Sunday, January 31, 2016

SWTOR: Recent Events

As L and I have been working through the Star Wars: The Old Republic (SWTOR) story as a duo, we've taken the time to investigate a few of the world events. These events are week-long and mostly rotate every week, although occasionally the schedule changes a bit. We've participated in three events: the Rakghoul Pandemic, Relics of the Gree, and the Bounty Brokers Association.

Rakghouls are sort of the Star Wars version of zombies. If you get infected with the plague, you get sick, and eventually turn into a mostly-mindless Rakghoul. In the Rakghoul Pandemic event, a planet is suffering an outbreak of the plague, and various opportunities await the player willing to fight it. There's an assortment of daily missions, mostly related to exploring a set of tunnels where the infection is sourced. Most of these are easy for a solo player, but there's one fairly difficult mission recommended for four players, and an operation-level giant Rakghoul boss requiring at least eight players.

L and I were able to do everything except the giant boss as a duo, although the four-player mission did require some time to push through. It wasn't really dangerous, but it took us a while to do enough damage to take out the bigger enemies. I also fought the big boss with my guild, the New Outriders, and that really showed up the difference that high-end raid gear makes. My tank Trooper couldn't survive against that boss, in mostly 208-level gear from non-operation vendors. Another guild member got his tank that had mostly 220-level gear from operations, and I barely saw his health move. We got the big guy down in the end, but it took teamwork and a whole lot of firepower.

The Gree are an alien race with advanced technology who show up occasionally around the galaxy. I first saw them in a quest line on Coruscant, helping the Republic rebuild damaged infrastructure. In the Relics of the Gree event, a giant Gree ship shows up on the planet Ilum. Players can do various daily missions for rewards from the Gree Enclave representatives. Similar to the Rakghoul event, there are several missions easy to solo, one suitable for a small group, and a big operation-level boss encounter. There are also a couple of world bosses that I know only from mention in the event missions, as I've never gone looking for them.

The Bounty Broker's Association event is a different beast. The idea is that players are being offered the chance to assist in bringing in bounties on criminals, presumably because the supply of criminals outstrips the capacity of the bounty hunters. Rather than having a set of daily missions, you can hunt down only one bounty each day. Finish enough bounty missions, and you're offered the chance to go after a bigger enemy.

My personal favorite is the bounty event, in large part because the daily time investment is minimal. It works great for L and I to track down a bounty together in short order, then move on to doing other things. There's several different missions, so you're not doing the exact same things every day. They're all similar, of course, but at least you go to different locations and have slightly different enemies each day. I also like this event particularly when playing Eltaix, since she's a bounty hunter and it feels right for the character.
Eltaix with her latest bounty target. Captured this one alive.
The SWTOR world events are interesting to discover as a sideline to the main stories. We'll probably get tired of them after enough repetitions, but for now, L and I are enjoying learning about the events when we happen to run across them.

Saturday, January 30, 2016

Infrastructure Lessons from Flint

The water quality problems in Flint, MI have been all over the news for quite a while now. It's only been a national story for a few weeks, but here in Michigan we've heard about it on and off for months.
Despite the amount of media coverage, I find that there's a lot of confusion over what actually happened. Michigan Radio has a good timeline covering all the major points, but to summarize:

  • Flint has really old infrastructure, which includes the water system.
  • In April 2013, it was decided that Flint couldn't afford to continue to use Detroit's water system as a source. A new pipeline from Lake Huron will take over, but it won't be ready for several years.
  • In April 2014, the Flint River became the new water source for the city, as a interim measure until the new pipeline is ready.
  • There are all kinds of problems reported almost immediately by the city's residents and discovered by regulators, from bad smells to e coli.
  • In October 2015, Flint goes back to the Detroit water system.
  • The water is still unsafe because that old water infrastructure was damaged by the Flint River water.
I've talked to people who thought that Flint was still using the Flint River water. Others thought that Detroit cut off the city of Flint, rather than Flint choosing to stop using Detroit water.

There's a lot of blame being tossed around, most of it in the direction of Governor Rick Snyder, largely because an emergency manager that he appointed was in charge through most of the timeline. Personally, I think laying blame at the point is a pretty silly exercise. There's a lot of work to do to get Flint water fixed, and plenty of time to go through investigations once the people can use tap water again.

There were a lot of really dumb decisions made that led to this situation, but the whole mess would have been much less severe if Flint's infrastructure wasn't so old and poorly maintained. All those lead pipes that were damaged by the river water and are poisoning the current supply have been around for a very long time. Replacing or updating the water system could have been done at many different points before this crisis, but it was never enough of a priority. 

One thing that I do think we all ought to be doing right now, no matter where we live, is taking a good hard look at the infrastructure around us. Poor road maintenance leads to more accidents and more vehicle wear. Old bridges are unsafe. The electrical infrastructure is outdated. Back in 2012, it was estimated that the USA needs about $260 billion a year of investment to repair and update infrastructure, and the cost only goes up as time passes. The crisis in Flint won't be the last one if we continue to let our infrastructure decay around us.

Friday, January 29, 2016

Upgrading to Kodi v16 "Jarvis"

The Kodi developers just recently released their second release candidate for the next major version: 16, code-name Jarvis. I decided to upgrade my installation today, largely in the hope that it might fix a few annoyances I've noticed in version 15.
Version 15 actually works very well for me most of the time, but there are a few things that I'd like to get rid of. The worst of these is the occasional crash while watching TV recordings from my MythTV server, usually once or twice a week. I can't remember Kodi ever crashing outside of watching a MythTV recording, so I'm pretty sure it's something specific to that particular function. I've also seen some strange video behavior while watching Crunchyroll video streams, where the video will slow down and the audio will skip. That only lasts a few seconds, but it's certainly annoying.

Neither of those are major problems, so I wasn't willing to upgrade to version 16 while it was still in beta. Now that it's progressed to a second release candidate, I think it's likely that it will be stable, and unlikely to introduce new problems. I can't be sure it will fix the old ones, of course - only way to find out is to try. I'm hopeful, though: both the video playback on Android and the Kodi PVR interface have changes in Jarvis.

The basic installation went smoothly enough. I decided to completely wipe out my old Kodi install on my Fire TV and re-install the new version, rather than attempting an upgrade. Adds a few extra steps, such as reconfiguring the MythTV addon, but I think it's worth the hassle to avoid any problems related to old left-over files and settings. Only took about a half hour to download the new version, install it via ADBFire on the Fire TV, and configure the various settings and addons that I use.

Then came the difficult part - getting my custom version of the Trakt.tv addon to work properly with MythTV and Crunchyroll. I actually didn't need to do anything to the Crunchyroll part, as nothing had changed in version 16. But with the MythTV PVR addon, there are changes to way that Kodi provides information on which recording is being played. I spent a couple of hours debugging and modifying my fork of the addon code to adjust. It's still not a great hack, relying too much on the specific MythTV addon formatting and using the Trakt.tv episode text search function. But it works, which is good enough for now.

So now I'm up to date with the latest Kodi version. Over the next few days and weeks, I'll see if the issues I had in version 15 are fixed. With luck, version 16 won't have introduced any new ones!

Thursday, January 28, 2016

Online Account Management

Almost everyone has a bunch of different online accounts these days. Email, social media, banks, shopping, etc, etc. Keeping track of all of the logins is difficult, and it's easy to fall into poor habits. In the 20-ish years since I got started with online accounts (in college), I've gone through just about all of the bad ideas. As technology changed and I learned about better options, I've improved how I deal with all my various login information.
The single worst thing you can do is use a very weak password, like the ones on this annual worst password list. Of course, that's how I started out. I think my very first password ever was "wordpass1", and it was only saved from being "password" because the system wouldn't let me use that.

