Thursday, March 31, 2016

Another Tweak to the Trakt.tv Add-On for Kodi

My additions to the Trakt.tv add-on for Kodi have been working fairly well, but every once in while it'll still have issues. I decided to tackle one of those issues - the problem of common episode titles.
To quickly recap, the idea here is to watch TV shows that are recorded on my MythTV DVR via Kodi on my Fire TV, and to have Trakt.tv automatically update what I've watched. All the pieces already exist to make this happen, but they don't quite fit together. Specifically, the information that the Trakt.tv add-on requires (show ID, season number, episode number) isn't available from Kodi when I'm watching a MythTV DVR recording. All that Kodi knows is the show name and episode title.

I got around this problem by using the Trakt.tv web API to search for the episode title. It often returns more than one result, so I verify it by matching the result's show name (to the show name that Kodi provides). If they match, I tell Trakt.tv that we've got the right episode. But what if I get back a bunch of results from that search, but none of them match the show name? That's the problem of common episode titles - lots of shows use the same episode titles, and so a simple search for that title won't always get the right result.

An alternative approach to find the right episode is to search first for the show, then go through all the episodes of that show until I find the right one. The Trakt.tv web API is capable of this, but there's no efficient way to do it. You've got to make a whole lot of API calls: use the show name to get the show ID; look up the first episode; if that doesn't match, get the next episode; repeat until you find the right one. Horribly inefficient and slow, which is why I didn't use this method in the first place. But it does work even if the episode title is a very common one, used by dozens of TV shows.

So now the modified Trakt.tv add-on code has both options. It tries the episode title search first. If that works, we're done...no need for anything further. But if it doesn't work, then it tries to look up the show by name. If that's found, then it loops through every episode of that show until finding the right one. This way, the least efficient option is used only if the more efficient choice doesn't work.

Ideally, a future version of Kodi or Trakt.tv will make this whole thing unnecessary. If Kodi and/or the MythTV add-on can provide the season and episode number, then there will be no need to use the episode title at all. Or if the Trakt.tv web API had a method that can search on both show name and episode title, instead of just one or the other, then common episode titles won't be an issue. Until one or the other changes, I'm stuck with the inefficient method...but it does work.

Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Osgood Brewing

Wednesdays are often beer night for me, usually in conjunction with card and board games. We're on a bit of a break on the gaming front, though, so today I met up with some other friends at a local brewery.
Osgood Brewing is over in Grandville, about a half hour's drive from home for me. This was my first trip there. It's a nice roomy place, with lots of space both at the bar and at tables. Lots of windows, too, which made it easy for us to watch the heavy rainstorm outside. Better than walking in it.

I was meeting some other Rose-Hulman graduates for one of our semi-regular get-togethers. There aren't a lot of us up in the Grand Rapids area, but we usually get 3-4 people for our gatherings. And occasionally someone from further afield who makes the trip. Just three of us locals at this one.
As far as beer goes, Osgood Brewing has a decent selection. Several of each major type, such as stouts and IPAs. I tried four of them: the Oakestown amber, Notely's porter, Sol Seeker wheat ale, and Big Springs stout.
The Oakestown was by far my favorite. Nicely balanced between a smooth and strong taste. The others were less impressive, especially the Notely's, which has a very strong bitter taste. The Sol Seeker was good, but the lighter ales aren't really my thing. And the Big Springs seemed a bit watery, although that might be just the after-effects of that Notely's affecting my perceptions.

Osgood Brewing has food, too. I only had a small appetizer as I wasn't all that hungry - pretzel bites, which were just fine. My friends had a pasta bowl and a sandwich, both of which they were happy with.

It was a good first visit to Osgood Brewing. I'll have to go back, to try some other beers that looked interesting, and give the food menu a real try.

Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Erased

Erased tells the story of Satoru Fujinuma, a manga artist who occasionally has involuntary "revival" episodes where he repeats short periods of time. During those episodes, he can take action to avoid minor or major disasters. Then his most significant "revival" ever pushes him back eighteen years, with a chance to stop a string of serial murders at his elementary school. (Warning: Some spoilers below.)
That's a pretty interesting premise. I usually don't like time travel, because it's so easy to end up with a story that makes no logical sense, given the huge power that a time travel character has to work with. In this case, the involuntary nature of the "revival" power prevents that from being a significant factor. It's a little too convenient that Satoru ends up getting multiple chances to change the past, but that's a fairly minor quibble.

The story is largely a mystery-thriller, with Satoru working against an unknown killer to save the children that his future-informed-self knows are being targeted. Knowledge from the future only goes so far, though, as events change each time he does something different. Most of the series deals with his efforts to save Kayo, a girl who is isolated due to her abusive family situation and thus a prime target. Two (or three, depending on who you count) other victims are also saved, though that part goes by awfully fast compared to the time spent with Kayo.

Then things change entirely in the last two-and-a-half episodes, as Satoru meets the killer directly and changes the future significantly. There's one massive hole in the plot that was never explained to my satisfaction. This fifth-grade boy has discovered and thwarted a serial killer. The killer has the boy at his mercy, and appears to fully intend to kill him. We see the boy drowning with no one but the killer anywhere nearby. But somehow he survives (though in a coma), and we're never shown how it happens. The only explanation is that somehow the killer feels it's necessary that the boy lives, possibly because of a final shouted "I know your future" line as the water closes in. That just doesn't make any sense to me, even if you accept the "I need him alive" killer psychosis. Who cares about a dead kid knowing the future? He's out of the way now. Why the drowning in the first place, if the killer already knows he wants the boy alive? Why not lock him up in a basement or something? This sort of thing happens all the time in the sillier kinds of stories, I know. This one is supposed to be a mystery that makes you think, though, so it stands out as being poorly written.

That ridiculous bit aside, the wrap-up of the series isn't too bad. Everything turns out more or less for the best, with no one dead and the bad guy caught. The changed timeline is pretty rough on Satoru and his mother, but at least they stay alive and out of jail. It feels like a bit of a cop-out, though, with Satoru's miraculous survival. I think the ending would have felt much more complete as a story of sacrifice, where Satoru didn't escape, but the original victims were saved by his actions.

It's nice to watch a series that pretty much entirely avoids the most annoying anime stereotypes. There's no scantily clad girls, harem relationships, over-the-top emotional expressions, and so on. Big eyes are only for kids. In his adult time period, Satoru doesn't pursue the high school girl that he works with (despite multiple opportunities) until the very end when she's four years older. I appreciate not having to sit through all that.

Erased is a decent mystery story, despite the sub-par bits near the end. The characters are nicely developed, for the most part, and the production values are just fine. I think it's still worth watching, even if the ending isn't everything it could have been.

Monday, March 28, 2016

Spaghetti

When I ran in the Irish Jig this year, one of the things that came in the participant's goodie bag was spaghetti. Carb loading is a thing for serious runners (which is not a set of which I consider myself a member), but it still surprised me that they'd hand out boxes of uncooked spaghetti. Anyway, once I had it, I had to decide what to make with it.
The obvious thing to do is cook up the spaghetti and sauce it, and this I did. Got some Ragu Homestyle meat sauce, which worked nicely.
Seems kind of silly to cook less than half a pound of the spaghetti at a time, so I had basically an entire day of eating nothing else. Wouldn't do it every day, but it's fine as a change of pace. Probably get some meatballs to add in next time, too.
The other half-pound of spaghetti from that box went toward trying out spaghetti au gratin. The recipe was on the box, so I figured I'd give it a shot. It contains large amounts of pasta and cheese, which is highly relevant to my interests. Took about an hour of preparation and cooking time.
The pan I had available was a little larger than recommended, so the result was thinner and crunchier than I'd like. Nothing wrong with the taste, though. Just fine when refrigerated and then warmed up, too, which is important since that pan is about 2 days worth of food for me. Not bad for a first attempt.

