Thursday, December 31, 2015

Massive Chalice

Massive Chalice puts you in charge of a kingdom beset by a relentless monstrous enemy, known as the Cadence. Each time there is a Cadence attack, you control a squad of heroes in turn-based combat to beat them back. In between attacks, your job is to build up the kingdom, holding your ground while building up power to end the Cadence threat. If that sounds at all interesting, I suggest that you stop reading here and go play the game, because a good part of the fun is discovering how Massive Chalice puts a new spin on the tactical, squad-based game genre.
I picked up Massive Chalice for two main reasons: I love the genre, and Tom Chick wrote a great review that really sold me on the game. (He also wrote a game diary series well worth reading.) I've played a lot of these kind of tactical build-up-your-squad games with turn-based combat: the various XCOM/X-COM games and Shadowrun Returns are some of my favorites. The two levels of strategy - clearing each individual combat encounter, and building up your squad of heroes/warriors/hackers/etc as the game's story progresses - is perfect for my play-style.

Massive Chalice starts out with two voices coming from a giant talking magical cup, informing you that you'll be ruling a kingdom for the next several hundred years, while they build up power to destroy the Cadence. You're immortal, but you're stuck in the throne room with them, so all you can do is issue orders to be carried out by the kingdom's people. If that sounds a little silly, it is...the whole tone of the game is like that. You'll hear a lot from the chalice duo, and most of it is tongue-in-cheek comments or outright jokes. It gets a little repetitive once you've gone through a few battles, but I thought the tone fit perfectly.

As with most games of the genre, when you're not fighting, you're building up your capabilities. There are buildings for producing more fighting heroes (keeps), improving your research (sagewright's guilds), and training your heroes (crucibles). You can research improvements to your weapons and armor, create some new items from the remains of Cadence enemies, build new buildings, etc. All of this will seem familiar to anyone who has played a similar game (i.e. X-COM).

Where Massive Chalice differs most from the standard genre is in how you get more heroes. It's possible to just grab some random new recruits, but the main focus is marrying off a couple of your current group so they can produce children. Every fighter has a combat specialization, a set of Traits that they are born with, and Personalities that they pick up from their parents and trainers. Your choice of parents in each keep will determine what the next generation of heroes looks like. Marry a Caberjack (front-line melee fighter) and Hunter (stealthly sniper), and the kids turn out to be Shadowjacks (melee fighters with stealth abilities). The children might pick up good Traits and Personalities (extra strength, quick movement) or bad ones (reduced XP, slow movement) from their parents. All this means the choice of who to marry off is a major component of the game. Massive Chalice is as much about creating a solid bloodline of heroic fighting families as it is about actually fighting the Cadence.

This focus on building up a family tree means that Massive Chalice isn't about building up one super-powerful fighting squad. Your heroes will age and die over time, being replaced by their descendants. They'll even pass down their special weapons (called Relics) to their descendants. In combat, this means that losing one of your heroes isn't a massive setback. You still want to keep them alive when possible, of course, so they can eventually either be married off or set up in a crucible to train the next generation. But if they do die in combat, it's not a major problem, since that makes room for the up-and-coming youngsters. This approach solves one of the less enjoyable aspects of games like X-COM, where losing a single high-level hero can be such a massive setback as to make the game unwinnable.

The gameplay isn't all about combat and applied eugenics. Random events occur regularly, in which you need to choose an action, usually affecting one or more of your heroes. The effects range from minor effects on a single hero to major impacts on the kingdom, such as losing a building or an entire land region. There's no right or wrong answer to the events, and I've seen the same answer to the same event have two different results (in different play-throughs). So it's truly a random system, giving you some additional opportunities or disasters to deal with as ruler.

There's no mystery about the length of a Massive Chalice game. The main screen has a countdown timer showing how long until the chalice has charged up enough power. Of course, things aren't as simple as "survive the countdown and win." Discovering what awaits in the final battle, and how things are different there, is one of the better surprises in the game. At least, it was for me. I can see how someone might be upset that there are significant differences in the final battle. I looked at it as a learning experience for my next game, though.

I've played through Massive Chalice three times now: my first failed game, the learning experience; the second attempt on Normal difficulty, which resulted in a easy victory; and a third game on Hard difficulty, which was also a win but not nearly as easy. There's still the Brutal difficulty level, which I may try at some point, and plenty of things I haven't tried. A lot of the weapons/armor/items that can be made from Cadence corpses, for instance.

Any fan of the strategic squad builder genre with tactical turn-based combat should definitely play Massive Chalice. Try it even if you're not a fan of other similar games. Massive Chalice is different enough that it just may win you over.

Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Back to 20-20

When I went to the eye doctor for a checkup earlier this month, he discovered that my eyes had gotten quite a bit worse since my last prescription was written. My new glasses were ready for pickup today.

Needing a new prescription was no great surprise - I spend a lot of time in front of a computer screen and/or reading books that are right in front of my nose, both activities likely to make me increasingly near-sighted. For a quite a while, I'd noticed that it was harder to read road signs while driving, or watch TV from a distance.

I could have gotten new lenses for the same frames, but I was ready for new ones anyway. The old frames are fairly short, to the point where I'd sometimes have to move my head so the lens area actually covered whatever I was looking at. I made sure the new frames were taller to avoid that issue.
My apologies for inflecting my face on the Internet. New frames on the left, old on the right. Lenses are almost twice as tall.
After picking up my new glasses, everything looks a bit off, sort of like I'm standing behind a curved glass window. It's normal with a new prescription, but this particular instance is very noticeable, more so than I remember from earlier glasses replacements. Goes to show just how much additional correction my new prescription is doing. It'll go away in a couple of days, as my brain gets used to being able to actually see things.

So, for a while I'm back to 20-20 vision. Hopefully I can get a good few years out of this prescription before my vision gets bad enough to merit another change.

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

The Hobbit Movies

I've been a Tolkien nerd for years. Read all the books, seen the movies, played the games. So when a friend offered to let me borrow the extended edition of The Hobbit movies, I took the opportunity, even though I'd already seen the theatrical releases and knew the series was flawed.
The Lord of the Rings movie trilogy was a masterpiece by Peter Jackson. There were a few warts, but overall it's one of the best adaptations of a Tolkien story that has ever been created. When he took the helm on The Hobbit films, expectations were for a similar result. Perhaps that was too much to expect, because The Hobbit isn't in the same class at all. (Jackson himself knows the whole production was flawed.)

The Hobbit films are just under 9 hours long in the extended editions, and just under 8 hours long in the theatrical releases. Unfortunately, there's only about 4-5 good hours. The rest is extraneous extended action scenes, a ludicrously awkward love plot, and blowing minor characters all out of proportion.

The films are pretty good when they're telling the core story from the books. The initial unexpected party at Bag End, the trip across the mountains, the riddle game, dangers in the forest, Bilbo's verbal fencing with Smaug, Thorin's struggles with corruption...all that is good stuff. I also thought the added component of the White Council fighting to drive out the Necromancer from Dol Guldur fit well, even though it's barely mentioned in The Hobbit book and not described in any detail elsewhere. It worked in the films to establish the big picture and tie into the Lord of the Rings series.

