Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Phone Update

A few weeks after my old phone died, I am once again phone positive.
The new phone is a Motorola Moto E, which is definitely on the lower end of the smartphone spectrum. Low amount of memory, not particularly impressive camera, and it can be slow. But I don't need much, and it didn't cost a lot, so it fits my needs right now.

On the plus side, the Moto E is smaller and lighter than my old phone, so it's easier to carry around. Especially handy when I'm out running, since it fits much easier in the armband I use.

All I really need on the phone is:
  • Google Voice/Hangouts for incoming calls and texts. This lets me use my Google Voice number, so the actual phone number doesn't really matter.
  • GMail for email.
  • Player FM for podcasts.
  • Runkeeper for tracking workouts.
  • Google Maps for navigation.
Unsurprisingly, there's a whole lot of unnecessary stuff installed by default. I spent a while going through and disabling extra apps. On a more powerful device it might not be necessary, but on this one I want to make sure that I'm only spending resources on apps that I'll actually use.

I may upgrade if a great deal on a better phone comes along, but it's no problem to wait. For now, this one does what I need.

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

The First 2016 Presidential Debate

I watched the US Presidential Debate last night.
In most election years, I don't bother watching the debates. We already know what the candidates' positions are, since they've been all over the news for the last year or more. The only real question is whether one or the other of the candidates will stumble over a question, or come up with some kind of cutting remark. Do we really want to be basing our votes on who can come up with the better insults or comebacks? Pretty sure that's not how I want our nation's leader representing me in domestic matters and international diplomacy.

Nonetheless, I was honestly curious about what was going to happen this year since the two sides are so far apart. Trump is nothing like any presidential candidate we've ever had before. Clinton is the stereotypical political insider (except for being a woman, which is new). I knew going in that nothing said was going to change my vote - I've pretty much already decided on Clinton, for reasons I laid out back in primary season - so I tried to leave aside whether I agreed with what was being said and instead focus on how each candidate handled the process.

Things went pretty well for both parties in the first half-hour or so. Both more or less stuck to the time they were given, without a lot of interruptions and staying mostly on topic. Trump had some sort of problem with the sniffles, and Clinton came across as a bit wooden, but those were pretty minor things.

The tone changed pretty quickly as the debate moved along, though. Clinton made a few points that seemed to really upset Trump: about his taking advantage of the housing crisis in 2008, how little federal tax he paid, that he called climate change a hoax, his support of the war in Iraq. (According to the NPR fact check, all of those had some basis in fact, though she exaggerated at least the tax claim.) He interrupted her several times and flatly denied some of the points, though the fact check found evidence otherwise.

Through the remaining hour, Trump sounded more emotional and less measured. Several times, he seemed to forget that he was debating and instead went into a stump-speech style. It sounded like he was preaching to a supportive crowd and was waiting for the applause. Instead, he got a response from Clinton or moderator Lester Holt, often calling into question whatever he just said. Sometimes, that put him on the defensive; other times, he'd try to counterattack the point. Either way, it didn't seem like he was prepared for argument.

Clinton, on the other hand, seemed prepared for just about every topic. Even when the subject of her private email server was brought up, she had her response ready - admitted it had been a mistake and moved onto other topics. She seemed to always have a counter-point ready for whatever Trump brought up. And she stayed quiet when Trump was floundering. The exchange on Trump's support of the "birther" movement was a particularly good example of that.

I'd like to compliment Lester Holt on his performance as the moderator. He did his best to rein in both candidates when they went over time or off topic. Not that it always worked - they are politicians, going on at length and avoiding topics is what they do - but he made a good effort. I think he did call out Trump more often than Clinton, which is to be expected since Trump made more obviously false claims. I'm sure he'll be attacked for that from some quarters, but in my book that's good moderating.

In the end, I doubt the debate changed the mind of anyone who already had an opinion. We didn't learn anything new about either candidate: Trump plays fast and loose with the facts, appeals to emotion, and promises radical change; Clinton is more measured, less exciting, and unlikely to significantly alter the status quo. The question is whether the undecided voters out there were influenced by Clinton's better preparation and handling of the debate format, or if they will overlook that in favor of Trump's promise of major changes regardless of the possible consequences. With two more debates to go, the answer may be that fence-sitters will be staying right in the middle for a while yet.

