Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Stormy Weather

I didn't get to see my Grandpa very often, since he lived on the other side of the country. The recollections I do have are scattered and years apart.

My oldest and fondest memory of him was when I helped Grandpa learn English. He had me read out of a picture book, pointing words out so that he could repeat them.

I was a little kid then, so I usually had no idea what he was pointing to. What's that there? A jacket, a suit? I was unsure of what exactly the word was referring to, but I dutifully pronounced it anyway.


"Blazer," he said.

Sunday, June 24, 2012

Miscellany: Lion Country Safari

Last month, I took my friends on a visit to Lion Country Safari, a drive-through zoo that has become an institution here in South Florida. LCS is a spirited attempt to recreate the traditional African safari experience; you drive your vehicle through a number of large open fields filled with a host of wild animals, with nothing between you and them except your car window.

I first visited the park on an elementary school field trip, and it really hasn't changed much since I was a kid. Same corny entrance sign, same undulating 5 mph road, same herds of animals:

I didn't notice it when I was young, but the park purposely puts the feed troughs right up against the road, so you can see critters up close. Sometimes it results in a quadruped traffic jam:

Without a little good-natured prodding, the animals usually prefer to remain far away from the road, especially when the weather is as God-awful hot as it can be in Palm Beach County. I mean, just look at how chill these rhinos are:

LCS gives you an audio CD tour at the gate; alternately, you can channel your inner David Attenborough and narrate the park's wildlife identification pamphlet as you drive along. After you finish driving through the safari, you stop at "Safari World," a walk-through mini-zoo. Kids will like the petting area and aviary:

"Safari World" is mostly a way to get you to spend money in the gift shop and restaurant, but there are nice little attractions that wouldn't have worked in the drive-through experience, like this alligator pit (complete with live feeding sessions):

Besides being a fun way to spend an afternoon, the park is one of the few things to do down here that doesn't involve the ocean. So, if you have thalassophobic friends, put 'em in a car, grab a pith helmet, and take a journey down to Lion Country Safari.

Friday, June 22, 2012

Food: Yelp Yourself, Atlanta Edition

Before people had smartphones, dining out far from home was a crapshoot. The quaint burger joint you stopped at could be an awesome local hole-in-the-wall...or it could be a greasy half-hearted tourist trap.

Now, though, it's easy enough to punch in what you want to eat on your app of choice (I favor Yelp) to get a listing of the best restaurants in the area. There's really no downside - you have the fun of discovery, but without the possibility of sitting through an inedible meal. Here's a couple of places Yelp took us to in Atlanta, Georgia:

Book Chang Dong Tofu House

There's a fairly sizable Korean population in Duluth, Georgia, and that means the competition among Korean restaurants there is unforgiving and brutal. Book Chang Dong Tofu House is one of the survivors, mostly due to its great location (on the elbow of a shopping center anchored by mammoth Asian supermarket Super H).

We stopped in, guided by Yelp and hunger. The reviews for the place were pretty solid, but it takes a lot to impress the hypercritical palate of my family and me...

We enjoyed the banchan spread, since it had satisfying amounts of pickled vegetables and fried fish. Unfortunately, the main courses were a bit disappointing: Mom didn't get much seafood in her stone pot rice, and my tofu soup had almost no meat in it. Everything was cooked fine, and fresh enough, but it's hard to be enthusiastic over what boils down to a $10 bowl of hot tofu, spicy broth, and kimchi.

2/4 stars

West Egg Cafe

The West Egg Cafe touts itself as the "best breakfast in Atlanta, Georgia." Breakfast is taken pretty seriously here at Shangrila Towers, so we decided to investigate this highly-rated eatery in West Midtown.

The place was packed to the gills, with a half-hour wait for a table. I started off with a giant 16 ounce latte, the remains of which you can see in the picture below. It was tasty - not quite as tasty as Habatat Coffee Company, but tasty.

Next up was a short rib hash: grits and two eggs served with a pile of braised short ribs, potatoes, onions, and peppers for $10. I thought the ingredients were good (the short ribs in particular were miles better than the normal "beef" hash you encounter in breakfast places), but it didn't knock my socks off. Likewise, Dad munched steadily on his challah French toast, but noted that the dish didn't have the oomph of John G's scrumptious cinnamon nut French toast. It's a well-made breakfast, certainly, but "best in ATL" seems like a stretch.

