Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Rogue One

It takes some extra skill to put together a story when everyone already knows the ending. I think the Rogue One folks did a fine job.
This newest Star Wars film takes place prior to A New Hope. It follows Jyn Erso, the daughter of an engineer forced by the Empire to work on the planet-destroying Death Star. She and various rebellion irregulars track down her father, discover that he has sabotaged the project, and go into the lion's den to get the details to the Rebel Alliance.

We've already known for nearly four decades how the story is going to end, since A New Hope starts with the Death Star plans already in the hands of Princess Leia. (RIP Carrie Fisher...the news of her death broke on the same day I saw this movie.) Rogue One takes full advantage of the fact that nearly every viewer is going to know that story. There are lots of familiar people and places and things that show up as Jyn's story unfolds, from C-3PO and R2-D2 to Darth Vader to the princess herself (pretty decent CGI on that). The journey doesn't end happily ever after for everyone, which might have been depressing if we didn't know what comes next.

Having said that, I also enjoyed the story that Rogue One told beyond just looking for the ways that it links to the larger Star Wars story. Jyn is a flawed heroine, involved in the conflict more for revenge and following her father than for the ideals of rebellion. Just about everyone that accompanies her on her journey is a misfit or outcast of some kind. The story is as much about those misfits coming together to get a job done as it is about setting up A New Hope.

One thing you don't see much of in Rogue One is Jedi. There are references to the Force, and one character who has at least some Jedi skills, but this story takes place in the time when Darth Vader has largely exterminated the Jedi Order. It's a stark contrast to most of the other Star Wars films, where being or becoming a Jedi is almost always a central theme. I was pleased to see that Rogue One worked out well without them.

Just about anything Disney puts out under the Star Wars name is going to make plenty of money, but between Rogue One and The Force Awakens, it seems they're trying to make decent movies as well as cashing in. As long as they keep that up, I'll keep watching them.

Monday, December 26, 2016

Holiday Loot 2016

Happy Holidays! I hope everyone had time to reflect on friends, family, and the meaning of Christmas. And now that we're done with that, on to the loot!
My parents kindly sent me a cash gift that I could use to obtain a new tablet, since mine died a few months back. I did a brief poll of some friends and decided on an ASUS ZenPad 10. It's not the most powerful or feature-rich tablet, but all I really want is a good-sized quality display suitable for reading comics and playing simple mobile games (i.e. Star Realms). This tablet fills that need admirably, at a reasonable price.
From my brother, a fine paper book! Literally and in terms of subject matter. Most of what I've been reading recently has been in eBook format, so this will be a nice change of pace back to basics. And it goes nicely with The History of Writing series from Extra History, which I just finished watching the other day.

I also participated in a Secret Santa gift exchange this year with some folks from the QT3 forums. For my part, I shipped gifts all the way to Norway. The distance meant it was a good idea to keep it small, so the only physical item was a small model Viper ship from Battlestar Galactica - my giftee is a fan of the forum game based on that show. I also added some Kindle books (no shipping costs there): a cookbook full of video-game-related recipes and a couple of sci-fi novels.
From my secret santa came some reading and listening material, along with notes mentioning that some of the posts on this very blog helped with ideas. Star Trek - Ships of the Line is a 350-page book of artwork featuring all sorts of ships from the Star Trek universe (gift idea inspired by this post). The Amory Wars is an epic sci-fi comic collection, which I'd never heard of but looks very interesting. Even better, it comes with an accompanying metal album of songs related to the story! Coheed and Cambria frontman Claudio Sanchez is also the writer of the comics. Looking forward to checking out the set. (Update: There was also Randall Monroe's Thing Explainer book! It came a couple of days later in a separate box.)

Hope everyone out there had a Christmas as enjoyable as mine - happy holidays!

Thursday, December 22, 2016

Nordic Symphonic Metal

This has been a good year for music discovery, mostly through my Spotify subscription.
My tastes have run mostly to melodic and symphonic metal this year. Back in February, I went to a Nightwish concert. That led me to track down the work of Delain, who had been one of the opening acts. With input like that, Spotify's discovery lists found several other similar artists. My favorites to this point are Amaranthe, We Are the Catalyst, and The Murder of My Sweet.

It's pretty easy to see why all of these bands ended up on the same playlists, when you consider the similarities. All have female vocalists, and most have lots of songs with alternating male/female vocal parts. Lots of classical influences in the music, implemented with metal's heavy guitar lines and driving beats.

All those bands also happen to all be from Nordic countries. Something in the water up there produces symphonic metal, I guess. At first I thought that would mean opportunities for live music would be pretty rare, but there are actually quite a few tour dates in the US. Judging from the show lists that I've glanced over on their websites, most seem to spend about a third of their tour time here. I've got my eye on a few dates next year, mainly in the Chicago area.

I'm pretty sure I've barely scratched the surface of the genre. So far I really haven't looked beyond whatever recommendations Spotify tosses at me. Even so, I've got an awful lot of music that's new to me to listen to.

Sunday, December 18, 2016

Star Realms: Rescue Run by Jon Del Arroz

Star Realms: Rescue RunStar Realms: Rescue Run by Jon Del Arroz
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I bought Rescue Run largely because I like the Star Realms game and wanted to support it. The book is set in the game's universe, though the linkage pretty much ends there. The game's fleet-building mechanics aren't really reflected in the book, though players will recognize plenty of names.

Leaving aside the Star Realms tie-ins, Rescue Run is a decent if not particularly imaginative story. Renegade thief is collared by the powers-that-be and forced to join a dangerous mission against an evil oppressive empire - seen it before. The empire in this case is a corporate entity, and the renegade is a somewhat insecure woman rather than the usual cocky ladies man, so it's not entirely a generic formula. There's a love story embedded, of course, with a sheltered-but-empathetic scion of the evil empire falling for the renegade. The characters go through plenty of hard-to-believe close calls and lucky escapes, which is to be expected in this kind of against-all-odds storyline.

As far as game tie-in novels go, Rescue Run is pretty good. The overall story arc and themes were a bit too generic for my taste, but the writing is well executed. Certainly if you're interested in delving into the Star Realms universe, it's worth the read.

Sunday, December 11, 2016

Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel

Station ElevenStation Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Station Eleven is set in an alternate-reality dystopia where the present-day world has been ravaged by a massive epidemic that wipes out 99% of the human race. It follows a small group of people both before and after the event, jumping back and forth between the recognizable world of today and the post-apocalyptic struggle for survival.

I didn't get the feeling that this novel is really about the disaster that wipes out most of the world's people. There's no real mystery about the epidemic, which happens almost immediately in the early chapters. No serious attempt is made to explain where it came from or why, just a vague reference to the "Georgia Flu" (the country, not the state).

No, this book is about relationships between the characters, and (for those that survive) how they deal with the new world. I found those characters to be well-defined and interesting to follow, for the most part. It's easy to feel a sense of empathy for both people we see only before the epidemic (like Arthur) and those who survived and struggle to build a new life (like Kirsten).

Unfortunately, the story's format makes it somewhat difficult to stay connected to those characters. It keeps moving back and forth across time - years before the epidemic, the immediate aftermath, twenty years after. I think the author was trying to set up a sense of mystery about how the people we see from the earlier times become those we see later on, but if that's the case then it didn't work for me. There are way too many small hints that make it obvious who "the prophet" is, for example. Or where Kirsten's comic books came from. The eventual explanations are anti-climatic since they're so obvious. I think it would have worked better with less back-and-forth across time, instead focusing on following one or two of the characters more closely.