Monday, September 26, 2016

MTG: Kaladesh Pre-Release (2HG)

After playing in an individual event on Saturday, Sunday was team day for Kaladesh pre-release weekend.
My friend Dan and I played in this two-headed giant limited format event for the last set release, and it was a lot of fun. So I was happy to do it again for Kaladesh. We played up at Big Kidz Games, and the turnout was great - 13 teams, 26 players.

Considering how heavy Kaladesh is with artifacts, our shared card pool didn't have very many of them that were useful. We only had about 5 vehicles between the two of us, very few useful artifact creatures, and our only mythic rare was Aetherworks Marvel. Could be an interesting combo card, but not that useful in limited. We ended up building a red-green deck for me, with fairly aggressive creatures and some removal, and a black-white deck for Dan, with a lot of fabricate creatures and several combat tricks.

Unfortunately, it didn't really matter much what was in our decks. That's because three of the four rounds we played were decided by land draws (or lack thereof) for one team or the other. Round 1, one opponent had to mulligan multiple times and still ended up with only one land for the whole game, so we won easily. Round 3, one opponent got stuck with a bunch of high-casting-cost stuff in his hand and never drew into enough lands, so again we won easily. Round 4, I kept a two-land hand with several two- and three-cost playables but never drew the third land, while Dan was flooded with all lands. Lost that one badly.

Only round two was a real game, and that one we lost as well. Both sides played a whole lot of ground creatures, resulting in a stand-off where neither team could attack. The only threat we managed to get on the board was a Sky Skiff, the only vehicle I had in my deck, but then they stole it with a Shrewd Negotiation. Then the better card quality of their pool showed up, with an Aethersquall Ancient and Wispweaver Angel on one side, and multiple graveyard recursion effects on the other. The game ended quickly from that point.

That put us at 2-2, firmly in the middle of the pack. Too bad about all the poor shuffles, and we didn't win any extra prizes, but that's all right. Still had a good time hanging out with Dan and the rest of the folks up at Big Kidz Games!

Sunday, September 25, 2016

MTG: Kaladesh Pre-Release (Solo)

It's new set time again for Magic: The Gathering. On Saturday, I made the short trip out to Lowell to play in the Kaladesh pre-release hosted by Rookies Sportscards Plus.
Looks easy enough to open, but looks can be deceiving!
Some of the events that are run by Rookies have low turnouts, but the pre-release events almost always get at least a dozen. This time was no exception, with a total of eighteen playing in the event. It actually got a bit crowded in the section of BC Pizza where we were set up. They weren't too busy, though, so we were able to spread out a bit.

The first hurdle to overcome in this event was getting the cards out of the box! It didn't open quite the way that I was expecting. Instead of the top just coming off, it sort of unfolds. There's a separate little space for the countdown 20-sided die also. Took me a bit to figure it all out, but fortunately there's plenty of time allowed to open your cards and build a deck.
Promo card, die, and six packs. All you need to play!
My pool was pretty decent, though not amazingly good. My promo card was Aetherstorm Roc, which is one of the better creatures in the set for limited play. I also pulled the planeswalker Dovin Baan and the vehicle Smuggler's Copter from my packs. All of those are great cards, and I ended up going with a blue-white deck to take advantage of them plus a good number of flyers. What I didn't have was much in the way of options to deal with large vehicles on the opposing side - just a single Malfunction. Any other removal I had either worked only against small creatures and artifacts (Impeccable Timing, Fragmentize) or had to be played on my turn (Captured by the Consulate, Revoke Privileges, Fairgrounds Warden) when those vehicles weren't creatures. So I either needed to win before those big things could come after me, or keep my opponent's other creatures occupied so they couldn't crew the vehicles.

In three of the five rounds, I had fairly easy wins. I had a lot of flyers - the aforementioned Aetherstorm Roc and Smuggler's Copter, three Wind Drakes, Long-Finned Skywhale - plus a couple of trampling Renegade Freighters. Keep a couple of those alive for a few turns, and the game was over. The first, third, and fourth rounds went nicely according to that plan. Won all three, losing only one game along the way.
All three of the thopter models from the event kit.
The second and fifth rounds were a different story. Both opponents were also playing white, and had many of the same removal options that I did. Both also had those large vehicles that I was worried about: Aradara Express backed up by Fleetwheel Cruiser in one case, and Skysovereign, Consul Flagship in the other. Lost both games in round two, and just barely pulled out the 2-1 victory in round five.