All that, and I still have another box of spaghetti to use up. Think I'll wait a couple of weeks before doing something like this again. Much as I like my pasta, several days of basically nothing but spaghetti is a bit of an overload.

Sunday, March 27, 2016

A Matter of Faith

This is Easter Sunday, the day that we celebrate the resurrection of Jesus from the dead. It seems like an appropriate day to write a bit about faith.
I believe two things that I am completely incapable of proving:
  • When I die, my immortal soul is either going to be with God, or apart from Him.
  • Nothing I do can win my soul that spot with God; only belief that Jesus is the only way and commitment to Him will make it happen.
Making that commitment to Jesus is what makes me a Christian. Obviously there's a lot of other beliefs implied by these two: that there is a God, that we have immortal souls, that Jesus really did the things the Bible says he did, etc. But those two are the core. No one can prove that they're right (or wrong), as humanity has no way to see past the veil of death. It's a matter of faith.

This may seem fairly simplistic, but it's pretty difficult for a few reasons. I'm a logic person. I like things that can be explained, predicted, and analyzed. You can't do that with faith. There's no way for me to gather evidence or analyze results in this area. Anything that happens around me can be interpreted either to support my belief, or undermine it. Nothing is going to prove it either true or false. It's not easy to hold faith when almost everything else in life is explainable.

Maintaining faith is made more difficult when others use their faith as an excuse for inflicting harm. The obvious example is Islamic extremists. We hear about some new atrocity regularly, most recently from Belgium. Those responsible don't share the same faith I do, but their faith is the foundation that makes them capable of those horrific acts. It makes the whole concept of unconditional belief in anything more difficult to accept.

It's also not easy sometimes to hold my faith when I see what other people do under the Christian banner. Jesus said the greatest commandment is to love God with all your heart and mind, and the second was to love your neighbor (which is to say, everyone) as yourself. Yet many Christians battle to force everyone into compliance with their own beliefs on many issues. Birth control, treating LGBT people equally, teaching scientific theories in schools, and lack of tolerance for other religions to name just a few. That's not loving your neighbor; it's browbeating them into compliance. I'm not perfect in this area by any stretch of the imagination, but I do my best not to be involved in any way with discrimination or deprivation in the name of religious belief.

On this Easter, belief isn't that difficult, as believers around the world are celebrating one of the holiest acts in history. The rest of the time, it may not be so easy. Nevertheless, I still have faith.

Saturday, March 26, 2016

The Big Short

I recently had opportunity to see The Big Short, the 2015 film based on the book of the same name by Michael Lewis. It takes place in the years leading up to the financial crisis of the late 2000s, focusing on a few groups of people that saw the problems developing.
First, the movie is definitely entertaining. The characters are all interesting, and the casting is great. My personal favorite was Christian Bale as Dr. Michael Burry, and I had no complaints about any of the other performances. It starts a bit slowly, but once all the major players have been introduced, there's always something of interest happening. It runs just about 2 hours, and I didn't feel like it dragged out at all.

I consider myself an informed layman when it comes to financial markets in general, and the financial crisis of the late 2000s specifically. Certainly I don't have the depth of understanding that a real insider would, or someone who has studied the subject extensively. But I know about sub-prime mortgages, and credit default swaps, and CDOs, and the general way that the crisis unfolded. So I didn't watch the movie as much to learn what it said about the financial crisis, as I did to see how how it said those things.

As far as explanations goes, I thought the writers did pretty well. Using humorous celebrity cameos to explain bits of financial jargon is a stroke of genius. If you have to figure out a way to get complex and dry information across to the audience, why not make it fun? That shows up in other places, too, such as the Jenga-style tower used to represent bond markets in one meeting. It's still a lot of information to understand if someone were to come in with no clue at all about the subject, but I think they did as well as can be expected with the explanations.

Having said that, there's certainly a lot of complexity about the situation that wasn't included. Do a quick search on "big short fact check" and you'll see a whole lot of people who have written about things the film glosses over, exaggerates, or leaves out entirely. I've read a few of those, and while I don't doubt that they all have their points, it seems to me that they're mostly expecting too much of a movie (or book) that's meant to give the layman both entertainment and understanding. I think the major points that the movie makes are mostly accurate, and trying to explain even more underlying detail would have added only confusion.

When The Big Short ends with some pointed comments about how little has been done to change the system, it certainly makes the viewer think. And that's exactly what you want to see from this kind of film.

Friday, March 25, 2016

GATE

In GATE, a mysterious gateway opens in Japan that connects to a medieval fantasy world. An invading army of soldiers and knights complete with support from dragons and animal-men is beaten back, and eventually a force is sent through to the other side.
The idea of connecting our world to some other fantastic place isn't new by any means. It's pretty uncommon to set up the premise in the way that GATE does, though. There's no hiding the pathway in a wardrobe or a top-secret government facility. Everyone in the world knows about the existence of the gateway and that initial invasion. Anyone and anything that fits can go through - no dividing line between magic on one side and technology on the other.

Allowing that amount of freedom means that GATE has to confront some issues that you don't always see addressed under this kind of premise. The different types of power coming in direct conflict, for instance. When Japan sends the technologically advanced SDF through, they absolutely demolish the medieval conventional forces that try to repel them. There's some trouble when they run into a powerful dragon, though. When a demi-goddess shows up, it's fortunate for them that she's (mostly) friendly. This sort of thing is a non-issue if your premise doesn't allow technology and magic to co-exist, or severely limits their interactions, but GATE doesn't impose those kinds of limitations.

The SDF forces have to deal with learning everything in the new world: language, customs, politics, religion, and so on. Refugees fleeing difficult situations in the surrounding area come to them for help. There's pressure from back home, both in Japan's government and the international community. They have to address the difference in prisoner-of-war and refugee treatment standards. And so on. I appreciate the way that GATE deals with these issues rather than dodging them, for the most part at least. They don't always go into a lot of depth, but the writers at least try to give the viewer an idea of what's going on in each area.

The characters are a bit of a mixed bag. They're likable for the most part, provide plenty of comic relief, and several are moderately well developed. Most notably Itami, the protagonist SDF soldier, and the three girls from across the Gate that he befriends. Unfortunately, there's a lot of stereotypical anime harem in their relationship, which gets old fast. Particularly with Rory, the 900+ year old demi-goddess who looks about 14 and regularly comes on to Itami. I've seen worse, but it's still annoying to have to sit through that stuff. The goofy humor and sexual innuendo seems particularly out of place when other aspects of the show are addressing some serious issues like PTSD and mistreatment of prisoners.

There are also too many characters, particularly once you get about halfway through. The existing ones get less attention and the new characters feel like they've been added on just for the novelty value. For instance, a second elf girl is introduced and added to Itami's harem, eventually leading to a second fire dragon fight. Pretty everything in her side story felt like filler, time that could have been better spent on any number of other characters and story points.

On the whole, I really liked GATE, character complaints aside. The 24 episodes completed thus far tell a fairly complete story, but there's a whole lot of room to explore the world and the phenomenon of the gateway itself. I'd be happy to see it back for another season.

Thursday, March 24, 2016

Black Desert Online: Witchery

As I've been playing Black Desert Online (BDO), I've tried a few different character classes. Hunter, Fighter, Valkyrie, and Witch. Thus far the Witch has been my favorite. She's up to level 31 as I write this (the soft level cap is 50).

