Thursday, June 30, 2016

Fantastic Four (2015)

Another movie off the watchlist via HBO NOW - the 2015 version of Fantastic Four.
No one seemed to like this movie much when it came out, which is one reason I hadn't bothered watching it until now. So I started with low expectations, which I think actually helped. I knew not to expect a faithful comic-series adaptation, or an amazing adventure with stunning special effects.

This version of the Fantastic Four is basically a group of young explorers, working on a way to cross into another dimension. They're working with Franklin Storm (father of the brother-sister Storms in the four) and another young scientist in Victor von Doom. Add in a smarmy corporate executive type and you have pretty much the whole cast.

None of the characters felt like they had much depth. What character development there was seemed to be trying to shoehorn them into the Fantastic Four mold - Reed's friendship with Ben, Sue and Reed growing close, Victor jealous of Reed. It all felt very predictable, even though these characters are different from the traditional comic cast. Seems like there were two different aims here - a different take on the Fantastic Four characters, and keeping familiarity for fans - and the result is that neither is done well.

Notably lacking is any significant attempt at humor, and it's sorely missed. I think the aim was to make a serious, suspenseful movie, but that's hard to do with superheroes. Everyone already knows more or less what will happen...world is in trouble, world is saved. The audience stays more engaged with a chance to laugh every once in a while.

Superhero movies rely pretty heavily on special effects and action scenes, and Fantastic Four is at best mediocre in both. It takes half the movie for there to be much in the way of either. The effects are pretty much what I expected, which isn't good...that means nothing was impressive enough to stand out. As for action, it's almost all concentrated into the final battle, which was completely predictable. Bad guy is strong, heroes are in trouble, heroes suddenly realize they can work together, big win. Yawn.

I think this could have been a decent movie if it wasn't about the Fantastic Four. Take the same general plot and tone, but make it about a smaller unfamiliar set of characters/powers, and you'd have a science fiction heroic adventure. You wouldn't need to split screen time trying to develop four different heroes, and their relationships could be a surprise to the viewer. Add in some improved action sequences, and it could be a much better film. Unfortunately, that's not how it worked out.

Wednesday, June 29, 2016

MLB All-Star Voting

The All-Star Break is only a couple of weeks away. The voting for starting position players has been going on for weeks now, and ends later this week.
MLB's All-Star voting process makes very little sense. First, the process starts after only a month or so has gone by in the season. It's hard to tell who is having a decent year based off such a short time period. I generally wait until near the end of June, to get the best idea of which players are actually playing well. Many votes are cast well before that, though, largely due to the constant advertising at ballparks, on game broadcasts, and on the MLB website.

Also, for some reason they want you to vote 35 times, with a maximum of 5 times each day. I suppose forcing you to come back across seven different days could drive some traffic to their website, although I suspect anyone willing to come back to vote every day is a person who already hits MLB.com on a daily basis. But the 35 votes total makes no sense. It drives up the total vote numbers, I suppose, but also is an obvious invitation to hackers that want to stuff the ballot box.

I don't suppose it really matters that the process is silly, since the whole thing is just a fan popularity contest anyhow. I generally try to vote for players actually having good seasons, rather than just picking all the players off my favorite teams or the biggest names. But that clearly isn't the way many people do it, which leads to things like Yadier Molina leading for NL catcher, despite multiple other NL catchers (Wilson Ramos, Jonathan Lucroy, and Buster Posey come to mind) having much better years.

Fortunately, the voting process only matters for the starters. The players and manager get to figure out the rest of the team, so players having really good years generally get to make an appearance, even if they don't get to start. There's always a few players who have a good argument for inclusion that aren't chosen, but not too many.

Regardless of the ridiculous process or the possibility of good players missing out, I still enjoy the All-Star voting process. There's always a player or two that jumps out from the list of statistics, surprising me with how good they're doing in the season thus far. That's a good enough reason to spend a few minutes looking over the player list and picking those having the best year.

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Brexit

Assuming you've been anywhere near a news source since last Friday, you already know that the people in the United Kingdom voted to leave the European Union. Approximately 52% to 48%, which is close but still a margin of around a million votes.
Pretty much everyone was surprised by the result. Certainly people outside of England and Wales were, since Scotland, Northern Ireland, and Gibraltar all voted heavily to stay in the EU. So did most of London, where the financial industry is a major player. Much of the media coverage leading up to the vote sounded pretty confident that the "remain" side would win.

