Saturday, April 30, 2016

Less Uninterruptible

Woke up this morning to an unfamiliar beeping noise. My first thought was that it must be time to change a fire alarm battery, but those sound a bit different. Turns out it was the UPS behind my computer desk.
That's UPS as in uninterruptible power supply, not brown delivery trucks. I've had this one for years...maybe 8? 10? I don't remember exactly, and I'm too lazy to go look it up. A good long while, anyway. A decent UPS is a long-term device that you don't even notice is there, ideally. At least, until the power goes out. I had this one connected to just about all my media center electronics. The beeping was because the battery had finally given up the ghost and was no longer holding power.

Originally I got this UPS because the power in my condo would flicker on a fairly regular basis. Not every day, but probably once or twice a month. That doesn't sound like much, but if you've got electronics that are always on (particularly computers), that kind of inconsistency can really mess with the system. Fortunately, that problem has gone away as of a few years ago, when the local electric company upgraded the various power delivery systems in my area. I haven't seen a power flicker since, and full outages are rare as well.

The other major reason for having the UPS was that I would occasionally want to access my home system when I was traveling, and for that it needed to always be on. If there was a power outage, everything would turn off, and there was no one at home to turn it back on. With the UPS, as long as the power outage was a fairly short one (under a half hour or so), everything would keep running. Since I rarely do extended travel any more, this isn't really a concern any more either.

The UPS was also a surge protector, again a very important component for sensitive electronics. Especially during the summer, when thunderstorms are in the area. Everything important is plugged into power strips, though, with their own surge protector functions. Short of a direct lightning strike, which would fry anything regardless of surge protection, it should be pretty safe.

So I think I'll just do without a replacement UPS, at least until something changes that makes it necessary to have one again. I'll find a recycling center where I can take the old one - it's got a big, heavy battery so you don't want to just toss it in the garbage - and stick with basic power strips to power and surge protect my various electronic devices.

Friday, April 29, 2016

The Final Year of Vin Scully Broadcasts

I've been watching quite a few Los Angeles Dodgers games this year. Not for the team itself, but for their broadcaster.
Vin Scully has been broadcasting various sports for almost 70 of his 88 years. That's not just longer than I've been alive - my parents weren't even born when he started. He's been with the Dodgers since 1950. I don't have any particular feelings one way or another about the Dodgers (outside of my Midwesterner mild dislike for anything from New York or Los Angeles), but I'll watch their home broadcasts just for a chance to hear Scully call the games.

I enjoy the older broadcasting style for baseball games, with just one announcer and minimal "sideshow" segments (by which I mean anything not about the game at hand: interviews, scoreboard updates, etc). Almost no one other than Scully does the single announcer format any more. Most television broadcasts (and some radio) have taken to including those sideshow segments, but not Dodger games that Scully is working.

Listening to Vin Scully call a baseball game almost always includes a bit of a history lesson. Baseball is a slow game with plenty of time to tell stories, and there's no one else in broadcasting with more stories. The viewer might hear how a particular play reminds him of something Jackie Robinson or Don Drysdale did many decades ago, or an anecdote from the days before pre-recorded commercial breaks when a beer cooler ice on a hot summer day melted and spilled all over the unfortunate announcer on the air. I'm often doing other things at the same time as I'm watching the game, but a Vin Scully story usually grabs my full attention for a few minutes.

It's amazing to me how well truly gifted sports announcers fill the hours of a game with constant commentary. Listening to Vin Scully call a game isn't just a chance to hear stories from long ago, or descriptions of the current game. He has background on every player, comments on every play, something to add for any situation. Sure, other announcers do the same things, but few (if any) in the business today are a smooth as Scully. Just about every other broadcast uses two-man teams, and even so many of them have more dead air in a typical game than Scully's solo work.

Vin Scully has said he'll retire at the end of this baseball season. I can certainly understand why, at almost 90 years old. Nonetheless, I can't help being sad to see him go. It'll be the end of an era, and his work will be missed. Meanwhile, I'll take every opportunity this year to turn on a home Dodgers game for his last year on the air.

Thursday, April 28, 2016

Feeling Helpless

There are times in life when you're on the outside of a terrible situation, with no reasonable way to make a difference. It may not impact you in any significant way, but that doesn't stop the feeling of wanting to help. You'd like to do something, anything that will improve things, but you just don't have any options...you're helpless.
It's not hard to find examples of this kind of helpless feeling. I've had two extended family members and several friends diagnosed with various long-term illnesses in the last decade or so, for instance. My own personal most recent example is an Internet forum post from a person I've interacted with casually for years, mostly about video games. He's dealing with cancer in his family, describing a very difficult situation. It will likely continue for years as various treatments are applied. I'm helpless to do anything about it - we don't know one another outside the Internet forum, and even if we did there's not a lot I could do aside from listen. Any words of sympathy from me will just be a repeat of things he's heard many times before from people much closer to him. (Though I still say the words, just in case.)

These helpless situations make me sad and angry. Sad for the people who have to deal with whatever is going wrong, and angry at my own inability to affect the situation. To the point of tears, sometimes, especially if I know the people involved. And that in turn makes me feel a bit guilty. I don't really have any skin in the game, so who am I to be feeling poorly about a situation that doesn't affect me? Knowing that doesn't help, unfortunately.

Distracting myself from the situation is one option, and it actually works pretty well in truly remote cases. Wars or terrorism that is going on halfway around the world, for instance. The helpless feeling is there, but only briefly. Once the next news story comes up, or I start doing something unrelated, I can put it out of my mind. Unfortunately, distraction doesn't work nearly as well when I'm close to the situation, usually because I know someone involved.

Sometimes, I'm able to redirect the energy from the sad/angry/helpless feelings into productive outlets. This blog, for instance (though "productive" is questionable there). Or the occasional volunteer work that I participate in. I can't affect the original situation through whatever I'm doing, but I'm helping someone, and that certainly counteracts the negative feelings.

Another coping mechanism is prayer. You see some variation of the "thoughts and prayers with you" phrase more often than just about anything else in response to someone having a difficult time. I suspect I may not be particularly popular among other believers (in almost any faith) for my viewpoint on this, but prayer just doesn't help me with the feelings of helplessness. My faith as an evangelical Christian certainly tells me that prayer is important, and I do pray regularly for all kinds of things, including these helpless feeling situations. It doesn't help me feel better, though, because logic tells me that an omniscient, omnipotent, loving God already has done everything that He feels is appropriate regardless of what I have to say. I do believe He still listens - otherwise I wouldn't pray at all - but it just doesn't give me any relief from that helpless feeling.

In the end, though, what helps most in these situations is this: in the act of sharing, some portion of the emotional load is lifted from the person who is suffering. I first came across the saying "shared pain is lessened; shared joy, increased" in a Spider Robinson novel long ago, and I'm sure he wasn't the first to express that sentiment. Over the years, I've found that saying to be true on both counts. The closer you are to the other people involved, the more it applies. The feeling of helplessness is much lessened when I remember that simply sharing these difficult situations benefits those involved.

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Hearthstone: Whispers of the Old Gods release

The latest Hearthstone expansion released yesterday, together with the introduction of the Standard format.
As far as releases go, this one wasn't terrible, though certainly not perfect. Sometimes major updates to online games can be a major fiasco, with all kinds of game-breaking bugs or ridiculous downtime. The Hearthstone folks did this one right, though, with two separate updates: first the 5.0 patch a few days ahead, then the new set release yesterday. Putting too much into a single update is a great way to screw up the system, so I was glad to see the two-part release. Not everything was smooth, though. There was still a lot of downtime for some people (including me) when the authentication server had some problems, which lasted several hours past the scheduled outage window. Annoying, but fairly minor as expansion launch problems go.

