Monday, November 30, 2015

Windows 10 Install Follow-Up

After my recent Windows 10 install, I've been slowly getting my system back to how I like it. Here's a few of the additional utilities and tweaks that I find helpful.
Chrome. I mentioned this in the install post. I prefer Chrome as my primary web browser, in large part because I've been using it for years and thus have it set up the way I like with add-ons/bookmarks/preferences/etc. I could do the same with Firefox or Microsoft Edge, but why go through all that again?

Notepad++. My favorite Windows text editor. So much nicer than Notepad (which is true of almost any text editor), with plenty of plug-ins available to add most any text-editing feature you might want.

PuTTY and XMing. If you access Unix-flavor machines on a regular basis, these are invaluable utilities. PuTTY provides terminal access, which I use for most things, and XMing allows remote execution of most X-Windows applications on your desktop.

mp3tag. I have a good-sized library of mp3 music files, mostly ripped from CDs many years ago. In many cases, they aren't properly tagged for Kodi or other music players to categorize them. Eventually I'll have them all fixed, but until then, it's useful to have a simple, easy to use utility like mp3tag.

Turn off Cortana and web search. I like having a search bar for stuff on my computer right by the start button, but I don't want to see Bing results, and I certainly don't need Cortana trying to guess what I want. Getting rid of both speeds up the searching.

Remove recently accessed files/folders from Quick Access. If I want something showing up every time in my Explorer windows, I'll pin it there. No need for Windows to try to be helpful.

Remove the old Windows 7 boot entry from the startup menu. Since I had a Windows 7 install at the time that I installed Windows 10, it helpfully gave me a startup menu whenever I reboot, allowing me to choose my OS. Useful at first, but once I decided Windows 10 was working, I don't want the Windows 7 option any more. The top answer here describes the process to remove it (via an elevated command prompt).

Turn off hibernation. My machine is a desktop, no need to take up hard drive space or processing time maintaining a hibernation file. Open an elevated command prompt, and enter "powercfg -hibernate off".

Update the privacy settings. There's a lot of stuff that Windows 10 will report to Microsoft, or app owners, or websites, etc unless you tell it not to. This article has a pretty good summary of things you can easily turn on or off. Everyone has a different level of comfort with what information they're willing to share. There are also things you can't turn off, which I find to be poor customer service by Microsoft, but doesn't concern me unduly.

Make a shortcut for sleep mode. I like to put my computer to sleep when I'm not using it, rather than shut it down. It's mildly annoying to have to go into the power menu and choose sleep, though. I could set the power button to trigger sleep, but I can't easily reach it with the way I have my desk set up. So I created a shortcut on the desktop that executes "C:\Windows\System32\rundll32.exe powrprof.dll,SetSuspendState", so all I have to do is double-click that to put the machine to sleep.

Sunday, November 29, 2015

Macross Frontier: Movies

After watching the Macross Frontier series, I decided to also give the movies a try. There are two, The False Songstress and The Wings of Goodbye. They might as well have just gone ahead and called them part 1 and part 2, as they're really two parts of the same story. The movies are an alternate version of the Macross Frontier story-line, not a continuation.
The movies share a great many things with the series: solid production values, plenty of references to the earlier series in the franchise, just about every character, and most of the plot devices (i.e. fold crystals, V infections). The False Songstress re-uses a good number of visuals from the series, and I didn't notice any new songs. There's a lot more new art in The Wings of Goodbye, as well as some additional songs.

The obvious difference with the movies is a significant reduction in time: 4 hours of movies vs 25 half-hour episodes in the series. That requires some changes in plot - more on that later - and also dropped lots of side stories. No Miss Macross competition, for instance, or trip to a Zentradi outpost planet. This eliminates a lot of the slow start that the series suffers from, but also means very few of the supporting characters have any depth. It also means that there are minor references which may not make sense to a non-series watcher - for instance, the byplay between Michael and Klan.

There are significant plot changes in the movies. I found it pretty difficult to follow the high-level story in The False Songstress, to be honest. On the personal level it made sense, but it was difficult to understand what the Macross Galaxy people were trying to accomplish, much less the alien Vajra. Having watched the series might have actually hurt me here, as it was easy to assume things about the characters' motivations from what I'd seen in the series. But I think the main culprit was that the writers were trying to keep from revealing too much about The Wings of Goodbye, because the story got a whole lot easier to follow in the second installment.

I won't go into spoiler-level details about the changes, but I will say that I thought the series did a better job with the big-picture plot. To some extent, this flows from the difference in length - it's a lot easier to convey a complex plot involving many different actors when you have more time. However, I think the movies did a much better job resolving the personal relationship between Alto-Ranka-Sheryl. The series ending felt unfinished (perhaps intentionally, to leave room for sequels), while the movie ending is much more concrete.

I have to mention two things added in the movies that stuck out, both from The Wings of Goodbye. First, there's a concert given by Ranka in a prison (weird, I know...it makes sense at the time) which has a ton of references to Fire Bomber and Macross 7. I may not have liked the series much, but that scene was pretty cool, from the "Lovely Bomber" stage heading to Klan wearing Mylene's on-stage getup. Second, the Macross Quarter manages to survive entry into a planet's atmosphere by landing on a big hunk of rock and using it like a surfboard, complete with Captain Wilder making surfing-related comments. Now, I'm an old-school Transformers fan, so I'm used to giant robotic shenanigans of all kinds, but that one was just so totally out of place that it floored me. I'm pretty sure the writers meant that to get a laugh and then just kinda fade into the chaos of battle, but I had a hard time getting back into the "gigantic climactic battle" feeling after seeing that.

On the whole, I think I prefer the Macross Frontier series, but it's close. The movies are well done, and it's worth watching them if you don't have time for the whole series, or if you're curious about the differences.

Saturday, November 28, 2015

SWTOR: Knights of the Fallen Empire (Chapter 1-9)

Following her adventures on Rishi, Yavin 4, and Ziost, the time came for Eltaix the bounty hunter to move on to the latest Star Wars: The Old Republic (SWTOR) expansion: Knights of the Fallen Empire. Or at least the first part of it: at release, only the first 9 chapters (of 16 announced, and possibly more later) of the Knights of the Fallen Empire story were made available.

It's immediately clear that this is a different beast from the prior expansions. Starting the expansion story-line comes with a warning that you're about to leave everything and everyone behind. That's fairly rare in the MMO world but much more common in the single-player RPG genre. I've always considered SWTOR to be a marriage of the two. I've purposely focused on the RPG side up to this point, and Knights of the Fallen Empire certainly feels like it belongs on that side of the equation for the first 8 chapters.

Going through the story mission for this expansion resets the state of affairs in the galaxy. A new power, the Eternal Empire, is revealed and quickly becomes your primary adversary. The Jedi Republic and Sith Empire still exist, but the main conflict is no longer between those two, but rather both against the new threat. This isn't too surprising. From a story perspective, it follows fairly naturally after Republic/Empire cooperation against Revan. From a MMO mechanics perspective, it's pretty natural for developers to want to develop content in a way that allows them to address it to all players with minimal customization (as opposed to doing everything twice, once for each side). This reset also provides a easy starting point for new players, and that's reflected in the ability to create a character at level 60 and jump right into Knights of the Fallen Empire, rather than going through all the prior content first.

