Sunday, January 29, 2012

Books: The Deed of Paksenarrion - Sheepfarmer's Daughter review

One of the oldest tropes in fantasy is the farmer who leaves the pastoral life to become a great hero. Whether it's Samwise Gamgee, Kal-El, Rand Al'Thor, or Luke Skywalker, there's nothing quite like an inexperienced (but earnest) protagonist to get viewer sympathy (and to justify reams of expository dialogue from other characters). "The Deed of Paksenarrion," a series of epic fantasy novels by Elizabeth Moon, not only embraces the cliché, but brings it to life with pathos and depth.

In the first part of the story, "Sheepfarmer's Daughter," we follow Paksenarrion Dorthensdaughter as she runs away from home to join a mercenary company. Completely guileless but honest and courageous, Paks goes through a number of trials and tribulations even before she reaches her first battle. Without giving too much away, Paks' transformation into a legendary hero involves cruel enemies, loyal friends, and a mysterious discovery.

Author Elizabeth Moon served in the U.S. Marine Corps as an officer in the 1960s, so some of Paks' training is obviously cribbed from USMC Basic and OCS school (one incident early on in the book is uncomfortably close to real-life military sex scandals). Aside from Paks, who has plot protection, no one is safe from death in battle, which gives the proceedings a constant sense of danger and makes for some gut-wrenching scenes. Moon has said that Paks was an attempt to portray a D&D paladin realistically:

Elizabeth Moon, not gaming herself, heard some people playing "Paladins" (Holy warriors in the service of a god) and doing so very poorly. Her reaction was of course that "such a person wouldn't ''act'' like that"... and in thinking about what they ''would'' act like, Paksenarrion was born.

The book is available free from Baen's online library, though I recommend the Audible audiobook version narrated by Jennifer Van Dyck for the full experience. It's expensive, but for a traditional heroic epic like "The Deed of Paksenarrion, it's a bit more fun to listen to a storyteller than it is to read it.

Saturday, January 28, 2012

Miscellany: Mulliga's Urban Survival Kit, Part 6

While my blog is mainly about escaping the mundane through art and adventure, this series of posts addresses "escape" in a more literal sense. Here, I present my ideas on a lightweight, inexpensive collection of items for surviving an urban or suburban disaster. Part 1 introduced the concept and went into my choice for the survival kit's container. Part 2 discussed some options for your first aid kit. Part 3 examined water and food. We also looked at some books on survival. Part 4 featured some clothing accessories for your kit. Part 5 tackled various tools for signaling, communications, and navigation. Part 6, the finale, deals with tools for the kit and has some final thoughts...

Not every urban survival kit should have tools. For one thing, they're big and heavy, taking up precious space that could be used for more water, food, or medical supplies. Most tools could also be considered "weapons" - I wouldn't risk taking a standard-sized screwdriver into a courthouse or onto an airplane, for instance. If these considerations don't apply to your kit, though, here are a few things that I'd pack:


Any good-quality multitool is a fabulous thing to have in your kit. You never know when having a screwdriver, can opener, or pair of pliers will come in handy in a disaster, but for about 5-10 ounces worth of weight, you'll never have to worry about being unprepared for those situations. These tools also give you an extra knife blade (assuming you carry a knife already, that is).

Don't buy the crappy bargain bin MTs on sale at Wally World. Spend the money on a good Leatherman Wave or Victorinox SwissTool-type multitool - you'll be glad you did once you actually have to use the thing.


These items are for instances when you need leverage or cutting ability, but you don't want to risk damaging your other tools or knives. A 7" Stanley Wonderbar II isn't going to allow you to break down doors or anything, but you might be able to pry open your boss's locked desk drawer to get his spare car keys, or open up the casing of a random bit of machinery to get at its internals. For a stationary survival kit, a full-sized crowbar, Halligan bar, or such provides you with a great way to force entry in urban environments - they also make decent weapons.

