Sunday, February 26, 2012

Psst...pass it on...

Matthew Bracken's novel, "Enemies Foreign and Domestic," will be available for download via Amazon Kindle's free library on March 1...

Want to join a beat-up old ex-Navy SEAL, ocean sailor and book writer on a real-world covert cyber operation? I knew you did. So here’s the deal.

The idea is a national clandestine psyop, using my first novel as a vehicle. On next Thursday, March 1, Enemies Foreign And Domestic will be put into Amazon Kindle’s free library, for a period of up to five days.

Where EFAD’s free download promotion will be different from those of the thousands of fantasy/romance/vampire novels currently offered on Kindle, is that I’m simultaneously coordinating a mass plan to ensure that Operation EFAD goes hyper-viral on all constitutionally-oriented, freedom-loving, and Second Amendment websites and blogs at the same time.

Books: Facing Violence - Preparing for the Unexpected

Rory Miller's first book, "Meditations on Violence," was a sobering introduction to violent conflict. As a corrections officer, Miller spent years dealing with some of the worst characters humanity has to offer - thugs, predators, and sociopaths - and his writing effectively captured that unique perspective. Unfortunately, "Meditations on Violence" was more expository than instructional; the author illustrated how a real-world fight differs from what is taught in the dojo, but he didn't offer comprehensive advice on how to actually survive that fight.

"Facing Violence," on the other hand, is Rory Miller's guidebook for self-defense preparation. Think of it as a self-help book (Miller has a degree in experimental psychology) for people who want to lawfully defend themselves. It starts with the basics (legal and ethical, i.e. it's no good to win the fight if you go to jail afterwards) and goes all the way through to the aftermath.

Here's an excerpt from the "avoidance" section:
3.1: absence
Bad things happen in predictable places. If you avoid those places you can avoid a huge percentage of the violence that occurs in the world. What are those places?
Bars, parties, and other places where people get their minds altered. Drugs and alcohol change the way people think and act. They lower inhibition and they make people stupid. When some of your brain cells are pickled or fried, picking fights can seem like a good idea. You may forget that "no" is a complete sentence. And that's just alcohol...
The book is full of advice like that - practical techniques that don't require a fancy gun, years of training, or great strength and speed. Another thing Miller stresses is knowing your "glitches" (things that might make you hesitate during an assault):

One example that will be familiar to most martial artists: two students practicing at light or no contact and one accidentally hits the other in the face. Even with a light touch, both of their eyes go wide, both take a step back, hands go up and the apologies start to spew.
Does this make any sense at all? Two people studying martial arts (arts dedicated to Mars, the god of war) specifically in a class where one of the seeming goals is to learn to hit people... and there is an immediate, visceral and almost universal reaction to face contact.

Long story short: "Facing Violence" is required reading for anyone interested in self-defense or martial arts. It cost Rory Miller injuries, years of training, and hundreds of fights to learn the things in the book - so reading it for around $10 off of Amazon is a bargain.

Food: Specialty Tea Distributors

The 800 pound gorilla of the upscale tea market is Teavana, but their advantage only extends to brick-and-mortar stores. In the wilds of the Web, you can order tea from dozens of places, near or far. Here are two companies I've used that have provided good service and good tea.

ESP Emporium

This Illinois-based distributor was founded by Steven Popec and his wife Elena, who introduced Steven to the world of Russian tea culture. I ordered two samplers, the "Pearl of Fruits" flavored green tea sampler and the "Chai & Mate" sampler, which each contained four 1 ounce bags of four different teas (I also ordered some Japanese kukicha green tea). All the teas were shipped promptly and arrived as advertised, though the actual bags ESP uses to ship its teas are not airtight.

The chai sampler was very good. I found that the black tea chai was serviceable, and particularly enjoyed the green tea chai and rooibos chai - the complex mix of spices in the blend paired well with these milder teas. The "Pearl of Fruits" sampler was a litte disappointing: all the teas save the gojiberry were overwhelmed by the dried fruits. For everyday drinking, I recommend the kukicha - it has a nutty, mild green tea flavor, and it can be steeped at least two or three times before losing its flavor.

Teas Etc

This is a smaller distributor, and it's actually a local outfit - I picked up my tea orders right from their office near Jog Road and Southern Boulevard. Of course, it's a little incongruous pulling into an industrial park office and walking out with bags of tea, but it's the flavor that matters, right?

