Thursday, November 26, 2015

I'm Thankful Not To Have...

It's Thanksgiving in the US today! I'm thankful for all sorts of things, from the big concepts (life, health, family) to the mundane (the banana cream pie I just ate, cheap games at the Steam sale, a library full of books just down the street). I'm sure all the Thanksgiving celebrations today have celebrated things to be thankful for. Just to be different, I thought I'd also mention a few things that I'm grateful not to have.
Holiday Travel. You hear about it all the time around this time of's a horrible time to be traveling. It starts with the weather, starting to turn cold and snowy. Then you add a whole bunch of people going to grandma's house or wherever for the big holidays. Staying at home is so much less stressful.

A Criminal Record. I'm sure everyone remembers doing some stupid things as a youngster, and I'm no exception...likely worse than most. I got lucky in that my stupidity happened as a minor, as well as having great support from family and others, and I'm thankful for that. But not everyone is so fortunate, and it's really tough if you have a record (consider this PBS documentary about people with records being driven into poverty). I'm happy to say that here in Michigan some strides are being made toward helping people get out from under a criminal record. Earlier this year, a law was passed allowing records to be expunged in certain circumstances, and another bill is in the works to make the process automatic for some people.

Natural Disasters. Here in West Michigan, we get a couple of major snowstorms every year, and about once a decade a small tornado comes through. That's about it. I see stories all the time about hurricanes, tornadoes, floods, droughts, earthquakes, etc in other areas of the country and the world. I'm happy to live in a place with very little in the way of such things, and grateful for it.

Oppressive Authority. North Korea. Syria. Zimbabwe. Saudi Arabia. Iran. There are a lot of places in the world where secular and/or religious institutions are more interested in oppressing their people than helping them. I certainly have my differences with the way things are done here in the US, but I'm grateful that I live in a place and time where individual freedom is supported by government and religious authorities.

Not an exhaustive list by any means, but it covers a few things that have been on my mind lately. Happy Thanksgiving to everyone!

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Pyramid Controversy

We've got a pyramid controversy in West Michigan, and it has nothing to do with "pyramid schemes."
Yes, a real pyramid. It's an office building, not a tomb, though the confusion is understandable.
The pyramid was built by Steelcase, the office furniture company, back in 1989. They left in 2010, and it's more or less just sat around ever since. In 2014, an education group agreed to buy the building, but early in 2015 Steelcase sold it to a developer instead. The developer plans to sell it to Switch, a technology company that runs Internet data centers. Switch would turn the pyramid and surrounding area into one of the largest data centers in the eastern US, a project that would bring $5 billion in investment over the next 10 years.

That all sounds pretty good. Old building that no one has been willing to buy for years, sold to a high-tech firm that will bring what is effectively an entire new industry to the area? Hard to argue with that. Ah, but not so fast, it's never that simple.

Controversy #1: The education group (ECI) who were planning that purchase in 2014 are suing Steelcase. According to this article:

According to a lawsuit filed in Kent County court on Wednesday, Nov. 18, the original purchase price was $7.5 million. But, after ECI found infrastructure problems with the Pyramid, the purchase price went down to $3 million.
The suit alleges Steelcase secretly negotiated to sell the property to Norman Properties, while it still had a purchase agreement with ECI.

ECI is asking the courts to force Steelcase to sell the pyramid to them at the lower price, plus pay damages for reneging on the deal. Steelcase would like them to just go away. I suspect the end result will be somewhere in the middle, with Steelcase paying ECI some undisclosed amount to drop the suit. At least, that's likely if the new deal actually goes through, which brings us to...

Controversy #2: For Switch to move into the pyramid, they're demanding a tax break, and that's not going over well. Conservative lawmakers and political groups are denouncing it as crony capitalism and government picking private-sector winners. They've definitely got a point. All other things being equal, you'd rather see investment made on the merits of the companies involved, not based on which government is willing to pony up the best deal.

On the other hand, the folks pushing the tax breaks are saying that they're just leveling the playing field between Michigan and other states. They have a point, too; with that $5 billion investment on the line, someone is going to give Switch what they want. Assuming they craft the bills intelligently, such that Switch only gets the benefits if they actually bring investment into the state, Michigan should end up with a positive value in the end.