Much has been made of Google's report that people in the UK were searching for things like "What does it mean to leave the EU" after the vote. It's tempting to look at that and assume that the voters didn't really know what they were doing. I'm sure that's true in a few cases, but largely I suspect that all the doom and gloom in the media was sending people to the Internet for some hope. Having said that, I'm pretty sure a lot of British voters would love a second chance to vote to stay in the EU.

There's already been a whole lot of weeping and gnashing of teeth over this, from all over the world. Financial markets have dropped like rocks, presumably because investors didn't think Britain would shoot itself in the financial foot. British prime minister David Cameron has promised to resign. Scotland is already talking about another vote for independence from the UK. Pretty much every world leader sounded worried about how this whole thing will play out.

It's going to be rough financially in the UK for a while. A large part of that will be businesses deciding that they should locate elsewhere, due to the coming instability during the EU exit, plus the loss of access to the EU direct market. On top of that, British politics are going to be pretty crazy for a while, since the majority of the current government was heavily in favor of staying in the EU. Political upheaval is rarely good for business.

Outside of the United Kingdom, though, now would be a good time for everyone to calm down over this whole thing. Europe isn't going anywhere, and neither is the United Kingdom. There won't even be any changes for at least months, and more likely years. The world economy will take a hit, but it should be short-lived. There will be a new equilibrium reached before long.

Most importantly, no one should let the media frenzy and the short-term market drops push them into any financial decisions. Short-term market instability is never a good reason to change a financial plan. The only people making significant decisions because of Brexit should be business leaders with interests in the United Kingdom, and even they should be taking it slow.

Monday, June 27, 2016

The Martian

I've been able to knock a few movies off my to-watch list with the HBO NOW subscription I picked up for this month. Latest in the list - The Martian.
The simplest way I can think of to describe The Martian is Robinson Crusoe meets Apollo 13. You've got the "lone survivor against a hostile environment" aspect of Crusoe, and the "scramble madly to put together a rescue plan in space" aspect of Apollo 13. The writers did a good job of interweaving the two. The survival aspect is more prevalent early, gradually giving way to the grand rescue later on.

I didn't notice any specific time references, but the film is clearly meant to be set in the near future. There's a lot of implied technology advances, enough to get manned missions to Mars with some pretty advanced survival gear. But it stops well short of near-magical technology like warp drives or teleportation. With the assumption of slightly-advanced technology, it's pretty easy to suspend disbelief over some of the less probable activities that happen in the course of the film.

Outside of the space program, the world is clearly recognizable as a mirror of our own. NASA still has to deal with Congress and public opinion, China is a rival on the world stage, crowds gather in Times Square, and so on. The politics and public opinion have some pretty major impacts, affecting the decisions made on the way to the rescue mission. One bit in particular stood out for me - when the Chinese space program officials decide to keep communication "scientist to scientist" rather than get the politicians involved. A none-too-subtle jab at the likelihood of international cooperation in the political arena, even in an emergency situation.

Matt Damon was excellent as the stranded Mark Watney, which is a good thing since he has a whole lot of screen time with no one else around. I also really liked Jeff Daniels as NASA Director Teddy Sanders. That character has to make some really hard decisions, and though he comes off as the bad guy in some ways, I thought Daniels' portrayal conveyed a real desire to do the right thing for the space program as a whole.

The effort put together to rescue the stranded astronaut is massive, which I think the film captures as well as possible in a limited time. There are a lot of references to how much work NASA has to put in with the rescue mission, some comments about the astronomical cost, and the Chinese program loses a planned mission as well. Many months are covered in the space of a couple of hours, which is never easy to properly convey in a way that feels real to the audience. There's one huge multi-month jump near the end of the movie, but other than that the movement of time is handled pretty smoothly.

In the end, the whole world is watching and cheering on the rescue mission. I didn't notice any direct reference to this in the film, but it struck me that there were probably thousands of people on Earth dying preventable deaths while the world was focused on the spectacle on Mars. Perhaps there's a bit of subtext there that isn't explicitly stated - it's amazing what can be accomplished with dedicated effort and resources, but only if they can be brought to bear.