I still enjoyed reading Station Eleven, even if the back-and-forth-across-time format wasn't to my taste. It's well-written, with a interesting exploration of how people might deal with such a massive change in the world.

Monday, December 5, 2016

Fiction River: Unnatural Worlds

Fiction River is a series of anthologies from WMG Publishing. The first one published was Unnatural Worlds, back in 2013. I recently read it after picking it up in a Storybundle.
Before getting to the stories, a bit about the publication. In the foreward/introduction, editors Dean Wesley Smith and Kristine Kathryn Rusch write about the (then new) idea of Fiction River. Both had worked in publishing in the past, decided it wasn't for them, and had solid success as authors. But the rise of crowdfunding via the Internet mitigated the financial risk of putting together an anthology project, and the editors were able to commission stories by authors from their own personal networks. Fiction River is a good example of new technologies driving innovation in an established industry.

I was pretty sure going in that many of the twelve stories would be solid since I recognized the authors. And this was in fact the case, with names such as Esther Friesner and David Farland, plus stories by each of the editors. I'd not encountered most of the other authors before, but given the experience of the editors, I wasn't surprised to find that I enjoyed most of their stories as well.

While the theme of the anthology is stories that deal with different worlds, the stories treat that theme very differently. Some are literal, such as Devon Monk's Life Between Dreams, where the characters actually walk across multiple worlds. Others are more symbolic, dealing with characters that come from different worlds, such as Ray Vukcevich's Finally Family.

My personal favorite is Esther Friesner's The Grasshopper and My Aunts, which was fairly predictable since I've read a bunch of her books. It's written in Victorian-era style and deals with Greek myths living in the English countryside. Quick moving and humorous throughout.

I like the idea of the Fiction River anthology series, and there's plenty more of them by now. Unnatural Worlds is a good opening effort. I'll probably seek out some more of them in the future.

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Necessity by Jo Walton

Necessity is the final volume of Jo Walton's Thessaly trilogy. After finishing The Just City (more on it here) and The Philosopher Kings (more on it here), I picked up Necessity from the local library.
There's a gap of a few decades between the end of The Philosopher Kings and the beginning of Necessity. The cities have adjusted to their new planet (called Plato, unsurprisingly) and a new generation has grown up there. They've met two different alien races, and within the first few chapters receive communication from other humans, the first since leaving Earth. That re-contact is the subject of a lot of discussion, but isn't the primary subject of the book.

Much of Necessity is about exactly that - necessity, in the sense that the gods are bound by necessity to certain courses of action. There's a lot more about the nature of the gods, the flow of time, and the universe at large in this book than either of the others. Apollo, Athene, and an alien god are central figures in this book, taking a direct hand in much of the story.

The viewpoint characters in Necessity are almost entirely new. Other than Apollo, none of them were the narrators in the prior books. I particularly liked that Walton used Crocus, one of the sentient machine Workers, as a viewpoint character in several chapters of this book. It was also nice to see the viewpoint of Jason, who is a "silver" citizen (practical work rather than the philosophy and leadership of the "gold" citizens) on Plato. The majority of the prior two books were written from the perspective of "gold" citizens, so that perspective was a bit different.

Unlike the first two books, Necessity doesn't end with a major shakeup affecting the Platonic cities. Appropriate for the final book in the series, but I'll admit that it felt a bit anti-climatic. After the way The Just City and The Philosopher Kings ended, I kept expecting some kind of bombshell in the last few chapters of this book. We do see the that aforementioned re-contact with other humans, which is certainly important, but it's not in the same class as the splitting of the city or relocation to a new planet.

The Thessaly trilogy won't be for everyone, but for those who enjoyed the first book, finishing out the series is well worth the read.

Saturday, November 26, 2016

Joe Buck's Memoir "Lucky Bastard"

Joe Buck has been a fixture in sports broadcasting for most of my adult life. I heard about Lucky Bastard from various sports media and via Buck's guest appearance on Wait Wait Don't Tell Me.
The full title of the book is Lucky Bastard: My Life, My Dad, and the Things I'm Not Allowed to Say on TV. That's a pretty good sample of the writing style: slightly profane and irreverent, but honest. Within the first chapter he's explained that using the word "bastard" is technically true as well as being an eye-catching title - he was conceived well before his parents married - and shared a slew of his own embarrassing life moments. It feels very real and open to me, and the same is true when he moves on to talking about other people.

I'm a sports fan, particularly baseball, so I found plenty of interest in the many stories and descriptions of the people that Buck has met and events he's worked. As the son of a Hall of Fame broadcaster Jack Buck, Joe has even more of those stories than most life-long sports personalities. He literally grew up in baseball stadiums, and has been part of big events like the World Series for years. I enjoyed his perspective on the people and events that I remember following as I've grown up.

Even more than the sports stories, though, I thought that Lucky Bastard is excellent for its portrayal of Buck's personal life story. The father-son relationship between Jack and Joe is a large part of that story, and I thought the love there was very evident. Buck isn't afraid to admit that he's made plenty of mistakes, either, both at the personal and professional level. His descriptions of both the good and bad times feel very real to me.

I have no reservations recommending Lucky Bastard to any sports fan, certainly, but I think even those with only a general knowledge of the last few decades of sports events would enjoy it. Buck has an engaging writing style and an interesting life story to tell.

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Doctor Strange (2016)

I caught the latest Marvel superhero movie today, Doctor Strange, at the local AMC theater.
I was pretty surprised to be charged exactly $5.19 for my ticket. I'd heard that some theaters were doing flexible pricing these days, but this was the first time I'd seen it in action. The 11:30 AM Wednesday show (not in 3D) was apparently pretty low on the demand scale. As someone who almost never goes to a theater during peak hours, I approve heartily. I also approve of the recliner-style seating that this particular theater was equipped with, took full advantage of that.

Doctor Strange is an origin story, like most of the other MCU productions featuring a character for the first time. Like most comic book nerds, I knew the basic story already: egotistical surgeon gets into an accident, loses his ability to perform surgery, goes searching for help and finds a mystical world where he becomes a hero. The movie does a fine job going through that origin, even if it feels a bit rushed as Strange goes from inept neonate to battle-sorcerer.

The movie is almost entirely about developing Strange's character, and there's not a whole lot of room for others. The renegade-sorcerer villain is a single-minded, one-dimensional character intent on his path of destruction. The supporting cast of other doctors and magicians mostly just seem to emphasize one aspect of Strange's transition: his old love and professional lives, the mentors leading him into magical domains, the previous master falling to make room for him. I don't think this is a bad thing, since the whole idea is to tell Strange's origin, but it's worth mentioning.

There are a whole lot of special effects in this movie, and they sure seemed well-executed to me. All the MCU films have plenty of CGI muscle behind them, and this one is near the top of the list in sheer amount of visual effects. In several places the entire screen is full of shifting landscapes - even if you haven't seen the movie yet, you've probably seen it in all the commercials - while various characters bounce around, fighting each other and dodging the scenery. A bit overdone, perhaps, but it's certainly impressive.

As with most MCU films, this one has some small tie-ins to the larger universe. Avengers Tower shows up in the New York cityscape, there's mention of an Infinity Stone, and if you stay past the first bit of the closing credits a certain Avenger makes Strange's acquaintance. I'm looking forward to seeing Strange mixed in with the rest of the MCU.