Only slightly better than weak login information is using the same information everywhere. I had two standard passwords for years: one for "important" accounts like email, work, and banking; and one for everything else, like games and online forums. I'd also choose the same "security questions" on every account whenever possible. This allowed me to 1) remember my passwords and security questions and 2) not need a list of all my accounts, since if the "standard" didn't work on a particular site, I'd know it was a new site and I should create an account. The problem with this approach is that if one account is compromised, then everything else using that same login information is vulnerable.

Currently, I use the online password manager LastPass (and there are other similar products). This tool requires you to have a single master password which unlocks access to your "vault." You put an entry into the vault for each account (web site URL, username, password, even security questions and answers). That takes some work to set up at first, but you can do it over time, as you access the various sites that you use. This allows you to use a different (often completely random) password on each account, change them regularly, and still have no trouble remembering them...all you need to remember is the master vault password. I go a step farther with security questions - I'll select nonsense answers, relying on my vault entry to retrieve them at need, so anyone trying to bypass my password by answering security questions will have a really tough time. LastPass provides browser plug-ins and an Android app, which make it simple to log into sites without having to manually open the vault and copy the information into the login forms.

That's not to say that using an online password manager is a perfect solution. The master password is the most obvious vulnerability. Mine is fairly long (15+ chars) and consists of multiple unrelated words and numbers. I change it regularly. I also use two-step authentication via Google Authenticator on my phone, so even if someone guesses the password, they'd also have to have my phone (or access to my email in order to turn off the two-step process).

Another vulnerability is the online aspect of the password manager. LastPass itself could be compromised, which puts all my information at risk. I've read about the measures they take to prevent this (a good summary in this blog post) and I'm willing to accept that risk for the convenience that their service provides. For those who would rather not rely on an online service, there are other options, such as KeePass or 1Password, that allow you to keep your data locally. It's a bit less convenient since you need to share the data between your various devices, and make sure to keep it backed up. But it is more secure.

In a perfect world, we'd be able to avoid all this mess entirely, and rely on something like biometrics to access all of our online services. But that kind of thing is still imperfect and very expensive, no matter how often you may see it on TV or in the movies. For now, a password manager is the most secure solution that is also practical.

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Hearthstone: Arena Mode

Customizable card games are a favorite game genre for me, and have been ever since I first discovered them way back in my college days. I must admit, though, that I'm not very good at the deck construction part, at least not for competitive play. So I tend to gravitate toward limited formats, with a restricted card pool used in a short series of games. Hearthstone's Arena Mode is one of my favorites.
The Arena mode works by letting the player choose one of three random classes to play, then repeatedly picking one of three random cards to build a deck. The three choices are always of the same rarity, and roughly follow the chance of opening them in a pack - so you'll see a lot of commons, but very few legendary choices. You never know, though; you might get lucky and be offered multiple epic or legendary cards. Once you have your class and 30 cards, you're randomly matched up with other Arena players for one game at a time. You continue to use the same deck until you've lost three times, and the more wins you get in that time, the better your rewards at the end. Those rewards are randomized, but always include one card pack.

I won't go into a discussion of how to do well in Arena, both because I'm no more than an average player, and because there's plenty of other guides out there. (Like this, or this.) But I will mention a few things that I especially like about how Hearthstone has implement the limited format with Arena Mode: reasonable cost, scheduling, and the shifting format.

The cost to enter the Arena is 150 gold (or $1.99, but I've only ever used real money once, and that was really just to show support for the game). For that price, you're guaranteed a card pack at the end of the run, which would cost 100 gold if you bought it outright at the store. If you win 3-4 games, you should also get 50+ gold (and maybe some other things), so you'll basically break even. If you get on a hot streak and win 7+ games, you'll get back 150+ gold, enough for another Arena entry. That last is rare, but the break-even point is pretty common. Doing Hearthstone's daily quests can get the 150 gold entry fee every 3-4 days, and games played in the Arena count toward those quest goals. All this adds up to the ability to play the Arena very often even on a free-to-play account.

I appreciate that the Arena is set up so you can complete your run on your own schedule. Once you start a game, you have to finish it like any other game. Other than that, though, you're totally on your own time. There's no timer between rounds, so if you want to leave for a few minutes or hours or even days before starting your next game, that's no problem. Even the initial selection of class and cards has no timer - you can stop in the middle and come back later. Much easier than the traditional draft or sealed formats that require all the participants together for a limited timeframe.

As new cards are released from expansions or the single-player adventures, those cards make their way into the Arena choices. This both keeps the Arena format interesting as new cards are added, and gives players a chance to see the new cards even if the player can't afford to buy them right away. I like how this shifts the balance in the Arena as the game adds new content.

If not for the Arena mode, I'm sure I'd play a lot less Hearthstone. As it is, I usually get in one or two runs each week. It's one of the better implementations of a TCG limited format that I've seen.

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Sentinels of the Multiverse - The Video Game

Sentinels of the Multiverse is a card game about a team of superheroes battling a supervillian. It was originally released as a physical set, and later adapted into a computer version. I picked it up in a recent Steam sale, and it's also available on iOS and Android.
Each game of Sentinels of the Multiverse starts with the choice of one villain, one environment, and a team of 3-5 heroes. Each of these has their own deck of cards, customized to the abilities of that particular character. The villain and environment play automatically each turn, while the heroes are controlled by the player(s). The heroes must overcome the villain before they are knocked out, while both sides deal with the environment's effects.

The characters and art are very much in the Silver-Age comic style. It's all specific to the game, not based on any existing franchise, although many of the characters are very familiar. Wraith has a lot of Batman characteristics, Legacy is like Superman, etc.

The villains are much stronger than each individual hero, plus the environment tends to cause more problems for the heroes. Therefore, teamwork is essential. I've been playing Sentinels of the Multiverse solo, which means I control all of the heroes myself. You still have to play their turns one at a time, but there's no danger of someone going off in their own direction...unless that's what you want, of course. I don't really plan to play the game with random online folks, but a few of my friends do have it on Steam, so maybe I'll be able to organize a game with them at some point.

The gameplay itself is pretty simple. On each turn, a hero gets to play a card from their hand, use a power from a card in play, and draw a card. There's lots of synergies between the heroes, so often one hero's turn will set up another hero to make a big hit on the villain or otherwise boost their abilities. The villain and environment each get their own turns, playing a card from their deck and/or using abilities on cards they have in play. If the heroes drop the villain's hit points to zero before each of theirs fall to zero, they win.

I very much like the cooperate aspect of the game. There's not really any "winner" of the game as such - either you all win as a team by taking out the villain, or you all lose when the villain knocks out all the heroes. Playing as a single player that doesn't matter much, of course, since I control all the heroes anyway. I've played similar team-vs-the-game setups with multiple players, though, and I like the cooperative aspect.

There are two major shortcomings to Sentinels of the Multiverse, at least for me. First, the balance is pretty uneven with different initial setups. Playing with three heroes might be really tough, but adding a fourth or fifth makes it extremely easy. Some heroes have very little actual attack power, so picking a group comprised mostly of those can make the game nigh-unwinnable. I'm sure experience will help to avoid those situations, but it can be pretty discouraging for a newer player.

Second, there's very little to the game outside of playing individual battles. You fire up the game, win or lose against a villain, and that's it. Back to the main menu, with nothing changed. That's not a problem for a physical game that you'll only play once a month with friends, but for a video game it means players likely won't come back after their first few attempts. A little web searching told me that there are achievements and the ability to unlock variant versions of some heroes, but those aren't obvious in the game itself. There is also a weekly "one-shot" challenge, where you have to win some particularly difficult initial starting setup, but that's tough for newer players (plus some of them aren't playable without buying added content). Some kind of single-player campaign, with a few battles that gradually ramp up in difficulty, would make for a much better experience for the beginner.