I'm really not sure which way this one will go. If the tax breaks can pass the state legislature, I'm confident that our notoriously business-friendly governor will sign them. It seems to be the logical thing to do, even if it's ideologically unpalatable. Asking the Michigan state legislature to value logic over ideology, though, is a pretty tall order. After what they've done with the roads, I have no confidence that logic plays any part in their deliberations.

It would be nice to see something made of the pyramid again, especially if that something involves a whole lot of investment and a new high-technology industrial center. The hurdles to clear look pretty high, though.

Tuesday, November 24, 2015


I like logic puzzle games. A side effect of being mathematically inclined, I suppose. When I first found Minesweeper, I spent way too much time poking at those little squares (and often blowing myself up). If Hexcells had existed back then, I might never have stopped.
The idea behind Hexcells is very simple. You've got a bunch of six-sided (thus the "hex") cells connected in some kind of pattern. Each cell can be unknown, empty, or full. The game provides you with various clues (number of full adjacent cells, how many full cells in a row, etc). Properly identify the status of all the cells as either empty or full to win.

As with all really good logic puzzles, that simple idea becomes fiendishly complex. Sometimes the patterns are huge, with dozens of cells and a ton of clues. One part of the pattern might be impossible until you've unraveled a different part. Sometimes the patterns are small, but every clue is interconnected, so finding even one cell status requires deep thought.

There are actually three Hexcells games, each of which comes with a good number of patterns to unravel. As you progress, you'll be introduced to new kinds of clues and more complicated patterns to solve. In the third game, Hexcells Infinite, there is also a random-pattern mode that can be played effectively forever (thus the "infinite").

In Hexcells, you're never stuck. (Unlike some similar games where sometimes you have to guess.) You might think you're stuck, but there's always enough information to figure out at least one of the remaining unknown cell statuses. That one leads to another, and another, and eventually you have them all. Whether you're smart enough to figure that out is another question, of course.

If logic puzzle games appeal to you, pick up Hexcells. Pick up all three, for that matter. You won't be disappointed.

Monday, November 23, 2015

SWTOR: Shadow of Revan

After finishing up business on Makeb, Eltaix headed back to the Imperial Fleet to begin the Shadow of Revan story-line. The mission came with a nice little transport device to take me directly to the contact, which is awfully nice. That's a handy shortcut that I hope they include with all the major story missions in the future.

I started making my way through the Shadow of Revan prologue story mission, and almost immediately was sent to a Flashpoint. You may recall from my previous post that this was not a good experience when it happened on Ilum. In this case, though, I was sent to a solo version of the Flashpoint. Eltaix and Mako were buffed way up and we were joined by a combat droid, rendering the Flashpoint enemies basically the same as those you'd find in normal combat. Some of the boss fights were still a little more difficult, but not by much. Mostly it just took a while to get through all their hit points. I don't mind seeing Flashpoints as long as I can go through in solo mode.
The strike team. That droid is more dangerous than he looks.
Shadow of Revan has an extensive story. The prologue alone spanned multiple Flashpoints, and took me several hours to complete. I didn't mind much, as the story was interesting and the combat wasn't too difficult. Things moved along more quickly than through much of the earlier game, in fact, primarily because there was almost no travel time. Between that transport device that I mentioned earlier and easy-exit transports at the end of each Flashpoint, I rarely had to do much more than go down the hall to the next segment of the story. Sadly, this state of affairs does not continue; things revert back to "go do some stuff then run half-way across the planet to your contact" after the prologue.

Once into the main story, it's time once again to visit a new planet. Rishi is backwater planet run by pirates, and you show up pretending to be a pirate yourself. The idea is to get information on a larger conspiracy, of course, but it's kind of fun doing silly pirate stuff. Almost every mission gives you a new piece of significantly improved gear - in comparison to the story mission rewards to this point, at least. That's a typical MMO tactic for getting casual/returning players caught up for a newly released area. Feels a little weird in my case, since I'm playing it so long after initial release, but I won't complain about getting nice stuff.

