Saturday, October 31, 2015

Hallow-humbug

I'm not a big Halloween person. It's a holiday based around things I mostly dislike.
Costumes: What I wear hasn't ever been particularly important to me. Dressing up as someone else, even less so. I'll do it when there's a good reason, but I can't say I'll ever enjoy it. The problem with Halloween specifically is that you're expected to dress up somehow. No matter how much people may say it doesn't matter, the peer pressure is still there. I'll just stay home, thanks.

Fear: I don't much like being frightened. Weird, right? All the haunted houses, slasher movies, etc the are everywhere around Halloween do very little for me. That's not to say I don't enjoy suspense; I do, such as in spy thrillers or mystery novels. Just not the kind of "give you nightmares" stuff that is pushed at Halloween every year.

Trick or Treating: As a single middle-aged man, I realize I'm way out of the demographic for this one. But I still hear about it all the time...the local news talks about the weather for it all week, every store has candy on sale, the Internet is covered with stories about the cute little ghosts and witches. On the bright side, at least living in a condo building means I very rarely get anyone knocking on my door.

Nothing is all bad, of course. That cheap candy is nice, especially if you shop in the first week of November when they put all the leftovers on clearance. Sometimes other people's costumes are interesting to look at. And there are some fun Halloween events in my favorite online games each year. Overall, though, I could do without Halloween.

Friday, October 30, 2015

Extra History

The term "history lesson" conjures up images of long lists of names and dates, dusty library shelves, and research papers. Certainly not every opportunity to learn some history is like that, but a lot of folks think of it that way. If you want to get people interested in learning, it helps to overcome that stereotype right off the bat.
Extra History makes history lessons instantly entertaining. The Extra History YouTube videos use animation (mostly hand-drawn) and excellent narration to explain historical events. If you've ever watched Extra Credits, the game design video series, the format will look very familiar because it's the same crew behind the show.

I've watched four of the series thus far:

  • Rome: The Punic Wars
  • World War I: The Seminal Tragedy
  • England: South Sea Bubble
  • Warring States Japan: Sengoku Jidai
And there are four more that I haven't yet watched, as of the time I'm writing this.

Each series is in the general vicinity of 30-45 minutes, broken up into episodes that are around 8-12 minutes each. As you can tell from the series topics I've listed, they're covering a lot of ground in each one. The Extra History folks do a great job of covering key points without overdoing it on the details, and making it entertaining all the way. I also like that they do a "Lies" episode at the end, explaining where they made mistakes or purposely glossed over some parts in order to keep things moving.

The videos are free to watch on YouTube, but I encourage anyone who enjoys the series to consider supporting them on Patreon. For those not familiar with Patreon, it's sort of a pay-what-you-want subscription service. You choose what amount to donate monthly, and there are various perks depending on how much you pledge. Almost 3000 people are supporting Extra History. I really like this model, since it keeps the content available for folks who can't afford to pay, while the creator gets support from those of us who can afford it.

I highly recommend Extra History to anyone, whether you're usually interested in looking back to the past or not. You'll definitely be entertained, and there's a good chance you'll learn something at the same time.

Thursday, October 29, 2015

DVR with MythTV

I recently upgraded the computer that runs MythTV, the digital video recorder (DVR) software that I use for broadcast TV. Newegg had a sale on refurbished Dell PCs (just $99 when I got mine), which are underpowered for most uses, but just about perfect for dedicating to recording and playback of TV broadcasts. I had been using an even-lower-power Asus Eee Box (creatively named "eeebox" on my home network), which did the job but definitely had issues keeping up with demand at times. The new machine has double the processor speed and quadruple the RAM.
For receiving TV broadcasts, I use a HDHomeRun tuner, connected to my local Ethernet network. It's hooked up to a Leaf antenna for receiving over-the-air broadcasts. This all worked fine with the old machine, and there was no reason to change that part of the setup with the new one. (There's no reason you couldn't do this with a cable or satellite feed as well, as long as the tuner you use properly decodes the signal.)

Here's how I went from the fresh-out-of-the-box machine to a functioning DVR system:

  1. The new machine came with Windows pre-installed. I have no intention of running Windows on this system, but I went ahead and booted it up to make sure the hardware worked properly. Video output, mouse, keyboard, network connection...all good.
  2. My operating system of choice is Ubuntu Linux. Mostly just personal preference, as almost any major OS will work. I'm using the server version, since I don't need all the desktop applications that come with a desktop version. Downloaded the ISO install image, and put it on a USB stick for installation.
  3. Plugged the USB stick into the new machine and booted it up. In order to boot from the USB stick, you have to hold down a key (F12 in this case) to interrupt the boot-up process, and tell it to use the USB stick instead of the internal drives.
  4. Went through Ubuntu server install process. This guide is a pretty good overview. I chose to delete the existing partitions on my hard drive (they were just Windows, don't need that) and start fresh. I named the machine "LittleDell" for easy reference, and used the same user account name as on eeebox (just to make things simple). Near the end of the process, you need to choose software to install. I picked only the Base Server Software and OpenSSH options. I'll install anything else needed later on.
  5. After the reboot at the end of the install, LittleDell was up and running. Since I installed SSH, I could easily access it from my regular desktop. After copying over my .ssh directory from eeebox, enabling key-based login, access from one machine to another via SSH was a smooth process.
  6. Before installing MythTV, it's necessary to have a graphical environment, since the Myth setup process doesn't run in a terminal. I chose to install x2go server since I'm familiar with it. (Something like VNC would likely work just as well.) This nice tutorial shows how. With the x2go client on my regular desktop machine, I have access to the LittleDell desktop.
  7. It's also a good idea to shut down any existing MythTV installations on the local network before starting a new install, so I shut down the MythTV server on eeebox (including the MySQL server). If you leave it running, the new installation will helpfully try to connect to it...which we don't want.
  8. Finally, the MythTV installation itself, as documented here. Since I was using x2go, there was no need to use a remote desktop as that guide suggests; I just logged as the mythtb user and ran mythtv-setup directly:
    su -s -u mythtv
    cd ~
    /usr/bin/mythtv-setup

    Some notes for the setup process:
    • It's a good idea to manually turn off the Myth server before starting setup (sudo stop mythtv-backend). It will try to do this for you, but it doesn't always work right.
    • Change the IP address in the first General screen to the local LAN address (it should show up in the drop-down menu) rather than the default of 127.0.0.1. This lets external clients (for instance, Kodi on a FireTV) connect.
    • It's a good idea to schedule program listing updates to happen automatically. There's a screen for this in the General settings. I enable it, and leave the default values - that gives me once-a-day updates. You can always run it more often if needed, by running /usr/bin/mythfilldatabase manually as the mythtv user.
    • When setting up capture cards, the HDHomeRun tuners should show up in the drop-down menu. You'll want to create as many entries as there are tuners (mine has two), since that will let you record multiple shows at once.
    • I use Schedules Direct to get my TV listing data. This is configured in the Video Sources section of Myth setup.
    • You'll need to create one Input Connection for each capture card. They can all be linked to the same Video Source. You need to scan for channels on the first one, but not all the others.
    • When you're done, you'll be prompted to run mythfilldatabase and/or start up the Myth server. I recommend saying no to both, and instead doing it manually (still as the mythtv user):
      sudo start mythtv-backend
      /usr/bin/mythfilldatabase
      This way, if there's any problems, you'll be notified right away.
I also did a couple of additional optional steps:
  • Installed MythWeb as shown here, the remote web interface to the Myth server. This way I can schedule shows, see what recordings are available, view listings, etc from my computer, rather than going through Kodi. Much more user-friendly. 
  • Moved the mythtv data directories from /var/lib/mythtv to a different partition. Any disk partition with plenty of space will do, as long as it's separate from your root filesystem. (I used an external drive, thus the name /mnt/extdrive.) Shut down the Myth server, then do this:
    cp -rv /var/lib/mythtv /mnt/extdrive
    chown -R mythtv.mythtv /mnt/extdrive/mythtv
    sudo mv /var/lib/mythtv /var/lib/mythtv.orig
    sudo ln -s /mnt/extdrive/mythtv /var/lib

    Then you can restart the Myth server. Once you're sure that it's working, get rid of the original files with:
    sudo rm -rf /var/lib/mythtv.orig
    The reason for this is to make sure you have plenty of space for recordings. And if you do run out of space, it won't crash your system.
All told, 2-3 hours of work, of which about half was waiting on installers to finish. Not too bad for a functional DVR! 

