Saturday, September 24, 2011

Miscellany: Leatherman Micra review

I'm late to the "Take a picture of the knife you're carrying in your pocket right now" meme (started by Og), but here's my entry:

It's a Leatherman Micra, my favorite keychain multitool. I could've thrown up any of the pocketknives in my EDC rotation (the Kershaw Skyline and the Spyderco P'Kal are carried the most), but, in truth, the Micra is the one knife that never leaves my side.

It has a small blade, an excellent pair of scissors, and extremely useful screwdrivers (the Phillips is perfect for taking apart computer cases, and the small flathead can repair eyeglass screws). You'd be hard-pressed to cut a steak or baton wood with it, but the Micra is small and light and never far away - good characteristics in an uncertain world.

Food: Desta Ethiopian Kitchen

One of the best things about living in America is the ready access to different cultures. Atlanta has a large Ethiopian immigrant community, for instance, and I got to sample their cuisine at Desta Ethiopian Kitchen, a restaurant on Briarcliff Road.

Ethiopian food has a number of similarities with other culinary traditions (the heavy use of spices reminded us of Indian food). The staple bread is injera, a flatbread made from fermented flour (think sourdough). Injera has the consistency of spongecake, and it's pretty tasty:

After an appetizer of fitfit (cold, broken-up pieces of injera mixed with spices and vegetables) and some Ethiopian honey wine (a little sweet for my taste), it was time for the main course. We ordered some tibs (sort of like an Ethiopian stir-fry stew), grabbed pieces of injera, and went to town:

I can't say it was love at first bite, but as I got used to the spices, I really started to dig the food. Again, the closest thing that comes to mind is Indian food, but it's not a great comparison - the spices being used at Desta were completely different. Since this was my first time eating Ethiopian cuisine, I have no way of rating how authentic the food was, so let's just give Desta Ethiopian Kitchen

2/4 stars (3/4 stars if you've never eaten Ethiopian food)

Friday, September 23, 2011

Guns: 3D Printable AR Magazine

crank posted a neat DIY project - a 5-round AR-15 magazine that you can craft at home with a 3D printer:

AR mags are well and good, but I doubt you're going to use your fancy 3D printer to crank out something you can buy at Gander Mountain. No, where I think this kind of tech will find real popularity is the creation of magazines and parts for obscure, antique firearms - a mag for the Polish Army's self-loading 1938M carbine might be difficult to find in Ye Olde Gun Store, but it only takes one guy to upload the printing plans on the Web...

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Miscellany: Guillotine

Wizards of the Coast is best known for "Magic: The Gathering," a card game that requires enourmous amounts of strategy and planning (to the point where you have to metagame which decks will be at a given tournament). If you're in the mood for something more casual, Wizards also makes games like "Guillotine," a lighthearted take on the days of the French Revolution.

The object of the game is to "collect" the heads of the biggest enemies of the Revolution - nobles, clergy, and the military - in order to win the favor of the bloodthirsty crowd. There's a queue of cards, and each card represents a victim for the guillotine. You can play action cards that modify the order of the line, allow you to behead more than one person (the coveted "Double Feature"), and so on.

Gameplay is simple and chaotic. Since the other players' action cards can modify the execution queue, it becomes impossible to plan very far ahead, limiting the "brain burn" that can occurs with deeper strategy games. Don't worry about the grisly subject matter, either - the cards are cartoony and appropriate for children (if they have a macabre sense of humor). Overall, "Guillotine" is a fun, breezy card game that gets the Shangrila Towers stamp of approval.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Guns: Sccy CPX-2 review


When it comes to firearms, you usually get what you pay for. If all you can afford is a $100 handgun, so be it. It's (usually) better than nothing...just don't expect reliability, accuracy, or comfort.

Thankfully, most people can drop a little more dough on their pistol, though they still might be unable to pony up the $500+ for GLOCK or M&P. Kel-Tec, a firearms manufacturer based in Cocoa, Florida, has made a healthy business selling to budget-minded consumers; most of its pistols, like the popular P3AT and PF9, have street prices under $300. So does the subject of today's review, the Sccy Industries CPX-2:

DISCLAIMER: Unlike the other guns reviewed here at Shangrila Towers, I didn't buy the CPX-2 with my own money. Bob, the proprietor of my Friendly Local Gun Shop, allowed me to borrow the gun (which he purchased off the shelf) in order to test it. Despite the freebie, I vowed to do an objective review of the gun's performance. So, without further ado...