After sufficient pirate-kicking, the story moves along to tracking down and thwarting Revan's plans. I was a little disappointed when I had to fight a fellow Mandalorian bounty-hunter rather than coming to some agreement with her, but that's a minor quibble with an otherwise interesting trip across Rishi. It all culminates in another Flashpoint (also with a solo mode) that felt appropriately epic, battling on the ground to turn the tide of a massive space battle above.

The story then moves on to another planet, Yavin 4. It doesn't have as much character as Rishi; lack of pirate gangs will do that to a planet. Plenty of wild animals and overgrown jungle temples, though. This time the story actually contributed to the choice of whether to run solo or with a group: solo players had to gather NPC help for the big final battle, via some extra missions (which also are daily reputation missions for all players). I didn't try the group option, obviously, but I assume you'd do some big group fights instead of those extra missions. I thought that was a nice touch, marrying up the story and gameplay mechanics.

I found Yavin 4 to be much more heavily populated with other player characters than previous worlds. There were several times where I had to wait around for spawns since other players had killed things I needed for a mission, or wait for an object to reset so I could get credit for clicking it. Pretty typical in the MMO world - the higher level areas get crowded as more and more people progress past the lower content. Annoying, but not game-breaking. I did enjoy the fact that one mission included an actual puzzle to solve; it was ridiculously easy, but still, something different is good.
Lots of NPC help against Revan for us solo players.
The final battle against Revan started like any other boss, albeit one with a ton of hit points and some really big attacks. I learned very quickly that it was a good idea to stop shooting and just run away whenever he came after me, until he lost interest and went after one of my NPC allies. Partway through, he imprisoned all my allies and put himself in an invulnerable shield, and that was greatly confusing. There was no indication of what I was supposed to do, and eventually he killed me. Had I looked up the fight on the web first, I would have saved myself some frustration, but I had hoped that the fight mechanics would be clear in-game. After a couple of tries, I eventually realized there were little glowing things I could pick up and use to free the NPCs. From that point on, it was easy enough.

Following Yavin 4, I also went through the epilogue story on the planet Ziost. It follows up on the ancient Sith Emperor that was referenced quite a bit in the Shadow of Revan story. Fairly short, but an important episode leading into the next expansion.

Eltaix hit the level cap of 65 partway through the story-line on Yavin 4. Doesn't really matter to me, except that it means I can finally spend my 1000 common data crystals at the level-65-only vendors. There's still more story to go through with the Knights of the Fallen Empire story-line, regardless of level advancement.

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Macross Zero

I'm working my way through the various Macross anime series, as I've mentioned previously. I enjoyed the original series and Macross Plus, then was decidedly underwhelmed by Macross 7. Next I queued up Macross Zero.
Macross Zero is another short series, consisting of five half-hour episodes - basically the length of a movie. The setting is the South Pacific in 2008, which puts it a year prior to the main events of the original series. The entire series takes place on Earth, and there are no aliens outside of some ancient artifacts, both aspects which make this series unique within the franchise. It was released in the early 2000s, which means the production values are quite a bit higher than the other series that I've watched thus far. That showed in the art style, which I thought was very well done.

I went into this series expecting it to be mostly references to the original Macross series, and not a whole lot else. The references are there: Focker's presence, the transforming fighter planes, the battles between UN and separatist forces, artifacts from the alien protoculture, etc. It certainly helps to be familiar with the original series' story-line; if you haven't seen it, you should at least read a summary first. But Macross Zero is more than just a prequel to the original series.

The story primarily follows a UN pilot named Shin, who is learning to fly the brand-new transforming fighters under the command of Captain Roy Focker (the same guy who plays a large role in the original series). Shin is part of a larger battle between UN and separatist forces over control of an ancient alien artifact. The battle engulfs the native island population, whose legends about the artifact warn of great danger if it is awakened. Shin and Sara, a native priestess, fall in love and eventually are central to the effort to prevent the awakened artifact from causing mass devastation.

Macross Zero explores the tension between the native islander population's ancient culture and the invasion of the modern world. Sara in particular is very resistant to change, both for personal reasons and as the representative of her island's ancient beliefs. As events play out, there are points where it seems that she is right, and other points where her refusal to change appears to make things worse. The writers did a good job of exploring the theme without allowing the "primitive natives vs superior technologists" to become a cliche.