Given the prevalence of sweeping special effects, I'm glad I saw Doctor Strange in the theater. I'm sure it'll look fine on a small screen too, but those kind of visuals have a bigger impact on the big screen. Especially for $5.19.

Monday, November 21, 2016

Back to Netflix

Netflix is so needy. Leave it alone for a year or so, and it just comes crawling back. "Please, take me back, here's a free month!" Well, who am I to say no to a plea like that?
I tend to cycle through streaming services: a few months of Netflix, then some Crunchyroll, maybe some Amazon Prime Video, a bit of HBO Go. I can't watch enough different shows to make it worth while to have more than one at a time anyway, so why bother paying for more than one? It does mean that I rarely get to watch anything when it's first released, but that doesn't bother me much.

The latest Netflix free month has been an excuse to catch up on various stuff that has come out since the last time I had an active subscription. So far that's been Luke Cage and Jessica Jones, both of which are excellent. I've never actually read any of the Marvel Comics on which the characters are based, but I'm familiar with them from video games like Marvel Heroes. Luke in particular is one of my favorites, and I love what they did with his series. Jessica Jones was actually a bit better in terms of story, I thought, but I still enjoyed Luke Cage just as much.

I had a friend over the other night, and we were talking about old favorite shows, and it turns out that she'd never seen Firefly. Well, that's just wrong, and it happens that Netflix has the whole series online. So we watched the first couple of episodes, and now I can't stop myself from going back through the whole thing. For some odd reason, the Serenity movie isn't available to stream, but when I get there I'll rent it somewhere.

For the most part, my Amazon Fire TV works perfectly with Netflix. The navigation within the app is pretty terrible, but one thing it does well is show the list of shows that you saved to "My List" on the Netflix site. So I just find whatever I'm interested in on my PC and add it to that list. No need to wade through the masses of recommendations or use the terrible search function on the media center.

With the weather finally turning colder and baseball season over, I've got plenty of time and inclination to sit in front of a screen and vegetate. Perfect time to take Netflix back for a while.

Thursday, November 17, 2016

Mr. Robot (USA)

I've heard good things over the last year or so about USA's Mr. Robot, and thanks to a combination of Amazon Prime Video and Playstation Vue I have easy access to all the episodes of the two seasons released at this point.
Part of what attracted me to this show is the hacker theme, which seems well-executed to me. Several of the characters, including the protagonist Elliot, are heavily into hacker culture. They spend a lot of time gathering information on people via social media, going after corporate networks, and occasionally even helping to catch criminals. Unlike a lot of popular media, this show tries to keep their technical segments realistic, or at least within shouting distance of realism. I particularly like how almost all their activities involve a human (aka "social engineering"), which is majorly under-represented in most "hacker" storylines. Why break in through technology barriers when you can get someone to let you in?

In the first few episodes, Mr. Robot is almost entirely about the characters using their hacking skills to set up a major breach against "E Corp" (always referred to as "Evil Corp"). The idea is to wipe out all of the corporate data, thus freeing people from their debts. My gut reaction on hearing that was "oh, the writers saw Fight Club" and that parallel certainly is accurate, even more so once you get around the end of the first season.

It's not long before the major conflict shifts from the external hack-the-evil-corporation to Elliot's internal struggles. He's an addict, with lots of social anxiety and some major personality issues. His inability to remain in control and recognize reality versus fantasy causes some fairly major problems for himself and his friends. His mental issues take up a lot of the show, especially in the second season. A good portion of the time, the viewer isn't sure if what we see is reality or not. Frankly, I felt like about half of the "Elliot's struggles" scenes could have been cut out and the viewer would still have gotten the idea.

There's a significant anti-establishment theme to Mr. Robot, more than just what you get with the "a bunch of hackers" main character group. No opportunity is missed to paint government and big corporations as thoroughly evil in the first season. This is mitigated a bit in the second season when we see things from the viewpoint of an FBI agent, but the overall tone is clear. I'm fairly sympathetic to those ideas; nonetheless, it seems overly preachy to me. The show is heavy on "establishment bad" and light on how average people are hurt when that establishment crumbles. That starts to change a bit toward the end of the second season; it'll be interesting to see how it continues to develop in the third.

Unfortunately, Mr. Robot also adds in a hefty dose of psychopathy in the form of Tyrell and Joanna Wellick. He's an "Evil Corp" executive that beats up on bums, sleeps with other executives' assistants to steal information, and eventually commits murder. She's a master manipulator of her husband and just about everyone else, and a masochist. I felt that pretty much all the nasty stuff they do was completely unnecessary, useful only as shock value. Their paths do cross with that of Elliot and friends, so it's not like they're useless characters, but I think the plot points could have been handled without all the "50 Shades of Grey" moments.

I like the concept behind Mr. Robot, and enjoyed the mystery feel while trying to figure out the various inter-personal intrigues and what's going on in Elliot's head. I just wish it was a bit more focused, eliminating some of the over-the-top psychopath moments and repetition of similar scenes.

Sunday, November 13, 2016

The Philosopher Kings by Jo Walton

After reading The Just City, I was interested enough to continue the trilogy. Book two, The Philosopher Kings, was easily obtained from the local library.
The Philosopher Kings doesn't start immediately after the end of The Just City, but rather more than a decade later. There's no longer a single city on their island, but five different settlements that were established after the events that ended the first book. The reader learns what happened in the intervening time as the characters discuss or remember it. They also discover what happened to the group that left the island entirely.

Most of the viewpoint characters remain the same, with one major exception. Simmea dies (not really a spoiler since it happens at the very beginning) and her place is taken by Arete, Simmea's daughter by Apollo. I thought that Walton did an especially good job with Apollo's reactions to Simmea's death, through grief and revenge and acceptance. As a god, he's not used to that kind of loss, but is forced to deal with it in his incarnate form.

The Philosopher Kings feels more active than The Just City. The first book took place almost entirely within the one city, while the second deals with the divided island as well as a fairly extensive sea voyage. Until the very end of The Just City, there was very little large-scale conflict (though plenty between individuals). That's not the case in The Philosopher Kings, which starts with "art raid" battles between cities on the island, and continues with both physical and political altercations with those from outside.

Religion plays a larger part in this book than the first. With multiple cities, there's a wider variety of ideas of all kinds. For example, a form of Christianity takes root in some places, despite being in a time before Christ. Some people try to tie everything together into a single belief system, others permit free exercise to all faiths, while others establish state religions and persecute heretics. I personally find it discouraging that some people feel it necessary to establish exclusive beliefs and force them on everyone else, but a quick look around the world makes it pretty clear that's the reality of human nature. I think this is a pretty realistic outcome of the scenario that Walton has established.

Like the first book, the power of the gods plays a major role in The Philosopher Kings. This shows up mostly in the form of Apollo's children, who find that they are "heroes" with various kinds of supernatural abilities thanks to their heritage. The process is explained in a logical manner that I thought made the idea pretty easy to accept. There's very little overt exercise of godly power until the very end, when concern over the impact of the time travelers on history results in very major changes for the entire population.

Anyone who enjoyed The Just City should certainly read The Philosopher Kings, and I am definitely planning to finish out the trilogy.

