Saturday, March 17, 2018

Irish Jig 5k 2018

It's time to end the Michigan winter hibernation, and get back to running.
OK, so I haven't exactly been hibernating. Even did a run up at Perrin Brewing back in January. But the Irish Jig 5k around St. Patrick's Day always feels like the turning point from winter to spring. This year the calendar cooperated so that the race fell squarely on the holiday.

Parking is a bit of a challenge any time there's a race in East Grand Rapids. I got there about an hour before race time, and got just about the very last spot in the parking structure that's right across the street from the race start. Any later and I'd have had to roam the side streets looking for a spot. Next year I might just go straight to the side streets, since it seems there's more and more people every year.

Good turnout again this year for the race - just under 4000 participants, according to the results page. It was pretty cold, down around freezing at race time, but that's far from the worst we've seen in West Michigan around this time of year. I remember running through a fairly heavy snowfall one year, and nearly slipping on ice another time. No snow, only minor wind, no icy spots...pretty good for mid-March in these parts.

The course around East Grand Rapids has a lot of up and down, but no really big hills. Still, for someone who has been running almost entirely on a treadmill for the last 4-5 months, it's a bit of a challenge. I purposely lined up quite a ways back from the front, as I figured I might be a little slower than normal, and ended up being near the front of the second wave of runners. That worked out nicely since it meant that I didn't have a whole lot of traffic for most of the way, though I did catch up to the tail end of the first wave on the second half of the course. I was pretty happy with my just-under-26-minute time, right about top third for my age group.

So that's the first race of the Triple Crown series done. Looking forward to the Diemer and Reeds Lake runs later on this year.

Monday, March 5, 2018

Michigan Brewers Guild Winter Festival 2018

That was some serious beer.
I went with a group of friends to the Michigan Brewers Guild Winter Festival this past weekend. It was supposed to be a week earlier, but the weather didn't cooperate. They've held this festival in freezing temperatures and blizzards in the past, but this year a rising river forced a delay over flood concerns. (Good thing, too, since I hear there was a couple of feet of water in the area last week.) The weather was awesome this past weekend, though. And the delay didn't thin out the attendees was still plenty crowded!
Our group took a car service up to Fifth Third Ballpark where the festival was held. I highly recommend this approach, if you can get a group together to split the cost. No crowded public transport, no waiting on cabs or Uber, no worries about surge pricing. And you can easily contact them if you happen to lose something, which I did - left my phone in the car on the way home. Got it back easily enough, which probably wouldn't have happened with a bus or cab!
This festival is a big one, with dozens of breweries and hundreds of beers. (At least - the ads actually say thousands!) I tried around a dozen, almost all browns or stouts, and the majority were great. A few weren't, but that's to be expected with such a huge variety. I was particularly impressed with the number of barrel-aged brews. I'm used to thinking of those as premium, limited-edition runs that aren't generally available for long. But they were plentiful at this show!
With so many breweries to choose from, I had to narrow it down somehow. So I tried to focus on places away from Grand Rapids, since I can always visit the nearby ones at other times. There were still plenty of choices! If I had to pick one favorite beer from the afternoon, I think I'd go with One Well Brewing's Scheming and Plotting - a bourbon barrel aged chocolate imperial stout. But honestly, there were probably half a dozen that were so good that it's hard to choose.
It took me a few hours to recover after all that beer, but again, the car service was great for getting out of there after the festival. Spent a while on a considerate friend's couch and ended up no worse for wear. Next year I think I'll have more food - I only ate a bunch of pretzels this time. Which were fine, but a burger or two would have balanced out the beer a bit.
All told, the Winter Festival was a great time and I'm definitely going to keep it in mind for next year. Can't expect the weather to always be as nice as it was, but even if we'd had to deal with snow it would be worth it!

Sunday, February 25, 2018

Favorite Moments - Winter Olympics 2018

Another Olympic Games have come and gone. For the last couple of weeks, one sport or another has been a near-constant background presence on my TV. Picking a top three is the Olympic tradition, so here's my personal list of favorite moments from the 2018 games.