If that's all there was to these movies, they'd be great. But there's several more hours that just do not fit well at all. Many of the action scenes should be about a third of the length (i.e. the escape from Goblin-town) and several are completely unnecessary (i.e. pretty much everything with Legolas). The Elf-Dwarf romance was awful, both in story and cinematic terms. I personally don't think any romantic component was needed at all, but if it had to be there, I can think of any number of better ways to do it. The entire Lake-town portion should have only taken about five minutes: Alfrid didn't need to exist, and too much time was spent to emphasize the Master's greed and incompetence. Smaug didn't need to spend forever chasing dwarves around the mountain before heading off to Lake-town. The battle of the Five Armies could have taken about one-third of the time and still been epic. (Though don't cut out Dain on his battle-boar and the dwarf ram cavalry - they were amazing.) And so on.

If The Hobbit series had been told as two films, without most of the non-book components, I'd have loved it. As it is, I'm glad I watched it once (well, twice, if you count both theatrical and extended versions) for the good parts. But unlike the Lord of the Rings trilogy, I doubt I'll ever spend the time to watch it again.

Monday, December 28, 2015

Navy Football's Uniform Ships

I watched some of the Military Bowl today, Pitt visiting Navy. It's a bit of a rarity for a team to play in their home stadium for a bowl game, but it happens occasionally. Navy had a good year and certainly deserved their invite to this one.

I like watching the military service academies play when I get the chance. They're almost always at a disadvantage in terms of personnel, since their players are at the academy for training first and athletics second. They're always competitive, though, and fun to watch.

Every once in a while the service academies do have a highly talented player, like the Navy quarterback Keenan Reynolds. He'd already set the career FBS record for rushing touchdowns during the regular season. During the Military Bowl, he picked up the records for career total rushing yards by a quarterback and overall touchdowns-from-scrimmage. And he's just as impressive off the field, studying things like cyber warfare at the Naval Academy.

However, the thing that I found most interesting about this game (and also the Army-Navy game a few weeks ago) was the Navy uniforms, specifically the helmets. Each position on the team had a different ship painted on their helmets, equating the ship's role to the player.
From the news item on the Navy website:

Helmet Details and Position Assignment: 
• Linebacker: Cruiser- Provides anti-air defense and packs the biggest punch of Naval surface ships representative of the linebackers on the Navy football team. 
• Defensive Back: Destroyer- Known for significant fire power, speed, and anti-missile defense as are Navy's defensive backs. 
• Wide Receiver: Submarine- Predominantly utilized as blockers, wide receivers play a key role in driving the Navy rush attack, taking on a stealth-like persona as they blend into the rhythm of the offense but bring significant fire power when called upon, just like a Naval submarine. 
• Lineman: Amphibious Assault Ships- Just as a lineman's job is the create a hole for a running back or linebacker, these ships are utilized to establish the "beach head" that enables the invading force to gain access and ultimately accomplish their objective. 
• Quarterback: Aircraft Carrier- The QB of the Naval Fleet, the aircraft carrier is the ultimate decision maker; the "quick strike" weapon of the Naval fleet. 
• Running Back: Littoral Combat Ship- Like running backs, these fast and nimble ships can navigate through both crowded shallow and deep waters. 
• Kicker/Special Teams: Minesweeper- Much like the specific task of the Navy special teams, this small ship has a unique mission of identifying and eliminating mines. 

OK, so it's a bit of a stretch in a few cases, but still a neat idea. And they look great, too. I think all the service academies should be allowed to do similar things if they want...and no one else.

Sunday, December 27, 2015

Bowled Over

There are 41 college football bowls this season, up 2 from the previous year, and up about 30 from the number that the vast majority of people pay any attention to. You can't turn on ESPN without seeing a bowl game or ads for the upcoming bowl games. Having so many bowl games is moderately silly, but I can't see that it's doing much harm.
Not one of the new bowls!
College football bowls are a strange beast. There really isn't another post-season like it in any sport that I'm familiar with. Most post-season structures are built entirely around determining a single champion. We do have three games in the current bowl structure that hold a 4-team playoff, but the vast majority of bowls are unrelated to the championship. In most sports, teams with no chance at the overall championship are sent home. But in college football, a lot of those teams still play a bowl game.

There's been a goodly amount of angst around the Internet about how many bowls are being played, and I've heard plenty in person, too. The biggest complaint is that with so many games to play, you can no longer fill them all with teams that had a winning regular-season record. (There were three 5-7 teams in bowls this year.) That's unfortunate, but I can't see how it makes a lot of difference. As close as many college football games are, the difference between 5-7 and 6-6 can easily be just a single play (or call by an official) in a single game. Having that play go the wrong way doesn't make a 5-7 team any less worthy than a 6-6 team, or even a 7-5 team that got two plays to go the right way.

Another argument against the bowl proliferation is that the importance of making it to a bowl game is diminished. While that is true, I don't think it's a significant argument. Players, coaches, and fans already know that making it to the Random-Corporate-Sponsor.com Bowl isn't the same as one of the long-running traditional bowls, or the championship playoff. No one is going to think less of the Rose Bowl because the Foster Farms Bowl exists.

Some folks have tried to make the argument that having more bowls cuts into the school time of the players, or adds to their potential for injury. Both true, but compared to the school impact or injury possibilities of a full regular season of football, one additional bowl game isn't a significant addition.

And of course there's the money-making aspect of bowl season, with huge amounts of money flowing from sponsors to bowl organizers and conferences and teams. I don't think much of how the NCAA handles money in any of their sports, but I also don't think fewer games will help the issues that exist.

The best argument I've seen for having all these bowl games is the opportunity it gives to the players. These are young men playing a team sport that takes up a significant portion of their lives during their college years. Most of them won't ever play in the NFL or another professional league. The bowl game could very well be the highlight of their career, even if it's just some no-name bowl with a few thousand fans in the stands.

College football has a lot of issues to address, from injury concerns to where the money goes. But having too many bowl games isn't one of them.

Saturday, December 26, 2015

Divinity: Dragon Commander

I picked up Divinity: Dragon Commander (D:DC) in a recent Steam sale with fairly low expectations. The game got mostly middle-of-the-road reviews, and what I'd seen posted on gaming forums wasn't greatly encouraging. But I bought it anyway for two reasons: 1) you get to play as a dragon that shoots fireballs at things, and 2) most of the complaints seemed to be about lack of depth. Everyone likes #1, and I'm OK with #2 since I have enough ridiculously complex games already.
You play as the half-dragon son of a recently deceased emperor, who is supported by some of your father's ex-advisers in a quest to conquer various enemies and restore the empire. The campaign moves from conquering outlying lands to taking the heart of the empire to fighting a world-spanning evil demon. Along the way, you gain followers, upgrade your technology, and improve your dragon skills.

D:DC is a mashup of three genres: role-playing, real-time strategy, and turn-based strategy. Each aspect affects the others as you play. A decision you make in the role-playing portion might affect what resources you have during your next strategy turn. The forces you decide to use on the turn-based map affect what you start with in the real-time battles. I didn't find these effects to be significant, but they added some flavor to how the game moved alone.

The role-playing aspect was my favorite of the three. As you move along in the campaign, your various followers bring matters to your attention. There are followers from five races (undead, elf, dwarf, lizard, and imp) and each has different priorities. Your decisions range from political (should women have the vote, will the empire be reformed to a republic) to social (is gay marriage allowed) to matters of law (does the murdering noble get punished despite being technically innocent). Every decision makes some of your followers happy and upsets others. If a race becomes particularly happy or unhappy, it affects how territories of that race behave in the strategy game. I didn't worry much about that, though, and just made each decision as it came up without paying attention to who liked me. By the end of the game, the undead religious conservatives (amusing, that combination) and dwarven wealth-mongers hated me, the lawful lizards and nature-loving elves loved me, and the technological imps were mostly happy but didn't like that I'd turned down their request to lobotomize workers (for higher efficiency) and develop nukes. Whether that says something about my political and moral decision-making is an exercise I'll leave to the reader.