There's a good amount of focus on the mecha in this series, as one would expect from the first use of transforming fighters in the franchise. The separatist forces use their version first, shooting Shin down in the early going, and then the UN version evens up the playing field with Focker and those under his command. I liked how Shin's struggles to adapt to this new kind of aircraft were presented. It's nice to see a central character who isn't instantly a virtuoso at whatever sort of combat he tries.

It wouldn't be Macross without an alien presence, but the use of an ancient artifact rather than living aliens is a nice change of pace. Rather than the unavoidable overwhelming alien threat used in both the original series and Macross 7, in Macross Zero the alien presence is benign until humanity's curiosity (and power lust) disturbs it. What is eventually revealed of the artifact's origin and reason for being on Earth fits nicely into the history that was established in the original series.

I enjoyed Macross Zero, and can recommend it to anyone who likes aerial fighter-plane battling, ancient beliefs-vs-modern progress tension, and unraveling of ancient artifact mysteries.

Saturday, November 21, 2015

Snow Inbound

The first snow storm came through last night, here in my corner of West Michigan. It's not actually the first snowfall this year - we had a little bit a week or so ago, but it was barely noticeable. Since then, it's been very warm here, mostly in the 60s. But obviously that wasn't going to last, and it changed last night.
A couple of inches from last night, with flakes still falling.
I tend to wear things until they fall apart, and winter clothing is no exception. After last year, though, I knew I had to do something about winter gear. My gloves were literally coming apart at the seams, the sweatpants that make good winter night wear were worn through, and my heavy winter jacket is old enough that it's losing stuffing.
Ground is still pretty warm, so the sidewalks and roads are clear for now.
So I did some shopping over the summer. It's pretty easy to find stuff on sale when you're looking at the right time, and so I was able to pick up a bunch of new winter things at reasonable prices.
These will get plenty of use between now and March.
The best way to deal with winter in Michigan is to stay out of it. But when you do have to go outside, it's good to be prepared to stay warm.

Friday, November 20, 2015

Further Adventures in Bread Making

I started out using my bread machine for basic French bread and sandwich bread, which has worked out very well. Those are still my favorites, but I felt the need to branch out for some more bread variety.

I'm sure no one who knows me is surprised to find that I first tried banana bread. It doesn't fit nicely into any of the pre-set mixing-and-cooking programs on the machine, so I followed this recipe and used the dough mix setting, followed by manually setting the bake time. My first attempt didn't completely mix all the ingredients properly, resulting in some small pockets where the dry ingredients had baked into a sort of crumbly mess. Easily remedied on future attempts by using a spatula to assist the machine's stir paddle, making sure everything got mixed up properly.
Bread of bananas.
That turned out nicely, with a bit over an hour of cook time. Slice it up, add butter, great snack or dessert.

Next I attempted a recipe from the bread machine's booklet, honey and almond bread. I'm not a big fan of nuts in bread, but they're OK as long as they're chopped up small enough. That part I was able to handle, but unfortunately the actual bread part didn't work too well. It didn't rise much at all, which in turn meant it didn't cook properly.
Hard to tell by looking, but trust me, that honey-and-almond loaf turned out dense and doughy.
I tried the recipe twice, just in case I screwed it up the first time, but got the same result. I suspect the issue lies with the yeast...either not enough of it, not the right temperature, or the wrong mix of other ingredients for it to activate properly. So I gave up on the honey bread for now. I may try it again someday, but I'll be finding another recipe to use.

Next, I decided on another bread machine booklet recipe, whole wheat bread. It was more similar to the successful recipes than the honey bread one, so I felt fairly confident that it would work. The main difference is using whole wheat flour, and sunflower oil/water rather than milk/eggs. And indeed, it turned out nicely. 
Wheat bread. Very brown.
It doesn't slice quite as easily as the white sandwich bread, so I probably won't make it too often, but it goes really well with soup or stew. Might use it more in the winter when hot soup sounds better than a sandwich.

There are tons of additional recipes out there, so I expect to try more bread types in the future. Already got my eye on a cheddar cheese bread recipe.