Friday, July 1, 2016

Happy Canada Day!

July 1st is Canada Day, celebrating the formation of the country back in 1867.
I live in Michigan, but not near enough to the Canadian border for it to be a significant presence. So why do I know it's Canada Day? Baseball, of course. Every July 1, the Blue Jays play an afternoon game, even on days when everyone else is playing at night. (Well, at least on years when they're at home that day.) I first noticed it a few years ago when I started subscribing to MLB radio broadcasts through MLB.com. This year's game is against the Cleveland Indians, which makes it especially interesting since they've won 15 games in a row.

There was a good amount of ceremony pre-game, much like you'll see at all the USA stadiums on Monday for the 4th of July. Giant Canadian flag in the outfield, various armed services members doing the national anthem and presenting the flag, and even several members of the Canadian Olympic team introduced on the field. They also showed a list of all the Canadian players around MLB, and it was pretty long. Not all the kids in Canada are growing up to play hockey!

I'd never really looked at the history of how Canada was formed, so I figured today was a good time to at least read the Wikipedia page. Almost 100 years after the American Revolutionary War, Canada became an independent county through the British North America Act of 1867 (now called the Constitution Act). There wasn't a war involved, although there had been uprisings 30 years earlier which started the process that eventually led to independence. Unlike the USA, Canada stayed in the British Commonwealth. There's never been a civil war in Canada like the USA's War Between the States, but the province of Quebec has had a couple of referendums on secession. Neither was successful, and Quebec seems to be content to stay as part of Canada for the time being.

My personal experience with Canada is fairly limited, just a few visits over the years. Most notably, I went up to Toronto for LASIK eye surgery way back in 2000, when it was still a fairly new procedure. My eye doctor here in the USA recommended that I make the trip since the doctors there had much more experience with the process, and it worked out great.

Happy birthday to our neighbors to the north! May the Canada Day celebrations be safe, plentiful, and a whole lot of fun.

Thursday, June 30, 2016

Fantastic Four (2015)

Another movie off the watchlist via HBO NOW - the 2015 version of Fantastic Four.
No one seemed to like this movie much when it came out, which is one reason I hadn't bothered watching it until now. So I started with low expectations, which I think actually helped. I knew not to expect a faithful comic-series adaptation, or an amazing adventure with stunning special effects.

This version of the Fantastic Four is basically a group of young explorers, working on a way to cross into another dimension. They're working with Franklin Storm (father of the brother-sister Storms in the four) and another young scientist in Victor von Doom. Add in a smarmy corporate executive type and you have pretty much the whole cast.

None of the characters felt like they had much depth. What character development there was seemed to be trying to shoehorn them into the Fantastic Four mold - Reed's friendship with Ben, Sue and Reed growing close, Victor jealous of Reed. It all felt very predictable, even though these characters are different from the traditional comic cast. Seems like there were two different aims here - a different take on the Fantastic Four characters, and keeping familiarity for fans - and the result is that neither is done well.

Notably lacking is any significant attempt at humor, and it's sorely missed. I think the aim was to make a serious, suspenseful movie, but that's hard to do with superheroes. Everyone already knows more or less what will happen...world is in trouble, world is saved. The audience stays more engaged with a chance to laugh every once in a while.

Superhero movies rely pretty heavily on special effects and action scenes, and Fantastic Four is at best mediocre in both. It takes half the movie for there to be much in the way of either. The effects are pretty much what I expected, which isn't good...that means nothing was impressive enough to stand out. As for action, it's almost all concentrated into the final battle, which was completely predictable. Bad guy is strong, heroes are in trouble, heroes suddenly realize they can work together, big win. Yawn.

I think this could have been a decent movie if it wasn't about the Fantastic Four. Take the same general plot and tone, but make it about a smaller unfamiliar set of characters/powers, and you'd have a science fiction heroic adventure. You wouldn't need to split screen time trying to develop four different heroes, and their relationships could be a surprise to the viewer. Add in some improved action sequences, and it could be a much better film. Unfortunately, that's not how it worked out.