Progress in the game is driven by the turn-based strategy portion. You're basically moving armies around a map, in a manner familiar to anyone that's ever played Risk. Take territories with your units, build resource-producing buildings, construct armies, invade more territories. You can either fight the battles yourself via the real-time strategy portion (more on that later) or allow the battle to auto-resolve, which is basically a series of behind-the-scenes die rolls weighted by what units each side has in play. You can tilt the odds in your favor by having the bigger army, of course, but also by sending one of your generals to take command or by playing battle cards. These cards come from certain buildings on the map, and some can also be used outside of battle to gain strategic advantages. I found this aspect of the game to be adequate: no significant issues, but nothing really exciting either.

Then there is the real-time strategy aspect. Once per turn on the strategic map, you can choose one battle to fight in as your dragon self. This puts you in command of your forces on a real-time strategy map. The goal is to capture various resource points, use them to build units, and wipe out your enemies' units. Usually there's just one opponent, but occasionally multiple players will invade the same territory and you can end up with multiple parties all battling it out. You've got all the usual types of fantasy-RTS units (infantry, armor, ships, airborne, healers aka shamans, mages aka warlocks), and the usual tactics of either zerg-rushing or turtling up with protected resources. I had a really rough time with this part until I found the setting to turn the game speed down to its lowest setting, and even with that done things still moved fast enough that I couldn't actively make use of some of the cooler abilities on my units. Turning into a dragon is pretty neat, and can certainly have a big effect on the battle, but there are some pretty strict limitations (presumably for balance reasons) so it wasn't quite as fun as I'd expected. This was definitely my least favorite phase of the game. It was fun the first few times, but by the end I actively avoided it, using auto-resolution on the battles whenever doing so had a decent chance to win.

So in the end, playing as a dragon wasn't quite as enjoyable as I'd expected. But the various decision points in the role-playing side were fun, and the strategy portion wasn't too onerous, so I enjoyed it anyhow. I ended up spending about 16 hours with the game. I can't see myself ever coming back for more, but for one play-though, D:DC was worth the time.

Friday, December 25, 2015

Solo Christmas

I'm spending Christmas by myself this year. Actually, most years. And despite what holiday traditions would have you believe, it's perfectly fine.
Nothing to do with the content of this post. Nice lights, though.
Holidays in general, and Christmas in particular, are known as time to spend with family and friends. Nothing wrong with that, but people tend to think that there's something wrong if you aren't having company or visiting someone this time of year.

I've taken to being very non-committal whenever the subject of holiday plans arises in conversation. It always does this time of year. The most casual conversation always seems to come around to "What are you doing for Christmas?" Coming right out with "Staying at home by myself" almost always results in some variation of "Oh, that's too bad." So I go with answers like "Oh, just avoiding the holiday travel rush" or "Having a nice quiet family time." (Which is technically true, as I am in fact part of my family.)

That's not to say that I have no contact with family and friends. After all, there are a lot of communication options. Phone calls, Skype, email, Christmas cards...plenty of ways to get in contact and wish people happy holidays. And I tend to do my visiting at other times of year, when I'm not dealing with tons of other people traveling, and those I'm visiting are less busy and stressed out anyway.

So what does one do while spending Christmas at home by yourself? Plenty to read, games to play, and things to watch...some of which are new from opened presents. But besides all that, I like to put some Mannheim Steamroller on the stereo and settle down to think on the reason for the season. Our Saviour's birth is a story worth meditating on. (Even if it probably wasn't actually December 25.)

So I wish everyone a Merry Christmas, whether you're spending it in a big family gathering or quietly at home. Don't be sorry for people who choose to spend it alone. Enjoy the holiday - I know I will!

Thursday, December 24, 2015

Gift Wrapping

I'm horrible at wrapping gifts...mine will be the one that looks like the paper was wadded up and taped at random. Don't bother trying to save that wrapping paper! It's still an interesting tradition, though.
Marketplace had a story the other day about the gift wrapping industry, which accounts for over $3 billion a year in retail sales. That seems incredibly high to me, but I guess when pretty much everyone buys your product each year, it's not hard to end up with that kind of money.

I hadn't realized that the idea of decorative wrapping was only about a hundred years old until I heard that Marketplace story, and read this article. Oh, there had been plenty of wrapping before that, largely to protect the gift until it could be delivered. Japan has a tradition of using wrapping cloths, or furoshiki. China may have been the first culture to wrap gifts in paper, way back in the Song dynasty. But those were primarily functional, not decorative.
Furoshiki
In 1917, the Hall brothers ran out of the usual wrapping paper in their Hallmark store in Kansas City. They looked around at what they had in the storeroom, and decided they'd try selling some "fancy French paper" instead. That worked incredibly well, and within a few years Hallmark was making decorative wrapping paper themselves. Now gift wrapping is a massive industry.

So don't feel bad about ripping the paper off those gifts this year. (Do recycle it, though.) It might be inefficient, but it's good for the retail industry.

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Gas is cheap...for now

The news that gas prices in the USA have dropped below an average of $2 per gallon has been everywhere recently. I heard it from the local news, the national news, NPR, and various Internet sources all within the space of a day.
Nothing wrong with saving a bit when filling up your tank, right? Well, sort of. It's nice to see dollar figure down around double the number of gallons, instead of 3 or 4 times. I don't drive a whole lot myself, so I rarely fill up more than a couple of times per month. Plus my car is pretty fuel-efficient, 30-35 miles per gallon. Even so, I like paying less, and those who drive more like it even more.

The problem is the behavior that these low prices encourage. People are buying more big, inefficient vehicles. It's not just the last few months - similar things were being reported back in February 2015. Trucks, SUVs, and other inefficient vehicles are more popular when feeding those hungry beasts is cheaper. I understand the logic, but it's not good long-term thinking.

Buying a vehicle is a medium-to-long-term decision. Most people can only afford to do it once a decade or so. The fuel costs for the car or truck you buy today are going to continue to hit your wallet for many years, and the gas prices may not stay low. Anything from a change in the global oil economy to a local refinery problem to changes in taxes and regulations can cause prices to go up.

Unless you need a large vehicle for your family or as part of your job, it's going to save you money in the long run to go with a smaller, more fuel-efficient vehicle. Not only will you save on regular fuel costs, but overall cost of ownership is lower, as this Consumer Reports article points out (check out the table near the bottom). Consider lower environmental impact and the ability to park in compact parking spots a bonus.

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Update: Trakt.tv and Kodi add-on

I noticed recently that my hack to the Trakt.tv add-on for Kodi had stopped working. My TV shows were no longer updating on the Trakt.tv site. It didn't take a lot of effort to find out what had happened - I just had to look at the Trakt.tv add-on version number. It had been updated (from 3.0.4 to 3.0.5) and pushed out to the Kodi repository. My copy auto-updated to the new version, which of course means my changes were overwritten.

Fortunately this is a simple fix, made easy since the source is all on GitHub. All I had to do was go to my version of the repository, pull a local copy down to my machine, and then sync it to the master branch. Most of the changes were merged automatically. There was one conflict, where the updates from the master branch had touched the same file as my changes. When that happens, Git kindly puts both versions of the text into the affected file, so it's just a matter of opening it and manually putting the conflict in order.