Once the server issues were resolved and I could log in, I was greeted with a short introduction to the new Standard format, as well as three free Whispers of the Old Gods packs. Opening those packs also gets you C'Thun, the signature legendary creature in this set, and two of his helper cards. It's important that everyone get C'Thun right away, since many of the cards in the set directly interact with him. I suspect we'll see a lot of people playing C'Thun decks at first, largely because it's new. Besides, who doesn't like destroying your opponent via tentacled elder gods? Interest will likely fall off pretty fast, though, as there's a whole lot of ways to get around C'Thun, not least of which is to simply end the game before he can be played on turn 10. Still, it's a fun idea, and useful to newer players since C'Thun is available to everyone.

There probably aren't many Hearthstone players who haven't already seen the news about the Standard format, but it's nice that the developers put in a little bit of explanation for those who somehow missed it. There's also a handy deck construction feature which will highlight the cards that aren't Standard-legal in your existing decks, and suggest replacements. The suggestions are pretty bad, to be honest, but that's OK. The important thing is knowing what needs to come out if you want the deck to be usable in Standard. Once that's taken care of, you can make your own judgement about what replacements to use.

It's important to have Standard-legal decks, because you need to win some Standard games in order to complete two special release quests. Winning 2 Standard games is worth 5 Whispers of the Old Gods packs. Completing that quest gives you another, to win 7 Standard games, for 5 more Whispers of the Old Gods packs. Thirteen free packs (10 from quests, 3 from the initial free stuff at login) is pretty nice. Blizzard clearly wants people who aren't spending a lot of time and/or money in the game to feel like they can catch up with the newest things.

I ended up retro-fitting a couple of my decks (Dragon Priest and Aggro Shaman) for Standard, which was a pretty easy process since each of those only used 2 older cards. I also built a Beast Druid deck. None of them are spectacular, but between the three I was able to win the 9 games needed to complete the quests in fairly short order. It helps that I wasn't in the higher echelons of ranked play to begin with. Much easier to win at the lower ranks, which is where I tend to stay since I play very little constructed.

So the new set release went fairly well. I'm glad that Blizzard is going out of their way to make it easy on players to get into the new set and constructed format, with the new cards and deck construction helper. It bodes well for the game's success when the developers are smoothing the process for older players to return and newer ones to get started.

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

The Middle Earth Collectible Card Game

More than 20 years have gone by since Iron Crown Enterprises released their first Middle Earth: Collectible Card Game (MECCG) set. It only lasted a few years, but that doesn't stop some of us from pulling it out as often as we can.
Back in 1995, the game was still called Middle Earth: The Wizards, and it was fairly simple. Oh, there was some complicated stuff with how you moved around Middle Earth to various locations, and I don't think anyone liked trying to figure out how influence worked. But overall, it had a straightforward theme: take a few characters around the map of Middle Earth, gathering up allies and items for the coming battle against the darkness while preventing your opponent's efforts to do the same. Or possibly try to destroy the evil of the One Ring, of course, although that was fairly difficult to pull off.

The MECCG designers had a hard time knowing when to stop, though. ("Delved to greedily and too deep" into the complexity of design, one might say.) The addition of dragons, agents (ugh), and then entire new playable factions (Ringwraiths, Fallen Wizards, Balrog) made the game a complex mess that required a huge amount of effort to learn. A basic two-player game could take hours to finish. There are some really cool themes in every MECCG set, but actually playing the game became more and more difficult. Eventually, the game collapsed under the weight of some unsound business decisions from the publisher, but I'm not sure how much longer it could have continued to grow regardless.
People still play the game, even after all this time. As recently as 2006, there were world events, held mostly in Europe. There are still World Council web sites. Haven't heard anything for a few years, so that may finally have ended, but I still get the occasional email from someone looking to sell cards or find out info about the game. And you might find MECCG players at several of the larger gaming conventions, often playing small tournaments with the pre-constructed challenge decks.

Locally, there are a few of us who still play whenever the opportunity arises. For years, we'd use sealed product that we'd picked up for practically nothing once the official game support had stopped. It ran out eventually, though. Now we mostly take a whole bunch of cards and randomly divide them out among 3-5 people, then play the results like a sealed deck. These games are generally bloodbaths. Kings of Gondor, Elven Lords, Wizards, Men, Dwarves, Hobbits...the corpses pile up. Even if you play it safe and stay away from dragon country or the heart of Mordor, there's still plenty of danger. Especially since combat involves dice rolls, and those things are treacherous. More than one mighty warrior has been defeated by the dreaded snake eyes.
One goal of these games is to win, of course, but the larger goal is to pull off something thematically cool and/or crazy. For instance, I once took Gandalf to Moria, and the Balrog got dropped on him. Which I promptly defeated with Sacrifice of Form - exactly the theme battle that card was designed for. (OK, actually it got cancelled and I had to go back and do it again later once I got the Sacrifice of Form back in my hand. But it still fit the theme!) Or the time someone had Boromir in a company being attacked by Orcs, and used Many Foes He Fought so that Boromir protected everyone else (and died). Just like the battle at Amon Hen. Near misses are nearly as good...such as when the random shuffle gave the same player Gandalf, Frodo, Gollum, the One Ring, Gollum's Fate, and various other supporting cards. Everything you need to take the One Ring to Mount Doom and destroy it...until Gandalf got killed, and he had no other way to actually put the One Ring into play.

There aren't a lot of games that I still get excited about playing, nearly 20 years after they went out of print. MECCG may be a complex mess of overly-ambitious design, but it's still one of my favorites.

Monday, April 25, 2016

Disc Golf: Cascade Recreation Park

Another nice day today in West Michigan! Went out to try another local disc golf course.
This course is in Cascade Township, a bit further away for me than Old Farm Park. It's a nicer park, though. Quite a bit larger, and the equipment looks newer. Unfortunately, it is pretty close to I-96. On several holes on the front 9, the noise of the highway is pretty loud. Quite a few other people were out and about in the park, many with their dogs. There's also a fairly good-sized fenced dog run area that runs next to one section of the course. Best not to overthrow in that direction!
There are a few short holes, in the 100-200 foot range, but many are longer. A good portion are over 300 feet! That may not sound all that long, but certainly looks like quite a way when you're trying to throw a disc. A few are both long and uphill, which is extra difficult. I liked it, though, as it gave me plenty of chances to practice longer throws.
I only saw two spots with water, both off to the side. But there were a few more places that looked as if there might be water in wetter weather, including a creek bed right in front of one basket. Hard to see in the picture below, but at the bottom of that hill is the basket just across the creek.
And then there's the woods. Four holes are entirely in a wooded area, and there are plenty of trees. I hit my share of them, of course - not nearly enough throw control to thread the needle! None of these holes are very long, though. Good place to practice precision.
It's a little difficult to follow the course at first, because several of the tees aren't very close to the previous basket. There are some signs to help you find the next tee, though even with that help I still had some trouble. The park isn't big enough for it to be a serious issue, though, so I just ended up walking around a bit more while I looked for the right spot. Won't be a problem again now that I've been through it once.

Overall, it's a nice course and I'm sure I'll be back. Probably not just after it rains, though, so those potential-water areas stay dry.