Specialized Hand Tools and Construction Supplies

These are tools that have specific applications. For instance, I like to carry spare automotive tools in my truck's kit - so that I can remove and replace car batteries, change fluids, replace tires, and the like without having to find a 5/8" socket in the middle of a disaster zone. If you marry your kit with a firearm of some sort, it also makes sense to keep some basic pin punches and spare parts with that firearm in case you need them. A kit for a large group of people should include construction tools like hammers, nails, and other raw materials.

Final Thoughts:

Back when people lived and worked in the country, most of this stuff would always be at hand (especially medical supplies, navigation equipment, and tools). In our urbanized, iPhone-equipped modern world, they may not be so common. I realize the tone of the M.U.S.K. series has been pretty dire (after all, the only time you'd need such things is when something goes horribly wrong), so I'll leave you with a peppy number from my favorite pop band, Ivy:

Summer days are long and lonely.
Cars are moving slowly.
The streets are filled with air so still.
I'm trying to get out of the city.
Trying to get out of the city.
Everybody's angry.
It's hard not to be lazy.
It's a bad time to have work to do.
I'm trying to get out of the city,
Trying to get out of the city.

Guns: East Orange Shooting Sports review

Despite being Florida's biggest tourism hub, it can be difficult finding a place to shoot in Orlando. The city proper doesn't have many outdoor rifle and shotgun ranges, and the indoor ranges can sometimes be (as my sister puts it) "sketch." Out-of-towners looking for a good, safe shooting experience will probably want to try out East Orange Shooting Sports:

EOSS is a solid, friendly, well-run range and gun store that can get fairly crowded on the weekends. You can shoot pistols, rifles, and shotguns there, though it's obviously not much of a challenge to shoot a rifle or shotgun at 10 yards. The default pistol range fee is about $9, which gives you access to the range for the entire day - no pesky hourly rate. There's a separate area of the range for rifles and shotguns.

EOSS has a particularly great system for gun rentals - for about $9, you can rent as many handguns as you like, taking them out one at a time (you can only shoot EOSS-purchased ammo through the rentals, which is pretty standard). For a beginner, this is an awesome way to go, since you can compare a number of different handgun types (Beretta 92, GLOCK, Sig, etc.) without paying a separate rental fee for each one.

As one of the best indoor ranges in Orlando, you'll see plenty of tourists. I saw a number of folks from the UK and other parts of Europe, and they had a ball trying out all the guns. Also unique to EOSS is the ten-trip range card - for $75, you get ten trips to the range, and the card never expires; for most people that's probably cheaper than the average indoor range's yearly membership.

The range is a bit on the small side, but the service, selection, and convenience of EOSS makes it worth a visit if you're jonesing to sling some lead in Winter Park.

Links: Coverville

The cover song is one of the most interesting features of music. After all, remakes are rarely good in other media (can you imagine someone trying to copy Bill Murray's performance in "Caddyshack"?), but it's possible for a great song to spawn numerous great cover versions. Sometimes, the cover can eclipse the original in popularity, like Michael Andrews and Gary Jules' version of "Mad World."

Coverville is a music podcast hosted by Brian Ibbot that focuses on the cover. Many episodes are "Cover Stories" - a collection of covers by and of a selected artist. The recent "Duran Duran" cover story, for instance, collected both covers done by Duran Duran (a fun version of The Doors' "The Crystal Ship") and covers of Duran Duran songs, like Saybia's take on "Ordinary World":

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Books: All You Need Is Kill

"All You Need Is Kill," written by Hiroshi Sakurazaka, is one of those military sci-fi books that can be boiled down into a one-phrase pitch: "Starship Troopers" meets "Groundhog Day."

In the novel,  protagonist Keiji keeps reliving the same day over and over again. That would be bad enough by itself; unfortunately, at the end of every day, Keiji also gets brutally killed in a hopeless battle with an alien menace. After several unsuccessful attempts to exit the time loop, Keiji starts training hard in his armored suit, gaining new combat skills from each failed battle. But can he ever learn enough to escape his fate?