To confirm that everything was working again, I installed Kodi locally on my Windows machine and tested out the add-on. (This is much easier than trying to debug on my FireTV, since it's a pain to read the debug log and change files on that device.) This was the first time I'd done this since my Windows 10 upgrade, and I'm happy to say it went smoothly. Other than fixing silly mistakes (typos, forgetting to copy a file) there were no problems.

Once I knew the change was done properly, the only thing left was to update the version on my Fire TV. Kodi on the Fire TV doesn't like it when you try to directly overwrite an existing add-on. Sometimes it works, but other times it ignores the changes; or worse, stops working altogether. So I uninstalled the Trakt.tv add-on, shut down Kodi, copied over the new add-on as a ZIP file, then restarted Kodi and installed the add-on again. That makes sure the updates are in place, and indeed everything worked again properly.

The reason that all this is necessary stems from my little hack being unofficial. I did submit it to the maintainer of the Trakt.tv add-on, but he didn't want to include it in the official version, and I don't blame him. The hack is very specific to viewing TV programs through the MythTV PVR add-on, and it's fragile in the sense that any change to how TV show titles are displayed are likely to break it. So for now, I'll just continue to merge updates manually. With luck, some future version of Kodi and/or the add-ons will allow a better solution.

Monday, December 21, 2015

Ghost in the Shell: Arise - Alternative Architecture

I've been a Ghost in the Shell franchise fan since I first saw the original movie back in the late '90s. Production I.G.'s Stand Alone Complex TV series and the Solid State Society film were excellent. So I certainly wasn't going to miss the latest series, Arise.
Arise has been released in pieces over the last couple of years. First there were four hour-long films, released across 2013 and 2014. I didn't go out of my way to track those down immediately, though, since I knew that eventually there would either be a compilation, or at least a package deal to get them all at once.

Enter Arise - Alternative Architecture, a repackaging of the four Arise films into half-hour TV episodes, plus an additional 2-episode extension of the story. I was able to pick up the series from Amazon Video streaming for $30. I usually wait until things I want to watch are available on a video streaming service (Netflix, Crunchyroll, Amazon Prime streaming, etc), but I make an exception for Ghost in the Shell. I own all the other movies and series already and see no reason why Arise shouldn't join them. (It's the first I bought in the cloud rather than on a physical DVD, which is nice - one less thing to keep track of.)

The story for Arise takes place earlier than the other parts of the franchise. In the others, Major Motoko Kusanagi is part of Public Security Section 9, leading a team under the direction of Section Chief Aramaki. Arise starts earlier, when the Major is still in the Army, and goes through how she leaves the Army, works with Aramaki, and forms the rest of the team.

For some reason, the Alternative Architecture version of Arise chose to jump around in that timeline. The first two episodes actually show the whole Section 9 group together, then later episodes jump back to show how they got there, and finally the last two episodes continue where the first two left off. It was a little confusing at first, though it was easy enough to straighten out by taking a quick look at how this compared to the order of the four Arise films.

Not that confusion is any great surprise with any Ghost in the Shell series. I usually have to watch two or three times to catch most of what is going on. Every story takes place on multiple levels, usually including high-level politics, relationships in the team, and impacts on the individual characters. All of this against a background of some shadowy mastermind, whose ties to the crimes being investigated in each individual story arc are only gradually revealed. Arise is no exception to this formula.

One consequence of working in the earlier time-frame is that the Major is a more interesting character, in my humble opinion. In the movies and Stand Alone Complex story-line, she was portrayed as being at the top of her game, highly experienced and in command of a crack cyber-warfare unit. In Arise, we see her alone and vulnerable right from the beginning, and she has to work her way into that position at the top. She's still basically a superhero, but one that we see grow into the role, rather than starting out that way.

Production I.G. has already created the next installment, a movie that continues the Arise story, but it's only released in Japan at this point. When a version is available here in the USA, I'll probably go back and watch the whole series again beforehand to catch stuff I missed the first time.

Sunday, December 20, 2015

SWTOR: Hutts, Revan, and the Jedi Master

Having finished the pre-expansion Star Wars: The Old Republic (SWTOR) story arcs, Master Jedi Ineffablebob moved on to the Rise of the Hutt Cartel and Shadow of Revan expansions. Some story spoilers below, FYI, although at this point I suspect most people who are worried about these stories have already played them.

First stop, Makeb to deal with the Hutts. I expected pretty much the same overall story aspects as I saw when exploring Makeb on the Imperial side, and that was true at the highest level. Hutts mining the planet for a dangerous resource and destroying the planet in the process. I recognized much of the terrain, too. But the similarities ended there.

Obviously I was dealing with Republic rather than Imperial contacts, but beyond that the actual result of the arc was very different. Rather than finding a way to stabilize the planet's core, the Jedi Consular arc focused on evacuating the population. I kept looking for options in the story conversations to actually save the planet, but never saw one. Interesting that the Imperial Bounty Hunter story allows you to find a way to save the planet, but the Republic Jedi Consular does not (or at least, I couldn't find it).

Before moving on to the next expansion, I went through the Directive 7 Flashpoint. It's a side story, not really tied into the larger happenings in the galaxy. The gist is that some droids have gone rogue and are threatening to reprogram all their brethren into killing machines. Not exactly breaking new ground, but I had fun with it. The final boss fight took me a few tries to figure out, since I hadn't looked up the details online. Once I realized what the game was trying to tell me when it flashed up messages like "Core 3 has overheated" - that means stop killing droids and go blow up core 3 right now - it went smoothly enough.


Anti-Revan forces. Yes, the Wookie is wearing a droid.
The Shadow of Revan content didn't have story differences in the same way that the Rise of the Hutt Cartel stuff on Makeb did. From the Flashpoint preludes, to Rishi, to Yavin 4, to the epilogue on Ziost, everything was pretty much just a mirror image of the Imperial arc. Same characters, same story, just a few conversational differences. I expected this, but it was still a little disappointing after the real variety in the Makeb story.

Finishing off these stories got Ineffablebob all the way to level 65. The Knights of the Fallen Empire expansion remains to be played, but there's no reason to hurry.

Saturday, December 19, 2015

Un-Go

I found Un-Go when I was browsing around the recommendations on MyAnimeList.net. Find a show you liked, hit the recommendations tab, and see what other people have liked that was similar. I was looking through some of the Ghost in the Shell series pages when the Un-Go recommendation popped up. It was available on Crunchyroll, so that made it easy for me to watch.
"Un-Go Title" by Source. Licensed under Fair use via Wikipedia
Two things about Un-Go stood out right away to me: it's based around mystery-solving, and the setting is a near-future post-war dystopia where technology is moderately more advanced (most notably AI). The former is appealing to me - detectives solving mysteries is always an interesting theme. The latter explains the Ghost in the Shell link - similar settings, though Un-Go's setting differs in that it makes heavy use of the mystical spirit realm as well as technology.

The Wikipedia page says that Un-Go is based on the Japanese novel Meiji Kaika Ango Torimono-chō. That doesn't mean much to me, but I certainly noticed that the show references Meiji-era stories in almost every episode. I have no idea whether that's all fictional, or if there is actually Meiji-era literature with similar themes. Someone with a background in Japanese literature...or simply a working knowledge of the novel...would probably catch a lot of subtleties that escaped me.

I like the main character, Shinjuro Yuuki, who is nicknamed the "Defeated Detective" since he never seems to get the right answer in his investigation. It turns out that he's often right, but others work up an official solution which bends the truth to protect something: government interests, powerful reputations, or even people's lives. Those others are usually led by Rinroku Kaishou, who gets credit for the "right" solutions to the investigations.