Image result for olympics 2018 logo
Ester Ledecka winning gold in the Super-G: Ledecka is a snowboarder first, not a skier. Pretty much everyone considered the medals to already be determined by the time she went down the hill. Ledecka herself didn't believe it at first when she saw the time after her run. It's worth a few minutes of your time to search for her interview shortly afterward, clearly still shocked at her own performance. Oh, and then she won gold in snowboard parallel giant slalom, too.

The hockey finals: I'm cheating a bit here by combining these because both the men's and women's gold medal games were amazing in their own way. The USA vs Canada women's final match-up was a surprise to approximately no one, and it lived up to the hype with a well-played and hard-fought match that went all the way through overtime and into a shootout. I'm not a big fan of the shootout to decide games, but the incredible move by Jocelyne Lamoureux to score for the USA and big save by Maddie Rooney to seal the win was epic. The men's final, on the other hand, was not as expected: Germany vs the-team-who-can't-say-they're-Russian. The Russians were supposed to be there, but the Germans had to beat two powerhouses in Sweden and Canada. Then Germany almost had the gold medal in hand, with a lead inside two minutes left in regulation and even a man advantage, but somehow the Russians came back and tied it, then won in overtime. Crazy and incredibly entertaining games, both of them.

German Madrazo of Mexico finishes last in cross-country skiing: Last place usually isn't newsworthy, but this finish was heartwarming. In the men's 15k cross-country race, Madrazo came in dead last. But not alone, as fans and several of his fellow competitors stayed to cheer him on across the finish line and carry him off in a hero's exit. One of those was Pita Taufatofua, the athlete from Tonga famous for marching shirtless in the opening ceremony, who had finished the race just a few places ahead. The elite athletes with medal chances get the headlines, but there's a lot of others attending and competing, and it's good to sometimes stop and spare a thought for the rest of the field.

Every Olympic Games has a long list of great moments, of course, way too many to attempt to list them all. Nearly every event had something exciting, emotional, incredible, or all of the above. Looking forward to the next installment, in the summer in 2020.

Sunday, February 18, 2018

Bonfire by Krysten Ritter

BonfireBonfire by Krysten Ritter
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

When I listened to an interview with Krysten Ritter (on NPR's Wait Wait Don't Tell Me), I was expecting some discussion of her acting, from shows like Jessica Jones and Breaking Bad. There was some of that, but I was surprised to also hear that she was promoting a book called Bonfire. So I had to check it out.

Bonfire is set in rural Indiana, where Chicago lawyer Abby Williams is returning to her hometown to investigate the local industrial firm for failing to comply with environmental regulations. It's not a happy homecoming for Abby, who left behind unhappy memories and broken relationships when she left after high school. Conducting the investigation dredges up the unwelcome
past, and in the end reveals both current and past misdeeds.

Abby's mental state is just as important in Bonfire as the facts of her investigation. There are points in the book where she seems on the brink of complete collapse, and she certainly leans heavily on the booze to deal with her situation. Abby is a flawed character who doesn't always choose the best option for dealing with her problems, but I thought Ritter did a fine job of bringing her feelings and struggles to life.

I enjoyed Ritter's writing style, which I found easy to read and engrossing. She makes good use of short chapters that encourage the reader to keep going for just one more...and one more, and one more. The momentum of the storyline built fairly consistently, such that I never felt impatient for something new to happen. I did feel that the last twist that revealed the final villain was a bit obvious, but I enjoyed the journey enough that it didn't bother me.

I already knew that I liked Krysten Ritter's work in front of a camera. Now I'll be keeping an eye out for her work with a pen as well.

Saturday, February 17, 2018

Thor: Ragnarok

It occurs to me that Marvel Studios has set a really high bar with their MCU movies. Thor: Ragnarok is a solid effort, well above average and miles better than anything that I'd have expected a decade or so ago. And yet I found myself disappointed.