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

Election Postmortem

2016, the year that British voters did something incredibly stupid, and then the United States electorate went and topped it. Brexit may end up being only the second-worst thing to happen in politics this year. You're welcome, Great Britain.
In January, there's going to be a President Trump. I'm unhappy for all the reasons I stated back in March, but nonetheless I have it pretty good. As a white, male, straight, Christian, upper-middle-class US citizen, most of what Trump has been saying he'll do won't negatively affect me (at least not directly). The unhappiness comes from caring about what happens to people who don't share those same attributes.

I checked the election results as posted on Michigan Radio and the Kent County website. Not counting the unopposed races, all but one person that I voted for lost their race. (That one was Lisa Posthumus Lyons, for County Clerk. I know she has lots of government experience since she was my state representative until recently, which I'd rather have than ideological agreement when it comes to a Clerk position.) The presidential result was a surprise since Michigan almost always votes Democrat in state-wide races, but everything else was pretty much as I expected.

Nevertheless, after each election it's a good idea to be optimistic, no matter who won. So, some good things about yesterday's results:

  • Both houses of Congress and the President will be controlled by the same party for the first time since 2010. While I'm not naive enough to think that will end Congressional gridlock (especially since Republicans don't have 60 Senate seats), I do have hope that at least it'll be easier to get something done.
  • We'll get a ninth Supreme Court Justice again. I know, that would have happened no matter who won, but I think it's worth mentioning. Being in a sort of judicial limbo while the Senate refused to even consider a new justice isn't sustainable. I can practically guarantee that I won't agree with whoever President Trump nominates, but at least the system will be moving again.
  • Mike Pence is likely to have more power than many vice presidents, perhaps even to the level of Dick Cheney. Donald Trump likes to promise big things, and be the face of his organization, but then let his staff do the work to deliver. Now, I don't agree with many of Pence's positions, but I do think that he knows how to do the job of a chief executive, as he did in Indiana. I think it's likely that Pence will keep the executive-branch machine running even if President Trump tosses a lot of wrenches into the works.
  • We're probably going to see the repeal of the Affordable Care Act. I've supported the ACA because it was better than doing nothing for the uninsured, but that doesn't make it good. What we really need is a health care system that minimizes the profit motive, and the ACA did nothing on that front. That won't happen with the Republicans in power, I know, but the failure of the ACA is a first step. I'm hopeful that it will lead to a better chance for real change the next time health care reform is attempted, instead of just trying to build on the broken system.
  • I'm glad Justin Amash was re-elected as my representative in the House of Representatives, even if I didn't actually vote for him. We don't share a lot in the way of policy positions, but I respect the way he executes his position.
  • At the local level, both the John Ball Zoo and the Kent County 9-1-1 system upgrade proposals passed. Good news for local safety and culture.
Yeah, I know, that's not exactly a lot of positives, but I'll take what I can get. Yesterday I said that I was voting for Clinton in hopes that she would "not do any major damage to international relations or the economy." Now I'll have to hope that Congress slows down President Trump's crazier ideas to limit the damage.

Monday, November 7, 2016

Finally! Election Day Tomorrow

It's about time. Just one more day of ridiculous numbers of ads, yard signs, flyers in the mail, and media coverage of every little thing any candidate says or does. (OK, that last one isn't going away, but it should at least slow down.)
I'll do both, thanks.
Everyone and his dog is talking about the presidential election, of course. I'm voting for Clinton, for reasons stated months ago. Nothing has changed, no matter what the frantic media coverage wants you to believe. I'm not particularly happy about it, though voting for the (hopefully) first female President is kinda cool. Mostly, I'm voting in the hope that she can keep US politics from getting any worse for now, and not do any major damage to international relations or the economy. All the other candidates (including the third party folks) are practically promising to do their best to inflict major damage to one or both of those areas.

Enough about that, what about everything else on the ballot? My district has one other federal race, for US Representative, which is a shoo-in for Justin Amash. I agree with him on practically nothing in terms of policy, but I do like the way he conducts his business. Still, I'll probably vote for the Democrat, though it doesn't really matter how I vote. Due to the way my district is drawn, Amash is going to win regardless.

We also have a State Representative race, with no incumbent due to term limits. I plan to vote for Lynn Mason, although I'd be shocked if she won. Again, the district is drawn to be very safe for Republicans.

The rest of the state-level races are about education, and to be honest I know very little about any of the people running. I did some quick looks around their websites and Internet searches, but for the most part they all say much the same things about putting the students first, supporting teachers, etc. The few differences break almost exactly along party lines. Examples: the Republicans support increased local control and more charter schools, the Democrats want the state setting standards and focusing on improving public schools, and the third parties seem to mostly want to abolish large parts of the system. I'm going to end up voting straight Democratic, I think, simply because I believe that as a general rule the Democratic positions on education lead to more equitable availability of education to all citizens.

Then we get to the local level, with 10 different county and township races, many of which have only one name listed on the ballot. (Republican, of course.) Very little information about any of these people beyond the basic "I support community and families" stuff that every politician says. Where there is a choice, I'm going to vote for whichever name I have not seen on any yard signs or in my mailbox, on the general principle that the names plastered all over the place are more annoying. I expect that 99% of the responsibilities in these jobs could be executed by any competent human that actually qualified to be on the ballot, so it's not going to matter a whole lot either way.

After this, there are 10 "non-partisan" races, which is a bald-faced lie. I've been seeing ads for the Michigan Supreme Court races, for instance, featuring the two Republican candidates. The party affiliation may not be listed on the ballot, but it's certainly still part of the races. Several of these races also have only one choice listed. I would much rather not vote for judges at all - the federal appointment system seems much smarter - but it's on the ballot. Finding information that actually distinguishes one candidate from another is nigh impossible for a layman like me - they all seem to have experience, and all claim to support the law/community/etc. I think I'll go with the same "vote for whoever annoyed me the least with constant ads" method as mentioned above.

Finally, we have two proposals. The first is an increase in property tax to support the John Ball Zoo, both the primary campus and educational outreach programs, which I will absolutely support. (Despite the fact that the zoo has their own set of annoying ads around town. Not the fault of the animals or school kids.) The second is for an enhanced 9-1-1 service, paid for with an extra charge on "communication service suppliers' billings" (basically, phone bills). I'll support that one, too, on the general principle that skimping on things like emergency services tends to come back to bite you later on.

I signed up to get my flu shot tomorrow, so I can take care of two necessary but mildly painful things in one trip. Doctor's office, then the polling station, then home to read or play video games or stream some TV show...anything but watch election coverage.

Sunday, November 6, 2016

World Run Day at Pretty Lake Camp

Thanks to the folks at Gazelle Sports, I discovered that Pretty Lake Camp near Kalamazoo was hosting a World Run Day event on November 6. I signed up for the 10k trail run.
It's a decent drive down to the camp, about an hour. (Even had to go through Texas!) Long drives aren't ideal before or after runs, but this wasn't too bad. Got there early enough to stretch out after sitting in the car, and stayed around for a little while afterward to cool down a bit before the ride home.

Pretty Lake Camp doesn't have a particularly imaginative name, but it is an accurate one. You can see the lake from the area near the main buildings, and there are some nice views of the water from the trails also. Proceeds from the race went to support the camp, which among other things provides free camp experiences to low-income youth from Kalamazoo County.
The run itself is almost entirely through a wooded area, on dirt trails (and occasionally some sandy areas). We were fortunate that the weather was beautiful, upper 50s with no rain. There's a lot of fairly steep hills along the trail, but the footing was decent and I didn't have much trouble with balance (unlike when I did the Hard Cider Run). Making sure I didn't trip over a root or step in a hole still slowed me down a bit more than running on pavement, but not too much.