I've been enjoying discovering the different combinations of heroes and villains in Sentinels of the Multiverse, and I'll probably keep it around the Steam library for a while. It has its flaws, but overall it's a fun way to enjoy the occasional comic-book style battle.

Monday, January 25, 2016

Following the News

News from around the world is available everywhere. It's hard to avoid: TV, radio, casual conversation bits, and of course the Internet. I do my best to strike a balance between ignoring the outside world, and obsessing over it.
I think it's important to have a basic knowledge of what is going on in the world. It doesn't impact my daily life in a significant way, since nothing I do will have much impact outside my very immediate area. It helps me keep an open mind, though, by seeing what is happening beyond my own little sphere. It's important for the purpose of conversation - you never know where your discussions might lead, whether they be with friends or just random daily interactions. And there's an entertainment aspect, too - some of the news is interesting even if I never actually use what I learn.

On the other side of the coin, it's not a great idea to obsess over remote events. With all the available news sources, particularly 24-hour news channels and the Internet, it's easy to spend a ton of time looking at just about any event or area. At some point, digging into the details stops being informative and becomes voyeurism.

My daily routine for maintaining the balance is to spend about an hour a day keeping up on the news. I usually listen to a half-hour of financial news (from Marketplace), watch a half-hour of local news, and watch one of the half-hour nightly news broadcasts. (Yes, I know that adds up to 90 minutes, but when you skip the commercials and a bunch of the stuff about the weather and local trial details, it's well under an hour.) I'll skim through the headlines for some news websites, too, usually while those news shows are on.

What I don't do is put on a 24-hour news channel all day, or watch wall-to-wall coverage of whatever crisis is filling the news cycle. If there's something of particular interest going on, I might spend some time looking at multiple sources, but otherwise I just need the summary from my daily routine.

Sunday, January 24, 2016

Baseball Suggestions

It's dead time in the world of Major League Baseball. There are a few free agent signings, but mostly nothing is happening until spring training in another month or so. Seemed like a good time to think about how the game could change for the better.
I was thinking about baseball largely because I ran across this story, about Commissioner Rob Manfred talking about bringing the designated hitter rule to the National League. I've thought for years that the two leagues needed to have the same rules. My preference would be to eliminate the DH entirely in both leagues, but anyone with a basic understanding of baseball politics and finances knows that will never happen. Too many players have longer careers because of the DH position, too many agents make more money from that, and too many owners are happier with more offense in the game. So the next best thing is to put the DH in the NL, to make the rules consistent.

I'd also like to see MLB make some tweaks to the replay review process. Outside of ball/strike calls (more on that in a bit), there's no reason to restrict replay on any play. If it happened in the game, it should be reviewable. Once a review is complete, umpires should explain the resulting decision, similar to how it works in the NFL. It doesn't have to be great detail, but at the very least they should say whether they're letting the call on the field stand because there's not enough evidence to overturn it, or if the call was verified to be accurate. And if the call is changed, it would be great to hear exactly what evidence caused the overturn.

As for balls and strikes, I know we're not going to see automation or review any time soon. But I'd at least like to see MLB looking into the technology. Last year, a couple of independent league games used an automated strike zone. MLB could organize a committee to look at the technology and study exactly how it might be used in the future.

In the playoffs last year, we saw how easy it is for a player to get injured on plays at second base. Rule changes to protect the pivot man on double plays should be considered. I know there was a review of that particular play, but I think MLB needs to be looking at rule changes to avoid the situation in the future.

This one is pretty minor, but it's one of my pet peeves about baseball scoring: we need a "team error". When a ball drops in the middle of three fielders, any one of whom could have caught it if they'd communicated properly, the batter shouldn't get a double. Figure out a way to assign the error to all the players involved, or the team at large.

Another minor one: when a batter checks his swing, the home plate umpire should always ask for help from the first/third base umpire. There's no good reason for the home plate umpire to be calling that play from behind the plate, when his colleague has a much better angle. The good umpires almost always ask for help on the close ones anyway, but there's no good reason not to simply make it a rule to ask every time.

Here's something that does not need to change: playoff seeding. When the top three teams in the NL were all from the Central division in last year's playoffs, it created a situation where one of the top three teams was out after a single wild-card playoff game. Yes, that was unfortunate, but it's not going to happen very often. One outlier year isn't a good reason to change the system.

What does need to change with the playoffs is the silly rule about the All-Star game determining home field advantage in the World Series. Get rid of that, use team records to determine home field just like every other series.

We all know baseball changes come extremely slowly, so I don't expect to see very much change this year. But I hope MLB is considering all of these things, which in my opinion would only improve a great game.

Saturday, January 23, 2016

Ex Machina

Ex Machina caught my eye because it's science fiction and has a focus on artificial intelligence. It's also a psychological thriller, which isn't my favorite film genre. After watching, I'd say it's much more about the mind-games genre than it is about the science fiction aspect, but both are well executed.
Roughly the first third of the movie is spent setting up the characters. Caleb is a young programmer brought out to the remote home/research facility of his boss, Nathan. Nathan is a super-rich genius who owns a search engine company and (unknown to anyone outside himself and Caleb) has developed an intelligent android. Caleb is meant to evaluate whether Ava, the android, is truly self-aware.

I enjoyed this early part, with all the introductions and bits of background revelation. It certainly helped that I empathize with Caleb's character: smart technology guy, somewhat isolated socially, excited about the idea of artificial intelligence. The setting was also interesting, with the juxtaposition of a high-tech facility buried way out in the wilderness. And of course there was Ava herself. There's a good amount of build-up before you see her for the first time, which adds a sense of mystery, and the effects they used to create a see-through android body are pretty neat.

Once the players are all in place, the rest of the movie is about mind games played by the various parties on one another. Everything boils down to Ava wanting to survive and be free. It was mildly interesting to see how it all turned out, of course, but I found the resolution and reveal portion of the movie less interesting than the initial setup. That's just my personal bias, of course - I like the speculative fiction aspect more than the mind games.

Ex Machina poses an interesting scenario, and the movie is put together nicely, especially considering the relatively low budget. I've seen many worse movies that cost a lot more! The psychological thriller aspect isn't really my thing, but it seemed to be well executed. In the end, I'm glad to have spent a couple of hours to watch it.

Friday, January 22, 2016

Heroes Reborn

Heroes Reborn is a thirteen-episode follow-up to the original Heroes series that ran from 2006 to 2010. The new series just finished its run this week. I enjoyed about the first half of the original series, before it degenerated into characters following complex and confusing plot-lines that made no sense given the abilities they supposedly had. Unfortunately, the new series follows just about exactly the same formula.
The basic premise of both series is that "evos," or evolution-advanced humans, are present in the world, with various kinds of powers from the mundane (create some pretty lights) to insanely powerful (move freely through time and space). It's an old formula, well represented in comic books, moviesanime, etc. Television dramas such as the Heroes franchise aren't nearly as common, in large part because it's hard to pull off.

The best part of Heroes Reborn is the first six episodes, where new characters are being introduced and older ones are busy setting the scene. There's a lot of mystery around Noah Bennet in particular, who has gaps in his memory and is busily trying to fill them in. A whole raft of new characters are introduced, which of course includes revealing what kinds of powers they have. This whole initial introduction and set-up-the-big-mystery phase is really well done, and I had fun following it and guessing where things were going.

Unfortunately, the answers start coming around episode seven, and things start to fall apart. Part of this is because the writers decided to make heavy use of time travel (more on that below). Another reason is that the introduction of characters is pretty much over. Digging deeper into the existing characters is a lot less fun than discovering new ones (or rediscovering old friends). To me, it felt like the last half of the series was being stretched out just to cover more time, avoiding the resolution as long as possible.