Teas Etc's flavored blends tend to be lighter than most, which I prefer (it's hard to enjoy tea when you're getting a faceful of dried coconut or orange). My favorite is the Moroccan Mint, a positively refreshing blend of organic green tea and organic spearmint. This tea was so good that even people who don't regularly drink tea liked it:

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Miscellany: St. Sebastian River Preserve State Park

Ever feel like you need to get away? Like the four walls of your office are closing in on you? You might want to take the off-ramp at Exit 156 and visit the St. Sebastian River Preserve State Park:

Admission and parking are free, all you need to bring is yourself. The Park is divided into four quadrants by I-95 and the C-54 and Fellsmere Canals: the northeast quadrant is riding-oriented (with a place for horse watering and an equestrian trailhead), the northwest features the remnants of several abandoned homesteads, and the southwest quadrant is home to the endangered Florida scrub jay. It's a "park" in the loosest sense of the word - you won't find any trashcans or water fountains on the trails.

I opted for the southeast quadarant, and made my way along the Blue Trail, a desolate ten-mile loop of "the real Florida."

It isn't a very scenic journey. No picturesque waterfalls, mountains, or rivers; the land is all scrubby flatwoods and sandhills, broken up by the occasional open farm. The trail itself isn't very pleasant, either - in most places, it's loose sand that sucks your energy and gets kicked up by occasionally blistering winds.

The north end of the Blue Trail is wide sky and farmland. A lot of the area used to be devoted to cattle; the trailhead is right next to the old cow pens of the Circle F Ranch.

Parts of the Blue Trail feel positively eerie. Because there isn't much to see, the place isn't very crowded, which is appealing if you want solitude. You'll see areas scorched by controlled burns - black trees and charred foliage like something out of Cormac McCarthy's "The Road."

About 8 miles in, I caught sight of a family of sandhill cranes, running away, almost at the edge of sight. I ran after, catching glimpses, until I finally lost them. Not sure why I did that; maybe it was because I hadn't seen a single soul for two hours.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Guns: Beretta 21A Bobcat review - A Tiny Training .22


The .22 LR pistol is an important part of any shooter’s arsenal, as it allows you to train the fundamentals of handgun shooting without the expense of centerfire calibers. That being said, most .22s are heavy target pistols ill-suited for replicating the feel of a pocket-size CCW gun. For people who carry these types of mouseguns, the Beretta 21A Bobcat is probably a better choice for a .22 trainer.

First Impressions

The Bobcat is made in America, in Beretta USA's plant. It comes in a standard Beretta handgun case (comically large considering the size of the gun) with one magazine. Beretta offers both a standard black version and a more expensive stainless steel model.

Out of the box, the first thing you notice is that the gun is tiny – a mere 11 ounces unloaded. It's similar in size to pocket pistols like the Ruger LCP, the Kel-Tec P3AT, and, of course, Beretta's own line of micro-sized handguns (the Tomcat, the 950 Jetfire, etc.). The gun's black finish and plastic grips aren't exactly beautiful, but they're functional.

A Unique Operating System

The 21A has a DA/SA trigger, a manual safety, and a button magazine release that's located near the heel of the gun's frame. Like most of the micro Berettas, the Bobcat uses a tip-up barrel; push a latch on the side of the gun, and you can drop a round into the chamber without racking the slide. It's a handy way to load:

The 21A is part of Beretta’s "Jetfire line." That means that while the Bobcat operates on the familiar blowback principle, it doesn’t use an extractor – the expanding gases of the ignition sequence push the cartridge case out of the gun. I'm sure the lack of an extractor saves quite a bit of time and effort (less slide machining needed, fewer parts), and it's reflected in the price - the Beretta Bobcat retails for under $300.

Range Report

The Beretta's double-action trigger is absurdly heavy, gritty, and long - in other words, perfect training for shooting the small .380s that are in vogue right now. Similarly, the sights on the Bobcat are tiny, difficult to see, and non-adjustable, just like most pocket guns. The one saving grace of the 21A is its usable single-action trigger; it's the only way I could shoot groups good enough to actually be called "groups."

The poor sights and trigger hamper practical accuracy - this is the best 14 round group I could crank out at 10 yards (with CCI Mini Mag). As you can see, the gun shoots about two to three inches to the left of point of aim:

In terms of reliability, the 21A is just reliable enough for its intended purpose - small training gun. When the Bobcat was clean, I experienced a stoppage of some sort (usually a failure to feed or a failure to extract) about every 50 rounds, regardless of ammo type (CCI, Federal, Winchester, and Remington .22s of all sorts and descriptions - none were perfect, though hotter ammo tended o run better). If the gun was dirty, extraction would begin to suffer, and stoppage rates increased to about one in 20 to 40 rounds.