I'm glad that I had the chance to watch The Martian. Well worth spending 2.5 hours to see.

Sunday, June 26, 2016

Burger King's Mac and Cheetos

Including cheese in your terribly unhealthy fast-food creation is a great marketing strategy, at least if I'm in the target audience. I have no resistance to cheese-based attacks.
Not the greatest presentation, but then, I don't mind a few burnt spots.
I didn't have high expectations for the Mac-and-Cheetos. I like each of the individual components just fine: macaroni and cheese, deep frying, and Cheetos. But putting them together seemed to be asking for trouble, particularly the macaroni. Macaroni and cheese has to be pretty fresh to be good, in my experience. Overcook it or leave it out for a while, and bad things happen.

I'm happy to say that it seems Burger King has done a good job figuring this thing out. My Mac-and-Cheetos tasted pretty much like macaroni and cheese, with a bit of Cheeto-powder flavor added on. I think it might be a little better without the Cheeto flavor, actually - certainly less messy to eat. But I'm not complaining.
Yep, there's the macaroni. And cheese-like sauce substance.
We're still talking fast-food quality here, of course. The macaroni and cheese is Easy Mac-level, and my pieces were a little burnt. That's pretty much what I expect for a few bucks, though.

I think Burger King has a keeper with this one. I'd take the Mac-and-Cheetos over fries or onion rings any day.

Saturday, June 25, 2016

PoE: Cruel Summoning

I've been revisiting Path of Exile (PoE) with the latest expansion, Prophecy. My undead-summoning necromancer witch has now made her way through Cruel difficulty, after finishing Normal a few days earlier.
In my experience, Cruel difficulty is well-named. It's the second of three difficulty levels, covering approximately levels 40 to 55. This is where you learn whether the build idea that you were so excited about back at level 1 is going to actually function the way you'd hoped. All the skill gems are available, you've got enough passive skill points to get the most important nodes on the passive tree, and a good selection of gear is available. With the exception of some specialized builds that use high-level unique items, everything is in place. Now the difficulty is cranked up and you hope it all comes together. If not...well, there's a reason they call it Cruel.

When you start over in the first act after finishing the previous difficulty, everything seems pretty easy. Those early monsters don't have the powerful skills that you see in the later acts. That's a good thing, because you may need time to get used to the reduced damage resistance that affects your character with each difficulty level. If you don't deal with that, the tougher monsters (especially act bosses) can be a very nasty surprise. Around act three or so, even the normal monsters are hitting hard enough to hurt pretty badly if your defenses aren't up to par.

Thanks in large part to my prior experience with the game, I didn't have too much trouble with anything in the Cruel story quests. Knowing exactly where you need to go, how the bosses act, and the most useful rewards to take all helps. I was actually a bit surprised at how easy the act three and four boss fights were, compared to the last time I played PoE. The added character power from the ascendancy classes and prophecy rewards makes a noticeable difference.

Going through the Cruel Labyrinth was not so easy. I died once when I got stuck in some traps. On Normal those traps did some damage, but nothing a health flask couldn't fix. On Cruel, they were a lot more dangerous. Partly that's because my witch wasn't focused on defense as much as some builds are, but my lack of familiarity with the area didn't help either. Whatever the reason, that experience taught me to be a lot more careful moving through the trap areas. I also died once to the boss, who throws a very powerful ranged attack that isn't easy to avoid, particularly in the final room where a bunch of traps are also present. I eventually made it all the way through, but I'd definitely say going through the Labyrinth is much tougher than any of the story quests, including end-of-act boss fights.

I tried something with my character's build that I'd not done before with a necromancer: I picked up Elemental Equilibrium. The idea of that keystone node is that hitting a monster with one elemental damage type (fire, cold, lightning) makes them vulnerable to the other types. Usually that means you want to alternate hits: use fire to make them vulnerable to cold, then use cold for extra damage and make them vulnerable to fire, repeat. But with a necromancer, your minions' hits don't cause the vulnerability effect. So if I hit the monsters with lightning (making them vulnerable to fire and cold), then my minions can use fire and cold for extra damage all day long, without having to worry about alternating the damage types. It's been working incredibly well, particularly against the high-health unique boss monsters.