It's really, really hard to pull off time travel correctly even when it's very difficult to use. In Heroes Reborn, there's a character (or two, but not at the same time) who can do it basically at will, with the only restriction being some vague ideal around changing as little as possible. This means that every single moment of drama becomes an opportunity for the viewer to say to themselves, "hmm, that could have been avoided with just a little past change." This kind of massively overpowered ability just kills the viewer's suspension of disbelief.

If you were a fan of the original Heroes, then it's probably worth watching Heroes Reborn to see what's happened to some of the older characters. Otherwise, don't bother.

Thursday, January 21, 2016

The Humble Firaxis Bundle

Game bundles have been around for a long time, but the offerings have really exploded in the last few years. This week's Humble Bundle is a perfect example of why these things are so popular: a group of games put together around a theme, so most or all of them will be appealing to the same target audience.
The way the Humble Bundles work is by putting together a bunch of games in tiers. For the lowest tier, anything above $1 gets you the games. In the second tier are games that you get if you pay more than the average payment. Finally, there's a fixed price ($15 this month) which you can meet or exceed to get the top tier of games. The bundle is available for a limited time, usually a week. Part of the money raised goes to charity, part to the game developers, and part to keep the bundles going.

This month's bundle is all games from Firaxis, best known for the Civilization series. Unsurprisingly, the top tier game is the latest Civilization game, Beyond Earth (plus a map pack and discount on the Rising Tide DLC). Civilization III, IV, and V are in the lower tiers. Other Sid Meier games - Starships, Pirates!, and Ace Patrol - and the squad-based tactics game X-COM (with expansion) round out the bundle. (There may be more games added later...often the bundles expand as the window of availability moves along.)

Just about all of those games are relevant to my interests, which is why this particular bundle caught my eye. I already own several - all the Civilization games except Beyond Earth, the base X-COM game - but the rest of the bundle is plenty of content to be worth the $15 top tier price for me. I'd had my eye on the X-COM expansion and Starships for a while, but never pulled the trigger since my (virtual) stack of unplayed games is ridiculously high already. When a bundle comes along with those in it, though, that's an easier sell.

The genius of the bundle concept is that it sells games that I'd never have bothered to pick up otherwise. I played a little of Civilization: Beyond Earth during a weekend that Steam was offering free play, and thought it was a bit below average. Ace Patrol never really sounded all that interesting to me. But I've got them now, as part of the bundle, and so who knows - I might actually play them a little at some point. Maybe some person out there has yet to discover Civilization games but loved X-COM, and this bundle starts a whole new gaming obsession. Putting the games together gives them more exposure than just selling each individually.

Playing X-COM again with the latest expansion has moved near the top of my gaming TODO list, thanks to this bundle. Trying out Starships isn't far behind, and I may even take another shot at Beyond Earth at some point. And that's probably exactly what Firaxis was hoping for when they put their games in this bundle.

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Beautiful Bones: Sakurako's Investigation

When you look at the name and read the description of Beautiful Bones: Sakurako's Investigation, it appears to be a detective story with a focus on scientific bone knowledge. (Perhaps along the same lines as FOX's Bones.) That's one aspect, but it spends a lot of time on other themes. Perhaps too many themes for a 12-episode series.
Shōtarō Tatewaki is the main viewpoint character, a high school boy who has become friends with an osteologist named Sakurako Kujō. That's a scientist who studies bones, and she's an odd one - lives alone except for her housekeeper, tends to assemble skeletons and keep them around the house, and doesn't much like other people. She tolerates Shōtarō, though, and they often end up finding bodies or otherwise being pulled into investigations of disappearances or homicide.

On the one hand, the series feels like it's modeled on Sherlock Holmes. Sakurako gives off the Holmes vibe, noticing things that others don't and inferring various conclusions before anyone else. Shōtarō plays the Watson role, keeping her grounded and curbing the worst excesses (such as taking home human remains instead of turning them over to the police). And there's a mysterious figure in the background much of the time, playing the Moriarty role.

On the other hand, the actual mystery-solving feels secondary much of the time to the struggles of the characters involved. While Sakurako herself isn't particularly concerned with the people involved, the viewer is clearly meant to understand and empathize. The girl worried that her grandmother committed suicide, trying to understand the real circumstances around her death. The husband worried about the fate of his wife and daughter because of a "family curse" that causes men to die early. The young women who were best friends in high school, before one of them disappeared, and now another is gone missing. There's much more time spent on how the people are affected than on the minutia of the clues that Sakurako puts together to solve the mystery. While all of these are interesting, the fact that there are so many different characters in such a short series means that all of them feel a bit shallow.

Beautiful Bones: Sakurako's Investigation was an interesting watch, and if they add any more to the existing 12 episodes, I'd be interested in checking it out. It won't be for the mystery-solving aspect, though, but rather for the character exploration in the context of the mysteries.

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Simple Food

I've been accused of having very pedestrian tastes when it comes to my food. This is generally true, though I have tried all sorts of cuisine at various times, and found quite a bit of it to be to my taste - Thai and Chinese particularly. But as a general rule, the simple things are what I want day in and day out.
Not quite done grilled cheese. Needs to be mostly black.
Sandwiches are high on my list of regular foods, especially peanut butter and jelly, and grilled cheese. I like hot dogs, and macaroni and cheese - often both together. Cereal is great for both breakfast and dessert, when the latter isn't coming from the cookie jar. I eat plenty of soup (have to get vegetables from somewhere) and Chef Boyardee ravioli, both of which go great with the sandwiches. And pizza, though not nearly as often as the other stuff I've listed.
Some assembly required for complete PB&J sandwich.
I know that sounds like a third-grader's list of favorite foods. I guess I never really grew up, when it comes to staple meals. I tend to eat more "grown-up" when I'm out, and I do enjoy a well-crafted meal of just about any variety. But left at home to my own devices, I can live on the simplest choices pretty much indefinitely.

Monday, January 18, 2016

SWTOR: Duo

I stopped playing Star Wars: The Old Republic (SWTOR) for a few weeks after finishing the Shadow of Revan expansion with my Jedi. I've picked it back up recently in large part because a friend of mine (we'll call him "L") has done the same.
My trooper on the right, L's Jedi on the left.
As I've mentioned in previous posts, I haven't done much grouping in my travels through SWTOR. This time, though, my friend and I decided to start a couple of characters together and play them through the story-line together. L is playing a Jedi Knight, and I'm a Republic Trooper. That's a whole different beast than grouping up with random people.

Over the holidays, there was a sale on a 60-day subscription code, which I picked up and activated just recently. L had already subscribed, so both of us could take advantage of the subscriber benefits. This helped out mostly in terms of being able to use quick travel often, letting us avoid some of the worst of the "run across the map" scenarios.

Playing as a duo highlights some of the best and worst of SWTOR. It's nice to have someone else there to experience the story, and you get to see their character's personal story-line as well as your own. You can also do the "heroic" multi-player missions easily. On the other hand, the combat is even less impressive with two people. Wiping out entire sections of the map is incredibly easy, even the "heroic" portions, as you play through the various planets across the galaxy. One reason for this is that there's no scaling of enemy difficulty - you see the same bad guys whether you're alone or in a group. Another is that you gain levels incredibly quickly when doing all the missions, and are very soon at or above the maximum level for the zone.

The exception to the "combat is easy" rule is when running a Flashpoint, which we've done a couple of times. We did the Hammer Station Flashpoint when we were both only level 20, and with just the two of us. It's designed for four players, and everything (including us) is scaled up to level 65. That was a challenge, especially the final boss, who took a good number of attempts to defeat. Although had we recruited two more people, or been higher in level, I doubt it would have been nearly as difficult.