It's a fun concept, and Sakurazaka pulls it off brilliantly. It would have been tempting to let all the temporal weirdness and military hardware dominate the story, but there are some nice character moments as well, especially when Keiji meets veteran warrior Rita Vrataski (a.k.a. "The Full Metal Bitch"). "All You Need Is Kill" is a breezy, short read, perfect for a winter afternoon, and gets the Shangrila Towers thumbs-up.

Politics: Reservoir Dogs

Republicans - you know you're in trouble when Newt Gingrich is the "conservative" option. I guess everyone wants to move to the political middle nowadays...

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Tech: Magpul iPhone 4 Executive Field Case review

My new firm issues iPhones to every employee, and I've really grown fond of mine. There are a ton of apps for it (everything from Kindle to Angry Birds) and it's handy to have an mp3 player, camera, PDA, and phone in one device.

Unfortunately, the iPhone is made of relatively delicate materials, and it can't take the punishment that my ultra cheap, all-plastic cellphone can. That's why I've chosen to sheathe the thing in a flat dark earth condom - the Magpul Executive Field case:

It's a pretty clever design - a semirigid rubber slimline case made of the same stuff as the original Magpul loops. I like that they managed to cover the volume and power buttons without resorting to tabs or moving parts.

Of course, there's no protection for the iPhone screen, and the case isn't as beefy as, say, an Otterbox. Overall, though, the $10 Magpul case makes your iPhone feel like a PMAG - worth every penny in my book.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Guns: All sins are forgiven...

For awhile there, Colt's Manufacturing Company was pretty indifferent to the shooting public, especially if you didn't work for the government. Add in their ill-fated suit against Bushmaster, and I never found much reason to look for the Pony on my guns.

Come out with an incredible reproduction of an 1877 gatling gun in .45-70, though, and you've got my attention:

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Books: To Ride, Shoot Straight, and Speak the Truth

"To Ride, Shoot Straight, and Speak the Truth" is a collection of writings from Jeff Cooper, one of the most influential firearms instructors who ever lived:

Cooper was much more than a teacher of guns and ammo (he served in the U.S. Marine Corps in the Pacific and later earned a master's degree in history), and the book is similarly eclectic; within its pages, you'll find stories about the operation of an M1 Abrams, an escape from a WWII POW camp, and big game hunting in Africa. Some of these tales are starkly personal, like Cooper's account of a neighbor who committed suicide, while others are more lighthearted (basically anything involving hunting). When taken as a whole, they make for compelling reading.

Aside from the nonfiction narratives, the middle section of the book contains a lengthy meditation on firearms and gunhandling. It's obviously required reading for anyone interested in the subjects, even though you may not agree 100% with Col. Cooper's conclusions (e.g., the M16 has its share of faults, but being inaccurate and uncomfortable to shoot are not among them). There's a certain scholarly self-assurance to the writing here, something that also comes across in the Colonel's live teaching sessions:

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Links: Grantland

A little background - Grantland Rice was a sports writer who rose to fame in the 1930s. Mr. Rice recognized that athletic competition was a rich metaphor for much larger things. To that end, he turned what used to be matter-of-fact descriptions of sporting events into elegant commentary, like this poem, "Game Called":

Rice was so influential that ESPN writer Bill Simmons named his sports and pop culture writing website "Grantland" as a tribute. The writing at Grantland is pretty good (though some people go heavy on the David Foster Wallace-style sidenotes), and the clean site design is a refreshing break from the busy, social-media-ized main ESPN website. If you're the type of person who's interested in more than the surface-level X's and O's, Grantland's worth a look.

