Thursday, July 5, 2018

Macross Delta

Two and a half years ago, I watched a bunch of Macross shows (Plus, Seven, Zero, Frontier). Macross Delta came out shortly thereafter, which was the whole reason I'd watched the earlier ones, but I didn't have any way to (legally) see it and eventually I kind of forgot about it. Well, a friend finally got the series recently and I was able to watch it.
Macross Delta logo small.jpg
The first thing you noticed in Macross Delta is the two significant differences from other Macross series. Number one: Someone writing this series really likes the magical girl genre. There's a group of young women named Walküre that performs songs to combat enemies (this is standard Macross), who change outfits during songs and dance around the battlefield with some kind of rocket-dresses (this is definitely new). Think of the "magic" part as being singing and combat dancing, and this is pure magical girl style anime. Number two: The enemy sings too, and uses it as a mind control device. In prior series, the "magic" singing has always been the province of the good guys, using it to disrupt the enemy. Occasionally an enemy might convert a singer to their side (as in Frontier) but mostly it belongs firmly on the side of the hero(ine)s. This time, the enemies are on the offensive with their songs and our heroines are largely on the defensive.

The major differences end there, and the similarities to other Macross series are legion. Young "play by my own rules" pilot gets co-opted into military organization, check. Pair of ace pilots on each side meeting in battle after battle, check. Love triangle with singer girl and military girl after hotshot pilot, check. Giant transforming battleship with aircraft carrier arms, check. Three female bridge crew and a gruff old captain, check. Refugees in space fleeing from enemy assault, check. And so on and so forth.

I enjoyed the development of the enemies from Windermere, which are revealed very early on after just a few episodes. It seemed to me that the writers put quite a bit more effort into humanizing this enemy than in most of the earlier series. We see the events that shaped the Windermere leadership's aggression as the series progresses, and time is spent to develop characters for several of the Windermere fighters. It reminded me a lot of the way that the original SDF Macross series handled the Zentradi.

Other character development was all right, but nothing special. I'd have liked to see more interaction between Windermere fighters and the Delta squad, which didn't really happen until very late in the series. Mikumo's fate was telegraphed so much that it seemed anticlimactic at the end. And the reveal of the identity of "Lady M" was wasted, in my opinion, coming as it did as an offhand comment in one of the final episodes. Surely they could have milked that for a scene or two!

I kept watching Macross Delta in the hope that there would be some kind of interesting twist that set it apart from what one would expect in a Macross series. But that never really materialized. Those two major differences that I pointed out at the beginning are great, but they're also just about the end of the deviations from standard Macross. By the time the final episode rolls around, it's not hard to predict how true love will save the day from some terrible fate. Which is fine and all, but so predictable that it feels a bit disappointing.

Saturday, June 30, 2018

Senator Gary Peters Community Meeting in Grand Rapids

I've been to quite a few town hall discussions with my congressional representative, Justin Amash, several of which I've posted about here. But this was my first opportunity to hear from a senator, in this case Democrat Gary Peters. (My other senator, Debbie Stabenow, has not held any similar events in my area to the best of my knowledge.)

The meeting was held at the Gerald Ford Presidential Museum in downtown Grand Rapids. There's a nice auditorium there and it was mostly filled; a bit over 200 people would be my guess. I was a bit surprised that there weren't more folks, considering how rare it is for our senators to hold this kind of event.
The very first question set the tone for the meeting, when the question of supporting and co-sponsoring Bernie Sanders' Medicare-for-all bill was brought up. Senator Peters responded with a lot of talk about the Affordable Care Act: how he'd voted for it, the Republicans were doing their best to kill it, and he was fighting to keep as many benefits as possible. All of which may be true, but did not address the Medicare-for-all proposal and did not satisfy the crowd. Several more people followed up with health care questions, and several others just shouted repeatedly that the senator should be both fighting for the ACA and supporting the new proposal. Personally, I agree that change is needed, but shouting down your senator at an event isn't the way to change his mind.

The senator eventually moved on to other topics, trying to end the conversation by appealing for unity against what the Trump administration and the Republican party are doing. I'm not sure that went down well with most of the crowd. This experience made it pretty clear to me that the Democratic party has a long way to go if they're going to overcome the kind of divisions that hurt Hillary Clinton's campaign in 2016. Not a surprise, but still disappointing.