As I've mentioned before, you can do a whole lot of non-combat stuff in BDO. For those things, it really makes no difference what class you've chosen. Everyone can equally become a cook, or gather resources, or fish. But combat can be a very different proposition for each class.
Fireball explosion
The Witch is mostly a ranged attacker. The first skill she gets is a fireball, and that is augmented a few levels later with an explosion option. Against average enemies, my standard approach is to run around to gather a small group, then throw a fireball at them and make it explode. Kills many weaker enemies outright, and knocks down most of the others. She also gets a lightning attack which is similar in that you can cast it, then expand it to fry a large area. And there's a giant meteor storm you can cast for massive damage over a wide area, though it takes a while to charge up.

With all that area damage, you'd expect that a Witch uses up mana like crazy, and this is true. She gets a single-target attack to steal mana from an enemy, which is very helpful. Especially when there's just one guy left standing after a big explosion that ate up my mana bar. She's also got an ability to both heal and restore mana, albeit small amounts, which can affect any party members as well as the Witch herself.
Lightning Storm...
There are other utility powers as well. A freezing bolt can put a single enemy in an ice block, handy if you need a respite to recover from something particularly big. There are a couple of area slow effects, too. And bigger party heals, though I haven't done enough group play to really make much use of those.

Many of these combat effects look amazing, as is the case with many of the visuals in BDO. I've been known to stop and just watch the effects while electrocuting a bunch of Orcs with a lightning storm, or freezing a particularly aggressive bear. Admiring the effects isn't great for XP gain rate, but it sure does look pretty.
...and the corpses left afterward.
The biggest weakness thus far that I've run into is enemies that move and attack quickly. The Witch wants to stay out of melee, but she has to stand still to cast her spells. Against slower enemies, that's no problem, since you can just run a little ways away and cast your fireball while they're trying to catch up. If the enemies move quickly, though, you'll get hit while that spell is charging. Enough of that leads to a downed Witch soon enough. I'm still working on proper use of the slow effects and other support abilities to enhance her survival.

Gear is important as well, as with most MMORPGs. My Witch is currently using the Agerian set, which gives her extra casting speed. It's also fairly light in weight, so she can move a bit quicker than someone in heavy armor. Of course, that comes with the trade-off of lower defense, so getting hit can really hurt. Dodging, slowing enemies, and knocking them down is essential against anything dangerous.

On the whole, I'm fairly happy with my Witch's combat abilities. The big area-damage effects are a lot of fun, and the class abilities are well designed to allow you to use them without much downtime. She dies a bit more than I'd like, but that's likely my fault as a mediocre combat pilot, more than anything in the class design.

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Spotify

I own a lot of music that I've accumulated over the years via cassette, CD, and digital download. When Spotify first launched in the US, I wasn't very interested since I wasn't looking for more music. But recently I was looking into some new (to me) artists, and decided to give the streaming service a try.
This started after I went to the Nightwish concert a few weeks ago, and wanted to hear more from Delain (one of the opening acts). I bought a couple of their albums from Google Play Music, liked what I heard, and was considering getting more when I thought of Spotify. Pretty much all of Delain's stuff is available there, so I decided to give it a try.

To begin, I just downloaded the Windows Spotify client without subscribing. You get advertisements after every few songs, but otherwise there's not much difference between the free and subscription version when listening on your PC. I could still access any song that I found, and play other people's playlists.

I also tried out the Android app for my phone, and Fire TV app for my media center. The Fire TV app is pretty bad, honestly, if you try to use it directly. Poor user interface and very limited features. However, you can link it to your phone (or PC) to control what is playing on the Fire TV, which is much easier to use. For the phone, there's the ability to download songs for play while offline, but only if you're a subscriber.

The selection of music is pretty massive on Spotify. Not everything is available - I've run across both missing artists and albums - but there's plenty out there. You can use the "radio" function to get a selection of music similar to a song/artist (similar to something like Pandora), but also play specific songs or entire albums (unlike Pandora). And people can build playlists to share, which is one of my favorite features. I've found several that were built by people with similar musical tastes.

Thanks in large part to those playlists, I've already found a good number of interesting artists that I'd never run across before. I've also found some that I haven't listened to in years (like Die Happy and Devlierance). Used to have all their stuff on cassettes, but never re-acquired it in the digital world. Nice to have it easily accessible again.

Between the offline music feature and the lack of ads, I think the $10/month is worthwhile for a Spotify subscription. For a while, at least. It's nice to have an easy way to discover and enjoy different music, and once you've found it, be able to listen to it on demand.

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Leiji Matsumoto's OZMA

OZMA is a science fiction anime series set in a dystopian future on a mostly-barren Earth. Though with only six episodes and about two total hours screen time, it's really more like a movie than a series.
The story opens with some kind of abnormal solar activity causing the elimination of most life on Earth. Humans survive in two forms: genetically engineered "Ideal Children" and unmodified "Natura." Most of the world is a sandy wasteland, so people travel in sandships, which can submerge under the sand through special quantum drives.

The protagonist is Sam, a stereotypical brash-but-good-at-heart kid who is trying to measure up to the memory of his brother by pursuing the sand whale Ozma. In the process, he comes across Maya, an Ideal Child running from her siblings in the Theseus Army. Together with Sam's shipmates on the sandship Baldanos, they evade the Army, pursue Ozma, and eventually transform the world.

OZMA uses a good amount of submarine combat - well, actually, "sub-sand" combat - complete with torpedoes, active sonar pings, and depth charges. A good portion of several episodes is taken up with some tense hide-and-seek games between the Baldanos and Theseus Army ships. It's fairly well done, once you get past the quantum drive plot device that allows it all to happen.

By the end of the series, it's pretty clear that the story is a parable of sorts, warning against trying to use science to take the place of nature. The genetic manipulation that led to the Ideal Children is a failure, both because their bodies are breaking down and because they're unable to adapt to changing conditions as well as the Natura. Maya uses Ozma to restore the biodiversity of the Earth, effectively ensuring the end of the poorly-adapting genetically modified Ideal Children. The Natura survive, but are cautioned to live in harmony with the planet rather than dominate it.

OZMA isn't a particularly deep story, though it certainly does have a message. Regardless of how you feel about that, it's still a decently entertaining way to spend a couple of hours.

Monday, March 21, 2016

Income Tax Time

I finally got around to filing my 2015 income taxes this week. No one's favorite thing to do, but it sure feels good to have it done.
In past years, I've done tax filing much earlier, usually around early February. But then I had a couple of years where I got some late or changed information around the end of February, which is a royal pain. So now I wait until sometime in March to minimize the chance that I'll have to make corrections. I'm running a bit of a risk that some scammer will steal my info and file for me, but I suspect that waiting a month doesn't increase that risk too much. Basic protection of personal info is much more important than that extra month.

Like last year, I used TaxAct for my filing. I've used TurboTax in prior years, but TaxAct is slightly cheaper for my needs, and seems to work just as well. I suppose I could skip the tax-prep software entirely and do it myself with the IRS forms, but I'm afraid I'd miss something. Besides, it's just so convenient to go through a user-friendly guided process rather than trying to wade through the system myself.

The hardest part of the whole process is gathering all the information needed. This year I had six different financial institutions of various kinds sending me forms, plus a few charitable contribution receipts to keep track of. Several sent me more than one form. Some were sent only electronically, some only on paper. There's no good way to make sure you have everything, but I do my best by setting all the paper stuff aside as it hits my mailbox, and keeping a list of all the online accounts I need to check for electronic forms. I'm pretty sure I managed to find it all.

