Wednesday, May 17, 2017

BioShocked

First-person shooters are not my favorite genre. I played my share of Doom, Wolfenstein 3D, and Quake like every other nerdy high school and college student in the 1990s, but they always took second place to strategy and role-playing games. So it takes something more than just running around with a weapon and a target-rich environment to convince me to devote time to a shooter. BioShock is one of only two such series that have done that and held my attention enough to play all the way through. (The other is Mass Effect, though I've yet to try the new Andromeda entry in that series. Probably not a coincidence that both have science-fiction aspects.)
Much of BioShock's appeal for me is the world-building. BioShock and BioShock 2 take place in the 1960s in Rapture, an underwater city with a steampunk feel that's populated largely by genetically modified monstrosities. The environment has a post-apocalyptic feel as you pick your way through what remains of the once-luxurious city. BioShock Infinite is a bit of a different animal, as it takes place in a floating city called Columbia in the early 1900s. Unlike Rapture, Columbia isn't a run-down wreck and many of the people are normal civilians. (At first, anyway. Plenty of destruction as the game progresses.)

In both games, you pursue leaders who created a dystopia while following their own vision of perfection. In Rapture that largely takes the form of genetic modification, with lots of physical and psychological manipulation to keep the resulting monstrosities under control. In Columbia, you're working against an elitist, racist cult. There's a "grand society gone wrong" feel to both Rapture and Columbia, paired with a mix of old and future technology. That combination reminds me of golden-age science fiction in many ways; playing through these games feels much like reading some of those old stories.

In Rapture, there's a major moral choice in whether to save or harvest "little sisters" that provide power for your genetic modifications. (Personally, I have a hard time believing that anyone doesn't want to save the little cuties.) The choices don't have a lot of effect on the gameplay, but the ending differs based on what you've decided to do along the way. Nothing in BioShock Infinite's Columbia setting seemed to provide the same kind of moral decision-making, which was a little disappointing.

The two settings do eventually connect, but not until near the very end of BioShock Infinite. There's an add-on story called Burial at Sea that was released as DLC for BioShock Infinite that makes the link much more explicit. I thought the add-on was very well done, worth playing for anyone that enjoyed BioShock Infinite, but it's clearly targeted for people who have played the games in both settings.

I played these games mostly to work my way through the story, so the actual gameplay mechanics weren't my main focus. I purposely chose the easiest difficulty mode to avoid getting stuck in long fights, and picked abilities that minimized the need for shooter skill. For instance, in BioShock 2, I picked up the Security Command ability and upgraded it so I could summon a robot to fight for me. You can't ever avoid the shooting entirely, but it can be made less painful. Even so, there were sections where I had trouble making it through alive. Fortunately, death is a temporary state in these games.

It's possible to find some replay value in the BioShock games, either finding different ways to fight or changing moral choices to get different endings. None of that appeals to me, though. Most of the fun for me is in discovering things about the world as I move through the story. Once those surprises are gone, it's no longer very interesting, even if there are some differences. And playing with more difficult combat, like BioShock Infinite's 1999 mode, holds zero appeal whatsoever for me.

The BioShock series is well worth playing through at least once for any gamer. Even if first-person shooters aren't your thing, the story and world-building are worth the effort.

Saturday, May 13, 2017

Fifth Third River Bank Run 2017

What a difference a couple of weeks makes. Downtown GR was cold and wet the last time I was there for a run, but it was beautiful this weekend for the Fifth Third River Bank Run.
I've not participated in the River Bank Run the last few years, largely because it's such a huge event. The organizers do a good job, but with so many people crowded lines and race courses are inevitable. The last time I ran, I did the 5k, and it felt like I was constantly having to dodge people who were slightly faster or slower.
I went downtown early on Friday afternoon to pick up my race packet at DeVos Hall, and even during that low-volume time it was really busy! I had to park several blocks away to avoid waiting in long traffic lines near the hall. They had plenty of volunteers on hand, though, so there wasn't much waiting involved once I got inside.

This year, I ran the 10k and the crowding during the race was much less of an issue. There were still plenty of people - 3200+ according to the results page - but the field spread out pretty quickly. There were a few times where I felt the crowding, but not nearly as much as a few years ago.
The course is fairly easy, without too many big hills. The biggest one is about 1.5 miles from the finish, which isn't ideal placement, but on the bright side it's pretty much flat to the finish once you're over it! According to the results site, I finished in just under 53 minutes, putting me well inside the top half of finishers.
There's a nice after-party area at the end where folks can hang out while the 25k race finishes and results are announced. I didn't stay for that, but it's nice for those that want to stick around. I was pretty happy to eat some fruit, drink some water, and head home for a shower.