The CPX-2 comes in a striking red cardboard box. It almost looks like something you'd find in a gaming store:

Inside, the pistol is protected with nicely-cut foam, and comes with two magazines (incredible for a pistol at this price point), extra flat baseplates for the magazines, a trigger lock, and a manual. The CPX-2 is one of the only guns I've ever seen that comes with the trigger lock already in place - likely becase the box is too small to have the lock floating around as a separate piece:

The darn thing is small - about the same height, length, and weight as a 5-shot .38 Special snubnose revolver. It's a bit thicker overall, but slimmer than the revolver's cylinder:

The muzzle is very Kel-Tec-ish. Think of the CPX-2 as the Mirror Universe version of the Kel-Tec P11:


The CPX-2 ditches the awkward manual safety from its predecessor, the CPX-1. Most people never used the safety in the first place, and I've read anecdotal evidence that it could inadvertently engage during firing, causing a malfunction. The gun is also equipped with a slide lock/release, which worked fine during testing.

Bob pointed out that the CPX-2's magazine release extended a little too far out of the frame, and we agreed that the magazine release spring was a little too weak compared to most pistols. Now, to be fair, I didn't experience any instances of the CPX-2's mag falling out, but I could see people having that problem, especially if the gun was exposed to the jostles and jolts of daily concealed carry:

The CPX-2's true double-action only trigger pull is quite heavy and "crunchy" - very similar to the awful trigger found in the Kel-Tec P-11. The actual pull isn't as long as the P-11's, but there's more staging and creepiness through the pull. The hammer is not precocked or preloaded by the slide in any way - each pull of the trigger cocks and fires the CPX-2 ("second strike capability," as it's known in gun ads).


Recoil from the CPX-2 is pretty jarring, like with most pistols this size. The relatively wide double-stack grip ensures the gun won't jump out of your hand like a flyweight .380, but it's still not a pleasant experience. The slide movement was so violent that, after about a hundred rounds, I noticed the frame pins were walking out. Over the next two hundred rounds, I had to push them in with the end of the magazine to keep shooting the gun - not exactly something that gives you confidence in a gun:

Despite all this, the CPX-2 was actually fairly accurate - if I concentrated, I could empty entire magazines into index card-sized groups at 7 yards. Not the equal of a standard service pistol (my M&P9C can throw out a 1" group at that distance), but decent considering the price.

Now the bad news: out of three hundred rounds of factory ammo (Winchester, Federal, and Remington 115 grainers) I experienced at least six light firing pin strikes. Granted, all but one of the rounds could be fired with a second strike from the hammer, but this is plainly unacceptable in a defensive pistol. Aside from the light strikes, I counted one failure to feed and one failure to extract in the three hundred rounds set.

After the course of fire, Bob examined the gun and noted excessive wear in the guide rod - not what you want to see after only 6 or so boxes of 9mm. Aside from the guide rod, the rest of the pistol seemed to be in good shape.


I really wanted to like the Sccy CPX-2. It fits well in hand, comes with two magazines, and even looks pretty handsome considering the roughly $250 street price (for those keeping score, that's basically half what a new GLOCK 26 or S&W M&P9c costs). Though I did have the one FTF and the one FTE, the basic design looks sound enough, given enough tweaking to the hammer and firing pin to eliminate the ignition problems.

At the same time, however, I have to review guns as they are, not as I'd wish them to be. Frankly, I would never carry the CPX-2 for self-defense; the light firing pin strikes and other stoppages I experienced are unacceptable in something you're betting your life on. Last I heard, Bob's sending this gun back to the factory - hopefully everything will get sorted out. I'll post an update if we have any luck.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Music: Ecstasy of Gold

Phil at Random Nuclear Strikes posed the following hypothetical some time ago:

You’re about to get eaten by the zombie hordes. You’ve prepared, but there are more than you every possibly imagined. Sorry.

As you load your last mag into your chosen weapon, what song comes up your MP3 player/IPOD?

I'm a cowboy at heart, so here's my selection for the last stand:

If there's anyone who could make getting digested by the undead bearable, it'd be Ennio Morricone.

Tech: Catherine review

Before fancy 3D graphics hit the scene, puzzle-platforming titles like Q*Bert and Lode Runner hooked gamers with a blend of action and problem-solving. In these types of games, you guided a character with certain limited abilities (jumping, digging, etc.) through a level filled with traps and enemies; success depended on your ability to think on your feet and manipulate the world around you.

