Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Dream Theater Live - The Astonishing

Dream Theater came to Grand Rapids recently, on tour for their album The Astonishing.
I've listened to a good amount of Dream Theater's work over the years, though I wouldn't put them in the top tier of my favorite artists. I first came across their music in the 1990s when some fellow listeners of Rush recommended Dream Theater as another good progressive rock group. I haven't kept up with every album they've released over the years, and that includes this latest one, but I still occasionally break out some of their older stuff.

This particular concert was entirely about The Astonishing. It's a concept album, more than 2 hours long with 34 tracks, and they performed the entire thing. I found myself wishing that I'd spent some time listening to it before, since as with most rock concerts, the vocals were hard to follow when you don't know the songs. I certainly enjoyed the music, but it would have been nice to understand the words so I could follow the "concept" part of concept album.

The venue was DeVos Place in downtown Grand Rapids, which is built for stage plays. The approximately 2400 seats are fixed, with no open floor area, and broken up into several tiers. That means the view is pretty good in all areas, but also makes it not particularly well-suited to rock concerts where people want to move around. I thought the acoustics were fine, so the sound wasn't an issue, but there certainly wasn't much crowd energy. The place was only about three-quarters full, so that might have been true even if the venue was more open.

I sat way in the back up in the balcony section, about as far from the stage as you can get. But since it's such a small venue, that was actually a pretty good spot. No one was blocking my view, and I had no complaints about sound quality. I suspect I'd have actually seen less if I was any closer, just due to other people in front. Which is why I didn't move up - the place was empty enough that I could have, but it didn't seem like an improvement.

The band didn't play anything more than The Astonishing. That was a little disappointing, since everything of theirs that I actually know is older. Lots of other people felt the same way, based on what I overheard in the halls during a break and on the way out. Maybe with a bigger or more energetic crowd, there might have been some encores, but not in this particular case.

I'm glad I went to the concert - it would have been silly to miss an opportunity to see any band that I enjoy, this close to home - even if it wasn't quite what I'd hoped. I'm definitely going to make sure I'm more familiar with the latest album for similar situations in the future, though.

Saturday, October 22, 2016

Dear Grandma - How about those Cubs?

Dear Grandma Scott - It's finally happened. The Cubs are playing in a World Series.
I don't have a lot of memories of you, since you passed away when I was still a teenager. Much of what I do recall is from the last part of your life, when you lived with my family but were mostly confined to your own room. I didn't see much of you other than mealtimes, and not even that when your lifelong heavy cigarette smoking led to your hospitalization and eventual passing. But that was the end, and I prefer to remember earlier times.

Before the sports media explosion of the last decade or two, it wasn't nearly as easy to be a serious sports fan as it is now, particularly if you didn't live in a team's home area. There was no Internet to look up all the bits of information about every player, no streaming video to watch individual games from across the country (and world), and cable TV options were much more limited. The Chicago Cubs were an exception, though, thanks to WGN Sports broadcasting a large number of their games. Our family didn't watch a lot of TV, but when you lived with us, my mom made sure we had cable so that you could see the Cubs games.

You sitting close to that little black-and-white TV in your room, turned up loud to help you hear it, the voices of Harry Carey and Steve Stone - that's how I best remember your time living with us. I was more interested in reading and games and music than in actually sitting down to watch a baseball game, so we didn't actually watch very many games together. I still heard plenty, though. Thanks to you (and mom, who got it from you) I knew all about baseball, and in particular the Cubs. And I followed your example in becoming a life-long fan.

We all know that it hasn't been easy. Even those who know nothing else about baseball can tell you that the Chicago Cubs have a ridiculously long World Series drought. Much of the time the team was just bad, and even when they were good the playoffs never went well. From what I remember, though, the winning (or lack thereof) wasn't what you focused on. Whether the team was in contention or losing 100 games, you'd be watching. Sure, it was great when they won, but the important thing for you was hearing Harry and seeing Wrigley Field and watching the games played.

The current Cubs would be both easy for you to recognize, and completely different. Wrigley Field has gone through some changes, but it's still the same hundred-year-old park with the ivy walls. They've built up an amazing roster, largely with young players that could be around for years. There's no Harry in the broadcast booth, but his face still looks down on the field, and manager Joe Maddon is a kindred off-the-wall soul. They've always sung "Take Me Out To The Ballgame" during the 7th inning stretch at Wrigley, and now there's a song after every win, too.