The event was fairly small - I'd guess around 200 runners. A few dozen of us ran the 10k, which started first, then the rest did 5k. Which was still enough to make the trail feel crowded at the beginning, but after the first mile or so there was plenty of room. The trail was well marked, which I appreciated - no fun getting lost in the woods! I had to get around some of the slower 5k folks since the 10k route looped around the same trails twice, but everyone was nice about giving room on the trail.
According to Runkeeper on my phone, I finished in 57:26, which is about what I'm used to for 10k on my regular runs. It also said the trail was only 9.45 kilometers, though. Given all the up and down on the hills, maybe the organizers included some elevation change in the distance when they laid out the course. In any event, I felt pretty good about the run, hills and all.

I'm glad I went down for this event, although it's a bit further afield than I usually go. If there's not a World Run Day event in the Grand Rapids area next year, I may do it again.

Thursday, November 3, 2016

What a Series

Holy Cow.
I've seen a lot of baseball games. The best ones don't always come in the biggest moments. But this season's World Series is certainly going to be hard to top.

Cleveland's run through the post-season has been all about great pitching. The games they won in this series followed that script. A total of two runs given up across all three. You expect better-than-average pitching from a team that makes it to the post-season and through multiple playoff rounds, but even by that standard the Indians pitching was spectacular. But in a long seven-game series, good hitters have a chance to adjust as they see the same pitching repeatedly. The Cubs' bats came alive as the series went on, particularly in the last two games.

The Chicago pitching was plenty good during the post-season, too. I was particularly impressed with Kyle Hendricks, and not just because of his performance in game 7. This is a guy who came into the season as the 5th starter on the Cubs staff, and all he did was lead the National League in ERA and win 16 games over 190 innings. By the time the post-season rolled around, Hendricks was third in the rotation and manager Joe Maddon felt comfortable lining up his starters to put him in game 7. And he did the job, giving up only 1 earned run over 4.2 innings.

When Jon Lester took over on the mound in the fifth, that also brought David Ross into the lineup. And 39-year-old "Grandpa Ross" (as his younger teammates call him) promptly hit a home run, making him the oldest player ever to go deep in a World Series game 7. This whole year has been full of great moments for Ross, who had announced that he'd retire after this season. Can't finish off a career much better!

Aroldis Chapman has been great closing games since he came to Chicago, but in game 7 he couldn't get the job done. Maybe that's because of all the work he's been doing recently, including pitching in game 6 even though the Cubs were up by 5. I can't say I agree with Maddon's pitching change decisions through this series, but getting the win in the end is what counts, even if that happened more due to the bats than the pitching in the final game. It's fitting that Mike Montgomery ended up with the game 7 save, considering all the good pitching he's done in the post-season out of the bullpen.

For Cleveland fans, I'm sure it's tempting to write off a season as a failure when your team loses. You can't get much closer than being down to a single game for the championship, though. Especially in baseball, where a single game is such a toss-up, and particularly when it goes to extra innings! Even great teams tend to lose around a third of the time. There's disappointment in losing the seventh game of a World Series, but no shame.

For Major League Baseball overall, I'm not sure this year's World Series could have gone much better. Usually, the conventional wisdom says that you want two teams from big markets to draw in the most viewers. Chicago is big enough, but usually you want to see at least one coastal team. This year, though, the fact that neither team had won the championship in so long made it compelling viewing for sports fans from all over. Also, it's always best for the popularity of the sport when the drama is high, and this series didn't disappoint. From a tense 1-0 Indians win in game 3, to two Cubs wins in elimination games 5 and 6, to the winner-take-all game 7 that goes into extra innings - hard to draw it up any better to keep maximum interest from the fan base.

I always miss baseball over the winter, but this will be a much happier off-season than usual. It may take me until spring to get used to hearing "World Champion Chicago Cubs!"

Tuesday, November 1, 2016

The Just City by Jo Walton

I picked up The Just City by Jo Walton when Tor gave it away as their free eBook of the Month in August. I'm not sure I'd have read it otherwise, as the idea of implementing Plato's Republic doesn't sound particularly interesting, but now I'm glad I did.
The premise of The Just City is that gods are real, and two of them - Apollo and Athene - have decided to pull people from all across history to found a city based on Plato's Republic. Most come from before the present day, but some from the future. These "masters" set up the city with the help of worker automatons brought from our future. (Between the gods, time travel, and how the workers' nature plays a large role in the story, I have a hard time categorizing this book as either science fiction or fantasy. I think it's some of both.) Then they purchase slave children from across history to populate the city and raise them as the first generation of citizens.

About the gods: Walton is careful to point out that the gods of many religions are real in the world of The Just City. Apollo and Athene are from the Greek pantheon, but he specifically describes others such as Jesus as being real also. There's a single all-powerful Father that is above them all, who is a mystery as much to the gods as to humans. It's an interesting way of using gods as characters while mostly removing religion from consideration.

I vaguely remember discussing Plato's Republic in school many years ago, as one among many philosophical works. The details are hazy, though, so I'm glad Walton generally explains what is being attempted, rather than assuming you know the source material. I'm sure there are some subtleties that I missed by not knowing the Republic in great detail, but the book is certainly accessible with only a vague understanding of what Plato wrote.

The Just City documents what happens when you try to implement a thought experiment in reality. Unsurprisingly, there is a lot of compromise involved, and some parts don't work as well as one might hope. The masters are all believers in the Platonic ideal at first - they were chosen specifically for their desire to be in such a city - but as time passes some of that certainty fades. The children are raised in the city and for the most part accept it as natural, but over time it becomes clear that human nature just doesn't line up with some facets of the ideal. Most notably, the elimination of marriage in favor of a randomized "festival" to pair up the "best" parents causes serious discord.

From a character standpoint, I thought Walton did a fine job in giving the reader relatable individuals to follow. The majority of the book follows three: Apollo, who has taken the form of one of the children; Maia, one of the masters; and Simmea, a child brought to the city from her former life as a slave. Each of these is well developed and understandable, and many other characters make extensive appearances. Chief among those others is Sokrates, who was brought to the city by Athene to teach rhetoric and debate. His constant questioning and argument is a major factor in the eventual fate of the experiment.

There's not a lot of physical action or conflict in The Just City, but plenty of philosophical discussion and struggle with how to reconcile reality with ideals. Equality of the sexes is a basic tenet of the Republic, but is still a struggle (particularly among the masters from older historical periods), both socially and in terms of physical assault. The nature of the gods as powerful but flawed, especially when it comes to taking into account the will of anyone else, is a key theme. Slavery is generally considered unjust and undesirable, but still used as a tool on some occasions. These and other themes, along with interest in the viewpoint characters, kept my attention throughout the story.

Even if the ancient philosophy represented by Plato's Republic isn't particularly appealing, The Just City has plenty to offer. The interactions between the characters and the process of building the city have plenty of entertainment value. I think most readers will find the philosophical discussions interesting as well, as they fit nicely into the flow of the book.