As technology improved, puzzle-platformers fell out of vogue (apparently it's more satisfying to gun down an alien than it is to navigate block-filled mazes). Every so often, though, somebody is brave enough to release one:

"Catherine" (available for both the PS3 and Xbox 360) jazzes up the standard puzzle-platformer formula with next-generation graphics and adult humor. The game tells the story of Vincent, an underachiever who cheats on his longterm girlfriend with a sexy, mysterious blonde. His infidelity has dire consequences: Vincent soon finds himself trapped in a series of nightmares, and the only way to escape is to climb a wall of blocks to an exit.

These climbing sections are the heart of "Catherine," and they get more and more challenging as the game wears on. You'll encounter trapped blocks, immovable blocks, and seemingly unclimbable sections. And just when you think you've got the hang of things, the game throws you another curveball - like a giant mutant baby trying to skoosh you like a bug:

"Catherine" breaks up the climbing puzzles with adventure/dating sim interludes. I normally don't like these sections in Atlus games, but the relationship humor was really translated well here (apparently fear of commitment is a universal phenomenon). After awhile, these cutsenes become nice rewards for finishing a tough puzzle, giving the game the "one-more-try" appeal shared by all good puzzle-platformers.

And you will be "trying" levels over and over again thanks to the game's difficulty, which can be maddening. You're always under severe time pressure, and it's quite easy to screw up a puzzle so badly that it's impossible to finish a stage. Thankfully, the block layout and hazards are the same each time you play, so with enough trial and error, you should be able to navigate your way through the game. And really, couldn't you say the same about love?

Rating: 84/100

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Ten Years Gone...

My neighbors in Delray came from countries far away
and lived here freely among us
They studied all the ways of the good ol' USA
thinking of ways to destroy us
And my neighbors in Delray got on their knees and prayed
for the strength to leave life behind them
So my neighbors in Delray wouldn't be around to pay
the price for all of their victims

"Love thy neighbor," the Bible says
"God is great," the prophets say
Wouldn't you love to know what God will say
to my neighbors in Delray.

Of course we've never forgotten. More importantly, we've never forgiven.

Dragon*Con 2011 - Final Thoughts

Leaving Dragon*Con is always a little sad. For most people, the four days at the con are the end of weeks of anticipation, planning, and costume-making. During the convention, you're surrounded by like-minded, like-dressed people, you're doing things you couldn't do anywhere else, and you're making memories with your friends that last a lifetime. I guess my feelings are summed up by Allie Goertz's "Tonight," the most melancholy song about Dungeons & Dragons ever made:

Anyway, since the actual Dragon*Con posts are so big, here are direct links to them in case you missed one:

Anatomy of the Con
Activities and Attractions
Our Costumes
Random Cosplay Highlights
Gaming at the Con

That's it for Dragon*Con 2011. Regular posting at Shangrila Towers now resumes...

Dragon*Con 2011 - Gaming at the Con

This year was the 25th anniversary of Dragon*Con, a multigenre, multimedia convention celebrating science-fiction, fantasy, horror, comics, and gaming. I attended the convention for the first time recently, and thought it'd be fun to share some of what I saw...

It might be hard to believe given the anarchic, all-encompassing nature of Dragon*Con today, but the convention was actually started by a relatively small group of fantasy and sci-fi gamers. Despite the huge number of movie, TV, and comic book fans that now occupy the con, gaming still lives at D*C, if you look hard enough. Lurking in the cavernous basement of the Hilton, underneath the maddening crowds, there is a core group of gamers who play on:

Okay, I'm exaggerating a little bit. During the periods of peak traffic on Saturday and Sunday, the gaming hall is easily one of the busiest places at Dragon*Con:

You'll see countless people playing a variety of European-style board games, collectible card games (like "Magic: The Gathering"), and wargaming miniature battles (the BattleTech/MechWarrior tables are invariably impressive, what with their miniature burned-out cities and big 'mech models). There were even "MechCorps" head-to-head BattleTech simulators:

Sadly, if you wanted to play an actual Dungeons & Dragons-ish pen-and-paper RPG, one of the only ways to do so at D*C was through the Cheese Grinder, a tournament pitting power-gamed 11th level Pathfinder characters against superdeadly monsters, traps, and puzzles:


We tried out quite a few boardgames during D*C. First up was "Innsmouth Escape," a game set in the universe of H.P. Lovecraft's classic novella, "The Shadow Over Innsmouth." One player is a human survivor, while the other players are Deep Ones (hideous anthropomorphic fish monsters) trying to kill him or her.