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Minor Hacking: Crunchyroll, Trakt.tv, Kodi

I've been using Trakt.tv lately to track movies and TV shows as I watch them. Not that keeping track of such things is of any great importance, but I like keeping a list and rating the things I watch. Trakt keeps a nice calendar of upcoming new episodes, and it looks a whole lot prettier than the Google docs spreadsheet that I used to use.

I was pleased to see that there's a Kodi add-on to automatically update the site when you watch something. This is known as "scrobbling," a term invented (as far as I know) by last.fm in relation to music. Using sites like Trakt (for videos) or last.fm (for music) is possible without the automatic updates you get with scrobbling, but it's kind of a pain, and easy to forget to update. So the scrobbler add-on is a great feature.

I watch a goodly amount of anime via Crunchyroll, which has its own website and app, but neither of those communicate with Trakt. Fortunately there's a Kodi add-on for Crunchyroll, too. In theory, watching a video in Kodi using the Crunchyroll add-on should be automatically logged to Trakt, via the Trakt add-on. Nothing is ever that simple, though! I got it all set up, and...nothing happened.

Well, I didn't spend 15 years as a system integrator without learning a few things about getting recalcitrant software packages to work nicely together. This isn't exactly a multi-million-dollar ERP system like the ones I worked on as an IT consultant and technical lead, but the principle is the same. Follow the data flow, track the information at each step, and fix whatever connections are missing. In this case, this is what ought to be happening:
  1. Crunchyroll add-on tells Kodi to play a video
  2. Kodi notifies Trakt add-on that the video is playing
  3. Trakt add-on updates the Trakt.tv site
First step, identify where the process is breaking down. Kodi has a log file which includes add-on messages, and they'll dump a lot of info if you enable debug mode. I was able to identify messages relating to the first two steps, but the third was missing. The Trakt add-on knew there was a video playing, but it never updated the Trakt.tv site. A little digging through the Trakt add-on code showed me why: it didn't have enough information. Specifically, the name of the video was missing (as well as season/episode numbers, for TV shows).

Now that we know what's missing, the next step is to backtrack through the process to find where that information should be coming from. The Crunchyroll add-on should be telling us what video it's playing (step 1 in the process). I poked around the add-on code until I found the spot where the video was being played, and saw that it was setting a field called Title. The Trakt add-on, however, was looking for a different field called TVShowTitle, plus season and episode fields. A bit of work in the Python script added those extra fields. (Here's the code, for anyone interested.)

With that update in place, the Trakt add-on was able to identify what was being played, and it did indeed scrobble...when I played a show through the Crunchyroll add-on, the Trakt.tv site showed it as played. Success!

Well, partial success. Turns out that this only worked for some shows. In other cases, the Trakt add-on would try to scrobble, but an error something like "method exists, but no record found" would show up in the log, and nothing on the site got updated. After a bit more research, I determined that this was happening because the show title on Crunchyroll and Trakt.tv were different. Trakt actually knows about alternative titles, including the ones that Crunchyroll uses, but the scrobble attempt wasn't looking at alternative titles.

This problem could be fixed at either end of the process: at step 1, by making the Crunchyroll add-on use the primary title; or at step 3, by looking at the alternative titles in Trakt. I decided to go with the change in Trakt, because this might affect more than just Crunchyroll. Other add-ons might have the same issue. If I changed the Trakt add-on code, then every add-on attempting to use an alternative show title should work.

This was a more complex update than the first one. In the Trakt.tv API, there's a scrobble method, which the add-on was using. But that method has no ability to recognize alternative titles. Fortunately the API also has a search method, which can find those alternative titles. The fix involved adding that search method call to the Trakt add-on, using it to search for the alternative title, taking the result and extracting the primary title, and finally calling the scrobble method using the primary title. (Here's the code.)

With both updates in place, all the shows I'm watching in Kodi via the Crunchyroll add-on are being updated on the Trakt.tv site. (At least, all of them thus far.) The code changes have been submitted to the add-on maintainers to be included in a future update, so other people will get the same functionality without having to re-invent this particular wheel.

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

World Series 2015: Someone has to win

I'm a firm believer in the idea that if you're going to watch any kind of sports contest, you should pick one team to cheer for. I don't buy the "it doesn't matter who wins, I just want to see a good game" argument. (Though I may have used it in the past. Consistency is overrated.) It doesn't matter if you know anything about the teams, or how you pick which side you're on. If you have something invested in the outcome, even if it's nothing more than that you like one set of uniforms better, it's more fun to watch.

So why watch at all, if I have to search for reasons to prefer one side or the other? Championship series have the best drama, with every moment magnified. You never know when you'll see an improbable comeback, or a great performance in front of the biggest audience of the season. But most importantly, it's the last baseball I'll see for months!

The Mets have a lot going against them in my personal baseball franchise rankings. They start well down the list simply for being from New York. (Los Angeles teams get the same treatment.) Then there's the fact that they beat my Chicago Cubs in the NLCS. They've had all kinds of iffy things going on with their ownership in recent years (though that is getting better). Did I mention they're from New York?

The Royals aren't much better. They took the AL Central title this year from my second-favorite MLB team, the Detroit Tigers. I was enjoying watching the Houston Astros make an improbable playoff run this year...until the Royals pulled off a crazy comeback in game 4 of their ALDS, and finished the Astros off in game 5. The Toronto Blue Jays were exciting to watch, making a run with all of Canada behind them, before the Royals beat them in the ALCS. At every stage of the season, the Royals have beat some other team that I'd rather have seen advance.

That's not to say that neither team has anything good going for them. Both have exciting players, particularly pitching (mostly starters for the Mets, mostly bullpen for the Royals). There's the insanity that is Daniel Murphy's postseason for the Mets, and the insanity that is Ned Yost's managing style for the Royals. A Mets win would make cross-town-rival New York Yankee fans sad, and a Royals win would make Missouri-state-rival St Louis Cardinal fans sad. All good things.

As for who I think is actually likely to win, well, that's a toss-up. Seven games may sound like a lot, but in baseball terms it's a blink of an eye. Even the worst teams can win four out of seven at some point in their season. The great young starting pitchers of the Mets might completely shut down the Royals hitting. Or the Kansas City bats might eke out enough runs to take the lead into the late innings, and then their great bullpen locks it down. Or maybe we'll all be surprised and there will be a few shootout games that look more like the Kansas City Chiefs are playing the New York Giants. You'll see a whole lot of predictions around the sports world, and some of them will be right, but only by chance.

So what's the deciding factor here? Clearly, we need to go to the mascots.
In case there's any confusion, that's New York on the left.
A guy with a baseball for a head vs the king of beasts? (Albeit one with a strangely deformed skull structure.) I don't think there's any contest here. Royals it is!

Monday, October 26, 2015

SWTOR: The 4.0 Patch (at low levels)

The release of Star Wars: The Old Republic (SWTOR) version 4.0 last Tuesday was a major game update. (Just look at the patch notes...that's a big list.) The headline item was the Knights of the Fallen Empire expansion, which adds content for high level characters. Since I've only played for a few weeks, that doesn't really affect me. I've noticed some changes that do affect us lower-level folks, though.

The update to major story missions is the most significant change. Your character's story missions and the storyline for each planet are now highlighted in the mission tracker, so it's easy to pick out what you need to do to progress. The rewards have been rebalanced so that you can level all the way to 60 by following those missions. I've gone through the planets of Nar Shadda, Alderaan, and Tatooine on my bounty hunter since the patch, and I can certainly confirm that the story mission rewards are enough to keep you moving along. In fact, I actually skipped the Tatooine planet story arc, because I'd already outleveled it from everything else I'd been doing.