The actual process of entering information into TaxAct is pretty straightforward, once all the paperwork is in order. The hardest part was making sure to find the right spot to enter everything - for instance, it took me a good 10 minutes to track down exactly where I was supposed to put the info on a 1099-B. Got it all eventually, though. Had to skip past a whole lot of stuff that doesn't apply to me, but I'm pretty sure that's true for everyone. The tax code has special cases for a whole lot of people, and I can't imagine anyone uses anything close to all of them.

End result, I don't owe any federal taxes because my income is too low. Which is as expected, with no job income and fairly small amounts of interest from investments. Michigan was happy to take their 4.3%, though, since the state doesn't have the same system of deductions/exemptions as the federal government. So nothing to the feds, and a fairly minor payment to the state...pretty much the same as last year, which is a good thing. The best thing to hear at tax time is that there are no surprises.

Sunday, March 20, 2016

Another

Another is a mystery-horror anime series. It came up when I was browsing recommendations for mystery series, and though horror isn't really my thing, it looked interesting enough to try.
Another revolves mostly around a boy named Koichi Sakakibara, who goes to live with his mother's parents in a small town when his father has to go out of the country for work. He transfers into the local middle school, and it just so happens that the class he joins is affected by a strange "calamity"(which is carefully not called a "curse"). People associated with the students in that class die on a monthly basis. As the story progresses, the viewer learns about how this ties into the history of the town, as well as that of Koichi's own family. There's plenty more in the way of interesting details, but I won't talk about them here. There's not a lot you can say about the story of a series based around a mystery without spoiling it.

From a mystery standpoint, I thought Another was fairly well done. Once you start from the premise that there's truly something linking the class and the deaths, the way the story plays out is fairly logical. It's got plenty of twists, which for the most part weren't telegraphed too obviously. There's no random plot devices added without explanation, and new discoveries make sense in the context of the world. The last couple of episodes have a decent amount of action (much of it gory) and wrap up the story nicely. We never get a full explanation of exactly how the calamity works, but that's to be expected...it's supposed to be supernatural and mysterious.

As for the horror aspect, I felt that Another under-delivered. I admit that I tend not to allow myself to get sucked into really creepy stuff for the most part, because I'm not a big fan of being scared. (Weird, right?) But in this case, I think even a serious horror fan would have had a hard time getting immersed in the fright factor. In the first few episodes, the director uses a lot of the standard "set up a scare" tricks (creepy music, pictures of weird dolls, long significant pauses in conversations) without there being anything really frightening happening. Some parts are almost laughable...those set-up tricks are used in scenes where Koichi is doing or talking about completely mundane things. Add to that the use of over-the-top blood-spatter-everywhere visuals when someone dies on-screen, and the early episodes seem almost like a parody. This does improve as the series goes on; by the big wrap-up in the last two episodes, there was definitely some tension. It still suffers from the way things were done in the early portion of the series, though.

Another is a nice mystery story, and at only 12 episodes it's short enough that you won't be in suspense for long. Just don't watch it for the horror aspect.

Saturday, March 19, 2016

2016 Irish Jig

Each year immediately after St. Patrick's Day, Spectrum Health sponsors a 5k run here in Grand Rapids called the Irish Jig. I've run it several times in the past, and decided to go out again this year.

I don't do a lot of running, but I like doing middle-distances like 5k and 10k to keep myself from totally going to seed on the couch. I'm not fast enough to sprint in short distance races, and don't have the cardiovascular fitness to do marathons, but the middle works well for me. Some minor knee issues have put me on the elliptical trainer and stationary bike more than doing actual running over the last couple of years, but it's nothing serious and doesn't bother me as long as I don't go overboard.
Irish music entertainment pre-race. The poor guy in front is a workout trainer who got "volunteered" by his co-workers to guest-sing.
There's no reason I can't run on my own, of course, but it's nice to do an organized race every month or so (during the warm months) to keep myself honest. It's worth the $30 to have a set date to work toward, and besides, you get a nice shirt. Hard to skip workouts when you know there's going to be a race coming in a few weeks. Not that I'm in any danger of winning any prizes, but I still want to feel like I kept a decent pace.
Starting out. That banner you can barely see is the start line. Lots of folks slowly making their way toward it.
The Irish Jig is pretty early in the running season. You can find people running at all times of the year (even crazy ones out at the New Year) but I prefer a nice warm workout room when it's cold out. In past years, I've been snowed on at the Irish Jig, but this year was precipitation-free. Still pretty chilly, though, just above freezing. Of course that didn't stop some insane people from running in shorts and short sleeves. At least I didn't see anyone going shirtless. I'm not entirely sure why the race organizers have this set to start at 9 AM rather than waiting until the afternoon when it might be a little warmer. Anyway, it felt fine after getting through the first mile or so.
Finish line! From the rear, after I finished, which is why you see everyone just standing around.
This year I started way in the back, largely because I stayed inside as long as possible before venturing out in the cold. That meant I went a little slower than I usually would as I maneuvered around people going at a slower pace. Not a big deal, as I still ended up finishing in almost exactly 30 minutes. I'd prefer to be around 25, but considering the weather, other racers, and my general laziness this time of year, I'm pretty happy with 30. The results web site tells me that I was just under the median point for my age group, which I can live with.

Water and minor snacks at the end.
I may do a few more of these races over the summer. My recent trip up to Rockford made me think about the last time I did Mitchell's Run, and there's always several small events around Caledonia. They're fun, and a good reason to keep on a regular exercise schedule.

Friday, March 18, 2016

Black Desert Online: Annoyances

I've said a lot of nice things about Black Desert Online (BDO) recently. Which is all well and good, but we all know nothing is perfect, and MMOs even less so than most things. So here's the things that have most annoyed me thus far.
Crowded dock...all AFK fishing.
There's a lot of downtime while waiting on things to happen. You can try to minimize this by doing multiple things at once - go out gathering wood while waiting for crops to grow, that sort of thing. That only goes so far, though. Gathering materials in particular takes forever, as you move between nodes, spending 10-20 seconds at each one to mine/chop/etc. Using workers can help, but there are some materials workers just can't gather for you.

The game has no teleport-style quick travel, so location-specific tasks (such as turning in completed quests) can be painful. You can use automatic navigation to send your character riding/running to the proper location, but it still takes a while for them to get there. (And occasionally it doesn't work - been stuck a few times on weird terrain.) Travel between towns for trading is particularly slow, at least until you build up your resources to have a decent trade wagon. You have to pay attention to those trade trips, too, or bandits are likely to get you. So the auto-navigate is less useful in the trading sub-game, meaning it's just tedious to get where you're headed.

There's a whole lot of tiny things to micromanage. Tools break, for instance, so you may be well out into the woods and realize you have to run all the way back to town for a new axe. Gathering any significant quantity of materials on your own is painfully slow at first, though that does get better as you improve your skills. Working to increase NPC amity takes forever, and the little mini-game gets old after the first several dozen iterations. Inventory management is just as much of a challenge as in any MMO, and complicated by the fact that each major town has its own separate storage.

The game's Korean roots show through with some poor translations in some places. Whoever wrote the English translation of NPC dialogue could definitely use some more practice. There's also the usual minor new-launch bugs in quest descriptions and the like. More than once I've had to do a web search to find out what exactly I'm supposed to be doing for a quest or craft skill, only to find that the info in-game is simply wrong. Go use your mining skill in that cave to get a special crystal? Oh, nope, we really meant go kill the goblins in the cave, who will drop the crystal. Turn in two widgets for a reward? Sorry, it's actually five. The errors aren't particularly common, but even one quest in a hundred with wrong information sticks out.

