Saturday, December 30, 2017

Books: Six Frigates

The hard-working men and women of the U.S. Navy are in the news for being worked too hard, but this is by no means a recent phenomenon. In Six Frigates, Ian Toll's gripping account of the early American navy, the deprivations of life at sea are downright harrowing: brutal discipline and horrid weather, punctuated by moments of sheer terror. Then, as now, there were relatively few souls willing to volunteer for voyages that could span from Spain to Sumatra, and that could end in death, dismemberment - or worse.

But there was an undeniable romance to the Age of Sail. This was an era when ships navigated by the currents and stars, when opposing captains gave and accepted challenges for single combat, where entire countries fought for notions of honor, even in conflict with their own economic interests. The politics of the age were different, too. Personal magnetism and old friendships in Washington, D.C. could withstand even bitter partisan fights over issues that would be quite familiar to us today (taxes, trade, military spending).

Six Frigates (faithfully cobbled together from the records of the Department of the Navy) takes us back to this world, where Washington, Adams, Jefferson, and Madison shepherded the original six frigates of the U.S. Navy. Ian Toll takes us from patrolling the Caribbean for privateers to exchanging broadsides with the Royal Navy in the War of 1812. There's quite a bit of Patrick O'Brian in the (nonfiction) narrative, so much so that Toll even quotes a passage from The Fortune of War. If you have even a passing interest in naval warfare, I highly recommend it.

Guns: Langdon Tactical - Tactical Pistols Skills class review and report

A couple months ago, I took a "Tactical Pistol Skills" course with Ernest Langdon of Langdon Tactical at the Homestead Training Center. Ernest has the bona fides: he served for 12 years in the U.S. Marines, including as an instructor for the High Risk Personnel Course (read: self-defense for troops deployed in not-so-friendly places), and he's been a competitive shooter and firearms instructor for decades. In a nutshell, I really enjoyed the class, and if you ever get the opportunity to train with him, here's what to expect...

Disclaimer: Just so there's no confusion, shooting is my hobby. I have been in exactly zero gunfights. I am licensed to practice law, not to enforce it. The following review and report is not meant to teach any "tactical" skills, that's for sure.

Day One

Like a lot of classes, the first morning was a lecture covering all sorts of topics, some familiar (the Cooper color code) and some esoteric (a behind-the-scenes look at gun manufacturing, and why the current craze of striker-fired guns has more to do with economics than effectiveness). The shooting techniques discussed weren't anything unorthodox: modified isosceles stance, a high thumbs-forward grip with the support hand angled forward, and a constant-motion trigger stroke for double-action shots. One thing Ernest emphasized was not to "shoot to the reset"; pinning the trigger to the rear and feeling for the reset after each shot is something dreamed up by GLOCK's marketing department.

Things got a bit more interesting once we hit the range, when we started warming up with some basic double-action and single-action shots at 5 yards. Ernest is really good at diagnosing shooter errors; for instance, in a one-on-one session, he instructed a shooter to fire shots at the instant Ernest yelled, "Now!". The shots were all on target, indicating that the shooter's problems in slow fire were likely being caused by an anticipatory microflinch.

Here's Ernest teaching the press-out and giving tips on concealed carry garments:

Day Two

We spent the entire second day on the range, with a good bit of instruction on the DA/SA trigger press. It turns out most people will actually hit the first double-action shot, but then flub a few of the single-action shots, as they are using too much force and steering the gun out of alignment. That was my experience, anyway:

A portion of the morning was devoted to the famous F.A.S.T. from the late great Todd Green. Ernest was able to demonstrate a sub-5 second run, which was impressively fast in person. Here are some runs, from slowest (me) to fastest (him):

The last part of the day was spent training techniques I rarely get to practice at my home ranges - shooting on the move...

...and barricades:

All in all, it was quite a lot of shooting, but I never felt like we were just chucking rounds downrange. All the drills were clearly explained and helpful, our targets were constantly checked and re-taped, and Ernest was able to give a little bit of personal instruction to everyone in the class. If you ever get the opportunity to do some handgun training with Langdon Tactical, I think it'd be well worth your time.

Thursday, December 21, 2017

Movies: Coco

Recently, Pixar's been alternating between unnecessary, commercially-driven sequels ("Finding Dory" being the most egregious example), and emotionally satisfying original pictures. I guess I don't mind, given that the studio used to only put out a movie every couple years anyway, but it does mean that you have to stay alert for when they release something noteworthy, like "Coco":

Like last year's excellent "Moana," the movie is a deep dive into a specific real-world culture: Mexico and its famous Day of the Dead.  Our hero is Miguel, a young boy who grows up in a music-hating family.  When he "borrows" a guitar from the grave of legendary musician Ernesto de la Cruz, Miguel finds himself sucked into the world of the dead. His only chance of escape? Tracking down de la Cruz and proving himself a real musician.

It's a bonkers premise, one part Grim Fandango and one part Crossroads, but it works because of the strong characters on display. Miguel faces a genuine conflict between his family and his passion for music, and in his struggle to reconcile the two, he shows a lot more maturity than the typical headstrong Disney youths you might be conditioned to seeing. Some cracking Mexican music doesn't hurt, either, with traditional Pixar composer Michael Giacchino collaborating with dozens of Mexican composers and musicians to get it right.

Rating: 8/10

Music: A Very Violin Christmas

Things have been pretty busy here at Shangrila Towers, and if you're anything like me, long hours at the office are tougher during the holiday season. Of course, one way to cut through the yuletide drudgery is Christmas music; I've been listening to a bunch of it. In particular, I've been jamming to these holiday albums from YouTube's most popular violinists:

Songs of Christmas, Taylor Davis and Lara de Wit

Taylor Davis's collaborations with Australian pianist Lara de Wit are always fun occasions.  The pair recently released "Songs of Christmas," a straightforward collection of festive instrumentals. There are some nice takes on more recent songs, like "Happy Xmas" and Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah," mixed in with decades-old standards:

Warmer in the Winter, Lindsey Stirling

Lindsey Stirling's Mormon faith is very well known, so it's no surprise that she's released an album of Christmas music. It's a fresh and upbeat set, with a mix of traditional cuts ("I Saw Three Ships," "What Child Is This?") and original songs, including pop earworms like "Christmas C'mon":