Other topics didn't get nearly as much time as health care, largely because the senator and his aides kept the meeting moving. The discussion did stay more civil, though. Here's a few of the topics:
  • Supreme Court nomination: Senator Peters talked about pushing back against the Republican majority to delay any nomination until after the 2018 midterm elections (which is what the Republicans did back in 2016). His hopes appeared to be pinned on getting one or two Republicans to turn against any nominee that is put forward prior to the 2018 midterm elections. That seems unlikely to say the least. As far as I can tell, the only hope the Democrats have of blocking a nominee is to refuse to show up and thus deny the Senate a quorum, but that method wasn't mentioned.
  • Border family separations: The lady who asked about this seemed woefully uninformed, as she thought there had been legislation passed to stop it (not true - it was an executive order) and for some reason thought that Education Secretary Betsy DeVos had something to do with the process. But the senator did a fine job in response of talking about what was actually happening, and what he's been doing. Which isn't a lot, since the Trump administration is in charge, but at least he's been able to have his office check in at the detention centers and push for basic improvements like letting parents talk with their children on a regular basis.
  • Interactions with police: An ex-policeman asked what is being done about the fear that many people, particularly those of color, feel when interacting with police. Senator Peters brought up the National Criminal Justice Commission and their work with both police and civil rights organizations.
  • Campaign finance: The senator said he is in favor of reform, particularly provisions requiring disclosure of "dark money" sources and finding a way to combat negative advertising.
  • Affordable higher education: State-level funding is the primary source, but the senator did talk about expanding federal grants like the Pell Grant program. He also mentioned tying student load interest rates to federal bond rates.
Thank you, Senator Peters, for holding these community meeting events. I'd love to see them more often, from both of our senators.

Wednesday, June 27, 2018

Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood

Fullmetal Alchemist has been on my list of things to watch for a long time, because it's considered to be such a good series by most anime watchers. Turns out I am not most anime watchers.
There's two anime adaptations of the Fullmetal Alchemist manga. I chose the second, Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood, because some folks who had seen both told me that it was closer to the original material. I figured if I liked it, I could always watch the other one to see the differences.

The series starts off following two brothers, Ed and Al, who lost all or part of their bodies to an alchemical experiment. They're searching for a way to reverse the process and run into the usual assortment of roadblocks. It expands to include a huge cast of characters spread out over an entire country engaging in romance, politics, rebellion, pursuit of alchemical power at all costs, family arguments...a bit of everything.

I should say here that I understand why people like the Fullmetal Alchemist story. It's got drama and humor.  There's a character or two for everyone to like in the huge cast. It handles serious topics, such as ethnic genocide and dealing with lost loved ones. It builds up over 60+ episodes to a big final confrontation, exactly as you'd want to see from an epic fantasy storyline.

But...I just hated the style of the show. There's constant jokes about how short Ed is, along with various other recurring gags, which cease to be funny very quickly. Ed's awkward romance with a childhood friend is just painful to watch. Al has almost no personality of his own until very late in the series. The magic...er, alchemical...battles are incredibly cheesy. I'll give them one thing, at least the battles avoid the worst anime fighting trope of people screaming stupid fighting move names at one another. But I still couldn't really bring myself to care how over-the-top alchemical manipulation of rocks/fire/lightning/etc ended up knocking one person down. (Which is weird since I'm OK with cheesy battles in a lot of other series, but these just did nothing for me.) And worst of all, almost every episode has cartoon-style emotional explosions that take me out of any kind of narrative flow in those scenes.

So I just couldn't get into that good storyline because of the style. This is especially bad in the early going, the first 20 or so episodes, when the story is trying to build its foundations. It moves very slowly, the good and bad guys hardly ever meet one another, and the motivations of characters other than the brothers don't make much sense yet. So in that early going, you're left with mostly just the style...not good if you hate it.

I considered just stopping, but friends told me that it got better, so I persevered. And they were correct, because around the halfway point the story picks up significantly and is much more interesting. And yet, every time I started to get pulled into the story, some awful attempt at humor or annoyingly excessive battle sequence or character blowing their top in the middle of a conversation would show up and kill my interest. I did end up finishing the series, technically, but I was doing something else almost the entire time with the show just on in the background. I got the general gist of the story without focusing on every scene.

