen King

The middle two or three hundred pages in this one are pretty slow, depending on your tolerance for the post-apocalyptic milieu. The beginning and end have a feverish intensity, though, with the epilogue being one of my favorite King endings.

26. Snow Crash, by Neal Stephenson
27. The Martian Chronicles, by Ray Bradbury
28. Cat's Cradle, by Kurt Vonnegut

29. The Sandman Series, by Neil Gaiman
30. A Clockwork Orange, by Anthony Burgess
31. Starship Troopers, by Robert Heinlein
32. Watership Down, by Richard Adams

33. Dragonflight, by Anne McCaffrey
34. The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress, by Robert Heinlein
35. A Canticle For Leibowitz, by Walter M. Miller
36. The Time Machine, by H.G. Wells

Truly visionary science-fiction. I mean, think about it - this novel coined the very word "time machine." Most people remember the Eloi and the Morlocks, but I like the trippy ending sequence where the Time Traveller goes even further into the future.

37. 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea, by Jules Verne

One of the first science fiction novels I ever read. Even though it was written more than a hundred years ago in another language, it still spoke to me as a kid.

38. Flowers For Algernon, by Daniel Keys

We were assigned both the short story and the novel-length version of this one in school. Not a bad book, but it doesn't really withstand multiple readings.

39. The War Of The Worlds, by H.G. Wells
40. The Chronicles Of Amber, by Roger Zelazny
41. The Belgariad, by David Eddings
42. The Mists Of Avalon, by Marion Zimmer Bradley
43. The Mistborn Series, by Brandon Sanderson
44. Ringworld, by Larry Niven
45. The Left Hand Of Darkness, by Ursula K. LeGuin
46. The Silmarillion, by J.R.R. Tolkien
47. The Once And Future King, by T.H. White
48. Neverwhere, by Neil Gaiman
49. Childhood's End, by Arthur C. Clarke

"2001" gets all the attention, but this is probably my favorite Arthur C. Clarke book. Like many of Clarke's books, it's a rather nuanced take on the concept of alien arrival - the one in this story is neither "good" nor "bad."

50. Contact, by Carl Sagan
51. The Hyperion Cantos, by Dan Simmons
52. Stardust, by Neil Gaiman
53. Cryptonomicon, by Neal Stephenson
54. World War Z, by Max Brooks
55. The Last Unicorn, by Peter S. Beagle

I've seen the movie and read the comic, but never read the book.

56. The Forever War, by Joe Haldeman

It's been called the anti-"Starship Troopers," though both Heinlein and Haldeman reportedly enjoyed each other's work. I like the part where the soldier protagonist (who has lived through several hundred years of human history, thanks to time dilation) has to contend with recruits who are from a future human society that is nearly unrecognizable; they speak an incomprehensible language and are uniformly homosexual.

57. Small Gods, by Terry Pratchett
58. The Chronicles Of Thomas Covenant, The Unbeliever, by Stephen R. Donaldson
59. The Vorkosigan Saga, by Lois McMaster Bujold
60. Going Postal, by Terry Pratchett
61. The Mote In God's Eye, by Larry Niven & Jerry Pournelle
62. The Sword Of Truth, by Terry Goodkind
63. The Road, by Cormac McCarthy
64. Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, by Susanna Clarke
65. I Am Legend, by Richard Matheson
66. The Riftwar Saga, by Raymond E. Feist
67. The Shannara Trilogy, by Terry Brooks
68. The Conan The Barbarian Series, by R.E. Howard
69. The Farseer Trilogy, by Robin Hobb
70. The Time Traveler's Wife, by Audrey Niffenegger
71. The Way Of Kings, by Brandon Sanderson
72. A Journey To The Center Of The Earth, by Jules Verne
73. The Legend Of Drizzt Series, by R.A. Salvatore

A friend gave this to me as a box set for Christmas. Say what you want about Salvatore - the man can write a pulpy yarn. I read the entire series before the new year had come.

74. Old Man's War, by John Scalzi
75. The Diamond Age, by Neil Stephenson

Halfway through this one. Not as rollicking as "Snow Crash."

76. Rendezvous With Rama, by Arthur C. Clarke
77. The Kushiel's Legacy Series, by Jacqueline Carey
78. The Dispossessed, by Ursula K. LeGuin
79. Something Wicked This Way Comes, by Ray Bradbury
80. Wicked, by Gregory Maguire
81. The Malazan Book Of The Fallen Series, by Steven Erikson
82. The Eyre Affair, by Jasper Fforde
83. The Culture Series, by Iain M. Banks
84. The Crystal Cave, by Mary Stewart
85. Anathem, by Neal Stephenson
86. The Codex Alera Series, by Jim Butcher
87. The Book Of The New Sun, by Gene Wolfe
88. The Thrawn Trilogy, by Timothy Zahn
89. The Outlander Series, by Diana Gabaldan
90. The Elric Saga, by Michael Moorcock
91. The Illustrated Man, by Ray Bradbury
92. Sunshine, by Robin McKinley
93. A Fire Upon The Deep, by Vernor Vinge
94. The Caves Of Steel, by Isaac Asimov
95. The Mars Trilogy, by Kim Stanley Robinson

I'm sure there's a lot to like about this series, but I only got about a 100 pages into "Red Mars" before quitting. Who knew a Martian revolution could be so...boring?