Food: Habatat Coffee Company review

West Palm Beach's best coffee shop is easily Habatat Coffee Company. It's located on Clematis near the Paul G. Rogers Federal Building and Courthouse:

The place is located inside an art gallery, so while you're sipping your cappuccino, you can look at a panoply of fascinating sculptures:

Of course, beautiful artwork wouldn't make up for bad coffee. Thankfully, proprietor Sean Scott and his family serve up some truly excellent stuff (Counter Culture Coffee from Durham, NC - it's fancy), and their barista skills are way better than the hapless wage slave at your local Green Siren. Ordering a latte triggers an elaborate process - they grind the beans on the spot, brew the espresso right there, and steam the milk from scratch (no pre-heated milk that's been sitting for half an hour - yuck).

Sitting in Habatat, listening to indie pop, reading an issue of Wired, while Ed McGivern's "Fast and Fancy Revolver Shooting" downloads to my computer via Habatat's complimentary wifi - I really can't think of anywhere else I'd rather be.

3/4 stars

Sunday, January 08, 2012

Guns: Ruger 22/45 Target MkIII rimfire pistol review - The Budget .22 Trainer

Ruger's been cranking out a lot of interesting rimfire handguns recently. The LCR-22 and the SR22, for instance, are attempts to scale down traditional .22 LR handgun platforms to something that's more friendly for new shooters, and both seem to be getting good initial press. Both are also a bit expensive compared to the subject of today's review, the Ruger 22/45 Target:

The 22/45 is one of Ruger's least expensive .22 LR handguns, thanks to its Zytel frame and simple construction. I grabbed a lightly used example from RRPSI Firearms for about two C-notes, and put it through its paces.


The 22/45's moniker comes from its grip design, which is supposed to ape the grip of a .45-caliber M1911-pattern pistol. I don't have a 1911 handy to compare (*hangs head in shame*), but it does look and feel similar. The trigger mechanism and recoil cycle of the gun are very different, of course.

The gun features all the usual controls in all the usual places - slide release, manual safety, and magazine release - and comes with two magazines. Out of the box, the 22/45 sports decent fully-adjustable target sights that can be switched out for the included scope rail. SHANGRILA TOWERS PROTIP: Use blue Loctite on the threads of the screws for either the sight or the rail - they can work loose while shooting.

Other than the grip alteration, the 22/45 is basically a standard Ruger Mark III - with all its features, good and bad. As I've said before, I think the Mark III's loaded chamber indicator and magazine safety are completely unncessary (and possibly dangerous, considering that most handguns don't have mag safeties), but they don't affect the gun's functioning at all.

Field-stripping the 22/45 isn't quite as simple as, say, a CZ Kadet. If you just blindly wander into it, it's possible to bugger things up pretty bad, so read the instructions that Ruger provides carefully, and watch a few videos on YouTube:


Accuracy for the 22/45 is about on par with other Rugers that I've tried, and about as good as I get with most inexpensive fullsize .22 pistols. In my hands, the gun turned in about 3" 20-shot groups at 15 yards with a wide variety of ammunition - Remington target, Federal bulk, CCI Mini-Mags, Winchester bulk, etc.

Obviously, a bench rest, good .22 target ammo, and a good handgun scope would shrink those groups, but that's about as well as I can do unsupported with open sights on a handgun these days.

The handgun went through well over 700 rounds of mixed .22 LR without cleaning, and never malfunctioned.

The next time people say that shooting's too expensive, point them toward full-size .22s like the 22/45. For about the price of a new video game console, you can learn the fundamentals of handgun shooting with a name-brand, reliable pistol that'll outshoot 95% of us.

Tech: Saints Row:The Third review

Is it possible for a game to be so offensive that it's actually not so offensive any more? Like a comedian who purposely delivers raunchier and raunchier jokes but ceases to shock, "Saints Row: The Third" is so consciously over-the-top that you know the developers don't really mean it:

It's the third in the "Saints Row" video game series, and the titular gang, the Third Street Saints, are now a semi-legit pop culture phenomenon; there's "Saints"-themed clothing, garish "Planet Saints" clothing stores, and even a "Saints Flow" energy drink line. You play as the leader of the Saints, and clash against a shadowy crime organization called "The Syndicate" in the new city of Steelport.