Another change that I've noticed is Level Sync. This artificially locks your level to be appropriate for the planet that you're on. So when my level 30+ bounty hunter had to go back to Nar Shadda, she's treated as a level 26. That lets players group with lower-level friends, go back and complete missions they may have skipped, etc. I'm a little surprised every time that I run into an MMO that doesn't already have some kind of feature like this, because it just seems like such an obvious thing to include. (My City of Heroes bias showing, I suppose; the sidekick/exemplar system in that game spoiled me.) Glad SWTOR is getting with the program.

I was pleased to find that the level required to obtain a speeder license, which allows you to use a fast-travel mount, was lowered to 20 (from 25) for non-subscribers. As I've mentioned previously, there's a lot of open space in the game, so faster travel is very helpful. You still can't use your mount in some of the story areas where it would be helpful, but where it's allowed, it helps. I really like the variety of mounts available, too. You can get various kinds of animals and vehicles by going to different planets to shop around. A nice touch that adds to the immersion experience. (And of course you can spend real money to expand your collection.)
Eltaix on her Ubrikkian Hoverbike
Something that hasn't changed is the combat, which remains the least appealing part of the game. (Other than all the advertising for subscriptions, anyway.) Enemies that you kill sometimes remain standing, making it difficult to see what's left to fight. The camera will swing toward an enemy after landing a killing blow, which can be annoying or even dangerous if I've already moved on to another target. Most battles are laughably easy (at least in the areas I've been to), which is not great design and doesn't encourage learning a variety of tactics. The combat feels like it's based on a 15-year-old design with a cosmetic Star Wars layer applied on top.

Fortunately, the various story-lines continue to be excellent. Sure, some of it is pretty cheesy, as I mentioned previously, but if you don't like that, why are you playing a game based on a space opera? Every planet has a story arc to explore, as well as the larger adventure that your character is following.  With my own ship (which I stole, of course, like any bounty hunter would) I'm able to hop between planets and visit the Imperial Fleet for training. There are space combat options as well, though I haven't tried any yet. Too busy winning the Great Hunt!

Sunday, October 25, 2015

Yahoo Streams the NFL

This weekend, for the first time, an NFL game was streamed live on the Internet for free. Getting NFL on the Internet isn't a big deal. They've been doing it for a while. This is the first time it's been free, though.

It's pretty clear that the league wanted to make this event as low-risk as possible. The game was played from London, England, in the early morning in the US. The matchup of Buffalo and Jacksonville isn't likely to be all that important to anyone outside those two markets, where the game was available on broadcast TV. If the broadcast had technical problems, the impact would be minimal with this particular game.

Yahoo is the lucky Internet content company that got this first shot at NFL on the Internet. That could be good luck or bad, depending on the reaction to the broadcast: either "good for Yahoo, they did a great job" or "Yahoo is horrible, they screwed up the NFL." I think they managed to come down mostly on the good side.

I found it very easy to get access to the stream. All I had to do was install the Yahoo app on my Fire TV. No need to log in to anything. No restrictions on which device I could use. Other streaming services (sports or otherwise) could learn something from how Yahoo approached the user experience. Minimize the effort needed to view your content, and people are more likely to watch it.

Technically, I'd say Yahoo did an OK job, but not great. The quality of the stream was mostly good, but not quite HD quality. Pretty noticeable on those high-angle shots of the whole field, when individual players are tiny little blobs, but not a big deal on the more common angles focusing on an individual play. The stream paused a couple of times, but nothing major; certainly nothing close to the worst buffering pauses that I've experienced with other streams. I suspect that a higher-profile game, with a larger audience, would have had bigger issues. For this game, though, it worked out all right.

The broadcast itself looked very much like any other NFL game, only with Yahoo logos instead of CBS/FOX/NBC. I was pleasantly surprised that Yahoo didn't try to add extra ads; of course, the NFL probably didn't let them. Lots of commercial breaks, of course, but that's nothing new for NFL games.

The game itself was better than I expected, considering that it featured Jacksonville and Buffalo - not exactly the top of the power rankings. The Bills basically handed the game to the Jaguars with turnovers in the first half, led by quarterback EJ Manuel with two interceptions and a fumble, leading to a 21-point Jaguar lead. Credit to Buffalo, though, for not giving up. They slowly worked their way back into the game with a couple of field goals and a touchdown. Then Jacksonville quarterback Blake Bortles threw an interception of his own that was returned for a go-ahead Buffalo touchdown. He settled down and threw a touchdown pass on the next possession, though, to regain the lead. The Bills had a last chance, but couldn't get through the Jaguar defense for a final comeback. It was ugly, featuring lots of turnovers, but in this case that made for an interesting game.

From my perspective, I'd say Yahoo and the NFL did a pretty solid job with the first free streaming broadcast of a live game. There's room for improvement, of course, but the issues were fairly minor. And the ease with which I was able to access the stream made for a great experience. I'd be happy to see Yahoo doing future game streams.

Saturday, October 24, 2015

A Saturday Surprise: Rugby World Cup on TV

I was pretty surprised to find the Rugby World Cup semifinal between New Zealand and South Africa available on broadcast TV in the US today. It's pretty rare to find matches of any variant of football other than the US game on a non-cable US broadcast, and most of those will be soccer. I've kept an eye on the Rugby World Cup as it plays out across the pond this year, but haven't watched it much since there's so much else going on in October.
The fact that the channel carrying the match was NBC is no surprise, though. They've got the Olympics, and coming up in 2016 there will be Olympic rugby matches for the first time since 1924. It's the seven-a-side game, rather than the fifteen-a-side rugby union matches played in the World Cup, but clearly NBC feels it's close enough. They've also showed some rugby sevens matches occasionally in the past. Obviously they want to drum up some interest before next year's Olympics. I wish them luck with it, but I'm guessing the US audience is too preoccupied with our own version of football to pay a lot of attention.

Also no surprise that South Africa (known as the Springboks) and New Zealand (known as the All Blacks) were playing the semifinal match. Both sides have long history in international rugby. I'm no expert, but I read An Oval World: A Global History of Rugby by Tony Collins earlier this year, so I have some idea of what this matchup means. Not to mention that I've met more than a few South Africans and New Zealanders in my time, and you learn pretty quickly that any mention of the All Blacks or Springboks in that company is grounds for...let's call it "spirited conversation."

Watching the match, I was a little surprised that NBC wasn't doing more explanation of the game for the US audience. I know enough to follow the action, though I know I'm missing a lot of the subtleties. But I expect I'm in the minority among US viewers, and most have very little if any idea of what's going on. If you're looking to introduce an audience to a game, you should really dedicate some broadcast time to getting them up to speed. The announcers occasionally made an attempt to explain things, but it didn't happen often. Worse, they didn't do a very good job of explaining the real basics, such as why there's no blocking and how rucks/mauls/scrums work. A bit of a rugby primer would have been a good idea, even if it feels a bit repetitive to experienced rugby fans.

As an American, I have no real preference for either side. I always like to cheer for someone, though, and I picked the All Blacks for this one. Any time you see a New Zealand international match, you get to watch them do the haka pre-game, and that's always worth watching. (Confused? See for yourself.) Besides, I've always liked wearing black.

The match itself was certainly entertaining, from my perspective with very limited knowledge of the game. New Zealand had the ball more often, and it was in South Africa's half more often than not. The Springboks played solid defense most of the time, and took advantage when they had possession to get four first-half goals from penalties. The All Blacks got the only try in the first half, plus a drop goal (meaning kicked from play, not off a penalty dead ball, which certainly surprised me) and were down by two at the half. Early in the second half, New Zealand took the lead with their second try and added a penalty goal, but kept South Africa in the game by giving up two penalty goals. Despite those penalties, the All Blacks held on for a two point win.

Looking at the TV listings for next week, it looks like NBC is going to show the World Cup final next Saturday. It'll be New Zealand and either Australia or Argentina. I'm sure I can find a way to fit that into my viewing schedule!