Sunday, April 24, 2016

World of Warcraft: A Brief Return

Way back in 2006, I played World of Warcraft (WoW) for a few months. Did the same again a few years later, around 2010, and haven't touched it since. Recently, I installed it again and played a character up to level 20 (the "starter edition" free-to-play cap, at least for now).

The impetus for this little adventure was the Hearthstone promotion to unlock the Lady Liadrin alternate Paladin hero. Play a WoW character to level 20, get the Hearthstone unlock for your account. I likely still wouldn't have bothered for that alone, but it also gave me an excuse to take a quick peek back into WoW after being away for years. Curiosity combined with the Hearthstone freebie was enough to push me into actually re-installing.
I didn't have the option to do anything with my old characters, because you have to subscribe for that. There's a good amount of stuff locked behind subscription: using the mail, auction house, guilds, etc. (Full list here.) Since I just wanted to poke around a little, that was fine with me. Apparently Blizzard is in the process of realizing that people don't want to pay monthly subscription fees any more, as they've created a system where you can buy play time in-game. Maybe they'll eventually be pushed to a buy-to-play model (meaning that you buy it once, then play with no recurring fee), but not yet.

In the process of creating a new Troll Druid and leveling her to 20, I was disappointed (but not surprised) to encounter:
  • Bugs in the opening quest area. Specifically, there's a quest to chase down a unique raptor and rope it, then take it to a holding area. I took the quest, but no raptor spawned. Had to drop and re-accept the quest, then it spawned. Bugs happen, but this game has been around for more than a decade! Can't they at least make the new player experience run smoothly? There were a couple of other similar quest issues as I moved into other areas.
  • Huge areas with no quick travel. My starting area was a pretty huge island, and I had to run around it to quite a few different locations to complete the initial quest chain. Watching your character run for 20-30 seconds between quest locations is not a good initial experience. I understand that mounts are available later on, and you do get access to some forms of quick travel between town areas soon after the starting area. But in the early game, it still takes forever to run around big areas like cities, or the huge open spaces between quest objectives.
  • Terrible respawn rates. The very first quest I got after leaving my starting area sent me to hunt down some sort of crab things, and when I arrived in the quest area, some other guy had just killed them all. I had to wait several minutes for more crabs to show up, so I could complete my quest. Same sort of thing happened several times in different quest areas.
  • Slow NPC Interactions. Several times, I had to sit and wait while NPCs spouted several lines of text, with long pauses in between, before I could do whatever was next for my quest. I can read quite quickly, thank you, and don't need to sit around waiting for the next line to appear.
Now, I realize WoW is an old design. Some of this stuff didn't seem nearly as bad 10 years ago, because we hadn't seen those same problems repeated again and again in other MMOs. But it confirms what I'd expected - WoW hasn't made much of an effort to change, at least not in the early going. If they want to get new blood into the game, that new player experience is a key component.

It's not all bad, of course. The graphics are fine, running well on my 1600x1200 screen. The cartoon-ish art style helps there, as you don't really expect amazing visuals. I didn't have any technical issues at all, really, which for a decade-plus-old game is a pretty significant feat. Quests were plentiful and led me to new areas, so I wasn't ever lost and wondering where I should go next. And leveling progress from 1-20 was fairly quick, requiring just that I follow the quest lines with no additional grinding.

It's certainly possible that there are some new and interesting things in WoW, at the higher levels and in newer areas. But this little experience in the new player/free-to-play area gives me no incentive to pony up a fee to find out. I expect most new players using the free "starter edition" trial will feel the same way.

Saturday, April 23, 2016

NHL Playoffs

Sadly, the Detroit Red Wings didn't make it past the first round in their 25th straight year of playoff participation. Which means it's time to look at which teams are left and decide who to pull for.
My Wings lost to the Tampa Bay Lightning, who are actually my second favorite hockey team, so it's pretty easy to pick the Lightning as my favorite in the East. A couple of others are interesting as well. The Florida Panthers were better in the regular season than anyone expected, so it would be interesting to watch them in the Cup finals. Not looking too likely, though, as they're in a 3-2 hole against the Islanders in the first round. And it sure would be nice if the Washington Capitals could finally figure out how to win the big one. The franchise has no Stanley Cup wins and only one conference championship, despite a whole lot of playoff appearances.

On the West side, I'll be pretty happy as long as the Chicago Blackhawks get knocked out as quickly as possible. Too much of a Detroit rivalry for me to ever enjoy seeing them win, plus no non-Blackhawks fan wants to see yet another Chicago championship, not after 3 of those in the last 5 years. I could see myself liking either the San Jose Sharks or Minnesota Wild, if they end up face someone other than the Lightning in the finals. Both of those teams have had their share of playoff disappointment and could use some good fortune.

Normally I'd prefer to adopt Canadian teams for playoff watching, but none of them made it in this year. That doesn't seem to have stopped the hockey playoffs from being big in Canada, though. I see Toronto Blue Jays broadcasts sometimes as I'm watching MLB.TV, and there is no lack of ads for hockey playoff games coming up later on their network. Not surprising, since just about every American hockey team has quite a few Canadian players.

Too bad about the quick exit for Detroit, but the hockey playoffs are still exciting, no matter who is playing. I'll catch whatever games I can.

Friday, April 22, 2016

Broadcast TV Networks, Please Join Us In 2016

So I was watching the most recent Agents of SHIELD today, which was originally aired Tuesday night on ABC. (Great show, well worth watching. Just make sure you start from the beginning of one of the seasons, as there's a lot of episode-by-episode buildup.) And was greatly annoyed by not one but two interruptions for New York presidential primary election results.
There's so much wrong with the fact that the network did this that it's hard to know where to start. And I should point out that it's not just ABC. All the networks do this to one extent or another on their over-the-air broadcasts. Some actually interrupt programs, while others put their logos or weather maps or whatever over a good chunk of the picture. Both approaches are terrible.

Let's begin with the fact that this is just a primary election. There's going to be non-stop news coverage of this election for months yet. There is no good reason for inserting "breaking news" on something that has no relevance for months to come, and will be covered to death on the next scheduled news broadcast anyhow. Worse, that primary election wasn't one that's even in my timezone. I could maybe see interrupting broadcasts in the New York or even New England area for updates, although even that is far from useful in this day and age. But the rest of the country? That's just stupid.

Network program people, let me introduce you to this new thing we have. It's called the Internet. You can get news updates any time you want, practically instantaneously. I personally have no less than 5 different devices in my living room which could get presidential primary election results within seconds. The same applies to weather alerts, school closings, news about the queen's birthday, etc, etc. I do not need my TV to be a 6th option.

Even if you feel you must cater to the very small set of people who both care about your update and have no Internet access, there's another new thing that you program people may not have heard of: bottom of the screen scrollbars. You can put your useless information updates on the bottom of the screen, while the picture is scaled slightly smaller on the remainder of the screen. The show continues uninterrupted and with no blocking of the picture. It's amazing!

Then there's the fact that I was watching this well after the original air time. I realize that broadcasters don't want to cater to people who record their shows and watch them later (while skipping the ads), but it's a fact of life that people do this. Lots and lots of people. And you know what those people do when you do stupid stuff that messes up their viewing experience? You might think they'd get it from the network web site, but those are terrible as well - the shows generally aren't available for days after the original airing, they have even more annoying ads than the ones on air, and the quality is often poor. No, people will go to the Internet and watch your content via pirate sites, which have no commercials and HD quality and episodes are available mere hours after air time (if not earlier). You want to keep people from stealing your content? Stop making it a terrible experience to get the stuff legitimately.