My least favorite annoyance this is the way the game encourages you to leave it running while you go do something else. Energy recovers at a very slow rate when you log out, to the point where it may take days to max it out. Thus, it's fastest to just leave your guy sitting around to recover, while you minimize the game and walk away. Or better, set him up to do some fishing, which can be done with zero player interaction for hours on end. Come back in a few hours and see an inventory full of fish, and a full energy bar. It just doesn't feel right to me, purposely going AFK while my character just sits there. I still do it, though, because that AFK fishing is a huge money-maker in the early going, making your life much easier when pursuing everything else.

I realize all these things could be a lot worse, which is why I'm terming this post "Annoyances" rather than something like "Reasons to never play BDO." I'm still playing despite these issues, and will for a while yet. But when I do decide to give it up, the things mentioned here are likely a major reason why.

Thursday, March 17, 2016

Black Desert Online: Not Fighting

After getting to around level 14 in Black Desert Online (BDO) with my first character, I spent a few days playing with almost no progression toward the next character level. For most MMOs, that would be a terrible experience, but in BDO it just means I was busy exploring everything else.
After those first few hours of play, I reached the major hub town of Velia. There's plenty of options for fighting nearby, mostly goblins, but I got distracted by all the other things you can do. Character level in BDO is important in terms of which areas you can safely visit and which monsters to fight, but it doesn't seem to be important for the various gathering and crafting choices. Much more important is how much energy you have, which is a resource used by almost all non-combat actions. It regenerates on its own, but it's fairly slow (especially when logged out). Doing quests can add energy, providing an incentive to keep moving on available quests.

In most MMOs, the most important thing is how well you fight. Anything else you do (like crafting) is clearly secondary and really doesn't matter much if it doesn't improve your battle-readiness. BDO is much more balanced. If you'd like to focus on trading, or gathering raw materials, or one of the crafting skills, there's enough depth to focus almost entirely on those aspects.

The non-player characters in BDO have more depth than I'm used to. Each one has a certain set of interests, usually other NPCs in the area but occasionally monster knowledge or other subjects, and you have the option to increase your "amity" (friendliness, basically) by discussing those interests. Of course, you have to know what you're talking about, so you have to first go meet the other NPCs or defeat the monsters or whatever else the person is interested in. Then you can play a small mini-game to increase amity, and at certain thresholds you'll get new quests, or knowledge, or other bonuses. It's not easy to increase amity by large amounts, and it eats up your energy, so you have to work at getting friendly with each NPC.

The amity system adds depth to each area. Instead of just talking to everyone in an area when I first pass through, then coming back once to turn in quests, I've got incentive to re-visit several times. I can choose where to focus my efforts, rather than just talking to everyone with a quest sign over their heads. For example, if I'm playing a character with interest in cooking, I can spend time to chat up the local NPC cooks, gaining bonuses and cooking info and quest options.

A common problem in MMO crafting is that the gathering of materials becomes extremely repetitive. There's only so many wolves you can skin for furs, or trees to cut down, or rocks to mine, before the player gets tired and looks for something else to do. BDO has all those things, but also provides a way to hire NPC workers to do the grunt work. You can invest "contribution points" in map nodes to gain several benefits, one of which is the ability to assign a worker to harvest resources in that area. Those might be crops or animals on a farm, trees in the woods, ore near a mine, etc. So if you're tired of grubbing your own potatoes to make soup, hire someone to do it for you!

Of course, hiring workers comes with its own set of support tasks, many of which require money and/or contribution points to set up. You have to feed them to keep up stamina (although they seem to do fine on just beer), provide lodging, and make sure they're assigned to tasks. If you want them to do something more than simple gathering, such as making goods from raw materials, you can also provide them with workshop space. Managing your work force can be a whole game in itself, if you choose to pursue it.

The aforementioned contribution points are also used to make trade connections, by investing in connected map nodes. Once you've connected two nodes, you can make trips between them with trade goods, usually turning a fairly decent profit. It's pretty slow at first, as you have to walk from one city to the other carrying all your inventory in a backpack. Before long, though, you can afford to get a donkey for heavy lifting, then a horse, then a horse-drawn cart, and so on. Just look out for bandits on the road! The trading system can also be a whole game in itself.

Yet another use of contribution points is to expand your storage space. Each town has its own storage, but it's pretty limited at first. You can add to it by choosing to use various spaces around town (and in the surrounding farms) as storage space. Those are the same spaces that are used to set up workshops and other processing facilities, so you have to be careful which ones you use. It's nice to see a game where the expansion of storage facilities is integrated into the game world, not some add-on purchase option.

BDO encourages the use of multiple characters by sharing contribution point investments and storage space. Each character has their own energy level and skills, so you can specialize. As an example - I created a second character and parked him in Velia to serve as coordinator for my workers. He cooks up their food (that is, beer) and gathers up the inventory, to sell on the marketplace or ship off to other cities. If my main character out of energy or otherwise not available, I can take a few minutes to switch over to him to feed the hungry workers or otherwise manage the work force.

Between hiring a work force, learning crafting skills, doing some trading travel, and talking to NPCs, I spent most of a couple of days in BDO without making any appreciable progress along the main quest line or gaining character levels. And it was still plenty of fun, despite there being some annoyances along the way (more on that later). That's a well-designed sandbox-style game.

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Root Canal

I can add "root canal" to my "things I wish I'd never had to experience, but it happened" list after yesterday. Fits in nicely with stuff like "9-hour layover in Singapore airport," "rabies shots," and "cancerous tumor removal surgery."
Here's how this happened. About six weeks ago, I had some cavities filled. Most of them were small and there were no issues with those. But one cavity was big and deep. After the filling went in, I had a constant low level ache with occasional pain spikes, so I went back and had it re-done. That helped some, but I was still getting sharp pains when chewing (especially anything crunchy). So I went back again, and my dentist basically said that there was no remaining option outside of a root canal.

I originally thought that the problem may have been a mistake by the dentist on that original filling. That was part of it, as evidenced by the way things got somewhat better after the second attempt. But now I think the larger issue was that the cavity was just too deep for a filling in the first place. X-rays showed that the filling wasn't quite hitting the nerve, but that it was really close. Probably just close enough that some activity (like chewing crunchy stuff) pushed the filling into the nerve, and hurt like crazy.

The actual procedure was fairly uneventful. That local anesthetic that they swab onto/inject into your gums to numb the area works great. Couldn't feel a thing, even after watching ugly-looking needles and drills go by on their way to my mouth. Worst part of the whole process was when the assistant accidentally pulled on my lip with that little suction-tube thing.

I was expecting some pain after the anesthetic wore off, but surprisingly I've had almost none. It's been 24 hours, the numbing wore off hours ago, and I've had nothing more than a mild ache. Perhaps living with the constant ache and chewing pains for the last month-and-a-half got me used to it. Guess I didn't need to buy all that applesauce and oatmeal after all (not that it will go to waste).

I was well prepared for any chewing problems. Unnecessary, as it turns out.
From a financial standpoint, this is the first major test of my current dental insurance structure. The actual insurance can be best described as providing "prevention and basic maintenance" coverage, but it doesn't cover major procedures. (This is different from my medical insurance, which covers everything but with a high deductible.) For the major stuff, I have a health savings account (also useful for those medical deductibles). I expect to pay most of the $700 for the root canal, and whatever the crown work ends up costing, out of the HSA. So that's working exactly how I set it up, and should be no problem as long as this is an isolated incident. Which I sincerely hope it is.