I'm enjoying playing SWTOR as a duo with L, but as with my solo experience, it's more because of the story than the actual gameplay. I expect we'll make it through the story-line, but not sure how much longer we'll continue after that.

Sunday, January 17, 2016

Dropping Sling TV

I've subscribed to Sling TV for about a year, since it became available in early 2015. It's been a bumpy ride, with technical problems and customer service issues, but for the most part I'm glad that I had it. Now, though, I've decided that it's not worth the monthly subscription fee to me.
Sling TV is basically like a cable TV subscription without the actual cable. You choose a package of channels for a monthly fee, and you can add other channels for an extra charge. You watch your shows via an app on your computer or phone or other media device. (In my case, a Fire TV.)

When I first subscribed in early 2015, the technical problems with Sling TV were legion. Sometimes I couldn't connect at all. Other times shows would stutter, or stop playing in the middle. The Fire TV app interface was terrible. I stuck it out, though, in large part because the baseball season was coming up and I knew there would be plenty of games on ESPN. By mid-summer, the technical problems were significantly reduced. There are still occasional problems, but now they're the exception, not the rule.

I also had some customer service troubles. I originally signed up with a two-week free trial offer that Sling TV was running through Amazon.com. When I decided to go ahead and subscribe after the trial, I kept getting errors. I had to call customer service several times, and eventually just close the account completely and set up a new one through Sling TV directly (with no Amazon involvement). It was just as difficult to add HBO to my subscription a few months later (at Game of Thrones time, of course). Again, things did improve. By the time I cancelled the HBO portion around the end of June, I was able to do so via the website without major difficulty.

So why am I dropping Sling TV now, if things are better? Mostly because I just don't use it enough to be worth the monthly fee. The only channels I really watch are for sports (EPSN, sometimes TBS). I watch a whole lot of video, as anyone reading this blog already knows, but the vast majority is either over-the-air channels or streaming services. If Sling TV had some other sports content, like FOX Sports (mainly for hockey) or the MLB/NFL/NHL Networks, then I might feel differently.

Another reason for dropping the subscription is the lack of DVR functions for the channels that I watch. There's no recording of shows to watch later, or even short-duration pause/rewind of live TV. Twenty years ago, that would have been fine, but now? That sort of functionality is pretty much the standard these days. I rarely watch any non-sports event live, and I make heavy use of pause/fast-forward/rewind even during live events. Lack of those features lowers the value of Sling TV significantly for me.

I might think about coming back around next fall, when football comes back on, since there's a whole lot of college football that's exclusive to ESPN, as well as Monday Night Football games. But until then, I have other sources for my hockey and baseball sports fix (mainly Internet radio) and nothing else that's worth paying a monthly subscription.

Saturday, January 16, 2016

Monthly Girls' Nozaki-kun

Monthly Girls' Nozaki-kun is a twelve-episode humorous caricature of the shōjo manga (and anime) genre. The series follows Chiyo Sakura, a high school girl with a crush on her classmate Umetarō Nozaki. Turns out that Nozaki is the creator of a romance manga called Let's Fall in Love, and Sakura is soon helping him to create it. Several other students are also involved, either directly helping Nozaki, or as unknowing inspiration for his characters.
That's a pretty bland description for what is a pretty funny series. The writers constantly set up standard young-romance scenarios...walking home together in the rain, acting in the school play with your crush, going to the movies, and so on...and then turn them around in crazy ways. They push the genre's standard tropes to the point of absurdity. I wasn't very often surprised by the "twists" since they were pretty obvious, but that didn't stop it from being funny.

I'm glad I read some of the comments about Monthly Girls' Nozaki-kun when I was browsing around Crunchyroll, or else I'd have totally missed it. Normally when a show's description talks about a high school girl failing to convey her feelings properly to a boy, that's a signal to forget about it and move on to the next possibility. The review comments, though, described it as more of a satire or caricature, and that sounded much more interesting.

If you've never read/watched any shōjo manga/anime, then some of the gags in Monthly Girls' Nozaki-kun may escape you. For those familiar with the genre, though, the series is pretty entertaining. I think that would be true whether you love the shōjo genre or hate it - they certainly poke fun, but not in a mean-spirited way.

Friday, January 15, 2016

Hearthstone

Customizable card games are generally complicated beasts. There's the 500-lb gorilla, Magic:The Gathering, which has dozens of sets and thousands of cards. Theme games like those based on Tolkien's Middle Earth go through contortions to match the theme, adding all kinds of crazy rules and card text that you need a magnifying glass to read. When Blizzard created Hearthstone, they went in the opposite direction.
Most of the mechanics in Hearthstone are simple compared to similar games. The resource to play cards is called mana crystals, and you get one each turn up to a maximum of ten. No need to worry about resources in deck construction (unlike M:TG lands or Hex resources). Decks are only 30 cards, down from the 60 used by many TCGs. Everything you play is on your turn, so no waiting on your opponent to respond to actions. There's a 90 second turn timer, ensuring that games move along quickly. Cards are all either specific to one class or generic to all classes, limiting the available card pool once you've chosen which class to play.

There is still plenty of complexity in Hearthstone, building on that simple foundation. Each of the nine classes has its own unique feel, implemented through class-specific cards and a hero power, which is available once each turn. Hunters do direct damage, priests heal, etc. There are subclasses of minions (Mechs, Beasts, Murlocs, etc) with various abilities that affect only that subclass, so you can build themed decks around them.

The look and feel of Hearthstone is one of my favorite things about the game. The cartoon-ish style will be familiar to anyone with World of Warcraft experience. You'll hear comments and the occasional hint from the innkeeper and various heroes as you move around the game's interface. Many of the minions have their own voices and will speak up when you put them into play or as they attack. The four corners of the game board are filled with decorative items of various kinds, some of which will react when clicked...a fun distraction while waiting for the opponent to take their turn.

There's a lot to explore in Hearthstone beyond simply playing games against random online opponents. There are solo adventures where you play a series of games against special boss opponents, often with strange and powerful abilities that you wouldn't face against another player. There's the Arena, a limited format where each player chooses cards from a random selection, and plays the resulting deck until accumulating three losses. And the Tavern Brawl, a format that changes weekly and can be anything from almost completely random decks to playing as one of the adventure bosses.

Hearthstone is a free-to-play online game, and in my opinion, has an excellent business model. Every day you get a quest, usually something like "Win 3 games as a Hunter" or "Play 20 minions that cost 2 or less". From those quests you get gold rewards, which can be spent on cards or entry into the limited-format Arena mode. You can add some extra gold and/or cards from winning games or completing one-time tasks. If you play Hearthstone for an hour or so every other day, you'll usually be able to complete 4-5 games and complete 1-2 quests, keeping the gold coming in without spending any money. If you'd rather gather gold or cards more quickly, that option is available via the real-money store. And if you get extra cards, they can be turned in for "dust" that is used to craft specific cards to fill holes in your collection.

I've been playing Hearthstone since it was released in 2014, and never felt that I needed to spend money...although I did put in a few bucks because I enjoy the game so much. Of course, that's playing just for the fun of it, and not trying to be a competitive constructed-deck player. It's a rare talent that can climb the ranked-play constructed ladder without the good epic and legendary cards, and getting those requires spending cash (or inordinate amounts of time, I suppose). If you're just in it for the occasional fun game, though, Hearthstone is easily playable for free.

Hearthstone has become one of those rare games that I've played every couple of days for months, with only a few minor breaks. Usually I'll get tired of a game after a few weeks of regular play, but Hearthstone keeps me coming back with regular updates and interesting formats. Highly recommended for any gamer, even if customizable card games aren't your thing. Hearthstone is different enough that it may surprise you.

