Sunday, January 14, 2018

Unbelievable: My Front-Row Seat to the Craziest Campaign in American History by Katy Tur

Unbelievable: My Front-Row Seat to the Craziest Campaign in American HistoryUnbelievable: My Front-Row Seat to the Craziest Campaign in American History by Katy Tur
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I had no intention of spending much time looking back at the 2016 campaign. It was bad enough the first time through. But I was listening to NPR's Wait Wait Don't Tell Me when they interviewed Katy Tur about Unbelievable, and it sounded a lot more interesting than I expected.

Largely this is because Tur writes as much about herself as about the campaign. Personal sacrifices made to further her career, childhood days in a news helicopter, the difficulties of being constantly on the road...there's a lot of personal reflection in the book. I'd have liked even a little more, as I thought the end of the book felt a bit rushed in personal terms. But then, life often works that way - there's not always a tidy ending.

There's quite a bit about the rigors of covering a political campaign and the internal workings of a major media organization. Tur is very honest about her own insecurities about her career, too. I suppose I shouldn't have been surprised at how much this sounds like any other corporate world. When you see these folks on television, it always seems like they have it together and get along great. But behind the scenes, they're human too, and it's fascinating to see behind the curtain.

If you do want to relive many of the insane moments from the 2016 campaign, Unbelievable has that covered. And despite what I said above, I think this is a good thing. Tur describes feeling threatened at Trump rallies, being literally spat upon, and requiring a security detail just to do her job. She recounts innumerable "Lock Her Up" chants and shouted assassination suggestions. She talked with supporters who simply refused to think about Trump's disparaging comments toward women and minorities and foreigners. We need to remember that these things happened. Hopefully to prevent them from happening again.

Don't dismiss Unbelievable because it takes place during a campaign that you'd rather forget. I really enjoyed reading the personal perspective that Tur shares. And though the reminders of the worst moments from the 2016 campaign aren't pleasant, I think it's important that we remember.

Friday, January 12, 2018

Into the Abyss in Path of Exile

In early December, Path of Exile launched version 3.1.0 of the game, titled War For The Atlas. This comes with a new set of challenge leagues, as per usual. I've been spending a lot of my gaming time there for the last month.
This time around, the new challenge league feature is Abysses, which spawn randomly in nearly every area of the game. When you find one and run over it, cracks open in the landscape and a whole lot of monsters pour out. At the end of the crack line is a big sinkhole with tougher monsters, generally 1-3 rares. The abyss might end after one sinkhole, or it might continue on for more...the most I've seen is 4. You move along, defeating the monsters and following the cracks, and if you move fast enough and survive then you're rewarded at the last sinkhole with a loot chest called an Abyssal Trove.

Occasionally, you'll get a entrance to a new zone called the Abyssal Depths instead of a trove. It's populated by a whole lot of abyss monsters and eventually a boss area. Mostly the boss is a type of totem that spawns tons of monsters until you've broken it, but in higher level Depths you might see a unique boss. I've fought two of those, and they're certainly a challenge. Tons of abyss monster adds, several of the totems to defeat, and of course the boss itself.

I really like the abyss feature. It's difficult, especially in the very low and very high levels. At the low end, your character might not be capable of handling a big swarm of enemies. At the high end, the sheer damage output of the rare and unique abyss monsters can be overwhelming. But that risk is accompanied by some great rewards. The troves have decent items, there's a lot of rare monsters that can drop good stuff, and there's a whole new class of abyss items that have mods not seen anywhere else.

As the War For The Atlas title indicates, there's also some significant changes to the end-game mapping system. There's been quite a bit of rebalancing, with a number of new maps and quite a few modifications. The Atlas of Worlds now has two factions fighting over it: Elder and Shaper. On the atlas, you'll see background effects indicating where the factions have influence, and if you run a map in an influenced area then there are additional faction specific hazards and item drops.

I'm just getting around to the middle of the atlas. I progress pretty slowly in Path of Exile terms, largely because I play almost entirely solo self-found (no teaming, no trading with other players). But I'm starting to see those atlas factions, and they certainly seem interesting. A few maps have had demon portals spawning tons of extra monsters, I've seen enhanced boss fights, and I've collected a few items with mods I've not seen before. Looking forward to seeing what else is in store as I move along.