It's the same "Grand Theft Auto" open world gameplay we all know and love, but polished to a mirror sheen. Basically everything you do in "Saints Row 3" involves ridiculous amounts of violence or sex, and commonly both: you'll beat zombies to death with a giant purple dildo, shoot people in the nuts in a hyper-violent "Smash TV"-style game show, and run over abusive pimps in an armored-personnel carrier.

It's difficult playing things for laughs when real life is getting weirder and crazier by the day, but the game does a good job of serving up the unexpected. When it isn't busy trying to throw stuff on the wall, you'll actually be playing a fairly competent third-person shooter, with plenty of weapons, vehicles, and enemies. The low difficulty and realism level means it's not as intense as some of GTA4's shootouts and car chases, but it's still plenty of fun.

Best of all, the entire game is playable co-op. Add in the incredible character customization engine, a great soundtrack (Kanye West's "Power" plays at a pivotal moment in the game), and mostly bug-free technical execution, and you have one of the best games of 2011.

Rating: 94/100

Monday, January 02, 2012

Tech: Kindle Touch review

My Dad was an inveterate consumer of the written word, and he'd take me and my sister to bookstores and libraries when we were young. Most of the time, he let us read as long as we wanted - an intoxicating amount of freedom for a little kid.

As a small way of returning the favor, we got him a Kindle Touch for Christmas. The Touch is the latest of the Kindle e-readers, designed to give bookish adults the ability to read wherever they go. If you're the kind of person who reads bulky hardcovers, big trade paperbacks, or anything of the sort, the Kindle series allows you instant access to an essentially unlimited number of books without having to lug them all around.

This was a novel idea not too long ago, but nowadays, Amazon's e-books can be read on almost any platform you can think of (except for Linux, natch). As such, the Kindle series has become an afterthought for a lot of people; even the latest and greatest of the devices, the Kindle Fire, excited techheads more for its iPad-lite media capabilities than its ability to display the written word.

The Kindle Touch is a throwback to simpler times. Yes, it has a touch screen, but it's still a basic black-and-white e-ink display. Moreover, Amazon didn't do much more than graft the touch screen onto the existing Kindle user interface, so the menus on the Touch are pretty primitive - there aren't any neat touch icons or elaborate multitouch gestures like you get with other e-reader models.

That being said, the the Kindle Touch is a solid reader with some nice features, like mp3/audio book playback (through either built-in speakers or a headphone jack), plenty of memory, and a web browser that works fairly well, given the inherent processor limitations of the device:

I strongly recommend the ad-supported version of the Kindle. The ads only appear when the Kindle Touch is sleeping (in the form of a full screen ad) or on the Home menu (a small, unobtrusive banner at the bottom). Anytime that you're actually using the Kindle, you won't see ads, and they never interrupt you while you're searching or browsing. In return for the miniscule inconvenience of the ads, Amazon knocks the price of the Kindle Touch down from $140 to $100 - enough to buy a bunch of e-books.

In summary, the Kindle Touch is the Kindle to buy if you don't need multimedia features or a full keyboard. It's only a little bit more expensive than a regular Kindle, and gives you a workable touch screen and audio playback. My Dad used to take us to the bookstore, but now he can take the bookstore with him.

Sunday, January 01, 2012

Books: Successful Shotgun Shooting

Learning how to shoot a shotgun can be a daunting task. Even a garden-variety skeet or trap field will force people to hit relatively small targets that are flying through the air; if there isn't a competent instructor around, you can feel lost as clays fly up and down with nary a pellet touching them. Consequently, I believe most beginning shotgun shooters would save a lot of frustration by reading a basic primer on shotgunning, such as "Successful Shotgun Shooting" by Andrew Montague.