Sunday, April 30, 2017

Growler Gallop 5k

Downtown Grand Rapids was very damp on Sunday, but that didn't stop the organizers and about 200 participants of the Growler Gallop 5k run.
The weather forecast was for rain all day with possible thunderstorms. We were fortunate to avoid the latter, but it was still damp, chilly, and windy. I didn't think it was too bad once the run started, though. Moving around the course warmed me up, and there were only a couple of short stretches where we were running directly against the wind.

After the race, a good portion of the participants headed down to the Atwater Brewery. Normally we'd have stayed out in the race area to cool down and hear the results, but with the wet weather, we all crammed into the brewery. Tight fit, but it was only for about an hour. Apologies to any non-race customers who had to put up with all of us filling up the place!

Part of the race entry fee included a beer afterward, so I had a Corktown Rye IPA. Not my favorite beer type, but it was what they had available for us, and it was pretty good as far as IPAs go. Under normal circumstances I might have tried something else also, but sitting in my sweaty running stuff didn't really sound appealing. I'll have to make a return trip sometime!

Thursday, April 27, 2017

Using the Echo Dot

I've had my Amazon Echo Dot for a couple of weeks now (since I won it in a raffle). I like the concept, but I just can't get it to do much of use for me.
The main draw for the Echo is voice recognition, used to command the voice assistant Alexa. That part works pretty well. As long as there isn't too much background noise, Alexa recognizes my commands almost every time. When there is a failure, I can use the Alexa phone app to provide feedback and improve the system.

Where I run into problems is finding things that I want to tell Alexa to do. My first thought was to hook up my Amazon Fire TV to the Echo, so I could use voice commands when watching TV. But despite both being Amazon devices, the Echo and Fire TV won't talk to one another. It's possible to use voice commands directly on the Fire TV, but only with a microphone-equipped remote control. If I've already bothered to find the remote and pick it up, I probably don't need voice commands any more.

OK, if video is out, how about audio? The Echo Dot has a speaker, but it's pretty weak, not suitable for much of anything but short responses. Hooking up an external speaker is supported, and I was able to do that with the stereo in my media center. But that doesn't work well, either. If I switch the stereo's input to something else (I also use it with the Fire TV and my PC), then the Echo is useless since it has no output. It's not smart enough to switch back to the internal speaker when the external one isn't available. I suppose I could switch the stereo input every time I want to listen to something, but if I'm doing that, then it would be easier to just use whichever other device is already connected.

If I did work around the speaker issue, what could I listen to? Alexa will recognize podcast names and play the latest episodes, but I'm often a episode or two behind. Plus, it doesn't know what I've already listened to on my phone or PC. Easier just to listen on those other devices than to manually mark which ones were played somewhere else. There's a MLB At-Bat skill for listening to baseball games, but it doesn't work with the Echo Dot. Music works fairly well - I mostly use Spotify these days, and there's a Spotify Alexa skill that works just fine - but with that speaker issue the sound quality is poor. About the only thing I do find useful is the ability to occasionally ask for the latest NPR news headlines.

What about home automation? I have a Logitech Harmony remote for my media center, and it was very easy to link that to the Echo. I can ask Alexa to turn on and off my various preset configurations, but that's not very useful. For instance, I can ask Alexa to turn on the Fire TV, but then I still need the remote to actually do anything (see above about Amazon devices not talking to one another). Same thing for playing DVDs. Might as well just use the remote in the first place.

I also tried lighting control, with TP-Link smart plugs and bulbs which are advertised as working with the Echo with no need for a hub. Getting those connected was fairly easy, but after a few hours, the connection stopped working. Alexa would say that the device wasn't responding, and I'd have to manually turn the device on and off to reconnect. Kind of defeats the purpose of a smart device if you're manually cycling it on a regular basis! I suspect it would work better if I got one of the hub-based systems rather than connecting to the devices individually, but that's a ridiculous expense for a tiny condo like mine.

I love the idea behind the Echo, and I do occasionally find a reason to ask it a question. But it just doesn't do quite enough to make it a reasonable replacement for what I already use.

Sunday, April 23, 2017

Squarecells

Another Matthew Brown game, another few hours of puzzling. After playing through all the Hexcells games, I was happy to pick up another of Brown's puzzlers.
Squarecells is a logic puzzle game like Hexcells, but the cells are all square instead of hexagonal. Obvious, yes? That's pretty much where the obvious stuff ends, as each puzzle gets more complex with more limited starting information.

The game starts out easy and gets gradually more complex as you move through each of the 36 puzzles. (Arranged in a 6x6 square in the menu, of course.) Various types of clues - number of pattern cells in each row/column, number of connected pattern cells, separation between pattern cells in a row/column, and so on - show up as you move along. All the different types are combined in the tougher puzzles to make the player's life a little harder.