Thor Ragnarok poster.jpg
(Warning: Spoilers below, on the off chance that anyone else is as late to the party as me.)

This is the third Thor movie, and the seventeenth in the MCU. All the usual things that I've come to expect from MCU movies are here: impressive effects, interesting characters, plenty of interpersonal drama, and a plot that holds together if you don't think too hard about it. There's plenty of appearances by other Thor-adjacent characters, most notably Loki and Odin from earlier films, and new introductions of their long-lost sister Hela and a new Valkyrie ally. The Hulk plays a big role as well, which is nice since he's been missing since Avengers: Age of Ultron. And there's a bit of Doctor Strange, following up from the teaser bit at the end of his movie.

So why the disappointment? First, my expectations were sky-high. Several people in my circle of friends raved about this movie, calling it the best to date in the MCU and possibly the best superhero movie of all time. Critics loved it, ratings were high, hardly a bad thing to be said about it anywhere. Thus, I was expecting incredible things. When I got only above-average, it felt disappointing, even though I know that's not really fair.

Second, the primary reason that I think Thor: Ragnarok falls short of excellent and thus below my expectations: the overdone, constant slapstick humor. The first few times it's funny: someone falls flat on their face, accidentally knocks themselves over, insults their opponent to his face, etc. But after you see it again and again, you start to expect something embarrassing, and then it's just tiresome. By the time Bruce Banner does a belly flop out of a spaceship near the end, it was so obvious what was coming that I was cringing. Clearly I'm in the minority on this, given how much everyone else seems to love the movie, but the humor aspects just felt excessive to me...and it's not funny when it's overdone.

There were a few other minor things that didn't click with me. Jeff Goldblum's Grandmaster character annoyed me, largely because I felt that Goldblum's style clashed with the role of manipulative, heartless tyrant. The loss of Mjolnir (that's the hammer) felt almost trivial in how easily it happened. The mighty Thor begging Stan Lee not to cut his hair was pathetic. And there wasn't nearly enough of Fenris (the giant wolf).

Having said all that, Thor: Ragnarok is a fine movie. I'm glad that I've seen it, and likely will watch it again someday when I happen across it on a streaming service or something. Don't avoid it, just temper your expectations a bit going in.

Thursday, February 15, 2018

Of Mice and Rockets - A Long Weekend in Central Florida

I spent a long weekend down in Central Florida this month, escaping the Michigan winter for a few days. I've been known to do this sort of thing on occasion. (If you'd like to see more pictures than those shown here, I've got that covered.)
The Leaving

The idea for the trip came out of a conversation with my lady friend Sarah, as we were both bemoaning the long slog through winter weather from the new year until spring. She's mostly a Michigan homebody, with just a few trips elsewhere, and none that were near an ocean. Seemed like a perfectly good excuse to go south in February! Convenient Valentine's Day present, too. We flew non-stop from Grand Rapids to Orlando - the availability of a direct flight was a major consideration in the choice of destination! Flight got us in late Friday night, so the real trip didn't start until the next day.

Day One: The Coast

It's only about an hour's drive from Orlando out to Cape Canaveral and the Kennedy Space Center, which I greatly enjoyed visiting. The Space Shuttle exhibit with the Atlantis orbiter was particularly impressive, in my opinion. I've seen the full-size mockup orbiter that they have in Houston, but it was awfully cool to see the real thing in person! There's plenty of other space flight history as well, plus exhibits about current action in areas like Mars exploration and cooperation with private companies like SpaceX. We missed the SpaceX heavy launch by about a week, but that's probably just as well since it would have extremely crowded.

In the afternoon we drove down to Cocoa Beach and spent a few hours at the shore. Beautiful day, in the upper 70s/low 80s with a nice breeze. Plenty of other folks out enjoying it as well! Particularly nice since it was Sarah's first time at an ocean beach. Lake Michigan beaches are fine, of course, but it's a very different feeling with that salt water breeze and looking out at an entire ocean!
After driving back to Orlando, we cleaned up and took a nap. Being at the beach is hard work! For dinner, we went over to the Universal City Walk. Tons of restaurants to choose from and various live entertainment around the area. And most importantly, a very large cookies-and-cream milkshake for dessert.

