Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Happy Towel Day!

Don't panic!
March 25th is Towel Day, a celebration of the works of Douglas Adams. Why towels? Adams' most famous work, Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, describes a towel as "about the most massively useful thing an interstellar hitch hiker can have" and recommends carrying one at all times. So when a fan recommended a remembrance of Adams be held two weeks after his passing on May 11 2001, the towel was an obvious choice of symbol.

I first read the Hitchhiker's Trilogy around 30 years ago. I can't be more specific because I don't remember exactly...pretty sure it was sometime during junior high. Before high school, anyhow, but I must have re-read the four books that existed then at least half a dozen times before I was out of college. And I continued to read the additional books as they were added to "the increasingly inaccurately named trilogy." That includes the sixth book written by Eion Colfer in 2009, years after Adams' death.

Science fiction has been a favorite genre of mine as long as I can remember, whether serious or parody. The genre first attracted me to the series, but Adams' dry, tongue-in-cheek humor made it a classic. There have been radio dramas, video games, and movies made from the original source material, although none of them are exact translations. It wouldn't be Hitchhiker's Guide without some inconsistencies.

The Hitchhiker's Guide was such a favorite of mine that I used it as inspiration when I needed to come up with an online identity. In Mostly Harmless, Arthur Dent spends some time on the planet Lamuella, where the local priest/madman worships the Almighty Bob. He preaches the "ineffable will of Almighty Bob" to the villagers, usually when he wants something, such as the best sandwich. That inspired me to use "ineffablebob" when I needed a name to use for online forums and such.

So have a happy Towel Day, and whatever may happen...Don't Panic.

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Formerly Known as the Justice League

For no particular reason, I recently found myself looking for something funny to read. I have plenty of options lying around, from Dave Barry books to Sir Terry Pratchett's Discworld novels to collections of Dilbert cartoons. (And that's just in print and on a bookshelf - plenty more at the library and on the Internet.) This time, what caught my eye was my Formerly Known as the Justice League comics.
More than 20 years ago, Keith Giffen and J. M. DeMatteis wrote a series of comedic, tongue-in-cheek storylines in the Justice League International book. Much of the team was made up of characters who weren't well-known at the time, such as Blue Beetle, Fire, Booster Gold, and Elongated Man. It became irreverently known as the "bwa ha ha" era, and it was hilarious to read. Eventually the series moved on to a more serious tone.

In 2003, Giffen and DeMatteis returned to some of the same characters and style with the six-issue mini-series Formerly Known as the Justice League. It's drawn by artists Kevin Maguire (who also worked on JLI) and Joe Rubinstein. The plot revolves around Maxwell Lord creating a new superhero team called the Super Buddies, bringing together many of the old JLI members. And a few old enemies, though at times it's hard to tell the difference.

Formerly Known as the Justice League is most entertaining if you're a comic book fan, since it uses every opportunity to poke fun at the superhero genre. For instance: the whole idea of the Super Buddies, a bunch of lesser-known heroes available for hire. But it's plenty entertaining even if superhero comics aren't your normal thing, because there's a whole lot of puns, characters trading insults, and just general weirdness that makes it a fun read.

The same creative team also did a follow-up storyline in the JLA Classified series a few years later, called I Can't Believe it's not the Justice League. That one isn't quite as good in my opinion, largely because it didn't quite fit with the rest of the DC universe at the time. Identity Crisis had recently killed off Sue Dibny, and Blue Beetle dies in the Countdown to Infinite Crisis right around the same publication date. I Can't Believe it's not the Justice League takes place in an earlier time as far as continuity goes, but it was still odd to see the same characters being used for comedy and tragedy in the same general publication timeframe.

I keep Formerly Known as the Justice League around on my bookshelf because it's a great example of the lighter side of superhero comics. Highly recommended to anyone who likes the superhero genre, and I think even non-fans would find it amusing.

Monday, May 23, 2016

MTG: Soggy Brains

It was probably inevitable that I'd eventually decide to play some Standard-format Magic: The Gathering. I haven't done so in years, but most of the recent booster drafts and Commander-format games that I've played have been fun, so Standard is the logical next step.
The main reason I haven't played much Standard is that I don't have the cards, and don't want to spend the money required to get them. So when I decided to build a Standard deck, my primary requirement was that it use cards I already had, or could get easily. The deck also had to have some kind of coherent theme, because it's just more fun that way.