2/4 stars´╗┐

Saturday, June 16, 2012

Guns: Getting the Garand, Part 4 - CMP M1 Garand review and range report

I ordered a CMP M1 Garand awhile back (check out Getting the Garand, Parts 1, 2, and 3), and I finally got the chance to try it out at the local rifle range. Here are my impressions...

The M1 Garand is a study in trade-offs. The other military rifles of the day were bolt-actions - Mausers, Lee-Enfields, Mosins - with roughly similar dimensions and capabilities. The Garand's gas operating system enables quick follow-up shots and one-handed operation, at the cost of considerable weight and bulk (a Garand weighs almost two pounds more than a SMLE Mk III - doesn't sound like much, but it's very significant for an infantry soldier).

I've had a good amount of experience with other WWII bolt actions, so it was going to be fun to see if the Garand lived up to its bigger-than-life reputation. This was my first time shooting the Garand for any extended period of time, so I headed to the 50 yard range to get a feel for the old warhorse:

Loading the Garand isn't hard, per se, but the process is definitely archaic, and probably the main disadvantage to using the M1 as a main battle rifle in 2012. You push in the famous en-bloc clip as far down as you can, using your hand to block the charging handle from moving forward. Once it's all the way in (and I do mean all the way, otherwise you get a jam), smack the charging handle forward to chamber the first round. It takes a bit more practice than using a traditional stripper clip, that's for sure.

Aside from the fussy loading procedure, shooting the Garand is a joy. The rifle is extremely heavy by today's standards (10 pounds unloaded with no accessories). All that weight, however, soaks up recoil, and the M1 is actually a fairly pleasant way to send .30-06 downrange.

Don't get me wrong - the muzzle rise is still extreme enough to nullify any speed edge at longer ranges, and the other WWII bolt actions weren't as slow as some people think they are. That being said, I could see how the Garand's rate of fire would be a huge advantage in close quarters - say, inside the crumbling remains of an apartment building in Salerno.

The M1 has a good trigger for a military gun, and, like most U.S. service rifles, it sports excellent aperture sights. This translated to accuracy that was well within combat standards, considering that I was using surplus Greek M2 ball ammunition. My first groups were decent, about 2ish inches, which translates to 4 MOA:

As I got used to the gun, I started tightening my shooting up considerably. Let's put it this way - even in the 21st century, you do not want to be on the wrong end of Mr. Garand's battle implement:

The jury is still out on reliability - I only fired 64 shots through the Garand, with the total rounds count limited by time and barrel heating (don't want to wear it out too quickly). I didn't notice any hesitation in the action, save for an annoying tendency for the en-bloc clips to weakly eject into my face - PING!

Conclusion? If you have an extra $650 laying around and you meet the CMP eligibility requirements, send off for a Garand. You can thank me later.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Links: Free Stuff Tuesday

Tuesday is the worst day of the workweek - you've already experienced the toil of Monday, so you know what you're in for, but you're not even halfway through to the end, like you are on Wednesday or Thursday. A lot of bad things seem to happen on Tuesday, too - elections, the 1929 stock market crash, 9/11. So, in the hopes of making your Tuesday a little bit better, here's some free stuff:

The Idler Wheel... - Fiona Apple's latest album was in development hell for years, but now you can stream it in its entirety for free off of NPR's website before its official release. Apple's tortured introspection is the perfect companion to a dreary Tuesday. I particularly like the album's opening track, "Every Single Night." It features a contorted vocal wail that's (a) quite striking and (b) sure to be sampled in dozens of hip-hop tracks.

Serial Experiments Lain - Ryutara Nakamura's surreal anime series about technological apotheosis is as relevant now as it has ever been, and you can watch the first couple of episodes on YouTube for free. The show follows a young, lonely girl named Lain who receives an e-mail from a friend...a friend that committed suicide a week ago. Lain's investigation of this mystery eventually leads to some big questions - about reality, religion, and the role of communications in an increasingly wired world.