Thursday, January 14, 2016

Star Wars: The Force Awakens

I went to an actual theater to see Star Wars: The Force Awakens recently. The act of going out to see a movie is an event in itself for me...I almost never do, preferring to wait on home releases to avoid 1) crowds, 2) cost, and 3) uncomfortable theater surroundings.
I made an exception for this film for a couple of reasons. One - Star Wars is one of my favorite sci-fi/fantasy franchises, along with so many others who grew up in the 1980s. I'd put Tolkien's Lord of the Rings world and the Star Trek universe a bit higher on my personal list, but all three are great. Two - I knew special effects would be a big part of the film, and there's really no substitute for seeing big-budget effects on the big screen.

Going in, I had mixed expectations. On the one hand, I love Star Wars and anything new is likely to get me excited. On the other hand, I remember feeling the same way when Star Wars: The Phantom Menace came out, and that one was disappointing. Not so much because it was bad, but because it felt like a kid's movie and I was expecting something else. So this time, I tried my best not to go in with preconceptions.

Of course, that doesn't mean I had no idea what the film was going to be like. You can't be active on the Internet and/or be a nerd with similarly nerdy friends without getting some idea what's going on in these big movie releases. I avoided detailed spoiler discussions, but I knew more or less what to expect - something very much like the original movie, Star Wars: A New Hope.

No question, The Force Awakens is exactly that. You can't call it a remake of A New Hope since it's new characters and is set a generation in the future, moving the timeline along. But it sure does follow the same formula, from amazingly gifted youngsters in the desert to major family dysfunction to evil guys in masks to destroying giant space weapons. The idea behind this movie was clearly "give the people what they like," rather than "break new ground."

I don't think The Force Awakens suffers because it's so similar to the older movie, though. Perhaps that's just my nostalgia talking, but I don't mind new takes on an old formula as long as it was a good formula in the first place. And I had no complaints about the actors, production, and writing on this movie. They did a good job making the old formula hold up in a new age, and there's plenty of opportunity for future films to work on breaking some new ground.

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

2016 State of the Union

President Obama's final State of the Union address was last night. Apparently fewer people than ever are watching State of the Union addresses, but I'm one of them. Sort of, anyway - I had my DVR record it and put it the next morning. That way I could skip all the talking heads before and after the actual speech.
In my opinion, it's best not to actually watch the State of the Union address. I had it on the TV, sure, but I rarely actually looked at it. I was doing other things - eating, a little cleaning, some gaming on the computer - and had it on in the background. Actually watching the speech means getting bored by the interminable applause breaks. And you have to look at politicians as the cameras swing out to see who is clapping or standing, and who looks like the president killed their puppy. Who wants that?

What I do want is to listen to the President give a speech, and I must say, I'm going to miss Barack Obama on that count. He's a fine orator, and I can't think of anyone in the current field of 2016 presidential hopefuls who will even come close in sheer public-speaking talent.

As for the actual content of the speech, well, that's covered to death all over the Internet. What the President spend the most time on. Fact checking. Applause tracking. The economy, the military, the political process. He avoided asking for Congressional action for the most part, which I thought was a smart move since such things aren't likely to get done anyhow. Especially in a presidential election year.

The part of the speech that I most agreed with was near the end, when the President talked about changing the political process. The future that we all want "will only happen if we fix our politics." We don't have to agree on everything, but "democracy grinds to a halt without a willingness to compromise; or when even basic facts are contested, and we listen only to those who agree with us." It "breaks down when the average person feels their voice doesn’t matter; that the system is rigged in favor of the rich or the powerful or some narrow interest." He mentioned reform for campaign finance, gerrymandering, and making voting easier (things I've talked about before). And he called on the American people to demand these things of their government.

I also listened to the Republican response, delivered by South Carolina governor Nikki Haley. The opposition response always feels much less impressive, coming as it does right after the big speech, and this one was no exception. Leaving aside the surroundings, it was an adequate response, at least until it went into standard rhetoric at the end. I liked the bit where Gov. Haley said that it wasn't just the fault of the Democrats that the country faces problems, that "there is more than enough blame to go around." And she said some nice things about the response in South Carolina to the shootings. "...our people would not allow hate to win. We didn't have violence, we had vigils. We didn't have riots, we had hugs. We didn't turn against each other's race or religion. We turned toward God, and to the values that have long made our country the freest and greatest in the world." But then she hammered on why a Republican should win the White House in 2016, listing unrealistic policies like lowering taxes while still cutting the deficit, strengthening the US military (which is already by far the strongest anywhere), or ending "a disastrous health care program" (for-profit motives in the health care industry are the real disaster).

So, that's over for another year. I hope people will heed President Obama's call to action on political reform, but realism tells me it's highly unlikely. At least it was nice to hear those things said. Next year, it'll be someone new delivering the speech. Whoever it is, I expect there will be a very different tone.

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Bodacious Space Pirates

With a name like Bodacious Space Pirates, you'd expect a series that doesn't take itself too seriously. And that is in fact the case. You might also expect that series to have terrible writing and awful humor, but I'm glad to say that Bodacious Space Pirates avoids those.
The idea behind Bodacious Space Pirates is that Marika, a high-school girl living with her single mother, is given the command of a pirate spaceship when her father's crew comes looking for his heir. She'd never known her father, and knows nothing of the hereditary pirate culture which has survived from the time when their planet was fighting a war of independence. The series covers Marika's transition into command of the pirate vessel, and of course her high school career as well.

That's a fairly silly backstory, and if they'd tried to take it seriously then the whole thing would have fallen flat. Instead, we have pirates who are basically stage-actors crossed with mercenaries, performing contracts with passenger liners to give their customers a good show. The high school space-yacht club is given almost as much weight as the pirate action. A princess from another planet makes an appearance, and ends up joining the gang at school. Only near the end of the series is there really much of a significant threat to Marika and her crew, and of course it works out well for them.

Watching Bodacious Space Pirates, I had to think a bit about why I actually liked it. It's got a lot of potentially awful components: immature high school girl thrown into situations well beyond her control, a miraculous ability to make things work out in her favor, a ton of shallow minor characters behind Marika and her closest companions, and a completely unrealistic backstory. Despite that, the major characters are very likable, the writing is good, and the story moves along nicely. The production values are solid, both the art and voice acting.

But what really works about Bodacious Space Pirates is what they don't try to do. There's not much in the way of fan service (outside of the ubiquitous short skirts), or romantic encounters. You're not constantly rolling your eyes at embarrassed schoolgirls fending off lewd advances. The fighting scenes aren't long stretches of characters screaming their heads off, or showing off their "secret techniques." The writers didn't take focus off the major characters for very long, or drag out individual story arcs until they got boring or unmanageable. Any or all of those things could have killed my enjoyment of the series, but Bodacious Space Pirates stays away.

Bodacious Space Pirates is a fun, casual series that doesn't take itself too seriously. Approach it the same way, and you'll enjoy it.

Monday, January 11, 2016

Sokobond

I like puzzles of many different kinds, but I have to say there's something a bit more satisfying when the end result is something more than an abstract pattern. Sokobond uses chemistry to add flavor to its puzzles. Each puzzle uses atoms as pieces to create the end result of a molecule.
A beginning position...
The idea behind each Sokobond puzzle is to maneuver one atom around the puzzle grid, picking up other atoms along the way. Each atom has one to four bonds available: one for hydrogen, two for oxygen, three for nitrogen, and four for carbon - just like you may remember from chemistry class. Moving your atom next to another atom will bond the two, assuming both have open bonds.