I'm less enamored of Inga, a kind of spirit being who is tied to Shinjuro. Learning about what Inga is and what other spirits may be around is an interesting part of the story-line. What I don't like as much is Inga's ability to force a person to answer a question truthfully, which to me seems like cheating in a mystery investigation. It seemed to me that usually the detective had a pretty good idea what was going on before Inga asked the question, though, so it didn't ruin the investigation concept. It just feels like an unnecessary addition.

There are only eleven half-hour episodes of Un-Go, so it's a pretty quick watch. There's also a prequel short film about the first meeting of Shinjuro and Inga, but I didn't have easy access to that, so I can't comment on how good it is. I can say that the series itself is worth a few hours to watch, if mystery-solving and a bit of commentary on whether revealing the truth is always the right approach sounds interesting.

Friday, December 18, 2015

Social Credit in China

The most recent Extra Credits video is all about "Sesame Credit", the early stages of a system being set up in China to track the "social credit" of each individual. The Extra Credit folks were pretty worried about where such a thing might lead, and after doing a bit of poking around the Internet, so am I.
This isn't the first time I've heard of Sesame Credit. There was a Marketplace story about it back in January, referencing this New York Times story. But those stories made it sound like Sesame Credit was simply a credit score for China, similar to the credit rating system we have here in the USA. The main difference was that Alibaba (China's biggest e-commerce company) would be generating the scores based on their data, rather than the credit bureau system that the USA uses. Honestly, it sounded pretty good to me at the time, considering what a pain our credit score system can be, particularly if they make a mistake with your data.

But the Extra Credits video paints a picture of Sesame Credit as a whole lot more than just a credit score. It would track whether you posted things to social media that toe the party line, or things that embarrass the government. You'd get more points for buying Chinese-owned products than foreign ones. And your score would be affected by other people in your social network, so you'd have incentive to put pressure on them to "act right" to improve their scores.

Sesame Credit isn't the end-game, but rather one of eight pilot projects being watched by the government (according to this BBC article). By 2020, the Chinese government plans to use what it learns from those pilot projects and develop a mandatory, country-wide social credit system. So I figured I'd better look at the source, to see what's really going on.

Here's what the Chinese government released about this social credit system back in 2014. I admit, I didn't read that entire thing, because it's long and worded in government-propaganda-speak. I did skim through it, though, and I see plenty in there to confirm what the Extra Credits video was saying. Here's a few:

  • Under "Guiding Ideology" we see "...the construction of sincerity in government affairs, commercial sincerity, social sincerity and judicial credibility." A list of "focus areas" follows which covers pretty much everything in life. Just a few samples: "finance", "e-commerce", "advertising", "health care, hygiene, and birth control", "culture, sports, and tourism", "public security", "judicial law enforcement". This isn't a "credit score" as we're used to thinking of it in the USA, focused almost entirely on finances...this score covers everything you do.
  • Section V(1) is titled "Build mechanisms to incentivise trust-keeping and punish trust-breaking" - meaning the system rewards staying in line and has punishment for those who don't. 
  • Also in Section V(1), there's this bit: "Establish rewarded reporting systems for acts of breach of trust. Realistically implement rewards for reporting individuals, and protect the lawful rights and interests of reporting individuals." Translation: Encourage people to blow the whistle on their neighbors.

That's some frightening stuff, right out of stories about informants reporting to the secret police in authoritarian societies. But this is worse, because you don't need the secret police. Everyone will be watching all the time through this social credit score system. And anyone in the system (that is, everyone, since this will be mandatory) will be affected by the people they know, so peer pressure is going to nudge people into line.

The system isn't in place yet, and maybe it won't turn out to be the worst-case scenario. I certainly hope that's the case. The potential is there, though, for some really dangerous limitations on people's freedom to think and act. Worth thinking about, and worth being vigilant against similar things that could happen closer to home.

Thursday, December 17, 2015

Karen Senki

Karen Senki is a short (11 10-minute episodes) computer-animated series. I'd be happy to categorize it further, but I'm not entirely sure how.
At first, it seems Karen Senki is going to be just a showcase for CG animation. And the visuals are certainly very well done, at least in my opinion. I know CG animation isn't everyone's thing, but I've never had a problem with it. This is a modern series with the smooth animation that you'd expect with today's technology. I think the animators got a little too excited about Matrix-style slow-motion camera-angle-rotation fight scenes, but I suppose you can't blame them for playing with the toys. But it's not all just watching bullets fly.

The premise behind the story is that machines have become self-aware and taken over the world. Humans are tolerated in a sort of preserve zone. There's an underground resistance group called Eleven, with which our heroine Karen is associated. She's constantly running from machine enforcers doing their best to kill or capture her.

Sounds like a pretty straightforward fear-the-robots science-fiction dystopia, right? Well, not exactly. The machines act more like conquering humans than robots. They act like gangsters, buy human food, listen to singers - you could replace them with conquering aliens or Nazis or whatever, and not miss a beat.

Then there's the mystical aspects. Karen needs gun repair at one point, and it's handled by an old guy in a backstreet shop. Pretty normal, until it turns out that he's really some kind of priest who takes the gun to a big temple and performs some kind of ritual on it. Then there's Karen's dead sister, who takes a much more active role at times than the average deceased sibling. And the Eleven member who grows replacement bodies in her refrigerator and somehow transfers her mind to them upon death. Not what you'd expect from a machine-ruled future at all.

Since it's so short, Karen Senki doesn't have time to fill in a lot of details. Most creators would tell a simple story in the limited time, but not here. A lot of stuff is simply left out, assuming the viewer will connect the dots. No character-developing side scenes, or background explanations. Drop a hint or two and move on, no time for details. The back-story is filled in a bit in later episodes, but again it feels like a few key scenes rather than a full story.

There's a big final battle, of course, saving the world...or at least the part of it where the humans live. No real attempt is made to resolve any of the big questions, though, or go after the machine mastermind. Which is not surprising, in a short computer-animation showcase, but still a little disappointing.

Karen Senki is pretty to watch (as long as you're OK with CG animation), and reading between the lines of the story is an interesting exercise. It doesn't resolve many of the questions it raises, though, and the ending isn't particularly satisfying. Not a bad way to kill an extra couple of hours, but not worth going out of your way to see.

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

SWTOR: Groups and Guilds

I finally decided it was time to make an actual effort to play group content in Star Wars: The Old Republic (SWTOR). I know, I said before that I'd given up on the idea. There's one more significant step I wanted to try, though: joining a guild.

It's not hard to find a guild to join - there's announcements in all the public chat channels in-game on a regular basis. Most of those are either for heavy role-playing groups, or guilds just starting out. Neither is exactly what I was looking for, so I did a little more research on the game's forums. That led me to The New Outriders (NOR).
NOR is an established group that has been active across multiple MMOs, has a screening process, and runs scheduled events on occasion...pretty much exactly what I was looking for. Actually joining was a pretty simple process. I filled out their application form, and got a message in-game from them just a few hours later. Technically I'm a "recruit" for the first month before becoming a full member, but that doesn't make much difference. I found everyone to be very nice when answering my dumb questions about guild membership and teaming in the guild chat.

