Monday, February 20, 2017

Continuum

After watching Travelers, I was in the mood for more time-travel sci-fi, and Netflix's recommendations turned up Continuum.
Like many time-travel-based stories, Continuum gets its start in a dystopia future. The protagonist isn't usually trying to preserve that future, though. The heroine of Continuum, Kiera Cameron, is part of the private police force in a future controlled by corporate power. The villains are terrorists trying to change things to prevent the corporations from taking over and causing indentured servitude or death for millions. It's an interesting tension, where the viewer isn't always sure which side should win.

I thought the first two seasons of Continuum were very well done. The viewer is kept guessing as to which side is winning, or whether either side is having any effect on their future at all. The characters have plenty of personal issues to keep things interesting, in addition to the big picture. But I was less enthusiastic about the third season and the short six-episode fourth season, largely because the writers introduced actual timeline changes. In most of the first two seasons, the viewer was never sure if anything in the future had actually changed, or if everything we saw was just part of a big causality loop. At the end of the second season and into the third, though, it's very clear that things are actually changing. Once that started happening, I felt that a lot of the suspense went out of the plot. (Also the ending is fairly sappy, but I don't hold that against the show since they had to wrap everything up in that short final season.)

There's a lot of the usual suspects in the plot of Continuum: nearly magical future technology, lots of hiding from present-day characters, future people trying to protect their ancestors, and so on. For the most part I thought all that stuff was handled well, if not in a particularly original manner. That's OK, since the real originality of Continuum comes from how the characters change their views about what the future should be like over time.

For anyone who loves sci-fi based dramas, Continuum is worth watching. It's really good at the beginning, and by the time it starts to slow down you'll likely be invested enough in the characters and plot to forgive the weaker portions of the later seasons.

Thursday, February 16, 2017

Good Dental News

As far as teeth go, 2017 is already a much better year than 2016.
I had my first cleaning visit of the year this week. Not only did they not find any problems, but my hygienist actually complimented me on how well I've been doing with tooth care. I'm used to hearing how my flossing isn't quite up to par, or I need to pay more attention to my gums, etc. Apparently I've been doing everything right lately, though.

That's a far cry from last year, when I got the news that I needed a half-dozen fillings during my first cleaning visit. Leading to my least favorite dental experience yet a couple of months later, a root canal, later capped off with a crown. I still get the occasional ache in that tooth, but they did a small adjustment to it so maybe that'll go away too.

I suppose maybe that terrible experience last year is the reason that I got the clean bill of mouth health this time around. Going through the root canal process gives you a solid incentive to follow all the appropriate dental guidelines, so as to avoid ever having to do it again. So far, so good on that front.

Monday, February 13, 2017

The House of Daniel by Harry Turtledove

The House of Daniel: A novel of wild magic, the great depression, and semipro ballThe House of Daniel: A novel of wild magic, the great depression, and semipro ball by Harry Turtledove
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

There's a lot of baseball in The House of Daniel, but not the kind you may be familiar with. The book is set around the time of the Great Depression, which for baseball players meant that a lot of the lower-level minor league professional clubs folded. Semipro teams featuring local players who happened to live in the area were the norm, as well as barnstorming traveling teams - some with big-name players since they didn't get paid millions like today's stars. Outside of one organized tournament, the baseball in this book is the kind played by a traveling team against a different small-town semipro team every day.

Money, or lack thereof, is a constant theme - unsurprising in a Great Depression-era story. Jake "Snake" Spivey, our narrator, is grateful for his athletic ability to play center field well enough to earn money at it, since other jobs aren't easy to find. Even so, the opportunity for a little extra cash leads him to fall in with the wrong crowd. He gets lucky when the House of Daniel traveling team happens to need a center fielder after an injury, giving him a chance to make better money while also leaving behind some of his own problems.

As is usual with a Turtledove book, there's a lot of actual history mixed in with the more fantastic elements. There was a traveling team called the House of David which formed the basis of the House of Daniel team, and many of the towns and ballfields are based on those that actually existed back in the 1930s. References to the wider world are sprinkled through the book, from mention of the "War to End War" (this being before WW II) to Weeghman Park (our narrator not yet knowing that it was renamed Wrigley Field).