Final record, 4-1. Good enough for second place, behind the only undefeated player. (I didn't play him, since I'd had that early second-round loss.) Pretty happy with that result, especially considering how close the fifth round was...could have easily lost that one. There's not a lot of prize support in an event this size, but I did end up with four extra Kaladesh packs. Plus, the top three players each got to take home one of the model thopters that were provided as promotional material.
My thopter in its new home, hanging in my front room.
Good fun at this pre-release, as is usually the case out in Lowell at the Rookies-run events. Plenty of friendly people and a relaxed atmosphere. Thanks to the organizers and everyone who came out!


Saturday, September 24, 2016

Sharp Ends by Joe Abercrombie

Joe Abercrombie's First Law world features a wide variety of characters across its six novels. The Sharp Ends collection of short stories features many of those familiar faces.
There are thirteen stories in Sharp Ends, most of which took me 15-20 minutes to read. Many had been published previously, in various anthologies or special editions. They take place all across the First Law world, revisiting people and places from the novels. It's been a while since I read those, but I remembered enough to recognize key people and events. You could read these stories without any knowledge of the novels, but I don't recommend it - you'd lose a lot of added depth.

For instance, "Freedom" is a tale recounted from the perspective of a writer paid to publish the life of famous mercenary captain Nicomo Costa. It's written in an amusing over-the-top florid style, clearly a whitewashed account having little to do with the actual events. The story is entertaining on its own, but it's even more so when associated with the way that Costa actually operates as recounted in the novels.

Each of the stories in Sharp Ends stands on its own, but there are also some recurring characters. Most notably, the thief Shevedieh and warrior Javre are the leads in four stories and appear in a fifth. They're a mismatched pair in almost every way, but still end up forming a friendship that lasts over a decade through misadventures of all kinds. Those stories were my favorites and I'd be happy to see Abercrombie write a few more Shev and Javre tales.

As with the First Law novels, Sharp Ends has plenty of adult themes. The world is a pretty dark place, with largely unsavory characters, plenty of wars, and betrayal around every corner. The language is harsh and graphic violence is everywhere. Despite all this, Abercrombie writes characters and dialogue to find the humor in many situations. And when a good deed or kind person does make an appearance, the dark nature of the majority of people and situations serves to make it stand out all the more.

The First Law world isn't for everyone, but if you enjoyed any of the novels, then Sharp Ends is a good companion. Lots of familiar names and places, and alternate viewpoints for some key events. An entertaining read.

Friday, September 23, 2016

My Guest Spot on the QT3 Games Podcast

Quartertothree.com is one of my favorite gaming websites, and I spend a good amount of time on the forums there as "ineffablebob". Recently I was fortunate enough to have the chance to do a guest appearance on the QT3 Gaming Podcast with Tom Chick.
Tom owns the Quartertothree.com site and posts many game and movie reviews there. Unlike me, he's famous enough to have his own Wikipedia page. (I'm good with not having one, by the way. Under the radar!) He's on Patreon, and is one of a few different folks that I support there.

Tom does a regular gaming and movie podcast. The games podcast has recently shifted to a format where Tom and one guest (generally from the forums) talk about a game of the guest's choice. This is actually a revival of a similar format from a few years ago, and everyone on the forums has been enthusiastic in support. It's a good chance to get to know the other folks on the forums a bit.

When Tom asked if I'd like to be a guest on the podcast, I jumped at the chance. I always like talking about games - especially when I get to choose the topic! I've enjoyed listening to the other guests, and hopefully people will find the podcast I'm on interesting as well. Here's a link directly to the QT3 page for my guest appearance.

We spent the first half hour or so in pretty standard interview format, with Tom asking me some "get to know you" questions. He's good at it...the discussion was smooth and easy. Then we got into the games. I'd chosen Cthulhu Realms as my game, largely because it's the one I've been playing most over the last several weeks. (Well, I've also played a lot of Cities:Skylines also, but I wanted to have some multiplayer discussion.) Tom warned me that he wasn't a big fan of it, but that's fine, I like having discussions with differing opinions.