Friday, October 23, 2015

Autumn Leaves

I don't remember a whole lot from my grade school days, but one thing that does stick in my mind is the Autumn Leaves project. Every year at Faith Bible Christian School in Beaverton, Oregon, fifth-grade teacher Mrs. Norrie gave her students a project to gather falling leaves and put together a display booklet.
Anyone familiar with Oregon may be wondering how well that would work, in a state populated by a whole lot of evergreen trees. The state tree is the Douglas Fir for a reason. Plenty of deciduous trees around as well, though, at least in Beaverton. Simply walking around the residential streets around the FBCS campus usually yielded plenty of fallen leaves to use.
I don't actually remember the details of my own Autumn Leaves project much at all. I vaguely recall that I may have done it in a different year than 5th grade for some reason, but otherwise it didn't stick in my mind. But the existence of the project, and the walk around the neighborhood to gather leaves - that I remember. I'm pretty sure that's because I'm reminded of it every year when the leaves change colors. Memories, like muscles, are stronger when used regularly.
The pictures here are nothing special, just a few trees from around my condo complex. But they're enough to remind me once again of a few days 30-ish years ago, when a teacher encouraged a bunch of kids to get outdoors and see some of the beauty in the natural cycle of the seasons.

Thursday, October 22, 2015

Credit Cards

I've had credit cards since my college days, so using one has become second nature to me. Every once in a while, though, I'll talk to someone who isn't as familiar with credit cards as I am. Here's what I usually tell them.
By the far the most important thing to remember about credit cards is this: Avoid carrying a balance. For anyone new to using credit cards, this probably seems counter-intuitive, since the whole idea of the credit card is to charge things that you pay for later. That's true, but only up until your monthly payment due date. The card provider effectively lends you their money for free from the time you make a purchase until your monthly bill comes due. After that due date, they'll start charging you interest on that loan, and it's almost always a gigantic amount of interest. You avoid that by always paying off your balance each month, so it never carries over.

The card provider would like that gigantic interest, of course, so they use little tricks to try to get you to pay it. Your statement usually says something like "Minimum payment due", which is a small amount like $10 or $20. Don't be fooled...if you charged anything more than that (and you almost certainly did, if you used the card at all), then you'll be hit with interest charges on the remainder of your balance. Another trick is charging interest immediately on certain transactions, not even waiting for the monthly due date. The most common is cash advances (i.e. using your credit card at an ATM). It's best to use only debit cards at ATMs, never credit cards. Sometimes they'll send you what look like blank checks and invite you to use them for whatever you like, but those usually follow the same rules as a cash advance and will get hit with interest right away. Some cards charge you either interest or extra fees on international transactions, so be careful when traveling abroad or order online from international sites.

That all sounds pretty grim so far, I know. So why bother with a credit card at all? There are some good reasons (listed in approximate order of importance):

  1. Convenience. Physically, it's easier to carry around the cards than it is to deal with cash. Checks are another option, but a lot of places won't take those any more. If you do any online shopping, a credit card is the simplest method of payment, and usually the fastest.
  2. Buff Up your Credit Report. Credit cards show up on your credit report. That can be good or bad, of course, but if you use a credit card regularly and pay it off every month, that shows up as a plus on your credit report. It won't erase any problems you may have had in the past, but it's a good mark to have on that report. This is especially good for young folks who have no real credit history. A few years of good credit card use looks a whole lot better than a blank report. One note of caution: Make sure you use the card regularly. An unused card doesn't help out your report, and might even hurt it.
  3. Emergencies. Having the credit available for unexpected expenses is a good safety net. You don't want to use it very often, because of that gigantic interest, but it's better than nothing. If you do have to put some emergency bills on your credit card, make paying that balance off a priority as soon as possible.
  4. Rewards. Credit card providers really want you using their card, enough so that they're willing to provide benefits. Everyone's heard of cash back bonuses, or the various airline cards that give you frequent flyer points. I tend to stick with the cash-back cards, even though the reward amounts are generally smaller, because I'm not limited to using the rewards on any specific thing. There's plenty of options if you'd rather get flights or hotels or rental cars, though.
If you don't have a credit card, how do you go about finding one? It's pretty easy to fill out applications online these days, and I suspect most people get a bunch of credit card offers in the mail regularly. (I certainly do, and not all of them even have my name right.) But if those don't work for you, you can also go to your local bank or credit union. If you have a savings/checking account, they'll almost certainly be willing to give you a low-limit credit card. And once you have a card and use it for a while, more offers will almost certainly follow.

I have one card of each major type (Visa, Mastercard, Discover, American Express), so I don't have to worry about ending up somewhere that won't accept a particular type of card. I rotate which one I use by the simple method of always taking the front one out of my wallet, and replacing it in the back. It's probably overkill, to be honest. You can get by fine with just one card in most situations.

Credit cards are a useful tool, as long as you pay attention to your balance and pay it off every month. Use them carefully, and enjoy the bonus rewards!

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Cord-Cutting

I haven't had cable TV for years. Outside of live sports, I found that there was almost nothing on that I actually cared about. At $60 a month for just basic channels, cable TV just wasn't worth it to me, and satellite costs are at least as high. So I cut the cord, and for the most part I haven't missed it. Here's what I've done:

  • I picked up a Leaf antenna for broadcast TV. Ever since broadcast channels switched over to digital, the quality of over-the-air broadcast has been just as good as anything you'd get from cable or satellite.
  • On the sports front, I was able to get the MLB radio broadcasts over the Internet easily enough via their At-Bat subscription. (As well as watch the occasional daily free game via MLB.TV.) Same for NHL hockey, but even better...for the most part, teams have free radio streaming on their web sites. NFL games are available on over-the-air network channels, except for Monday night. College football is as well, although there's so many of those that a good number do end up on cable. Even college and NBA basketball games are often on broadcast TV, though I don't watch them much. 
  • The few non-sports shows that I do care about seeing are mostly available via Internet streaming either shortly after airing, or a few months later after the season ends. Most things can be found on either Netflix or Hulu (and Amazon streaming, though I've not used that one). I tend to subscribe to Netflix, watch a bunch of stuff over a few months, then stop it for a year or so while I wait for new stuff that I'm interested in to be added. I never have subscribed to Hulu, mostly because they don't entirely get rid of ads (though that's gotten better recently), but also because of the way they only have a few of the most recent episodes for most shows.
  • In the last year or so, I've been trying out Sling TV, which provides access to several previously cable-only channels for $20 a month. I'm mostly interested in ESPN and TBS/TNT for their sports programming. I've enjoyed having access to baseball game broadcasts this summer, and college/NFL games in the past couple of months. When Sling is working, anyway. I've run into quite a few instances where the service just stopped working, sometimes right in the middle of a broadcast. It's gotten better in the past couple of months, so I'm hoping they've worked out their technical issues and reliability will be better moving forward.
  • I've also subscribed to Crunchyroll for access to anime. Most of what they have isn't available on cable anyway (at least, not basic cable) so it's not really part of cord-cutting, but it fits in the general theme of online media. Ten years ago, getting anime wasn't easy; for the most part, you had to buy expensive DVD sets. I rarely did it, because you never knew if you'd get something good, or a real waste of time. It's much better with Crunchyroll (and to a lesser extent, Netflix and Hulu) providing a wide range of options.

I realize that all of that sounds a lot more complicated than just getting a cable or satellite subscription. I kind of like messing around with way technical things work, so that's no hardship for me. The cost is a lot lower in my case, because I pick and choose which services I want. I don't mind spending the extra time and effort to set it up.

The old traditional cable/satellite subscription model is still alive, but it's on the way out. There's just too many options that don't lock you into paying for a bunch of channels that you don't want. Right now, those subscription models are still alive mostly because they're still the easiest and most reliable solution. If they don't make some major changes in the next decade or so, I expect that will no longer be true, and there will be a lot more folks taking the same path that I have.

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

In the Clutch

As the baseball postseason rolls on, something that always seems to come up in conversation is which guys are performing "in the clutch." The hitter that comes up with the big game-winning hit, or the pitcher with ice in his veins hitting the perfect spot again and again. For a game based on repeating success over a marathon regular season, we sure do pay a lot of attention to the guys that happen to be hot at the right time.

This year, Daniel Murphy of the Mets is the poster child for the clutch hitter. He practically was the entire Mets offense in the clinching game 5 of the NLDS against the Dodgers. He's hit home runs in five straight games, including against all three of the NL Cy Young candidates. This from a man who has never hit more than 14 home runs in an entire season. (I enjoyed seeing it against the Dodgers, but can't say I'm happy that he's still doing it to my Chicago Cubs in the NLCS.)