This series just fell flat for me. I suspect if I'd seen this back when it first aired almost 10 years ago, I might have felt differently, because I wouldn't have seen a whole lot of other anime with more palatable styles. But my tastes today just don't line up with what Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood has to offer.

Monday, June 18, 2018

Border Family Separation Needs to Stop

The biggest story in the news recently has been the United States government's policy of separating children of illegal immigrants from their parents. It's a terrible situation on a whole host of levels, it's completely unnecessary, and the President needs to make it stop.
Children and parents are separated in this country for all kinds of reasons. Some are legit, such as abuse, and that's as it should be. Others are financial, such as when a parent is arrested for a crime (whether guilty or not) and can't afford bail. It's been going on for a long time, and we mostly don't notice because the people it happens to aren't in our daily lives. But we're noticing when hundreds or thousands of children are being taken away at the border, and that's by design.

The Trump administration made a specific change to enforcement to enact this separation. As far as I can tell (not a lawyer but I've read opinions by those who are), it's perfectly legal because the actual laws don't say exactly how illegal immigrants should be detained. By the same token, when President Trump says the Democrats or Congress created laws that are causing this situation, that's a lie. There's discretion for the administration to go either way on this, and they're using it.

One argument being put forward is that this is a necessary policy to slow illegal immigration, but that's false. We've managed to deal with illegal immigration for decades without taking this particular step, and the illegal population has been stable or declining since before President Obama took office in 2009. It's not necessary to cause the kind of harm that is being done to these families if your goal is to reduce illegal immigration, as we've been doing for years. On the other hand, if your goal is to break up families for political purposes, then the policy makes sense.

Why do this now? There's a lot of speculation about that. Personally, I subscribe to the idea that Trump is making one of his standard negotiation moves. He says or does something incendiary, gets a lot of people all riled up, then offers to stop if they'll give him something he wants. In this case, that's asking Congress for "tremendous security" on the border...read that as funding for his wall and putting even tighter restrictions on legal immigration. The President wants a big uproar over this issue, and he's getting it.

This is not new. The administration tried the same thing six months ago. Back then Trump was threatening to remove protections for DACA recipients, and demanding more or less the same things in order to keep those young people safe from deportation. There was enough push-back that Trump didn't get what he wanted then, and so the administration decided to try again with a different kind of incendiary action.

I know people who don't think this is a bad thing. "People who can't obey the laws and enter the country legally deserve whatever treatment they get." "We need to make the results of illegal immigration harsh enough to make people stop coming." I understand those arguments, and even sympathize to some extent.

But...you need to draw a line somewhere. If there's no line, we'd just kill everyone trying to enter the country, and pretty much everyone agrees that would be morally reprehensible. The impact on these kids from this experience is going to last for years, and it's completely avoidable. Using those kids' pain to advance a political agenda is well on the wrong side of the moral line, and it needs to stop.

The President can stop this inhumane and unnecessary policy of family separation any time he likes. Don't believe it when he or anyone else tells you otherwise. Make your voice heard on this issue however you can, whether that be through posts like this one, calls to your representatives, protests, or whatever else works for you. And consider making your voice heard where it matters most...when you next vote.

Update June 21: So the President has indeed done what many have been calling for and stopped the family separations at the border. (Despite his repeated claims that Congress had to do it.) This doesn't fix the damage already done, but at least it's a step in the right direction.

Saturday, June 16, 2018

The Moon Etherium by L. Rowyn

The Moon EtheriumThe Moon Etherium by L. Rowyn
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The world of The Moon Etherium is a complex magical dimension, inhabited by immortal fey. They gather around sources of aether, which powers their magical abilities, forming societies called etheriums. The Sun and Moon Etheriums are rivals, but similar in that their immortal populations pass the time in complex social and political intrigues.

The story primarily follows Miro of the Sun Etherium and Ardent of the Moon Etherium. This unlikely pair comes together in an effort to rescue Miro's father from slavery, and prevent massive magical destruction in the process. Romance, betrayal, intrigue, political upheaval...all kinds of havoc results before all is resolved.