Monsters Ate My Condo - Apple has started a "Free App of the Week" feature. This week's freebie is M.A.M.C., a charming puzzler from developer PikPok. The objective is to keep your tower of condo blocks standing for as long as possible. To do so, you'll need to feed monsters certain blocks to keep them satiated (if they don't get fed, they attack the tower) while matching colors to straighten the tower. Each move brings your tower slightly closer to oblivion.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

TV: Doomsday Preppers

In a sense, every serious shooter or outdoorsman I've ever known is a "prepper" (trendy modern parlance for what used to be called a "survivalist"). I mean, I've got water filters, backpacks, food, first aid kits, and plenty of ammo, but that's all to facilitate the activities I do in my spare time, not to prep for the end of the world as we know it (though obviously the AR carbine would come in handy...).

Some people go a bit further, and by "a bit further," I mean a whole helluva lot further:

"Doomsday Preppers" is a TV show that looks at various people, mostly families, who are prepping for some apocalypse. The preppers range from the silly to the serious, but they've all devoted fairly significant resources to the whole enterprise; prepping ain't for poor people. You'll see common measures (closets of food and guns), but also some off the wall stuff (a camouflage net to hide a big rig truck, a secret sealed "pod" underneath a garage, a family eating fried insects).

I can't quite tell if the show is mocking the preppers. At worst, they're depicted as kooky outsiders who aren't dangerous, which is better than how survivalism has previously been portrayed. One thing that stuck out: about half of the preppers featured in the show are getting ready for civil unrest after a global economic collapse. Let's hope it isn't an indication of which way the wind is blowing.

Links: Gunbloggers Galore

If someone blogs about shooting, it's a safe bet they blog about some of the other things associated with shooting - history, independence, the outdoors, machines, and the like. As a result, even though the gunblogging community is diverse, it's not hard to find interesting things to read. So it goes with today's two additions to the blogroll:

God, Gals, Guns, Grub: This is a good old-fashioned, straight-up gunblog written by a former cop who, in his own words, is "an average, over-weight guy who likes teaching and learning; loves my God, adores my Gals - wife and daughter, enjoys anything and everything about Guns, and is trying to eat less and more healthy Grub." Works for me.

Guns & Coffee: Fred is a tough hombre - an Army vet and a Wisconsin National Guardsman who served in Afghanistan. He also seems like a hopeless romantic, since he blogged about proposing to his fiancee a couple weeks ago:

Anybody who proposes (1) in a Bravo Company, USA ballcap (2) at Manabezho Falls (3) before going overseas to put boot to ass for our country gets an automatic blogroll from me.

Miscellany: Leatherman Style PS review - Fly the (knife un)friendly skies

Nowadays, passing by airport security is like going through intake at Folsom. You take off your belt and shoes, put your belongings in a bin, and await your turn to get sniffed, millimeter-wave radar-ed, or probulated by the TSA.

All that's bad enough, but it gets worse if someone decides to confiscate the Swiss Army Knife on your keychain in the name of "passenger safety." Do you argue? Make a scene? Try to ditch the knife in a remote corner of the airport, so you can retrieve it on your return? The Leatherman Style PS is a keychain multitool designed to avoid this whole dilemma:

The main selling point on the Style PS is what it doesn't have - a knife blade. It's not foolproof, of course (the TSA even warns you that an officer "may determine that an item not on the Prohibited Items List is prohibited"), but the PS is much less likely to get taken by airport security or courthouse guards.

The Style PS has the same general layout of one of my favorite EDC multitools, the Skeletool, albeit shrunken down to keychain size. Without opening the tool, you have access a carabiner clip/bottle opener that attaches to any key ring (pictured above), a decent nail file/screwdriver, and a pair of scissors:

The scissors are a bit on the small side (unless you glide them through paper like a razor, you'll be doing a lot of 1/4" snipping), but they work and look about as innocuous as possible.

The last item you can access without opening up the tool is a pair of tweezers. I actually like these better than standard Swiss Army knife tweezers - they terminate in a point, making it easier to grab very tiny things:

Opening up the tool gives you a small but effective pair of pliers and wire cutters. You obviously won't be pulling nails or cutting pennies with these, but they can remove staples and cut paper clip wire pretty easily:

All in all, the Leatherman Style PS is a well-thought out, useful set of tools. It's a bit big and heavy, especially when you consider that there's no knife, but there really aren't too many other knifeless keychain multitools (and almost none that have scissors and pliers). So, the next time you brave modern air travel, do it in style with the PS.

