Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Oh Deer

I hit a deer.

It’s a dark Sunday evening, and I’m going about 50 along Broadmoor Ave, which in that spot is a 4-lane divided highway. A deer comes running left to right from the median and across in front of me, so I reacted by swerving a bit left and hitting the brakes. Which meant that I hit the second deer, right behind the first one, broadside right on the hood. I had no idea it was there until I hit it, and I had to still be going about 45 at impact.
It doesn't look too terrible...
Good news: No human injuries. The car coasted a good quarter mile down the road to a convenient parking lot entrance, so I didn’t block traffic. I didn’t go back to check on the deer but the road looked clear, as best I could see in the dark, so it probably survived. I called my auto insurance folks at State Farm and they handled roadside assistance. Both the state trooper who came to report the incident and the tow truck driver who picked up the car were awesome. They made the reporting and towing process as painless as possible under the circumstances.

Bad news: The engine died immediately and wouldn’t restart. The hood crumpled up, and one headlight shattered. Deer > car.

The tow truck dropped me off at home and I settled in to deal with insurance and repairs. I had no major plans for the next couple of days, so having no transportation didn't hurt me. By Monday afternoon, the car had been moved to a repair shop (also arranged by State Farm). And by Tuesday afternoon I had a preliminary estimate...lots o' money, likely enough to total the car.
...but a closer look shows that the front bit, with the air filter, is badly bent and pushed back into the section behind.
Why so high on the estimate? This little Toyota Yaris is a very compact car, and all the space under the hood is used very efficiently. Which means that when something impacts the front and crumples it up, it also damages engine parts. The body damage would be bad enough, but add engine repairs and the cost skyrockets.
Yep, that thing is hosed. "Twisted" is a bad look for engine parts.
So, now I'm just waiting on the official estimate and then the insurance verdict. I'll be shocked if they don't just call it totaled. Meanwhile, I'm doing a month-long rental to give myself time to figure out my car situation without too much time pressure. Not exactly the kind of holiday shopping I'd intended, but the deer didn't ask if it was a convenient time!

Saturday, November 11, 2017

Byron Center Fine Arts Boosters Craft Fair

There was a craft fair today held at the Byron Center high school. I heard about it from a friend, whose wife had a display booth for her artwork.
A herd of wooden reindeer, one of many craft items available. Managed to snap this in a rare moment when no child was trying to climb on them.
I showed up expecting a few dozen exhibitors, probably set up in the gym, and hoping I could do a bit of Christmas shopping. This was a gross underestimate. The first sign was the completely full high school parking lot - I had to park on a nearby road and walk in. There were not a few dozen booths in a gym - there were over two hundred booths set up in two gyms and lots of hallways and other areas. Hundreds of people crowded through the halls and around every booth. Clearly this is a major event!
All the cars. They had a shuttle to a nearby middle school for even more parking.
All kinds of craft art was on display. Paintings, wood carvings, clothing of various kinds, pillows, and so on. Several booths had collections of rock pieces. There was a group selling "yard yahtzee" with giant wooden dice, and several with various versions of the cornhole beanbag-toss yard game. And food, of course, from kettle corn to bake sale tables. It was not hard to fill a few spots on my Christmas list!
One of two gyms full of people. Not to mention all the hallways.
The fair benefits the Byron Center Fine Arts Boosters, which is a volunteer organization that raises money for fine arts programs like theater, band, and choir. I'm always happy to help out those kinds of causes, though it does sadden me a bit that it's necessary. Personally, I'd be happy to pay a bit more in taxes so all schools could have this level of support for these kinds of programs, not just the districts that are wealthy enough to support organizations like the Fine Arts Boosters.
I did not purchase the Batman pillow-and-blanket combination. But it was tempting.
My visit to the craft fair was a fun couple of hours, and useful in the annual holiday shopping quest. I'll be keeping it in mind for next year, too.

Sunday, November 5, 2017

The Color of Law by Richard Rothstein

The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated AmericaThe Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America by Richard Rothstein
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The Color of Law makes the case that racial segregation of African Americans in the United States was largely enacted by government action, and has never been sufficiently addressed.

Much of the book is devoted to explaining the many practices, at all levels of government, that caused segregation that persists to this day. From zoning boards to police to union regulations to school boards, discrimination and segregation has resulted directly from government actions or refusal to halt unconstitutional citizen activities. I don't think there are many people who would disagree that this was the case from the Civil War until the Civil Rights movement in the 1950s and 1960s.

Rothstein takes the argument further, though, explaining how the results of segregation have caused lasting harm to those affected. Explicit racism has largely been eliminated through legislation and the courts, but very little was done to correct the results of decades of government-sponsored segregation. Generations of African Americans have lower wages, less housing equity, and fewer educational opportunities than their white counterparts. Those disadvantages compound over time, and have never been corrected.