Turns out that the reason Tom doesn't like the game wasn't so much the game itself, but the theme. He's much more into the Lovecraftian mythos than I am, and Cthulhu Realms is a very light and irreverent take on that world. It's funny, but I can certainly see how someone who is a big fan of the dark, existential horror of that world wouldn't much like the way that Cthulhu Realms presents it.

Having said that, we still had a good discussion about the game and its mechanics, leaving aside the theme. We even played it while we talked, which was easy enough to do through the Steam version of the game. Bit hard for the podcast listeners to follow without seeing the game, but I think our discussion was still interesting enough as the game went along.

Thanks to Tom for letting me do a guest appearance on the podcast! I had a blast, and would love to do it again if he ever runs out of new people to talk with.

Thursday, September 22, 2016

The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet by Becky Chambers

On recommendation from some friends, I picked up The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet from the local library recently.
The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet is a far-future space opera, focused on a small independent ship and its crew. Sound familiar? That formula has been used to good effect before - I thought of Firefly almost immediately upon getting a grasp of the setting and characters, and there have been others. The galaxy at large is populated by many different sapient races, of which humanity is by no means the most powerful or important. Again, not an uncommon idea. I don't bring up this use of familiar themes and settings as a negative - used properly, the oldest story ideas can still be great - but I'd be remiss not to mention it, since it's very noticeable as you read through the opening chapters.

Most of the story takes place on the Wayfarer, a ship that builds stable wormholes which are used as a sort of galactic highway system. That's an interesting way to represent interstellar travel - not unique by any means, but not nearly as common as something like a Star Trek warp drive. Making the builders a small group of independents is different, too. I think of big transportation projects - and there's not much bigger than bridging star systems - as the domain of huge corporations and governments. It's a bit of a shift to think of it as something you can hire a small businessman to build - more like getting your driveway paved than building a super-highway.

Chambers puts a good amount of effort into building up the reader's knowledge of the current state of galactic affairs, and a good chunk of history. Mostly this is made integral to the story by using the newest Wayfarer crew member, a human woman from Mars named Rosemary. The society on Mars is fairly close to present-day Earth, and insular enough that she doesn't have a lot of first-hand experience with other intelligent species. So when Rosemary encounters some aspect of culture shock or meets a new race, the reader has much the same reaction. It's an elegant way to handle explaining how the book's society works without simply dumping information onto the reader.

The viewpoint in The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet shifts among the Wayfarer crew, several of which are non-human. I felt like each was fairly well developed, at least within the constraints of the character. Ohan, for instance, doesn't get much time...but that's because the character is very isolated by choice. Other than Rosemary, everyone in the crew is a larger-than-life personality in some way. That's common in space operas, so I was expecting it, but every once in a while I still had to chuckle a bit when someone (usually Kizzy) did something so over-the-top that it felt like it belonged in a cartoon, not a novel.

In terms of story flow, I thought The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet felt a bit disjointed. There are sections that read more like several short stories strung together rather than a coherent whole. Almost felt like reading an adaptation of one season of a TV show: some introductions early, the reveal of the season's big plot device, a bunch of small independent stories with occasional reference to the big thing, then the big wrap-up finale. Worked out all right, I think, but it does feel a little odd for a novel.

The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet packs a whole lot of concepts into a single book. Rights and privileges for artificial beings, wars of genocide, racism (or species-ism, I guess), the aftermath of unchecked colonialism and exploitation, inter-species relationships (sexual and otherwise), environmental catastrophe and recovery, genetic and physical body modification, different handling of children and the elderly across species...all sorts of ideas crop up. With so many different concepts to deal with, it's not really possible to address them in depth, so most are just touched on briefly, as a part of galactic history. Others, though, are important to the story of one or more of the crew. It all enriches the story, but at times I did feel that Chambers was trying to cram too much into a single book. That's a better problem than being boring, though!

As a fan of the space opera genre, I found very little to dislike about The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet. Well worth the read, and even if you're not fond of space opera, it might surprise you.