When I started Cruel difficulty, I had a few prophecies left over that could only be completed in Normal. So I had to use the seal option to remove those, and stored them in the stash for future characters. I suppose I could have gone back and completed them instead, but that kind of back-tracking didn't appeal to me. That's a bit annoying, but since it only happens once at the end of each difficulty level, it's not a major problem.

I've come across a few prophecies that have some pretty interesting effects. For example, there's the Undead Uprising, which resets all the monsters in the act two zone Old Fields to skeletons, and spawns a unique boss in that zone. Or the Wealthy Exile, which makes the next rogue exile you encounter drop all rare items. I'll admit that I'm already a bit tired of seeing some of the more common prophecies, but it's fun when you get one of the more interesting (and rare) ones. There are also some prophecy chains, sort of a mini-story told through a series of individual prophecies.

Next up for my necromancer is Merciless difficulty and end-game maps. I'm looking forward to seeing how well her build holds up there.

Friday, June 24, 2016

Cranker's Brewery (GR)

Met a friend for dinner at Cranker's Restaurant and Brewery on the south side of Grand Rapids recently. It's decent, but I've had better for a similar price.
The building for this Cranker's location looks more like a fast food joint than a sit-down pub, complete with drive-thru. (Probably it used to be exactly that.) An attempt has been made to upgrade the interior with wall decorations and a better class of booth-tables, but it still looks fairly low-class. The service was spotty, too. There weren't many customers, but our waitress was still slow to come by our table. Several of the things we asked about on the menu weren't available, and the food took quite a while to show up. Overall it just didn't seem very professional.

The good news is that both the beer and food were pretty good. I usually like dark beers, but on hot summer nights something a bit lighter is nice. So I had a Bulldog Red Irish Ale as a kind of compromise...not too dark and heavy, but still has some body to it. No complaints on the beer front, enjoyed my pint of the Bulldog.
My meal was a pulled pork bacon cheeseburger, which is just as huge as it sounds. In retrospect, probably three different meats on the same sandwich was overkill, but it certainly tasted good. It came with sweet potato fries, which were ok, although not on the same level as the ones I had at Tip Top during my Origins trip. I wouldn't say the food is likely to win any awards, but it tasted fine and there certainly was enough of it.

I'm not sure I'd go back to this Cranker's location - it wasn't bad, exactly, just not as good as other places in the same price range. I might try one of the others if I'm in their area, though. Some of the other beers looked interesting and may be worth a try.

Thursday, June 23, 2016

Kodi Add-On for Trakt.tv Update

I've been updating my customized version of the Kodi add-on for Trakt.tv fairly regularly. Each time the original add-on changes, I have to re-apply my modifications. I finally decided recently that it was time to try to get my changes included in the base add-on.
The first thing I wanted to do was make sure my modifications were completely optional. My updates provide two added features: attempt to scrobble MythTV PVR recordings, and do a Trakt text search by show name if the show can't be found on the first attempt (which was part of my original Crunchyroll integration changes). So I added two new options in the add-on configuration screen, under the Scrobbling section, one for each feature. By default, they'll be disabled. Thus when my additions get pushed out to the general public, nothing will change for anyone unless they specifically enable the new options.
Having tested and committed those changes, I submitted a request to pull my modifications into the base add-on. The maintainer had a few suggestions, which were easy to implement. He also asked me to rebase my changes, which basically means to consolidate all the different updates I've made, so that it looks like a single change from his perspective. That makes sense, so that it's simple to see everything that I'm asking to add in one place.

Unfortunately, this rebase process isn't as simple as it sounds. Git has a rebase command, and I tried to use it against the base add-on branch. But it kept giving me errors that no amount of Google searches explained, so clearly I was doing something wrong. In the end, I finally realized that I was able to simply ignore the error and override it with a forced push to the repository. Generally that's a very bad thing, since you can lose changes that way, but in this case it's what I wanted to do.

Once I got past the learning curve on the rebase command, the rest was fairly simple. The post-rebase changes were broken into two pieces, one for each new feature, and submitted as a pull request. Those features are now part of the main repository, listed as part of the version 3.1.8 update.