In baseball, having consistent numbers over the long-term is what defines a player's career. When you've got to field a team for 162 games every season, knowing how a player will perform over the long haul is essential. The difference between good and great can be one or two hits every 5 games, or getting one or two additional outs every start. Every player will have a stretch of poor play at some point in six months of regular season play, and a stretch of great play. The best players will have more good stretches than bad.

That kind of long-term view doesn't tell you anything about how a player or team will perform in a small group of games - such as a playoff series. Those three rounds of playoff series (four if you count the one-game wild card) every year are in large part a measure of which players and teams are on one of those stretches of great play. As it's been said of all kinds of sports: "It's not who you play, it's when you play them."

People have tried to measure this "clutch ability" in all kinds of different ways. (Of course they have; everything is measured in baseball.) There really hasn't been any success in this area; every time some analysis looks to be doing a good job, something unexpected happens to throw it off. And that's to be expected. The game of baseball is largely predictable in the long run; and largely impossible to predict over the short term.

So call it "intangibles" or "clutch" or plain old luck. Sometimes one player, or one team, will just be great over a short period of time. All we fans can do is hope that our guys are the ones with the right stuff at the right time.

Monday, October 19, 2015

Summon Bread!

As most anyone who knows me can attest, I'm not much of a cook. I most definitely like to eat, though, with bread right at the top of my favorite foods list. (Or maybe second. I like cheese a whole lot.) Also, I like tech toys.

Enter the bread machine. This is exactly my kind of cooking. Put ingredients in, set the program, push start, come back in a few hours...bread!
The machine I have is a "T-fal Actibread" that I bought from Amazon.com. It can make up to a 2-lb loaf, but normally that's too much to eat in a few days (even for me), so I usually make the 1.5-lb recipes. That's what causes the weird looking top of the loaf...with the smaller size, there's empty space in the machine so it isn't smooth coming out. No big deal.

There's a ton of different kinds of bread you can make in a bread machine. I've only really done French and normal sandwich bread to this point, but there's another dozen or so recipes in the bread machine's recipe booklet, and a nearly infinite variety on the Internet. Way too many of them are "gluten free," which holds zero interest for me, but those can be ignored easily enough. I'm thinking about trying possibly my favorite bread flavor ever next - banana bread.

With fresh bread available twice a week with almost no effort, it's hard to imagine why I'd ever go back to eating store bread!

Sunday, October 18, 2015

SWTOR: Fifteen Levels, Two Planets

When I decided to pick up Star Wars: The Old Republic (SWTOR) a few days ago, I had no idea that I had timed it just prior to a big expansion release. Apparently there will be a full day of downtime on Tuesday October 20th to update the game, with full release of the Knights of the Fallen Empire expansion a week later. It'll be interesting to see how much things change. I've now gotten through the first 15 levels and visited two planets. I know that's only a tiny part of the entire game, but I have a good idea how the basics work and expect to see some differences.
The game can use some changes. Besides the huge amount of in-your-face advertising for microtransactions, as I talked about in my last post, many of the worst aspects of MMO play are present. Here are some of the worst offenders (in no particular order):

  • Unnecessary open space: A lot of open world games have this problem. There are wilderness areas, and those need to be big and have some empty space. There's a lot of other areas in the game, though, and they don't all need to be like that. For example, to get from the speeder quick travel point to my main story contact, there are several big empty rooms and hallways. That added space serves no purpose beyond showing off how nice your world design is, and I've already been suitably impressed aesthetically by the areas outside. Running through it repeatedly adds nothing but boredom and frustration. This has been the case on both planets I've seen thus far (Hutta and Dromund Kaas), and I have no reason to think it'll change further along.
  • Poor handling of group missions: I'm mostly playing the game solo to this point, but I did join a group to try one mission labeled as Heroic (which means the mission is meant for multiple players). At first I was impressed, as I could see which group members had which missions on my map, and objectives from the leader's mission were clearly marked. But after doing the whole mission, when I tried to turn it in, the contact wouldn't speak to me. Somehow I didn't get credit for any of it. Now, it's possible I did something very simple wrong and I could easily fix it...if I knew what it was. Nothing ever indicated to me that I wasn't making progress - even the objectives on the map were updating as I went along. That's a really bad experience for the player.
  • Lack of open world objective sharing: It's inevitable that multiple players in an open world setting will end up going after the same objectives. Whether it's trying to kill the same rare enemy, open the same box, or farm the same set of easy enemies, you're going to have two or more players doing the same thing somewhere. Most MMOs now have worked out ways to handle this, usually either through putting objectives in instances (every player gets their own) or sharing the credit for completion among all players in the area. In SWTOR, there are some story instances, but otherwise things are first come, first served. First person to shoot an enemy "tags" it and no one else gets credit when it dies. First one to click a objective gets the result, and everyone else has to wait until it resets. I've already had several occasions when I've had to wait for an objective to reset because someone else had already taken it, and in one case I even had to complete reset a mission when someone else killed off an enemy that I needed to progress. There are solutions to this sort of thing in modern MMO design, but SWTOR isn't using them.
  • Visiting Trainers: Leveling up increases some stats, but to really get the benefits of your new level, you have to visit a trainer for your class. This has been standard practice in MMOs for a long time, but it's beginning to go away in newer designs. In SWTOR you have to visit the trainer both to learn new skills and to get upgrades to existing skills. I can sort of understand why you'd want players to be in a safe area and focusing on only the leveling process when getting a new skill, but there's no need for that with upgrades. There's no reason that my character's existing attacks shouldn't be more effective right away, especially when the level-up occurs far out away from a city while in the middle of a bunch of mission objectives.
Now, I don't want to sound like the game is all bad. So here's some of the things I'm enjoying, again in no particular order:
  • Mission design: Pretty much all the missions are designed around progressing a story, rather than just completing a task. Sometimes the stories are kind of cheesy (do we really need to provide a Rancor pet for a Hutt?), but at least they exist. You won't have some random person sending you to collect 10 rat pelts or kill off a dozen thugs. You actually will do those things, but the game cleverly adds them as bonus objectives to the main mission. It always feels like progress is being made toward a goal, even while you're just beating up those thugs.
  • Companions: Like many Bioware games, you're not alone in the world. I got my first companion before level 10, and I expect more will come along in the future. The companions are characters in their own right with their own personality, goals, skills, inventory, and so on. They'll fight for you as well. I'm looking forward to seeing what happens to my companion almost as much as I am for my actual character.
  • Star Wars references: You'd expect to see a lot of familiar sights from the movies in a Star Wars game, and there is no disappointment here. From Hutt gangsters to spaceports to Force-wielding Sith Lords, it's all here. Sometimes they lay it on a little thick, like when my bounty hunter was hired to rescue a carbonite-frozen dude from a Hutt palace, but even those over-the-top reminders are fun to see.
I'm enjoying the game enough to keep going, primarily because the main storyline is keeping me interested. Plus I'm interested to see what sort of improvements come with the Knights of the Fallen Empire update. For now, that's enough to put up with the negatives.

Saturday, October 17, 2015

Star Realms: Deckbuilding Space Combat

Ever since I got an Android tablet, games that I can play when I have a just a few minutes (such as during commercial breaks of a baseball or football game) have become much more interesting. I've tried quite a few, in various genres, and Star Realms is one of my favorites.


Star Realms is a space-fleet combat deckbuilding game. For those not familiar with the genre, deckbuilding games start each player with a similar basic card deck. Players acquire more powerful cards throughout the game, improving their deck in the process, eventually using it to defeat their opponent. One game set provides all the cards required to play, and generally expansions can be added for more variety. (Not to be confused with collectible or trading card games, in which each player builds a deck beforehand, using their own card collection.)

There is a physical version of the game, but I've played Star Realms exclusively via their digital versions. Buying the game once provides access to PC, Android, Mac, and iOS versions. I mostly play on my Android tablet, but it's nice to also have the PC version available. A single account is used to log into all of these, so your in-progress games can be played across devices.