I was a bit sad to say goodbye to my ship and companions, particularly Mako, but such is the price of progress. I do like that I'm seeing a lot more of Lana Beniko, who played a big part in the Shadow of Revan story and is now one of my new companions. (Too bad they taught her how to comb her hair, though.) Other new companions are gathered along the way, very similar to the early-to-middle sections of the pre-expansion game, although more quickly.
Some of the new crew.
The way the story moves along in the first 8 chapters of Knights of the Fallen Empire feels like it's entirely your personal story. Previously, you always had at least two stories to follow: your own, and whatever larger conflict was going on around you (usually specific to the current planet). This newest story-line doesn't bother separating the two. The same story-line addresses your own character development and the fate of the galaxy-spanning conflict with the Eternal Empire. It feels almost like watching a movie more than playing a game...albeit a movie with interaction points. That's not a bad thing, especially if you're in it for the single-player experience, but it is a bit jarring if you're expecting standard MMO gameplay. It actually feels strange to see other players in the few shared areas that you run across.

One benefit of this consolidated story-line is that there's little downtime between chapters. I rarely had to spend any time getting to the next area, though there still were a few places that required a whole lot of running around. I still wish mount-speed travel were available in some of the larger zones, but for the most part the back-and-forth-across-entire-planets annoyances are gone.

The here's-your-new-gear-for-the-new-expansion rewards were mostly useless to me this time. Perhaps because all the stuff I bought with data crystals was so good. Or maybe the gear power creep in this expansion isn't as bad. That would be nice; constantly rising power levels across expansions is one of my least favorite things about MMO mechanics.

The combat feels slightly more difficult than before, but not significantly so. I can still breeze through normal enemies, though I did find that in some locations it's no longer safe to run past enemies until they stop following you. I died in one swamp area because the population of the entire zone was on my tail by the time I got to the end point where I needed to stop. The bosses I encountered were occasionally tough enough to force me to switch my companion over from attack to healing mode, but none of them posed a significant challenge. (That companion healing was supposedly nerfed, but it still feels like god-mode to me.)

Then you get to chapter 9, and suddenly the game is an MMO again. Other players are everywhere and there's a bunch of things going on, not just your personal activities. You're thrown back into familiar territory, able to travel around to all your old stomping grounds in the Republic and Sith Empire. After a brief introduction to your new base and the group of revolutionaries that you now lead against the Eternal Empire, you're pretty much left to your own devices instead of being moved along by the story. They even give you back your ship, though not your companions. (Yet. There are certainly hints that they may be back.)

Your job is to gather allies to recruit from various Republic and Sith Empire worlds, and build up various aspects of your alliance: military, scientific, Force-wielders, and logistics. There are some story aspects to this, mostly in the ally-gathering which takes you around the galaxy, helping and/or threatening potential allies until they join you. Beyond that, though, progression is through a whole lot of daily or weekly missions, mostly to complete group-only or PvP objectives, which raise your influence with the various characters in your alliance. That sort of grind isn't why I'm playing the game.

So that's about it for my journey through SWTOR with Eltaix the bounty hunter, at least until more chapters of Knights of the Fallen Empire are released. But I'm certainly not done with the game. Next, I think I need to try a Republic character, starting from the ground up.

Macross Frontier

Macross Frontier is the last on my list of Macross franchise series to watch before Macross Delta comes out. I've already refreshed my memory on the original series, and then went through Macross Plus, Macross 7, and Macross Zero.
Frontier is the series that Macross 7 wanted to be, in my humble opinion. It's got a lot of the same elements recycled from the original series: spaceships hosting civilian populations, mysterious alien attacks, various fighter pilots and singers in love, etc. But instead of creating thoroughly annoying characters and focusing everything through them as Macross 7 did, Frontier leads with only moderately annoying characters and improves them as the story progresses.

I know that "only moderately annoying" isn't exactly a ringing endorsement, but it's all I can muster when the three lead characters are anime-stereotype teenage prodigies involved in an anime-stereotype love triangle. Through approximately the first third of the series, the character development feels like it was pulled out of the "how to make generic anime" handbook. The low point comes when all three end up attending the same school. A futuristic series filled with glamorous singing stars and high-tech aerial acrobatics couldn't come up with anything better than that...really?

OK, that was the bad stuff. In just about every other aspect, Frontier makes excellent space opera. Each of the main characters has enough depth to their backstory (such as Alto's conflicts with his father, or Ranka's relationship with her adoptive older brother Ozma) that they eventually moved beyond the stereotypes. There's an extensive cast of secondary characters as well, and the writers do a good job of developing them through minor sidelines in the story.

The alien Vajra make an excellent threat, both creepy and dangerous. They show up immediately and cause serious chaos. As you go through the series, the external threat is complemented by intrigue from within, adding depth beyond a faceless alien threat. Around the halfway point of the series, all kinds of complications arise, raising questions about the nature of the Vajra and where the real threat lies. By the time you get to the end, all the major aspects of the story are explained, at least within the limits of the space opera archetype (by which I mean logic is optional if it looks cool and/or expresses some character's emotion). It's all well executed and stayed interesting throughout.

Frontier's production values are great, too. The artwork is beautiful throughout, and the action scenes are very well executed. The music is well done, too, though I did get a little tired of hearing Aimo over and over. In part all of this is simply because it's fairly recent, released in 2008, but I've seen some shows from that time period that were pretty poorly done. This one had people at the helm that knew their work.

References to the rest of the Macross franchise are absolutely everywhere in Frontier. Some are meant to be obvious, like calling Ranka the "modern Lynn Minmay," or making a movie based on the events of Macross Zero. Others are more subtle, such as having Fire Bomber (the band from Macross 7) music playing in a few scenes. The dangers of AI/cyborg technology from Macross Plus have a pretty major impact on the big-picture story. And some bits are just there to mislead you, such as when Ozma is injured on a mission and passes out next to the love of his life...just like Roy Focker did in the original series, clearly meant to get fans thinking Ozma was about to die as well. (He doesn't...only a minor spoiler since they reveal that almost immediately afterward.) Frontier is watchable without any knowledge of the franchise...it explains things well enough...but a franchise newbie will miss a whole lot of subtleties and would likely be confused at times.

It starts off a bit slowly, but once you get about a third of the way through, Macross Frontier is a fast-moving and entertaining series. If you liked the original series at all, or space opera anime in general, then I highly recommend it.

Thursday, November 26, 2015

I'm Thankful Not To Have...

It's Thanksgiving in the US today! I'm thankful for all sorts of things, from the big concepts (life, health, family) to the mundane (the banana cream pie I just ate, cheap games at the Steam sale, a library full of books just down the street). I'm sure all the Thanksgiving celebrations today have celebrated things to be thankful for. Just to be different, I thought I'd also mention a few things that I'm grateful not to have.
Holiday Travel. You hear about it all the time around this time of year...it's a horrible time to be traveling. It starts with the weather, starting to turn cold and snowy. Then you add a whole bunch of people going to grandma's house or wherever for the big holidays. Staying at home is so much less stressful.

A Criminal Record. I'm sure everyone remembers doing some stupid things as a youngster, and I'm no exception...likely worse than most. I got lucky in that my stupidity happened as a minor, as well as having great support from family and others, and I'm thankful for that. But not everyone is so fortunate, and it's really tough if you have a record (consider this PBS documentary about people with records being driven into poverty). I'm happy to say that here in Michigan some strides are being made toward helping people get out from under a criminal record. Earlier this year, a law was passed allowing records to be expunged in certain circumstances, and another bill is in the works to make the process automatic for some people.