It's nice to have these features in the standard distribution for the Kodi add-on for Trakt.tv. I'll still have to make updates to it when something changes in the way Kodi and/or Trakt.tv works, but at least now unrelated changes to the add-on won't require me to re-apply my modifications.

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

PoE: Prophecy Initial Impressions

I've recently re-installed Path of Exile (PoE) to play around with the new Prophecy expansion. After a few hours of play, I've gotten my first character through Normal difficulty.
Getting a character through the Normal difficulty is only a small part of the full PoE experience. It means you've gone through all the regular story zones, done the quests, and leveled to somewhere around 40. There's two more trips through the story to go, plus all sorts of end-game content. But the initial trip through Normal is enough to get a feel for the game.

For me, there are actually two new sets of features, since I haven't played for several months. The prior expansion was called Ascendancy, all of which was new to me in addition to the Prophecy release. I decided to play a familiar character while I got used to the new stuff, so I chose to make a summoner witch. She raises zombies and skeletons and such, generally overwhelming the bad guys with superior numbers rather than directly doing damage herself.

The Prophecy additions show up almost immediately. In each town area is a new NPC who takes special Silver Coin items in exchange for granting you a prophecy. Each prophecy gives you some kind of extra effect to normal gameplay, such as extra monsters showing up in a zone or better effects when you modify an item. The coins show up fairly regularly, so I usually had enough to keep several prophecies active at once.

I found some of the prophecies to be pretty useful in the early going, such as adding extra mods to an item. Always handy to get slightly better items than you'd normally see early on. Others were less impressive, such as one that wanted me to defeat a boss while wearing a certain item. I didn't have that item, so that's pretty much useless. Fortunately you can deal with that scenario by "sealing" the prophecy - for a few coins, the prophecy can be turned into an item that you can store away (or destroy, or trade) like anything else.

Outside of the prophecies, I didn't notice much of a change to the overall gameplay experience through Normal difficulty. Progress felt perhaps slightly faster than I remember, possibly due to extra monsters from prophecies, but not significantly so. I wish it was a bit faster, honestly, because a lot of the most interesting parts of PoE are at the higher levels, both in terms of your character's build and gameplay challenge. There were a few monsters that looked new, but not many, and all the zones and story quests were familiar except for one thing: the Trials of Ascendancy.

The Trials are a set of trap-filled side areas, leading up to a major new zone called the Labyrinth. I stumbled across the first one in the second act, without knowing what it was, but it was fairly easy to figure out. Completing all six of the Trials lets you access the Labyrinth in the third act. I actually waited until I'd gone through the fourth act before coming back to the Labyrinth, which seemed to be a good move since the Labyrinth boss was a big pain even with the advantage of the extra levels I'd gotten in act four.

Completing the Labyrinth gives you access to an Ascendancy class, which is a way to specialize your character. For my witch, I chose the Necromancer, which has benefits for my summoned minions. The Ascendancy classes have some pretty powerful effects, which is all to the good as far as I'm concerned. My prior experience in PoE tells me that things get very difficult in a hurry as you move up through the higher difficulty levels. Some games have a problem with overpowered characters making the content too easy, but PoE has a long way to go before that will be an issue.

The trip through Normal difficulty is the simplest part of the PoE experience, and it went pretty smoothly for me as a returning player. Moving on through the Cruel and Merciless difficulty levels is likely to be tougher, though.

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Origins 2016: The Gaming

My trip down to Origins this year was a short one, just two of the convention's five days, but that was plenty of time to get in some games!

I only had one gaming event planned ahead of time (an Epic limited event on Saturday). I've learned over the years that it's wise to keep your schedule flexible. Once you're on the ground, it's easy to find lots of interesting things to do. Unless the event is something that's likely to sell out (either something super-popular or with very limited space), it's easy enough to show up with generic tokens rather than locking yourself into a particular schedule. Also, don't schedule back-to-back events if at all possible, since the early one might run late, or you might be tired enough that you won't enjoy the later event much anyway.