Over the next couple of weeks, as Chicago and Cleveland (yes, the Indians made it too) play for the World Series title, I'll be watching. And I know you are, too.

Your Grandson Sam

Thursday, October 20, 2016

Death's End by Liu Cixin

Death's End is the conclusion to Liu Cixin's Remembrance of Earth's Past trilogy. I read the first two books, The Three Body Problem and The Dark Forest, a few weeks back. The English translation of Death's End was just recently released, and I was able to pick up a library copy.
This third novel is the longest of the trilogy, nearly 100 pages more than The Dark Forest. It covers a lot of ground, starting with a flashback to ancient Earth history and moving through multiple eras in the future. The majority of the story takes place in our Solar System, though we do also see a bit of deep space travel and even one glimpse of an alien civilization that makes up part of the "dark forest" that was the key theme of the second book.

Much of Death's End is told from the perspective of one person, which helps to maintain some continuity across all these changes. That person is Cheng Xin, a spaceflight engineer who becomes an intelligence operative and ends up traveling to future eras via hibernation technology. She's a very empathetic character, quickly identifying with the people and situations she finds when reviving in a new era. That empathy also means she is unable or unwilling to sacrifice others for potentially greater gains, though, and she makes several key decisions through history that have some dire consequences for humanity.

The idea of using more (or less) than three dimensions is a recurring theme throughout the series. The Trisolarian civilization uses multi-dimensional technology to build "sophons" in the first novel, and those play a huge role as instantaneous communication conduits, spies, and agents of sabotage. In Death's End, the idea of regular three-dimensional objects moving into either four- or two-dimensional space plays a large role, and various theories about the structure of the universe imply even higher dimensions. Liu Cixin isn't the first author to delve into the idea of changing dimensionality, but I thought the way he used those ideas was unique and interesting.

One of my favorite parts of Death's End is a series of allegorical fairly-tale stories which are used to communicate direction for scientific research. The Trisolarians are listening in on communications between the one human with access to their knowledge and those in back in the Solar System, so the information can't be stated directly. Trying to decipher the meaning of the stories becomes a puzzle that lasts years. Each hidden meaning that is revealed leads to shifts in the direction of humanity's understanding of science and technology. I enjoyed the mystery aspect of guessing the meaning in the stories, as well as appreciating the literary skill involved in integrating the very different fairy tale style in the middle of a science fiction novel.

The events in Death's End do wrap up most of the questions posed by the earlier novels. The resolutions aren't necessarily great for humanity, though. There are some pretty bleak outcomes for a lot of people. It's not just humans, either - the Trisolarians have serious troubles as well. The threat of the "dark forest" of the universe is very real in this story, and the author doesn't hand out any sort of magical solution to the situation. While the results may not be great for a lot of people in the book, I appreciate this approach. It would have been very easy to give humanity some kind of breakthrough discovery that made them immune to the universal threats, but if he had done so, I think it would have invalidated the entire idea.

It's not all doom and gloom for the end of this trilogy. There's no perfect happy ending for Cheng Xin, or the human and Trisolarian races, but life and hope persists. I found Death's End to be a satisfying conclusion to a grand epic story set in an intriguing universe.