Friday, October 28, 2016

A Closed and Common Orbit by Becky Chambers

A Closed and Common Orbit is Becky Chambers' second novel, set in the same universe as her first. I enjoyed The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet when I read it a few weeks ago, so I grabbed her new book as soon as it was available at the library.
When I pick up an author's second book, I'm never quite sure what to expect. Especially if I particularly enjoyed the first one. Can it recapture the best things from the first book, without feeling like a retread? In this case, I think Chambers has created an excellent second effort, but there's no denying that it's a very different story from her first book.

A Closed and Common Orbit starts right after the ending of The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet, following two characters that appeared only briefly in the first book. Pepper is a genetically-engineered human who runs a repair shop, and she's taken in Sidra, a brand-new AI who is (illegally) installed in an android body. Almost everything from the first book is merely background in this one. You won't hear much from any of the crew of the Wayfarer that dominated the previous book.

In many ways, A Closed and Common Orbit is a pair of coming-of-age stories. One side of this Sidra, coming to terms with her existence in a situation for which her programming was not designed. The other side is Pepper's history, from slave to escapee to free citizen. The stories are interwoven, with flashbacks to Pepper's journey taking place between episodes in Sidra's life. I thought Chambers did a fine job of keeping the two in step throughout and tying everything together at the end.

In terms of structure, I think A Closed and Common Orbit is an improvement over The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet in a few ways. The overall flow is much smoother in the second book, without the disjointed "string of episodes" feel of the first. It also feels more focused, both in terms of characters and concepts. There's one clear central concept - artificial intelligence as equal to biological. Other ideas still make an appearance, but in a supporting role. Likewise, Pepper and Sidra are the clear central characters, in contrast to the first book where just about every crew member of the Wayfarer took over a central role at one time or another.

On the other hand, this book doesn't have anywhere near the scope of The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet. The first book built up an entire universe with various species, political entities, technologies, and so on. The Wayfarer's journey affected the lives of a large portion of the galaxy. In contrast, A Closed and Common Orbit is almost entirely limited to the lives of Sidra and Pepper. I didn't get the same sweeping, planet-hopping space opera feel as the first book.

For me personally, A Closed and Common Orbit was a better read than The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet. I enjoyed both, but I prefer the second book's focus on fewer characters and concepts. Someone who enjoyed the larger scope of the first book might feel the opposite, though. In any event, I do hope Chambers keeps writing in this universe as it's a fun place to explore in whatever writing style.

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Dream Theater Live - The Astonishing

Dream Theater came to Grand Rapids recently, on tour for their album The Astonishing.
I've listened to a good amount of Dream Theater's work over the years, though I wouldn't put them in the top tier of my favorite artists. I first came across their music in the 1990s when some fellow listeners of Rush recommended Dream Theater as another good progressive rock group. I haven't kept up with every album they've released over the years, and that includes this latest one, but I still occasionally break out some of their older stuff.

This particular concert was entirely about The Astonishing. It's a concept album, more than 2 hours long with 34 tracks, and they performed the entire thing. I found myself wishing that I'd spent some time listening to it before, since as with most rock concerts, the vocals were hard to follow when you don't know the songs. I certainly enjoyed the music, but it would have been nice to understand the words so I could follow the "concept" part of concept album.

The venue was DeVos Place in downtown Grand Rapids, which is built for stage plays. The approximately 2400 seats are fixed, with no open floor area, and broken up into several tiers. That means the view is pretty good in all areas, but also makes it not particularly well-suited to rock concerts where people want to move around. I thought the acoustics were fine, so the sound wasn't an issue, but there certainly wasn't much crowd energy. The place was only about three-quarters full, so that might have been true even if the venue was more open.

I sat way in the back up in the balcony section, about as far from the stage as you can get. But since it's such a small venue, that was actually a pretty good spot. No one was blocking my view, and I had no complaints about sound quality. I suspect I'd have actually seen less if I was any closer, just due to other people in front. Which is why I didn't move up - the place was empty enough that I could have, but it didn't seem like an improvement.

The band didn't play anything more than The Astonishing. That was a little disappointing, since everything of theirs that I actually know is older. Lots of other people felt the same way, based on what I overheard in the halls during a break and on the way out. Maybe with a bigger or more energetic crowd, there might have been some encores, but not in this particular case.

I'm glad I went to the concert - it would have been silly to miss an opportunity to see any band that I enjoy, this close to home - even if it wasn't quite what I'd hoped. I'm definitely going to make sure I'm more familiar with the latest album for similar situations in the future, though.

Saturday, October 22, 2016

Dear Grandma - How about those Cubs?

Dear Grandma Scott - It's finally happened. The Cubs are playing in a World Series.
I don't have a lot of memories of you, since you passed away when I was still a teenager. Much of what I do recall is from the last part of your life, when you lived with my family but were mostly confined to your own room. I didn't see much of you other than mealtimes, and not even that when your lifelong heavy cigarette smoking led to your hospitalization and eventual passing. But that was the end, and I prefer to remember earlier times.

Before the sports media explosion of the last decade or two, it wasn't nearly as easy to be a serious sports fan as it is now, particularly if you didn't live in a team's home area. There was no Internet to look up all the bits of information about every player, no streaming video to watch individual games from across the country (and world), and cable TV options were much more limited. The Chicago Cubs were an exception, though, thanks to WGN Sports broadcasting a large number of their games. Our family didn't watch a lot of TV, but when you lived with us, my mom made sure we had cable so that you could see the Cubs games.

You sitting close to that little black-and-white TV in your room, turned up loud to help you hear it, the voices of Harry Carey and Steve Stone - that's how I best remember your time living with us. I was more interested in reading and games and music than in actually sitting down to watch a baseball game, so we didn't actually watch very many games together. I still heard plenty, though. Thanks to you (and mom, who got it from you) I knew all about baseball, and in particular the Cubs. And I followed your example in becoming a life-long fan.

We all know that it hasn't been easy. Even those who know nothing else about baseball can tell you that the Chicago Cubs have a ridiculously long World Series drought. Much of the time the team was just bad, and even when they were good the playoffs never went well. From what I remember, though, the winning (or lack thereof) wasn't what you focused on. Whether the team was in contention or losing 100 games, you'd be watching. Sure, it was great when they won, but the important thing for you was hearing Harry and seeing Wrigley Field and watching the games played.

The current Cubs would be both easy for you to recognize, and completely different. Wrigley Field has gone through some changes, but it's still the same hundred-year-old park with the ivy walls. They've built up an amazing roster, largely with young players that could be around for years. There's no Harry in the broadcast booth, but his face still looks down on the field, and manager Joe Maddon is a kindred off-the-wall soul. They've always sung "Take Me Out To The Ballgame" during the 7th inning stretch at Wrigley, and now there's a song after every win, too.

Over the next couple of weeks, as Chicago and Cleveland (yes, the Indians made it too) play for the World Series title, I'll be watching. And I know you are, too.

Your Grandson Sam

Thursday, October 20, 2016

Death's End by Liu Cixin

Death's End is the conclusion to Liu Cixin's Remembrance of Earth's Past trilogy. I read the first two books, The Three Body Problem and The Dark Forest, a few weeks back. The English translation of Death's End was just recently released, and I was able to pick up a library copy.
This third novel is the longest of the trilogy, nearly 100 pages more than The Dark Forest. It covers a lot of ground, starting with a flashback to ancient Earth history and moving through multiple eras in the future. The majority of the story takes place in our Solar System, though we do also see a bit of deep space travel and even one glimpse of an alien civilization that makes up part of the "dark forest" that was the key theme of the second book.