Everything I played this year was a card game of some kind. Origins actually has a lot more role-playing games than anything else, but I tend to gravitate toward the card games unless I'm going with a group. Partly that's for the sake of time...a single RPG event can take many hours...but mostly I just prefer to know at least one or two other people in an RPG event, and I didn't have anything like that organized this year. There are plenty of board games as well, some of which I tried out as demos, but I didn't play them as organized events.
Wasn't hard to find the Star Realms event area, with this banner to navigate by.
The White Wizard Games folks were present in force, doing Star Realms and Epic events. Got to play events for both those games, and had a good time with both. On Friday, I played a bit of Star Realms, then on Saturday did events for both games.

The Epic limited event was different than anything I'd played before. Since Epic doesn't have randomized packaging (i.e. Magic boosters), they can't just give you some random packs to use. Instead, everyone brought their own set of cards, then the organizers handed each person a list with 60 random card names that you were allowed to use to build your 30-card deck. If you didn't like your list, you could replace it with another random list, but only once. First time I'd played a format like that, and I thought it worked pretty well. I lost all my games, which isn't too surprising since I'd never actually played an organized event for the game before. I usually play group games with friends, but it's a very different game playing one-on-one! All my opponents were nice enough, though, and everyone got some promo cards to take home.
Epic promos - alternative art cards.
The Friday Star Realms event was just a few people, eight if I remember correctly. But the event on Saturday was a big one, with 48 people playing (here's a picture from the game's FB page). Each round was one game with either the original Star Realms set, or the new Colony Wars set, determined randomly. I'd never played Colony Wars before, but it doesn't have any new rules so it wasn't difficult to get up to speed quickly. Lots of cards I'd never seen before, though! I only won one game out of three on Friday, but I was fortunate on Saturday to go 4-1-1 across six games and make it into the top 8 playoff. The playoff rounds all used the original Star Realms set, and we played best of three games. In the first round, my opponent and I split the first two games, and I just barely pulled out the third game for the win. But then my luck ran out, because neither game was close in the second round. Got beat twice, in large part since my opponent got Brain World in both games. Actually that silly base showed up in my opponent's deck in all four of my last games, and I count myself lucky to have won the one that I did! So in the end I finished fourth, and took home a play mat prize as well as several promo cards.
Event loot! Playmat and promo cards.
I also played in a Magic event that was a bit of an oddball, a draft using random packs from Modern format sets. Usually in a draft, everyone's packs are from the same sets. But in this event, they threw a whole bunch of packs into a couple of bags, and each player pulled out three packs at random. That was a lot of fun, using strange card combinations that you almost never see together. Won two out of three matches in that one and got a few Origins packs as a prize.

The atmosphere was good in all those events, friendly without being overly competitive. Everyone I met and played against was having a good time. Every convention has big events where the competition level is high, but I generally avoid those in favor of the smaller, more casual formats. I find my stress level stays lower that way, and I have a better time overall. It certainly worked out that way with these events!