96. Lucifer's Hammer, by Larry Niven & Jerry Pournelle
97. Doomsday Book, by Connie Willis
98. Perdido Street Station, by China Mieville
99. The Xanth Series, by Piers Anthony
100. The Space Trilogy, by C.S. Lewis

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

News: Tactical Retreat

It required American participation of questionable legality. It involved "rebels" of questionable background. But you have to admit, the Libyan War makes for some very good theatre:

Early Wednesday, Gadhafi, speaking on a local Tripoli radio station, which was reported by Al-Orouba television and Reuters, said that his withdrawal from Bab al Aziziya, the dictator's main compound and a key symbol of his power, was a "tactical move." The compound had been leveled by 64 NATO air strikes, he said.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Guns: A Public Gathering in Georgia

This Labor Day, I'll be headed to Dragon*Con, a multigenre sci-fi/fantasy convention that occupies five hotels in and around downtown Atlanta:

Thanks to a relatively recent change in Georgia's CCW laws, I'll be able to legally tote my handgun while the convention is afoot. You see, last year, Georgia eliminated its prohibition on carrying a gun to "a public gathering" (if you want to look it up, the statute was O.C.G.A. § 16-11-127 (2008)).

Like many gun control laws, the "public gathering" prohibiton was mainly designed to disarm freedmen and their Republican supporters in the Reconstruction-era South. "Public gatherings" that were off-limits included, but were not limited to:
“[A]thletic or sporting events, schools or school functions, churches or church functions, political rallies or functions, publicly owned or operated buildings, or establishments at which alcoholic beverages are sold for consumption on the premises.
It doesn't take a genius to see the problem with the law - from the statute (which gives examples of public gatherings but has no express limitations), there was no way to tell what constituted a "public gathering."

The caselaw interpreting the "public gathering" clause was unclear, too. Rejecting the State of Georgia's argument that "public gathering" was any location where the public gathers (which would have included McDonald's and Wal-Mart), one court defined the term as any place where "people are gathered or will be gathered for a particular function." State v. Burns, 200 Ga.App. 16, 17 (1991). This is slightly less onerous from a gun rights standpoint, but it's still a woefully vague standard: is your neighborhood softball game a public gathering? A signing at a book store? People watching a movie in a theater? A multigenre convention in downtown Atlanta?

All that uncertainty ended when Georgia passed Senate Bill 308 in 2010, which modified and revised much of Georgia's CCW regime and finally killed the ambiguous "public gathering" restriction. Here's a news report talking about the unamended version - the conference committee version was what was eventually signed by the Governor.

Some vestiges of the public gathering law remain; there's still a ban on concealed weapons in places of worship, for instance (because no one would ever attack a church). Thankfully, Georgia gun rights advocates like Georgia Carry and Georgia Gun Owners are still fighting the good fight, both in the courts and in the legislature:

Friday, August 19, 2011

Miscellany: Maxpedition Pygmy Falcon-II review

When airlines began to charge fees for checking in bags, it didn't take an economics professor to predict what would happen: passengers started to carry on all their luggage, turning already-claustrophobic airplane cabins into toe-stubbing, limb-cramping human warrens. If you don't want to contribute to the problem, I suggest looking into a carry-on that you can stow under your seat, like the Maxpedition Pygmy Falcon-II backpack:

The Pygmy Falcon isn't a large backpack (1400 cubic inches), but it's sized perfectly to fit underneath an airline seat. On its own, it'll hold enough clothes and supplies for a weekend trip or dayhike; combine it with a rollerbag, and you can pack enough supplies for a week's worth of travel.

The front compartment has a zippered pocket on the outside, along with PALS webbing. It opens up to reveal some basic organizational features - some slots for pens, a slash pocket that goes about halfway down the bag, and a built-in snap keeper for a key ring:

For times when you just need to grab the bag, there's a carry handle sewn into the top. It's not the world's most comfortable handle (I would have preferred a rubberized material), but it's functional. It's attached to the main body of the pack via generous box-and-X style stitching:

When your pack isn't fully loaded, a nice adjustable Y-shaped compression strap helps to keep the pack flat against your back.