Currently, I've got a temporary filling covering up the hole in my tooth. In another month or so, I get to go back to have a permanent filling put in, and a crown put on to cap the tooth. Until then, I was told I can mostly go on as normal; just be careful not to chew anything too tough/hard on that tooth, and don't eat really sticky stuff that might pull on that temporary filling. So no taffy in my immediate future, and I'll keep chewing on the other side of my mouth. Looking forward to getting this all finished up next month.

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Burger King's Hot Dogs

Burger King is serving hot dogs, and I ate one.
I like me some hot dogs. Happy to eat them when I was a kid, like most people I know. Never grew out of it. The usual preparation of dog-in-a-bun is fine, though I often end up chopping a few dogs up to add to things like mac-and-cheese. Get all-beef (or occasionally all-turkey) hot dogs and they taste just fine, no worry about mystery meat.

When I was working at Amway, there was a hot dog place across the street that was a weekly lunch destination. After it shut down, we made our own dogs for the whole department once a month or so. It got to be a big enough deal that the bosses bought us a grill and bought the supplies, treating it as a "team activity." That had mostly died off by the time I left, but it was fun while it lasted.

So when Burger King decided to serve hot dogs, I had to try one. I got the chili-and-cheese dog meal, which I almost immediately regretted because the fries were pretty bad. For future reference, better to get the dog alone (or maybe with onion rings). The hot dog itself was just fine, though. I wouldn't call it a gourmet experience, and I've had better hot dogs at specialty places, but as far as fast food goes it was perfectly fine.

Is the hot dog going to be a fast food hit? Early reports are promising. Maybe we'll see more traffic at the local Sonic (or whatever hot-dog-serving local chain you have) once people get used to the idea. I'm not going out of my way for Burger King, but if I end up there, I'm more likely to get another dog than any of their grilled patties.

Monday, March 14, 2016

Black Desert Online: First Impressions

Black Desert Online (BDO) has just recently gone live with their North America/Europe release. Being the MMO addict that I am, I decided to give it a try.
BDO is a buy-to-play game, meaning that you buy it once, then play with no recurring fee. That doesn't mean you never spend any more money, of course - such games usually have extras available through in-game stores and expansions. But at least you're not paying a set fee every month. I like this model, because 1) it means I don't feel like I'm wasting my money if I decide to take a break from the game for a while, and 2) the spend-some-money-now nagging is much less noticeable than in free-to-play games.

When creating a new character, you have to choose a server, which is locked in for that character. When you log in, you choose a channel within that server. Which means you can play together with friends on the same server, and you shouldn't have to worry about it being overcrowded - both of you can just switch to a different channel if needed. Unfortunately, I have friends playing on two different servers (L is playing, and so are the New Outriders folks). I wish MMOs would figure out the scaling necessary to develop a single-server system, or free movement for characters between servers. The closest I've seen is the megaserver system of Guild Wars 2, but even that has limitations. Anyway, I'll probably end up playing mostly with L on his server.

BDO doesn't go out of its way to help you manage your social contacts. There's a friends list, but it took me several tries to add L despite knowing both his family and character names. I'm never sure if he's actually online or not, since the list doesn't seem to update properly. You can talk directly in a one-on-one chat window, but it doesn't have keyboard shortcuts and often scrolls the text up out of view. We ended up creating a clan (the no-cost version of a guild) just so that we'd have a usable chat channel to communicate with.

Unlike most MMORPGs, BDO allows you to choose a class, but not a race. All Hunters are female Elves, all Wizards are male Humans, etc. It's a bit of an odd limitation, but it does make things a bit simpler. There are a lot of options for customizing your character's face and body, so not everyone in a class looks exactly the same. Just about all the new characters look very similar in the early going, though, since your clothes depend on your equipped items (as opposed to costume choices), and starter gear is the same for everyone.

Plenty of effort went into making BDO look good. The graphics are top-notch and the environments look great. My NVidia GeForce GTX 650 Ti Boost graphics card is a few years old, but it still manages to run the game pretty well on Medium settings. I imagine those with top-of-the-line graphics hardware are getting some really impressive visuals.

The first 2-3 hours spent in BDO are pretty standard tutorial/introduction MMO play. There's not a lot of emphasis on story, beyond some vague talk about some "Black Energy" causing problems in the world. Your character carries some of that black energy, and there's a black shadow-creature that appears only to you. There's the usual assortment of "go beat up harmless woodland creatures" quests to start out, eventually moving on to imps and goblins. You meet some NPCs with various interests of their own, but it all seems fairly inconsequential in the grand scheme of things. Quite a difference from many RPGs (MMO and single player) that toss your character directly into some kind of huge conflict right away.

Your personal shadow fuzzball points you along the main quest path, while at the same time encouraging you to be selfish and power-hungry. Presumably later on it will want you to do some awful things, setting up some story choices. Early on, though, it's just a matter of learning the basics of movement and combat.

Combat is action-based, meaning you need to aim your attacks and be prepared to move around to avoid incoming damage. I freely admit that I'm not very good at such things, but at least in the early going I've been able to keep up with what BDO demands. Combo attacks are reasonably simple to put together, and dodging mostly works well. My only problem so far is judging where big enemy attacks are going to land, since there's no "effect shadow" on telegraphed attacks showing where the damage is going. Several times I've dodged to what I thought was a safe spot, only to get hammered because the safe zone was a little farther away than I expected.

Even in these first few hours of learning the game, it's clear that there's a lot more to do than the usual "go kill X whatevers for NPC Y." Crafting, gathering, trading, running your own worker empire...all that comes later. More on that as I work through it.

Sunday, March 13, 2016

Nobunagun

Every now and then, I get in the mood for some mindless cartoon action. Last time I poked around Crunchyroll looking for such, Nobunagun fit the bill.
Alien monsters known as "Evolutionary Invasion Objects" (EIOs) have invaded the planet, and only a bunch of young people with special "E-Gene" DNA can stop them. One such is Sio Ogura, a Japanese schoolgirl who has been passed the essence of Oda Nobunaga through her E-Gene. Together with various other E-Gene holders (representing a wide variety of other historical figures), Sio fights off the aliens under the code name "Nobunagun."

If that sounds like a pretty flimsy premise, that's because it is. Mostly it exists so that there's an excuse to use a bunch of famous names from history: Galileo, Newton, Ghandi, and so on. The E-Gene Holders each use some kind of special power appropriate to the associated name: gravity for Newton, long-distance scouting for Galileo, and so on. It's moderately amusing to see how the powers and people line up. There's also a representative of Jack the Ripper, which doesn't quite fit in with all the benevolent famous figures.

The story starts off following Sio as she gets used to the idea of being an E-Gene soldier. Later on it moves into the history of how the E-Genes came to be, going back hundreds of years. Explaining how Jack fits in turns out to the be the big reveal at the end of the 13-episode series. I wasn't exactly on the edge of my seat as the story moved along, but it was enough to hold things together.

Most of Nobunagun is about fighting the EIOs, and it does a decent job. There's plenty of shooting, slicing, dicing, smashing, chopping, etc of alien monsters. There's no real attempt at realism, which is fine for this genre. The point is large amounts of blowing stuff up, preferably with style points, and that is certainly delivered.

For the most part, Nobunagun avoids the worst of the mindless action anime tropes. There's some fan service but it's not constantly in your face, and the sexual innuendo is mostly kept low-key. The fights aren't one long sequence of screams by the various fighters - there's a bit of that, but not all the time. And the show isn't afraid to poke fun at itself at times.

I don't think there's any danger of Nobunagun being mistaken for a great action anime series. But for a few episodes of simple, straightforward action fun, it's a decent choice.