Feel free to join us in the 21st century any time, broadcast TV networks. Meanwhile, we'll be on the Internet.

Thursday, April 21, 2016

Hearthstone: Upcoming Changes

The Hearthstone folks posted yesterday about some card changes that are coming with the next major release, version 5.0. The exact patch date wasn't specified, but the Whispers of the Old Gods set release was announced for April 26, so it'll be sometime between now and then.
Hearthstone has made changes to cards before, almost all of which are nerfs - reduction in power level. That's pretty common in TCGs. The law of unintended consequences looms large in the design process of a game that relies on players combining cards pretty much any way they choose. It's really easy to accidentally introduce cards that are much more powerful than they appear at first glance. Corrections generally take one of three forms: creating new cards to counteract the problems, nerfing problem cards to bring them back in line, or changing the game rules to limit the effect of the problems.

I'm glad that Hearthstone has generally avoided the first approach. Creating new cards that counter powerful problem cards almost always creates new problems. A perfect example of this was the 7th Sea card game from many years ago, which had a few very powerful cards that almost everyone used (most notably Betrayal). Quite a few cards were later printed that could stop Betrayal, but that just meant everyone had to use those. Working around the overpowered cards, instead of just nerfing them, meant the designers were limited and deck construction was more difficult.

The set of changes announced by Hearthstone yesterday fall under the second approach: reduction in power level for the cards affected. Some are fairly minor, such as reducing Knife Juggler from 3 attack to 2. Most of the utility of Knife Juggler comes from its ability anyway, not its ability to attack. Others are larger changes, like the update that both increases the cost and reduces the effectiveness of Blade Flurry. In the current environment, several of the larger changes seem to make the cards pretty useless for constructed play, but that could always change as new cards are released.

Hearthstone is also using the third approach, by adding the Standard format. Once Whispers of the Old Gods is released, there will be two constructed formats. Standard will use only cards from the current and previous calendar year, plus the basic set. That eliminates expansions from two or more years ago. There will still be a format where all cards are legal, called Wild, but I expect balancing efforts to focus almost entirely on Standard.

I'm glad to see Hearthstone is keeping the game fresh by limiting the card pool (for Standard format, at least) and reining in powerful cards. I don't actually play constructed all that often, preferring Arena format or Tavern Brawls, but when I do it's nice to see a variety instead of the same powerful decks over and over again.

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Disc Golf: Old Farm Park in Kentwood

Some of my friends have gotten into playing disc golf, which convinced me to look into the game. It turns out that there are a lot of courses in my part of Michigan, and plenty of people playing.

Disc golf is pretty much exactly what it sounds like: golf played with discs (aka frisbees). Same general idea as traditional golf, just using discs instead of the ball/club and a metal basket instead of a hole in the ground. Courses are generally 9 or 18 holes, largely in public parks around the area.
I went out earlier this week to Old Farm Park in Kentwood, which is just a few miles north of where I live in Caledonia. I was encouraged to try that particular place when I saw some comments about it being good for beginners, and fairly short. Since this was my first-ever outing with nothing but a starter set of discs that I got from Amazon, that seemed like exactly what I needed. I didn't bother keeping score since I know I was horrible, but I had a good time trying out the sport.

The park is a nice enough place, although it's showing signs of age. Graffiti on the signs, beat-up park furniture, that sort of thing. The grass areas are mowed and it's mostly clean, though. And there was work going on by the basketball courts, so improvements are being made.
The first tee. Ignore the graffiti.
I learned very quickly that the first thing I'm going to need to work on is distance. I had a hard time getting my disc to go more than halfway toward the basket, even on the shortest holes. On the longer ones, I was throwing 4-5 times before I was anywhere near the end. Kept hooking it badly to the left, too. Going to definitely need some practice on throwing straight over distance.

I felt a bit better about the short game. Once I got within 10 yards or so, hitting the basket seemed fairly straightforward. Mostly I could get within a few feet of the basket for an easy toss-in, and a couple of times even managed to hit it directly from a good distance. I need a lot more practice to do it consistently, of course.
View from a tee near the woods. You can just barely see the yellow basket rim in between the trees.
There's a pretty substantial wooded area right in the middle of the park, and several of the holes run right through it.  Threading your way through the trees is certainly a challenge, at least for a beginner like me. I hit quite a few. My tendency to hook my throws actually helped here, though, as I was able to curl the disc around a few particularly thick clumps.
This pond is on the side of the course. A couple of holes run along it, but nothing goes across.
Some water is present on the course, but it's all off to the side of the holes. You might drop a disc into a creek or pond if you overthrow, but there's no place where you have to cross the water as part of a hole. Which is good for those of us without much confidence in our distance throws as of yet.

There were several other people out playing the course as well, even though I was there on a weekday morning. I suspect it would be a pretty crowded place on weekends or holidays. Saw a few signs for a league, too. Disc golf seems to be a popular pastime in the area, and there are quite a few more courses in the area to try out. I'll definitely go out some more this spring and summer.

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Root Canal, Part Two

Always bring reading material to the dentist office. You never know when you may end up spending nearly three hours there.
This visit was the second part of the root canal I had back in mid-March. The first visit had taken care of the work on the nerve, then we waited for that to heal up and make sure nothing unexpected happened. This visit was to do everything else except the crown, and then I get to go back again next month for that.

Guess it's a good thing there was that waiting period, because today there was indeed something unexpected. They had to go in and seal a second part of the canal under the tooth, which is pretty uncommon. At least, I think that's what the doctor was saying. Kinda hard to get the full explanation when you can't really ask questions, what with all the stuff in your mouth. But I got the general idea.

It was also a pretty busy day at the office, which contributed to the wait time. When I walked in, there was a lady in the next room under full anesthetic, wearing the gas mask and all, and all the other rooms looked full as well. The dentist was moving around quite a bit, so I spent a half hour waiting before he even got to me. Then we had to do five different x-rays at various angles to make sure they were getting that extra sealing done before moving on.

I got tired of sitting in the chair after more than two hours, of course, but I really don't mind too much. Rather have this thing done right, than get a half-hearted job done quickly. And I had some comics loaded on my tablet, so there's my entertainment while I waited around for the dentist or the next x-ray or whatever.

The last thing they did today was put a temporary crown on the tooth. I was warned to be careful flossing because I could pull that off accidentally, which is a new wrinkle. It's only for a couple of weeks until the permanent one is ready, though, and then I should be done with this tooth. For good, hopefully.

Monday, April 18, 2016

Portland Thorns Win Their NWSL Season Opener

The National Women's Soccer League (NWSL) kicked off its 4th season last week. I was happy to be able to watch the Portland Thorns start off the campaign with a win.
I admit, I didn't pay much attention at all to women's professional soccer until last year's World Cup. Honestly, I'm not sure I knew it even existed. The men's league has gotten enough press for the average sports fan to be aware of its existence, but the NWSL has been way under the radar.

After watching a good number of the matches in World Cup tournament, it became pretty obvious that there were a lot of excellent players in the sport. I kept hearing references to various leagues around the world as the announcers talked about what players were doing outside of international competition, one of which was the NWSL.

Once I knew enough to look around the Internet for more information, it became pretty clear that the NWSL was interested in connecting with its fans. All the matches are streamed live, mostly for free via YouTube. There's a lot of social media presence from the league, clubs, and players. It's great that small professional leagues like the NWSL are able to use the Internet for live streaming and other fan outreach, particularly for those of us who live long distances away from any of the clubs' home cities.