The world of The House of Daniel is also one of magic, where wizards work alongside engineers and vampires roam the night. This affects the story only in fairly minor ways, aside from one big dangerous event around the middle of the book. Most of the time, Jack takes the magical side of the world in stride and describes it no differently than the more mundane aspects. Honestly, I didn't think the magical aspects added anything to the story - you could have replaced it all with equivalent mundane activities without changing much. But it doesn't hurt, either, and I'm guessing Turtledove enjoyed putting in zombies and elementals and chupacabras.

As a fan of both baseball and alternate history novels, not to mention just about anything Turtledove has ever written, The House of Daniel was right up my alley. I had a great time reading about the little details of the team's games as well as following the larger story arc. Those who aren't as much into either baseball or the concept of an alternate history may find that the amount of detail is overwhelming, but that won't bother those familiar with how Turtledove works.

Friday, February 3, 2017

Some Cars

The Michigan Internationl Auto Show is in town this week. A friend and I went downtown to check it out.
A pair of Prii.
If you're not in Michigan, you've likely never heard of this particular show, which is held in Grand Rapids. The much more famous North American International Auto Show takes place in late January over in Detroit, and pretty much every year it makes the national news. Once that's over, the car companies pack up a small portion of their wares and truck them over to Grand Rapids for the smaller Michigan show in early February.
The modern muscle car lineup. None of them transformed, sadly.
I'm not much of a car person, but I like looking at shiny things as much as the next guy. I won't go much out of my way to see a bunch of new cars (say, driving to Detroit) but when it's happening nearby, I figure why not? Especially when the entry was free, since Michigan Radio was kind enough to provide me with a couple of tickets (via a contest drawing).
The modern Meijer would need a whole lot of these to keep the stock coming in.
When you walk in the front gate, you could be forgiven for a bit of confusion since all the cars are old. That's the Gilmore Car Museum collection, which is right in the front hall. There's also a replica of the very first Meijer truck, complete with replica 8.5 cents-per-gallon gas pump. Which gives you an idea of what era was represented.
A small herd of student-built vehicles.
Behind the classic cars was an area with student-built vehicles from local schools. As an engineering school graduate, I found those interesting, even if they weren't the solar-powered types that I remember from my days at Rose-Hulman. One was a restored classic car to be driven in the 2017 Great Race - a student driver, adult navigator, and no modern navigation devices going from Michigan to Florida.
A Great Race vehicle.
Then there was the giant room of modern automakers, showing off all the various current models. I'd say about half were trucks or SUVs, which I mostly ignored except to be thankful that I have no need for such a gas-guzzler. There were plenty of luxury models as well, some in the "you can buy a nice house for that" price range. Makes no sense to me, but some folks have more money than they know what to do with, I suppose. I spent most of my time looking at hybrids and economy models.
Pictured, approximately 2 mansions worth of car.
I found the 2017 Toyota Yaris, which didn't look much different from my 2010 (except cleaner, of course). About the same price and fuel efficiency, and no major form changes. I consider that a good thing, no reason to be anxious about upgrading.

Wandering around looking at all the new vehicles made for a fun couple of hours. Certainly there are plenty of interesting options out there in the market. In the end, though, I mostly was glad that I'm in no immediate danger of going through the hassle of getting a new car.

Sunday, January 29, 2017

How I Retired

Last January, I wrote a post on this blog about Why I Retired. A year later seemed like a good time to address the "how" portion, as in "how did I afford this?"
Here's one of those completely accurate yet almost entirely useless "easy steps" lists that you see in self-help books everywhere.

1. Make lots of money.
2. Don't spend much of it.
3. Invest the remainder wisely.

Simple, right? Obviously not, but it's a useful outline.

Step 1: Making money involves being both skilled and fortunate. Thanks in large part to good genes and upbringing, I had the aptitude needed to succeed in school and work with technology. Choosing computer science as a field of study meant that I had no lack of job opportunities, and I put in the work needed to be at the top of that field. Across my 15 years as a consultant and systems architect, I averaged around $100,000 a year.

