Saturday, July 23, 2016

Cookie 5K

Heat, humidity, cookies, milk, running a few miles - what could possibly go wrong?
Yep, that's some cookies. Not pictured - the giant stack of unopened cookie boxes!
No, really, it wasn't bad at all. Yes, it was hot and humid, but we ran starting at 8 AM so the heat wasn't too oppressive. Plenty of ice chests for the milk that was waiting at the finish line, and if the chocolate chips in the cookies were a bit soft, well, who cares?
The race info area.
The Cookie 5K is organized in support of Team Orphans, a group of folks who raise funds to support worldwide orphan services (such as Brittany's Hope). The Team Orphans members participate in other events as well, but this one is organized specifically for this charity. They had some signs set up along the course showing some of the children that their efforts had been able to help, which I thought was a nice touch.
Robinette's Apple Haus and Winery
This was a small event - I'd guess maybe a couple of hundred participants. That was good, because there wasn't a lot of room on the course. The race took place at Robinette's Apple Haus and Winery on the north side of Grand Rapids, with a course that wound through the orchards and woods in the area. It was a very pretty area to run through, but with narrow trails that weren't made for large numbers of people.
Finish line
Fortunately, most of us were in no hurry. There were a few spots early on where the crowding forced us to slow down and walk for a bit, but that was OK. The really fast folks were all up at the front anyhow. After about the first mile, everyone had spread out enough that crowding was no longer an issue. Over the rest of the course, there were lots of small but steep hills as we went though some woods and circled back to the finish line.
Cookie and milk table at the finish line. Chocolate milk tasted surprisingly good at the end of a run!
I ran almost exactly 30 minutes, which I was pretty happy with considering how slow that first mile was and all the little hills later on. At the end were those cookies, which I ate three of, completely undoing any calories that I might have expended on the run. Worth it, though! I even took some extra cookies home, since the organizers were basically begging everyone to take the extras home. When I left there were still several big boxes full, so I suspect a whole lot of cookies may have ended up being donated somewhere.
More of Robinette's.
I had fun at the Cookie 5K, and it helped to support a good cause. Well worth getting up early on a Saturday morning.

Friday, July 22, 2016

North Beach Park

When the weather forecast is for a heat index near 100 degrees, the beach looks really good. So I decided to visit one instead of my usual walk or jog around the local neighborhood.
The Grand Haven/Spring Lake area is about an hour's drive for me, so I don't go out there regularly. But that's close enough to go out for half a day, without having to plan out a whole trip. The most popular beach in the area is down in Grand Haven, but I decided to go up to North Beach Park this time out.
North Beach Park is in Ferrysburg, on the south side of the North Ottowa Dunes area. It's a smaller beach, but generally less crowded. Rather than park right at the beach, I stopped at Coast Guard Park, which is less than a mile away. Left my car there and walked down to the beach.
I made my trip on a weekday, to avoid the really heavy crowds. There were still a good number of folks out, but plenty of empty beach as well.
North Beach Park may be small, but it's got everything the larger parks have. Kids play area, plenty of picnic table space, a covered area that groups can rent out, public restrooms, and even a set of life jackets for borrowing.
It was a beautiful day at the Lake Michigan coast. The heat and humidity that seems so oppressive in the city is merely comfortable at the beach. Well worth the drive.

Thursday, July 21, 2016

UNU AI Swarm

I recently learned about the UNU beta site through a post on the QT3 forums.

UNU was created by a company called Unanimous AI. Per their website, "UNANIMOUS A.I. develops technologies for Swarm Intelligence, allowing groups to combine their thoughts and feelings in real-time, to answer questions, make decisions, or just have fun." What that means is that they're making use of the idea that asking a large group of people to answer questions is generally going to lead to the best answer, regardless of how much the individuals know about the subject matter.