As I'm already a fan of the Portland Timbers on the men's side, it was a pretty easy choice of which club to support in the NWSL. The Portland Thorns play in the same stadium as the Timbers, and are owned by the same parent company. It didn't hurt that one of my favorite players from the US Women's National Team, Tobin Heath, is a Thorns star as well.

The Thorns played the expansion Orlando Pride at home in Providence Park to open this season, winning 2-1. The visitors got the first goal, but the home side was able to equalize before halftime and then scored the only second-half goal. The offseason had seen both Alex Morgan and Kaylyn Kyle leave the Thorns and join the Pride, so it was a bit strange having them both on the opposite side for the opening match. Lots of new faces on the Thorns roster, with a total of eight players making their first appearance in this match.

Congratulations to the Thorns on starting off the 2016 season with a win! Hope to see many more through the summer and fall.

Sunday, April 17, 2016

A Weekend of Magic Booster Drafting

When I played in the Shadows Over Innistrad Pre-Release earlier this month, I expected that would be the last Magic: The Gathering event that I'd attend for a while. But I had a good time, and that prompted me to try something else I haven't done in a while - a booster draft.
Booster drafts are slightly different from the sealed-deck format used in the pre-release in a couple of ways. There are only three booster packs instead of six, and you don't take the entire pack at once. Instead, you pick one card from the pack then pass it to the next person. Then you do the same with the pack you just received, and repeat. It takes a bit longer to set up than sealed-deck format, but it's cheaper and requires a bit more thought (and skill).

I went over to Lowell again on Friday night, where Rookies was running a booster draft as their Friday Night Magic format (at the pizza place again). Unfortunately, the turnout was very low...only four people. Usually an event won't even run with less than eight, but the organizer was kind enough to go ahead and do it anyway. With so few people, it felt more like just a game night with a few buddies than an actual organized event, which I didn't mind at all.

I played red/black in this draft, with mostly small creatures but plenty of removal options. My favorite card was From Under the Floorboards, which I got to play twice to summon a bunch of zombies. I won all three of my matches, but even the games I lost were fun with the group we had. Even played a couple of side games, when the other match was still running after mine finished. There was almost no prize support with such a small group, just a couple of packs, but we did all get the Friday Night Magic foil promo cards. More importantly, we all were able to play a full round-robin set of matches, and everyone had a good time.

It turns out that weekends are a pretty popular time for people to run booster drafts, at least in this area, so there was also a place running one on Saturday. So I went out to The Gaming Warehouse (TGW) in Holland, which is about the same amount of driving as the night before, but in the opposite direction. This event had quite a different feel from the one on Friday. The store where we played was fairly busy, with lots of people coming in to look at everything from board games to Magic cards to video games. And there were more people at this event - a total of thirteen, which meant we broke into two separate groups (or "pods", in draft-speak). So it was really as if two events were going on at the same time, since everyone was playing against the others in their pod.

My very first creature in this draft was a Drogskol Cavalry, a big white flyer, so of course my initial thought was to look for more white cards. I saw very little in the way of good white cards after a few picks, though, which told me someone ahead of me in line was taking them all. (Found out later that it was the guy right next to me, who ended up with a mono-white deck.) All those white picks meant that a lot of good other colors were left, though. I ended up with a very good selection of red removal spells, and some decent-if-not-spectacular red and green creatures. In the end, the only rare I had that was usable was Devil's Playground. It's unfortunate when your rare cards can't help you, but in the booster draft format, solid common and uncommon cards are often more useful anyway.

I won all four of my matches in this event, too, though at least one was through no fault of my own. My opponent beat me handily in one game, but just had a really bad draw (not enough land) in the other two games. The other three matches were more competitive, but I was able to pull out wins in each. Largely this came down to simply wiping out every creature my opponent played with all my removal spells, and letting whatever creatures survived on my side finish them off. The one exception was against a mono-black deck with a whole lot of lifelink creatures, which took forever to win since he just kept gaining life.

The prize for this event was just under $20 in store credit, which worked out nicely since I've been meaning to get some new card sleeves anyhow. Picked up two sets of those with Shadows of Innistrad characters (Avacyn and Nahiri) on them. I can use those if I decide to build a deck or two out of my limited collection of recent Magic cards, or they'll work nicely for other card games as well.
All told, I had a good time at both events, even though they were pretty different. Met some new people and explored some new gaming spots. There's a few other places around the Grand Rapids area that run similar events at various times, so I might try a few others in the future.

Saturday, April 16, 2016

It's a Bird..., by Steven Seagle and Teddy Kristiansen

DC Comics published a graphic novel back in 2004 called It's a Bird..., written by Steven Seagle and illustrated by Teddy Kristiansen. I recently had an opportunity to borrow and read through it.
With a name like It's a Bird..., published by DC, the first thing you think of is Superman. And the story does have Superman, but not as a character. Some Superman comics make an appearance, and Superman as an idea is a major theme, but the real story is the protagonist Steve and his struggles. The art isn't the "bright and colorful" format that many Superman stories use, but rather a more abstract and down-to-earth graphic style.

Steve is a comic book writer who has just been given the opportunity to write the current Superman book, a chance that everyone around him expects that he'll be excited to have. But it's just the opposite, as Steve associates Superman with childhood memories of his grandmother's death, due in part to the Superman comic he was given as a distraction while waiting in the hospital. That death was due to Huntington's Disease, as Steve learned later in life, and he's done his best to avoid anything associated with that disease, or even thinking about it. But the Superman job, combined with another instance of the genetically-linked disease in his family near the same time, forces Steve to confront his own fear of contracting it. He goes through something of a breakdown, but eventually comes out the other side of that dark time, and decides to move ahead with his life without letting fear of disease control him.

That's a very high-level summary that leaves out a lot of details, but it'll do for discussion purposes. I really enjoyed the journey that It's a Bird... takes with Steve, ranging from a comfortable position in life, through major disruptions, to a new acceptance of his situation. Come to think of it, maybe "enjoy" isn't the right word, since some parts of the story are pretty tough to read. Steve doesn't exactly make many friends with the way he acts throughout, and some people close to him (particularly his girlfriend and his editor) have to forgive some really bad behavior. Maybe "appreciate" is better, since that covers the uncomfortable but well-written parts of the story as well as the happier areas.

It's a Bird... may be more than a decade old now, but I think it's just as relevant today. Everyone can relate to dealing with a difficult truth that you don't want to accept, even if not everyone is faced with something as directly life-threatening as Huntington's Disease. Well worth the read, whether you have any interest in comic-book Superman or not.

Friday, April 15, 2016

Hearthstone: Khadgar

This week, Blizzard's online TCG Hearthstone added a new alternate hero for purchase: Khadgar the Mage. It was surprising to see that players can only buy the alternate hero on iOS devices.
Alternate heroes aren't a new thing in Hearthstone. They're purely cosmetic, changing only the portrait that shows up when you're playing that hero's class. Thus far, they've been priced at $10 and available to all players. (Or in one case, made available if you play Blizzard's World of Warcraft.)

Khadgar is being handled differently. You can only purchase him on iOS devices. Once you do, he's available for use on any version of the game. He only costs $5, and proceeds go to the World Wildlife Fund (WWF). It's part of the Apps For Earth campaign from Apple and the WWF.

