Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Miscellany: Mediohombre

It's International Talk Like a Pirate Day, and I thought it'd be fun to feature a real-life pirate hunter here at Shangrila Towers - the legendary Blas de Lezo y Olavarrieta, or "Mediohombre":

Blas de Lezo was one-armed, one-eyed, and one-legged - injuries that were all sustained during countless battles and sieges for the Spanish navy. Despite being a "half man," he crushed pirates across the Spanish Main and the Barbary Coast (and threatened Genoa when it failed to pay the Spanish Crown - even "civilized" sailors acted like pirates in those days).

Blas de Lezo would be immortalized by his spirited defense of Cartagena de Indias, where his forces fended off an assault from a British force that outnumbered him by at least five to one. To this day, his statues adorn the city of Cartagena, Colombia:

Monday, September 17, 2012

Music: Long Gone Lonesome Blues

Today is the birthday of Hank Williams, perhaps the most influential country music singer-songwriter who ever lived. Even in 2012, more than fifty years after his last recording, bits of Old Hank can be heard in almost every country artist on the radio today. Taylor Swift's ultra-biographical tales of heartbreak, Brad Paisley's tongue-in-cheek novelty songs (the refrain in "My Bucket's Got a Hole in It" is the spiritual ancestor of the chorus in "Camouflage")...they can all be traced to Hank Williams.

Here's my favorite Hank Williams song, "Long Gone Lonesome Blues," set to some of his home movies:

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Books: Starting Strength

If you're a longtime Shangrila Towers reader, you might recall that I lifted weights on and off during law school. Back then, I took my training routines from exercise books and magazines: working certain body parts on each day and doing a lot of isolation lifts (like bicep and tricep curls).

I got fairly toned, but I never really increased my strength dramatically, and the workouts took a lot of time.  I guess it isn't surprising that since I joined the rat race a couple years ago, I haven't touched a dumbbell, barbell, or weight machine.

One day, though, I realized just how much strength I had lost (again). I needed to workout - not in a way that made me look stronger, but in a way that just plain made me stronger. Enter...


"Starting Strength" is a book about barbell training, perhaps the most detailed book on the subject ever written. The author, Mark Rippetoe, has taken the old-school Bill Starr-era barbell regime and broken it down from every conceivable angle - how to perform an exercise, why an exercise strengthens your body, why an exercise is better than other exercises, and so on (there's dozens and dozens of pages about the squat, for instance). Rippetoe only recommends tried-and-true, compound joint exercises - squats, deadlifts, presses, and the like.

I followed the "Starting Strength" approach for a couple weeks (well, as modified by, and I'm already noticing increases in my real world strength: I can get more stick on a tennis ball, I can hold a rifle steadier, etc. Of course, the flip side is that I'm pretty sore the day after a workout, but it's a small price to pay for getting stronger. As Coach Rippetoe says, "Strong people are harder to kill than weak people, and more useful in general."

Monday, September 10, 2012

TV: Lamb Chop's Play-Along - a tribute

Exactly twenty years ago, the first episode of "Lamb Chop's Play-Along" aired on PBS:

"Lamb Chop's Play-Along" was a children's television program starring Lewis and three puppets of her own design - Charlie Horse, Hush Puppy, and the titular Lamb Chop. Each episode was filled with magic tricks, songs, comedy skits, puzzles, jokes, riddles, games...the whimsy of childhood delivered in unadulterated form. Unsurprisingly, "Lamb Chop's Play-Along" won Emmy awards for five consecutive years (one for each season of the show), and it immortalized Shari Lewis as a master puppeteer.

I used to watch the show before going to school, as did most of my friends. For me, "Lamb Chop's Play-Along" embodied the '90s. It was a simpler time...before 9/11, before Katy Perry, before we had the weird millenial paradox of kids growing up too fast and also never really growing up at all.

In any era, Shari Lewis was a master at talking to kids instead of talking at them. Check out this simple skit to see what I mean - it's funny, musical, and illustrates good manners without shoving the message down a kid's throat:

I didn't know it at the time, but Shari Lewis had been an entertainer for decades before "Lamb Chop's Play-Along." Her first show aired in the '60s, before cartoons started taking over kids' TV, and the fact that she was able to helm a hit program three decades later is proof that good ideas are timeless. In that respect, "Lamb Chop's Play-Along" was, and is, Shari Lewis's masterpiece, a distillation of everything she ever learned about show-business and children:

Shari Lewis passed away in 1998, shortly after being diagnosed with cancer. Her legacy lives on, not only in flat television video, but in the hearts and minds of children everywhere.