Wednesday, June 29, 2016

MLB All-Star Voting

The All-Star Break is only a couple of weeks away. The voting for starting position players has been going on for weeks now, and ends later this week.
MLB's All-Star voting process makes very little sense. First, the process starts after only a month or so has gone by in the season. It's hard to tell who is having a decent year based off such a short time period. I generally wait until near the end of June, to get the best idea of which players are actually playing well. Many votes are cast well before that, though, largely due to the constant advertising at ballparks, on game broadcasts, and on the MLB website.

Also, for some reason they want you to vote 35 times, with a maximum of 5 times each day. I suppose forcing you to come back across seven different days could drive some traffic to their website, although I suspect anyone willing to come back to vote every day is a person who already hits MLB.com on a daily basis. But the 35 votes total makes no sense. It drives up the total vote numbers, I suppose, but also is an obvious invitation to hackers that want to stuff the ballot box.

I don't suppose it really matters that the process is silly, since the whole thing is just a fan popularity contest anyhow. I generally try to vote for players actually having good seasons, rather than just picking all the players off my favorite teams or the biggest names. But that clearly isn't the way many people do it, which leads to things like Yadier Molina leading for NL catcher, despite multiple other NL catchers (Wilson Ramos, Jonathan Lucroy, and Buster Posey come to mind) having much better years.

Fortunately, the voting process only matters for the starters. The players and manager get to figure out the rest of the team, so players having really good years generally get to make an appearance, even if they don't get to start. There's always a few players who have a good argument for inclusion that aren't chosen, but not too many.

Regardless of the ridiculous process or the possibility of good players missing out, I still enjoy the All-Star voting process. There's always a player or two that jumps out from the list of statistics, surprising me with how good they're doing in the season thus far. That's a good enough reason to spend a few minutes looking over the player list and picking those having the best year.

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Brexit

Assuming you've been anywhere near a news source since last Friday, you already know that the people in the United Kingdom voted to leave the European Union. Approximately 52% to 48%, which is close but still a margin of around a million votes.
Pretty much everyone was surprised by the result. Certainly people outside of England and Wales were, since Scotland, Northern Ireland, and Gibraltar all voted heavily to stay in the EU. So did most of London, where the financial industry is a major player. Much of the media coverage leading up to the vote sounded pretty confident that the "remain" side would win.

Much has been made of Google's report that people in the UK were searching for things like "What does it mean to leave the EU" after the vote. It's tempting to look at that and assume that the voters didn't really know what they were doing. I'm sure that's true in a few cases, but largely I suspect that all the doom and gloom in the media was sending people to the Internet for some hope. Having said that, I'm pretty sure a lot of British voters would love a second chance to vote to stay in the EU.

There's already been a whole lot of weeping and gnashing of teeth over this, from all over the world. Financial markets have dropped like rocks, presumably because investors didn't think Britain would shoot itself in the financial foot. British prime minister David Cameron has promised to resign. Scotland is already talking about another vote for independence from the UK. Pretty much every world leader sounded worried about how this whole thing will play out.

It's going to be rough financially in the UK for a while. A large part of that will be businesses deciding that they should locate elsewhere, due to the coming instability during the EU exit, plus the loss of access to the EU direct market. On top of that, British politics are going to be pretty crazy for a while, since the majority of the current government was heavily in favor of staying in the EU. Political upheaval is rarely good for business.

Outside of the United Kingdom, though, now would be a good time for everyone to calm down over this whole thing. Europe isn't going anywhere, and neither is the United Kingdom. There won't even be any changes for at least months, and more likely years. The world economy will take a hit, but it should be short-lived. There will be a new equilibrium reached before long.