From the booster drafts, I already had two Brain in a Jar and two Engulf the Shore. That's a good start toward this budget mono-blue deck. After the last booster draft that I won (or technically, tied for first), I used the store credit reward to buy most of the cards that I didn't have already. I was able to trade for the remaining rares, which included four Part the Waterveil, pretty easily.
So the cost wasn't an issue, and the deck certainly has a theme. There's lots of water, with all the blue spells - particularly Engulf the Shore, which keeps you alive by sending the opponent's creatures back to their hand. You have the Brain in the Jar, which is obviously a soggy brain. It's a pretty key part of the deck, letting you cast spells for free and at instant speed. (Plus, who doesn't like saying "I put a counter on my brain" every turn?) The deck wins by casting Rise from the Tides to create a whole bunch of (waterlogged) zombies. Usually this is followed by Part the Waterveil to take an extra turn, allowing the zombies to proceed to eat your opponent's brain. "Soggy Brains" all around.

My deck list is only slightly different from the one in the link. I use Compelling Deterrence instead of Disperse - same cost, same effect, but cooler zombie theme. Also I have Broken Concentration instead of Void Shatter simply because I had the former available but not the latter. I put a couple of those Broken Concentrations into the main deck instead of two Grip of the Roil, under the assumption that I was likely to need an occasional counterspell more than additional creature delay.
I took the Soggy Brains to Friday Night Magic over in Lowell recently. A fairly small turnout of just seven players, perfect for playing a budget theme deck. My first opponent had a blue/white Spirits deck, which really didn't have much of a chance against all the ways I had to bounce stuff back to his hand. He did get me down to 2 life in the second game, but it wasn't enough. I was able to cast Rise from the Tides for 10+ zombies in each game, followed by Part the Waterveil to take another turn and send them all after his brain.

The second round was much more of a challenge. My opponent was playing black/white, with a good amount of control and life gain. We only played two games due to time constraints, each winning one. In the first game, my deck was moving along, putting counters on a Brain in a Jar, until he got an Ayli, Eternal Pilgrim to get rid of it. I was still able to delay for several more turns, and finally had enough land to cast Rise from the Tides for 11 zombies plus a Part the Waterveil. I had to cast two more Part the Waterveil to do enough damage to overcome all the life he'd gained, plus the Archangel Avacyn he was using to block one zombie on each attack. The second game went his way after he drew a bunch of early hand destruction, causing me to discard a bunch of useful cards. Never was able to get going after that.
My third opponent was another black/white deck, but this one had much more control. Lots of hand and creature destruction, with planeswalkers and various useful creatures to do damage. He won the first game, with the big blow being an early Ob Nixilis Reignited that I wasn't able to answer. Hard to play a blue deck when you're losing life for every card draw! I won the second, in large part due to my sideboarding in a whole lot of counterspells. I never drew a Brain in a Jar, but with all the counters I was able to stall until I had enough mana to cast both Rise from the Tides and Part the Waterveil on the same turn. Mage-Ring Network helped a lot with that as well. The third game I won almost by default when he kept a two-land opening hand, and didn't draw a third land for several turns. That gave me an insurmountable lead in mana production that led to a whole lot of zombies a few turns later.

So all told, I played a total of seven games, winning five. I don't expect Soggy Brains will be giving any Pro Tour players nightmares, but it sure was fun to play in a casual Friday Night Magic setting.

Sunday, May 22, 2016

Shoe Replacement

I'm finally getting over my recent cold. Felt well enough to go out into the nice weather for a bit of a run the other day, and it went fairly well, but my feet hurt enough afterward that I decided it was about time to do something about my running shoes.

My default approach when it comes to clothing is "wear it until it falls apart." Works nicely for a lot of things, but running shoes, not so much. Once the padding wears down, the shoes lose their ability to support the arch of the foot, leading to all kinds of unfortunate injury possibilities. Particularly if you run on hard surfaces, such as the asphalt on the streets in my neighborhood.