The idea of using in-game purchases to support charities is something I'm happy to see. We gamers will spend money for plenty of shiny things in our games - nice to see some of those proceeds being used for a good cause. It's too bad that I can't participate, having no iOS devices.

I certainly get the concept of doing exclusive deals on a platform basis. It makes sense if you're talking about a game that is only playable on one platform, to try to sell that platform. But when you're talking about a cosmetic add-on, made available solely as a charitable contribution, exclusive deals make little sense. People aren't going to go buy an iPhone or iPad just to get an alternate hero in Hearthstone. Apple does get some good press from the deal, but that would happen even without the platform lock, since their name is on the Apps For Earth campaign itself.

I haven't bought any alternate heroes for Hearthstone yet, and had no plans to do so before this. So being unable to buy Khadgar really doesn't affect me. The WWF donation aspect might have convinced me to do so, though...if I was allowed to. I could donate directly, of course, but that's outside the scope of the Hearthstone promotion. Besides, anyone likely to donate directly to the WWF has probably already done so without needing an online game to get involved.

Seems to me that limiting this particular purchase to iOS devices is an unnecessarily restrictive choice. The impact of that restriction won't affect Blizzard or Apple, but the Apps For Earth donations to the WWF will be a bit smaller.

Thursday, April 14, 2016

Magic Duels

Magic Duels is a free-to-play, online version of Magic: The Gathering. I've played with it a bit in the past, and recently re-installed it to see what's new with the Shadows Over Innistrad expansion.
Magic Duels doesn't try to implement all the complexities of the physical card game. There's another online version, Magic Online, which does much more of that. Not every card from every set makes it into Duels, and there aren't big organized tournaments and other events. Which makes it good for casual play, without spending large sums on cards.

I play Magic Duels on my PC via Steam. It's also available on iOS and the XBox One. It's pretty much the same interface on all platforms, which means a limited UI by PC standards. Play consists of clicking on the cards you want to play, and pressing a button to pause play if you'd like to respond to something. That "pause to respond" interface mostly works well, although it's annoying at times while you wait for the pause interval to pass, or are a little slow and miss the interval when you wanted to pause.

With the release of each set, Magic Duels releases a set of campaign scenarios that players can complete, for gold rewards and some basic cards for their collection. These campaigns related in a general way to the storyline for the set. They're mostly easy to complete, although some will require a few tries to get the right draw.

When not playing the campaign, you can build decks and play against either the AI or other players. You can build decks either using a guided construction process for certain "archetype" decks, or a traditional deck builder. Since many of the daily quests require you to use archetype decks, I usually use that method, and play against the AI (generally on medium difficulty). Battling other players has the usual online-TCG problems: you see the same few powerful deck types repeatedly, meaning you have to play one of those yourself (if you have the cards) or lose repeatedly. I tend to avoid that mode for the most part.

The business model is more or less the same as other free-to-play TCGs. A new account gets a starter set of cards, and you can buy more with gold, the in-game currency. You get gold during play for game wins, daily quest completion, campaign completion, etc. It's a fairly slow process, so you can spend real money for gold to speed things up. There's also a "community quest" renewed on a weekly basis, where everyone who plays gets a gold reward when some goal is met across all players. That's a nice touch, something I haven't seen in other similar games.

There's one significant drawback to Magic Duels: bugs. Actually playing a match has been mostly bug-free (for me, at least), but issues crop up in other aspects of the game. Some examples: When I have a quest to win games with Blue/Black or Blue/White archetype decks, the Blue/White wins count, but the Blue/Black wins don't. Occasionally the game client will lock up when attempting to edit archetype decks (Green/Black seems particularly bad). After an update is released, my old decks will often have problems; a old mono-red deck that I tried to use ended up with no land, and nothing I tried in the deck builder would let me fix it (eventually I deleted it). None of this stuff is game-breaking, but it's very annoying.

Magic Duels is a fun option when I feel like playing a quick card game. It definitely has its problems, though: limited UI, restricted card availability, and bugs. Works as a quick time-waster, but I don't recommend spending any significant time (or money) on it.

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Watching Baseball

Now that the MLB regular season is underway, I'm spending a lot of time watching (or listening to) baseball games. Ideally the Cubs or Tigers, but I'll put most any game on in the background when I have the opportunity.
In the past few years, I've done a lot more listening to baseball games than watching them. Through the MLB At-Bat app (or their website), $20/season gets you all the radio broadcasts for every team. Baseball is a sport that lends itself well to radio, being slow enough to describe in detail and with so many stories and stats to fill the time between pitches. If I'm doing something else with a game on in the background, I'd much rather have the radio than the TV broadcast.

This year, T-Mobile was kind enough to give all of its customers the opportunity to watch all the MLB TV Premium broadcasts for free. I wouldn't spend the $109 that MLB wants for a season of out-of-market TV broadcast streams, but since it was free...sure, why not? That "out-of-market" bit is the main reason I wouldn't want to pay. I could see Cubs broadcasts, but since I live in the Tigers market area, all the Detroit games are blocked. (Yeah, I could mess around with VPN or proxies to get around the block, but it's just not worth the hassle when I can just listen to the radio instead.)

I mostly watch on my Fire TV. There's an app for MLB.TV Premium, which works fairly well. There's also a Kodi MLB.TV add-on, which works pretty well. This year, I mostly use the app, but in the past I've used Kodi more. If you don't have MLB.TV Premium, you can still use the Kodi add-on to listen to the radio broadcasts, but the Fire TV app has trouble with that. When I'm not at home, the MLB At-Bat app works well on my phone.

While I watch/listen to the ball games, I'll usually have something else going on. Cooking, cleaning, or other household chores when I have to; reading, Internet browsing, or playing games otherwise. Star Realms and Ascension in particular are great for inning breaks, or maybe Hearthstone while I listen to a radio broadcast. I know some people complain that baseball is too slow to be interesting, but for me that just means it fits nicely with doing some other things at the same time.

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Miscellaneous Media Center Updates

A few minor changes have hit my media center in the last couple of weeks. Herein, a quick round-up.
Amazon released an update to the Fire TV operating system (5.0.5.1) which blocks the Firestarter application. Firestarter just disappeared overnight, with no explanation or warning messages, which was a very unfriendly-to-the-user action. I tried re-installing it, which silently failed, again with nothing to tell me why. Eventually I found an explanation on the Firestarter issues list, but it was a frustrating experience.

I kind of understand why Amazon would want to block Firestarter. It takes over the home screen of the Fire TV, which means I don't see Amazon's ads. Not that I pay attention to them anyway, of course, but I do understand why they'd care. But there's no good excuse for the terrible user experience that I had from this update. At the very least, they could have some kind of pop-up message, or send me an email, explaining what had happened.

That update wasn't all bad news, though. I was using Firestarter as an easy way to launch applications that didn't show up on the Fire TV main screen (mostly Kodi). The Fire TV is now showing those applications in the Recently Used application list. So I can get by without Firestarter, as long as Amazon doesn't change that behavior.

Another minor update applies to the Trakt.tv Kodi add-on. I had recently expanded the episode lookup code that I use with my MythTV DVR recordings. Part of that change involved making an API call to Trakt for every episode of a show, which is terribly inefficient. Thanks to an update by the maintainer of the trakt.py Python API module, I was able to replace that with a single API call to get all episodes at once. It's still not as good as a real search-by-show-and-episode-name function would be, but it's an improvement.