Certainly the hard work was important to my success, but I think luck played a big part as well. If hadn't enjoyed working with technology and chosen a less lucrative field of study, or been born into different circumstances and never had the educational opportunities, I'd have had a much more difficult time making good money.

I also had several chances to take bigger risks - joining start-up firms, jumping to other career paths - but I chose to play the odds and stay on the less risky path. Could those risks have paid off with greater rewards? Sure, but it likely would have taken longer, and there's a chance I'd have ended up with much less.

Step 2: People spend money on all sorts of things, most of which never appealed to me. I don't really care for fancy cars, a huge wardrobe, a giant house, the fanciest home theater system, and so on. I do like travel and good food, but my choice of career meant that much of that was provided for me in the form of business trips. Keeping expenses down by buying economical cars, a small condo, used TV/stereo, etc was pretty easy for me. I'll admit that I did splurge on some high-end computers on occasion, but even there I'd usually build my own.

The biggest way that I kept my expenditures low, though, is by not marrying or having kids. Those are pretty important things to most people, but I'm just not built that way. I actually like living alone and I'm not particularly concerned about leaving a legacy (my brother's kids have the next generation covered anyway). Being single and unattached means that just about every line item in my budget is smaller than the average family: I need less space in my home, smaller car, less food, pay less for insurance, and so on.

It's also important to mention that even if you keep your regular expenses down, it's important to allow some slack in your budget. Everyone makes the occasional impulse purchase, or goes for a spur-of-the-moment dinner out with friends. (In my case, I tend to buy books and games that catch my eye, and make unplanned visits to brewpubs.) Have a miscellaneous line item in the budget that allows for such things.

Step 3: Investing wisely means setting up a plan for yourself, then avoiding two things: shortcuts and panic. The plan part is pretty easy since it's well-documented by just about every financial institution on the face of the planet. Take full advantage of tax-advantaged and/or employer-supported options such as 401(k) accounts. Create an emergency fund that you can access easily if needed. Split your remaining investments between long-term growth (usually stock index funds) and low-risk (bonds), starting with lots of the former and slowly moving to a more even split over time.

Avoiding the pitfalls isn't necessarily hard, but it does require discipline. By "shortcuts" I mean extremely risky methods like day trading. Sure, you can make a lot of money, but you can also lose a ton, to the point where it's basically gambling. You can also include actively managed funds in this category, which almost always under-perform index funds while charging higher fees. (I'll admit that I've fallen into that trap occasionally myself, but I've since learned my lesson.) By "panic" I mean deviating from the plan due to outside circumstances: a fall in the stock market, political upheaval, dire warnings from talking heads on finance cable shows, etc.

All of the above is what gave me the means to live my current lifestyle indefinitely. It wouldn't work for everyone, but in my case it gets the job done. Nothing is guaranteed, of course. Any number of disasters could poke a hole in my plan, but I have enough safeguards that in the worst case I should have plenty of time to get back into the work force. Hopefully, disaster can be avoided and I can stay with the plan as long as I like.