The sides of the bag have shock-corded pockets for Nalgene 32 ounce water bottles, along with even more PALS webbing. You could also jimmy a water bottle into the shock-corded area underneath the front compartment and the area underneath the Y-strap. There's no place for a water bladder, though.

The Pygmy Falcon's main compartment is enormous (18"x9"x5"). Thanks to dual zippers that go all the way to the bottom of the bag, you can open the pack up clamshell style to get full access to the interior, making it easy to pack and unpack stacks of folded up clothes. There's also a couple of additional pockets here, for small items that you don't want falling to the bottom of the pack:

The Pygmy Falcon has a mesh rear for breathability. There's a fully adjustable sternum strap, but no waist strap.

The Pygmy Falcon, like most Maxpedition products, is very well-built, with self-healing paracord-pull zippers, sturdy heavyweight nylon, double stitching on almost every seam, and a rubberized bottom. Maxpedition charges a ridiculous amount for their Taiwanese-stitched nylon, but dadgummit, it's put together right:

Monday, August 15, 2011

Books: Chew

Most comic books only have one good idea. "Chew," a series written by John Layman and illustrated by Rob Guillory, has a bunch of 'em.

First, there's the main character, a cibopathic FDA agent named Tony Chu. "Cibopathic" means that Tony gets mental impressions about the things he eats: after taking a bite of an apple, he might be able to intuit which orchard it came from, what pesticides were used on it, and who eventually picked it from the tree.

Tony is fortunate in that cibopathy is a rare talent that can help solve difficult crimes; Tony is massively unfortunate in that he usually has to consume unsavory things (and unsavory people) in order to solve those crimes. The resulting comedy is one-dimensional, but funny nonetheless.

If the necrophagia wasn't enough, "Chew" is set in a strange near-future where poultry has been banned due to a bird-flu epidemic. The poultry ban predictably creates a black market for chicken wings, turkey legs, and hard-boiled eggs. Said black market predictably makes the U.S. Food and Drug Administration into the most powerful law-enforcement organization in the world.

There are even more layers to the story (aliens! conspiracy theories! Chinese family drama!), but if you're even remotely interested in the concept, you should really give "Chew" a try.

Complete tangent: the "Chew" artist, Rob Guillory, is a nice guy who promptly responded to a question I e-mailed him - +10 cool points, sir.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Movies: Predators

The original "Predator" is a classic '80s sci-fi action movie, mixing steroid-fueled machismo (cf. The Handshake) with some truly thrilling sequences. Over the years, though, the franchise steadily declined, with a mediocre direct sequel and a couple of awful "Alien v. Predator" films.

When news got out that Robert Rodriguez was producing a true sequel to the Predator series, there was much rejoicing. When it was further revealed that Rodriguez was completely ignoring the AvP continuity, there was even more rejoicing:

In the movie, a group of heavily-armed human warriors is thrown into the jungles of an alien game preserve, as prey for a hunt conducted by you-know-who. They're a serious bunch - a Yakuza gangster, a Mexican cartel enforcer, a Spetsnaz soldier, etc. - but individually, none of them are a match for the extraterrestrial killers that are stalking them. You know the drill: in order to survive, they must overcome their differences and band together.

Director Nimród Antal has done some interesting work (his 2003 debut, "Kontroll," is probably the best film ever made about Hungarian subway workers), so it's a tad disappointing that "Predators" plays it so safe in the plot department. On the other hand, the movie is stocked with fun character actors - Danny Trejo and Laurence Fishburne can chew scenery with the best of them - and it's very close to the tone of the original, in that it doesn't allow realism to get in the way of awesomeness:

Rating: 7/10

Sunday, August 07, 2011

Guns: Remington 870 Wingmaster review - There's No School Like The Old School

The Remington 870 is the world’s best-selling shotgun, with more than ten million sold since its introduction in 1951. In recent times, most of those sales have come from a cheaper version of the gun, dubbed the “870 Express,” that incorporates a number of changes from the 870s of yesteryear: plastic triggerguards, internal lock safeties, and bead-blasted finishes.

These modifications are heresy to some purists, but, in my experience, an off-the-shelf 870 Express performs about as well as any pump shotgun past or present. I've owned three of the Express models, observed untold dozens more at the skeet and trap fields, and have yet to see anyone’s plastic triggerguard break, or someone’s J-lock engage accidentally.