It'll take a little while for that change to work its way through the various levels of code maintenance. The main branch of the trakt.py module needs to be updated, then the script.module.trakt Kodi add-on package, plus my own modified version of the Trakt add-on. Eventually it'll all be in place.

Monday, April 11, 2016

Metallica's Through the Never

A few years ago, Metallica created a movie, Through the Never. I heard about it at the time, but didn't pay a whole lot of attention. The opportunity to watch it came up recently, so I took a couple of hours to check it out.
Metallica Through the Never film.jpg
I had basically no pre-conceptions going in, since all I knew about Through the Never was that Metallica was involved. I wasn't sure if it was a documentary, or live concert, or what. Turns out, it's pretty much a 90-minute music video, with a large amount of concert footage included.

There's a storyline, kind of, where a roadie goes out to find a missing truck while the concert is going on. All sort of surreal stuff happens, from riots in the streets to the guy setting himself on fire. There's almost no dialog or explanation, which is one reason the movie feels like a music video. Seems to me that weirdness-on-screen while the music plays is a music video staple. The story bits weren't bad, but I didn't feel like they really added much to the experience.

The majority of the screen time isn't the roadie story, though, but rather concert footage. This was really well done, with lots of good close-ups of each band member and a goodly amount of wide-view shots around the stage and crowd. Some concert footage is pretty much static, showing the same few angles over and over, but Through the Never doesn't have that problem.

I've been to a good number of Metallica shows over the years, so I recognized several of the stage tricks. Either from my own experience, or videos I've seen. The giant coffins suspended around the stage from Death Magnetic, for instance. The giant blind justice statue from ...and Justice For All, and the cemetery crosses from Master of Puppets. And most notably, the "stage collapse accident" with the burning roadie running across the stage. I saw that one in person on an earlier tour - right after Load came out, if I remember right.

As a concert video, Through the Never is pretty good. I was a little disappointed that they didn't use Seek and Destroy, but otherwise the music selection was good. It was worth spending a couple of hours on the couch. I think I'd have been disappointed if I'd gone out of my way to see it in a theater, though. If you're going to make the effort to go out and see a band, better to go to a real concert, not just a movie about one.

Sunday, April 10, 2016

The Hockey Playoff Streak is Alive in Detroit

Twenty-five straight years of playoff hockey in the Motor City.
That's a really long time. The streak is old enough to vote, smoke, and drink. There are little kids running around Detroit in Red Wings mini-jerseys who can't remember a time without playoff hockey in their city, and neither can their parents. I didn't pay a whole lot of attention to hockey before I moved to Michigan in 1998, so effectively I also have no memory of a Detroit team that missed the playoffs. ESPN did an amusing article on what the world was like the last time the Red Wings weren't in the Stanley Cup playoffs: no Internet, the Berlin Wall was still up, Pretty Woman was a popular new movie, their leading 2016 goal scorer hadn't even been born, etc.
It wasn't pretty this year. The Detroit Red Wings just barely made it in, requiring a tiebreaker with the Boston Bruins since both teams had 93 points on the season. The Wings have the worst goal differential (-13) of any playoff team. They ended the season with two losses.

But none of that matters, because the playoffs start later this week. Forget the regular season stats; playoff hockey is a whole different beast. First round will be against the Tampa Bay Lightning, same as last year. Which is annoying for me, since the Lightning are my second-favorite hockey team, but I'm still fully on board for a Detroit win. Especially after losing a close series last year, in seven games.

Detroit is certainly a long shot to take the Stanley Cup this year. But then, it was a bit of a long shot just to make it to this point. You never know what might happen.

Saturday, April 9, 2016

Happy West Michigan Spring

Welcome to springtime in West Michigan!
Spring officially started almost three weeks ago, and we've had some nice weather, but winter isn't done yet. I woke up this morning to a couple of inches of snow, and a forecast for more. Made this morning's trip down to the exercise room require a bit more willpower than usual.
Today is the home opener for the Whitecaps, our local minor league baseball club. They might get it in, but it'll be pretty miserable in the stands in this weather. I tend not to plan on trips to the ballpark until June or July, myself. While snow is fairly rare, cold and windy is pretty common early on in the season.
This is likely the last gasp for winter. Forecast says that we should see days in the 50-60 degree range next week. Bring it on.

Friday, April 8, 2016

Valkyria Chronicles

Valkyria Chronicles was only available on the PS3 when originally launched back in 2008. I liked what I read about it, though, so I've kept an eye out for a PC version. That was made available a couple of years ago, and a few weeks ago I finally picked it up.
The game is a hybrid of a visual novel and squad-based tactics. The story is told through voice-overs on mostly-static images. It's mostly linear with very little in the way of decision-making, and feels very much like reading a story rather than participating in one. On a regular basis, the story puts you in a position to go fight some enemies, which drops your squad into a tactical battle. Win the battle and move ahead in the story; lose and your only option is to try again until you win. There's no open-world, choose-your-path-to-victory aspect to this game.

I liked the story in Valkyria Chronicles, though I wouldn't call it groundbreaking. The setting is a fictionalized version of Europe in the World War II era. You play a militia soldier who is defending his country from invasion by a neighboring empire, leading a squad into various battles around the country while fighting off the invaders. The cast of characters is fairly extensive: every member of your squad has at least minor background details in their biography, and several have recurring roles in the story. There's plenty of small details to poke into, such as the relationships of the people in your squad or parts of the history leading up to the current war. The general arc of the story will be familiar to most gamers or readers of historical fantasy - evil empire vs underdog militia, semi-magical ancient powers, love story against the backdrop of war - but that doesn't keep it from being interesting.

Whenever the story reaches the point of a battle, you're sent to the tactical battle system. You choose your squad at the start of each battle, allowing some level of customization based on the map and mission. Each turn, you're given a limited number of command points to use in moving and attacking. You can choose to spread those points out to keep multiple units in the fight, or focus them to get high performance out of a smaller group. The maps have terrain features to take into account, some of which certain squad members may handle better than others. Each action puts you directly into control of the acting unit, so moving and attacking (and getting yourself killed) feels immediate, not just a matter of moving a piece on a board.

Between battles, you can upgrade the abilities and equipment for your various soldier classes and tank. You might also learn new special "orders" that can be used for temporary bonuses on the battlefield. If the story missions are getting too difficult, you can also do repeatable "skirmish" battles to gain more experience and upgrades before moving ahead. Those skirmishes are mostly just repeats of the story missions you've already completed. I didn't spend a lot of time in this portion of the game, just enough to buy a few upgrades after each battle. Progression in the story missions didn't seem to depend too much on gear and experience level; it was more about learning the quirks of each specific scenario.

The tactical battles have some issues. For one thing, they take forever to complete. I spent more than an hour on several of them, more if you count all the times I had to reload. Controlling your characters isn't always easy - several times I ran into invisible walls when the terrain looked clear, or was unable to move out of ditches or around obstacles. And the battles are designed to force you into using specific tactics, limiting your choices of troops and gear. Want to use your experience and weapons upgrades to specialize in using snipers or shocktroopers? Too bad, the next battle will be unwinnable without heavy use of lancers. Or vice versa. The system appears to be customizable at first glance, but there's really not a lot of options in how to progress. I think the game would have worked just as well if they'd simply made your troops a bit stronger after each battle, without bothering with the whole leveling/upgrade system.