Most importantly, no one should let the media frenzy and the short-term market drops push them into any financial decisions. Short-term market instability is never a good reason to change a financial plan. The only people making significant decisions because of Brexit should be business leaders with interests in the United Kingdom, and even they should be taking it slow.

Monday, June 27, 2016

The Martian

I've been able to knock a few movies off my to-watch list with the HBO NOW subscription I picked up for this month. Latest in the list - The Martian.
The simplest way I can think of to describe The Martian is Robinson Crusoe meets Apollo 13. You've got the "lone survivor against a hostile environment" aspect of Crusoe, and the "scramble madly to put together a rescue plan in space" aspect of Apollo 13. The writers did a good job of interweaving the two. The survival aspect is more prevalent early, gradually giving way to the grand rescue later on.

I didn't notice any specific time references, but the film is clearly meant to be set in the near future. There's a lot of implied technology advances, enough to get manned missions to Mars with some pretty advanced survival gear. But it stops well short of near-magical technology like warp drives or teleportation. With the assumption of slightly-advanced technology, it's pretty easy to suspend disbelief over some of the less probable activities that happen in the course of the film.

Outside of the space program, the world is clearly recognizable as a mirror of our own. NASA still has to deal with Congress and public opinion, China is a rival on the world stage, crowds gather in Times Square, and so on. The politics and public opinion have some pretty major impacts, affecting the decisions made on the way to the rescue mission. One bit in particular stood out for me - when the Chinese space program officials decide to keep communication "scientist to scientist" rather than get the politicians involved. A none-too-subtle jab at the likelihood of international cooperation in the political arena, even in an emergency situation.

Matt Damon was excellent as the stranded Mark Watney, which is a good thing since he has a whole lot of screen time with no one else around. I also really liked Jeff Daniels as NASA Director Teddy Sanders. That character has to make some really hard decisions, and though he comes off as the bad guy in some ways, I thought Daniels' portrayal conveyed a real desire to do the right thing for the space program as a whole.

The effort put together to rescue the stranded astronaut is massive, which I think the film captures as well as possible in a limited time. There are a lot of references to how much work NASA has to put in with the rescue mission, some comments about the astronomical cost, and the Chinese program loses a planned mission as well. Many months are covered in the space of a couple of hours, which is never easy to properly convey in a way that feels real to the audience. There's one huge multi-month jump near the end of the movie, but other than that the movement of time is handled pretty smoothly.

In the end, the whole world is watching and cheering on the rescue mission. I didn't notice any direct reference to this in the film, but it struck me that there were probably thousands of people on Earth dying preventable deaths while the world was focused on the spectacle on Mars. Perhaps there's a bit of subtext there that isn't explicitly stated - it's amazing what can be accomplished with dedicated effort and resources, but only if they can be brought to bear.

I'm glad that I had the chance to watch The Martian. Well worth spending 2.5 hours to see.

Sunday, June 26, 2016

Burger King's Mac and Cheetos

Including cheese in your terribly unhealthy fast-food creation is a great marketing strategy, at least if I'm in the target audience. I have no resistance to cheese-based attacks.
Not the greatest presentation, but then, I don't mind a few burnt spots.
I didn't have high expectations for the Mac-and-Cheetos. I like each of the individual components just fine: macaroni and cheese, deep frying, and Cheetos. But putting them together seemed to be asking for trouble, particularly the macaroni. Macaroni and cheese has to be pretty fresh to be good, in my experience. Overcook it or leave it out for a while, and bad things happen.

I'm happy to say that it seems Burger King has done a good job figuring this thing out. My Mac-and-Cheetos tasted pretty much like macaroni and cheese, with a bit of Cheeto-powder flavor added on. I think it might be a little better without the Cheeto flavor, actually - certainly less messy to eat. But I'm not complaining.
Yep, there's the macaroni. And cheese-like sauce substance.
We're still talking fast-food quality here, of course. The macaroni and cheese is Easy Mac-level, and my pieces were a little burnt. That's pretty much what I expect for a few bucks, though.