Shortly after I joined the guild, my subscription time ran out. This put me at "preferred" status, which is a step above the free-to-play status I had before subscribing. There's a whole list of what you can and can't do. Right away, I noticed:
  • I'm now limited to 8 active characters - no problem, I only have 2.
  • 2 crafting/crew skills instead of 3 - no big deal, wasn't using Treasure Hunting much anyway.
  • A credit cap at 350k credits - limiting for high-end items, but not a problem in standard gameplay.
  • Three quickbars for ability shortcuts - I was using 4, but it's easy enough to go down to 3.
  • A minor XP penalty - not significant at all, considering I hit the level 65 cap shortly after this.
  • No access to the guild stash - I hadn't used it anyway.
What I didn't realize immediately is that being a preferred player means no Operations, which are large-scale (8 or 16 player) group content. When I joined my first one with a NOR group, I had to get a special "weekly pass" in order to participate. The guild provided it, which was extremely kind of them, but I don't want to rely on that in the future. I'll need to re-subscribe if I want to do that kind of content regularly (or buy the passes myself, but it's more cost-efficient to just subscribe).

Doing the Operation itself was fun. Group play with people who know what they're doing and are willing to explain makes all the difference. Unlike my experiences with random groups, this one had little trouble progressing through the entire scenario. The Operation had no interactive conversations, which eliminated one thing that I didn't like about previous grouping attempts. We used Teamspeak for communication - not my favorite thing, but pretty important for this kind of cooperative play. I didn't play a key role, of course, basically just hanging near the back of the group and throwing ranged attacks at whatever everyone else was targeting. That's what the new guy ought to do, though, so it was fine.

I even found some decent new equipment from the boss drops in the Operation. Unfortunately, I can't use any of it, due to another preferred status restriction - no artifact-quality items. Again, subscribing would solve this, or I could buy authorization for the items separately. It's pretty clear that you can survive easily enough as a solo player in preferred status, but if you want to do group content regularly, it makes more sense to subscribe.

However...despite this being a good experience, I still don't think I'm going to continue with the end-game group content in SWTOR. Once you've seen an Operation or Flashpoint, there's no surprise left, so running it again is just part of the MMO grind for better loot. If I want to do that, there are other games where I can do it without paying a monthly subscription. (Star Trek Online, where I'm a lifetime member, Guild Wars 2, and the free-to-play Path of Exile and Marvel Heroes come to mind.) I like the NOR folks, but I can still play with them by jumping back into SWTOR occasionally without doing the entire endgame raid grind.

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Fiction and Suspension of Disbelief

I read books, watch videos, and play games in all sorts of fictional settings. Science fiction, fantasy, thrillers, mysteries, alternate history...they all have something in common. The easier they make it for me to suspend my disbelief, the better they are.

The phrase "suspension of disbelief" was first used by Samuel Taylor Coleridge back in 1817. The basic idea is simple - fiction relies on the observer willingly accepting something false. It's a pretty rare work of fiction that expects people to believe that it's actually true. For the vast majority of fiction, the consumer knows going in that they're seeing something unreal.
Samuel Taylor Coleridge
This is easier in some genres than others. It's fairly straightforward to settle into a mystery set in the present day, with people you can easily believe might walk by on the street and technology that you recognize. A far-future world with aliens and fantastic machines, on the other hand, requires the observer to accept things that would never be encountered in daily life.

I find that I rarely have trouble with the sheer amount of things that a work of fiction expects me to accept. Magic, aliens, super-spies, warp speed, etc, etc...it's all good. Suspending my disbelief rarely runs into a volume limit. Give me a basic explanation of what your particular work of fiction expects me to accept, and I'm pretty likely to do so.

What I do have trouble with, however, is inconsistency. Tell me that there's a guy who can move faster than the eye can see, and has some funky ability so he doesn't burn up in the process...no problem. But then turn around and put him in a showdown with a single opponent who relies on a gun, which speedy should be able to take away before it can be fired - now we have a problem. This exact scenario has happened on CW's The Flash, which is a show I actually like quite a bit, but I had some trouble accepting that particular scene. The bigger the distance of the initial premise from reality, the more often you get this sort of inconsistency.

A well-crafted story can make things easier on the audience, by including believable reasons behind these kinds of scenarios. For instance, in that Flash-and-gun scenario, have the villain rig up the gun to explode or shoot randomly as soon as anyone else touches it. (Which is in fact what they did in a later episode.) While you probably couldn't do that in reality any more than a guy can run at light speed, having that added detail gives the viewer an excuse to believe in the scenario.

Most of the best fiction I've encountered requires suspension of disbelief just once, setting the initial scenario, and then everything follows logically from there. Harry Turtledove's various alternate history novels are a great example of this. The Guns of the South is perhaps the most famous; an alternate Civil War in which the Confederacy was given 20th century firearms. Once you get past the initial hurdle of accepting that premise, the rest of the story makes sense without forcing yourself to ignore logical holes.

By definition, fiction is going to contain something untrue, and much of the time it's something fantastic. The consumer is going to have to suspend their disbelief along the way. Really good fiction defines and explains those differences from reality in a way that the observer can understand and easily accept.

Monday, December 14, 2015

Neighborhood Lights

I took a walk around the neighborhood a few nights ago. This might seem like a fairly dumb thing to do in December in Michigan, and in normal years that would indeed be the case. After our first moderate snowfall this year, though, it's been unseasonably warm. The temperature stays above freezing most of the time, even after the sun goes down. I wouldn't call it perfect walking weather, but with proper clothing, I stayed plenty warm.

While I was out, I took some pictures of holiday decorations around the neighborhood. I live in a condo, and there's basically nothing done to the outside of my building. You can get a stern talking-to even for putting up decorations in your windows. But where I went on my walk, within a mile or two, there's an entire subdivision of single-family homes that don't have to abide by the condo rules.

No one is going to mistake any of these for the Shilo Inns display, of course, or even Grand Rapids' own Christmas Light Show. Especially not with my questionable photographic talent, which is not helped by using a cell phone camera. But I still enjoyed looking at the displays as I walked through the neighborhood. Nice to see that my neighbors are showing a little of the holiday spirit!


Sunday, December 13, 2015

Re:_ Hamatora

Re:_ Hamatora is a continuation of Hamatora. For whatever reason the creators decided to use a different name for the second season, which confuses tracking sites like Trakt.tv. Anyhow, by whatever name, it's basically the second half of the same show. Still exploring a world with mutants...excuse me, "Minimum Holders"...through a few powerful characters, with a goodly amount of social commentary on the lives of the powered among a mostly non-powered populace.
Pretty much all the same characters are present in Re:_ Hamatora, even those that you thought were gone after Hamatora. There's also a lot of flashbacks to fill in backstory between various characters. Using either of those devices incorrectly can make a show feel poorly written, but I thought they pulled it off fairly well in Re:_ Hamatora. Pretty much anything that doesn't seem to fit is done that way for a reason, and eventually is explained.

Not much change as far as the production values go, as you'd expect from a continuation. One thing they did add which I wasn't particularly fond of was a different transition method between scenes. Rather than just fading to black or a short blank transition, Re:_ Hamatora uses a transition that freezes the final scene image, does some funky coloring, then morphs to the next scene. It's not a major thing, but I found it distracting.

I found the major conflict in Re:_ Hamatora much more interesting than in Hamatora. The Hamatora villain felt contrived, with no real purpose behind his motivations. Insanity was the only motivation that made any sense to me. The motivations of the Re:_ Hamatora antagonist, on the other hand, were much more clear and believable. I thought they did a much better job explaining his actions (and those of his various associates), though it did take a while...not until the final episode, in some cases.

I'd only recommend Hamatora/Re:_ Hamatora if you know already that you like the genre. If the idea of powered individuals impacting the world aren't your thing, I doubt this will change your mind. The show is a well-executed instance of that genre, though, and I enjoyed it.