A guy named John randomly happened by the table to explain the rules of "Innsmouth Escape." John was a complete stranger, but was able to concisely explain the rules of an obscure boardgame to us. Only at Dragon*Con could this happen:

The game itself contains a board, various cards, and 100 Deep One figurines (25 figures per Deep One player). Like most Twilight Creations games, the production values weren't super-high (most of the game cards had identical, bland artwork, and the board was just plain ugly); since we got the game on clearance at a dealer's booth for $10, though, there wasn't much cause to complain.

"Innsmouth Escape" plays like a faster, more streamlined version of "Fury of Dracula." The human player's moves are planned in secret, though he or she is generally advised to rescue as many people and collect as much equipment as quickly as possible. That's because the Deep Ones get to spawn new monsters every turn, and can conduct rituals to become more powerful as the game wears on - if the human player dilly dallies, his or her death will be a foregone conclusion.

We liked "Innsmouth Escape," and felt it captured the feel of the source material nicely. The gameplay balance was a bit screwy, though; with only one or two Deep One players, it's too easy for the human to win, while three or more make the game too hard. Since the game board is the same each time you play, I could see the game getting stale after awhile.


We attempted to play another Twilight Creations-published game called "Bump in the Night." In the game, each player has a team of monsters that attempts to frighten children out of a haunted house. It's an interesting concept, but the rules were obtuse, and there was no John to help us, so we packed it away for another day.


The next boardgame on the agenda was something we borrowed from the massive Dragon*Con game center, where you can find almost any boardgame imaginable:

"Munchkin Quest" is the boardgame version of "Munchkin," the uber-popular card game. Like "Munchkin," MQ takes all the tropes of D&D-style adventuring and makes fun of them - you'll run into odd monsters like pterodactyls and goldfish, and you'll fight them with ridiculous items (eat Chainsaw of Bloody Dismemberment, you scoundrel!).

Unlike "Munchkin," MQ's rules are torturously complex, and the game just isn't very fun to play. The additional MQ elements - discoverable rooms, variable looting, wandering monsters, locked doors - don't do much except dilute the all-out PvP brinkmanship the original "Munchkin" thrived on. We ended our game of MQ early and moved on.


The best boardgame of the lot was "Mansions of Madness":

MoM uses many of the same mechanics as "Arkham Horror" and "Call of Cthulhu," but takes a more micro approach. In the game, players conduct detailed explorations of haunted houses, crypts, burial grounds, and other creepy Lovecraftian locations. Along the way, they'll try not to get killed or driven insane by the eldritch horrors that confront them.

It's a Fantasy Flight game, so it's expensive, but they certainly don't skimp on the materials:

Inside the hefty game box, you'll find room tiles that make up the gameboard, figurines for monsters and investigators, and cards for representing spells, items, and characters:

The actual moment-to-moment gameplay in MoM is pretty straightforward. One player is the Keeper, who oppposes the Investigators. On their turn, the Investigators explore rooms, look for clues, and fight monsters and hazards sent by the Keeper. On the Keeper's turn, the monsters attack and Generally Bad Stuff occurs.

Depending on which of the five included scenarios you play, you'll encounter certain enemies, items, rooms, and puzzles. Moreover, after certain objectives are completed by the Investigators, special scenario-specific events are triggered that both progress the story and cause something to happen on the gameboard: monsters and items can spawn, doors can appear, rooms can catch fire, etc. Most of these special events tie in well with the theme of the scenario ("The Fall of House Lynch" has a finale that would make "Left 4 Dead" proud).

We really liked the scenario-driven aspects of the game, though we felt combat was a little too random (you draw from a deck of cards with various outcomes instead of rolling a straight attack). The potential for expansion is obvious, as is the possibility of creating your own MoM scenarios. The game does take awhile to set up and play, but if you have the time, you're in for a great ride through the Mythos.


The highlight of D*C gaming (and perhaps our D*C experience in general) was Ziggyzeitgeist's Dungeons & Dragons adventure. It's the first true con game I've ever played, in the sense that multiple strangers dropped in and out of the game. The plot was a mix of fantasy, Lovecraftian horror (particularly "The Colour Out of Space"), and a wild, weird West based partly on "There Will Be Blood."