Brown believes in minimal UI design, and for the most part it works well. There's not a lot of options needed in this kind of game. But I did find myself wishing he'd included one option - different colors for cells once you've marked them as part of the pattern. That was the case in Hexcells, but in Squarecells the color stays the same with a small dot added in the upper right. Not nearly as much contrast, so that late in the larger puzzles I found myself doing a lot of squinting at the screen as I looked for which cells weren't yet marked. It's not a major flaw, just annoying.

I spent a happy few hours working through the puzzles in Squarecells. Well worth picking up for anyone who likes these kind of logic puzzle games.

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Updating to Kodi v17 "Krypton"

It's been a while since Kodi released their most recent major update: version 17 "Krypton". I finally got around to installing it on my Fire TV recently.
I waited a while to install v17 largely because I was pretty happy with the older version. Since I upgraded to v16 a bit over a year ago, I haven't had any significant issues. So there wasn't a lot of reason to change. Also, I wanted to allow plenty of time for the add-ons that I use to be updated for the new version. So when v17 was released in early February, I didn't jump right in. In March, v17.1 was released with some minor fixes and that's what I used for my upgrade.

The actual upgrade process went very smoothly. I downloaded the Android version from the Kodi site and installed it using adbLink. Started it up and was greeted by the new user interface featuring the Estuary skin. It's different, but I didn't have any trouble finding everything that I'm used to using.

Everything carried over fine from the previous version except for Trakt.tv scrobbling of MythTV shows. That's not much of a surprise, since my modifications to the Trakt.tv add-on required some pretty specific data from Kodi and the MythTV PVR add-on. This upgrade changed how that data was presented, and for the most part the changes are for the better. It's much easier now to get information about which TV show is being played (specifically, some of the Kodi InfoLabels are being populated by the MythTV add-on). Updating my code was fairly easy, and I submitted the modifications to the Trakt.tv add-on maintainer so other people will get the same changes. Only took a couple of hours for the whole process.

The only real problem I had after the upgrade has nothing to do with Kodi itself. Around the same time, Amazon also updated the Fire TV user interface. Kodi stopped showing up on the home screen of the Fire TV, which means I had to go through the Settings menu to start it. Back in the day I used an app called Firestarter to get around this, but that's no longer an option. Fortunately, there are solutions for this. I had to try several of the things in that list but eventually I got Kodi back onto the Fire TV home screen.

This latest version of Kodi is working out fine thus far. With luck, I'll have another year before it's time to change again.

Saturday, April 15, 2017

Various Mysterious-Creepy-Suspenseful Shows

Over the last few months, I've gone through several shows on Netflix and Amazon Prime that have in common a mystery-suspense base, built around various creepy premises. You could call them horror, I suppose, though I tend to apply the horror label more to heavy-on-the-gore, jump-scare shows. These are more about the suspense and mystery.
Stranger Things (Netflix) Season One - The best part about Stranger Things for me wasn't the actual mystery, though that's perfectly well executed (despite laying on the "scary monster" stuff a bit thick). Same with the casting and acting performances, all of which are done well. No, the best part is the nostalgia, because Stranger Things is set in the 1980s in a small town in Indiana. I grew up in that era, and lived in a succession of small towns (and both parents came from small towns in the Midwest). Nerdy kids playing D&D in a basement, people using rotary phones, grainy old standard-definition TVs: it all gives me that "man, I remember those days" feeling. Stranger Things would be a solid suspenseful mystery in any setting, but in this particular one it's a great show for my generation.

The OA (Netflix) Season One - I had no idea what to expect when I started watching The OA - didn't even realize it existed until it popped up as a Netflix recommendation. What I got was an engrossing mystery, told from the perspective of a possibly-insane protagonist who draws several others into her orbit. At least, until the last half of the very last episode, at which point the whole thing takes a very strange and (for me) unsatisfying turn. I'm still glad I watched this season, and if they make a second one I'll give it a chance, but I sure hope they come up with a more interesting ending.

Fortitude (Sky Atlantic, via Amazon Prime Video) Season One - Fortitude is about a town built in arctic Norway, originally for mining, which is in the process of a crisis as the mines play out. There's plenty of political intrigue as science researchers, the miners, and tourism proponents clash. Into this mix comes a series of murders, and the unwelcome outside attention that comes with such things. The characters are really well-written and complex - almost no one is all good or all bad, lots of shades of gray. Gorgeous camera work in the landscape shots, too (at least, as long as you like snow). The big mystery was a bit of a letdown for me, since it was foreshadowed so heavily early on, but it's still a fun ride getting to the answers.

The Kettering Incident (Foxtel, via Amazon Prime Video) Season One - After watching the eight episodes that currently exist, I'm not much of a fan of The Kettering Incident. I enjoyed the build-up of the mystery and liked several of the characters, but it feels unfinished. The last episode just sort of ends, with what I thought was an unsurprising reveal - that particular "surprise" had a whole lot of foreshadowing in the last couple of episodes. Rumor has it that a second season is in the works, which could change my mind if it picks up the story and has a more satisfying conclusion.