Solving the puzzle means using all the atoms to form a molecule. It's rarely simple, but the puzzles are mostly small enough that there are a limited number of possible moves. Some trial and error is generally enough to overcome a position that has you stumped. Also, each puzzle has a name that provides a minor hint.
...and completed molecule.
A finished puzzle will display the name of the molecule that you just created, and a factoid about it. Those range from how it was discovered to how it's used to associated historical figures. Educational as well as fun!

The game starts you out with a limited set of simple puzzles, then opens up more complex problems as you proceed. Solving one puzzle opens up access to others, and at certain intervals new mechanics are added, such as the ability to split bonds or create double bonds.
The overview screen. Solving a puzzle reveals any adjacent unsolved puzzles.
The mechanics in Sokobond are pretty simple, and none of the individual puzzles are overly complex. I had fun working my way through them - and I'm not done yet, only about halfway through. The chemistry factoids are a nice little reward at the end of each puzzle, and I may have even learned a thing or two!

Sunday, January 10, 2016

NFL Playoffs - NFC

Well, I said yesterday that NFL playoff games are exciting and fun. This year's AFC wild card games were certainly exciting at times - opening kickoff TD return, last second game-winning field goal - and they were probably fun if you're a Chiefs or Steelers fan. Not so much on the other side, with one game being a blowout of the Texans, and the other an emotional meltdown that was lost in large part due to personal fouls on the Bengals.

Today, it's the NFC's turn. I'd be pretty surprised if a repeat of either the blowout or the loss-by-penalty was repeated, but you never know. Here's how I'm ranking the teams in my own personal cheering order:

6. Green Bay Packers - Division rivals of my Detroit Lions don't end up high on my list of favorites unless there's some really compelling reason, and all the Packers have going for them right now is that they play at Lambeau Field. Fun to watch football played out in the elements (from my nice warm couch), but that would end if they won the game anyway.

5. Minnesota Vikings - Pretty much repeat the above.

4. Washington Unapologetic Racial Slurs - Prior to this year, I'd have put the Washington team at the bottom simply because of their hard-headed owner refusing to consider changing the team's name, after public outcry over it being racially offensive. It doesn't bother me personally, but it's a problem for some people, and that's enough to at least consider making a change. Besides, how much money would the team make selling all the new gear? But anyway, this year the team put Michigan State grad Kirk Cousins at QB, and that's enough to move them up a bit for me. Besides the Michigan State connection, Cousins is also one of those guys that all the talking heads say shouldn't be a great quarterback, and that's enough to make me hope that he does well.

3. Carolina Panthers - There's a good chance that the Panthers will end up winning the whole thing this year, because they've been the best team in the NFL for most of the season. I don't have any particular dislike for them, and Cam Newton is one of the more dynamic players you'll see anywhere. I could do without all his dancing and posturing, but that's certainly not unique to Carolina.

2. Arizona Cardinals - Last year, Arizona looked really good until injuries bit them near the end of the season, and they weren't able to finish strong. This year, injuries are much less of a concern. I like head coach Bruce Arians' style, and they've got some great players who are always entertaining.

1. Seattle Seahawks - Part of the reason I put Seattle at the top is my ex-resident-of-the-Pacific-Northwest bias, and part of it is because of the crazy way they lost last year's Super Bowl. I'd love to see them get a third straight chance in the big game. It'll be more difficult this year, without home games and with Marshawn Lynch still recovering from surgery, but it's in the realm of possibility.

Saturday, January 9, 2016

NFL Playoffs - AFC

It's NFL playoff time, and with my Detroit Lions watching at home, it's time to figure out who to cheer for while watching the games. Playoff football is exciting and fun even when your team isn't playing, so I certainly want to watch. It's just not the same without having a favorite team in each game, though, so let's see who we have to work with.

(Side note on the Lions: They started out terribly, but finished fairly strong. The future even looks better than it did mid-season. QB Matthew Stafford picked up his game, running backs Ameer Abdullah and Theo Riddick show real promise, and DE Ziggy Ansah was second-team All-Pro this year. Lots to work on, but at least things look better than when the team was 1-7.)

So here are the AFC playoff teams, from those I'd least like to see win, to most.

6. New England Patriots - Is anyone without Boston-area ties not tired of hearing about these guys? Between Deflategate, the Seahawks gifting them the Super Bowl last year, and their fast start this year, there's been no letup of Patriots in the news. Sooner they're out, the better.

5. Houston Texans - Only in the tournament at all because of how the divisions are split up. Other than seeing how badly JJ Watt will terrorize the opposing quarterback, there's not really anything interesting about this Houston team.

4. Pittsburgh Steelers - The Steelers have been up and down all year, and just barely edged out the Jets for a wild card spot. The offense is certainly fun to watch, but it just doesn't seem like a Pittsburgh football team to me without a dominating defense.

3. Cincinnati Bengals - This is a bit of a feel-good story, thanks to Andy Dalton injuring himself a few weeks back and AJ McCarron taking over at quarterback with little experience. I wouldn't mind seeing the Bengals finally manage to win a playoff game, since it's been 25 years.

2. Denver Broncos - I'm almost as tired of hearing about Peyton Manning as I am of Tom Brady, but given the injuries that he's had, it's almost assuredly Peyton's last playoff run. If the Broncos win, it'll be due to their defense, but it will also be a nice story either because Peyton finished up strong, or young Brock Osweiler took over and made it happen. Would be fun either way.

1. Kansas City Chiefs - Kansas City started out terribly, 1-5 through 6 games. Then they buckled down and won 10 in a row, and nearly caught Denver for the division title. If they have a good playoff run, it'll be a great never-say-die team story.
That takes care of the AFC side of things. Tomorrow, the NFC.

Friday, January 8, 2016

When Playing the Game is Work, Stop!

Video games are generally designed to be fun, and generally they start out easy. But fun and easy gets boring quickly, so the game gets more difficult and complicated as the player progresses. You can only go so far in that direction, though, before players can't keep up. As an alternative, games will often substitute repetition for difficulty. And that's where the game becomes work.
I've gotten stuck in this trap numerous times. Put a bunch of time into a game, building up your character or empire or base or whatever. You've done most of the game's content. Whatever is left requires a ton of repetition...farm kills or loot, run the same dungeons repeatedly, do the same daily missions for days on end. Eventually you're logging into the game not to enjoy yourself, but to do a daily chore that keeps the numbers going up.

That's not to say the grind is always bad. If you're in the game to play with your friends, and you're all doing the same things together, that's a good reason to keep going. Or if you actually enjoy the repetition, by all means, keep going. I find that pretty rare, though. Friends eventually move on to other things, and the most enjoyable gaming experience gets old after doing it for enough days in a row.

Sounds like there's a simple solution...just stop doing it! Ah, but it's not that easy. You've invested a lot of time into that character. The game provides some kind of carrot...better gear, nicer base, fancy titles, etc...that you're working toward. You see other players who have kept up the grind, and want to get where they are. Often there's new content...another raid, another dungeon...that you could open up with enough work. Stopping means giving up those possibilities.

The best way that I've found to break that grinding cycle is this...rather than thinking about stopping, look ahead to something new. Another game, a TV series to watch, a book to read, going on a trip - there are lots of things that can take the place of going back into that game for another round of daily grinding. Once you get involved in the new thing for a few days, that grind looks less and less important. Before long, you'll be happy that it's no longer on your mind.

Thursday, January 7, 2016

Recent Baking

A quick round-up of a few recent baking adventures. Nothing particularly special, just keeping the baked goods population up. For some reason, they disappear awfully fast...

First, some cheese bread. I used this recipe, with the Parmesan cheese substitute. (And regular generic flour, not King Arthur brand. Sorry, King Arthur people.)
I was really pleased with how this turned out. Sliced nicely without crumbling, which made it perfect for making grilled cheese sandwiches. Great with soup, too.