Today's policies may no longer be explicitly based on race, but many still effectively target African Americans due to the legacy of segregation. Public services based on property values, for instance, will provide lower funding and service levels for low-income areas, which is where many African Americans still reside. Government provides more support to affluent suburbs (the mortgage interest deduction is one example), which are largely white. Even programs which support low-income citizens have restrictions which serve to keep those people in the same locations and professions...segregation in all but name.

Rothstein puts forward a few ideas for making corrections to this inequality, but he himself says that it's highly unlikely that any would be enacted. Allowing African American buyers to purchase houses at a discount proportional to their income (vs equivalent white residents), for instance. That might be correct some of the historical discrimination, but would assuredly be seen as favoritism in today's political climate.

I must admit, I found The Color of Law to be somewhat depressing. The extent of the racial discrimination in the history of our country, and the impact it still has to this day, isn't easy to face. But I think it's important to recognize these kinds of flaws, both to avoid repeating past mistakes, and to have perspective on current issues. If more people recognized this history, we might find more support for the kind of policies that can begin to undo the damage.

Friday, November 3, 2017

New Game!

New Game! is an anime series about a girl who gets her dream job as a video game character designer right out of high school.

New Game! volume 1 cover.jpg
The series follows Aoba Suzukaze, who is starting her first job at a video game company. She's working alongside the designer of her favorite games, learning the ropes as she goes along. We see the daily lives of Aoba and her co-workers as they proceed through the game development schedule.

Most episodes focus on one aspect or another of Aoba's adjustment to the working world. It was a bit nostalgic for me, watching her go through situations that I remember from my own first days in the workplace. Who hasn't locked themselves out of the office by forgetting their badge, or unknowingly caused trouble for another team because you didn't know the right processes to follow in your own work? The parts about over-working hit particularly close to home.

Pretty much every character in New Game! is female, which isn't uncommon in seinen manga and anime. There are some minor yuri references, but for the most part these are co-workers and friends, with no romance angle. The art style reflects that, with only minor fan service aspects. Very little in the series would have to change if they'd chosen to go all-male or mixed genders, which I appreciated. A sign of good writing, in my opinion, not relying on tired over-the-top sexual tropes for drama and humor.

I really enjoyed the initial set of twelve episodes. Later on, in the second set of twelve episodes, I felt that the quality went downhill a bit. The show began to feel repetitive, and very similar to other shows of the same type. The fan service was more pronounced, too, though still not anywhere near as bad as many other anime shows. I still liked it, just not quite as much in the second half.

Despite the weaker second half, I had a lot of fun watching New Game!. I'd be happy to see the creators do additional similar series.

Sunday, October 29, 2017

The Wolf at the End of the World by Douglas Smith

The Wolf at the End of the WorldThe Wolf at the End of the World by Douglas Smith
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The Wolf at the End of the World takes stories from indigenous North American cultures and brings them to life in a modern fantasy world where the spirits are real. Smith mixes modern life and the spirits from the stories together smoothly to tell a story of world-threatening danger.

This is a story about the interaction between the modern world and a spirit world that has been all but forgotten. A few Ojibwe elders still remember the old ways, and there are a few shapeshifters, or Heroka, who live in secret and have direct links to the spirits. But the Heroka are caught between a government agency that fears them from the modern world, and malevolent spirits bent on world devastation from the spirit world. The oblivious destruction of the natural balance by ignorant humans have given those spirits an opportunity that could mean the end for humanity.

A variety of relationships develop throughout the story: family ties, the bond between lovers, the close-knit communities of the Ojibwe people and the Heroka, the Heroka's partnerships with their totem animals. All the main characters are well rounded and developed, both the heroes and villains (and it's not always clear which those are).

I enjoyed Smith's writing style, which kept just enough action in the early going to keep things interesting, then built to a whirlwind of activity in a climactic final confrontation. There's plenty of good dialog, and the occasional humorous interaction (mostly involving the young Heroka Caz) breaks up some of the serious tension.

There's some fairly obvious cultural commentary in the book. Greed of the white man upsetting the natural balance is a central theme. Younger generations leaving behind their cultural roots, fear and hatred of those who are different, abuse of power against minorities...plenty of clear warning messages. But it never felt to me as if Smith was preaching, rather just letting the results of bad choices come to light.

I thought The Wolf at the End of the World was a solid story and an enjoyable read, though the concept of bringing old stories to life isn't particularly original. It's a good implementation of that well-trodden path, though, well worth a look.