Day Two: Non-Mouse Orlando

The second day was spent seeing some sights around Orlando that aren't theme parks. The Harry P. Leu gardens are part of an association with the Meijer Gardens here in Grand Rapids, which is how I heard about them. The grounds are beautiful, though be warned that the parking is very limited! We happened to visit when they had an exhibition of Lego sculptures around the park, which made it even more fun.
Later, we headed over to the Orlando Science Center and spent a few hours there. My favorite part of that was their wetlands habitat, which had fish and turtles and some small alligators. We even happened to catch feeding time for the gators, which was cool to see.
In the evening, we had a nice Valentine's Day dinner (a few days early, avoid the crowds) and went downtown to Orlando's Wall Street plaza area to see the nightlife. I particularly enjoyed the entirely Christmas-themed Frosty's Christmastime Lounge, where pride of place over the bar is given to a days-until-Christmas countdown clock.

Day Three: House of Mouse

We picked Epcot as our Disney park for the trip. We could have tried to hit a couple more parks in the first two days, but decided we'd rather not overdo it. I've been to Epcot before, but that was so many years ago that I hardly remembered the details, and what I did remember was all good.
You can schedule up to three rides ahead of time with the Fastpass program and skip the longest part of the line. Sadly, I wasn't able to sign up for the Frozen ride since it was already fully booked, but we did get into both Spaceship Earth and the Finding Nemo Aquarium ride. Both of those were great, though for different reasons. Spaceship Earth is fun mostly for the ride itself: going up into that big globe, through some (extremely simplified) history, and into a planetarium-style space view. The Nemo ride wasn't that impressive, but the aquarium afterward is excellent with some nice big tanks and plenty of underwater species to observe.
We walked around the World Showcase a couple of times. Went pretty quick at first, heading straight to Italy for lunch (which was excellent). Once we were less hungry, we took a bit more time and looked around several of the country pavilions. I liked Japan and Italy particularly, but they're all great.
It so happened that we picked a day during the Epcot International Festival of the Arts, so in addition to all the usual sights, there were a bunch of artist pavilions set up around the area. We saw lots of paintings, sculptures, and various other artistic pieces as we walked around the area. A few live displays, too, such as creation of specially dyed scarves and other clothing items.
Near the end of the day, we caught several live performances. Acrobats at the China pavilion, drummers at the German pavilion, and a performance of several Broadway songs by Ashley Brown and Josh Strickland. The Broadway performance was particularly fun - my favorite was Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious from Mary Poppins, and Sarah really enjoyed Let It Go from the upcoming Frozen Broadway show.
Finally, at the end of the day was the nightly fireworks display. It was a little underwhelming, to be honest. Possibly we were just too tired to enjoy it, and certainly we didn't have the best viewing location. Nonetheless, even an underwhelming display of fireworks is still pretty impressive.

Day Four: The Bonus Day

We were supposed to leave very early on a 7 AM flight, but we were late to the airport and missed our scheduled flight. Entirely my fault, that was - I'm so used to smaller airports with lower passenger volumes, as well as traveling with only a carry-on bag, that I assumed an hour before the flight would be enough time. And it would have been, if we weren't trying to check bags and get through security in the hectic mass of people that is Orlando International. We ended up with four days in the warm weather instead of three, which isn't a terrible thing, and had no trouble on the second return attempt. I was very glad that I'd paid for refundable tickets so changing flight times was a simple process!
So after our misadventure at the airport, we had an extra day to fill. As boring as this sounds, about half of it was spent sleeping. We'd been up early to catch our flight (though obviously not early enough) and were tired after that full day at Epcot.
In the afternoon, we went over to the I-Drive 360 entertainment area. There's a bunch of restaurants and gift shops surrounding the main building with the Sea Life Aquarium and Coca-Cola Orlando Eye Ferris wheel. We enjoyed both, though I definitely think the aquarium came out as the most fun. It's small, but had lots of good displays and a hands-on section. Sarah liked the various types of rays particularly, and I was happy to see that the hands-on part had a selection of northern Pacific tide pool creatures...not so different from what I used to see on the Oregon coast.
Finally, we took one more trip into the mouse lair to visit Disney Springs. Had some dinner at the House of Blues, saw a few different live musical performances around the area, and of course saw any number of gift shop displays.