Sunday, October 16, 2016

MTG: Kaladesh Sealed at Game On

I made the drive over to Game On in Midland to play in their Kaladesh sealed event this weekend.
This is the same store where I played in the Eldritch Moon sealed event a few months ago. This time, I didn't go alone - my friends Mike and Tim drove up from Owosso to play as well. (Neither had much success in terms of winning games, but both got some great cards - couple of Smuggler's Copters for Mike and a Torrential Gearhulk for Tim, among others.) Like last time, it was well attended, with a total of 34 people. Once again I was pleased with the way the folks at Game On ran the event. Nice play space, good group of players, solid organization and control by the organizers and judges.
My sealed pool was middling, with only one really great card: a Bristling Hydra. Also had a Wildest Dreams in green, though I didn't put it in the main deck. My other rares weren't playable, unfortunately - either too reliant on other cards that my pool was weak in (Depala, Syndicate Trafficker, Blooming Marsh) or just bad (Paradoxical Outcome). I had a good number of other green creatures, mostly notably two Longtusk Cubs, but no good green spells. My red removal was fairly decent: two Furious Reprisals, one Welding Sparks, one Chandra's Pyrohelix, and an Aethertorch Renegade. None of my other red creatures were great, but enough were playable to fill out the deck. Some good artifact creatures would have helped, but only two were worth playing: Sky Skiff and Weldfast Monitor. There were a couple of artifact removal spells for the sideboard - both Demolish and Creeping Mold helped out when I had to deal with some big vehicles. Outside of that Hydra and the Cubs, my creatures weren't good enough to take over a game, so the plan was to keep pressure on my opponent and hope the removal plus those three good creatures was enough to put me over the top.
That plan went nowhere in the first round, when I faced a red-white deck with several vehicles and plenty of tempo spells. I lost quickly in the first game to an onslaught of aggressive creatures, removal spells, and a couple of vehicles. In the second game, I was the one who drew aggressive creatures and removal spells to take a big early lead in the life totals, but didn't get any of my three finishing creatures until my opponent had clogged up his side of the board. That game took forever, almost taking up all the time in the round. In the end, I won since I had that early lead to work with and a higher creature total, just barely squeaking past his defenses with sheer numbers. Time was called before we could finish game three, so the first round was a draw.

The next three rounds went mostly according to plan. I won every game where I drew the Hydra, and several where I didn't but had a Cub and/or some good removal spells. I won all three rounds despite seeing some pretty good cards on the other side of the table. Noxious Gearhulk, for instance, and it's a good thing I'd sideboarded in that Demolish to deal with it. Two of those rounds were against opponents using three colors, and I'm pretty sure that helped me out quite a bit in those games. It's possible to play enough mana-fixing for three colors in this format, but it tends to slow you down and that's trouble if the opposition gets a good start.
To make the top eight, I needed to win one of the final two rounds. Sadly, it was not to be. I took both rounds to three games, so it was very close, but in the end the other players just got the better draws. My round five opponent had some amazing artifact/vehicle combinations that just overran me, with red and black removal to back them up. Chief of the Foundry plus Fleetwheel Cruiser is a real beating if you don't draw an answer right away. He got that Cruiser in all three games, and I was lucky to take one of the three. Round six was closer, against a green/white deck that had both large ground creatures and flyers. Lost the first game when I couldn't remove enough of his flyers, then won game two when I got the removal and kept a Cub alive long enough to win. Game three was close, but I couldn't keep up with his Skysovereign killing several of my creatures, a Durable Handicraft pumping up all his guys, and even a Wildest Dreams bringing back some of his creatures that I'd managed to kill.

End result, 3-2-1, just outside of the top eight. My one draw and two losses were all to players who made the top eight, and all three of those went to a third game. Any of those could have gone the other way with just a slightly better draw. Also, I only caught myself in one play mistake that actually mattered (forgetting to trigger energy gain off a Longtusk Cub, which later meant I couldn't give it a counter to save its life) and that turned out not to make a difference in the result of that particular game. Always feels better to know you played your best, even if the end result wasn't quite what you'd have liked. All in all, an enjoyable event, well worth the drive out and back.

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

MLB Division Series

Seems like they were in a hurry over in the American League, where both division series ended in sweeps. But neither National League series was a one-sided affair.
I'm not surprised by anything that happens when the Toronto Blue Jays and Texas Rangers face off, though I wouldn't have predicted a sweep. The Jays offense came to play, jumping out to big leads in both of the first two games, which is not an easy task against Cole Hamels and Yu Darvish. Toronto was down in the third game but again the offense came through, forcing extra innings. Some shaky Texas defense and good Toronto baserunning led to the walkoff, series-clinching win.

Three losses in a row for Boston, on the other hand, was a major surprise. Most of the year, the Red Sox were scoring ridiculous numbers of runs and pitching fairly well. I kept expecting them to struggle at some point, and it just didn't happen. Well, now it has, at the worst possible time for them. Worked out well for the Indians, though. Two close wins and one big shutout has Cleveland in the championship series.