Natural Disasters. Here in West Michigan, we get a couple of major snowstorms every year, and about once a decade a small tornado comes through. That's about it. I see stories all the time about hurricanes, tornadoes, floods, droughts, earthquakes, etc in other areas of the country and the world. I'm happy to live in a place with very little in the way of such things, and grateful for it.

Oppressive Authority. North Korea. Syria. Zimbabwe. Saudi Arabia. Iran. There are a lot of places in the world where secular and/or religious institutions are more interested in oppressing their people than helping them. I certainly have my differences with the way things are done here in the US, but I'm grateful that I live in a place and time where individual freedom is supported by government and religious authorities.

Not an exhaustive list by any means, but it covers a few things that have been on my mind lately. Happy Thanksgiving to everyone!

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Pyramid Controversy

We've got a pyramid controversy in West Michigan, and it has nothing to do with "pyramid schemes."
Yes, a real pyramid. It's an office building, not a tomb, though the confusion is understandable.
The pyramid was built by Steelcase, the office furniture company, back in 1989. They left in 2010, and it's more or less just sat around ever since. In 2014, an education group agreed to buy the building, but early in 2015 Steelcase sold it to a developer instead. The developer plans to sell it to Switch, a technology company that runs Internet data centers. Switch would turn the pyramid and surrounding area into one of the largest data centers in the eastern US, a project that would bring $5 billion in investment over the next 10 years.

That all sounds pretty good. Old building that no one has been willing to buy for years, sold to a high-tech firm that will bring what is effectively an entire new industry to the area? Hard to argue with that. Ah, but not so fast, it's never that simple.

Controversy #1: The education group (ECI) who were planning that purchase in 2014 are suing Steelcase. According to this article:

According to a lawsuit filed in Kent County court on Wednesday, Nov. 18, the original purchase price was $7.5 million. But, after ECI found infrastructure problems with the Pyramid, the purchase price went down to $3 million.
The suit alleges Steelcase secretly negotiated to sell the property to Norman Properties, while it still had a purchase agreement with ECI.


ECI is asking the courts to force Steelcase to sell the pyramid to them at the lower price, plus pay damages for reneging on the deal. Steelcase would like them to just go away. I suspect the end result will be somewhere in the middle, with Steelcase paying ECI some undisclosed amount to drop the suit. At least, that's likely if the new deal actually goes through, which brings us to...

Controversy #2: For Switch to move into the pyramid, they're demanding a tax break, and that's not going over well. Conservative lawmakers and political groups are denouncing it as crony capitalism and government picking private-sector winners. They've definitely got a point. All other things being equal, you'd rather see investment made on the merits of the companies involved, not based on which government is willing to pony up the best deal.

On the other hand, the folks pushing the tax breaks are saying that they're just leveling the playing field between Michigan and other states. They have a point, too; with that $5 billion investment on the line, someone is going to give Switch what they want. Assuming they craft the bills intelligently, such that Switch only gets the benefits if they actually bring investment into the state, Michigan should end up with a positive value in the end.

I'm really not sure which way this one will go. If the tax breaks can pass the state legislature, I'm confident that our notoriously business-friendly governor will sign them. It seems to be the logical thing to do, even if it's ideologically unpalatable. Asking the Michigan state legislature to value logic over ideology, though, is a pretty tall order. After what they've done with the roads, I have no confidence that logic plays any part in their deliberations.

It would be nice to see something made of the pyramid again, especially if that something involves a whole lot of investment and a new high-technology industrial center. The hurdles to clear look pretty high, though.

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Hexcells

I like logic puzzle games. A side effect of being mathematically inclined, I suppose. When I first found Minesweeper, I spent way too much time poking at those little squares (and often blowing myself up). If Hexcells had existed back then, I might never have stopped.
The idea behind Hexcells is very simple. You've got a bunch of six-sided (thus the "hex") cells connected in some kind of pattern. Each cell can be unknown, empty, or full. The game provides you with various clues (number of full adjacent cells, how many full cells in a row, etc). Properly identify the status of all the cells as either empty or full to win.

As with all really good logic puzzles, that simple idea becomes fiendishly complex. Sometimes the patterns are huge, with dozens of cells and a ton of clues. One part of the pattern might be impossible until you've unraveled a different part. Sometimes the patterns are small, but every clue is interconnected, so finding even one cell status requires deep thought.

There are actually three Hexcells games, each of which comes with a good number of patterns to unravel. As you progress, you'll be introduced to new kinds of clues and more complicated patterns to solve. In the third game, Hexcells Infinite, there is also a random-pattern mode that can be played effectively forever (thus the "infinite").

In Hexcells, you're never stuck. (Unlike some similar games where sometimes you have to guess.) You might think you're stuck, but there's always enough information to figure out at least one of the remaining unknown cell statuses. That one leads to another, and another, and eventually you have them all. Whether you're smart enough to figure that out is another question, of course.

If logic puzzle games appeal to you, pick up Hexcells. Pick up all three, for that matter. You won't be disappointed.

Monday, November 23, 2015

SWTOR: Shadow of Revan

After finishing up business on Makeb, Eltaix headed back to the Imperial Fleet to begin the Shadow of Revan story-line. The mission came with a nice little transport device to take me directly to the contact, which is awfully nice. That's a handy shortcut that I hope they include with all the major story missions in the future.

I started making my way through the Shadow of Revan prologue story mission, and almost immediately was sent to a Flashpoint. You may recall from my previous post that this was not a good experience when it happened on Ilum. In this case, though, I was sent to a solo version of the Flashpoint. Eltaix and Mako were buffed way up and we were joined by a combat droid, rendering the Flashpoint enemies basically the same as those you'd find in normal combat. Some of the boss fights were still a little more difficult, but not by much. Mostly it just took a while to get through all their hit points. I don't mind seeing Flashpoints as long as I can go through in solo mode.
The strike team. That droid is more dangerous than he looks.
Shadow of Revan has an extensive story. The prologue alone spanned multiple Flashpoints, and took me several hours to complete. I didn't mind much, as the story was interesting and the combat wasn't too difficult. Things moved along more quickly than through much of the earlier game, in fact, primarily because there was almost no travel time. Between that transport device that I mentioned earlier and easy-exit transports at the end of each Flashpoint, I rarely had to do much more than go down the hall to the next segment of the story. Sadly, this state of affairs does not continue; things revert back to "go do some stuff then run half-way across the planet to your contact" after the prologue.

Once into the main story, it's time once again to visit a new planet. Rishi is backwater planet run by pirates, and you show up pretending to be a pirate yourself. The idea is to get information on a larger conspiracy, of course, but it's kind of fun doing silly pirate stuff. Almost every mission gives you a new piece of significantly improved gear - in comparison to the story mission rewards to this point, at least. That's a typical MMO tactic for getting casual/returning players caught up for a newly released area. Feels a little weird in my case, since I'm playing it so long after initial release, but I won't complain about getting nice stuff.