Monday, September 03, 2012

Tech: The Walking Dead

"The Walking Dead" is an episodic adventure game based on Robert Kirkman's comic series of the same name:

You star as Lee Everett, a man with a murky past. When the game starts, you're in handcuffs in the back of a police car, being taken to prison. The zombie apocalypse soon strikes, and you find yourself taking care of a little girl named Clementine. It's this unlikely relationship - the convict and the kid - that anchors the story through 5 episodes (3 released, 2 upcoming) of grisly murders, cannibalism, and heated arguments.

The actual gameplay is similar to Telltale Games' other titles - basically a point-and-click adventure game a la 1990s-era LucasArts. There's action, usually in the form of frantic quick time events, but this isn't a shoot-'em-up; you'll spend more time talking to other characters and solving (easy) puzzles than killing zombies. Unlike most adventure games, there's some replayability, too, since the choices you make impact whether people live or die (or at least how some plot point happens). You can play Lee as a take-no-prisoners survivor, a kindly father figure, or something in between.

I think Telltale Games has done a good job of translating the bleak atmosphere and occasional depravity of Robert Kirkman's comic series to a game format. If you're a fan of the comics, you'll probably like this more than the occasionally-plodding AMC TV series. Even if you're not, this game will give you a taste of what it's like to live in an atavistic zombie wasteland.

Rating: 80/100 (+5 if you're a fan of TWD comic)

Guns: Beretta Nano review - A Bug in the BUG


There are so many compact single-stack 9mms out there that it's hard to even remember who released what. Doesn't Kimber have one? Didn't SIG come out with two of them? Today's marketplace offers oodles of choices to the CCWs and LEOs out there.

Of course, that doesn't mean all of these choices are good. Most of them aren't, and the main disqualifying factor is reliability. Being able to carry a small gun means nothing if said small gun doesn't send lead downrange in a predictable manner.

Today's post looks at the Beretta Nano, a 9mm backup gun (BUG) with some quirky features. For one, the Nano has no external slide release: the gun locks back on an empty mag, but has no lever or mechanism for you to do so manually. Aside from making the gun completely slick and snagfree, this allows Beretta to make the internal chassis into the serialized part (theoretically allowing you to switch out to a different polymer frame).

All of this is well and good, but does the thing shoot? Let's find out...

First Impressions

Like most of its competition, the Beretta Nano retails for around $400. The package include a plastic case (which is getting rarer at this price point), two 6-round flush-fitting mags, and a really well done instruction manual (it shows how to take the internal chassis out of the frame, for instance):

In hand, the Nano feels fairly solid, though blocky and top-heavy (think SIG). Fit and finish are fine, and I liked how they kept the exterior as smooth and melted as possible on a production gun.

Here's a side-by-side comparison with two comparable pistols - the Kel-Tec PF9 and the Kahr CM9. The Nano is heavier than both, bigger than the Kahr, and fatter/shorter than the PF9.

Sights and Trigger:

The Nano wears three-dot low-profile sights. I found them to be a little small and hard to see, especially considering how big the gun's slide is. The sights are held on by set screws, though, so you can adjust the rear windage and swap the sights out very easily.

The trigger is also a mixed bag. It has a GLOCK-style safety lever, but it's basically double-action: a long, heavy pull that needs to be reset fully after every shot. I think Kahr executed this style of trigger better, but this isn't where the Nano's problem lies...

At the Range: We Be Jammin'

I bought the Nano partly because of this torture test video put out by Beretta USA:

I didn't get similar results. In my first 100 shots, I had a failure to extract, with Winchester 147 grain JHP ammo:


About 150 rounds later, I had the same malfunction with Wolf 9mm (I don't like Wolf, but I was purposely using it to test how well the gun extracted spent casings):
200 rounds later, yet another failure to extract, this time with bog standard Winchester White Box 115 grain FMJ.

I realize pocket guns sometimes need a break-in period before everything gets settled in. So, after I got these three failures in the first 500 rounds, I took the Nano home, cleaned it thoroughly, cycled the slide for awhile, and took it back to the range.
No dice - after 75 rounds of Federal 115 grain range ammo, I got a failure to extract on 124gr Speer Lawman FMJ (the left column on my shooting log was my CM9, which was more reliable than the Nano even though it was already very dirty):
Okay, maybe I got a lemon. I send the gun back and get a new one from Davidson's. This new one fails to extract in the first 70 rounds, on Federal RT9115 range ammo. Rats. I look on the web later and find out I'm not the only guy having this problem.
Conclusion: There are better choices.
If it were reliable, the Nano would be a fine choice for concealed carry. As it stands, the Nano is only more reliable than the Kel-Tec PF9 (which should be in the dictionary next to "damning with faint praise").
Once Beretta re-tunes the extractor/extractor spring/recoil spring, the Nano might be worth a look. Till then, I don't recommend the Nano as a carry piece.