The Cubs just barely won their first game against the Giants, just a single run scored in a great pitching duel between John Lackey and Johnny Cueto. In game two, Chicago starter Kyle Hendricks was injured by a line drive (fortunately no broken bones) and had to come out. Travis Wood came in and did a solid job in relief, and provided some offense with a home run in another Cubs win. But then the Giants won game 3 in San Francisco, despite Jake Arrieta driving in more runs (3-run homer) than he allowed (2). The Chicago bullpen blew the lead in the 8th and then allowed a walk-off score in the 13th. But in game 4, the Giants bullpen returned the favor by blowing a 3-run lead in the 9th, sending the Cubs on to their second championship series in a row.

I didn't watch much of the Dodgers-Nationals series, but I did see game four. The Nationals won two of the first three, so it was an elimination game for Los Angeles. Clayton Kershaw started on short rest and was pretty impressive after a shaky first inning. He had a 5-2 lead in the 7th, but couldn't quite finish off that inning, and after he left the Nationals tied the game. So the Dodgers had to rally late to win and force a fifth game in Washington, which I'll likely be watching Thursday night.

Regardless of who wins that fifth game in Washington and both championship series, some team is going to break a fairly long World Series drought. Most baseball fans know the Cubs last won in 1908, but it's been a long time for the Indians also - the last Cleveland title was in 1948. It's been since 1988 for the Dodgers, Toronto hasn't won since 1993, and the Nationals franchise hasn't even played in a World Series (in either Washington or Montreal). Some team's fans are going to get a celebration that hasn't been seen in at least a generation.

Monday, October 10, 2016

Year and a Day

Yesterday was the first day in a year that I haven't posted daily on this blog.
I started the blog largely to give myself a reason to write. Since I retired, I haven't had any real reason to write much, and it felt like I was getting out of practice. I suppose I could have just posted directly on Facebook, but a blog felt a bit more permanent and accessible.

Ideas haven't been that difficult to come by. Between world events, local news, things I've been doing, and just random stuff I run across on the Internet, I've not lacked for topics. Nearly any idea can turn into a few paragraphs within a half-hour or so.

The idea of posting every single day wasn't the plan at first. I had several ideas when I first started, of course, since I hadn't done any writing at all in a while. After a couple of weeks, I looked back and saw that I'd managed to put up a post each day and decided I might as well keep it going.

I did eventually start to feel a bit tired of posting something up every single day. I almost took a few days off in July when I was out of town for a few days visiting with family, but decided I'd like to push on until I'd hit a full year of daily posts.

Now that I've gotten to that full year, seems like a good time to cut back a bit on the blog postings. I'm thinking once a week for now. Maybe a bit more if something especially interesting is going on. In any event, I don't plan to stop entirely. Still plenty to write about.

Saturday, October 8, 2016

Bee Brave 5K 2016

This weekend was the 9th annual Bee Brave 5K run and walk here in West Michigan, supporting breast cancer research at the Van Andel Institute. This was my first year at the event. I had heard of it before, but never got organized and actually signed up until this year.
The location in Alto MI is great for me, not even a 10 minute drive from home. The race didn't start until 9 AM, but they warned us to be there early since the race course included the road leading into the parking area. Show up too late and you can't get in! Didn't look like anyone had any trouble.
It was a fairly chilly morning, though not quite at frost level at this point in the year. Most everyone (including me) was wearing a couple of layers, although there's always a few crazy people dressed as if it's the height of summer. I spent a half hour or so sitting in the car after checking in, rather than standing around in the cold. It had started to warm up a bit by the time we started running, though, and after the first half-mile or so I barely noticed it.
There were about 300 runners, and a good-sized group of walkers as well. The start was a little disorganized since everyone was bunched up together. It would have been nice if the walkers had been separated to the back, but it was all sorted out after the first few minutes. The course was almost entirely along country roads, with a final lap around a field to the finish. You walk up a hill to get to the start, so there's more downhill than up, but there are still a couple of fairly steep climbs. That field at the end is all flat, though, which I appreciated.
I felt decent during the run, which is a bit of a surprise considering that I've been a bit under the weather for the last week. Fortunately the worst of it was over a few days before the race, and it might have even worked to my advantage since I'd been getting more rest than usual. There were only 8 guys in the 40-44 men's age group, and I was second among them (55th overall). I was hoping to be under 25 minutes, but I'll take 25:30 considering how I'd been feeling the week before.
Thanks to the Bee Brave organizers and volunteers for a fun little race, supporting a good cause and close to home. I enjoyed it, and hope to be back in future years.