Saturday, June 09, 2012

Tech: Diablo 3 review

When I was in middle school, one of the biggest things around was a PC game called "Diablo." For about a solid month, all the kids were obsessed with it (someone even sneaked a demo install onto one of our classroom computers). Mornings before class were spent discussing spells, monsters, and, most of all, the cool loot someone found during their trip through the dungeons the past night. "Diablo II" did something similar for everybody in high school.

After that, though, there was a long "Diablo" drought. Blizzard focused on its money-printing machine, Blizzard North split off and made other games, and the world basically forgot about Deckard Cain, Fallen Ones, and inventory Tetris.

Which brings us to today's question: can "Diablo III" rekindle the old magic after twelve(!) years?

The above video references the most controversial change in "Diablo III" - the requirement that the game be connected to the Internet, and Blizzard's servers, at all times. In point of fact, it isn't much of a change from how "Diablo" has always been (everybody played the first game online, and that was back in the days of dial-up and AOL), but it does mean that your entire playing experience hinges on this.

As far as the specifics of playing the game go, let's break it down...


+ Flexible skill system: Diablo III marks a radical change from previous action RPGs (and RPGs in general) in that you can reconfigure your skills on the fly, without penalty, as many times as you like. Instead of having to make new characters to try out different skills, or being locked into skills you don't like, you can just switch your equipped skills out. It's massively convenient, fun to tinker with, and a huge step forward in gameplay design.

Great production values: The art design in DIII skews towards WoW/cartoon fantasy rather than gothic horror, but there's no denying that everything in the game looks great. All the animation is fluid, and backgrounds seem to go on for miles behind and below your character. The battle sounds are good, too; in one extended melee, the grunts and screams were so intense they shorted out my PC speakers.

+ Super-streamlined experience: Blizzard's taken everything they learned from "World of Warcraft" and channeled it into Diablo. No more typing in game names and passwords to join your buddies - you can jump into the action with two mouse clicks.


- Iffy game balance: "Diablo III" was undergoing major revisions in gameplay right up until it was released. As such, you'll encounter some quirks and annoyances in your quest, like useless skills, sections of the game that are too hard or too easy, and a ludicrously expensive crafting system.

- Recycled content: There are way too many environments and scenarios in DIII that are carbon copies of those from "Diablo II." Facing off against goatmen on a grassy field? Check. Fighting insects in caves underneath a desert? Check. Giant battles on snowy landscapes? Check. You'll get a serious sense of deja vu every time you start up the game, and it feels pretty lazy when so much is new and exciting.

- Awful storyline: Okay, so "Diablo" games have never been very story-centric, but the plot in "Diablo III" is just plain silly. Here's a good summation. In retrospect, the approach taken in "Diablo II" (where the cinematics followed the villain of the story) was a lot more daring and logical.

Rating: 86/100 (singleplayer); 90/100 (multiplayer)

Saturday, June 02, 2012

Movies: Bernie

"Bernie" is sort of the anti-summer blockbuster. I mean, how else do you describe a black comedy/documentary that's based on the real life story of small town Texas mortician Bernie Tiede?

If you don't know Tiede's story and you think you might want to see "Bernie," it's probably best to not read this review or any others and just go watch it. On the other hand, even if you know the particulars of what happened in Carthage, Texas (the film is largely based on this article), director Richard Linklater still finds ways to surprising you.

For his part, Jack Black turns in one of his best performances since "School of Rock," which was also directed by Linklater. Black's musical skills get used early and often, of course, but he also does a good job of wielding his slightly-demented screen persona during the film's darker moments. This is Jack Black's vehicle, and he makes the most of it.

One side effect, though, is that "Bernie" sags a bit when Black is offscreen. Neither of the other big name stars in the movie has much to do (this isn't the first time Shirley MacLaine's played an ornery widow, and this isn't the first time Matthew McConaughey's played a lawyer). As a result, it's hard to really sympathize with anyone but Bernie, but I suppose that might be the point of the whole movie: when evil is this nice, we might find ourselves rooting for it despite ourselves.

Rating: 7/10