As far as characters go, I'm mostly playing two. A Sunder Duelist Gladiator and my usual summoner Witch Necromancer. The gladiator is insanely powerful, as long as you avoid certain specific situations (physical damage reflection and lightning thorns, for instance). Sunder is so good that I'm not sure why anyone would bother with any other melee skill. As for the summoner, there have been some quality of life improvements in this version that are really nice. Most notably, you don't have to resummon your spectres every time you log in! In both cases I had one death and had to start a second version of the character, but both of those are running strong into the 80 levels.

The Path of Exile designers and developers continue to work their magic every few months, adding new and interesting features to what is already the best ARPG on the market. (In my opinion, at least.) I'm not sure how long they can keep it up, but as long as they do, I'll keep coming back for more.

Sunday, December 31, 2017

Clear Vision 2018

My eye doctor reminded me a few weeks ago that it was time for an eye check, so I decided I should go into 2018 with updated eyewear. Perfect timing, as it turns out.
My insurance covers an eye exam every year and new glasses every two years. A lot of plans care about the end of the calendar year, but mine doesn't...it just happens that my last exam was in a December also. Judging from how busy the eye doctor and various glasses places were at the end of December, I should probably think about shifting my timing in the future. But I managed to get everything done, though of course there were some bumps along the way.

First hurdle to clear...getting to the eye doctor. They closed their Caledonia location, which had been less than a mile from my condo. Their main location in Hastings is still going, though, so I headed down there. It's only about a half hour drive, and I liked how they operate well enough that it was worth the extra time.

The exam found very little to worry about, which is always good news. A slight increase in my prescription, but no major issues. No need to worry about bifocals (yet), which was my main concern. All that time spent with computers and books seems to be keeping my close-range vision working fine.

Next step, new glasses. I looked around at the eye doctor, but didn't really see anything I loved in the way of new frames. Turned out that was just as well, because I was a week early for my insurance coverage. When they say two years, they mean two years, not one year and 51 weeks.

So I waited, planning to go to look at various other places a week later. Of course, life happened and I didn't get around to it right away. But then I lost my glasses - I still have no idea where I left them. Fortunate timing! I pulled out my four-year-old pair as a temporary measure, which functioned but the world was really blurry. Eyes really do change over a few years!

My first stop was Lenscrafters, but the only frames I liked there were name brand and cost nearly $300. Even with insurance, that was going to run me nearly $250 after lens cost. So I went down the way to Eyeglass World, and lo and behold, they had a nearly identical pair that was only $140. Dropped my total cost to less than $150, after insurance, and I got the nice composite lenses with UV coating in the deal. (Good for lots of computer work, which is definitely right up my alley.)

Even better, my prescription was simple enough that they could get the glasses ready on the same day. So I was back to seeing clearly just a few hours later. Ready for 2018!

Saturday, December 23, 2017

Orange (anime)

Orange is a high school romance series, which in itself is not usually something I'd watch. But it also has a time-travel hook, and deals with the subject of suicide and the regrets of those left behind. (Minor spoilers below, though I don't think they'd detract from anyone's enjoyment of the series.)
The time-travel bit is what drew my attention to Orange in the first place. A high school girl named Kaho gets a letter from her 10-years-in-the-future self, giving instructions about how to avoid the thing she most regrets. The mechanics of how the actual letter delivery across time happens are pretty weak, but that's not really the point. The focus is on what future knowledge does to her actions and relationships. (Note for those who aren't Japanese-literate: make sure you get version that has English translations of the letters. They're often just shown, not read aloud. Some English dubs don't have the written translations and that really detracts from this particular series. Personally, I think the sub-titles are better than dubs anyway.)

Just a few episodes in, it's revealed that future Kaho's main regret is the death of Kakeru, a new student in her class. At first they don't specify that it's a suicide, but I thought it was pretty obvious almost immediately. The rest of the series follows the efforts Kaho makes to change that future.

There's a lot of awkward teenage romance in Orange: Kaho and Kakeru, a triangle with her friend Suwa, interfering friends, and so on. The romantic tension is largely driven by how shy and easily embarrassed Kaho is. Not really my favorite thing, but it was worth tolerating for the other aspects of the show.