The site itself is pretty easy to use. You can participate as a guest at first, or create a free account which allows greater participation. There are various rooms to choose from on topics of all kinds, from sports to politics to investing. Once in a room, there's the usual chat room functionality as well as the ability to ask a question to the room at large. Questions are answered by everyone in the room pulling a "puck" onto the answer they like best, using their mouse as a magnet.
Example question. You can see the "puck" in the upper left being moved around by various people's magnet icons.
Like all Internet chat rooms, the UNU rooms have a low signal-to-noise ratio. Dropping into a random room for a few minutes isn't likely to yield anything particularly interesting, but when there's an organized event asking coherent questions some useful answers can be obtained. The UNU blog has quite a few examples of the swarm picking winners in sports, politics, finance, etc.

Since this is only a beta at the moment, the participation is fairly low. Most rooms are capped at 100 participants, and they rarely fill up even during the peak hours of 8 PM to midnight (US Eastern time). I hope they're able to get through this beta period and scale up, because I think it would be much more interesting to see answers generated from a swarm of a few thousand participants. Even with fairly small groups, though, it's an interesting experiment that deserves a look.

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Ancillary Sword by Ann Leckie

Ancillary Sword is the second book in the Imperial Radch trilogy by Ann Leckie. I read it shortly after finishing the first book, Ancillary Justice (review). Ancillary Sword is very much a sequel to Ancillary Justice - you definitely want to read them in order.
Breq is back as the viewpoint character, though now as a ship captain rather than playing the lone wolf. Being a captain doesn't stop Breq from being constantly in conflict with existing authority figures, though, such as the leaders of the Athoek planetary system. There's plenty of the same writing style that made Ancillary Justice such an enjoyable read: well-developed characters, detailed cultural descriptions, historical revelations at just the right time to explain the action. That's the good news.

The bad news is that Ancillary Sword suffers greatly from "second book of three" syndrome, and perhaps also from being the followup to a huge award-winner. The story is on a smaller scale than the first book, it feels like little is accomplished in the story-line of the overall trilogy, and there's not much more revealed in terms of world-building. Even Breq's internal struggles don't seem to make much progress toward resolution.

The story in Ancillary Sword affects just the one planetary system, with only indirect mention of events going on outside. Breq's actions do make a difference there, but on a small scale - one section of a space station, a single opposing ship to neutralize, one abusive noble brought to justice. Compared to the empire-wide implications of the plot in Ancillary Justice, it seems like a big step backward.

The events in Ancillary Sword drop hints about a bigger conflict, perhaps involving another ship or two, and maybe an alien race. But none of that is resolved in this book. Presumably the third in the series will pick up on those threads. This makes Ancillary Sword feel like nothing but several hundred pages of setup for the next book, which is a common problem for middle-of-trilogy novels.

One of my favorite things about Ancillary Justice was learning about the world that Leckie has built. I expected that Ancillary Sword wouldn't have nearly as much new information, but even so I was disappointed in how little additional detail was revealed. The reader learns a decent amount about the Athoek system, but very little of that feels new - it's just a variation on themes already described in the first book.

I'm a bit on the fence about Ancillary Sword. It certainly has some major faults, but I enjoy Leckie's writing style and characters enough that it was still an enjoyable read. If the third book in the trilogy is as good as the first one was, then I'll be happy to forgive the "only a setup" feel to this one.

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Master of Magic

Over at the Quarter to Three forums, we occasionally pull out a classic game to revisit. A bunch of people play it, and we compare notes and reminisce over the old days when it was cutting-edge gameplay. Recently one of my all-time favorite games, Master of Magic, was chosen as the spotlight game.
All Life magic, all the time.
Master of Magic is a 4X turn-based strategy game, a genre I've written about before. It was first released way back in 1994, so it's certainly old enough to be considered "classic." I remember playing it in my college days, when VGA graphics were top-of-the-line for PCs, and floppy disks were common. The graphics certainly seem dated now, but much of the gameplay and user interface in the game have held up well over time.