Monday, January 23, 2017

A Week in the Warm

I recently returned from a week's vacation in the Dominican Republic. January is a great time to get out of Michigan's winter and enjoy some Caribbean weather. (Here's some more pictures, besides those you see here.)
The beach in Costambar.
A group of guys I know make this trip nearly every year, and this is the third time I've joined them over the last decade or so. We spent a few days in each of three different areas: Costambar, Puerto Plata, and Sosua. Going with a group that's used to the trip makes things easy. I'm able to mostly leave the trip planning to others and enjoy the ride. Nice to have insider knowledge about good places to visit.
Food on the beach in Costambar.
Costambar is mostly an ex-pat community. There's a nice beach area that's not too crowded, since most of the tourists are elsewhere. Several local restaurants are run by folks from places like Germany and Italy. For the golf-inclined there's a local course, not that I made any use of it, but the paths around the outside of it made for a nice jogging route.
Big Lee's on the Malecon.
Puerto Plata and Sosua are much more tourist destinations. There are several all-inclusive resorts in the area. We weren't staying at those, but you see a lot of groups from them wandering around. In Puerto Plata, we took tours of a couple of local factories, Del Oro chocolate and Brugal rum. More good food, too. I particularly enjoyed visiting Big Lee's Beach Bar on the Malecon (roughly, "road along the ocean") - great fish and chips, and my friends knew Lee from years past so we hung out for a while and talked with him. And the main beach in Sosua is a big tourist attraction with a ton of small shops and food stalls, though I spent more time at the smaller Alicia Beach where it's not so crowded.
Ugly tourist by a beach sign in Sosua.
Streets and buildings are noticeably more run-down in most places in the Dominican Republic than we're used to here in the United States, and you have to be careful to drink bottled water. The traffic is pretty crazy - I certainly wouldn't want to drive myself around, so it's a good idea to make friends with a local cab driver. But those are fairly minor things to deal with, and it's pretty safe as long as you stay with a few friends and don't go wandering around in the dead of night or anything. And the cost is very reasonable - I spent less than $200 per day overall, including all the flight and lodging expenses. In a lot of places, you'll spend that on hotel alone.
Alicia Beach in Sosua.
Taking a trip down to the Caribbean makes a fine mid-winter break from the cold and snow. I'm not sure I'd ever want to move down there full-time like some of the ex-pats I met, but as a vacation spot the Dominican Republic is a fun place to visit.

Friday, January 13, 2017

Netflix's Travelers

Travelers is a Netflix sci-fi series based on the concept of limited time travel from a future dystopia to the present day. I recently watched the first season.
I've watched and read a lot of time-travel-based science fiction in my time. One thing I've learned is that the fewer restrictions placed on the ability to time-travel, the harder it is to take the story seriously. Travelers addresses this problem by giving the five main characters no control over their travel through time. Nothing physical has moved through time, just their personalities and memories. Each traveler takes over the body of a person seconds before they died, taking immediate action to save themselves, then continuing that person's life. Other travelers and orders from the future show up on a regular basis, but various restrictions in the process require travelers to appear in sequential order, so no going back multiple times to influence the same events.

The show follows a team of five travelers who arrive together in present-day Seattle. They're each expected to maintain their host bodies' previous lives as well as carry out missions from the future, which leads to all the problems that you'd expect from trying to lead two separate lives. It doesn't help that each of those hosts had their own problems to deal with, from addiction to disabilities to relationship issues. The conflicts that arise as the story unfolds are split pretty evenly between dealing with strictly 21st century issues and trying to obey instructions from the future.

The best part of Travelers is the conflicts within the characters themselves, in my opinion. Supposedly they're all dedicated first and foremost to completing missions for the future, at any cost, as well as leaving behind everything about their future lives other than the mission. It doesn't take long to realize that neither of those is really the case. No matter how much lip service is paid to that ideal, the choices they make repeatedly show that they have other priorities. Several supporting characters play a large role in this - wives, friends, parents, children, etc. In theory the travelers should be willing to sacrifice any of their relationships for the sake of the future, but it's never that simple.

Travelers has its fair share of shortcomings, largely related to what I consider to be unimaginative writing. After watching the first three episodes, I already had a pretty good idea where the overall story arc was headed. Indeed, in terms of broad strokes, the season end was pretty much exactly what I'd expected. Also, there are several instances (most notably in the big mid-season climax of episode six) where the characters strictly obey the future's rules of conduct in situations where it makes no sense. That would be fine if they always did so, but most of the time they're more than willing to bend the rules, so those situations come across as the writers relying using those future rules as a crutch to increase suspense. For me (and several other people I know) it had the opposite effect.

This first season of Travelers was good enough that I'll watch another, if Netflix decides to continue the series. And it's worth recommending to fans of the sci-fi time-travel genre. Just be aware that you're likely come across some cringe-worthy moments where the writing doesn't make a lot of sense.