To be honest, I'd already let this go longer than I should. Most of last year, I noticed increased pain in my calves. That's a warning sign that you aren't getting enough support from your shoes. So I probably should have done this a while ago, but better late than never.

I went over to Gazelle Sports to find my new shoes. There are cheaper options, but I like having someone who knows what they're doing help me make the right choice. Having the right shoes means less wear on my body, which is worth the extra cost to me. Plus I tend to have some trouble finding the right sizes. Helps to go somewhere that can offer some non-standard sizes, particularly extra wide.

At Gazelle, a nice young lady named Micah recommended a few different options for running shoes with good padding. She very patiently helped me go through about a half-dozen pairs of shoes, most of which were either too narrow (but the right length) or too long (but wide enough). Finally, we found a pair of Nike Air Zoom Structures that fit well enough.
Took a jog around the neighborhood earlier today, about 3 miles. No calf or foot pain, so I'm pretty happy with the new pair. Should last me a year or so. And this time, I'll pay more attention to the warning signs to get replacements before my feet pay the price.

Saturday, May 21, 2016

Rokka: Braves of the Six Flowers

Rokka: Braves of the Six Flowers is a light anime series about six heroes chosen to defeat an evil Demon God. Unfortunately, it's not a particularly good example of the genre.
The setting for Rokka is a sword-and-sorcery fantasy world, where the human civilization is under threat from evil fiends. The male characters are warriors of various kinds, and the females are "saints" who have magical abilities over a specific domain. There are saints of mountains, blades, the sun, fog, etc. Six of the strongest fighters of both genders are chosen to be Braves by a goddess who marks them with a special flower tattoo. The Braves are destined to work together to defeat the leader of the fiends, the Demon God.

The series starts off with Adlet, the main protagonist, being arrested after interrupting a tournament. He claims to be the "strongest man in the world" and defeats the tournament contestants, but then is thrown into prison by the tournament organizers. After a lengthy prison stay, he is marked as one of the six Braves, as is the princess of those who hold him captive. Together they escape and start the journey to find the other Braves and enter the land of the fiends.

A few episodes in, the series changes direction pretty dramatically when the other Braves enter the story. Instead of an epic adventure battling fiends on the way to a showdown with the Demon God, the heroes are trapped in the area around a temple. There are seven with the mark of the Braves, though, not just six. The remainder of the series is devoted to discovering who is the impostor. That does eventually happen in the last episode, but then another marked person shows up. In the end, the whole group is finally moving toward the land of the fiends, but again with an extra (presumably traitorous) Brave.

I was not particularly impressed with Rokka. It doesn't seem to know what kind of story it wants to tell. First it's a unknown-warrior-makes-his-name type of grand adventure, then shifts to a kind of discover-the-traitor mystery, and in the end is set up to continue as a mix of both. There are bits of romance, flashy battles, humor, and intrigue mixed in - but none are explored in any depth.

The mystery aspect is unpredictable, but heavy-handed. Several characters seem like obvious impostor candidates at various points in the story, before some new bit of evidence shows up to change things around. A good mystery uses misdirection, but this one seems to just be throwing new information around whenever it needs to change the suspect.

The characters are mostly weak and uninteresting. Each is certainly unique, but only one really changes at all as the story moves on. That one is Flamie, who has some serious self-loathing issues and a death wish. That changes over time due to the efforts of Adlet and the power of love. It's a pretty weak execution of character development, and that's especially noticeable since none of the other characters have much depth at all.

It's pretty clear in the end that this was intended only as the first half of a longer series. Can't say I'm unhappy that the second half hasn't been made.

Friday, May 20, 2016

DC's Legends of Tomorrow

I mentioned DC's Legends of Tomorrow television series in a post several months ago, as a yet-to-be-released series. The first season is over now, having just wrapped up this week.
The idea behind the show was to pull together a group of characters already seen in Flash and Arrow, and send them on a grand adventure across time and space. The catalyst is Rip Hunter, who is traveling across time to save his family by preventing the rise to power of the villainous Vandal Savage. He gathers up eight superheroes (or villains) to get the job done.