What I found most impressive about Orange was how Kakeru is portrayed. He comes from a broken home, loses his mother, and withdraws from personal relationships and activities (such as soccer club). He's depressed, blames himself for his mother's death, and eventually becomes suicidal. But he doesn't show any of this in day-to-day activities, continuing normal life right up into the end. In the original timeline, where the future letter originates, no one noticed and took action. That's a realistic portrayal of how suicide can happen - my family had a recent experience along those lines, and so this story really hit home.

In Orange, the future letter gives Kaho and her friends a chance to save Kakeru. There are some specifics in the letter, of course, but the most important thing is that they recognize his situation. Even when their actions have changed things so that the future knowledge doesn't make much sense in terms of specific events, the fact that they're aware of Kakeru's pain and depression puts them in a position to help. And that's what I hope people take from this story...that recognizing someone's suffering and doing everything you can for them can make a difference.

Thursday, December 7, 2017

Paper: Paging Through History by Mark Kurlansky

Paper: Paging Through HistoryPaper: Paging Through History by Mark Kurlansky
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Paper is one of those things that I never really thought much about. There seems to be an inexhaustible supply pretty much anywhere you go, in a huge variety of shapes, sizes, and colors. This book describes the long and complex journey to that state of affairs.

I learned a lot about what actually goes into the creation of paper from reading Paper. I always thought of paper as coming from trees, but that's a fairly recent development. For a long time, various kinds of cloth rags were the primary input material. Kurlansky describes the evolution of the paper-making process from early hand methods to modern paper mills. It's only in the last couple of centuries that the volume of paper produced has exploded, making it so easy to obtain.

The subtitle mentions "history" and there's plenty of that here. The book focuses on literacy and the use of paper, of course, but that ties into a whole lot of world history along the way. From the long history of China to the Middle East to Western civilization, Paper traces how changes in society drove the development of paper-making and usage over time.

Much of the book describes paper used for writing and drawing, of course, but I was surprised at how many other uses of paper were also mentioned. Wrapping, packing, cartridges for firearms, construction materials, even clothing...paper is used in all kinds of ways that don't immediately spring to mind for me.

Any student of history will find Paper an interesting read. Kurlansky provides a view into the long history leading to the wide variety of paper products we have today.

Sunday, December 3, 2017

Ada Chili and Beer Festival 2017

Chili and beer, sounds like a good Saturday afternoon to me.

Event Logo Image
Every year, folks from the Community Church in Ada and Ronald McDonald House organize a chili cook-off. Most of the entrants are from local restaurants and brewpubs, who also bring their beers and ciders along.
Doing an outdoor event so late in the year in Michigan is a bit risky, but the weather cooperated this year. No major snowstorms and it wasn't even all that cold. Though with as many people as were crowded into the big tent, cold wouldn't have been an issue regardless. Nice to have the option of wandering around outside a bit, though.
I didn't come close to trying every chili or beer option, way too many choices! About a half-dozen of each, I think, before I was too full to keep going. Everything was good, though! I look forward to another round next year.

Monday, November 27, 2017

Moto X4 and Project Fi

I took advantage of one Black Friday deal this year, for a new phone and carrier service.
My old phone was a Samsung Galaxy S5, which was starting to show its age. I got it last year as a refurbished sale, which was cheap but I knew it wouldn't last for long. It's been acting up recently, with battery issues and needing reboots regularly. As my carrier, I was using H2OWireless, a budget outfit which only cost me about $10/month. It mostly worked, but I had occasional connect troubles, especially when traveling. And I had to very carefully watch every MB of data to avoid high usage charges, which got annoying sometimes.

Google has a fairly new phone service offering called Project Fi, which seems to cover exactly what I'm looking for. It's a bit more expensive at $30/month, but has much better coverage and significantly more data allowance. They credit your next month if you don't use all your data, which I expect will be the case for me more often than not.

I don't need a high-end phone, so I went with the budget option that Google recommends: the Moto X4. $400 with a Black Friday sale giving $100 credit on the Project Fi service. The reviews of the X4 are good for a budget smartphone - some small issues, but nothing that will affect that way I plan to use it.

The hardware arrived today and everything's working as expected so far. I'll be testing the new phone and service out over the next few months, but I don't expect any significant issues. And if anyone decides to try out Google's Project Fi as a service, let me know and I'll share a ref link that gives us both some credit.