Saturday, March 12, 2016

Tales of Maj'Eyal: Summoning and Failure

As mentioned previously, I am terrible at this game. I finally managed to get a character to the max level of 50, though, and got all the way to the final area in the original campaign. And then, of course, I died.
Yemoner the Yeek Summoner (adventure mode, normal difficulty) was born a week or so ago after his predecessor bought the farm. Summoners in Tales of Maj'Eyal are able to call various creatures to their side to fight off the bad guys. The summoner himself can't fight much, but his minions do most of the battling anyway. At least, when things are going well.

The different creature types give a summoner a pretty decent variety of options to handle various situations. Some creatures mostly use ranged attacks, others are mainly melee. Some are damage-dealers, others work best for defense. My favorites are the Minotaur (heavy single-target melee physical damage) and the Fire Drake (big area-of-effect physical and fire damage). I used all of the creatures at various times, though - none are useless.

As you move up in levels and gain access to advanced skills, your creatures get better as well. For instance, picking up the Master Summoner and Grand Arrival skills add effects whenever you summon a new creatures. War Hounds reduce enemy physical resistance, Minotaurs slow them, etc. There are also "wild" versions of your creatures with additional skills. It's nice that you can keep using the same creatures as you get further into the game, rather than having the early ones become useless as enemies get stronger.

This is the first character I've ever gotten all the way to level 50 in Tales of Maj'Eyal, and it went fairly easily. At least, compared to my many other attempts. I did die once somewhere in the 20s, due to a really unlucky teleport - from a bad situation to a worse one. But other than that, Yemoner made it all the way into the high 40s without serious trouble.

It wasn't fast, though. Takes a lot longer to clear out enemies by proxy through your summons, compared to killing them all personally via the sword or spell. I spent a lot of time checking around corners and maneuvering creatures so that the enemies would see them first, rather than attacking my personal self. It got much easier once I found a set of gloves with the Track skill, which shows where every enemy in a range of 25. Even with that advantage, though, it still takes longer to summon a few creatures than to just walk up and stab something.

By the time I got to the final portion of the campaign (clearing the four Orc Prides and the High Peak), Yemoner was in the upper 40s, and hit 50 on the second Orc stronghold. Died once to a level 61 boss that teleported me into the Fearscape, which is an alternate dimension filled with fire that just destroyed me. Can't hide while your minions do battle when the floor is on fire! I never did kill that one. Ended up having to run past him to the zone exit. There were several more bosses that I escaped in a similar fashion, either because they killed my minions so fast that they weren't taking any damage, or because the boss would hit Yemoner so hard that he was going to die before the minions could make the kill.

The fact that I had to run like that several times was a warning that the final fight would be a major problem, and this was the case. The final area is fairly small, so nowhere to run and hide. There are two level 75 (!) bosses plus many smaller creatures. I had three remaining lives, which did not last me long. The bosses were doing so much damage and applying so many bad status effects (blind, stun, etc) that I'd only manage to summon three or four creatures before dying. All the defensive and escape measures that I'd used through the rest of the game were pretty much useless due to the small area and sheer amount of damage.

So, that was disappointing, to make it all the way to the end but have no chance in the final fight. Still, at least I saw it. That's probably the last I'll play the original Tales of Maj'Eyal campaign for a while. I've seen it all (even if I didn't actually win), so it feels like my next character should try the new second campaign. That may be a while, though, as I've got some other gaming to do before heading back into Tales of Maj'Eyal.

Friday, March 11, 2016

Star Realms: Crisis Events

Star Realms, the space-combat deck-building game that I've written about before, released its latest digital update recently. It adds event cards to the online version of the game, and a new set of single-player campaign missions.
The new update contains the Event cards from the Crisis expansion. (Two other components of Crisis - "Heroes" and "Fleets and Fortresses" - have yet to come to the digital realm.) The new event cards are shuffled into the main deck, and take effect immediately when they're revealed during the normal course of refilling the trade row. Events affect all the players in the game, not just the current active player, though not always in exactly the same way.

Events add an additional layer of randomness to Star Realms. A well-timed (or poorly-timed, depending on your perspective) Trade Mission can give one player a very powerful card early on. Or a Supernova might reset the trade row just when you were about to pick up a powerful ship. They also change the way that a player plans out their turn. You might not want to play all your cards before buying ships/bases from the trade row, since an event might pop up that changes your plans.

I don't think Events are quite as bad as the Gambits expansion in terms of adding randomness, but Events certainly can have a big effect. This is most noticeable when several events pop up at the start of the game - one player can get a huge advantage on the very first turn with a fortunate series of Event cards. Much like Gambits, I enjoy having the extra bit of randomness from Events when I'm just playing the game for the sake of playing. If I actually care whether I win or not, then I'll probably skip both the Gambits and Events when creating the game. The extra randomness is fun, but not particularly conducive to skilled play.

The update made some other changes to the digital app, too. If you play on Mac or PC, you'll need a Steam account now, rather than downloading a stand-alone game client. There's no extra cost, but it is one more hoop to jump through. On all versions, there have been some minor changes to the UI: there's a new animation for 10+ damage attacks, and you can now correctly use effects that allow you to choose cards from both your hand and discard pile. The game's icon and completed-game graphics are slightly different (worse, IMHO, but someone must have liked the new ones). The game does feel a bit slower to respond while playing turns, which I'm pretty sure has to do with checking for event effects, but it's barely noticeable once you've played a few games.

For the $1.99 price, I think the Events addition is well worth picking up. I may not use the Event cards in every game, but it's nice to have them available for when I do feel like it.

Thursday, March 10, 2016

A Visit to Rockford: Beer, River, Toys

Earlier this week, I took a quick trip north to Rockford to sample some beer and walk around a bit. It's only about a half-hour drive from Caledonia, though you do have to get through Grand Rapids, so it's a good idea to avoid busy traffic times.
My excuse for going to Rockford was sampling beer at the Rockford Brewing Company. Not that I need much of an excuse to sample beer, but there was a special deal on. Nice little pub right in downtown Rockford, with kind of a log-cabin feel to it - plenty of wooden furniture and decor. I got eight 5-oz samples for under twenty bucks, not bad for craft brews.
Some good stuff in there. I particularly liked the Sumatra Porter and Cernunnos Irish Ale. Both of those are dark and heavy, which is my favorite beer type. The rest were pretty good, too, although the Cask Ale was a bit watery and the Paradigm was way too bitter for my taste. I'm sure they're perfect for someone, though!
After 40 ounces of beer, it's not a great idea to drive straight home. (Even with the half-hour spent drinking water at the bar after the last drink.) So I spent some time walking about Rockford downtown. The Rogue River is literally right across the street from the bar, so I walked along there for a bit.
There were a bunch of fellows out fishing in the river. The last couple of days have been really nice weather, so I guess that prompted them all to come out with the fishing poles. Can't say I totally understand the appeal, but as long as they're having fun, more power to 'em.
Walked around the rest of the Rockford downtown for a while as well. Stopped by a fairly large toy store for a bit, Aunt Candy's Toy Company. All kinds of games and toys, including the pictured school bus. Kind of nice to see a small business in the toys and games industry. Guess they're far enough away from the big chains of the world to make a go of it.

I've only been through Rockford a few times in the past, mostly when there's a run going on. Kind of nice to just wander around without a huge crowd. Nice place to visit, especially for the beer!