The book was first published in 1971, but the basics of shotgun shooting haven't changed much in 40 years. The author is an accomplished shooter and (more importantly) an experienced shooting instructor, and he illustrates the most basic principles (look with the gun, follow through with the gun after you pull the trigger, etc.) in an easy-to-follow manner. Montague also has a doctor's degree in anatomy, and there are some nifty illustrations in the book showing the skeleton's relation to proper cheek weld, proper stance, and proper gun fit.

Dr. Montague wisely saves the equipment-related stuff (types of shotguns, how to select a gun, and shooting accessories) for the end of the book. This technical trivia is useful for a first-time shotgun buyer, but it's probably beyond the ken of a beginner, who just wants to get out on the skeet and trap field and bust some clays. All the advice on selecting a shotgun is well-reasoned and just as applicable today as it was in 1971.

Like a lot of shotgun books, "Successful Shotgun Shooting" is focused on birdhunting. To that end, there's a great chapter on gun safety that covers safety in the field and not just on the range (worth a read for even experienced shotgunners), and a good explanation of the various clay games that can be played with a shotgun for hunting practice. There's not even a mention of using a shotgun for self-defense, so if you're looking for that kind of instruction, you might be better off starting elsewhere.

Shangrila Towers - Best of 2011

As the grogginess from last night wears off, I'm listing my picks for the best posts I wrote in 2011. In no particular order...

Guns: Building A Better Mousegun - S&W Bodyguard 380 review - It was a banner year for gun reviews here at the Towers, and I managed to get a fairly comprehensive look at the S&W Bodyguard 380. I don't own the gun any more (it's been replaced by the lighter, smaller, and just-as-reliable Ruger LCP), but it's still a decent option for those interested in a pocket .380.

Music: The Band Perry - As I suspected, the Band Perry was headed on to bigger and better things after playing the South Florida Fair back in February. They've since won a boatload of best new artist honors and toured with the likes of Tim McGraw. I may not ever get to meet them again, but I wish Kimberly, Reid, and Neil good luck nonetheless.

Miscellany: Jonathan Dickinson State Park - Tourism is the lifeblood of the Florida economy, but it's shocking how many folks come here just for Disney and Universal. There's a whole state out there, people! Even my non-outdoorsy family likes getting back to nature once in awhile, and Jonathan Dickinson is a good, nonthreatening place to do it.

Guns: Get Down With The Thickness - S&W M&P9C review - This year, I consciously tried to point out the flaws and foibles in well-established guns like the M&P9c. You'd never see the title of this post in a gun rag, I'd wager; it's just one of the perks of being an indie gunblogger. The M&P9c is still in my carry rotation, though it requires a fairly generous waistband to conceal IWB.

A Shangrila St. Patrick's Day, Part 1 - The Boondock Saints - I really liked my series of St. Patrick's Day posts this year. I mean, it's hard to go wrong with Irish folklore and Willem Dafoe, right?

Guns: Ultimate Carjacker Defense - Taurus Judge review - The obvious April Fool's Day Joke. Doesn't make it any less funny!

Miscellany: Successful Failure - The Scrubbing of STS-134 - My trip to Titusville to see the failed penultimate Space Shuttle launch might have been more memorable than actually seeing the darn thing go up. Or at least, that's what I tell myself. Of course, STS-134 eventually made it up and back safely.

TV: Breaking Bad - I got into "Breaking Bad" this year, and it's still one of the best shows in TV. The last season is coming up in the summer, so now's a good time to catch up if you've never seen it.

Guns: A Public Gathering in Georgia - My trip to Dragon*Con was one of the big highlights of my year, and I carried a Kahr CM9 most of the time. It was a touch ironic to wear a Rick Grimes costume and an airsoft Colt Python whilst carrying a real firearm - if I ever had to pull it, you'd bet it would make the Atlanta news. :-P

Music: Ecstasy of Gold - A pretty neat meme, and I still like my answer. Have a safe and happy New Year, everybody.