It's always tricky to use time travel as the basis for a storyline, and Legends of Tomorrow is no exception. There's a lot of hand-waving used along the lines of "time wants to happen a certain way" so that the characters can't do obvious things like stop Savage from being born, or correct their own mistakes. Anyone watching a show based on comic-book heroes is going to put up with a lot of flimsy explanations, but these kind of time-bending stories stretch anyone's suspension of disbelief.

Vandal Savage makes a pretty unconvincing villain, in my opinion. He's an immortal, like the character of the same name in the comics, but the TV version is also linked to ancient Egypt and Hawkman/Hawkgirl. Certainly he's smart and ruthless, but the kind of power gathered by the heroic company should have been extreme overkill. Savage ends up a step ahead in episode after episode, of course - wouldn't be much of a series otherwise - but it feels more like the team self-destructs than Savage winning. This issue becomes less pronounced as the plot moves along, which is a good thing, but that doesn't help the early episodes.

The sheer number of characters in the team is a problem, too. Considering how many personalities there are to work through, the writers actually do a fairly good job providing some depth to each one. There's only so much time to deal with the varied interpersonal relationships, though, and having so many means each one feels shorted. A team half the size would have been much more believable and provided more time to expand on each character.

Having said all that, the shortcomings haven't stopped me from watching the show through the entire first season. It's part of the same universe as Flash and Arrow, and it's fun to spot the various ways the shows cross over. I like many of the characters individually, even if the team aspect isn't as well done as I'd like. And there are definitely some fun moments along the way.

The first season of Legends of Tomorrow has been pretty rough, but I'm hoping there's been some lessons learned. A second season is already in the works, and what I saw at the end of this season's finale certainly looks promising. A smaller team with a better villain could make for a solid show.

Thursday, May 19, 2016

World of Warcraft: Some Time at Level 90

I was recently sent an offer by Blizzard for seven free days of World of Warcraft play time, including creation of a character boosted to level 90. Free is a good price, so I tried it out.
I'm not sure if the timing is coincidence, or if the fact that I played the "starter edition" a few weeks ago triggered this offer. I wouldn't be surprised if their marketing department sends this offer to most folks that try out the free-to-play option. At least, those that stop playing once they hit the level 20 cap. Seems like a smart way to try to draw in those who are on the fence about subscribing.

The introduction experience this time was much better than the starter edition. Same character creation process, but with the level 90 boost you are dropped into a story area immediately (as opposed to the race-specific starter areas for level 1 characters). I chose a Tauren Druid, so that put me in the battle to close a dark portal opened by the Iron Horde. After that immediate threat was dealt with, I joined the rest of my allies' forces in a hasty retreat to safer territory. There were a few cutscenes along to way with big fights and explosions to spice things up. As far as MMO story-telling goes, this was done nicely.

I didn't notice any bugged quests through this process, and never had to wait on a respawn to fulfill a quest objective. I didn't have to make long trips through big empty areas to talk to quest givers or chase down objectives. Plus I was given a mount to use if I wanted, though I didn't find it necessary in the early going. As the story moved along, I was gradually granted all the character abilities that I'd have normally earned in the leveling process. All of this is a sharp contrast to the starter edition introduction process, which was slow, had bugs, and generally felt boring. It's pretty clear where the developers have been focusing their effort.

At the end of the introduction quest chain, you're given an outpost of your own to run. I enjoyed the introductory quests that involved directing peons to cut down trees and setting up new buildings...reminded me of the old Warcraft days. There's clearly quite a bit of upgrading available, which I assume would require a good amount of time spent gathering resources to fully realize. And you get your own minions to boss around and send out on missions, which is always fun. Most modern MMOs have some version of player bases, so it's not a surprise that World of Warcraft joined the crowd.

Personally, I'm still not interested in subscribing. Largely that's because there are so many other games that provide basically the same thing, without requiring a monthly payment. I can play a game like Guild Wars 2 with a single purchase rather than an ongoing fee. The only unique things that World of Warcraft really offers are their background story and player base. Neither really means much to me.

Having said that, I can certainly see how someone might be tempted to pony up the subscription fee after playing this trial week. The level 90+ experience feels much more modern than the lower levels, and I expect it's especially attractive if you already have friends playing the end-game. If Blizzard really wants to attract new subscribers, this level 90-boost trial is a much better way to go about it than the free-to-play starter edition.