Wednesday, March 9, 2016

Michigan Primary Results

Well, that's a surprise. I voted for a winner!
Bernie Sanders won the Michigan Democratic primary yesterday, with a narrow margin over Hillary Clinton. That sounds fairly unimpressive, until you factor in that most polls had Clinton ahead by double digits. A lot of the story was turnout. Younger voters (under 30) overwhelmingly support Sanders, and they came out to vote. Actually, everyone came out to vote. It was the highest turnout in a primary election since 1972 in Michigan. It's good to see that people are exercising their voting rights.

Despite the near-even split in Michigan, most supporters of Democrat candidates seem to feel the same as I do...whoever wins, we'll support. The Washington Post put it nicely: "...recent surveys suggest that Democratic voters remain firmly united as a party and would stand behind either candidate in a general election. The data on the state of the party is a striking contrast to the chaos that threatens to overwhelm Republicans, especially after another good day at the polls for Donald Trump."

That good day for Trump makes it even more likely that he'll be the Republican nominee in November. It's hard for me to imagine that he might win the general election; but then, it was hard to imagine six months ago that he'd be this close to a primary win. Not that it matters all that much in my opinion. As I've explained before, none of the Republicans hold anything close to reasonable economic positions as far as I'm concerned, making it pretty inconsequential who is running on their ticket.

Good for Bernie, pulling out an unexpected victory here in the northern Midwest. Having said that, I fully intend now to completely ignore the presidential race for another few months. Next vote is in November, so I have an entire spring and summer to focus on more important things (like baseball!) before I have to think about it again.

Tuesday, March 8, 2016

Vote Accomplished

Posted about voting yesterday, went and did the deed today.
Always get your voting sticker!
Having the choice of when to go, I picked early afternoon. After the lunch rush, before most people get off work. Worked out well, only one other voter in the place. The poll workers said it was pretty crowded at lunch, though. When I fed my ballot into the counting machine, it said mine was number 273. No idea how many registered voters live in my little corner of southwest Michigan, but that seems like a reasonably good turnout for halfway through the day. Probably helps that this is the nicest weather we've had so far in 2016, so people aren't deciding not to go to the polls due to snow.

Michigan has a voter ID law...kind of. After you fill out a little card with your name and address, the poll worker asks for your ID. If you have one, great, they scan it and off you go. If you don't, then you have to sign a form saying that you don't have an ID...and then you get to vote anyway. Presumably, if there was some kind of really close race and a recount, those non-ID votes would be reviewed closely. I approve of the system - it doesn't actually stop anyone from voting, while still addressing the concerns of people who are worried about voter fraud. (Which I personally think is a ridiculous thing to worry about, as Jon Oliver has nicely summed up, but to each their own.)

Since you have to choose which of the primaries to vote in, there was a stack of ballots at the end of the line for each party. Since I was voting in the Democratic primary, I got one off the (much) shorter stack. It was pretty obvious that they were prepared for many more Republican voters! The lady handing me the ballot did a bit of a double-take when she got my info, actually. It's a pretty deep red area out here.

Civic duty fulfilled, for now. Won't be all that long before the big voting day in November...unless you're watching/listening to political ads, in which case it will seem like forever.

Monday, March 7, 2016

Michigan Primary Upcoming

Outside of what I see when following the news (which is a lot of coverage), I've been ignoring the presidential primary race (inasmuch as that's possible). Michigan is next up to vote, though, so it's time to decide what to do.
Michigan has a pretty useful voter information website. I used it to take a look at the sample ballot for my district, which has only the presidential primary on it. So there's nothing of real importance to vote on.

OK, that's not entirely fair. The primary elections are important, and of course the general election in November as well. But this primary sure doesn't feel very momentous. Part of that is because we've already had months of campaigning, with months more to go. Part of it is the way the primary process works, with so many votes already in around the country, and a bunch of candidates out of the race already. (Many of whom are still on the ballot, but at least they make a note of who has already dropped out.)

In Michigan, you can vote in either the Republican or Democratic race, but not both. Fortunately you don't have to register with the party to do so, or I wouldn't be voting at all. I have no desire to be associated with either party, though I've voted for candidates from both over the years. The parties still know who voted in their primary, though. Four years ago I voted in the Republican primary (easy choice, there was no Democratic primary race that year), and I got an awful lot of Republican party junk mail over the next couple of years.

Before we get to candidates, let's first take a look at issues. Yes, I try to actually vote based on issues, not who had the best zinger in the latest debate or which campaign is constantly in the media coverage. Everyone puts a different level of importance on various issues; combine that with the different stances on those issues, and it's easy to see how you end up with a big field of candidates. Here's my priorities:
  1. Changes in the electoral process to address the lack of real voter representation. No one is talking about this in any substantive way, sadly.
  2. The US economic climate. The concentration of wealth in a small portion of the population is my main concern here, followed by using government resources to encourage economic development.
  3. Willingness to work together with the rest of the world. We have it pretty good here in the US, and I'd like to keep it that way. Neither ignoring nor bullying the rest of the world will do that.
There's a whole lot of issues not on that list, obviously. That doesn't mean other issues aren't important, but for me, everything else is secondary to those top three. I don't really care about a candidate's gender, race, experience, religion, and so on. I'm not voting based on how they feel about abortion or illegal immigration or secure email servers or gun rights or any number of other things. Sure, I have opinions on all those issues, too, but they're just not the highest priority in my mind.

Looking at all the candidates from both parties that are still in the race, I'm once again reminded that the people who would likely make the best Presidential candidates are much too smart to go through the craziness required to get elected. Still, one of these people will be President next January, so I'd best pick the lesser of all the evils.

Clearly the greatest evil is Trump, who can't be bothered to check that anything he says is true, and appears to have no understanding that viewpoints other than his own might have some merit. He'd be a disaster for #3, and highly likely to make #1 and #2 worse as well. I tend to lump all the other Republicans together because they all fail #2 by having the same old "cut regulations, cut taxes, smaller government" economic refrain. Taxes are already as low as they have been in 40 years, and the various candidates' tax cut plans just happen to give the biggest breaks to the people who are already filthy rich. As for regulation, you hear most nights on the news about something gone wrong because government regulations didn't exist or weren't properly enforced. (The Flint infrastructure failure, exploding factories, auto repair fails, poorly run veteran homes, etc.) I have a hard time taking any of them seriously.

That leaves the Democrats. Hillary Clinton is the front-runner and I expect she's going to win the nomination, since she seems to be winning everything in the South and because of all the Democratic "super-delegates" that back her. Her experience as Secretary of State certainly speaks well to her ability to work with the world for #3. She's got some good ideas for #2, although most of her proposals in the economic area don't go nearly far enough for me. The idea of voting for our first female president is appealing, too, in much the same way that voting for the first African-American president appealed to me eight years ago.

Nevertheless, I'd have to say that I prefer Bernie Sanders, mostly because of his stance on financial regulation. He goes further than Clinton in some key areas, particularly in resurrecting the Glass-Steagall act to separate investment and consumer banking. I think Sanders has some overly-rosy expectations for how well his policies would do in the real world, especially in the tax reform and health care areas. (Robert Reich tried to explain that's not the case, but those numbers sure look overly optimistic to me.)  He's also more protectionist than I like in terms of international trade. Nonetheless, the things he talks about are the kind of actions that I think could make a real difference on #2. As for #3, I'm confident that he'd be a reasonable negotiator with other nations (outside of those trade deals), though without the experience that Clinton has.

So I think I'll vote for Sanders on Tuesday. I doubt it'll make a difference to the end result - which is true of pretty much all my votes - but that hasn't stopped me from voting before, and it won't now. And if Clinton ends up winning instead, that's fine, I'll have my chance to support her in November.