Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Marvel Heroes: Ant Man and Vision

The Marvel Heroes Civil War event has been going for a few weeks now. I've taken the opportunity to play some characters that are new to me.

Twice during the event, free hero tokens have been given out. The first one I got was Ant Man, who I hadn't yet unlocked. My second was a duplicate. I decided also to unlock Vision using the in-game currency. I have plenty of that, since I log in almost every day for the daily rewards, even when I'm not playing the game regularly.

With the extra bonus XP given to characters from the movie, plus all the other bonuses to experience gain that I have on my account, it took very little time to level Ant-Man and Vision to 60. So little, in fact, that I did it twice on each. That puts them both at green prestige level.

I also had a whole bunch of reward boxes that I'd collected from daily rewards. So once each character was at 60, I opened a bunch of those for gear. Nice to get a set of unique items with basically no effort. It's not optimal gearing, of course, but plenty for most anything short of high-end raiding.
Ant-Man has two major themes in his power sets: size change and ants. He has quite a few shrinking skills, which mostly do melee damage, and his signature power is to grow to giant size and stomp. The ant powers damage and debuff enemies with swarms of ants. I wasn't too impressed with most of the ant powers, but the size change stuff is pretty neat. The signature power in particular looks awfully cool. From a functional perspective, there are powers that fit all the key requirements (vulnerability debuff, area damage, single target damage) that are spaced out nicely as you level. Ant-Man feels a little less powerful than several of my other characters, but a bit more work to optimize the build and gear would probably fix that.
Vision's power themes are density shifting and solar powers. His Density Shift power toggles between low-density for phasing and ultra-dense for solidity. The other density shifting powers change based on the Density Shift setting, either phasing through things or hitting them hard. The solar powers do energy damage by using up solar energy, which is used up fast but also regenerates quickly. He can also take control a mechanical enemy and use it as a pet, though I didn't use that ability much. I liked a mixture of density and solar powers, mostly doing area damage with the solar powers and single-target damage with the density powers. I wish his vulnerability power unlocked earlier than level 47, but that's not a problem once you get to level 60. Vision seems to be about average power level, not noticeably better or worse than other characters that I'm used to playing.

The Marvel Heroes team has done a pretty good job with both these characters in terms of theme and style. It's a bit difficult to do size-change and phasing correctly, since the player needs to accept some limitations: you can't have Ant-Man just stomping on the biggest bosses, or Vision phasing through every wall. They're pretty good at implementing super-powers by now, though, after practicing on the other 50-ish characters in the game. In both cases, I felt like the gameplay captured the character's themes nicely.

Monday, May 30, 2016

Memorial Day

Today is Memorial Day in the United States, dedicated to honoring those who fell in defense of the country.
As a US citizen, I benefit daily from everything that those fallen soldiers fought to protect. We civilians are grateful for their sacrifice, and also for their comrades who continue to serve. In an ideal world no fighting would be necessary, but unfortunately the real world isn't so fortunate. Those who take up that burden deserve our respect.

I found this article about the roots of this holiday to be interesting from a historical perspective. The holiday originated as Decoration Day, not from a grateful civilian populace, but from the soldiers themselves. The original Decoration Day was declared by General John Alexander Logan, the leader of a Union veterans organization, in 1868. The circular that Logan wrote asked his fellow veterans to use May 30th to decorate the graves of their fallen comrades.

It's a bit hard to imagine today, when the country is united in honoring the holiday, but not everyone appreciated the original Decoration Day. After the Civil War, the civilian populace was eager to put all reminders of the war behind them, particularly in the North. And in the South, honoring fallen Union soldiers was naturally a deeply divisive concept. Over time, as the experience of war faded, observance became more widespread. And as other wars came and went, the meaning expanded to include all fallen soldiers.

The Memorial Day we know today didn't come into being until 1967, when it was declared a federal holiday. I'm young enough that I don't remember a time when we didn't have a Memorial Day, and so is a large portion of the American populace. It's sometimes easy to get caught up in all the other things that surround any federal holiday - time off work, all kinds of sales advertisements, picnics and parades - and miss the original reason. I hope today that everyone takes some time to remember and honor the sacrifice of the military veterans who helped make all those things possible.

Sunday, May 29, 2016

MTG: Sealed Event at Realms Games

I went down to Realms Games in Elkhart, IN this weekend to play in a sealed deck event. It's about a 90 minute drive. Not something I'd want to do regularly, but as an occasional thing it's OK. I used to drive the same route just about every week, when I was working as a consultant for various companies in northern Indiana many years ago.
Realms Games is located in a strip mall, with room for probably 40 or so players at gaming tables and an overflow area next door. They have some video game machines set up in the rear, too. It looks a bit unfinished, with some bare walls and flooring, but everything necessary is in place and the area looks well-kept.

The event was a sealed deck PPTQ, which stands for Preliminary Pro Tour Qualifier. People hoping to play Magic professionally can start with these events, where the winner gets an invite to a Regional Pro Tour Qualifier. I'm not likely to qualify for the Pro Tour, and not sure I'd go even if I did, but I do like playing the sealed deck format. Outside of pre-release events, there's not a lot of other sealed deck events around.

This being a Pro Tour feeder event, there was a good amount of bookkeeping involved. Everyone pairs up, and each player watches the other open their packs (to ensure no one cheats by adding or removing cards). Then you have to write down all the cards on a tally sheet. Once your deck is built, you use the same sheet to indicate which ones you're using. It's a bit tedious, but it's good to have these kind of rules in pro events. We had a total of 26 players, and played 5 rounds.

My card pool was decent, but not great. I didn't have any "bombs" that were so obviously good that I'd have to play them. My biggest creature was The Gitrog Monster, but the rest of the green cards in the pool were terrible. The rest of my rares were serviceable, but not great. I ended up with a black/white deck, and a couple of green mana sources so I could run the monster.

The first two rounds went very well for me, both 2-1 wins. Only one of those games was decided by terrible land draws. I should have known that meant I was due for some bad luck on that front, and indeed I lost the next round 2-0 with not enough land in either game. Although it might not have mattered, since my opponent drew and played Archangel Avacyn in both games. I managed to kill her once, but without enough land I couldn't keep up with everything else coming at me.

In the fourth round, I made a mistake that cost me a chance at a top eight finish. My opponent was playing green/black, and he had a ton of creatures that were about to kill me. I could kill him next turn if I survived, but I didn't have enough blockers. Only after I'd already lost did I realize that I had a Dauntless Cathar in the graveyard, which I could have used on my prior turn to make one more blocker and survive long enough. I also lost the second game, which again was very close, although I don't think I made mistakes that time. In any event, had I not made that mistake, I'd at least have had a chance at a third game to win the match, which would have put me in top eight contention.

So no top eight, but I still had a good time. I didn't get to play in the fifth round since my opponent never showed up. He probably decided to drop but forgot to write it on his score sheet. That counts as a win, so I finished 12th out of 26. A reasonable showing, taking in account a fairly mediocre card pool and one big play mistake. I'd consider doing another event like this, if the opportunity presents itself.

Saturday, May 28, 2016

Revisiting Favorites

I read a lot, and watch a good amount of TV (and other video). For most things, once is enough. But I find myself repeating favorites as well.
When you stop and think about it, it's a little odd that we like to revisit the same books, shows, and other types of media. There's so much to choose from that a person could go lifetimes without ever repeating themselves. A few hundred years ago, that wasn't the case...most people might see only a few books or plays in their lifetime. In the last century or two, though, opportunity to find new media has exploded. Radio, movies, television, libraries, the Internet...sources of new material are everywhere.

Part of the reason for repetition is that I'm not always looking for the same thing when picking something to read or watch. Much of the time I'm interested in something new, of course. But other times I have other goals. Maybe I'm feeling nostalgic, and wind up looking for something I first encountered years ago. Or perhaps some random event reminded me of a particular book recently. It may just be so long since I last watched a movie that I barely remember it, other than that it was fun.

There's also a comfort factor in revisiting old favorites. When you're watching or reading something for the first time, you're not entirely sure if you'll enjoy it. Maybe that movie will feel like a waste of a couple of hours, or the book that looked so promising on the cover blurb will be dull and lifeless. Can't let that fear prevent trying new things, of course, but occasionally I just want something that I know I'll enjoy.

Much of what I enjoy reading or watching involves long, complex storylines. It's not uncommon for me to go through the first part of a story when it's first released, then have to wait for the rest. If it's been a while since I read the earlier parts, I may revisit those before jumping into the latest release. Mostly this applies to book and movie series, in which releases may be years apart. I've also been known to simply avoid an interesting-looking series until the whole thing is complete, but I don't always want to wait.

Generally, I find that a second or third trip through a particular work will result in learning something new about it. Partially that's just because I can't absorb everything at once - there's always some details that slip by. And in many cases, my perspective changes once I know where the creator is heading with the story. I also find, though, that I see things differently because I've changed. Something I first read years ago in high school or college may look very different to me now, with quite a bit more experience and perspective.

So I'll keep copies of my favorites nearby, whether that be my own physical copies or easy access at the library or on the Internet. Going back to an enjoyable book or video can be just as satisfying as discovering something new.

Friday, May 27, 2016

Wireless Headphones for Jogging

My old pair of wireless headphones gave up the ghost a while back. They'd lasted a couple of years, not a great lifetime, but I got good use while they lasted. Time for a new pair.
I've found over the years that I simply cannot use basic earbuds, at least not while moving around. Every type I've tried falls out during any kind of major movement, often just walking, let alone jogging outside or on a treadmill. So when shopping for new headphones, some kind of over-the-ear design is essential for me.

For a long time, I used wired headphones because wireless was just too unreliable. Static, disconnections, etc happened all the time, particularly while running outside. But things have changed in the last 4-5 years, and just about any Bluetooth headset these days provides pretty decent sound. Every once in a while you still run into an area where some kind of interference will cause static or stuttering, but it's rare. And it's so much more convenient not to have to worry about the wire getting caught on something, or reaching far enough to plug into your phone.

After some poking around the internet for reviews, I settled on the Plantronics Backbeat Fit. They're not cheap at a suggested price of $129.99, but Amazon had them for about 2/3 of that price. I got everything I was looking for: wireless, over-the-ear stability, and even a phone holder armband to use when jogging. The sound quality is great, and the battery will last several hours on a full charge.

So I'm all set with the new equipment, which will see heavy use while I'm out jogging around this summer. I'm happy with the performance, and time will tell if they're sturdy enough to last more than a couple of years.

Thursday, May 26, 2016

Deadpool

No one who might be offended by <insert just about anything> should see this movie. It certainly deserves its R rating.
OK, now that we've got that out of the way, Deadpool is incredibly good. Ryan Reynolds nails the lead role as Wade Wilson, making believable the foul-mouthed, constantly wise-cracking anti-hero. I've yet to see Morena Baccarin turn in anything but an excellent performance, and her Vanessa is no exception. And Ed Skrein does a fine job as the unfeeling villain of the piece.

Deadpool is all about the comedy, which makes sense given the character's comic-book background. Everything is joke, from the one-liners thrown around in battle to Wade trading insults at the bar. At times the humor is directed to the audience, "breaking the fourth wall", which I thought were some of the best bits. Even the romance between Vanessa and Wade was largely based on them tossing jokes back and forth. It works well in all cases, which is a tribute to both the writing and acting.

The plot is probably the weakest point of Deadpool. "Revenge against the guy who ruined your life, and oh look he's holding your girlfriend hostage" is about as unoriginal as it gets. I didn't really care, though, because the movie is about the characters, action, and humor. A complicated plot would actually have gotten in the way.

There's a whole lot of over-the-top violent action scenes in this movie. Not quite at the level of red-food-coloring-everywhere that you might see in a Tarantino film, but close. Deadpool's constant wisecracking makes these scenes comedic as much as they are violent action, though. I thought it was technically well executed. There are a few uses of slow-motion and such, but the special effects aren't over-used.

This film belongs to the X-Men film universe (as opposed to the MCU), and it does include a couple of other X-Men characters: Colossus and Negasonic Teenage Warhead (no, really, that's the name...it's not a Deadpool joke). But Deadpool is an origin story movie for Deadpool, and doesn't really cross over with the other X-Men films. Except to make a few jokes at their expense, of course. Also, Stan Lee as a strip club DJ was an inspired way to make use of the cameo he makes in every Marvel film.

Deadpool isn't a movie you can recommend to everyone. The viewer can't be too uptight about language, violence, or sex. But that viewer also doesn't have to know anything about superheroes or comic books to enjoy it, which I think is a major reason for the film's great box office success. I really enjoyed it, and hope they can pull off the same kind of performance for the sequel.

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Happy Towel Day!

Don't panic!
March 25th is Towel Day, a celebration of the works of Douglas Adams. Why towels? Adams' most famous work, Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, describes a towel as "about the most massively useful thing an interstellar hitch hiker can have" and recommends carrying one at all times. So when a fan recommended a remembrance of Adams be held two weeks after his passing on May 11 2001, the towel was an obvious choice of symbol.

I first read the Hitchhiker's Trilogy around 30 years ago. I can't be more specific because I don't remember exactly...pretty sure it was sometime during junior high. Before high school, anyhow, but I must have re-read the four books that existed then at least half a dozen times before I was out of college. And I continued to read the additional books as they were added to "the increasingly inaccurately named trilogy." That includes the sixth book written by Eion Colfer in 2009, years after Adams' death.

Science fiction has been a favorite genre of mine as long as I can remember, whether serious or parody. The genre first attracted me to the series, but Adams' dry, tongue-in-cheek humor made it a classic. There have been radio dramas, video games, and movies made from the original source material, although none of them are exact translations. It wouldn't be Hitchhiker's Guide without some inconsistencies.

The Hitchhiker's Guide was such a favorite of mine that I used it as inspiration when I needed to come up with an online identity. In Mostly Harmless, Arthur Dent spends some time on the planet Lamuella, where the local priest/madman worships the Almighty Bob. He preaches the "ineffable will of Almighty Bob" to the villagers, usually when he wants something, such as the best sandwich. That inspired me to use "ineffablebob" when I needed a name to use for online forums and such.

So have a happy Towel Day, and whatever may happen...Don't Panic.

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Formerly Known as the Justice League

For no particular reason, I recently found myself looking for something funny to read. I have plenty of options lying around, from Dave Barry books to Sir Terry Pratchett's Discworld novels to collections of Dilbert cartoons. (And that's just in print and on a bookshelf - plenty more at the library and on the Internet.) This time, what caught my eye was my Formerly Known as the Justice League comics.
More than 20 years ago, Keith Giffen and J. M. DeMatteis wrote a series of comedic, tongue-in-cheek storylines in the Justice League International book. Much of the team was made up of characters who weren't well-known at the time, such as Blue Beetle, Fire, Booster Gold, and Elongated Man. It became irreverently known as the "bwa ha ha" era, and it was hilarious to read. Eventually the series moved on to a more serious tone.

In 2003, Giffen and DeMatteis returned to some of the same characters and style with the six-issue mini-series Formerly Known as the Justice League. It's drawn by artists Kevin Maguire (who also worked on JLI) and Joe Rubinstein. The plot revolves around Maxwell Lord creating a new superhero team called the Super Buddies, bringing together many of the old JLI members. And a few old enemies, though at times it's hard to tell the difference.

Formerly Known as the Justice League is most entertaining if you're a comic book fan, since it uses every opportunity to poke fun at the superhero genre. For instance: the whole idea of the Super Buddies, a bunch of lesser-known heroes available for hire. But it's plenty entertaining even if superhero comics aren't your normal thing, because there's a whole lot of puns, characters trading insults, and just general weirdness that makes it a fun read.

The same creative team also did a follow-up storyline in the JLA Classified series a few years later, called I Can't Believe it's not the Justice League. That one isn't quite as good in my opinion, largely because it didn't quite fit with the rest of the DC universe at the time. Identity Crisis had recently killed off Sue Dibny, and Blue Beetle dies in the Countdown to Infinite Crisis right around the same publication date. I Can't Believe it's not the Justice League takes place in an earlier time as far as continuity goes, but it was still odd to see the same characters being used for comedy and tragedy in the same general publication timeframe.

I keep Formerly Known as the Justice League around on my bookshelf because it's a great example of the lighter side of superhero comics. Highly recommended to anyone who likes the superhero genre, and I think even non-fans would find it amusing.

Monday, May 23, 2016

MTG: Soggy Brains

It was probably inevitable that I'd eventually decide to play some Standard-format Magic: The Gathering. I haven't done so in years, but most of the recent booster drafts and Commander-format games that I've played have been fun, so Standard is the logical next step.
The main reason I haven't played much Standard is that I don't have the cards, and don't want to spend the money required to get them. So when I decided to build a Standard deck, my primary requirement was that it use cards I already had, or could get easily. The deck also had to have some kind of coherent theme, because it's just more fun that way.

From the booster drafts, I already had two Brain in a Jar and two Engulf the Shore. That's a good start toward this budget mono-blue deck. After the last booster draft that I won (or technically, tied for first), I used the store credit reward to buy most of the cards that I didn't have already. I was able to trade for the remaining rares, which included four Part the Waterveil, pretty easily.
So the cost wasn't an issue, and the deck certainly has a theme. There's lots of water, with all the blue spells - particularly Engulf the Shore, which keeps you alive by sending the opponent's creatures back to their hand. You have the Brain in the Jar, which is obviously a soggy brain. It's a pretty key part of the deck, letting you cast spells for free and at instant speed. (Plus, who doesn't like saying "I put a counter on my brain" every turn?) The deck wins by casting Rise from the Tides to create a whole bunch of (waterlogged) zombies. Usually this is followed by Part the Waterveil to take an extra turn, allowing the zombies to proceed to eat your opponent's brain. "Soggy Brains" all around.

My deck list is only slightly different from the one in the link. I use Compelling Deterrence instead of Disperse - same cost, same effect, but cooler zombie theme. Also I have Broken Concentration instead of Void Shatter simply because I had the former available but not the latter. I put a couple of those Broken Concentrations into the main deck instead of two Grip of the Roil, under the assumption that I was likely to need an occasional counterspell more than additional creature delay.
I took the Soggy Brains to Friday Night Magic over in Lowell recently. A fairly small turnout of just seven players, perfect for playing a budget theme deck. My first opponent had a blue/white Spirits deck, which really didn't have much of a chance against all the ways I had to bounce stuff back to his hand. He did get me down to 2 life in the second game, but it wasn't enough. I was able to cast Rise from the Tides for 10+ zombies in each game, followed by Part the Waterveil to take another turn and send them all after his brain.

The second round was much more of a challenge. My opponent was playing black/white, with a good amount of control and life gain. We only played two games due to time constraints, each winning one. In the first game, my deck was moving along, putting counters on a Brain in a Jar, until he got an Ayli, Eternal Pilgrim to get rid of it. I was still able to delay for several more turns, and finally had enough land to cast Rise from the Tides for 11 zombies plus a Part the Waterveil. I had to cast two more Part the Waterveil to do enough damage to overcome all the life he'd gained, plus the Archangel Avacyn he was using to block one zombie on each attack. The second game went his way after he drew a bunch of early hand destruction, causing me to discard a bunch of useful cards. Never was able to get going after that.
My third opponent was another black/white deck, but this one had much more control. Lots of hand and creature destruction, with planeswalkers and various useful creatures to do damage. He won the first game, with the big blow being an early Ob Nixilis Reignited that I wasn't able to answer. Hard to play a blue deck when you're losing life for every card draw! I won the second, in large part due to my sideboarding in a whole lot of counterspells. I never drew a Brain in a Jar, but with all the counters I was able to stall until I had enough mana to cast both Rise from the Tides and Part the Waterveil on the same turn. Mage-Ring Network helped a lot with that as well. The third game I won almost by default when he kept a two-land opening hand, and didn't draw a third land for several turns. That gave me an insurmountable lead in mana production that led to a whole lot of zombies a few turns later.

So all told, I played a total of seven games, winning five. I don't expect Soggy Brains will be giving any Pro Tour players nightmares, but it sure was fun to play in a casual Friday Night Magic setting.

Sunday, May 22, 2016

Shoe Replacement

I'm finally getting over my recent cold. Felt well enough to go out into the nice weather for a bit of a run the other day, and it went fairly well, but my feet hurt enough afterward that I decided it was about time to do something about my running shoes.

My default approach when it comes to clothing is "wear it until it falls apart." Works nicely for a lot of things, but running shoes, not so much. Once the padding wears down, the shoes lose their ability to support the arch of the foot, leading to all kinds of unfortunate injury possibilities. Particularly if you run on hard surfaces, such as the asphalt on the streets in my neighborhood.

To be honest, I'd already let this go longer than I should. Most of last year, I noticed increased pain in my calves. That's a warning sign that you aren't getting enough support from your shoes. So I probably should have done this a while ago, but better late than never.

I went over to Gazelle Sports to find my new shoes. There are cheaper options, but I like having someone who knows what they're doing help me make the right choice. Having the right shoes means less wear on my body, which is worth the extra cost to me. Plus I tend to have some trouble finding the right sizes. Helps to go somewhere that can offer some non-standard sizes, particularly extra wide.

At Gazelle, a nice young lady named Micah recommended a few different options for running shoes with good padding. She very patiently helped me go through about a half-dozen pairs of shoes, most of which were either too narrow (but the right length) or too long (but wide enough). Finally, we found a pair of Nike Air Zoom Structures that fit well enough.
Took a jog around the neighborhood earlier today, about 3 miles. No calf or foot pain, so I'm pretty happy with the new pair. Should last me a year or so. And this time, I'll pay more attention to the warning signs to get replacements before my feet pay the price.

Saturday, May 21, 2016

Rokka: Braves of the Six Flowers

Rokka: Braves of the Six Flowers is a light anime series about six heroes chosen to defeat an evil Demon God. Unfortunately, it's not a particularly good example of the genre.
The setting for Rokka is a sword-and-sorcery fantasy world, where the human civilization is under threat from evil fiends. The male characters are warriors of various kinds, and the females are "saints" who have magical abilities over a specific domain. There are saints of mountains, blades, the sun, fog, etc. Six of the strongest fighters of both genders are chosen to be Braves by a goddess who marks them with a special flower tattoo. The Braves are destined to work together to defeat the leader of the fiends, the Demon God.

The series starts off with Adlet, the main protagonist, being arrested after interrupting a tournament. He claims to be the "strongest man in the world" and defeats the tournament contestants, but then is thrown into prison by the tournament organizers. After a lengthy prison stay, he is marked as one of the six Braves, as is the princess of those who hold him captive. Together they escape and start the journey to find the other Braves and enter the land of the fiends.

A few episodes in, the series changes direction pretty dramatically when the other Braves enter the story. Instead of an epic adventure battling fiends on the way to a showdown with the Demon God, the heroes are trapped in the area around a temple. There are seven with the mark of the Braves, though, not just six. The remainder of the series is devoted to discovering who is the impostor. That does eventually happen in the last episode, but then another marked person shows up. In the end, the whole group is finally moving toward the land of the fiends, but again with an extra (presumably traitorous) Brave.

I was not particularly impressed with Rokka. It doesn't seem to know what kind of story it wants to tell. First it's a unknown-warrior-makes-his-name type of grand adventure, then shifts to a kind of discover-the-traitor mystery, and in the end is set up to continue as a mix of both. There are bits of romance, flashy battles, humor, and intrigue mixed in - but none are explored in any depth.

The mystery aspect is unpredictable, but heavy-handed. Several characters seem like obvious impostor candidates at various points in the story, before some new bit of evidence shows up to change things around. A good mystery uses misdirection, but this one seems to just be throwing new information around whenever it needs to change the suspect.

The characters are mostly weak and uninteresting. Each is certainly unique, but only one really changes at all as the story moves on. That one is Flamie, who has some serious self-loathing issues and a death wish. That changes over time due to the efforts of Adlet and the power of love. It's a pretty weak execution of character development, and that's especially noticeable since none of the other characters have much depth at all.

It's pretty clear in the end that this was intended only as the first half of a longer series. Can't say I'm unhappy that the second half hasn't been made.

Friday, May 20, 2016

DC's Legends of Tomorrow

I mentioned DC's Legends of Tomorrow television series in a post several months ago, as a yet-to-be-released series. The first season is over now, having just wrapped up this week.
The idea behind the show was to pull together a group of characters already seen in Flash and Arrow, and send them on a grand adventure across time and space. The catalyst is Rip Hunter, who is traveling across time to save his family by preventing the rise to power of the villainous Vandal Savage. He gathers up eight superheroes (or villains) to get the job done.

It's always tricky to use time travel as the basis for a storyline, and Legends of Tomorrow is no exception. There's a lot of hand-waving used along the lines of "time wants to happen a certain way" so that the characters can't do obvious things like stop Savage from being born, or correct their own mistakes. Anyone watching a show based on comic-book heroes is going to put up with a lot of flimsy explanations, but these kind of time-bending stories stretch anyone's suspension of disbelief.

Vandal Savage makes a pretty unconvincing villain, in my opinion. He's an immortal, like the character of the same name in the comics, but the TV version is also linked to ancient Egypt and Hawkman/Hawkgirl. Certainly he's smart and ruthless, but the kind of power gathered by the heroic company should have been extreme overkill. Savage ends up a step ahead in episode after episode, of course - wouldn't be much of a series otherwise - but it feels more like the team self-destructs than Savage winning. This issue becomes less pronounced as the plot moves along, which is a good thing, but that doesn't help the early episodes.

The sheer number of characters in the team is a problem, too. Considering how many personalities there are to work through, the writers actually do a fairly good job providing some depth to each one. There's only so much time to deal with the varied interpersonal relationships, though, and having so many means each one feels shorted. A team half the size would have been much more believable and provided more time to expand on each character.

Having said all that, the shortcomings haven't stopped me from watching the show through the entire first season. It's part of the same universe as Flash and Arrow, and it's fun to spot the various ways the shows cross over. I like many of the characters individually, even if the team aspect isn't as well done as I'd like. And there are definitely some fun moments along the way.

The first season of Legends of Tomorrow has been pretty rough, but I'm hoping there's been some lessons learned. A second season is already in the works, and what I saw at the end of this season's finale certainly looks promising. A smaller team with a better villain could make for a solid show.

Thursday, May 19, 2016

World of Warcraft: Some Time at Level 90

I was recently sent an offer by Blizzard for seven free days of World of Warcraft play time, including creation of a character boosted to level 90. Free is a good price, so I tried it out.
I'm not sure if the timing is coincidence, or if the fact that I played the "starter edition" a few weeks ago triggered this offer. I wouldn't be surprised if their marketing department sends this offer to most folks that try out the free-to-play option. At least, those that stop playing once they hit the level 20 cap. Seems like a smart way to try to draw in those who are on the fence about subscribing.

The introduction experience this time was much better than the starter edition. Same character creation process, but with the level 90 boost you are dropped into a story area immediately (as opposed to the race-specific starter areas for level 1 characters). I chose a Tauren Druid, so that put me in the battle to close a dark portal opened by the Iron Horde. After that immediate threat was dealt with, I joined the rest of my allies' forces in a hasty retreat to safer territory. There were a few cutscenes along to way with big fights and explosions to spice things up. As far as MMO story-telling goes, this was done nicely.

I didn't notice any bugged quests through this process, and never had to wait on a respawn to fulfill a quest objective. I didn't have to make long trips through big empty areas to talk to quest givers or chase down objectives. Plus I was given a mount to use if I wanted, though I didn't find it necessary in the early going. As the story moved along, I was gradually granted all the character abilities that I'd have normally earned in the leveling process. All of this is a sharp contrast to the starter edition introduction process, which was slow, had bugs, and generally felt boring. It's pretty clear where the developers have been focusing their effort.

At the end of the introduction quest chain, you're given an outpost of your own to run. I enjoyed the introductory quests that involved directing peons to cut down trees and setting up new buildings...reminded me of the old Warcraft days. There's clearly quite a bit of upgrading available, which I assume would require a good amount of time spent gathering resources to fully realize. And you get your own minions to boss around and send out on missions, which is always fun. Most modern MMOs have some version of player bases, so it's not a surprise that World of Warcraft joined the crowd.

Personally, I'm still not interested in subscribing. Largely that's because there are so many other games that provide basically the same thing, without requiring a monthly payment. I can play a game like Guild Wars 2 with a single purchase rather than an ongoing fee. The only unique things that World of Warcraft really offers are their background story and player base. Neither really means much to me.

Having said that, I can certainly see how someone might be tempted to pony up the subscription fee after playing this trial week. The level 90+ experience feels much more modern than the lower levels, and I expect it's especially attractive if you already have friends playing the end-game. If Blizzard really wants to attract new subscribers, this level 90-boost trial is a much better way to go about it than the free-to-play starter edition.

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

MLB First Quarter: American League

Most MLB teams are playing their 40th game this week, which makes this the one-quarter point of the 162-game regular season. Today, a quick overview of the American League thus far.
The AL East wasn't expected to be especially strong this year, so of course it has two of the top three teams thus far. The Baltimore Orioles are performing well above expectations, both on the mound and at the plate. The real story thus far, though, is the Boston Red Sox, who have scored a ridiculous number of runs and are batting just under .300 as a team. I suspect both clubs are going to regress to the mean at some point, possibly even before the All-Star Break.

The rest of the East is under the .500 mark. That's disappointing for the Toronto Blue Jays, who won the division last year and certainly looked primed to do the same again. They should improve, especially at the plate - too many good hitters to be below average. Both the Tampa Bay Rays and New York Yankees are sitting near the bottom of the league in hitting, and unless that improves they'll be fighting for the AL East basement spot all year.

In the AL Central, the Chicago White Sox appear to be the team that they were supposed to be last year. Great pitching, led by Chris Sale's excellent start, has them well ahead of the pack. Their offense hasn't been great; if that picks up, the Pale Hose may never look back. The Cleveland Indians are very close to Chicago in offensive production, and they have solid pitching...just not as good as the division leaders thus far. Last year's World Series champion Kansas City Royals are hovering around the .500 mark thus far, but I wouldn't be surprised to see a big winning streak from them at some point.

At the bottom of the central are the Detroit Tigers and Minnesota Twins. I follow the Tigers pretty closely, which has been a painful process thus far this season. They've found ways to lose games in every phase, from shaky starting pitching to blown saves to poor hitting. The roster is better than the record indicates, if they can just get everyone into gear. Detroit has been saved thus far from the basement spot by an even worse Minnesota team, who lost their first nine in a row and just recently got their win count into double digits. The Twins have some young players who need some development time and are likely to get it in the majors this year.

Out in the AL West, the Texas Rangers are looking strong. Largely this is due to an offense second only to those amazing Red Sox in run scoring. If their pitching improves, and with Yu Darvish coming back it should, then Texas will be tough to beat. The Seattle Mariners are giving it a shot, though. The Northwesterners will also need to pick it up on the pitching front if they want to keep up with the Rangers.

Down in California, things don't look great for either the Los Angeles Angels or Oakland Athletics. The Angels have Mike Trout, but the most of the rest of the team is aging and/or performing poorly. Oakland's offense isn't terrible, but they can't score enough to keep up with all the runs being given up by the pitching staff and the worst defense in the league. Finally, there's the Houston Astros, also having trouble with run prevention. Whatever was working for their pitching last year hasn't carried over to this season, leading to a cellar spot in the AL West thus far.

If I had to guess, I'd say that Texas is the most likely to end up staying on top of their division. The White Sox have a pretty good chance as well, and I expect that Toronto is going to find their way to the top of the East. But it's only been 40(ish) games, and there's a long summer ahead. Just about everyone (ok, maybe not the Twins) has time to turn things around.

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

MLB First Quarter: National League

Most MLB teams are playing their 40th game this week, which makes this the one-quarter point of the 162-game regular season. Today, a quick overview of the National League thus far.
Right at the top we have the Chicago Cubs, with the best record in all of MLB. I've been a Cubs fan for a long time, and I'm still mildly shocked to be saying that, even after more than a month to get used to it. The Small Bears are scoring plenty of runs and their pitching has been incredible. No Cubs fan wants to risk a jinx, but saying "this could be the year" actually looks likely!

The remainder of the NL Central doesn't look a whole lot different than last year. The Pittsburgh Pirates and St. Louis Cardinals are making respectable showings, and the Milwaukee Brewers and Cincinnati Reds are bringing up the rear. Both the Pirates and Cardinals lost some key players from last season, so it's unlikely we'll see a repeat of three playoff teams in the division. Either one could get hot and challenge for one of the wild card spots, though. The Brewers don't have much in the way of bright spots this year, and that goes double for the Reds - they've already set a record for consecutive games with a run allowed by the bullpen.

The Washington Nationals have the second-best record in the NL, leading the East. Everyone picked Washington last year to be the best team in baseball, but outside of Bryce Harper (and Max Scherzer's two no-hitters) it was a disappointing campaign. So far this year, the whole team is playing the way it was supposed to last season. The New York Mets are following closely, almost entirely on the strength of their great pitching. Their offense has been mediocre, not yet showing signs of the way they scored runs at the end of last year. The Miami Marlins are close behind as well, following almost exactly the opposite formula as the Mets: good hitting, mediocre pitching.

Then we have the Philadelphia Phillies and Atlanta Braves. Both of these clubs are rebuilding and are supposed to be terrible this season. The Braves are following the script, with the worst record in baseball. But someone forgot to tell the Phillies how bad they are, because they're finding ways to win. Most notably, they have a couple of really impressive young starting pitchers. It's unlikely that this kind of run will last all year, but at least for now Philadelphia is playing well above their potential on paper.

The NL West is the closest division in baseball, with all five teams within five games. Unfortunately, that's because they've all been pretty bad. The San Francisco Giants are leading largely because of a recent winning streak that took them above the .500 mark. The Colorado Rockies and Los Angeles Dodgers are barely above .500, which is probably about right for the Rockies but a disappointment for the Dodgers. LA needs to get better offensive production to catch up to the Giants.

Below the .500 mark, we have the Arizona Diamondbacks and San Diego Padres. Arizona's pitching has thus far been much worse than one would expect, which explains their struggles. If that changes, they could make up ground in a hurry. The Padres, on the other hand, aren't likely to see a lot of improvement. The roster hasn't improved much (if at all) from last year's 74-win team.

Jinx or not jinx, I have to say the Cubs look like an easy lock to stay on top of the Central. In the East, the Mets have a chance if they can figure out an offense, but I think the Nationals are likely to out-hit them. And it's really anybody's game out West, where the Giants, Dodgers, and Diamondbacks could all win the division - just a matter of which team figures out how to play up to potential.

Monday, May 16, 2016

The Place Promised in Our Early Days

A lot is packed into the 90 minute running time of The Place Promised in Our Early Days. A bit too much, I think.
The movie takes place during the late teen years of three friends. Two boys, Hiroki and Takuya, are best friends who share curiosity about a far-off tower and a desire to fly there one day. A girl, Sayuri, joins the group when she and Hiroki develop feelings for one another, and she shares their fascination with the tower. They work together to restore an old airplane for the trip to the tower, are driven apart when Sayuri disappears without warning, but in the end regroup to complete the promised flight.

While following the lives of these three, the viewer learns that Japan is split in two in this world, divided into North (associated with the Soviet Union) and South (occupied by the United States). The tower is in the North, across the border from where the three friends are building their plane. Help with the project comes from a man named Okabe, who the boys know as a factory boss but is actually part of a underground liberation movement dedicated to reuniting Japan. A war develops between the two sides over the tower, and eventually Hiroki flies their restored plane to destroy it with a missile provided by the liberation group.

The reason the tower is such a flashpoint is that it is reaching out to parallel realities, and changing the world to match them. These other realities also make their presence felt through people's dreams, particularly those of Sayuri. When she disappears, we learn that she's fallen asleep, trapped in those dreams. For years, the effect is limited to a small zone around the tower while she remains asleep. As she begins to wake, the effect begins to widen. With Takuya's help, Hiroki takes her along on his flight to destroy the tower, completing her recovery.

That's a whole lot of different threads to follow, and the movie suffers a bit from lack of focus. It takes some work to keep track of everything that's going on. It's all interesting, but I think it could have been just as impactful without including quite so many different components. Either the divided-country or the parallel reality incursion aspect would have served as the large-scale conflict, for instance. Including both seems unnecessarily complex and introduces confusion, and a lot of questions on both fronts remain unresolved in the end.

Despite the extra complexity, The Place Promised in Our Early Days is at its heart a story of friendship and love. That aspect works well, though it could have been explored more fully. There wasn't really time, since so much is spent trying to explain the war and parallel universes. Considering those limitations, the characters are developed nicely and their relationships are clear. Hiroki's struggles when Sayuri disappears, his estrangement and eventual reconciliation with Takuya, and the pair's efforts to help Sayuri recover are all well executed.

At the personal level, The Place Promised in Our Early Days is a satisfying story, well worth watching. Just don't try to hard to understand everything going on around the central characters.

Sunday, May 15, 2016

Hearthstone: All Hail Yogg-Saron

Being a digital TCG, Hearthstone can implement random effects that a physical game would have a difficult time duplicating. Nothing demonstrates this better than Yogg-Saron, Hope's End.
I don't actually own a Yogg-Saron (at least, not yet) as he hasn't shown up in any of my packs, and I don't want to spend the dust crafting him when there's still other legendaries on my wish list. And yet, several of the most memorable games that I've played since the Whispers of the Old Gods release have featured old Hope's End.

Recently, I was playing my Warlock deck with Reno Jackson and C'Thun. I've mentioned before that I tend to play Arena more than constructed games, but every once in a while I get some interesting card in an Arena or Brawl award pack that just begs to be played. That happened here, when I pulled Lord Jaraxxus from a Brawl reward. So I built this deck, which has a whole lot of stall effects, killing the opponent's minions and staying alive until I can end the game. That usually happens via C'Thun or Lord Jaraxxus.

I was matched up against a Mage, and we had the most boring first few turns ever. Neither of us had a cheap minion to cast, and my hand was full of useless minion removal, as I assume my opponent's was. Eventually we each summoned a few minions, which were immediately demolished by the other side. Around turn 8, things turned up a notch with each of us playing Emperor Thaurissan (died immediately in both cases) and various other larger minions. They all died, but it was taking a toll on each of our hand sizes.

Then I had a few really good turns, which put me into a good position to win. Brann Bronzebeard plus Twin Emperor Vek'lor (that's three 4/6 taunt guys), the Mage countered by freezing them with Blizzard, then my C'Thun hit the table for a nice round 20 damage. A few turns later, the life-saving Mage secrets ran out, I had played Lord Jaraxxus, and my board was full of a horde of 6/6 infernal demons. And then...Yogg-Saron.

At this point, the game is a complete roll of the dice. The Mage had cast a ton of spells through the game, so Yogg-Saron was going to throw a ton of random effects. There are more spells that do damage to "opponent" than to "any target", so my side was going to take more damage...but I had more health and more minions. We sat through a good dozen random effects that killed minions, froze various targets, hit me several times....and then the dice went my way. A Mortal Strike hit my opponent and finished him off.

I got lucky that time, but I suspect that Mage wins more often than not when getting that deep into the game. If I hadn't already cleared out the various life-saving Mage secrets, I very likely would have ended up on the short end. I've seen several other similar Mage decks recently, as well as a Warrior version. Whoever wins, those kind of games stick in your memory.

After a long, drawn-out battle, when all looks to be lost...call on Yogg-Saron. He may not always be on your side, but the end will definitely be memorable.

Saturday, May 14, 2016

Dungeon of the Endless

The player's job in Dungeon of the Endless is to guide the survivors of a crashed prison ship to safety. You start with two characters and an energy crystal, stuck deep in a labyrinth filled with hostile monsters. The idea is to make your way out with the energy crystal intact and at least one person (hopefully more) alive.
Most of the gameplay involves opening doors, looking for the exit to the current floor. Some rooms have useful items, resources, other survivors who might join your crew, or merchants looking to make a deal. Often there are hostile monsters to fight, which may come from multiple directions and attack your characters, crystal, or both. Once you find the exit, one of your characters has to pick up the energy crystal and walk (slowly) to the exit. Of course, hordes of monsters are drawn to the crystal along the way.

To hold off said monster hordes, you can build various offensive and defensive modules in the rooms that you've discovered, tower-defense style. If you have the resources, that is. There are four resource types: industry to build modules, science to discover new module types, food to heal your characters or recruit new ones, and dust to extend the power of your energy crystal to adjacent rooms. The dust resource is particularly useful, since extending crystal power to a room means no monsters can spawn in that room.

The graphic style is pixel-art, and the user interface is fairly minimal. The game suffers a bit from this combination, as it becomes difficult at times to tell what exactly is going on. It's hard to tell the difference between module or monster types when the screen gets crowded. There's no tooltips to tell you what modules are in a room, or notification when one is destroyed. Not a problem in the early floors, but later on when things are spread out across a wide area, it can be tough to keep on top of everything that's going on.

Dungeon of the Endless is almost entirely about making the best use of limited resources. You'll almost never have enough dust to power all the rooms of a floor, enough industry to build all the modules you'd like, etc. Some floor layouts will allow you to build up a defensive gauntlet of modules that monsters must come through to get to your crystal, but others are spread out wide so the monster hordes must be faced from all sides. Powering up the right rooms is an especially important tactic, since it lets you limit the areas where monster spawns can occur. If you happen to get a wide-open floor layout without much dust to power up rooms...well, there's always the next escape attempt.

When you start the game, you're given the choice of "Very Easy" or "Easy" mode. These descriptions are complete lies. "Easy" is no such thing, and "Very Easy" can be more accurately described as "Gives you a chance, if the random floor generator doesn't decide to give you an impossible layout." I played maybe a dozen games on the default "Easy" setting before I realized just how difficult things were going to be, and switched to "Very Easy" mode. Presumably there are more difficult modes unlocked if you manage to win on "Easy", but I don't think I'd ever want to put myself through that. Probably there are better players out there both talented and masochistic enough to do so, but I certainly am not one of them.

Each attempted escape run in Dungeon of the Endless has the potential to unlock more characters and achievements. If you come across a character during your travels, recruit them, and keep them alive for a few floors, then they become unlocked to use as a starting character in future attempts. Achievements take a couple of different forms: "stories" where a particular combination of characters survive a few floors together, and "pictures" that unlock as you accomplish certain goals. (Fight off a certain number of monsters, use a particular set of modules, etc.) In between escape attempts, you can view the unlocked pictures from the main menu.

Each character has a bit of background and some special abilities, most of which are amusingly written. Each character also spouts off occasional one-liners while going about their business, and the group will have conversations during elevator rides from the exit of one floor to the start of another. These are usually entertaining, and sometimes part of the unlockable stories. I wouldn't play Dungeon of the Endless just for these bits of flavor, but it certainly adds to the enjoyment along the way.

Dungeon of the Endless can be frustrating at times, but nonetheless has been a fun experience for me. I enjoyed the discovery aspect of meeting the different characters and unlocking some of the pictures and stories. It's worth picking up for anyone that enjoys tower defense-style games and would like to try one that works a bit differently than most.

Friday, May 13, 2016

Bleh, Colds

I picked up a cold somewhere in the last week or so. Happens pretty regularly to me in the spring and/or fall each year.
The cold virus might look something like this.
Hard to say exactly where you got something like a cold. I've been to movie theaters, public parks, grocery stores, gaming stores, a few restaurants...lots of places where germs can hang around. I make
some effort to avoid poor hygiene - wash hands before eating, don't sit by the guy coughing a lot, etc - but there's only so much you can do while still being out in the world.

I've probably had this cold for a while, though at first I just wrote off my sinus and nose troubles to allergies. No matter what medicines I try, hay fever allergies always hit me every year. I wouldn't be surprised if the colds tend to show up during this time because my immune system is busy with allergies. When I start to get headaches, sore throat, and chest congestion, then I know it's more than just the usual allergic reactions.

Fortunately, I'm able to do what works best in getting over a cold...rest. The only time I've gone out this week is my trip to the dentist. (And I called ahead to warn them I had the cold, but they said to just take something to suppress coughing and come on in anyway.) The rest of the time it's been stay inside, sleep 10+ hours a day, drink lots of fluids, and eat chicken soup.

It's been about a week now since the worst of the symptoms showed up, so I'm probably past the worst of it. At least, that's been my experience in the past: the worst lasts 3-4 days, then gradual improvement for another week or so. Assuming I avoid picking up another cold on top of this one, it should be mostly gone sometime next week. Looking forward to that!

Thursday, May 12, 2016

All Teeth Present and Accounted For

It took about four months, but finally all my dental problems that were detected way back in January have been resolved.
One tooth caused all that delay. It hurt pretty much constantly from the time of the original filling, causing me to make several visits back to the dentist. We tried a second filling, which didn't help. Eventually it required a root canal. A few weeks ago, the root canal was finished up and I had a temporary crown fitted.

Since that last visit, things have been pretty good. The pain is almost entirely gone, and all I really had to worry about with the temporary crown was not pulling it off prematurely. That meant being careful with flossing and not eating anything too sticky, neither of which was a major concern. Even so, I've been looking forward to finishing this whole thing off.

This week it was finally time to get the permanent crown and complete the process. This visit to the dentist office was the quickest and easiest I've had since the original cleaning appointment. Didn't need any numbing shots, no delay in the waiting room, no long wait for the dentist. After all the time I've spent there over the last few months, it's nice to have a visit go as planned!

The actual crown installation process is very simple. The temporary crown is pulled off with what is basically a pair of pliers - I felt a minor sting but nothing more. Then a few minutes of scraping off leftover adhesive and an x-ray to make sure everything looks good. Next the crown is cemented in place, it sets for a few minutes, and then extra cement is cleaned off. The whole thing took less than a half hour.

It feels a little odd to have the full tooth again, after all the time with the (small) temporary crown. I'm getting used to it quickly, though. I asked if I needed to do anything special now, and there's nothing to worry about. So I'm back to normal eating, and with any luck there will be no need to worry about my teeth until it's time for another cleaning.


Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Marvel Heroes' Civil War Event

Marvel Heroes has promotions and events of various kinds running almost constantly. So it's no surprise that they did not miss the chance to put something together specially for the release of Captain America: Civil War.
There was no time wasted by the marketing department: I got an email even before the event actually started. Presumably the idea was to catch the eye of fans who were going to the midnight showing of the movie, since it came in at 11:15 PM. Here's the event details, as listed on the game's website.

This promotion should appeal especially to new players, since it includes a free unlock of either Captain America or Iron Man. It's still useful for existing players who already have both, too, since you get a hero token to improve their Ultimate power. I picked Iron Man. There's also new costumes for many of the characters in the movie, for purchase in the store.

The event itself has two parts. This week, a short new zone where you can chase down the villain Crossbones (similar to the movie's opening action scene) has been introduced. Crossbones also shows up in the various patrol zones. Next week, there will be events to gain influence with either the Iron Man or Captain America side of the civil war. Through the whole thing, characters that appeared in the movie will get bonus experience.

I went through the new zone a couple of times, first with a level 60 character and then a level 40. At level 60, it was very easy, so I'm glad there's also a cosmic version of the zone to provide a bit more challenge. At level 40 there was a bit more difficulty, but still not too bad. All but the least experienced players should have no trouble, and it won't take even brand-new players very long to get to the point where they can make it through.

Clearly the idea with this promotion is to attract new players, with all the movie-related giveaways and content. A free hero unlock is always good for new players, and the bonus experience is nice to give them a quick start. I think the developers did a good job with the new zone as well, making the movie-related content easy to access for new players attracted by the movie tie-in.

I haven't been playing Marvel Heroes on a regular basis for a while, but I still log in occasionally and I'm glad to see the game continuing to grow. Hopefully some of the excitement from the movie will transfer over to some new players in the game.


Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Captain America: Civil War

Marvel Studios films have been some of the best action movies released in the last decade. Captain America: Civil War fits right in.
I really dislike crowded theaters, so I didn't go to see this movie on opening weekend. By waiting until the first Monday showing, I got into a theater that was only about 1/3 full. Most of that population was a high school class, I assume seeing the movie as a reward of some kind. The teacher had to shush them a few times, but nothing too distracting. And the theater had a few rows of D-BOX seats, a few rows ahead of where I was sitting. I could feel the vibrations all the way back where I was. Can't imagine why you'd want to pay extra to sit in the actual seats, but I suppose there's always someone looking for extras in the movie experience.

Two and a half hours used to be a really long running time for a movie, but it seems pretty average these days. Captain America: Civil War doesn't feel artificially extended like some films, though. The story flows smoothly the entire way through. Nothing seemed totally out of place, disconnected, or felt like a last-minute addition. And it fits in nicely with the rest of Marvel Cinematic Universe films, with plenty of references to previous events.

That story involves a manipulative villain setting the heroes at one another's throats, as you'd expect from a movie with "civil war" in the title. The plot mechanics involving the mystery villain were well executed, neither revealed too quickly nor made too obscure. All that was really secondary to the personal conflicts between the various heroes, though. Primarily this takes the form of Iron Man versus Captain America, with other heroes lining up behind one or the other. It's not always easy to portray friends falling out, and I'm glad to say that all the actors involved pulled it off nicely here. Scarlett Johansson's Black Widow was particularly well done in my opinion, as she tries to walk the line between her friendship with Cap and agreement in principle with Iron Man.

Before things get intensely personal, conflict between the two sides is about oversight for the Avengers. The Iron Man position is that superpowers need to be kept in check, no matter how well-meaning the people using them. An international agreement through the United Nations is presented for the heroes to sign, binding them to obey UN direction on when and where they can get involved in world events. Captain America's side fears that such restrictions will put them in a position of being unable to intervene when they feel it's necessary, or worse used as enforcement for corrupt regimes. It's not always smart to put too much thought into the philosophical underpinnings of superhero movies, but in this case I think it holds up pretty well. The tension between using force where required and keeping that force in check is an issue in the real world, not just some larger-than-life super-conflict. I thought Captain America: Civil War did a good job of calling attention to that tension, and showed how each side has positive and negative points. The question isn't ever truly resolved, which is a good thing since you can't fully resolve it in the real world either.

Though I try not to know too much about any movie before seeing it for the first time, I'd already seen some important scenes from this one. All it takes is one trailer or commercial, so I knew ahead of time that we'd see Spiderman and a big showdown between Iron Man and Captain America/Winter Soldier. I understand that the marketing folks want to drum up as much interest as possible, but I wish they'd found a way to avoid showing important late-movie stuff in the pre-release promotional material. The aforementioned showdown is the last big scene, and based just on what you see in the film, you'd think the in-fighting was over and everyone was friendly again (despite still having some disagreements). It kind of spoils the surprise when you know they're going to end up fighting again because it was in all the commercials.

Speaking of commercials, I noticed a good amount of product placement. That's nothing unexpected in today's film world, of course, but it can still be a bit jarring at times. Mostly I just noticed things in passing, such as the (very) old-school Mac in Peter Parker's room, or the VW Bug that Cap drives at one point. But the Vivo logo on smartphones was a bit much, particularly at the top of Tony Stark's super-futuristic holo-tablet. On the other hand, seeing MSNBC on the news reports with Kate Snow anchoring fit in nicely and added a bit of a real-world feel.

A lot of any superhero movie is about action, and there was plenty in this one. I'm sure that I'd find some things to nit-pick after seeing it again, but on first viewing it sure seemed extremely well done. There's plenty of action set in areas all over the world, from an early incident in Nigeria to the final showdown in Siberia. The centerpiece is a big hero-on-hero fight involving every major player on both sides, and it did not disappoint. Every character had an opportunity to put their signature on the fight, from Ant-Man shrinking down to mess with Iron Man's suit to Spiderman talking incessantly through the action.

Even if you haven't seen the previous MCU films, Captain America: Civil War is well worth spending the time to see. If you have, it's even better. Action fans should like it, and superhero fans should love it.

Monday, May 9, 2016

Congratulations, Bartolo Colon

Bartolo Colon hit a home run this weekend. And it was amazing.
Colon's home run has already become a baseball card.
It's always notable when a pitcher does something interesting with the bat. Largely that's the rarity value, since most pitchers don't do much in their plate appearances. This was especially true of Colon, who is a career .092 hitter. Since he first pitched in the major leagues in 1997, he's had 228 at-bats, and managed only 26 hits. None had left the yard. He's been so inept at the plate that articles have been written about people laughing at his swings.

There was no laughter on Saturday when Colon took a James Shields pitch over the left field fence in San Diego. OK, maybe some laughter, but it was the happy kind that you use when the impossible has just happened. It's worth listening to all the different announcers call it: the Mets TV crew, their radio crew, and best of all the Spanish-language broadcast. It took 30 seconds for Colon to round the bases, and I don't think he was purposely extending the trot - that may be his top speed for that distance. The Mets cleared the dugout as if a rookie had just hit his first long ball, before coming back up the tunnel to swarm Colon in congratulations.

Further adding to the rarity value of this particular home run is the fact that Colon is just a couple of weeks shy of his 43rd birthday. I pay special attention when older athletes do well, now that I'm on the upper side of 40 years old. Peyton Manning winning the Super Bowl at 40, Tim Duncan in the NBA playoffs at 40, Jaromír Jágr still playing hockey at 44. And Bartolo Colon rounding the bases for the first time at almost-43.

But forget the home run for a moment. Bartolo Colon overcomes the odds every time he takes the mound. There aren't a lot of age 40+ pitchers, and even fewer who are 5'11" and 285 pounds. Those are the official stats, anyway; I suspect they may have lost 15 or 20 pounds on the scale somewhere. Colon throws his fastball 80% of the time, and it's usually around 89 mph, which is average at best in today's major leagues. You'd think MLB hitters would be hitting that stuff like it was batting practice, but Colon manages to get guys out. He won't be winning the Cy Young, but he's managed 10+ wins each of the last 4 seasons and already has 3 this year.

So congratulations to Bartolo Colon. For the home run, certainly, but even more for just being what he is. Describe him as overweight, aged, inept with the bat - just so long as you also call him an MLB pitcher, and a successful one.

Sunday, May 8, 2016

Happy Mother's Day

We are all shaped by our parents, to some extent. In most cases, a very great extent. On this Mother's Day, a small part of what my mom has given me. (We'll get to dad later.)
Genetics is the most obvious part of inheritance, though in my case I don't think about those aspects too much. I'm pretty sure mom's side of the family gave my brothers and I a good portion of our height, since we're all taller than either parent, and her dad was a tall man. Thick and dark hair from her side as well. And a tendency toward poor eyesight, although I think both parents may be equally to blame for that one.

Whether dealing with a herd of rambunctious sons, teaching elementary and middle school, or dealing with the many twists of life, my mother has consistently showed amazing patience. I can count on one hand the number of times I remember seeing her truly angry. I know she gets frustrated like anyone else, but most of the time you'd never know it. She's my example when I need to keep my own cool.

I first learned the facts about my faith from my parents. Some of my earliest memories are family Bible story times and songs. (The singing was mostly dad, as one of my mother's few faults is a tendency to be only in the general vicinity of the melody.) More important than the facts, though, was that my parents lived the tenets of their faith through their actions. My mom's patience, empathy, and constant support of everyone around her taught me more about those aspects of life than any Bible story ever could.

My mom is a historian and a fan of trivia. (Which one could argue is the same thing in many cases. Not that I'd ever make such an argument.) My fondness for either of those isn't as deep as hers, but I've certainly been known to watch the occasional Jeopardy episode or play a game of Trivial Pursuit with no outside prompting. I absolutely love historical or alternate-history fiction, which largely depends on knowing the real history on which it is based. Mom instilled the desire to learn that history in me, and to this day I'll go out of my way to find interesting takes on historical events (such as Extra History).

On this Mother's Day, I'm several thousand miles and many time zones from my mom, so I can't visit in person. Fortunately, technology gives me the means to say "I love you" and "Happy Mother's Day" from wherever we each happen to be. Love you, Mom!

Saturday, May 7, 2016

MTG Commander

As I've mentioned in previous posts about booster drafting, I've been playing some more Magic: The Gathering lately. One game store where I've been playing is Big Kidz Games, and they host a Commander format game night each Thursday. I've attended the last few weeks.
The Commander format uses decks with exactly 100 cards (as opposed to the usual minimum-of-60), and it's a singleton format. That means you can only have one of each non-basic land card in the deck (as opposed to the usual limit of four). Each deck must have a "commander" legendary creature, and all the other cards in the deck have to share at least one of the commander's colors. You can use cards from the older sets, and very few cards are banned. Each player starts at 40 life (instead of 20), so quick damage isn't very reliable, allowing for more long-term strategies.

I really like the Commander format. It's tailor-made for a collection like mine: a bunch of cards from many different sets, usually with less than four of any particular card (especially rares). I can use my old cards which wouldn't be legal in a Standard or even Modern format event, and there's no disadvantage to having only one of a particular card. The commander-color restrictions encourage theme decks, which is one of my favorite things to do in deck construction anyhow. And the format is often played multiplayer, which adds some extra strategy (and chaos) to the way you play the game out.

My current favorite Commander deck is Gorgon themed. I used Sisters of the Stone Death as my original commander, though I've recently switched to Pharika, God of Affliction since it's much cheaper to play. Still fits the theme, though, which is lots of creatures with deathtouch, snakes, hydras, and of course gorgons. I even have a Gorgon life counter to go with it, from back in the Ravnica block days. The hydras are a bit of a stretch, but I ran out of gorgons and snakes to use, and I figure it's close enough. It's pretty terrible in a one-on-one matchup, but works great in multiplayer since no one wants to attack the guy with a bunch of poisonous snakes just waiting to kill anything sent their way.

The format has its drawbacks, of course. Most games take a long time to finish, particularly if there are more than four players. Shuffling your hundred-card deck can be a challenge, and you tend to do it often. Some commanders are a lot more powerful than others. The singleton format means you can't rely on drawing a particular card to disrupt the other players. And that can be a really bad thing when one player gets some kind of combo going.

Most of those issues are mitigated if you're playing with a good group of folks, though. Playing a long time isn't a big deal with good people. Super-powerful decks tend to be used once and then never again, since no one is interested in playing once they see it pop up again. And in multi-player, the chances are pretty good at least one person will be able to disrupt whatever crazy combo you're trying to pull off.

It's nice to play a format of MTG that doesn't require buying a whole bunch of new cards, lets me use my old stuff, and works well for multiplayer. And also tends to attract players looking more for an interesting game than just a quick win. Commander is great when I'm looking to play something outside of limited formats. 

Friday, May 6, 2016

More Supergirl?

It's not clear yet whether Supergirl will be renewed for a second season. It would be a real shame if the involved parties couldn't come to an agreement.
The first season, which wrapped up a few weeks ago, could charitably be called uneven. Some of the writing is downright atrocious, particularly if you have low tolerance for awkward romance or one-dimensional villains. The plot pacing feels way out of whack, as if the writers were given a barrel of ideas and told "put all these in, whether they fit or not, leave nothing out." The show's superhero stunts and effects are good for television, but still feel a little underwhelming considering how much we see of that kind of thing in big-budget movies these days.

Balancing those shortcomings, though, are some amazing performances and a whole lot of old-fashioned fun. Melissa Benoist is incredible in the lead role, making the portrayal of a Kara/Supergirl dual life seem effortless. She and Chyler Leigh have great chemistry as the Danvers sisters, David Harewood is an excellent J'onn J'onzz, and even Calista Flockhart's Cat Grant was growing on me by the end of the season. The vast majority of the show is relentlessly upbeat, with Supergirl refusing to be anything but optimistic in the face of any situation.

Supergirl started with pretty good ratings, but dropped significantly over the course of the season. That's true of many first seasons, of course, but in this case I think the problems I mentioned above made it worse. Those sinking ratings mean that CBS is thinking hard before bringing the show back for a second season. According to The Wrap, CBS is paying around $3 million per episode to Warner Brothers Television, which is a whole lot for a show with that downward rating slope.

The best solution would be for CBS and Warner Brothers to work something out to deal with the high cost. There are rumors that perhaps moving production north would help, for instance. They need to find some better direction in the plot pacing and writing areas, also. If they can't find a solution, maybe it would be possible to move the show to the CW, which already has Arrow and The Flash. Neither of those shows is perfect, but both are miles ahead of Supergirl in the writing area, so perhaps the production teams could help one another. Even if a network move means some major changes to the cast and/or setting of the show, it would be much preferable to a non-renewal.

In any event, I hope the networks can figure something out to allow Supergirl to continue. There were some outstanding acting performances in the first season, and the consistently upbeat and cheerful attitude is great. I'd love to see that continue, wherever it happens.