After sufficient pirate-kicking, the story moves along to tracking down and thwarting Revan's plans. I was a little disappointed when I had to fight a fellow Mandalorian bounty-hunter rather than coming to some agreement with her, but that's a minor quibble with an otherwise interesting trip across Rishi. It all culminates in another Flashpoint (also with a solo mode) that felt appropriately epic, battling on the ground to turn the tide of a massive space battle above.

The story then moves on to another planet, Yavin 4. It doesn't have as much character as Rishi; lack of pirate gangs will do that to a planet. Plenty of wild animals and overgrown jungle temples, though. This time the story actually contributed to the choice of whether to run solo or with a group: solo players had to gather NPC help for the big final battle, via some extra missions (which also are daily reputation missions for all players). I didn't try the group option, obviously, but I assume you'd do some big group fights instead of those extra missions. I thought that was a nice touch, marrying up the story and gameplay mechanics.

I found Yavin 4 to be much more heavily populated with other player characters than previous worlds. There were several times where I had to wait around for spawns since other players had killed things I needed for a mission, or wait for an object to reset so I could get credit for clicking it. Pretty typical in the MMO world - the higher level areas get crowded as more and more people progress past the lower content. Annoying, but not game-breaking. I did enjoy the fact that one mission included an actual puzzle to solve; it was ridiculously easy, but still, something different is good.
Lots of NPC help against Revan for us solo players.
The final battle against Revan started like any other boss, albeit one with a ton of hit points and some really big attacks. I learned very quickly that it was a good idea to stop shooting and just run away whenever he came after me, until he lost interest and went after one of my NPC allies. Partway through, he imprisoned all my allies and put himself in an invulnerable shield, and that was greatly confusing. There was no indication of what I was supposed to do, and eventually he killed me. Had I looked up the fight on the web first, I would have saved myself some frustration, but I had hoped that the fight mechanics would be clear in-game. After a couple of tries, I eventually realized there were little glowing things I could pick up and use to free the NPCs. From that point on, it was easy enough.

Following Yavin 4, I also went through the epilogue story on the planet Ziost. It follows up on the ancient Sith Emperor that was referenced quite a bit in the Shadow of Revan story. Fairly short, but an important episode leading into the next expansion.

Eltaix hit the level cap of 65 partway through the story-line on Yavin 4. Doesn't really matter to me, except that it means I can finally spend my 1000 common data crystals at the level-65-only vendors. There's still more story to go through with the Knights of the Fallen Empire story-line, regardless of level advancement.

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Macross Zero

I'm working my way through the various Macross anime series, as I've mentioned previously. I enjoyed the original series and Macross Plus, then was decidedly underwhelmed by Macross 7. Next I queued up Macross Zero.
Macross Zero is another short series, consisting of five half-hour episodes - basically the length of a movie. The setting is the South Pacific in 2008, which puts it a year prior to the main events of the original series. The entire series takes place on Earth, and there are no aliens outside of some ancient artifacts, both aspects which make this series unique within the franchise. It was released in the early 2000s, which means the production values are quite a bit higher than the other series that I've watched thus far. That showed in the art style, which I thought was very well done.

I went into this series expecting it to be mostly references to the original Macross series, and not a whole lot else. The references are there: Focker's presence, the transforming fighter planes, the battles between UN and separatist forces, artifacts from the alien protoculture, etc. It certainly helps to be familiar with the original series' story-line; if you haven't seen it, you should at least read a summary first. But Macross Zero is more than just a prequel to the original series.

The story primarily follows a UN pilot named Shin, who is learning to fly the brand-new transforming fighters under the command of Captain Roy Focker (the same guy who plays a large role in the original series). Shin is part of a larger battle between UN and separatist forces over control of an ancient alien artifact. The battle engulfs the native island population, whose legends about the artifact warn of great danger if it is awakened. Shin and Sara, a native priestess, fall in love and eventually are central to the effort to prevent the awakened artifact from causing mass devastation.

Macross Zero explores the tension between the native islander population's ancient culture and the invasion of the modern world. Sara in particular is very resistant to change, both for personal reasons and as the representative of her island's ancient beliefs. As events play out, there are points where it seems that she is right, and other points where her refusal to change appears to make things worse. The writers did a good job of exploring the theme without allowing the "primitive natives vs superior technologists" to become a cliche.

There's a good amount of focus on the mecha in this series, as one would expect from the first use of transforming fighters in the franchise. The separatist forces use their version first, shooting Shin down in the early going, and then the UN version evens up the playing field with Focker and those under his command. I liked how Shin's struggles to adapt to this new kind of aircraft were presented. It's nice to see a central character who isn't instantly a virtuoso at whatever sort of combat he tries.

It wouldn't be Macross without an alien presence, but the use of an ancient artifact rather than living aliens is a nice change of pace. Rather than the unavoidable overwhelming alien threat used in both the original series and Macross 7, in Macross Zero the alien presence is benign until humanity's curiosity (and power lust) disturbs it. What is eventually revealed of the artifact's origin and reason for being on Earth fits nicely into the history that was established in the original series.

I enjoyed Macross Zero, and can recommend it to anyone who likes aerial fighter-plane battling, ancient beliefs-vs-modern progress tension, and unraveling of ancient artifact mysteries.

Saturday, November 21, 2015

Snow Inbound

The first snow storm came through last night, here in my corner of West Michigan. It's not actually the first snowfall this year - we had a little bit a week or so ago, but it was barely noticeable. Since then, it's been very warm here, mostly in the 60s. But obviously that wasn't going to last, and it changed last night.
A couple of inches from last night, with flakes still falling.
I tend to wear things until they fall apart, and winter clothing is no exception. After last year, though, I knew I had to do something about winter gear. My gloves were literally coming apart at the seams, the sweatpants that make good winter night wear were worn through, and my heavy winter jacket is old enough that it's losing stuffing.
Ground is still pretty warm, so the sidewalks and roads are clear for now.
So I did some shopping over the summer. It's pretty easy to find stuff on sale when you're looking at the right time, and so I was able to pick up a bunch of new winter things at reasonable prices.
These will get plenty of use between now and March.
The best way to deal with winter in Michigan is to stay out of it. But when you do have to go outside, it's good to be prepared to stay warm.

Friday, November 20, 2015

Further Adventures in Bread Making

I started out using my bread machine for basic French bread and sandwich bread, which has worked out very well. Those are still my favorites, but I felt the need to branch out for some more bread variety.

I'm sure no one who knows me is surprised to find that I first tried banana bread. It doesn't fit nicely into any of the pre-set mixing-and-cooking programs on the machine, so I followed this recipe and used the dough mix setting, followed by manually setting the bake time. My first attempt didn't completely mix all the ingredients properly, resulting in some small pockets where the dry ingredients had baked into a sort of crumbly mess. Easily remedied on future attempts by using a spatula to assist the machine's stir paddle, making sure everything got mixed up properly.
Bread of bananas.
That turned out nicely, with a bit over an hour of cook time. Slice it up, add butter, great snack or dessert.

Next I attempted a recipe from the bread machine's booklet, honey and almond bread. I'm not a big fan of nuts in bread, but they're OK as long as they're chopped up small enough. That part I was able to handle, but unfortunately the actual bread part didn't work too well. It didn't rise much at all, which in turn meant it didn't cook properly.
Hard to tell by looking, but trust me, that honey-and-almond loaf turned out dense and doughy.
I tried the recipe twice, just in case I screwed it up the first time, but got the same result. I suspect the issue lies with the yeast...either not enough of it, not the right temperature, or the wrong mix of other ingredients for it to activate properly. So I gave up on the honey bread for now. I may try it again someday, but I'll be finding another recipe to use.