Despite my confidence in new production 870s, I've always wanted to try out a used one, to see if things really were better made back in the old days. Thankfully, since Remington cranked out so many of these shotguns over the years, it's not difficult to find a decent used 870. Mine came from the effects of an older gentleman who passed away (his daughter sold his collection to my local gun shop). For this post, it's time to kick it old-school:

Fit and Finish - Just Like You, Only Prettier

The previous owner of this gun was obviously an avid shooter. There’s a worn spot on the receiver where his right index finger rested in its proper position out of the trigger guard - a sign of competent use, not abuse. The gun has been well-maintained, too; aside from one dime-sized spot of surface rust on the barrel that was easily scrubbed off, the metal was in excellent condition.

Both old and current production Wingmasters have nicer wooden stocks than the Express models, which are relegated to using an indifferent grade of hardwood with a plain-Jane finish. When buying a used 870, make sure the stock is free of warps, cracks, or other major problems:

At the Skeet and Trap Fields

Upon mounting the Wingmaster in the store, I could immediately tell that its stock was too long for me, and I wondered how it would perform at the range. Fortunately, the gun’s long 30" barrel swung smoothly and pointed like a laser beam. Recoil was brisker than I expected with such a large gun (this is one area where newer 870s have the advantage; Remington's nice R3 rubber recoil pad is just plain superior to the old plastic buttpads).

This Wingmaster is at least a couple decades old, before the time when Remington outfitted their shotgun barrels with interchangeable choke tubes. I found that while the gun's fixed modified choke made it easy to smash clays from 30 and 40 yards away, hitting incoming skeet targets was dicey. The overly long stock also contributed to some problems with mounting the gun at speed; nailing both clays when shooting doubles was almost impossible without starting the gun out at the shoulder.

The action was slick as snot and cycled budget Winchester birdshot loads without any problems. Actually, the only malfunction I've consistently experienced with 870s is a failure to extract caused by the empty shell sticking in the chamber - rumor has it the older guns actually had smoother chambers that make this kind of stoppage less likely, but YMMV.

Conclusion - Like a Fine Wine...

A brand new Wingmaster will set you back about $600, which is not very expensive considering that you'll be able to hand it down to your grandkids. A "pre-owned" 870 Wingmaster will likely provide the same performance for less money, sometimes considerably less. Someone looking for a great shotgun would be well-served with either. Don't take my word for it, though:

Friday, August 05, 2011

Miscellany: McCarthy's Wildlife Sanctuary review

I've lived in South Florida for years, but had never heard of McCarthy's Wildlife Sanctuary until I looked it up on Trip Advisor. In some ways, it's understandable - McCarthy's is a small, nonprofit wildlife shelter nestled in the Acreage, Florida, and it doesn't have the advertising budget of a place like Lion Country Safari. With beautiful animals like this, though, you wonder why McCarthy's doesn't get more press:

The director, Mark McCarthy, has been raising animals for decades, and he has brought a huge assortment of them to McCarthy's. Many are former exotic pets abandoned by their owners, or transfers from other facilities, like these two tiger cubs:

Our visit went off without a hitch. After we arrived at the gate, two friendly guides escorted us through the refuge (visitors are accompanied at all times). The guides took their time in describing each of the shelter's residents, and didn't balk at answering our questions.

While the shelter houses many animals, including reptiles, birds, and primates, the stars of the show are the big cats. Guests are separated from the cages by roped partitions, but the guides get right up the fences to coax the tigers closer, so that you get a good look at them. It's not something you see every day:

Thursday, August 04, 2011

Politics: Hostage-taking

For being a gun control advocate, Chuck sure uses guns a lot:

Wednesday, August 03, 2011

Books: Who Was That Masked Man, Anyway?

One of my favorite parts of childhood was the Scholastic Book Fair. Long before I could simply buy any book I wanted to read, the school book fair represented a wonderful way to wheedle a fiver out of my folks, over and above my usual book allowance. Once at the fair, I could buy any book that caught my fancy. "Who Was That Masked Man, Anyway?," by famed children's author Avi, was one such book.

Its story is set in the 1940s, and follows a boy named Frankie. Frankie's overactive imagination is constantly getting him into trouble at school and at home. He's obsessed with listening to radio adventures, and believes (or would like to believe) that the whole world is secretly infested with superspies, cavemen, wistful widows, and dashing heroes. When Frankie's brother Tom comes back wounded from WWII, reality meets fantasy in a jarring way.

"Who Was That Masked Man, Anyway?" got my attention because the entire story is told via dialogue between the characters - there's no narrative, no description, not even a sound effect, save for occasional excerpts of classic old time radio shows like "The Lone Ranger" and "The Shadow." That Avi could write an entire novel like this is pretty impressive - guess he didn't win those Newberry awards for nothing.

Without the patina of youth, though, I have to admit that it's a gimmicky book, more like an experiment than an experience. The characters and plot are paper thin, and the book's insistence on only using dialogue can make it pretty hard to read. Still, every time I read it, I'm taken back to a place where the good guys always win, and the bad guys always come back for more...