Much of Death's End is told from the perspective of one person, which helps to maintain some continuity across all these changes. That person is Cheng Xin, a spaceflight engineer who becomes an intelligence operative and ends up traveling to future eras via hibernation technology. She's a very empathetic character, quickly identifying with the people and situations she finds when reviving in a new era. That empathy also means she is unable or unwilling to sacrifice others for potentially greater gains, though, and she makes several key decisions through history that have some dire consequences for humanity.

The idea of using more (or less) than three dimensions is a recurring theme throughout the series. The Trisolarian civilization uses multi-dimensional technology to build "sophons" in the first novel, and those play a huge role as instantaneous communication conduits, spies, and agents of sabotage. In Death's End, the idea of regular three-dimensional objects moving into either four- or two-dimensional space plays a large role, and various theories about the structure of the universe imply even higher dimensions. Liu Cixin isn't the first author to delve into the idea of changing dimensionality, but I thought the way he used those ideas was unique and interesting.

One of my favorite parts of Death's End is a series of allegorical fairly-tale stories which are used to communicate direction for scientific research. The Trisolarians are listening in on communications between the one human with access to their knowledge and those in back in the Solar System, so the information can't be stated directly. Trying to decipher the meaning of the stories becomes a puzzle that lasts years. Each hidden meaning that is revealed leads to shifts in the direction of humanity's understanding of science and technology. I enjoyed the mystery aspect of guessing the meaning in the stories, as well as appreciating the literary skill involved in integrating the very different fairy tale style in the middle of a science fiction novel.

The events in Death's End do wrap up most of the questions posed by the earlier novels. The resolutions aren't necessarily great for humanity, though. There are some pretty bleak outcomes for a lot of people. It's not just humans, either - the Trisolarians have serious troubles as well. The threat of the "dark forest" of the universe is very real in this story, and the author doesn't hand out any sort of magical solution to the situation. While the results may not be great for a lot of people in the book, I appreciate this approach. It would have been very easy to give humanity some kind of breakthrough discovery that made them immune to the universal threats, but if he had done so, I think it would have invalidated the entire idea.

It's not all doom and gloom for the end of this trilogy. There's no perfect happy ending for Cheng Xin, or the human and Trisolarian races, but life and hope persists. I found Death's End to be a satisfying conclusion to a grand epic story set in an intriguing universe.

Sunday, October 16, 2016

MTG: Kaladesh Sealed at Game On

I made the drive over to Game On in Midland to play in their Kaladesh sealed event this weekend.
This is the same store where I played in the Eldritch Moon sealed event a few months ago. This time, I didn't go alone - my friends Mike and Tim drove up from Owosso to play as well. (Neither had much success in terms of winning games, but both got some great cards - couple of Smuggler's Copters for Mike and a Torrential Gearhulk for Tim, among others.) Like last time, it was well attended, with a total of 34 people. Once again I was pleased with the way the folks at Game On ran the event. Nice play space, good group of players, solid organization and control by the organizers and judges.
My sealed pool was middling, with only one really great card: a Bristling Hydra. Also had a Wildest Dreams in green, though I didn't put it in the main deck. My other rares weren't playable, unfortunately - either too reliant on other cards that my pool was weak in (Depala, Syndicate Trafficker, Blooming Marsh) or just bad (Paradoxical Outcome). I had a good number of other green creatures, mostly notably two Longtusk Cubs, but no good green spells. My red removal was fairly decent: two Furious Reprisals, one Welding Sparks, one Chandra's Pyrohelix, and an Aethertorch Renegade. None of my other red creatures were great, but enough were playable to fill out the deck. Some good artifact creatures would have helped, but only two were worth playing: Sky Skiff and Weldfast Monitor. There were a couple of artifact removal spells for the sideboard - both Demolish and Creeping Mold helped out when I had to deal with some big vehicles. Outside of that Hydra and the Cubs, my creatures weren't good enough to take over a game, so the plan was to keep pressure on my opponent and hope the removal plus those three good creatures was enough to put me over the top.
That plan went nowhere in the first round, when I faced a red-white deck with several vehicles and plenty of tempo spells. I lost quickly in the first game to an onslaught of aggressive creatures, removal spells, and a couple of vehicles. In the second game, I was the one who drew aggressive creatures and removal spells to take a big early lead in the life totals, but didn't get any of my three finishing creatures until my opponent had clogged up his side of the board. That game took forever, almost taking up all the time in the round. In the end, I won since I had that early lead to work with and a higher creature total, just barely squeaking past his defenses with sheer numbers. Time was called before we could finish game three, so the first round was a draw.

The next three rounds went mostly according to plan. I won every game where I drew the Hydra, and several where I didn't but had a Cub and/or some good removal spells. I won all three rounds despite seeing some pretty good cards on the other side of the table. Noxious Gearhulk, for instance, and it's a good thing I'd sideboarded in that Demolish to deal with it. Two of those rounds were against opponents using three colors, and I'm pretty sure that helped me out quite a bit in those games. It's possible to play enough mana-fixing for three colors in this format, but it tends to slow you down and that's trouble if the opposition gets a good start.
To make the top eight, I needed to win one of the final two rounds. Sadly, it was not to be. I took both rounds to three games, so it was very close, but in the end the other players just got the better draws. My round five opponent had some amazing artifact/vehicle combinations that just overran me, with red and black removal to back them up. Chief of the Foundry plus Fleetwheel Cruiser is a real beating if you don't draw an answer right away. He got that Cruiser in all three games, and I was lucky to take one of the three. Round six was closer, against a green/white deck that had both large ground creatures and flyers. Lost the first game when I couldn't remove enough of his flyers, then won game two when I got the removal and kept a Cub alive long enough to win. Game three was close, but I couldn't keep up with his Skysovereign killing several of my creatures, a Durable Handicraft pumping up all his guys, and even a Wildest Dreams bringing back some of his creatures that I'd managed to kill.

End result, 3-2-1, just outside of the top eight. My one draw and two losses were all to players who made the top eight, and all three of those went to a third game. Any of those could have gone the other way with just a slightly better draw. Also, I only caught myself in one play mistake that actually mattered (forgetting to trigger energy gain off a Longtusk Cub, which later meant I couldn't give it a counter to save its life) and that turned out not to make a difference in the result of that particular game. Always feels better to know you played your best, even if the end result wasn't quite what you'd have liked. All in all, an enjoyable event, well worth the drive out and back.

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

MLB Division Series

Seems like they were in a hurry over in the American League, where both division series ended in sweeps. But neither National League series was a one-sided affair.
I'm not surprised by anything that happens when the Toronto Blue Jays and Texas Rangers face off, though I wouldn't have predicted a sweep. The Jays offense came to play, jumping out to big leads in both of the first two games, which is not an easy task against Cole Hamels and Yu Darvish. Toronto was down in the third game but again the offense came through, forcing extra innings. Some shaky Texas defense and good Toronto baserunning led to the walkoff, series-clinching win.

Three losses in a row for Boston, on the other hand, was a major surprise. Most of the year, the Red Sox were scoring ridiculous numbers of runs and pitching fairly well. I kept expecting them to struggle at some point, and it just didn't happen. Well, now it has, at the worst possible time for them. Worked out well for the Indians, though. Two close wins and one big shutout has Cleveland in the championship series.