Saturday, December 12, 2015

SWTOR: Master Jedi

The Jedi Consular Ineffablebob has made his way through the Star Wars: The Old Republic (SWTOR) Galaxy and defeated the Children of the Emperor, thus ending his primary class story-line. In terms of story, I felt like I was playing a whole new game compared to my experience as an Imperial Bounty Hunter. SWTOR really does a good job of providing individualized story lines for each class.
A Trandoshan.
I like the different companions, too. The Jedi Consular's first companion is Qyzen Fess, a Trandoshan, which means he's basically a humanoid toothy lizard. Having a non-human companion, complete with very alien morality structure based on scoring "points" for hunting dangerous game, was pretty cool and made for some interesting conversations. There are several other companions as well, including eventually a Padawan trainee to go with your status as a Master Jedi. The story aspects of the companion arcs don't go into a whole lot of depth, but they're still fun to go through.

This time through, I did almost none of the individual planet story arcs. My personal story still took me to all the major stopping points, but I skipped large parts of the content and only focused on my own story-line. However, I did take a side trip into a Flashpoint when the opportunity presented itself. Doing them in solo mode is basically just another story-line, albeit one with a bit more combat than usual. It was nice to get some backstory on events in the main story, such as the freeing of Revan from his prison.

Despite my original intent to spend a little more time with the multiplayer aspects of SWTOR while playing the Jedi Consular, I found myself doing almost everything solo. As I mentioned last time, I did try a Flashpoint group, but it was a poor experience. I was progressing nicely through the story and gaining levels on my own, so why bother with a group? It only makes the conversation pauses awkward, and slows down progress when someone inevitably has to log out or go AFK. If I was going to play this game for years, I'd probably find places that I wanted to explore as part of a group. But for now, I've pretty much given up on the team aspects.

I finished off my progression in the crafting system along the way. Sending your companions on all the gathering missions required certainly used up my credit reserve. I made some of it back by selling a few of my crafted lightsaber parts, but for the most part it was a pretty significant credit sink. The fact that I ignored the crafting system on Eltaix goes a long way toward explaining why she was running up against the credit cap for a while. In the lower levels, it was moderately annoying to keep sending companions away on missions every few minutes. By the time you get up into the 400-500 skill range, though, companions are gone for 10+ minutes at a time for crafting missions. So it's much less of a chore to keep the missions going.

Once the main story ended, I also went back to Ilum. I had a poor experience there before, when Eltaix was unable to complete the Flashpoint at the end of the story-line. This time, though, solo mode was an option, so I had no problem getting through. (And I expect if I went back on Eltaix I could find the solo mode there now, too, now that I know what to look for.) Took me a bit over an hour to progress through two Flashpoints and defeat Darth Malgus. Extra bit of satisfaction there, cleaning up a loose end.

The Ilum arc felt much more similar to the Imperial side of the story than the primary class story-line. I suspect that will be the case through the Rise of the Hutt Cartel, Shadow of Revan, and Knights of the Fallen Empire content as well. Outside of a few conversation items, class differences mostly disappear in the expansions.

Friday, December 11, 2015

Elementary

I don't watch a lot of television dramas. Those I do almost always have a link to something else I've enjoyed. (For instance, all the comic-based shows lately.) Three years ago, I started watching Elementary because of its Sherlock Holmes theme, and I've stayed more or less current with it ever since. I was inspired to mention it here after watching last night's episode, the 77th in the series.
There have been a lot of Holmes-themed shows and movies over the years. Lots of folks have said that the BBC's Sherlock is one of the best, but I've not gone out of my way to seek it out. I'll probably watch it someday when I activate Netflix again. Meanwhile, Elementary is on broadcast TV here in the US, easily available via a simple DVR schedule.

In Elementary, Holmes and Watson have been altered quite a bit from the traditional characters. The two most obvious changes are that Watson is a woman ("Joan" instead of "John"), and the setting is New York city rather than London. Sherlock is also a recovering heroin addict, which often plays into their relationship and his character development.

The casting of Lucy Liu as Watson is one of the things that initially appealed to me, as she's one of my favorite actresses. I didn't know much about Jonny Lee Miller before watching the series, but I think he's done a great job as Sherlock. The two work very well together, which is a major reason why I've kept watching all this time. There are several very good supporting roles as well, most notably the NYPD captain and detective that Watson and Holmes work with regularly.

A large portion of Elementary is a fairly pedestrian crime-of-the-week police drama. Holmes and Watson are "consultants" rather than actual officers, but they work with the police department. The actual crimes are, for the most part, the same sort of thing you might see on one of the various CSI or Law and Order franchises. Sherlock's unorthodox methods make an appearance in nearly every episode, of course, which sets Elementary apart somewhat.

But I don't watch Elementary primarily for the weekly crime solving. Both Holmes and Watson are interesting characters, and the show keeps it that way with various struggles and growth. Addiction struggles, career decisions, family problems - there's plenty of themes beyond whatever criminal is on the run this week. I particularly liked the appearances of Mycroft Holmes and Moriarty; two more traditional characters presented in new light. And there are other interesting recurring aspects, such as the hacker collective "Everyone" or Sherlock's interest in beekeeping, that add a bit of spice to the crime-of-the-week.

You can pick up most any episode of Elementary and follow the weekly story, which is fine in itself as weekly crime dramas go. I find the real draw, though, to be the characters and continuing story themes. I doubt it'll ever be considered the best Sherlock Holmes adaptation, but I enjoy watching.

Thursday, December 10, 2015

NVidia Drivers and the Windows 10 BSOD

Got my first blue screen of death in Windows 10 last week, followed shortly by several more.
It looks different in Windows 10, but who doesn't love this particular BSOD? Other than Bill.
I had no crashing issues for the first couple of weeks after the installation. When the first BSOD happened, I was playing SWTOR. I didn't pay a lot of attention to the first crash, because these things have been known to just go away on their own after a reboot. But then it happened several more times over the next few days, always while playing some game or another, and I knew I needed to do something.

Error messages on these kind of system errors are never particularly clear, but there was one useful bit of information on mine: it referenced "dxgmms2.sys". Given that the crash always happened while I was playing a game, and "dx" brings to mind Direct X, it wasn't much of a stretch to conclude that video drivers were the likely culprit. A bit of Google searching for "dxgmms2.sys" confirmed that other folks has seen similar things, and it was indeed driver-related, although most of what I found was several months old.

Something must have changed from when things were working, so I took a look at what Windows Update had been putting on my machine. In the Windows Update advanced settings, you can look at what updates were recently installed. Unfortunately, everything in the list was a "Cumulative Update" of some kind. That could mean just about anything, and I didn't really want to roll them back, as it likely included a lot of stuff not related directly to graphics drivers.

So I approached this from the other direction, and went looking for graphics drivers. I have an NVidia GeForce GTX 650 Ti Boost, so it was off to NVidia's driver site. I grabbed the latest Windows 10 driver (359.06 at that time), and installed it with the "Clean Installation" option selected. Installation went fine, but less than a day later, same problem.

If the newest driver doesn't work, try an older one. I went back to the driver downloads and picked version 358.91. Why that one? The publication date for that driver was just prior to when I started noticing the crashes. Once again, I did a clean installation of the drivers and everything looked good.

This time, it seemed to work. It's been several days and no more crashing. Hopefully NVidia and Microsoft will work out whatever is causing the problem with the newer drivers, but until then, sticking with the older drivers is working for me.