The Return

The next morning we slept in, with our flight scheduled for the afternoon. Well, Sarah slept in. I went out jogging, promptly got lost, and ended up going about three times farther than I'd intended. Missed breakfast, but no harm done. The airport experience this time went smoothly. We actually had about an extra hour to kill, which is par for the course with air travel. Arrive when you're supposed to, and end up waiting. Arrive later, and not enough time. We had to rush a bit when we landed in Grand Rapids to get Sarah to work, but that's to be expected when your plans change by an entire day.

All told, it was a very enjoyable trip. Everything from the space coast to Epcot was a fun adventure, and even our air travel fail was only a fairly minor hassle. The rest of winter will be a little less depressing after a few days in the sun!

Wednesday, February 7, 2018

Amazon Music Unlimited

I've been trying out Amazon Music Unlimited for my music streaming needs. After a couple of months, I've decided that it's decent but has a way to go to catch up with Spotify.
Like just about every streaming service, Amazon Music has multiple tiers of service. There's Prime Music, which is included with an Amazon Prime subscription. Then there's Amazon Music Unlimited, another $7.99 per month on top of that, or $9.99 if you're not a Prime member. (And there are always promotions, like three months for $0.99 that was offered when I decided to try out Unlimited.) That's cheaper than just about anything else comparable in the market if you've already got Prime, which is exactly what you'd expect since that's how Amazon seems to be marketing just about everything these days.

The Prime Music version is extremely limited in terms of what music is available, not really worth considering in comparison to other offerings out there. Unlimited is better, but I still found myself coming up empty on searches quite often. Partially that's due to the fact that I tend to look for some pretty obscure stuff, weird metal and the like. But there were also some strange holes where parts of an artist's catalog is missing. The same happens on Spotify, too, but it seems to me that there are fewer gaps there.

Basic music streaming features are all present and accounted for. Playlists, saving your favorite artists and albums, apps on just about every platform, offline downloads in the mobile apps, and so on. I didn't have any trouble with any of the basics.

Where Amazon Music Unlimited differs most from Spotify is in the details, the little things that go beyond simply playing your favorite playlist. Examples:

  • When you close the Amazon Music app (on PC or mobile) and then re-open it, it remembers what playlist/album you were on, but not which song. So it always restarts from the beginning. Spotify remembers the song position.
  • There's no feature to suggest songs to add to playlists (or at least it's not obvious).
  • Similarly, there's no "Playlist radio" feature with suggestions based on a playlist.
  • Searching for a specific band or song name sometimes won't bring it up. Try "Bride" for instance...there's lots of stuff with Bride in the name, but the actual band "Bride" isn't listed in the results. You have to search for something like "Bride Troubled Times" (that's one of their signature songs) to find it.
  • When using the phone app in the car with Android Auto, there are very limited options. If I want to find a playlist that I haven't listened to recently, I have to leave the auto app.
  • Daily or weekly suggestion lists are a great feature that I can easily find in Spotify but not here.
  • Song volume isn't normalized. Often songs in the same playlist will be significantly softer or louder than the others.
  • You can share playlists with non-Unlimited members via web links, but they won't be able to listen to most of the songs without subscribing to Unlimited. By comparison, Spotify does let people listen even if they're not subscribers to Spotify Premium (but with ads).

Amazon is making a good effort to match up with Spotify in the streaming music arena, and it mostly does the job. But it's definitely not as mature yet, and in my opinion has quite a bit of work left to do. Even with the slightly higher price point (assuming you have Prime), I think Spotify is still the better choice for now.