I think Burger King has a keeper with this one. I'd take the Mac-and-Cheetos over fries or onion rings any day.

Saturday, June 25, 2016

PoE: Cruel Summoning

I've been revisiting Path of Exile (PoE) with the latest expansion, Prophecy. My undead-summoning necromancer witch has now made her way through Cruel difficulty, after finishing Normal a few days earlier.
In my experience, Cruel difficulty is well-named. It's the second of three difficulty levels, covering approximately levels 40 to 55. This is where you learn whether the build idea that you were so excited about back at level 1 is going to actually function the way you'd hoped. All the skill gems are available, you've got enough passive skill points to get the most important nodes on the passive tree, and a good selection of gear is available. With the exception of some specialized builds that use high-level unique items, everything is in place. Now the difficulty is cranked up and you hope it all comes together. If not...well, there's a reason they call it Cruel.

When you start over in the first act after finishing the previous difficulty, everything seems pretty easy. Those early monsters don't have the powerful skills that you see in the later acts. That's a good thing, because you may need time to get used to the reduced damage resistance that affects your character with each difficulty level. If you don't deal with that, the tougher monsters (especially act bosses) can be a very nasty surprise. Around act three or so, even the normal monsters are hitting hard enough to hurt pretty badly if your defenses aren't up to par.

Thanks in large part to my prior experience with the game, I didn't have too much trouble with anything in the Cruel story quests. Knowing exactly where you need to go, how the bosses act, and the most useful rewards to take all helps. I was actually a bit surprised at how easy the act three and four boss fights were, compared to the last time I played PoE. The added character power from the ascendancy classes and prophecy rewards makes a noticeable difference.

Going through the Cruel Labyrinth was not so easy. I died once when I got stuck in some traps. On Normal those traps did some damage, but nothing a health flask couldn't fix. On Cruel, they were a lot more dangerous. Partly that's because my witch wasn't focused on defense as much as some builds are, but my lack of familiarity with the area didn't help either. Whatever the reason, that experience taught me to be a lot more careful moving through the trap areas. I also died once to the boss, who throws a very powerful ranged attack that isn't easy to avoid, particularly in the final room where a bunch of traps are also present. I eventually made it all the way through, but I'd definitely say going through the Labyrinth is much tougher than any of the story quests, including end-of-act boss fights.

I tried something with my character's build that I'd not done before with a necromancer: I picked up Elemental Equilibrium. The idea of that keystone node is that hitting a monster with one elemental damage type (fire, cold, lightning) makes them vulnerable to the other types. Usually that means you want to alternate hits: use fire to make them vulnerable to cold, then use cold for extra damage and make them vulnerable to fire, repeat. But with a necromancer, your minions' hits don't cause the vulnerability effect. So if I hit the monsters with lightning (making them vulnerable to fire and cold), then my minions can use fire and cold for extra damage all day long, without having to worry about alternating the damage types. It's been working incredibly well, particularly against the high-health unique boss monsters.

When I started Cruel difficulty, I had a few prophecies left over that could only be completed in Normal. So I had to use the seal option to remove those, and stored them in the stash for future characters. I suppose I could have gone back and completed them instead, but that kind of back-tracking didn't appeal to me. That's a bit annoying, but since it only happens once at the end of each difficulty level, it's not a major problem.

I've come across a few prophecies that have some pretty interesting effects. For example, there's the Undead Uprising, which resets all the monsters in the act two zone Old Fields to skeletons, and spawns a unique boss in that zone. Or the Wealthy Exile, which makes the next rogue exile you encounter drop all rare items. I'll admit that I'm already a bit tired of seeing some of the more common prophecies, but it's fun when you get one of the more interesting (and rare) ones. There are also some prophecy chains, sort of a mini-story told through a series of individual prophecies.

Next up for my necromancer is Merciless difficulty and end-game maps. I'm looking forward to seeing how well her build holds up there.