The actual gameplay is pretty standard for the deckbuilding genre. You start with basic ship cards, primarily providing trade points, which you use to purchase more ship and base cards. Ships provide their effect for one turn; once you've played a base, it stays in play until removed. Both players get the same purchase options, so a ship or base that you buy is denied to your opponent...and vice versa. The ultimate goal is to obtain ships and bases that produce combat, which you use to attack your opponents "authority" (basically, life points). First player to reduce their opponent's authority to zero wins.

Star Realms has a single-player campaign, which I found to be moderately interesting and a good introduction to the gameplay. The story won't win any awards, but it works fine to add a little color to the campaign. The regular mode is fairly easy to complete. There is also a hard mode, which is mostly moderately difficult...and in one or two places, extremely frustrating due to bonuses given to the AI. Completing the hard campaign unlocks new avatars for your online account - whether that's worth the frustration is up to you. You can also play non-campaign games against the AI, which is fairly competent. A good player can beat the hard AI fairly regularly, but it will win some, too.

A single multiplayer game of Star Realms generally takes somewhere around 15-30 minutes, but I almost never play one in a single sitting. That's because the digital game is designed for asynchronous online play, where you play one turn at a time against a remote opponent. Occasionally you may find an opponent to play "live" with turns being taken almost immediately - there's even a 3-minute turn timer mode for this. Most of my games, though, are with friends with differing play schedules (and often time zones) where we may play only a few turns a day.

Besides the base game, there are two additional Star Realms expansions: Gambit and Crisis. The Gambit expansion adds a new type of card which starts the game in play and can have huge effects the early game. It also adds some new ships and bases, which were originally promo cards in the physical game. The Crisis expansion adds new ships and bases. Both expansions add more single-player campaign missions as well.

I find the game to be mostly well-balanced. There are very powerful cards, certainly, but they generally have the highest costs as well. Luck of the draw plays a large part in determining games, of course. Players have to choose from the cards available for purchase, and if the good stuff mostly shows up on your opponent's turn, that's just bad luck. Over a few games, that usually evens out. The only really unbalanced aspect of the game is the Gambit expansion's starting cards, some of which are much better than others. If the shuffler happens to deal good Gambits to your opponent, you're in for a rough game. You can simply choose not to use those, though, if it bothers you.

Star Realms is one of those games that fits perfectly into little slices of waiting time. Commercial breaks, waiting on something to cook, a few minutes before it's time to leave to go out, etc. I have a lot of fun with it, especially playing with friends in casual leagues that we organize almost every month. Feel free to challenge "ineffablebob" if you're looking for a game!

Friday, October 16, 2015

A Town Hall Meeting with Congressman Amash

I went to a town hall meeting today held by my congressman, Justin Amash, just down the road in Hastings, MI. He holds these regularly, and I've been to several in the last couple of years. I don't call myself an Amash supporter, because he and I have very different views on a lot of issues (mostly economics). Due to the heavily conservative West Michigan district where I live, that's pretty much unavoidable.


Leaving aside my disagreements on the issues, I very much approve of how Congressman Amash executes his elected office. He communicates with his constituency more than any other politician that I've ever had as a representative, or heard about elsewhere. He explains on Facebook why he votes for and against particular issues. These town halls are held several times a year, across the area that he represents, and conference call versions are held as well. He's polite to everyone, even the most strident and contentious, and is willing to engage in conversation to the extent that the format allows.

In the opening minutes of the meeting, Amash discussed the big political story of the day: the Speaker of the House. With John Boehner stepping down as Speaker, the question has been who will replace him. Amash believes this is about more than just who will be the Speaker. He wants the House to be run with more input from all its members, rather than a "top-down" approach where the leadership determines the content of legislation and puts it up for a vote. Amash is supporting Daniel Webster, because he believes that Webster will run the House differently than Boehner has. Jake Sherman at Politico wrote an excellent piece yesterday describing pretty much exactly what I heard from Amash in the town hall today, and I encourage reading it for more details.

One thing that piece doesn't cover in detail is a point Amash made about the position of Speaker. He believes the Speaker should be focused on things that affect the House as a whole, not just the majority party. The Speaker is almost always from the majority party, of course, and he's often seen as the leader of the majority. There's another position for that, though, the Majority Leader. Amash would like to see the Speaker step back from the party leadership aspects, and let the Majority Leader be the public face of the party, discussing the positions and politics. The Speaker would focus more on the process of moving legislation through the House, and any constitutional questions (such as whether the other branches of government are overstepping their authorities).

None of that sounds like a bad idea, but it also seems pretty idealistic to me. Getting input from more representatives seems like it would slow the already-glacial legislative process even further. Asking the Speaker to step above the party-line bickering sounds fine, but is it realistic? I can't say I have a strong opinion on the way the House is run, but I certainly think that it could use improvement over what's happened in the last decade or so. Perhaps Amash has the right idea, perhaps not; but any change at this point seems like a good idea.

After the Speaker issue was discussed, the floor was open for questions and comments. The very first one came from an older gentleman (and almost everyone there was older; I'm 40 and I'm pretty sure I was the youngest adult besides Amash and his staff) saying that Social Security cost of living increases were too low, and his income was stretched tight. Another question later asked how people with pre-existing conditions would get affordable health insurance, if Obamacare was repealed (as Amash and the Republicans have repeatedly attempted). In both cases, the congressman was polite and sympathetic, but basically said nothing would be done. Interesting how even in the deeply conservative West Michigan area, people find that liberal policies like universal health care and guaranteed retirement income are important enough to ask their representative about.

I had the chance to ask a question, which I used to bring up one of my least favorite political issues, the federal debt ceiling. I asked Amash why he would vote against raising the debt ceiling, which basically meant refusing to pay money that Congress has already allocated. He contested the point about "already allocated", saying that if the debt ceiling wasn't raised, the government would simply have to cut spending from that point onward. The congressman also said that he didn't believe that a failure to borrow further would be catastrophic, because incoming payments would cover the most essential expenditures (like Social Security and the military). Finally, Amash also said that he sees the debt ceiling as a tool provided from past congressional action to force the government to be fiscally responsible and balance the budget.

Unfortunately the format of the town hall didn't allow for further debate on the issue, but I don't agree with any of his responses. "Already allocated" is indeed a reasonable description, as this analysis shows: if nothing changes, the government will be $68 billion short of funds needed to cover already-scheduled expenditures from Nov 10th to 30th. (And it gets worse after that, of course.) I believe relying on incoming payments to cover "essential expenditures" would not work, for two major reasons: first, stopping "less essential" payments would have a major suppressing effect on economic activity; and second, because the Treasury can't easily choose which bills to pay (as the Washington Post pointed out back in 2013). As for using the debt ceiling as a budget-balancing tool, I can't speak for the intent of past congressional action, but I do know that the globally connected economies of today do not react well to massive reductions in government spending. One needs only look across the Atlantic to Europe (most notably Greece) to see that, and it would be even worse here if such reduction happens suddenly via a debt crisis.

Those were the major issues that were discussed. A few others came up: a farmer asking about funding for some sort of quality control act, a guy who quoted Teddy Roosevelt on immigration, a lady asking bluntly if there was any hope for a functioning government, and one guy who was adamant that the FBI should immediately arrest Hillary Clinton for treason over Benghazi. (No, really, I'm serious. And I'm afraid he was, too.) I'll say again, I'm impressed with how smoothly the congressman handles these things. He's polite, refuses to directly accuse anyone of anything, doesn't promise anything more than to have his office look into the issue, and moves on to the next comment.

My thanks to Congressman Amash for his efforts to communicate with those he represents, and my compliments on how he handles the responsibilities of the office. We may not agree on the issues, but I respect the way he does the job.

Thursday, October 15, 2015

Trying Out Star Wars: The Old Republic

I've been meaning to try Star Wars: The Old Republic (SWTOR) for some time now. It's been around since late 2011, and has had a free-to-play option since late 2012. I decided this week to finally give it a try. I only have a few hours of playtime thus far, so don't expect any deep analysis of the game. Just first impressions.



I'm not a huge Star Wars fanatic, but I know as much as any self-respecting sci-fi nerd who grew up in the 1980s. Love the original trilogy, read some of the comics and books in the '90s, was greatly disappointed by most of the prequel trilogy...the usual. I also played a bit of Star Wars Galaxies, the previous Star Wars MMORPG that shut down in 2011, but I never really got serious about it.