I've read that some people carry the Bobcat for defense. I wouldn’t. Even setting aside the anemic caliber, the gun simply isn't reliable enough to bet your life on. Plus, if you ever do have a failure to extract, the normal malfunction drills won't clear it because the gun has no extractor (you have to resort to picking the shell out with your fingers - not something you want to do in a gunfight). I wouldn't even use the Bobcat as a kit gun on the trail - with its poor-to-middling accuracy, it'd be hard to score good hits on squirrels, snakes, and other denizens of the wilderness.

On the other hand, the 21A Bobcat is a great stand-in and training aid for pocket guns. Shooting a small frame pistol with vestigial sights and a heavy trigger is a fairly specialized skill, and it takes many repetitions to really get proficient. Instead of running boxes of pricey .380 ammo through your LCP during this time period, you can get much of the same practice with the Beretta  I guess the old adage is true...

--It is better to feed one (Bob)cat than many mice(guns). - Norwegian proverb

Tech: iPhone 4 review

It's been about a month since the firm gave me an iPhone 4, and I think I've pretty much put the thing through its paces. Here are some of the highs and lows of the device:

The Good

Gaming - I haven't tried the iPhone's premiere title ("Infinity Blade"), but casual games like "Fruit Ninja" or "Angry Birds" are plenty fun on their own. The touch screen controls work better than I thought they would for fast action, and the fact that most games are cheap or free helps, too. I picked up "Bejeweled" as a freebie from Starbucks during the Valentine's Day Buycott, for instance, and brother, it definitely helps pass the time while you're waiting for a flight.

Media - It's almost stupefying how useful an iPhone is as a mini media hub. You can read your Kindle titles, watch your Netflix movies, look at comic books, listen to radio stations - the list is endless. Granted, it's not the optimal way to access this stuff given the iPhone's tiny screen and crappy speakers, but at least you can do it.

The Bad

Form Factor - The iPhone, despite using nightmarish Chinese labor practices, is not a robust device. The first day I had it, I dented the junky plastic that makes up part of the frame (two feet drop onto a tile floor). You basically can't use the blasted thing without a case or skin of some sort. On the positive side, I haven't noticed any scratching of the screen - thanks, Foxconn.

Bluetooth - It works fine, though I have no idea why they don't include Bluetooth file transfers to a computer out of the box. To put this omission into perspective, the free non-smartphone I got from AT&T when I signed up for another 2-year plan (a Samsung SGH-A687) has this functionality. Why doesn't the iPhone?

Power Usage - There's a price to be paid for the iPhone's functionality. Even with really mild usage -playing podcasts, games, checking e-mail, light web-browsing - the battery's half gone in about a day (this is with the brightness and audio turned down, too). Bottom line: if you expect to rely on the iPhone as an actual phone, you'd best keep your extracurricular activities to a minimum.

The Ugly

Newsstand - The selection of periodicals isn't very good, the interface to download and access them is cumbersome, and you can't hide or delete this application unless you engage in some jury-rigging. I suppose it's fitting that the one thing the iPhone sucks at is the display of a nearly-extinct medium.

Books: GLOCK - The Rise of America's Gun

By the time I started shooting, GLOCKs were so entrenched in America's gun culture that they were...well, boring. Most cops carry them, most competition shooters use them, and nearly every gun owner has shot them at one time or another. There was apparently a time, however, when GLOCKs were mysterious, the forbidden fruit, the "cool" gun. "GLOCK: The Rise of America's Gun," by Paul Barrett, is a story of how we got from there to here.

The book starts at the beginning, in the pre-polymer days when revolvers ruled the roost, and it follows Gaston Glock and his gun from obscurity to worldwide dominance. It's startling how Glock goes from cobbling together protoyptes to be test-fired in his basement to making enough pistols to supply entire armies - an underdog story fit for Hollywood. There's even material showing how the GLOCK pistol has penetrated pop culture: everyone from rappers to Arnold Schwarzenegger have extolled the virtues of "The Drastic Plastic."