Part of the reason that Master of Magic is still an enjoyable game today is work by the community. Some very dedicated fans released a patch to update the AI and fix some bugs back in 2010, which I've used each time I reinstalled the game in the last few years. There's another update that's new this year as well, though I haven't tried that one yet. These patches are largely a way to update the AI for the computer players, who have a hard time properly making use of the complexity available in the game.
The outcome was never really in doubt, of course!
That complexity is the main reason that I keep coming back to play Master of Magic, even after more than 20 years. There are so many ways to approach the end goal, which like all 4X games is basically to rule the world. (Or worlds, since the game takes place on two "planes" each with its own map.) There are fourteen different races to choose from, each with its own strengths and weaknesses. You can choose to focus your resources on magical might, a large population with mighty armies, or (almost always) a balance between the two. The system of magical spells and abilities is highly complex with many different directions to choose from. Powerful hero units will occasionally become available for hire, which with appropriate care and feeding will become your best weapons. All that may sound fairly commonplace today, but Master of Magic was one of the first games to pull it all together, and even today has one of the best implementations of the concept.

The game has plenty of less-than-ideal characteristics as well, of course, even leaving aside the obvious one of its advanced age. The higher difficulty levels are largely implemented as simply giving the AI a whole bunch of extra resources, so a player who can win on Hard might get simply overwhelmed on Impossible. (The community patches help, but it can still be an issue.) There are certain combinations that are way overpowered - Undead War Trolls was always my favorite - so it's necessary to avoid those if you'd like a challenge. And the game can really drag on past the point where you have the obvious victory, since you must either defeat all opposing wizards or cast the Spell of Mastery (which takes a very long time to research and cast).
Fairly poor score, but then, I wasn't really trying to run it up.
For the current classic game thread on the forums, I started up a game on Hard difficulty using a custom wizard with maximum Life spellbooks, leading the High Elves. My starting position wasn't too great, on an island with lots of high-level monster lairs around, but I managed to expand across the ocean eventually. The game moved fairly slowly, both because of that unfortunate starting area and because I hadn't played in a couple of years, but eventually I got the war machine rolling and took the fight to the other wizards. There were four opponents, and I defeated three of them by taking their capitals - in-fighting among the AIs got the fourth. I was confident of the win about halfway through, once I'd banished one opponent and was nearing the capital of the second. The clean-up to finish off my win was a bit boring, but using my crazy-powerful stacks of heroes, Elven Lords, and Slingers to conquer city after city was still amusing.

Revisiting older favorite games doesn't always work well - the technology changes, our perceptions are different, and our tastes change. But Master of Magic has always held up for me, and it was fun to have an excuse to pull it out again.

Monday, July 18, 2016

MTG: Eldritch Moon Pre-Release (2HG)

After playing in a solo pre-release event for the newest Magic: The Gathering set, Eldritch Moon, I finished out pre-release weekend with a team event.

My friend Dan suggested that we play in this two-headed-giant format event. I don't remember ever playing in a formal limited team event before, though I'd played the format in casual games. Your team gets two pre-release packs, and you share the card pool to build two decks. The expanded card options means that you can generally build better decks this way than in a solo event, though of course your opposition has the same advantage. Then you play your games as a team, with a shared life pool starting at 30, against another team of two.
I quite like the team format, but it does have one major drawback - you only get to play one game in each round instead of the usual best-of-three. That only makes sense, as games take a lot longer with four people instead of two, but it doesn't give you much chance to recover from a poor draw in one game. Still, I think the fun of playing as a team makes up for it.

Dan and I didn't get any of the really big bomb rares in our card pool, but there was still plenty to work with. We ended up building an aggressive white-red deck for me, and a slower green-black deck for Dan. I'd put pressure on the opposition early, Dan's removal could clear the way for my attackers, and he'd bring out big creatures late for the finishing blow. That plan worked pretty well in a two of our matches, both of which we won. Our draws weren't so good in the other two matches, but we still managed to win one of those.

Round 1: Our opponents were a team of brothers, neither of which had played this format before, so they were learning as they went. Our decks cooperated and went pretty much according to plan, winning fairly easily. Afterward we helped out a bit with some deck construction advice for the brother team - I like the way these casual events allow more experienced players to help newer folks learn as they go along. Hopefully it'll be a good experience for them so they're likely to come back next time!
Round 2: We played a father-son team who had some pretty incredible cards, including both pieces of Brisela, Voice of Nightmares. (They'd pulled off that meld in their prior round.) We were pretty fortunate that our decks worked pretty much according to plan, so we were able to knock out Gisela, The Broken Blade before her sister showed up. Dan finished off the game by melding Chittering Host and coming across with all his menace-enabled creatures for the kill. Always nice to use the signature set mechanic for a cool play like that.