Monday, June 20, 2016

Origins 2016: The Logistics

Origins Game Fair in Columbus, Ohio is a gaming convention that happens each summer. I first attended back in the late 1990s, but haven't been back for many years.
Walking up to the Convention Center entrance.
This year I went down for just a couple of days, driving down on Friday and back on Saturday. The original plan was to meet up with several friends and spend one more night, but some things came up so that only half the originally planned crew was able to go. That worked out fine for me, as I find that a couple of days worth of gaming convention is about right for me these days. A little longer can be fine with a bunch of friends, but with a smaller group, the shorter time works well.
The lines were long on Saturday morning.
The trip from Grand Rapids to Columbus was fairly uneventful, taking about six hours. It's summer, so there was a lot of construction traffic to deal with, especially along I-75 south of Toledo. No major delays, though. On the way back, I took a different route to avoid all that construction, west into Indiana and north from Fort Wayne. A bit longer, but less stressful.
White Wizard games in the exhibit hall.
I ended up staying near the airport, about a 20 minute drive from the convention center downtown. The ideal convention lodging is someplace you can walk to, but this worked fine for just the one night. Traffic between the hotel and downtown was a minor issue, but my Google Maps app did a good job directing me around the backups and I never got stuck for very long.
They had some Ascension for sale, but sadly no organized events were run.
Origins is held in the Greater Columbus Convention Center (and some nearby hotels). The facility has been around a while, but it's well maintained and easy to navigate. Origins isn't as big as some other conventions (i.e. GenCon), so there's plenty of room. Parking was easy to find and fairly cheap, which is a nice feature of being in a fairly small city.
Salmon sandwich and sweet potato fries at Tip Top.
There's quite a few restaurants and bars near the convention center, so there's plenty of options when it's time for a break from the gaming. I had dinner Friday night at Tip Top with some friends. It's a small restaurant/bar a few blocks from the convention center. Good food...the sweet potato fries in particular are amazing. Worth stopping by if you're in downtown Columbus.
Some of the guest of honor signing areas in the exhibit hall.
On Friday, the convention wasn't too crowded, but a lot of people showed up for Saturday. The line for event registration was huge. Even picking up your pre-registration badge had a long line on Saturday, so I was glad to have gotten my stuff on Friday. The exhibit hall was very crowded on Saturday as well. I spent most of Saturday playing in events, though, so it didn't bother me.
More exhibit hall. Lots of t-shirts available.
I spent 2-3 hours in the exhibit hall across both days. There was plenty to see, from artists displaying their work to authors doing book signings to every kind of game for sale. Most of the booths have games available to try out, so I did a few demos of things I hadn't tried before. Picked up a couple of new quick-play games to take to game nights.
New games! These are fairly quick, 15-30 minutes for 4-5 people. Good for game nights.
I particularly like browsing the artist booths. There's usually a selection of different styles, from cartoon-ish to almost photographic quality. Buying the originals is way out of my price range, but most of the pieces are available as prints, so I often take home one or two of my favorites. Got one this year, a piece by Charles Urbach.
Highland Flame by Charles Urbach
There's tons of gaming accessories for sale, too. One booth was selling nothing but wooden hand-crafted dice boxes, for instance. Dice were everywhere, of course. And there were lots of game mats for sale at various places - I found two of those that I liked enough to take home.
Game mat purchases.
Tomorrow, some words about the gaming events!

Sunday, June 19, 2016

Happy Father's Day

We are all shaped by our parents, to some extent. In most cases, a very great extent. On this Father's Day, a small part of what my dad has given me. (If this sounds familiar, that's because I said much the same thing on Mother's Day.)
Dad and I have pretty much always looked a lot alike, so I think a lot of my physical genetics came from his side of the family. Medium height and build, glasses, and an unfortunate tendency toward allergies. I've been told that people have even mistaken us from a distance, although that probably wouldn't happen any more due to hair color. 

My dad has always loved music. He has a wonderful singing voice, and loves to play the guitar. I have a lot of childhood memories of family nights of singing and stories. Often Dad would lead worship songs at church as well. I attribute much of my love of music to growing up with so much of Dad's music around me.

Dad is an engineer by trade, spending most of his working life as part of team that built very large buildings (power plants and such). The detail-oriented approach and mathematical skills that made him great at that job were passed on to me, and are the basis of my own academic and professional career in computer science and information technology.

My father is deeply invested in his faith. Not "deeply religious" as such, since that phrase carries the connotation of being devoted to a church. Dad is indeed active with churches and other such organizations, but what I see most in him is the desire to live according to his faith. He's followed Biblical examples in many ways, including working with the homeless and prisoners, and being a missionary to foreign lands. Often things don't work out perfectly, of course, but that doesn't stop my dad from doing what he believes is God's will in his life.

I'm afraid I'll need to also admit to inheriting much of my sense of humor from my dad. The family car rarely passed a graveyard without hearing that "people are dying to get in there," and I don't have time to recount all the puns. Everyone has some bad "dad jokes" they remember from childhood, but I'm sure mine were the worst. (Just like you're sure that yours were.) If anyone has a problem with a terrible joke they heard from me, please direct the blame up a generation to my dad.

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

Saturday, June 18, 2016

Driving Defensively

Everyone hears about driving defensively early on, right? In a driving class, or at least in the material you're supposed to study before taking your first driving class. Judging from what I see on the roads, though, the lesson doesn't seem to stick with a good number of drivers.
I get that no one is a perfect driver. I've made my share of poor decisions on the road, usually when I'm in a real hurry to get someplace. On the whole, though, I do my best to put safety first, while not assuming other vehicles are doing the same.