I ran across some cornbread mix on sale at the store, so I decided to try it out. Hadn't used my square pan in a while anyway. 
Turned out pretty well, and also very good with soup. Dried out quickly, though. I can't eat all that in one day (well, I probably could, but not a good idea), and the next day I was not so much eating cornbread as adding cornbread crumble to the soup. Not bad as a change of pace, but I probably won't do it regularly.

And of course, more cookies. 
Specifically, macadamia nut (pictured) and chocolate chip (not pictured). Minimal work on these - just bought some frozen cookie dough and tossed them in the oven. Not quite as good as those made from scratch, but not bad and really easy to do.

Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Kids on the Slope

Kids on the Slope is a coming-of-age high school story, based around the friendship of two young men and their shared love of music. I decided to check it out largely because it was directed by Shinichirō Watanabe (Cowboy Bebop, Samurai Champloo, Macross Plus), and I generally like music themes.
The story follows Kaoru Nishimi, a shy loner who just transferred into school, and Sentaro Kawabuchi, a troublemaker who often gets into fights. The two end up becoming friends in large part due to their shared interest in music, specifically jazz. They meet in the basement of Sentaro's childhood friend Ritsuko Mukae, below her family's record store, to play the piano and drums. They're joined also by Ritsuko's father on bass and neighbor Jun on trumpet, making a jazz ensemble.

The music is often used as a means to bring the characters together, which is necessary because they're constantly finding things to be upset about. Both Kaoru and Sentaro have tempers, and they explode often. Kaoru in particular often says things he regrets almost instantly, but has a hard time taking back...quite a few "open mouth, insert foot" moments. They're arguing, or sulking about a prior argument, a good portion of the time. And both have issues, mostly revolving around family, that drive them away from each other and friends in general. Music brings them back together repeatedly.

Inasmuch as Kids on the Slope has an ongoing plot, it revolves around a couple of love triangles. Between Kaoru-Ritsuko-Sentaro and Sentaro-Yukina (an artist girl at the school)-Jun, there's plenty of angst to go around. Misunderstandings and confusion abound, in large part because no one is willing to come right out and tell anyone else how they feel. Seems pretty accurate from what I remember of high school. But really, the romance plot isn't the point; the whole series is more about friendship than romantic love.

All of this could easily turn into either a really good story with interesting characters, or a horribly sappy string of cliches with no depth. Fortunately, Kids on the Slope is the former. It works because the characters are well-rounded with solid personalities, interesting backstories, and an assortment of flaws. You won't find cardboard stereotypes here.

From a production standpoint, I found nothing to dislike about Kids on the Slope. The artwork is well done and avoids the big-eyes-and-skimpy-outfits themes that make it difficult to take so many anime shows seriously. Much of the music is great, and while there are some recurring themes, it doesn't fall into the "play the same song over and over" trap that afflicts a lot of music-themed series. Having the characters play covers rather than original music helps with that, I think. And the series isn't very long...twelve half-hour episodes...so it doesn't drag on and nothing feels like filler.

Kids on the Slope is a solid series that just about anyone should enjoy. The friends-making-music-together theme made it particularly fun for me, I think, since I did a decent amount of that myself in high school. Did a decent amount of the foot-in-mouth stuff, too. But even if those bits of nostalgia don't apply to you, you'd likely enjoy it simply as a good story about friendship.

Tuesday, January 5, 2016

Apparently, it's National Pizza Week

No, seriously. The second week of January is National Pizza Week.
The National Pizza Week special from the pizza place down the road.
At least, the Internet says it is. It's on this list of January Food Holidays, and pops up in various places around the Internet. Local news stations with nothing better to report have pizza week segments. The one in Chicago kind of makes sense, but San Diego...is the news really that slow out west? And of course all sorts of pizza providers are happy to make sure you know they can help you celebrate. The week had barely started before the first pizza week ad email arrived in my inbox.

Sadly, National Pizza Week has not been recognized by presidential proclamation. Can't compete with National Poison Prevention Week or National Forest Products Week - although I'd argue that I've had some bad pizza that could be a cautionary example for the former, and pizza toppings that represent the latter.

The second week of January seems an odd time to choose for National Pizza Week. Wouldn't a lot of folks be avoiding pizza while trying to lose the extra holiday pounds? Or still holding to the illusion that their New Year's Resolution to eat healthier will last? The cynic in me says picking this week is an effort to thwart those good intentions, but surely pizza industry marketing wouldn't be that heartless. Right?

Well, heartless marketing or merely the creation of grease-loving eaters, National Pizza Week is apparently a thing. Which I will celebrate, because who wants to miss an excuse to get a pizza?

Monday, January 4, 2016

Why I Retired

On the first working day after the New Year in January 2013, I pulled my manager into a meeting room and let him know I was quitting my job. Two weeks later, I was officially unemployed for the first time in 15 years. At the time, I wasn't sure what I was doing next. After three years, I'm pretty sure that it's safe to say that I've retired. (And let me just say up front that this post is about why, not how, as in "how did I afford to do this." Might do the how another day. Suffice it to say that I have the means to live my current lifestyle indefinitely. Edit: A year later - here is the how!)
The short answer to why is this: lack of motivation. I've never been one of those people who love their jobs. I didn't actively dislike it (for the most part), but neither did I particularly enjoy the job itself. Going to work was something I did primarily because it was necessary. Once my financial situation was such that it was no longer necessary, motivation to keep going fell off very quickly.

That's not to say that I didn't like anything about working in the IT industry. I traveled to many interesting places, all over the United States as well as internationally (Australia, New Zealand, India, Malaysia). I met a lot of folks that I still consider friends. I got to work with a lot of interesting computer hardware and software. I was exposed to all sorts of different environments and industries, ranging from e-commerce to warehouse logistics to laundromats to health care. All good things, at least in moderation. But they're also all peripheral to the actual job of IT systems integration, which at the end of the day is mostly about augmenting business operations with technology.

As I approached my 15th year in the industry, I found myself wondering why I continued to go into the office each day. I felt like I was rehashing the same problems, same issues, same meetings day after day. Even when something "new" happened, like bringing in a new software system or starting a new project, it was similar to things I'd done in the past. That's a natural result of spending so long in the same industry, of course, but for me it meant that I was just going through the motions. The same motions, over and over.

I didn't immediately decide that the answer was to stop working. I tried making changes at work a few times. There was an attempt to move into an "architect" role, focused more on high-level direction than daily implementation issues. Then I tried changing from systems integration development to a systems administration role. (For the non-IT folks, that's kind of like moving from working on a phone app to maintaining the phone itself.) But after a short period of adjustment, I was back to feeling unmotivated.

Some people get motivation not from what they actually do in their jobs, but from making progress up the power structure. That didn't work for me, in large part because I actively dislike managing people. In 2007, I actually left my consulting job in part because the company had been pushing me to take more of a management role. I didn't feel pushed in that direction at the job I took after that, but it was also pretty clear that there was no other advancement path.

I certainly could have set other goals for myself, rather than dropping out of the work force entirely. I considered changing to a completely different type of IT company, or a different industry altogether, or going back to consulting. But as I thought about my options, I realized that what I really wanted to do was the stuff that you find yourself describing as, "if I had more time, I'd do..."

So that's exactly what I did...gave myself that time. And for three years, I've had absolutely no complaints. I haven't really even made a significant dent in my gaming or reading backlog, to be honest, though that's not for lack of effort. I've done some volunteer work (though not a whole lot), and taken a few trips. I get to see a lot of sports and watch movies that I'd never have bothered with while I was working. I have yet to find myself with a day when I just can't find anything to do.

Not everyone is in a position to be able to retire, or would want to. But it was the right choice for me, and three years in, I'm very satisfied with the decision.