Thursday, October 26, 2017

From Eeebox to ThinkCentre

The tiny little computer I bought back in 2011 finally gave up the ghost last week. It did yeoman's work for six years as a proxy and file server. This week, I spent a few hours setting up a replacement.
That little computer was an ASUS "Eee box" that I picked up from Newegg for less than $200 (of course, I named it Eeebox). Very low-powered - didn't use much electrical power, didn't have much processing power. I put Ubuntu Linux on it, added a couple of external drives for storage space, and used it as a file server at home. It also did duty as a proxy server, routing traffic over a VPN connection for security. For a while it was also my MythTV server, but it really didn't have the power for that, and eventually I moved MythTV over to another machine.

I've had a few problems over the last year or so, with the machine occasionally rebooting itself or locking up. So I'd kept an eye out for a replacement, and back in February there was a sale on Woot for a Lenovo ThinkCentre tiny desktop (obviously, this one is Thinkbox). About twice as expensive as Eeebox had been, but more than twice as powerful in pretty much the same small footprint and with similar low power usage. So when the Eeebox hard drive started making seriously disturbing noises last week, I was ready to make the switch.

Ubuntu works fine as an operating system, so I saw no reason to change to anything new. Installation was straightforward via a USB drive, using the server version of Ubuntu since I don't plan to use any desktop applications. It was pretty obvious right away that Thinkbox is a much faster machine - installation and updates went much more quickly than just about anything I'd done on Eeebox. Recovering my file shares was as simple as plugging in those external drives and copying over the filesystem and sharing entries.

The bulk of my setup time was spent making sure that my VPN and proxy configuration was correct. The VPN software I use is openvpn, which is a standard package for Ubuntu, and my VPN provider has an easy download package with all the configuration files. The tricky part is that I use a three-network setup: my local home network, a US VPN connection, and a European VPN connection. (Why two VPN connections? Some things only work with one or the other.) It's easy to configure openvpn to start both connections - just put both in /etc/default/openvpn and put unique port numbers/device names in their configuration files - but then you need to make sure network traffic goes to the correct connection.

The way I accomplished this is using iptables. First, I configured both VPN connections so they don't try to take over the system's default routing with the route-noexec directive in their configuration files. Then, using this blog post as a guide, I created two sets of rules that enforce routing for each network interface. Using the route-upup, and down directives in the VPN configuration files, those rules are updated every time the VPN connections start or stop. This means that I can still use my default network for basic stuff (like checking for OS updates or installing new software), but the two VPN connections can always be available at the same time. Finally, I use the dante proxy server to bind to the VPN network interface.

So what does all this do for me? The end result is that any machine connected to my local network can use a VPN connection simply by setting the proxy server. I can even have two different applications on the same machine (say, Chrome and Firefox) using separate connections at the same time. Depending on what I'm doing, I might use my normal Internet connection, the US VPN, or the European VPN - all I have to do to switch is update the proxy settings. No need to have VPN software installed on multiple machines or worry about turning the connections on and off.

Thinkbox has been up and running for a few days now and seems to be functioning just fine. With any luck, it will last at least as long as Eeebox did.

Saturday, October 21, 2017

Club Anyone by Lou Agresta

Club AnyoneClub Anyone by Lou Agresta
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Club Anyone has an awful lot packed into one book. Dystopian corporation-ruled future. Human cybernetic augmentation. Colonization of Mars. Drug addiction. Romance, both failed and successful. Artificial intelligence. And that is by no means an exhaustive list.

The story follows Derek, a mid-level employee of a major corporation who has big plans to make a new life for himself and his family on Mars. Plans that almost immediately fall apart as his wife refuses to leave Earth to join him, initiating a downward spiral that leads him into ever-increasing debt to his employer and dangerous underworld involvement. The first half of the book is all about Derek's fall into danger, depression, and some terrible life choices.

Things change significantly in the second half of the book, as Derek (barely) survives the trouble that he fell into. It's hard to say much more than that without spoilers, but I doubt anyone would be surprised to know that there's plenty of action, wild and crazy people (and other entities), and romance to heal his broken heart. The story ends well, but with enough open questions that future stories set in the same world are certainly possible.

The world that Agresta builds is nicely detailed, describing a blend of cyberpunk and space colonization genres. Cybernetics are common, corporations are ultra-powerful, and there's a thriving black-market of illicit tech and drugs...very much the cyberpunk style. Setting the book on Mars adds an interesting twist to what I'm used to thinking of as the standard cyberpunk world.

I enjoyed Agresta's writing style, which has plenty of wit and does a fine job bringing the story's characters to life. I thought the pacing dragged a bit in the first half of the book, but once the action really started in the second half, I had no trouble staying engaged through to the end.

For anyone that enjoys the cyberpunk genre, Club Anyone should be high on your read list. Fans of any kind of sci-fi action and intrigue will likely enjoy it, for that matter, even if cyberpunk isn't usually your thing.