The Cubs just barely won their first game against the Giants, just a single run scored in a great pitching duel between John Lackey and Johnny Cueto. In game two, Chicago starter Kyle Hendricks was injured by a line drive (fortunately no broken bones) and had to come out. Travis Wood came in and did a solid job in relief, and provided some offense with a home run in another Cubs win. But then the Giants won game 3 in San Francisco, despite Jake Arrieta driving in more runs (3-run homer) than he allowed (2). The Chicago bullpen blew the lead in the 8th and then allowed a walk-off score in the 13th. But in game 4, the Giants bullpen returned the favor by blowing a 3-run lead in the 9th, sending the Cubs on to their second championship series in a row.

I didn't watch much of the Dodgers-Nationals series, but I did see game four. The Nationals won two of the first three, so it was an elimination game for Los Angeles. Clayton Kershaw started on short rest and was pretty impressive after a shaky first inning. He had a 5-2 lead in the 7th, but couldn't quite finish off that inning, and after he left the Nationals tied the game. So the Dodgers had to rally late to win and force a fifth game in Washington, which I'll likely be watching Thursday night.

Regardless of who wins that fifth game in Washington and both championship series, some team is going to break a fairly long World Series drought. Most baseball fans know the Cubs last won in 1908, but it's been a long time for the Indians also - the last Cleveland title was in 1948. It's been since 1988 for the Dodgers, Toronto hasn't won since 1993, and the Nationals franchise hasn't even played in a World Series (in either Washington or Montreal). Some team's fans are going to get a celebration that hasn't been seen in at least a generation.

Monday, October 10, 2016

Year and a Day

Yesterday was the first day in a year that I haven't posted daily on this blog.
I started the blog largely to give myself a reason to write. Since I retired, I haven't had any real reason to write much, and it felt like I was getting out of practice. I suppose I could have just posted directly on Facebook, but a blog felt a bit more permanent and accessible.

Ideas haven't been that difficult to come by. Between world events, local news, things I've been doing, and just random stuff I run across on the Internet, I've not lacked for topics. Nearly any idea can turn into a few paragraphs within a half-hour or so.

The idea of posting every single day wasn't the plan at first. I had several ideas when I first started, of course, since I hadn't done any writing at all in a while. After a couple of weeks, I looked back and saw that I'd managed to put up a post each day and decided I might as well keep it going.

I did eventually start to feel a bit tired of posting something up every single day. I almost took a few days off in July when I was out of town for a few days visiting with family, but decided I'd like to push on until I'd hit a full year of daily posts.

Now that I've gotten to that full year, seems like a good time to cut back a bit on the blog postings. I'm thinking once a week for now. Maybe a bit more if something especially interesting is going on. In any event, I don't plan to stop entirely. Still plenty to write about.

Saturday, October 8, 2016

Bee Brave 5K 2016

This weekend was the 9th annual Bee Brave 5K run and walk here in West Michigan, supporting breast cancer research at the Van Andel Institute. This was my first year at the event. I had heard of it before, but never got organized and actually signed up until this year.
The location in Alto MI is great for me, not even a 10 minute drive from home. The race didn't start until 9 AM, but they warned us to be there early since the race course included the road leading into the parking area. Show up too late and you can't get in! Didn't look like anyone had any trouble.
It was a fairly chilly morning, though not quite at frost level at this point in the year. Most everyone (including me) was wearing a couple of layers, although there's always a few crazy people dressed as if it's the height of summer. I spent a half hour or so sitting in the car after checking in, rather than standing around in the cold. It had started to warm up a bit by the time we started running, though, and after the first half-mile or so I barely noticed it.
There were about 300 runners, and a good-sized group of walkers as well. The start was a little disorganized since everyone was bunched up together. It would have been nice if the walkers had been separated to the back, but it was all sorted out after the first few minutes. The course was almost entirely along country roads, with a final lap around a field to the finish. You walk up a hill to get to the start, so there's more downhill than up, but there are still a couple of fairly steep climbs. That field at the end is all flat, though, which I appreciated.
I felt decent during the run, which is a bit of a surprise considering that I've been a bit under the weather for the last week. Fortunately the worst of it was over a few days before the race, and it might have even worked to my advantage since I'd been getting more rest than usual. There were only 8 guys in the 40-44 men's age group, and I was second among them (55th overall). I was hoping to be under 25 minutes, but I'll take 25:30 considering how I'd been feeling the week before.
Thanks to the Bee Brave organizers and volunteers for a fun little race, supporting a good cause and close to home. I enjoyed it, and hope to be back in future years.

Friday, October 7, 2016

Batman: The Killing Joke (2016)

Google was kind enough to give me another movie rental discount coupon recently. Used it on Batman: The Killing Jokethe animated film that came out earlier this year.
I believe I've mentioned before that I'm a big fan of Batman, and so I tend to like just about anything based on the character. This movie was no exception, though there are certainly some parts I'd have done differently.

Most of this animated movie is based on the graphic novel of the same name, which was published way back in 1988. I've read it several times, so I was familiar with the story and characters going into the movie. Which was confusing at first, because the beginning of the movie doesn't seem much like the graphic novel at all.

The first half-hour or so of the movie isn't in the graphic novel. It's mostly about Batgirl aka Barbara Gordon, daughter of Commissioner Jim Gordon. Unlike the source material, this version is in love with Batman. At first it's unrequited, but eventually they consummate the relationship. After that, she loses perspective. She eventually gives up being Batgirl after realizing that she's unable to be objective when Batman is in danger.

After that, the movie follows the graphic novel very closely. The Joker enters the story, having recently escaped from Arkham Asylum. We see some flashbacks to the events that caused a normal man to become the Joker...at least, one possible version, as he says himself that he prefers the past to be multiple choice. The rest of the story is about the terrible things he does while free, and how it impacts the Gordons and Batman. If you've read the graphic novel then you already know what happens, and if not, I won't spoil it.

The parts of this movie that were from the graphic novel were great. The visuals are well-drawn. Kevin Conroy is the best Batman voice actor hands-down, and same for Mark Hamill with the Joker. The story follows closely with the source material, and if you ignore that first half-hour, it hangs together nicely. And I know I'm not in the majority here, but I actually like the ending...it feels somewhat abrupt, but I think it fits together with Batman's stated desire from earlier in the story to understand the Joker on a non-violent level.

Unfortunately, that the first half-hour doesn't fit in with the rest of the movie at all. Showing that Barbara used to be Batgirl, that's necessary and could have been done in about five minutes. Instead, the movie adds a subplot with a random criminal trying to seduce Batgirl, with no Joker involved at all...who is supposed to be the primary villain.

Then there's the bizarre sexual relationship between Batman and Batgirl. Batman shows no signs of being attached to her as anything beyond a work partner, so why would he sleep with her in the first place? A normal man, sure, but this is supposed to be the always-self-controlled superhero who won't let anything interfere with his mission. If sex was necessary for some reason, why not add Robin, who is Batgirl's love interest in the comics and would make much more sense? The writers were clearly trying to come up with a reason for her to quit being Batgirl, but it falls completely flat and doesn't mesh with the graphic novel story.

By the end of Batman: The Killing Joke, I was happy to have watched it, since the last hour is a well executed adaptation of the graphic novel. I just wish they hadn't bothered with that first bit.