"GLOCK" is well-researched and accurate; I didn't notice anything that was incorrect factually, though the conclusions to be drawn from those facts are subject to debate. For people with only a casual interest in guns, the book is interesting purely from a business and marketing perspective. Though faced with enormous commercial disadvantages ("not invented here" syndrome, the uncertainty of a new design, millions of perfectly functional handguns already riding in holsters), GLOCK succeeded through a combination of a great product, business savvy, and smart marketing. Bringing in buxom blonde stripper Sharon Dillon to promote the G20? Genius:

There won't be any earthshattering revelations here for gun enthusiasts. If you read (or are) one of the gunbloggers on my blogroll, for instance, you're probably very familiar with everything GLOCK: "limpwristing," "Gen 4 recoil springs," "WML frame flex," "I'm the only one professional enough," etc. Shooters are fairly well-informed in the age of the Internet, and most of the book will be old hat for them (I've seen Gaston's deposition testimony excerpted on gun forums, for heaven's sake).

"GLOCK" is neutral on politics, though Mr. Barrett does seem to support some gun control proposals toward the end (restricting private sales, for instance). It's tepid advocacy, though, and almost serves as tacit acknowledgement that gunnies have won, and that "Combat Tupperware" is here to stay.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Music: Trouble

Things might be a little quiet here at Shangrila Towers for awhile. Got a lot of things to do at work, and not so much time to do them. Guess trouble happens to us all...

Food: Teavana Perfectea tea maker & Cuisinart PerfectTemp electric kettle

I'm a tea junkie. Whether it's chai, green, or just plain old tea, Earl Grey, hot, there's nothing quite like a steeping of Camellia sinensis to wake the senses on a dull winter's morning. Today's post features a perfect pair of products for the job: the Teavana Perfectea and the Cuisinart PerfecTemp:

The Perfectea is a cafetiere-like device that can brew all types of loose leaf tea. It's made of BPA-free Eastman Tritan copolymer, and it can take boiling temperatures without damage. To use the Perfectea, you measure out tea leaves into it, and then pour in hot water. After your desired brewing time has elapsed, place the Perfectea on a mug - the tea drains out of a pressure-activated filter on the bottom and into the mug. Dump or reuse the tea leaves, rinse out the filter, and you're ready for another cup.

How to generate hot water you ask? Especially when you're stuck in an office withou a stovetop? Enter the Cuisinart PerfecTemp:

Th stainless steel PerfecTemp is an electric kettle with a built-in temperature sensor. There are numerous temperature presets, ranging from 160 degrees Fahrenheit (delicate herbal infusions and white teas) to boiling (good old black tea). The device can handle about one and a half liters, and the 1500 watt element does a good job of heating small quantities of water in a hurry.

About the only downside is that the kettle is completely non-insulated - the outer body gets burning hot to the touch when you're boiling water. It's almost enough to make you want to get a replicator...

TV: Beyond 2000 (Shangrila Towers' 2000th Post!)

Back when I was a youngster, Discovery Channel used to feature science and technology programs. Of course, now the network is basically one long "Deadliest Catch/Cash Cab/American Choppers" marathon, but I still remember when shows like "Beyond 2000" graced Discovery:

I didn't realize it at the time, but "Beyond 2000" hailed from Australia. The program was a mishmash of segments detailing state-of-the-art consumer products, cutting edge scientific research, and futuristic technologies. It's sort of fun watching this stuff now, in 2012 - the announcers marvel at things like GPS devices and digital cameras, which were rare luxuries 20 years ago but are now integrated into the iPhone in your pocket:

Underlying "Beyond 2000" was a confidence that technology would change our lives radically, and for the better. Combined with "Invention!," a fellow Discovery Channel TV show that looked at the history behind the world's machines, you really got a sense of where we've been and where we're going as a species.

Of course, it's possible to take such things too seriously, and the cheerful bent of "Beyond 2000" engendered the occasional lampooning:

Thursday, February 09, 2012

As seen on the Today show...

"Not really. I'm holding out for one of those swanky S&W M&P15 VTAC IIs they were pimping at the SHOT Show."

Update: Ah heck, might as well give it a plug:

Monday, February 06, 2012

Guns: The Art of the Precision Rifle review

"The Art of the Precision Rifle" might be the last of Magpul's series of firearms videos, since the series hosts, Chris Costa and Travis Haley, left Magpul Dynamics to form their own companies. Fittingly, in this video Chris and Travis are the students, learning from rifle shooting instructor Todd Hodnett of Accuracy 1st:

The DVDs are all focused on long-range shooting (and by "long-range," I mean 600-2000 meters). Magpul's production values are as high as they've ever been: a plateau location with scenic vistas, super-high quality suppressed rifle rigs, remote cameras galore to pick up the impact of bullets on distant targets. The 5 discs cover a metric ton of shooting topics, too - check out Magpul's site for the full rundown.