Next, I decided on another bread machine booklet recipe, whole wheat bread. It was more similar to the successful recipes than the honey bread one, so I felt fairly confident that it would work. The main difference is using whole wheat flour, and sunflower oil/water rather than milk/eggs. And indeed, it turned out nicely. 
Wheat bread. Very brown.
It doesn't slice quite as easily as the white sandwich bread, so I probably won't make it too often, but it goes really well with soup or stew. Might use it more in the winter when hot soup sounds better than a sandwich.

There are tons of additional recipes out there, so I expect to try more bread types in the future. Already got my eye on a cheddar cheese bread recipe.

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Windows 10

I'm writing this from a newly-installed Windows 10 system, on my only Windows machine. (It's heavily outnumbered in my house by Linux boxes and Android devices.) I've been running Windows 7 for several years, but recently decided to make the upgrade.
Nearly everyone has heard of Windows 10 by now. Microsoft released the upgrade this summer, and engaged in a media blitz to make sure everyone would know about it. There were TV commercials, online ads, news stories - all kinds of publicity. The biggest selling point with Windows 10 is the cost...it's free to anyone with an existing Windows 7/8 install, as long as you upgrade by July 2016. (Why would Microsoft do this? It's a lot easier to support a whole lot of Windows 10 installs than a more evenly split Windows 7/8/10 install base.)

The Windows 10 release has had to deal with a couple of controversies:

  • Privacy. By default, Windows 10 contains "telemetry" features which send a lot of diagnostic data to Microsoft. I don't personally have much of a problem with the telemetry, but I certainly understand the concerns of those that do. There's also integration with online Microsoft services, most notably via the Cortana assistant service, but I don't intend to use any of that. The biggest problem I have with the privacy aspects of Windows 10 is usability - it's a royal pain to find all the things you have to disable if you don't want to share your data (and in some cases, it may not even be possible). That's poor customer service.
  • Automatic Updates. Windows 10 doesn't give users the same kind of control over when to apply updates that previous versions included. It's possible to get around the automatic updates, but it's not straightforward, and might cause other problems. I wasn't too happy about this when I first found out, because I've seen my share of updates in the past that broke functionality on my system. As I thought about it, though, I realized that there are very few Windows 7 updates that I haven't installed over the last few years, and I can't think of any that significantly compromised system functionality. I still wish that Microsoft had provided more control features, but in my case, I expect that automatic updates aren't actually going to be much different from what I had before.

So why did I wait until now, when Windows 10 was released months ago? As a general rule, I avoid "point zero" updates (the first release of any major upgrade). That's primarily because those initial releases are usually fairly unreliable. Once that major upgrade has been out in the wild for a few weeks or months, there will be additional releases fixing various issues, and that's when I'll start to get interested. The recent Windows 10 November update seemed like a good time to jump in.

I also added some new hardware: a 480 GB solid-state drive, which was on sale at NewEgg. This allowed me to install Windows 10 separate from my Windows 7 installation. If something went pear-shaped during the install, the recovery process is painless. Of course, I could have chosen to overwrite my Windows 7 install via the upgrade process, but I learned long ago that upgrading an operating system is never as simple as it sounds. Driver conflicts, failing programs, massive disk space usage...all kinds of things can go wrong. A clean installation is a whole lot easier in the long run.

Getting ready for the installation was a fairly simple process: I downloaded the media creation tool, and set up the installation on a USB drive. I actually had to tell the tool that I wanted an ISO (suitable for CD burning) and then put that on the USB drive with Universal USB installer, since the media creation tool didn't want to recognize the USB drive. But that was a minor detour in the process. After I had the USB drive, it was just a matter of rebooting and choosing the USB drive as the boot device. (This was only possible because I waited for the November update. Previously, you had to upgrade from an existing Windows 7/8 installation before you could do a clean Windows 10 install. Waiting saved me that hassle. Edit: This may no longer be possible. And now it's back again. Not so smooth, Microsoft.)

The installation process was fairly painless. I made one major mistake - when it asked for my Microsoft account login, I provided it. That meant the installation didn't set up a local account, instead trying to link my Microsoft account to the local computer. Not what I wanted, so the first thing I did once the installation was complete was go into Settings/Accounts and change to a local account. I can still log into my Microsoft account if I want to, of course, but this way what I do locally is limited to this machine. While I was at it, I turned off Cortana.

The next thing I did was download Chrome - the first and probably last time I'll use the Microsoft Edge browser - and sign into my Google account, which restored all my settings and add-ons. Then I installed Steam and a few stand-alone games. That takes care of 90% of what I use Windows for: games and web browsing.

Over the next week or two, I'll gradually add in whatever I need to cover that last 10%, as I need it. But for now, Windows 10 is up and running with a minimum of fuss.

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

The Election Circus

Robert Reich posted an article called "The Perils of Circus Politics" on his blog yesterday, which has an excellent summary of what's been happening in the US presidential election process:

...electoral success depends mainly on showmanship and self-promotion.

Telling the truth and advancing sound policies are less important than trending on social media.

Being reasonable is less useful than gaining attention.

Offering rational argument is less advantageous than racking up ratings.


Reich offers this as a reason for this state of affairs:

Americans have stopped trusting the mediating institutions that used to filter and scrutinize potential leaders on behalf of the rest of us.

Political parties are now widely disdained.

Many Americans now consider the “mainstream media” biased.

And no opinion leader any longer commands enough broad-based respect to influence a majority of the public.

I don't disagree with any of that, but I think there's more to the story. I wrote recently about ways in which representative government is failing to actually represent the constituents. As a voter, if I feel that my vote doesn't really make much of a difference because of a rigged system, I'm a lot less likely to bother making an informed decision. If I vote at all, I'll probably go for a name I recognize from being on TV or in my social media feed.

Another part of the problem is that we're paying attention to this process at all right now. The 2016 US Presidential election is a year away, and we've already spent months hearing about candidates on a daily basis. By the time we actually elect someone, the voters will have spent about 18 months hearing on a daily basis about these candidates. It's hard to stay interested in anything for 18 months, much less the complex and often boring topics that make up political platforms. It's no wonder that the more interesting candidates rise to the top, even if "interesting" isn't truthful or rational.

I do my best to ignore presidential politics until a week or two before the primary election in my state, and do the same again until a few weeks before the general election. Ignoring the circus won't make it go away, sadly, but at least I don't have to pay attention to it.

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Macross 7

I'm working my way through the various Macross anime series, as I've mentioned previously. Between the original series and Macross Plus, I'd been enjoying myself thus far. Then I started on Macross 7.
You know the old saying, "if you can't say something nice, don't say anything at all"? Following that sentiment, all I'd be able to say about Macross 7 is "some of the songs weren't too bad." This is the Internet, though, where saying things that aren't nice is practically a requirement, so here goes.

The general idea behind Macross 7 sounds promising. About 40 years after the events of the original series, a colonization fleet sets out from Earth on its way to the galactic core. This is the 7th of the Macross-class colonization ships (thus the series name), a huge ship capable of carrying a million colonists. That leaves plenty of opportunity for both military and civilian story-lines, and lots of options for both internal and external conflict. An opportunity that unfortunately is missed.