Registering and downloading the game went as smoothly as such things can, which is to say it took a half-hour or so of entering info and walking through the setup, and another few hours of waiting for downloads. I appreciate that the designers spent the effort to make the starting areas of the game playable while the bulk of the download finishes. I still waited about 2 hours to get to the point where I could start; fortunately, I expected that and left the download to finish while I went about my business elsewhere.

One note for the security-minded: SWTOR does have the ability to do two-factor authentication, but it's not particularly user-friendly. You have to download their own app to your iOS/Android device, rather than using something standard like Google Authenticator. There's no option to skip the 2-factor step when logging in from a known IP address, so you have to execute that extra step every time you log in. You do get a bonus (100 cartel coins for the in-game store) if you use it, though.

Immediately upon entering the game on a free-to-play account, it's made abundantly clear that getting your money is a priority. The second choice you make in character creation (after Republic or Imperial faction) is race, and most of the options are hidden under little dollar-sign icons. This is a recurring theme. Now, I've played a lot of free-to-play games and I get the concept...it's in the designer's interest to remind you regularly that the game will be so much better with a little cash outlay. But I've rarely seen one that's so in-your-face about it as SWTOR. Every time you walk into a cantina or other resting location...pop-up, saying only subscribers get the benefit of rest XP. Take a look at your character's outfit...there's that dollar sign, saying you can only hide your helmet in cut-scenes if you pay. Open a vendor window...reminder, subscribers pay less! I'll have to play a lot more before I can tell if the game is effectively pay-to-win, requiring you to spend money to get through, or if it's possible to ignore all this stuff and still make reasonable progress. But one thing is for sure, it's seriously annoying. I'm not averse to spending money on games I like, but I'm stubborn...I won't do it just to get ads out of my face. In fact, that just means I have to like the game even more to overcome the annoyance factor before I'll consider paying for it.

SWTOR has the Bioware label, and if you've ever played another Bioware game, the story aspect will look very familiar. Conversations are via cut-scene, with your character given lots of opportunity to select various conversational branches. I appreciate that all the characters are fully voiced, adding to the immersion effect, although I still have to turn on subtitles to make sure I catch everything that's said. In just my first couple of hours as an Imperial Bounty Hunter, I've already had my crew murdered, made a deal with a Hutt, sent some hapless kid off to the Sith academy, and allowed myself to be bribed by a trophy hunter who wants to kill off the native aliens for sport. I did have some opportunities to be merciful, but where's the fun in that? Pretty much exactly what you'd expect from an evil money-obsessed Imperial!

There's plenty of Star Wars in the world design, as you'd expect. Plenty of aliens, quick travel by speeder bike, droids rolling around the city areas, a Hutt gangster boss complete with slave girls, a nearby spaceport, and so on. The backwater planet where my bounty hunter is stuck for now is only the tip of the iceberg, of course. Plenty more of the universe out there.

The combat is pretty standard MMO button-mashing, at least at the low levels that I've seen to this point. Shoot, stand there waiting while your skill recharges, shoot some more. No dodging, cover, or other combat tricks. Maybe some of that shows up later. I actually hope it doesn't, because combat maneuvering isn't the easiest thing. I've already had some trouble lining up for melee skills, ending up out of range due either to lag or my ineptitude with the very coarse control scheme. Not a big deal for a blaster-happy bounty hunter, fortunately.

I haven't yet tried to interact with any other players. Judging from the various restrictions that have been popping up in the tutorials for free-to-play accounts, such as limited chat options, I may just stick with the solo approach. That's my preferred method to explore MMO worlds, anyway. Go through the story alone, learn how things work, then worry about finding groups to do more difficult content.

There's a whole lot more to SWTOR than what I've seen in a few hours, of course. I look forward to exploring it, if I can stomach all the cash-grab advertising long enough. The story aspect is by far the best part so far, and I see no reason that will change any time soon. It's a Bioware game, after all, and the story your character builds through the game is the core of every Bioware title I've ever enjoyed. Looking forward to seeing where this one goes.

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

After 99 Years...Cubs win!

It's fairly well-known that the Chicago Cubs haven't been to a World Series since 1945, and haven't won one since 1908. Much less publicized is the fact that those Cubs have spent 99 years playing in Wrigley without once winning a post-season series there...until last night.



Wrigley Field actually opened two years before the Cubs moved in, in 1914, under the name of Weegham Field. The Chicago Whales played there for two years, and actually won the Federal League championship in 1915. They didn't play a post-season, though.

Since the Cubs moved into Wrigley, they managed only one post-season series win, in 13 tries. That was in 2003, against the Atlanta Braves, but the clinching game was in Atlanta. They went on to lose the next series to the Florida (now Miami) Marlins.

This year, the Cubs played their arch-rivals in the NL Central division, the St Louis Cardinals. The Cardinals have been in 45 postseason series since the Cubs took up residence in Wrigley, and won 29 of them.

Last night, the Cubs finally won a post-season series at home in Wrigley Field. For Cubs fans, the win is the most important thing...but having it happen at home, against those Cardinals, made it just a little bit sweeter.


Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Got my flu shot...have you?

I actually didn't get flu shots for quite a few years. When I was in college, I got my flu shot one year, and got really sick anyway. That experience gave me a ready excuse to avoid the slight inconvenience of going out of my way for the flu shot. And guess what, I got sick in some of the years that I didn't get the shot, too. When I thought about it logically, avoiding the shot made no sense.

Last year, you might have heard how the flu vaccine was less effective than usual. That's because the creation of the vaccine is basically a guessing game - experts pick a few varieties to include in the vaccine, a bunch of that vaccine is produced, and we all hope that the flu varieties which actually show up in the wild match the vaccine. Sometimes the guesses are good, and sometimes they're not.

But none of that means getting a flu shot is a bad idea. Even if the guess isn't very good, the vaccine can still provide some protection. And if the guess is good, having the protection can mean a much lower chance of the misery that comes with having the flu.

It's very easy to get the vaccine, too. There's the doctor's office, of course, but that's not your only option. Some employers bring the flu shot to you. A lot of corner pharmacies offer the shot in their stores. Almost every health insurance plan covers the cost of the flu shot (though you'll want to make sure you check your plan for approved providers beforehand), but even if yours doesn't, the shot itself is usually around $30. Probably a lot less than you'd spend on medicine if you get sick!

So now, I get the shot every year. Some years I get sick, some I don't...but I'm convinced that I'm avoiding at least some instances of being miserably sick. And that's worth a little pin-prick once a year.

Monday, October 12, 2015

Night Raid 1931

Night Raid 1931 is a good example of a combination of many genres: historical fiction, action-adventure, mystery...a lot to cram into 13 short episodes!



The setting for Night Raid 1931 is 1930s China, a tumultuous period when the Imperial Japanese army was occupying parts of mainland China. The story follows a small group of Japanese in Shanghai, ostensibly civilians, but in reality an independent group of spies working for the Japanese government. They take on some of the shadowy activities that official government operatives can't be involved in.

And these aren't just any spies, but spies with superpowers: teleportation, psionics, speed. The exact source of the powers isn't really specified. I got the impression that they came either from mutations or mystical spirits, but it doesn't really matter. The powers are important, but they aren't the central focus of the story...more of a supporting role.

The characters themselves are a big part of what makes Night Raid 1931 work so well. Each character is well defined and has their own motivations. The telepathic girl hunting for her missing older brother. The tight-laced young military man unsure of which side is in the right. The older man in charge of the team's missions, using his mysterious contacts to set up their activities. I found myself wishing the series was a bit longer to explore their backgrounds a bit more, and find out what happens to some of them in the future.

The historical setting is very much in the center of the storyline. Freedom for Asian countries from the colonial powers is a major theme. The Manchurian Incident is a major turning point. The distrust and strife between Japanese and Chinese during this period is made very clear in several instances. I ended up doing some reading up on the period when the show made a reference to something I wasn't familiar with, and what I found fit very nicely into how the story was progressing. The writers clearly know the period and did their best to make things fit.