The worst part of the tactical battles is when the story changes the rules while you're in the middle of fighting. You might be moving steadily toward claiming an enemy supply depot, when suddenly a enemy general teleports in to block your path with his heavy tank for a few turns. Or you're advancing across the desert when a sandstorm springs up out of nowhere. I get that changing conditions is part of battle, but these feel arbitrary and designed to cause mission failures (which you then must repeat, with knowledge of what's coming). I did a whole lot of reloading of saved games about halfway through a battle, when some twist was thrown at me that made my original squad selection and tactics obsolete. None of the battles were especially difficult once you discovered the details of that particular scenario and started over, taking advantage of your future knowledge. It often took a good long time to get to that point, though, with several reloads and lots of frustration. My save game file says 32 hours of playtime, but Steam says 47 hours, which gives you some idea of how much I had to re-load and re-try the battles.

Despite its weaknesses, I enjoyed the majority of my time with Valkyria Chronicles. It's a fun story with enjoyable characters, and while the battle system has its issues, it works well enough. I don't have any desire for another play-through, though, now that I've seen the whole story.

Thursday, April 7, 2016

Happy National Beer Day

On April 7 1933, people could legally buy beer for the first time since Prohibition began. Sounds like a good excuse to celebrate!

By happy coincidence, some friends and I met for beers last night out at Hudsonville Pike 51 Brewery. Three of us had beers, anyway, and the fourth tried a few wines. Which was easy enough to do since the same location holds the Hudsonville Winery also (same ownership).
I had two sets of four sampler flights. Began with a couple of different cream ales, neither of which did a whole lot for me, but my friend Joe liked them. My taste runs to darker beers, so that wasn't a big surprise. The other two beers in the first flight were the Q-Hut Red and Knight's Brown, both of which were a little more bitter than I like, but not too bad.
Then I moved on to the darker beers. A honey wheat stout, a coffee-infused stout, the Sinister Kid imperial milk porter, and a special blend wild ale. All four of these were good, but the last two really stood out. Supply of the wild ale was limited since it's apparently pretty complex to make, but I was able to fill up my growler with the Sinister Kid porter.

Good times with the fellas, and some good beer to take home. That's the way to celebrate National Beer Day!

Wednesday, April 6, 2016

1980s/90s Christian Rock and Metal

Poking around the Spotify catalog has been interesting on several fronts. Discovering new music via recommendations and playlists is the main draw, but it's also been a trip down memory lane.
As a teenager in the late 1980s and early 1990s, I listened to a whole lot of rock and metal. Mostly Christian bands, though there was a good amount of Metallica and Rush in there as well. And I mean a lot, to the point where I wore out cassette tapes and broke tape players. Yeah, cassettes, although I did mostly switch to CDs toward the mid-90s. That all seems so ancient now, but I still have some of that stuff lying around. Though I don't think I have any cassette-playing equipment any more.

Spotify has a whole bunch of the bands that I remember in its catalog, and I've been revisiting them lately. The "similar artists" feature means that once you've found one, it's easy to get lost in clicking around to a bunch of stuff from the same time period. I built a playlist out of some of the favorites that I ran across. A few of them, in no particular order:
  • Petra - These guys were seriously long-lived, from the 1970s to the 2000s. I best remember the On Fire album, which I'm pretty sure I bought at least three times since I broke one cassette, bought another cassette, and later the CD. But their best work in my opinion was Beyond Belief, both the song (probably my favorite single Petra cut) and the whole album. Saw them several times in concert, too - 3.5 that I can remember. (That 0.5 is a show where just the lead singer, John Schlitt, did a concert with pre-recorded band tracks.)
  • Die Happy - I listened to a lot of very heavy stuff by a band called Vengeance Risingwho aren't on the playlist only because my tastes don't run to screaming-all-the-time vocals any more. Die Happy was formed when most of that band split from the leader, and they had a very different sound. Blues Metal, as I remember my friends and I called it. It's too bad they only ended up doing two studio albums.
  • Deliverance - I was in a garage band in high school (of course) and we'd have been deliriously happy to sound like Deliverance. Their first two albums were pretty much pure metal, but later on I'd classify their sound more as hard rock. My favorite album is Stay of Execution, which I'd put somewhere in the middle.
  • Bride - Southern rock, heavy style. These guys absolutely loved their wah-wah pedals. Judging from the Spotify most-popular list, people seem to like the Snakes in the Playground album. Nothing wrong with that one, but for me, Kinetic Faith was better. Particularly the songs Hired Gun and Everybody Knows My Name.
  • Whitecross - I best remember Whitecross for two things: listening to their In the Kingdom and High Gear albums while delivering newspapers, and getting to meet their bass player after a show sometime during my high school days. It was one of those 10-second autograph conversations, but it still stuck with me.
  • White Heart - When I came across this Spotify page, I was unsurprised to see that the most popular song by far is Desert Rose. I remember that ballad as their biggest hit, though I liked the rest of the Powerhouse album quite a bit as well. Saw these guys a couple of times in concert.
  • Tourniquet - Probably the heaviest band on this list. I listened to some even faster and harder stuff back in the day, but my tastes have mostly left those behind. But even before I started this little trip down musical memory lane, I still had Tourniquet in my MP3 collection. Pathogenic Ocular Dissonance, Psychosurgery, and Vanishing Lessons are all great albums.
  • Saviour Machine - It's hard to classify Saviour Machine musically. Some of it is metal, but there are also operatic and classical themes. Thematic classification is pretty easy, though - dark and apocalyptic. Lots of focus on the end times and the book of Revelation. I saw them live twice, easily two of the better concerts I've ever seen from anyone, Christian or secular. Too bad that's unlikely to happen again, as lead singer Eric Clayton had retired from music, at least partially due to illness.

Tuesday, April 5, 2016

Watching Some Robot Games

I saw some robots playing games last weekend.
The competition area.
The occasion was the FIRST Robotics Competition, just a few miles down the road in Kentwood. FIRST is a youth organization encouraging interest in science and technology through participation in various competitions. It ranges from grade-school events building small LEGO-based creations through high-school events working with fully mobile, semi-autonomous robots.

I'd heard about programs like this in passing before, but this was the first one that I visited in person. I learned about it from a fellow Rose-Hulman alumnus who is an adviser in the program. At his suggestion, I dropped by for an hour or so, just to get a feel for the event.
A robot and supporting gear, on its way home to its booth after a match.
The competition was held in a high school gymnasium, and it was packed. Most of the teams had brought cheering sections of parents and students, as well as all the paraphernalia that goes along with a robotics competition. The competition area took up most of the basketball court area, with lines of pit booths at either end where the teams could store their gear and work on their machines. It was loud with all those people, and during a match the cheering was just as enthusiastic as you hear at any basketball game.
One of the pit booth areas.
There are some fairly complicated rules about scoring and advancement, but the actual matches weren't too hard to follow. Two groups of robots roll back and forth across a match area, gathering up balls to throw through the opponent's goal. The whole thing had a medieval theme, so obstacles were supposed to represent moats and the balls were boulders being thrown at a castle. The robots get in each other's way, of course, but for the most part they do what they've been designed for. It was pretty interesting to watch the different ways that the robots were implemented. They all cleared obstacles, picked up balls, and threw them at the opponent's castle, but not all in the same way.

The robots themselves are pretty neat for a technology nerd like myself, but the part of the event that stood out most was just how many youngsters were there having a good time at a science and technology event. The support structure was impressive as well, with financial sponsors and adult advisers that worked with every team. FIRST is doing some great work. I hope they can continue to provide fun competition and learning opportunities for a good long time.