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Hamatora

The world of Hamatora is defined by the existence of "Minimum Holders" - basically, mutants. Innate abilities in a small percentage of the population; some have super-hero-level powers, others much less impressive abilities. They never used the word "mutant" that I noticed, probably to avoid copyright infringement. But it's basically the same thing.
The story follows a group of about a half-dozen Minimum Holders. Most of them work for a private detective agency called Hamatora. Individual episodes are mostly about agency jobs, usually relating to bringing some kind of rogue Minimum Holder to justice. Most of the characters have odd names (Birthday, Moral, Three), but you get used to that fairly quickly.

There's a larger background story running throughout as well, involving the creation of artificial Minimum Holders, a grisly process involving the harvested brains of natural Minimum Holders. The reasoning of the head villain for doing this gets convoluted, but basically revolves around how he wants everyone to be equal. He goes on at length about granting power to the powerless, and how even the most powerful need equals. It's not the most compelling reasoning, but hey, he is the crazy head villain.

The show does a good job of spreading screen time around to various characters, but it's pretty clear that the main character is a guy called Nice. His power effectively stops time temporarily, and he uses it pretty regularly. He's not a traditional selfless hero, but he's certainly more altruistic than selfish. Several times he takes jobs for the agency which don't pay well, over the objections of his partner. He's supposedly the most powerful Minimum Holder, which makes him a target for the villain, who feels the need to make himself equal to Nice.

There are flashes of the usual anime silliness, such as when everyone ends up on Okinawa on a beach fighting with melons, or the guy whose power turns a health spa into a seduction zone. That stuff is fairly minimal, though, and often followed immediately by some sort of remark that makes fun of it.

I can't say that Hamatora breaks any new ground, but I enjoyed the ride. The ending wraps up the story but leaves the viewer with a cliffhanger. I'll be watching the sequel Re:_ Hamatora in the near future to see what happens.

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Escape Pod

Science fiction is my favorite genre, and I'm always interested in new ways to find good stories. A friend pointed me toward Escape Pod not long ago.
Escape Pod brings short-form science fiction stories to a weekly podcast format. Some stories are published first on the podcast, but more often they've been published in an anthology or magazine previously. There's a wide range of both story authors and voices doing the reading. They have an impressive backlog of over 500 episodes (of which I've only listened to 20 or so thus far). None of the stories are very long, generally 20-40 minutes read time.

I generally prefer reading over audio for my consumption of the written word, but there are certainly times when having an audio version is preferable. For instance - making a fairly long-distance drive, or getting some work in on the elliptical machine, or washing dishes. The short stories on Escape Pod fill in those bits of otherwise boring time nicely.

Escape Pod is part of the Escape Artists organization, which also has two other short story podcasts: Psuedopod for horror, and PodCastle for fantasy. I haven't checked out either - plenty to keep me in stories with the sci-fi - but it's cool that they're working with multiple genres. Worth checking out if you like any of those genres and have some time to fill!

Monday, December 7, 2015

Congratulations, Timbers!

Sunday sports means football, and yesterday it was the kind played with the feet. Plenty of the forward-pass variety going on too, of course, but I was happy to be able to watch my Portland Timbers play the Columbus Crew in the MLS Cup final.
I don't get to watch the Timbers very often. I did get to see a game last year in person with my brothers out in Portland, which was great fun. And very occasionally there's a game on a TV channel that I have access to. It's nice that this match ended up on ESPN (which has a non-cable access option via Sling TV) instead of FOX Sports (which doesn't) so I could watch it.

The match was played in Columbus, which is actually within day-trip driving distance from me. As with most large sporting events, though, I didn't have much interest in attending in person. It's so much more comfortable watching from home, as well as cheaper and less stressful. Post-season games are especially bad in terms of being crowded and expensive. Might consider a regular-season MLS game in either Chicago or Columbus at some point, though.

Sadly, Timber Joey wasn't allowed to bring his chainsaw, but the Timbers Army was nevertheless out in force. ESPN showed quite a few shots of the stands behind one goal, filled with folks in green. Heard from them, too; good in-stadium audio work by the TV crew.

The match itself was certainly exciting, but it showcased some of the things I like least about soccer in general. There were a whole lot of missed calls by the referee, most notably a handball on the Columbus goal-line that should have awarded the Timbers a penalty shot. There were several instances of player-writhing-on-the-ground-in-pain then miraculously recovering a few seconds later. And the biggest suspense in the last few minutes was when the game would actually end, rather then what the players were doing, due to the odd "stoppage time" rules that mean only the head referee knows when the game is over.

But hey, the Timbers won, so I'm loving the "beautiful game" right now, strange rules and all. Congratulations to the first MLS champions from the Pacific Northwest!

Sunday, December 6, 2015

Done Shopping

My Christmas shopping is done. It was really done back before Thanksgiving, but it turned out the wrapping paper left over from last year was insufficient, so I had to make another store trip.

I will now pause while everyone still trying to decide what to buy hates me.
Boxes ready for mailing.
Getting done with shopping early is pretty essential in my case, actually. There's a lot of distance between me and my various gift recipients. 1100 miles is the shortest travel distance. I do use the Internet to send things electronically, of course, especially for the international family members. But I don't like doing that all the time.

My list is pretty short, basically just close family. My circle of friends tends to be of the "let's just go out and buy each another a beer" persuasion over actually exchanging gifts. So that helps when finishing off the gift-buying list.

What really makes it possible to be done with holiday gifts early, though, is shopping all year long. Everyone has those moments when you see something in a store, or run across something online, and think "<insert person here> would really like that." I've learned to take advantage of those moments as they happen. I write down the idea, and pick things up off the list as they're on sale or otherwise easily available.

So once this holiday season is over, don't put down the gift-giving lists. Keep it handy for next year, as and when the ideas are right in front of you.

Saturday, December 5, 2015

Crocodiles Big and Small

Who doesn't love crocodiles? Captain Hook, I suppose. And anyone living near the Nile. Most fish, probably. Actually just about anything living near water in their territory.
Looks lovable to me!
Let's start this again. Who loves crocodiles? Adam Britton does! I've never met him in person, but we move in some of the same Internet circles (specifically, forums at QT3). He and his wife Erin have their own consultancy business called Big Gecko ("wildlife management, training, research and filming with crocodiles"), and run the crocodilian.com site and blog.

The first time I saw Adam in action was on 60 Minutes a few years ago. He was an expert on the team when Anderson Cooper went diving with Nile Crocodiles. I recommend that video, very interesting (and a mite frightening). He and rest of the Big Gecko crew have plenty of other film credits to their name as well.

Adam and the rest of Big Gecko play host to crocodiles as well as going to them in the wild. Their adult male saltwater crocodile is named Smaug, a Tolkien reference that I certainly appreciate. I've seen quite a few pictures of him over the years that Adam has posted, such as this and this from crocodilian.com.

The Brittons don't discriminate by the size of the crocodile. Adam is running the Tiny Toothies crowd-funding project to raise funds to study the pygmy freshwater crocodile in northern Australia. As I write this, they've raised about two-thirds of what they need to get the project going, with a week left to go. There's some interesting donation rewards - like a chance to swim with Smaug, though perhaps that one isn't for everyone.
A pygmy croc, as seen on the fundraiser page.
I've made a small donation, and I encourage others to help out. They're cute (as far as crocodiles go), and it's for science! Edit: And the funding goal was reached, with most of a day left on the clock! Congratulations, Brittons!