It seems the writers took a look at the original Macross series, saw "alien threat that the military can't handle being neutralized by a civilian singer", and decided to hit the viewer over the head with that premise. As far as I'm concerned, that was a minor plot device in the original Macross series. The real appeal of that original series lay in humanity dealing with alien contact (at the macro level) and the "dream girl vs the girl right in front of you" relationship struggles of Hikaru (at the personal level). Macross 7 takes the "singing vs aliens" part and elevates it from a minor component to the entire premise for the series.

To make things worse, the central characters that the show's writers chose to build the story around are just awful. One: Basara, a socially isolated musician, who just happens to also be an amazing hoverbike rider/street fighter/fighter pilot, who constantly interferes in military matters and runs out on his friends. Two: Mylene, the spoiled teenage daughter of the military and civilian leaders of the fleet, constantly complaining about her protective bodyguards, being shopped around to older men by her mother for an arranged marriage.

The way this series theme is executed is awful as well. From the very first episode, Basara jumps into an unauthorized Valkyrie fighter (controlled by a guitar, for some reason) and flies out into the middle of battle, and proceeds to sing at the enemy. This appears to upset everyone on his side, from his band-mates to the military, though it causes only mild confusion to the enemy. And he does it repeatedly, episode after episode, for no obvious reason except possibly that he's an idiot.

The one moderately decent aspect of Macross 7 is that some of the music is fairly decent, as far as synth-pop-rock goes. But like almost all music used in television shows, the same songs are re-used so often that you'll be heartily sick of hearing them. Even watching only the first few episodes, I went from "hey, that Planet Dance tune is decent" to "oh, please, not Planet Dance again." Repetition takes the music from "moderately decent" to "painful to hear."

Any of this by itself would be annoying, but not enough to kill a series for me. I've watched a lot of bad characters in order to enjoy a well-built world or interesting premise, and suffered through plenty of cheesy worlds because the characters were great. But I suffer through the bad parts in order to enjoy the good, so when all the parts are bad...well, that's not worth the time. I only made it through 9 episodes (of 49, plus various follow-ups) before I gave up and went to read the series synopsis instead of suffering through watching the actual show. Apparently they do eventually work in some reasoning behind the singing-in-battle, and marry it up to the military side of things. I'm pretty glad I didn't get that far, because the "Sound Force" brigade that both Basara and Mylene join sounds fairly awful.

The fact that Macross 7 generated several years worth of an anime series, films, and OVAs means that someone must have liked it. I can't say I understand why.

Monday, November 16, 2015

Butcher and Beer

I got a flyer in the mail last week for a new local business. This isn't all that unusual, but the business in question isn't something I'd seen before.
My initial thought was that it must be a kind of deli/brewpub. I expected a little dining area, maybe sandwiches or brauts, and beers on tap. This was not the case.

When they say "Meat Market and Growler Station", that's exactly what they mean. It's a pretty standard butcher's counter, with a tap station behind the register. No dining, no deli, just the meats and a place to get your growler filled. I've obtained a lot of beer from a lot of places, but a butcher shop is a new one on me.  I didn't let that stop me, though. Especially since they were giving me a free growler. (The container. Still had to pay for the beer.)
That's a BBQ chicken breast along with the growler. I cooked it up on my counter-top grill and was pretty happy with the result. Went nicely with a bowl of rice for a couple of meals.
As for the beer, it's a cherry IPA that I've enjoyed, although the flavor is a bit on the bitter side for my taste. Well worth a try, though.

Good luck to the folks down at Campau Corner with their Meat Market and Growler Station. It's an odd mix of businesses, but you never know what may work out!

Sunday, November 15, 2015

SWTOR: Busting Hutts

When I finished my last Star Wars: The Old Republic (SWTOR) post, Eltaix the bounty hunter had just finished bringing the planet Corellia under the heel of the Empire, and was nearing the free-to-play level 50 cap. I didn't realize at the time how close I was to completing her personal story...one final mission to go. That last mission was satisfyingly epic in a story sense and very pedestrian in a game-play sense, which pretty much describes my entire SWTOR experience.

Another destination opened up even though I'd reached the level cap: the planet Ilum. I decided to check it out, at least until I'd racked up the XP needed for level 51, at which point it would be a good time to subscribe. So after a few days off to settle some islands, Eltaix headed over to Ilum where I found the usual sort of planet-specific story-line.

Partway through that, I did indeed become a subscriber. A friend provided a referral link, so I got an extra 7 days (and so did he) on top of the usual 30. Considering how much I've played the game so far, and that I'm getting a bunch more content via the expansions that aren't accessible as F2P, $15 isn't bad at all. I doubt I'll continue more than one month, at least for now, even though I know I won't make it through all the classes; I'm sure I'll be a bit burned out before then. I noticed two immediate benefits when becoming a subscriber: quicker fast travel recharge, and extra quickbar slots. Well, that and the constant "hey, you should subscribe" reminds went away, which alone is worth a month's subscription cost.

Back on Ilum, I got to an interesting story twist where a Sith Lord decided to go rogue and betray the Empire. (Technically a spoiler, but come on, who doesn't expect a Sith Lord betrayal? It's what they do.) I was looking forward to putting him in his place, but was surprised to see the next mission labeled as a Flashpoint (the multi-player instances in SWTOR). I hadn't noticed anything on Ilum up to this point indicating that a Flashpoint was coming up, but here it was, and I didn't see any other option to continue the story. I actually gave it a try solo, and with some difficulty got all the way to the first boss objective. But I had no prayer against the champion-level boss (actually bosses, there were two). I understand that group content is going to be part of the MMO experience, but I'd like to know when I'm going down a path that leads to group-only areas. Disappointing that the Ilum arc didn't offer me a solo option, and doubly disappointing that it wasn't clear from the start that it was leading to the Flashpoint.

I suppose I could have found a group, but that would mean a lot of time and likely frustration. First you have to figure out how group-finding works. Then you hope that you can get people interested in your particular instance, and further hope that those people aren't a bunch of jerks. When you actually run the instance, the experienced players will want to go through at full speed, making it difficult to follow what's happening story-wise. Random pick-up grouping on a first attempt at group content in just about any MMO is a recipe for disaster.

Becoming a subscriber opens up access to the SWTOR expansions as well, and that meant more story-lines to follow. First one up is the Rise of the Hutt Cartel, meant for levels 50-55. After leaving Ilum, I found that the planet Makeb was now available to me. The Hutts were causing mischief, and as the greatest bounty hunter in the galaxy, the Empire thought I was the perfect one to stop them.
Mako keeps saying how nice the Makeb scenery is, but she didn't want to line up for a picture.
I found Makeb to be a bit more interesting than the average planet story up to this point. There are more areas to explore, which isn't surprising since it's the centerpiece of a game expansion. The story has several decision points where you decide the fate of characters, groups, and even entire populations, which is fun to go through. I admit, I may have killed off a few more people than absolutely necessary, but it all seemed like a good idea at the time.

I even ran across a couple of instances where the gameplay became somewhat challenging. One boss gave me a bit of trouble, requiring running around and hitting various objects while dodging attacks. It was easy enough once I realized what was required of me, but just the fact that there was something more complex than "shoot all the things until they fall down" made it interesting. Then a bit later on I found a multi-level area which was a bit of a maze. Took me a little while (and a few falling deaths) to work out where everything was; again, nothing too difficult, but a nice change of pace from "follow the map to the glowing thingy."