Hodnett's expertise makes this the most technical of the Magpul DVDs, with plenty of discussion of zeroing and wind call esoterica. If you're the type of person who doesn't know a mil from a mill, you might not enjoy all the math on display. The pace of the videos is also fairly relaxed by Magpul standards (by its very nature, precision rifle shooting requires stillness and focus). Still, there aren't too many places you can get ten hours of quality long range shooting discussion, and the DVDs are basically a must-buy if you're at all interested in the topic.

Books: NRA Illustrated Firearms Assembly Handbook

You find the neatest things in used bookstores, like the "Illustrated Firearms Assembly Handbook," a collection of articles that originally appeared in NRA publications in the 1950s. Each article examines the design and history of a particular firearm, often giving a parts breakdown or field-stripping instructions.

As you might imagine, many of the guns in the book have been out of production for years. There are plenty that have soldiered on, though (there's a whole section on M1911 disassembly). Some firearms have also been reintroduced in various forms, like the Supermatic Trophy:

The Safety Hammerless.

The Walther P38.

There are neat little sections on famous gun designers and gun-related court cases (this was about the time the NRA shifted its focus to politics).

Overall, it's a cool book, and the parts diagrams it contains might be very useful if you own one of the classic firearms featured.

Sunday, February 05, 2012

Movies: The Artist

"The Artist" is a film directed by Michel Hazanavicius. It tells the story of a silent film actor who finds himself kicked to the curb when Hollywood transitions to the talkies. Here, I'll let some stills from the movie tell the story:


Nearly the entire movie is silent (with the exception of two sequences); that means no sound effects, no dialogue, just the film score. It's not a new gimmick, of course, and the movie's story is nowhere near the classic silent films of yesteryear (I'd put "The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari," "Metropolis," and "Safety Last" against any movie, past or present). Still, it is quite a creative risk to make a silent movie in the 21st century, and Michel Hazanavicius pulls it off.

There's a ton of Oscar buzz around "The Artist," which says more about the weak year in cinema than it does about the movie. I found the film a little too meta to be truly entertaining - there are little distracting references to half a dozen classic movies, like "Sunset Boulevard." Heck, they went so far as to completely lift the  love theme from Alfred Hitchcock's "Vertigo" - Kim Novak was not happy.

Rating: 7/10

Yeah, I'm ready for the Big Game

From left to right: Penn Dark Lager, Lagunitas IPA, Shipyard Blue Fin Stout, Left Hand Black Jack Porter. Reviews forthcoming - if my liver holds up.

Black Jack Porter - My bottle had a thin mouthfeel. The roasted notes don't last long after a sip, and it's less bitter and malty than I expected; sorta flavorless, to be honest. Alcohol content isn't overwhelming, so most people should be able to drink two or three bottles over a long dinner. I'd drink it again if it was on tap somewhere, but I wouldn't seek it out.

Lagunitas IPA - This beer has a good, straightforward hoppy taste. Not a lot of carbonation, pours out into a clean amber-gold. You feel the bitterness in the back of your throat. Would pair quite well with something nice and greasy, like a big hamburger.

Shipyard Blue Fin Stout - Very pronounced roasted coffee flavors, with chocolate undertones. There's a tinge of hops once the malt wears off, but it doesn't last long, and your mouth is bare again. Like most Irish stouts, there's actually not much alcohol here. It's sort of like a sharper, fancier Guinness, which is a good thing.

Penn Dark Lager - Marketed as a "dark lager." Penn Dark is probably the closest to a mainstream beer of the four bottles I tried. My Dad likened it to a darker, slightly maltier Sam Adams. It's quite mild and smooth to drink, with a bit of a watery finish. Balance of malt and hops is executed pretty well. Not something that'll knock your socks off, but a solid beer.

Saturday, February 04, 2012

Music: Epic

Working on Saturdays is always a little bit of a drag, but the work goes more smoothly when I'm listening to Karmacoda. Part trip hop, part jazz, and part pop, the San Francisco-based band knows how to layer musical elements into a very solid groove.

Here's a live performance of "Epic" a track from their latest album, "Eternal." It's got enough plaintive wailing for two Portishead songs:

If the laid-back trip-hop vibe of the original song isn't your cup of tea, try out the remixed version by Return to Mono's Andy Sybilrud - coming to a dance floor near you: