Saturday, February 20, 2021

Books: "The Science of" Double Feature

Most movies and TV shows have a cavalier attitude towards the laws of physics ("So what if John McClane would've been maimed or killed by jumping off a building tethered only by a firehose? It looked cool as hell!"). Vince Gilligan's Breaking Bad and Christopher Nolan's Interstellar are two exceptions to that rule, however, and today's post reviews the entertaining books explaining the science behind those productions.

The Science of Breaking Bad

Breaking Bad's conceit - milquetoast high school chemistry teacher Walter White transforms into a meth-making drug lord - doesn't immediately call for MacGyver-esque antics, but the show delivered in spades. Each season, Walt and his cohorts would get out of sticky situations using the power of science: an improvised battery to start the engine of their RV-turned meth lab, hydrofluoric acid and giant magnets to dispose of incriminating evidence, and, of course, cooking up Walt's signature crystal meth, "Blue Sky."  

The show's science advisor, chemistry professor Dr. Donna J. Nelson, wrote this neat book with science writer Dave Trumbore. As the official advisor, Nelson gives some fascinating behind-the-scenes insights into the writers' room, including the practical and dramatic reasons for some choices on the show (a particular chemical might be used simply because it's easy for the actors to pronounce). As a professor, Nelson makes the book surprisingly pedagogical, and it'd be a fun companion to a college chemistry course.

The Science of Interstellar

Plenty of movies hire science advisors, but Christopher Nolan went all-out and recruited Nobel laureate and Caltech professor Kip Thorne to parse the physics of his sci-fi epic Interstellar.  In consulting on the movie, Thorne attempted to eliminate or minimize physically impossible elements (like travelling faster than the speed of light) and also helped the special effects crew model the appearance of a supermassive black hole (which even led to a scientific paper).

The Science of Interstellar functions as a crash course in the strange (and sometimes theoretical) astrophysical phenomena in the movie, including an artificial wormhole and a planet with deadly mile-high tidal waves. As you might expect, the book is strongest when Thorne is within his physics expertise (discussing gravitational singularities and time dilation) and weakest when he has to explain other sciences (the movie's depiction of suspended animation systems and planetwide crop-killing blights). All in all, it's a great read and a must-have for science-minded fans of the movie.

Sunday, February 14, 2021

Guns: The Tacticool Remington 870 Wingmaster, Part 4 - Sling and Final Test

I converted my vintage Remington 870 Wingmaster into a modern home defense shotgun. In Part 1 of the series, I swapped out its barrel. In Part 2, I swapped out its stock and foreend. Part 3 covered a mag tube extension and sidesaddle. 

Today, I'm finally finishing up the series (yup, just took two years, Remington's bankruptcy, and a once-in-a-lifetime global pandemic to get me off my keister). Let's look at some sling options and the final test:


I'm one of those guys who doesn't typically put slings on home defense shotguns, but understands their utility. Having a sling allows you to keep the shotgun on you when you need both your hands, whether it's for drawing a secondary weapon or slapping on a tourniquet. On the other hand, slings do tend to get in the way, especially for a pump shotgun.

My compromise? An el cheapo $35 Blackhawk! Dieter CQD sling that I throw on when I feel like running a sling:

You can use it single or two-point thanks to the included dual alligator clip hardware; for my shotgun, I just hook both clips into the Magpul SGA mount. Is it the best sling out there? Heck no - the Vickers Sling from Blue Force Gear blows it out of the water. But for the price, and the intended occasional use, it does just fine.

Range Report

If you're reading this blog, you are probably in the tiny minority of shotgun owners who bother to pattern with different buckshot loads. It's such an important task that so few people do; unlike a pistol or rifle, the point of impact and spread of any given shotgun barrel/00 buckshot combo can vary dramatically.

Check out this group of 5 shells of cheap, roll-crimped Rio Royal 00 at 15 yards - while the pattern is generally centered around my point of aim, there are lots of pellets off target:

In contrast, here's 5 shells of Federal Flite Control. While it shoots a hair to the left in my hands, all 45 pellets are exactly where I want them - the critical triangle formed by a person's nose and nipples that you need to hit to stop an attacker.

To round out the testing, I also tried some common hunting-style slugs at 25 yards, a very long and unusual shot in a home defense situation. Again, some loads, like the Federal Power Shock, were just inherently more accurate from this particular shotgun barrel. Note, however, that even though the Winchester Super X might have turned in worse groups, they might be a better choice because of reduced muzzle flash or better terminal performance.

Well, the old Wingmaster is now fully transformed, and we've finally closed the book on this series. In today's times, with pistols and rifles at a premium, a shotgun might be a good choice for defense - just make sure to test it first with your preferred loads!

TV: WandaVision

The first year of the House of Mouse's streaming service was hit and miss, but 2021 has given Disney+ its best show to date - the wonderful WandaVision, created by showrunner Jac Schaeffer and starring Elizabeth Olsen and Paul Bettany:

It's hard to say anything about WandaVision without spoiling it, but suffice it to say that the show pays tribute to the history of TV sitcoms while also introducing the next phase of the MCU, jampacked with mutants and multiverses. As someone whose childhood revolved around watching I Love Lucy and Bewitched on Nick at Nite, WandaVision was right up my alley - heck, there's an entire episode pastiche of Full House, the show made famous by Olsen's older siblings Mary-Kate and Ashley. I guess my only caveat would be that WandaVision doesn't have big battles or snarky quips to draw in non-comic-book-fans; if "House of M" and the "Young Avengers" don't ring a bell for you, you will miss a whole lot of references in this one.

Music: Love Story (Taylor's Version)

Taylor Swift is re-recording her first six albums after a nasty split with her old record label, and the first of these new-old songs is her breakout country-pop crossover hit, "Love Story":

The track is fascinating, both in terms of copyright licensing gamesmanship and musical artistry. It sounds almost identical to the 2008 version upon a casual listen, which is the point of the whole exercise - by vetoing any use of her original masters, Taylor can force TV and films to use her new records and diminish the value of the old songs. Artists have tried this gambit before with middling success, but "Taylor's Version" is so close to the original track that most people couldn't tell one from the other.

Listen closely, though, and subtle differences emerge. The production values are higher; the original track was cut when Swift was just another up-and-coming Nashville star, whereas now she's one of the richest musicians on the planet. But the biggest change is in Swift's vocals: older, more natural, and with the wisdom that years of high-profile failed relationships (romantic and professional, and sometimes both) bring to the table. For a songwriter who trafficks in nostalgia, it's a neat effect, and hopefully will apply to most of Swift's back catalog ("Fifteen," "Tim McGraw," and "All Too Well," to name just a few).

Friday, February 05, 2021

Books: The Sixth Gun

One good thing about the pandemic slowdown is that it's given me time to catch up on books that I've always meant to finish, like The Sixth Gun:

In my defense, The Sixth Gun is massive - an epic 50-issue Weird West comic series written by Cullen Bunn, with art by Brian Hurtt and colors by Bill Crabtree. It finished way back in 2016, and the giant hardcover Deluxe Editions loomed on my bookshelf like tombstones for years.

The books tell of six guns, each with dark mystical powers. One strikes with the force of a cannon shell, one spreads the very flames of Perdition, another grants eternal youth and the ability to heal from even fatal wounds. The most powerful of them all is the Sixth Gun, which can see into the future. If all six guns are ever brought together, they can destroy the world...or worse. 

When the Sixth Gun falls into the hands of a simple farmgirl, Becky Montcrief, she and a mysterious rogue, Drake Sinclair, become embroiled in an age-old battle for all creation. It's Lord of the Rings meets Two Mules for Sister Sara meets Call of Cthulhu, with pulpy artwork that feels like an EC Comics rendition of Zorro's Fighting Legion. I thought it was a lot of fun, though it does start to run out of ideas by the last ten or so issues.

Links: Blogroll Additions

Shangrila Towers has a living blogroll, composed only of websites that are still being updated. As new blogs are found, I put them on, and as old blogs die, I take them off.  

Most of the blogroll is composed of gun blogs, since shooting is my hobby and a Second Amendment debate put me on the path to becoming a lawyer. Here are a few blogs I'm adding:

Breach Bang Clear - Edited by The Mad Duo, a pair of the world's roughest, toughest action figures, this blog has a variety of contributors, making the tone sometimes tongue-in-cheek tone (a Mandalorian themed .458 SOCOM AR build) and sometimes surprisingly heartfelt (parenting an autistic child).

The Cornered Cat - On very rare occasions, the author of a dead blog resurfaces and begins posting again. Happily, that happened with Kathy Jackson's self-defense-oriented blog after a two-and-a-half year hiatus. I added Kathy's blog to my blogroll 8 years ago, and I'm glad to put it on again.

Practical Eschatology - If the last 11 months haven't felt enough like the End Times, read this prepping-and-survival oriented blog. Docent's posts are often political, sometimes pathologically so, but always practical. The blog features regular aggregation posts with lots of commentary and shooting links.