The Rise of the Hutt Cartel expansion also includes a couple of side missions, meant to introduce a couple of new toys: Macrobinoculars and Seeker Droids. They're not exactly epic story-lines, but it was fun following them around the galaxy. At least, it was fun until I looked them up online and found that both ended up leading to "Heroic 4" missions, meaning meant for groups of 4 people. See above minor grouping rant...no more toy missions for now.

Next up will be the level 55-60 expansion, Shadow of Revan.

Saturday, November 14, 2015

Macross Plus

With rumors of Macross Delta floating around the anime world, I decided it might be time to actually watch some of the Macross series. It's always been on my list of "things to get around to watching someday," and this seemed like a good excuse to do something about that.

I already knew most of the original series story from when I read the Robotech novels way back in the day. I poked around the Internet a bit so I'd know what was different, and asked around about what else made sense to watch. I certainly wasn't going to watch all 100+ episodes of the various series/movies/OVAs! The first thing on the list of recommendations was Macross Plus.

I was a bit surprised to find that it's not very easy to watch any of the Macross videos legally in the US. Macross Plus is available on Hulu, but according to wheretowatch.com, there's nothing for Macross 7, Macross Zero, and Macross Frontier. Hunting down DVDs is possible, but likely expensive. Fortunately, I know some anime fans with extensive libraries and was able to borrow the shows from them.
Macross Plus is fairly short, around 2.5 hours divided into 4 episodes. (At least, that describes the subtitled Japanese version I had. There's other versions.) Considering that it was created in the early 1990s, the animation quality and production values are very good. The character art is a little angular for my taste - does every side-profile nose need to look like Pinocchio? - but that's a pretty minor complaint.

The first three episodes accomplished the rare feat of causing me to actively dislike all three of the major characters. Usually it's pretty easy to pick at least one character that you actually like and want to see succeed (though often they don't). But these three are all jerks. The totally irresponsible thrill-seeker who should be dead a dozen times over just from what we see him do on-screen, much less everything else he's supposedly done previously. The uptight by-the-book soldier who seems to have no scruples about cheating his way to victory, and is prone to bursts of uncontrollable rage. And the girl from their past who has apparently sold out her dreams for career success, and can't make up her mind which guy she wants.

On the story front, the first three episodes felt slow, which isn't a great shock for a four-episode series. There's a big project going on to decide which new fighter mech will win the military's seal of approval, with our two male jerks as the pilots. Our third jerk is working with a team bringing an artificial-intelligence singer to life, which is mildly interesting but doesn't seem to be a big deal in the grand scheme of things. It all feels like setup, which in fact it is, though not necessarily the setup I was expecting.

In that fourth and final episode, everything is turned on its head. All three characters have reasons for how they've been acting; perhaps not such jerks after all. The AI singer isn't so harmless. It turns out that it doesn't matter who wins the military contract. And of course, the world (or galaxy) has to be saved via sacrifice and heroism.

For a short series (basically movie-length), Macross Plus crams in a good amount of character development. While I wouldn't exactly call the events in that last episode an unforeseen twist, it's not the most obvious ending, either. Well worth the few hours to watch.

Friday, November 13, 2015

Pizza Hut's Triple Treat Box

Occasionally, I let a stupid marketing trick get the better of me. When I saw Pizza Hut's Triple Treat Box, I decided I had to try one.
Treat? Maybe. Threat...to your waistline? Definitely.
There are no good reasons to order one of these, and lots of reasons not to. I know it won't look anything like that neat little drawers-of-pizza picture. It's a ridiculous amount of food, which I'll probably be eating all weekend as leftovers. And yet, something about it just speaks to me. (I'm pretty sure it's saying "impending heart failure.")

I generally don't bother with this sort of marketing ploy. I avoided the hot-dog-bites pizza, and the chicken taco shells, and the chicken-as-bread sandwich, and any number of other weird attempts to get me to buy food. But every once in a while, one grabs my attention.
That's about as close as I can get to the original drawers-of-pizza look.
Lest it appear that I'm totally taken in here, let me state for the record that I actually enjoy Pizza Hut's pizza. It's not going to win any awards (at least, not when compared against non-fast-food pizza), but it's good as an occasional thing. Warms up nicely as leftovers within a couple of days, so getting extra isn't a big deal. Their breadsticks are fine, too; basically the pan crust without toppings. And it's hard to go wrong with a giant chocolate chip cookie. So when I bring a Triple Treat Box home, it's not completely nonsensical. Just mostly.
Not pictured: the other pizza. Ran out of room for easy display.
The verdict: it's not bad. Nothing surprising about the pizzas: standard wow-that's-a-lot-of-grease-but-damn-it-tastes-good pan crust, pepperoni on one and bacon on the other, and a Parmesan cheese crust topping. Those bread sticks are topped with cheddar cheese, which I hadn't tried before. Interesting, but I think I still like the regular bread sticks (topped with Parmesan) better. And the giant cookie is really good, to the point that it might be the first part of the box to be consumed completely.

OK, I got that out of my system. Back to sustainable eating habits...once all this is gone.

Thursday, November 12, 2015

Voting and Representation

I believe that representative democracy is an excellent form of government. Having been born and raised in the United States, and lived here all my life aside from a few fairly short overseas trips, that's probably no surprise. What may be surprising is that I'm less sure every year that the United States actually is a representative democracy in practice.
A representative democracy has two parts. The "democracy" part means that the people control their government. (At least, those who vote do.) The "representative" part means that this isn't done directly; instead, the people choose a smaller group of leaders, who then have the actual power and control. By the letter of this definition, there's no doubt that the United States is indeed a representative democracy.

But are the people being chosen really representative of the people? That's the part that seems to be falling apart, for a wide variety of reasons. I don't pretend to be an expert on everything that goes into this issue, but I can list a few things that seem to be especially egregious problems, even to a layman like me.

Gerrymandering. This is the practice of drawing electoral districts such that one particular group, usually a political party, has overwhelming support in that particular district. This means that anyone who votes in that district who doesn't support that group is effectively cut out of the representative process. Even worse, it's possible to draw the boundaries such that one group gets more total districts, even if there are actually an equal number or even more voters for an opposing group. Since representatives have equal power no matter which district they come from, one group ends up controlling the government even if another group has equal or even higher support.

My home state of Michigan is heavily gerrymandered in favor of Republicans, as this article does a good job of explaining. In state-wide elections (i.e. US Senate, President), Michigan has consistently voted Democratic for years, indicating that the majority of voters lean Democratic; yet in district-driven elections (i.e. US Representative, state representatives), Michigan consistently sends largely Republican representative groups. Gerrymandering isn't the only cause, but it's a major contributing factor.

Party Control. The voting process is largely controlled by the two major political parties, Republicans and Democrats. They set up primary elections to choose their candidate, and voters overwhelmingly support one of those candidates. In many places, in large part due to gerrymandering, the primary election effectively chooses the representative. Third parties do exist, but they generally have such low visibility and lack of power that voters aren't even aware of them. There are options for mitigating this issue. For instance, holding a blanket primary, in which the primary process is not split by party. Better yet, a form of proportional representation would allow even small parties to have some level of representation, and if properly implemented would address some of the gerrymandering concerns as well.