The Moon Etherium is reasonably well written, but in my opinion it suffers from poor pacing and is overly complex. The first three-quarters of the book contains a lot of world description, various kinds of magical and social maneuverings, and budding romance. The explanation of all the magical wardings and spells and such is particularly long and detailed. I was getting pretty bored, to be honest, until I reached the last quarter of the book. At that point, events move much more quickly as the flow of the story changes...change of viewpoint characters, much less personal relationship development, lots of world-shaking political developments.

For fast readers who don't mind that the story takes quite a while to develop, The Moon Etherium is an interesting read. I think it could benefit from more aggressive editing, but it's still an enjoyable story.

Saturday, June 9, 2018

Solo: A Star Wars Story

Solo: A Star Wars Story is a decent movie. Not a great one, as I suspect many fans were hoping; and not a terrible one, as much of the Internet would have you believe.

Solo is an origin story for Han Solo, that lovable rogue from the original Star Wars films. Starting from his lowly origins as a orphaned urchin on Corellia, Han talks and fights his way into and out of any number of improbable situations on his way to becoming the smuggler we know. Along the way we see him meet Chewbacca and Lando Calrissian, and of course find the Millennium Falcon.

I went into this expecting to see how Han met Chewie, and maybe some other stuff. Which is pretty much exactly what I got out of it. Just about everything involving Chewie was great...I particularly liked that he rescued another Wookie at one point...and the rest of the movie was decent, but nothing spectacular. They filled in a few gaps (like what exactly the Kessel Run was) and expanded on the smuggler's underworld that Han inhabits. Sure, there were some silly bits (like making the marauders into a proto-Rebellion) but I'm used to that with Star Wars. (Midichlorians, anyone?)

I didn't think any of the actors did an exceptional job, but none of them were terrible either. Donald Glover was the best of the bunch as Lando, but his role was too minor to really stand out. Alden Ehrenreich is no Harrison Ford, but that would be true of just about anybody, and I thought his Han was solid but not particularly noteworthy. Neither Woody Harrelson nor Emelia Clarke impressed me much with their performances, but it's not like they were terrible. Just kinda mediocre.

The writers clearly tried to interject some social commentary into the film, most notably with Lando's droid L3-37 (oh, haha, what a clever name) agitating for droid rights. Which, in my opinion, fell completely flat because they couldn't decide whether it should be a serious issue or comic relief. Going back and forth between the two failed miserably.

There's been a ton of angst all over the Internet about how Solo had a poor performance at the box office. I doubt Disney is losing much sleep over that, because they're still going to make millions overall (merchandise, DVD sales, etc). And even if they do lose some money on this one, the Star Wars franchise isn't in danger any time soon.

For Star Wars fans, it's worth seeing Solo for a bit more story about characters that you already know. You'll likely have a good time watching, but I doubt you'll find much that stands out.

Thursday, May 31, 2018

Grimoire of Zero

I'm not entirely sure why Grimoire of Zero was a fun watch, but I sure did enjoy it.
Zero kara Hajimeru Mahō no Sho, volume 1.jpg
Grimoire of Zero is a very familiar story. It's a medieval world where magic is real, and our heroes are a mercenary fighter and a witch. They should be enemies, but find a way to work together. There's a girl disguised as a boy, witch hunts by ignorant/frightened people, and an evil mastermind. About all that makes this setup different from a thousand others is that the fighter is a beastman, but really any kind of defect/failing that made him a bit of an outcast from society would have worked just as well. And to be fair, the story in the last couple of episodes does veer a bit off the "defeat the evil mastermind" track.

Usually I don't really enjoy shows/books/etc that are very predictable or derivative. But something makes Grimoire of Zero work for me. I think most of it is the relationship between the main characters. It progresses from mutual suspicion to a business arrangement to respect to real friendship (with bumps along the way, of course). That relationship progression is still very predictable, but it's handled nicely and both parties are likable.

It also helps that Grimoire of Zero is well produced, with good artwork and voice acting. And there's very little fluff - at only twelve episodes, there's not a lot of room for anything that isn't part of the main story. There's some minor digressions in the usual anime way - jokes about food, annoying middle-school-level sexual innuendo - but they're short. I'm fairly sure I'd have liked it much less if there had been lots of filler, but keeping the storyline moving meant I didn't have time to lose interest.

If you like the sword-and-sorcery anime genre, it's worth giving Grimoire of Zero a try.