Strangely enough, we were the only people I know of who were playing any type of pick-up D&D game at the con (the Pathfinder tourney doesn't count, since it's not something a beginner would have fun entering). I guess it's safe to declare Ziggyzeitgeist's one-shot to be Dragon*Con 2011's Official Roleplaying Adventure.

Aside from our core D*C group of Eric, Sophie, Tessa, Spookysquid, and Ziggyzeitgeist, we had several new players stop by at the con. There was Trent, a disabled military vet who was somewhat familiar with roleplaying; Gabe, a nice kid who had played Star Wars d20; StonerKid, a young man who really got into his minotaur-with-a-shotgun character; KaraokeGuy; Quiet MMORPG Dude; and CuriousOnlookerKid. None of them had ever played 4th Edition, and most had never played any version of D&D.

It's said that every time we introduce someone to pen-and-paper RPGs, an angel gets its wings:

Sophie, Ziggyzeitgeist, and StonerKid:

There's nothing like playing D&D with friends in the basement of a giant sci-fi/fantasy convention. That's right, we're part of a literal subculture:

That's it for now. I think I'll do one last wrapup post, and then no more Dragon*Con, at least until next year...

Friday, September 09, 2011

Dragon*Con 2011 - Random Cosplay Highlights

This year was the 25th anniversary of Dragon*Con, a multigenre, multimedia convention celebrating science-fiction, fantasy, horror, comics, and gaming. I attended the convention for the first time recently, and thought it'd be fun to share some of what I saw...

People dressed as comic book characters are a staple of D*C, like in most other cons. Here's an impromptu shot of a Green Lantern and a Captain America:

If you're a black man, there isn't a wide variety of comic book characters to cosplay as (ditto for other minorities). Your three main choices? Blade, Luke Cage, and (Ultimate) Nick Fury.

Fans of a particular comic character or franchise often organize photo shoots in and around the con. Here's a Deadpool photo shoot, for instance:

Eric dressed as Stephen Bissette's The Fury. Here he is paired with two more familiar costumed vigilantes:

Sometimes our costumes didn't mesh well with the people we were photographing. C'est la vie.

A really good Kraven.

Even the hotel staff got in on the fun. Everyone can cosplay - it's all about the right attitude:

D*C costuming, at least during the daytime, is truly a family-friendly activity. I saw a lot of little kids dressed in Hogwarts uniforms and Jedi robes. Here's a Batman throwing up the horns:

The best way to personalize an otherwise generically famous character, like Mario, is to put your own spin on it. Here are three guys portraying "Mario Kart." I didn't see it for myself, but I can easily picture them in some faux races, with plush Koopa shells tossed at each other.

Despite the popularity of AMC's "The Walking Dead" and Dragon*Con's Atlanta location, we didn't see too many Rick Grimes at the con. Here's one of them, with me dressed as hospital patient Rick Grimes:

Droids and robots of all sorts and descriptions were present. The two big ones? R2-D2 from "Star Wars" and K9 from "Doctor Who."

Sophie cosplayed as Toph from "Avatar: The Last Airbender":

Even today, men still tell tales of the day spatula met shiv:

An assassin's blade is no match for the spatula.

"Star Wars" costumes were easily the most common at D*C, but I didn't see too many people dressed as TIE pilots:

Some say he never sleeps, because he's worried about his eyelids being unable to open again. Some say he laughs like a baby and cries like a man. All we know is, they call him...The Guy Dressed as the Stig:

Plenty of people use D*C as a honeymoon or proposal site (one guy proposed in public during the "Icons of Horror" panel, of all things). This couple's coordinated Portal costume is cute as a button:

Funny sense of humor, too. You just knew the Weighted Companion Cube would be a homewrecker:

There are pros and cons to wearing a big cartoon character costume. On the one hand, you're guaranteed attention, and the actual construction of the costume might be easier than sewing a form-fitting suit together. On the other hand, you'll be bumping into stuff six ways from Sunday.

This was one of the best Dr. Dooms we saw at the con.

D*C elevators are invariably packed to the brim with cosplayers. Here's a Dr. Horrible, a Doctor (11th incarnation), and a Kaylee.

Here are some more random costumes:

That's it for now. Come back for the big finale, where I recap our epic gaming sessions as the con!