Term Length/Election Frequency. We in the United States have elections regularly, choosing every type of representative from local school boards to the President of the country. There's elections every year in most places for local concerns and every two/four years at the national level. On the surface this seems like a good thing; the more often we vote, the more attention the elected officials spend making sure their voters are happy. Unfortunately, what that means is that the officials tend to look primarily at short-term actions which make them look good at election time, regardless of the long-term consequences. Often they spend more time raising funds for the rapidly-approaching next election cycle than actually governing, especially when terms are only a year or two in length. When you have to be voted into office every two or four years, it's very difficult to look out five, ten, or more years and do the best thing for the country in the medium-to-long term, especially if it causes some short-term pain.

Campaign Funding. Rules for election campaigns in the United States seem fairly strict on the surface. There are all kinds of rules about how much money can be accepted, how it needs to be reported, and how it can be spent. Those rules have been regularly weakened, though, most famously by the Citizens United Supreme Court decision in 2010. Organizations known as "Super PACs" allow unlimited funds to be spent to support (or oppose) particular election campaigns. In some cases, there's no requirement to disclose who gives the money. The reason all this is important is that the voices of those supported by the big money drown out all other viewpoints.

Issues like those I've mentioned here (and others, like voter registration restrictions), are limiting the actual representation of the will of the voters. I'd love to support politicians who are dedicated to making improvements in the electoral process, but it seems they're all busy benefiting from the system rather than trying to change it. I still vote, because I consider it both a right and a duty, but it sure feels like a useless gesture sometimes. I can certainly empathize with those who don't vote at all.

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

What is that CFB Playoff Committee thinking?

The college football playoff rankings were updated last night, and everyone and their dog has some kind of opinion on why they're wrong. (Especially if that dog is from Iowa.) I'm going to buck the trend and explain why they're right.
First, let's be clear about what these rankings are. What the committee is doing is predicting which teams they think will be in the playoff. That's not the same as ranking which team looks best right now, or looking at which team has the fewest losses thus far. Yes, they take performance in the season thus far into account, and margin of victory/strength of schedule/etc do play a role. But what really determines rank is where the committee members believe the team will be when the playoffs start.

So let's look at this week's rankings in that light:

  • Number 1: Clemson (9-0). No stretch here. To remain undefeated, they only have to win their last three regular-season games against Syracuse, Wake Forest, and South Carolina (combined record 5-15) and then the ACC Championship game. That will likely be against North Carolina, and is likely the toughest test remaining for the Tigers.
  • Number 2: Alabama (8-1). The fact that the Crimson Tide have lost a game makes this probably the most controversial ranking. It was a very un-Saban-like game with multiple mistakes and turnovers, and some extreme good fortune for Ole Miss on the other side (helmet bounce TD, anyone?) but it's still a loss. But remember, we're predicting here, not looking back. The reason you put Alabama at #2 is that (A) you believe they will win every game from here on, which includes Mississippi State next up, and the Iron Bowl, and the SEC Championship Game; and (B) you believe everyone else not in the top 4 will either also have 1+ losses or be Houston.
  • Number 3: Ohio State (9-0). Despite looking fairly weak in a couple of their wins, the Buckeyes haven't lost yet. They have three significant games left: Michigan State, Michigan, and the conference championship game against (very likely) Iowa. This ranking means the committee believes they'll win all of those.
  • Number 4: Notre Dame (8-1). Another team with a loss! Shouldn't Baylor or Oklahoma State or Iowa be here instead? Well, let's look ahead. Since Ohio State is #3, that means Iowa is effectively a one-loss team in the committee's minds. Since Baylor and OK State play one another, one of them is a one-loss team also. Both also have to play Oklahoma, and Baylor still has TCU as well. It's not a stretch to think that both Baylor and OK State will end up having lost a game after that Big 12 gauntlet has been run. If that's what you believe, then putting Notre Dame at #4 above those three teams makes perfect sense. Of course, the Irish will have to win out, including a big showdown with Stanford, or it's likely you'll see the Cardinal in this spot instead.
What about Houston, who are also 9-0? They still have to beat Memphis, Navy, and (likely) Temple to stay undefeated. That alone would keep them out of the higher end of the rankings, because none of those are creampuff games. Even if they do win out, a weak strength of schedule is likely to keep them out of the top 4. So from a prediction standpoint, there's no reason to put Houston anywhere near the top, and indeed they're way down at #24.

So, if you believe that...
  1. Clemson won't clemson away any of their remaining games.
  2. The fear of Saban has been put into the Tide such that they won't screw up another game like they did against Ole Miss.
  3. The Buckeyes will sweep the Mitten State and beat Iowa in the Big 10 championship.
  4. Notre Dame will win out, including that big last regular-season game against Stanford.
  5. The Big 12 teams will beat on each other such that none of them remain undefeated.
...then this is exactly what the rankings should be. Don't like something in there? All your team has to do is prove one of those things wrong.

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Anno 1701

Recently I've colonized a whole lot of Caribbean islands. For this I primarily blame GOG.com.

For those not familiar with GOG, it stands for Good Old Games, and they sell all kinds of older games in packages easy to run on modern devices. They have some newer stuff, too, but I almost always go there for the older stuff. Recently they had a sale on the older Anno games, and I ended up with Anno 1503, 1602, and 1701 for less than $10. After reading a few things around the 'net about the three games, I decided that I only needed to play 1701, as the others are mostly just older versions of the same game.
Anno is a series of city-building games, with a significant emphasis on trading and economic activity. The series has been in the news recently with the release of Anno 2205, which very well may have been a factor in the GOG sale timing. I'm chronically behind on video game releases (often by years) so playing a 9-year-old game at the same time as the latest release in the series is pretty normal for me. A release from the mid-2000s is right about my sweet spot: old enough to be cheap, new enough to have reasonable graphics and other technical aspects, and I can easily get info about whether the game is worth playing from friends and the Internet at large.

Anno 1701 takes place in a colonization era, as you'd expect from the title, putting you in charge of building colonies for the Queen. You're expected to do the multi-tier approach to building up your colony that is common to these kind of simulation-builder games. Start with small buildings and cheap trade goods, work your way up to bigger/better/more expensive things, and try not to go bankrupt in the process.
I've played through most of the scenarios that came with the game, which were mildly entertaining in story, if a bit simplistic in execution. Each one is its own little story which brings to mind swashbuckling adventure novels - think Treasure Island or Pirates of the Caribbean. Rescue the doctor who is making a cure for the Queen's illness! Steal the ancient artifact from the temple of the monkey god! Of course, each of those scenarios returns to the same task of building up a little colony, but it's nice to have a different reason to be doing it each time.

The real meat of this sort of game is the open-ended gameplay mode, and Anno 1701 does a good job with it. You can play forever if you like, or set end-game goals. Play by yourself or with AI opponents. Run the risk of natural disasters, or be assured of smooth sailing. Lots of options are provided to make the game as easy/hard as you'd like. My personal style is to mostly avoid military conflict and build up a thriving economy, and Anno 1701 lets me do that without interference if I so choose.
I probably won't play Anno 1701 for too much longer, simply due to how many other games I have on my to-play list. It's been a fun diversion, though, and I'll keep it in mind for any time I happen to get the colonization urge.