That's not to say that this is a historical drama. Beside the obvious difference of people with superpowers, the entire plot revolves around a secret organization that isn't in the historical record, and their efforts to change the course of history. By the end, it isn't clear whether the story is meant to take place in our own history, showing us secret events that have been forgotten; or if it's all in a parallel reality, that has its own future that may not be like our own. It didn't really matter to me which it was, because either way it was a well-executed story that kept me interested all the way through.

In the end, my only complaint about Night Raid 1931 is that there wasn't enough of it. For anyone who enjoys a bit of a mystery, set in an interesting historical period that isn't commonly used, and doesn't mind suspending disbelief in the occasional use of superpowers - highly recommended!

Sunday, October 11, 2015

It's time for MLB to protect the pivot man

There are times when playing a game requires you to put your body in harm's way. Standing a few inches from a hard round object coming in at 90+ mph. Clearing a puck, then taking a check into the boards. Going up for a header against an onrushing opponent. Carrying a football right up the middle where those 300-lb guys are waiting.

For a long time now, being the pivot man at second base has been one of those times, when a runner comes in with a hard slide to keep you from turning the double play. Last night, Ruben Tejada paid the price, getting his leg broken when Chase Utley slid into him. Utley's slide was very late (didn't even start until he was practically even with the bag), and while he could reach the bag with his arm, his body wasn't near it. Earlier this season, something similar happened to Jung Ho Kang of the Pittsburgh Pirates, and you hear about similar injuries almost every year.



The umpires decided that what Utley did was legal. The rules say you can't go outside the baseline to interfere with a fielder. I can see how the umpires made their decision, but I don't agree with it. When a player's slide is taking him away from the base, and starts that late, it's pretty clear that he's interfering. And the baseline shouldn't extend well past second base, where Utley's slide ended. On top of that, Utley was actually called safe on the play since Tejada missed second base by a few inches. There is a rule for that, known as the "neighborhood play", meant to protect fielders. But the umpires chose not to use it. (One explanation for that being that the rule is narrowly defined for specifically protecting fielders in the process of turning double plays, and Tejada was never able to actually throw the ball).

But whether this particular play was within the rules isn't really the point. The larger issue is that MLB needs to change the rules to protect their players, much like they've already done with collisions at home plate. Clearly the "neighborhood play" rule isn't enough. At the very least, runners need to be required to slide over the bag, and not just have an arm or foot barely able to reach it. It won't stop every collision, but it would keep fielders safe if they are moving away from the base. And failure to comply needs to include not only being called out on the field, but fines and suspensions as well.

For this particular play, Joe Torre is going to review what happened, in his capacity as baseball's chief baseball officer. I hope he thinks long and hard about not only this particular play, but what can be done to avoid this situation in the future.


Saturday, October 10, 2015

My media center using Amazon Fire TV

I've had an Amazon Fire TV for about a year now. Recently I did a full factory reset, in large part because I needed to upgrade several of my apps anyway. Seemed like a good time to document what I'm using, both for my own use the next time I need to do this, and in case anyone else is doing something similar.

Back to Factory Defaults

The factory reset is easily accessible from the Fire TV Settings, under System. Be careful! There's one "are you sure" dialog, and then it happens...no additional prompts! So be sure you're ready to reset.

It's best to use the original Fire TV remote when you're going through the setup. I don't use it normally (see below about the Harmony remote) but I needed the original to get through the initial setup steps, before activating the other remote. You also should remove any USB devices...my FLIRC kept the remote from working properly during the initial setup, and other devices may do the same.

The actual setup steps are nothing more than connecting to your network (if necessary...mine needed no configuration) and entering your Amazon.com account info. Then you'll see a intro video (feel free to skip through that) and get back to the home screen with nothing but the default content installed. At this point, accessing Amazon Music and Video works, and very little else.

Preparing to Add Apps

In the Settings, under System:

  • You may need to update the time zone. Mine defaulted to Pacific time, so I had to change it to Eastern.
  • Under Developer Options, enable both "ADB Debugging" and "Apps from Unknown Sources". These will be needed to load up non-Amazon-store apps, like Kodi.
On your PC/Mac/Linux box, install ADBFire. It's the simplest way I've found to work with sideloading apps that aren't on the Amazon app store, and it's especially useful with Kodi. Once you've installed it, open it up and set up the connection to your Fire TV. If you run into any issues, go to Help->Help in ADBFire and select Connection Tips for help. Once you're connected, installing apps is as simple as clicking "Install APK" and selecting the APK file for the app.

Apps

Firestarter

Firestarter is an app launcher, an extremely useful thing to have since Amazon's default home screen won't let you directly launch non-Amazon-store apps. Once you've downloaded the APK, install it via ADBFire. You'll need to launch it once by going to Settings->Applications->Manage Installed Applications, selecting Firestarter from the list, then select Launch Application. Now you'll see the Firestarter screen whenever the Fire TV starts up or you press the home button, and it lists all installed apps (not just the Amazon-approved ones). There's plenty of other things Firestarter can do, such as launching apps automatically on restart, but I only use it as a launcher.

Kodi

I use Kodi as my front-end for watching over-the-air TV, my local video files, and music. Download the Android ARM version and install it with ADBFire. Kodi can do a ton of things and I won't list it all here, as there's plenty of info out on the Interwebs for that. I mostly use it for connecting to my MythTV system (which I use to record over-the-air TV), as described on the Kodi wiki.

Streaming Media

Just about everyone uses some kind of streaming service these days, and I use more than most since I'm not a cable TV subscriber. My current list, and where to get each:

  • YouTube (web videos): Amazon App Store
  • Crunchyroll (anime streaming): Search for Crunchyroll on Google Play. Note that you'll need APK Downloader, which is also available on Google Play, installed in your browser in order to download the Crunchyroll APK.
  • Sling TV (ESPN, TNT, TBS, etc live TV streams): Sling website
  • Netflix (streaming video): Amazon App Store
There are others, of course, this is just the list that I use most.

Extras

You can get by fine with just the original Fire TV remote, augmented with either a USB keyboard or something like the Amazon Fire TV Remote App (available on the Amazon App Store) to make keyboard entry easier. I like a bit more flexibility, though, so I added a couple of extras.

Harmony Hub and Remote

Logitech's Harmony remotes are excellent universal remotes. I have the Harmony Companion model, so I can use either the remote or an app on my Android tablet (which has a keyboard function). It controls my TV, sound system, DVD/Blue-Ray player, and the Fire TV. It does take a bit of initial setup, but it was pretty straightforward and didn't take too long. I especially like the one-button selection of configurations, so I can easily switch from the Fire TV to the DVD player to my PC as input sources, without having to modify the TV and sound inputs every time.

FLIRC

I use a FLIRC dongle to add a bit more flexibility to the Harmony remote configuration. You can do a lot of things with the Harmony setup alone, but the FLIRC adds a ton of additional options, especially when it comes to controlling Kodi.

Friday, October 9, 2015

October is sport fan heaven

Every October, I'm struck by how much sports action we Americans manage to cram into a single month on the calendar. All of the big four sports are in action:

Baseball - End of the regular season, and playoff time! With three division winners and two wild cards in each league, the end of the regular season can often be almost as exciting as the playoffs themselves. There's the one-game wild-card playoffs, of course, and then the division and league series. Even the World Series might be played entirely in October...though I hope not, since games 5-7 are scheduled in early November. Games 6 and 7 are the best part!

Football - The NFL regular season is underway, and every weekend has college football action. The biggest regular-season games are still a month or two away, but since football has a small number of total games to play, even these early season contests are important and dramatic. Especially when highly ranked college teams meet early on.

Hockey - The NHL regular season begins! With a fight, this year, but eventually they actually play the game. It's a long season, so the other sports tend to overshadow the opening weeks, but it's there.

Basketball - Most of the month is pre-season for the NBA, but the regular season starts just before Halloween. The WNBA finals are going on, too, though that league still mostly flies under the radar.

Plus, we have MLS soccer still running (and kicking) through October. The end of the regular season, and the start of the playoffs at the end of the month.

October isn't quite as crowded outside the USA, but there's still action. There's the Champions League, and this year the Rugby World Cup is going on. In any other month, I'd be following the rugby action over in England with more attention, but it's hard to focus with everything else going on!

Fall is a great time to be a sports fan. As long as you don't try to watch it all, anyway!