Round 3: Our good run of draws had to run out eventually, and here it was, against a couple of guys that both Dan and I have played against quite a bit in other store events. Both of us had to mulligan (fortunately, the first one is free in team formats), and I had to do it again to drop to six cards. Even then my draw was pretty slow, and Dan was short on lands. Fortunately, our opponents didn't have great draws either, so the game devolved into a standoff. We poked at each other a bit, but nothing major happened until our opponents dropped a Tree of Perdition. I then pulled Malevolent Whispers off the top of my deck - incredibly lucky! - stole the Tree, used it to knock them down to 13 and give the tree something like 27 toughness, before giving it back. That big blow was enough to let us whittle them down and eventually send in the Chittering Host for the kill, before they were able to build up a big enough force to overwhelm our side.

Round 4: Another set of poor draws, but this time the other side wasn't similarly afflicted. This was another father-son team, and they had a really good couple of decks: red-green wolves, and white-black with both removal and creature enhancements. They drew enough removal that our defenses were pretty weak, and got an Always Watching out so we had a hard time making good creature trades or mounting any kind of offense. The swarm of vigilance creatures and wolves finished us off without too much trouble.

That put us at 3-1, and ended up being good enough for third place out of ten teams. We got 12 packs to split up as a prize. I had a lot of fun with this event, and I'll definitely be interested in trying the team event again next time it comes around.

Sunday, July 17, 2016

America On Tap Beer Festival

The America On Tap Beer Festival made a return visit to Grand Rapids this weekend.
Everyone gets a nice little double-shot glass for sampling.
They held the event downtown, at Calder Plaza. Not quite as nice as last year when it was held just outside John Ball Park Zoo, but the location worked out well enough. Grand Rapids is small enough that getting downtown isn't a major hassle.
The line. You can just barely see the tents way up ahead on the left.
No question that this was a popular event - the line to get in was evidence of that. I arrived just a couple of minutes after the official open time of 3 PM, and then proceeded to spend the better part of an hour waiting in line. They only had a couple of people checking IDs at the entrance, which explains the bottleneck.
One of many sample tables.
Fortunately, lines weren't much of an issue once you got inside. There were two big tents with around a dozen tables in each, plus a few booths around the outside of the event area. Most of those were set up with two or three drinks to sample. I say "drink" rather than "beer" because there was quite a bit of variety: beer was the most common, but I also saw a lot of cider, some wine, and even one table with mead.
Another sample table. We saw everything from coolers to ice buckets to full kegs.
The beverages on display came from all over. I'd say about half were local to Michigan, or at least the Midwest US. There were plenty from further away, though, both elsewhere in the US and international. Some familiar corporate names were present - Sam Adams, Guinness - and so were plenty of smaller breweries.
Plenty of attendees wandering between the tents.
Normally I gravitate toward heavier dark beers, and there were a good number of those present, but not on this occasion. It's hard to sample more than one or two of those, especially on a hot summer day. Instead I mostly tried ciders and lighter ales, especially the ones with a fruit flavor. There were some really good grapefruit drinks, for instance. I suspect if I ever go to one of these festivals in the winter months, I'd be much more likely to go for my usual stouts and other darker beers.
Joe and I outside the tents, in between drinks.
After spending a couple of hours trying out samples, my friend Joe and I headed over to a nearby restaurant before heading home. We spent an hour or so drinking water and lemonade and snacking, letting the buzz die down before heading home. I'd guess that quite a few local downtown restaurants did a pretty decent business that afternoon from other festival goers doing the same.
Plenty of open space outside the tents, so it didn't feel too crowded.
If you enjoy a good beer or cider, I recommend giving a festival like this a try. Grab a friend or two, and spend a couple of hours trying out samples. You're almost guaranteed to find a few that you like.