Here are some things I try to keep in mind every time I get behind the wheel:

  • The most important thing you can do happens before the car starts moving: give yourself plenty of time, so you're not rushing. Life doesn't always give you that luxury, but most of the time it's possible to leave a few minutes early. It's a lot easier to be safe when you have that extra time, and less stressful as well.
  • Leave room for other vehicles. Seems obvious, I know, but it's all too common to see bumper-to-bumper packed traffic in all kinds of situations. The worst is on the highway, traveling at high speeds without stopping room. Or switching lanes right in front of someone at 70 MPH. Take the extra few seconds to give the other vehicle a few car-lengths of room.
  • Look ahead and change your path accordingly. This takes experience, and it can be difficult if you're on unfamiliar roads, but much of the time we're driving in places we know or on highways. If I'm on a freeway coming up on a slow truck, and I see someone coming up behind me, I might slow down to let them go by rather than passing the truck right away. Or if I know I'll be turning left in a couple of blocks, I might move to the left lane even if there's more traffic there.
  • Pay attention to the speed limit. I know, no one actually goes the speed limit, but at least keep it close. Yes, it's annoying to have to slow down, but they post those signs for a reason. Construction zones are particularly bad, especially on freeways. You might even save yourself some money, since speeding fines are pretty high in a lot of places.
  • Stay calm. The more upset or angry or even just excited that you are, the more likely you are to make bad decisions. Most of the accidents and close calls that I've had on the road have happened because I've been in the wrong mindset. Usually, it's frustration with bad traffic or other drivers. Keeping your emotional state in check can save a lot of grief.

Nothing new or groundbreaking here, just some common sense things to keep the roads a bit safer. Control your own driving actions, and it makes the road safer for everyone.

Friday, June 17, 2016

Mad Max: Fury Road

Aptly named, this film.
Mad - Yep, we got crazy. Max is kinda nuts, with random people from his past popping into his head regularly. It's heavily implied that he's seeing members of his family that he failed to save, and he's been less than sane since. (Possibly someone who had seen the previous three Mad Max films would recognize some things in those flashbacks, but I haven't watched them.) And the world at large is pretty crazy, being a post-apocalyptic wasteland.

Max - Protagonist named Max, check. Tom Hardy does a fine job in my opinion - not an amazing performance, but that's all right since the character doesn't really do much outside of a whole lot of stunts. Max isn't your usual hero material, what with the insanity and all. The evolution of his relationship with the other lead character, Charlize Theron's Furiosa, doesn't feel all that crazy, though. Max goes from captive to mutually suspicious no-choice-but-to-work-together travel companion to trusted fellow warrior/leader/perhaps love interest. No surprises there.

Fury - Just about everyone's angry about something. Furiosa and her escaping girls are mad about mistreatment (with cause, I'm sure). Max is angry that he was taken captive and lost his car. The bad guys are pissed about the escapees, some other bad guys are mad that their underhanded deal got wrecked, and so on. Plenty of fury to go around.

Road - So many post-apocalyptic wasteland vehicles to blow up, so little time! There are a whole lot of high-speed chase and battle scenes, mostly with all kinds of explosions and fire. The action is well executed in my opinion. I like exploding vehicles as much as the next guy, and these kept me entertained the whole way.

Mad Max: Fury Road delivers exactly what it promises - lots of action in a post-apocalyptic dystopia. The plot and characters are there mostly to support the action, and do that well. You can read some deeper themes into the story - mistreatment of women, dangers of a cult-like society, you can't go home again - but I prefer to take it at face value as a fast, fun ride.

Thursday, June 16, 2016

Path of Exile (PoE)

There are times when a gamer just wants to kill all the things. There are times when you want shiny loot, and times when you want lots of ways to customize your character. When you want an action role-playing game (ARPG) that does them all, you can't go far wrong with Path of Exile (PoE).
I first played PoE back in 2013, when it was in open beta. My first impression was that this was a spiritual successor to Diablo II. The similarities are legion: top-down isometric viewpoint, grim-dark world setting, similar character classes, slaughtering hordes of monstrous enemies, tons of loot items used to customize your character, linear storyline replayed at different difficulty levels, big boss monsters. PoE does indeed belong to the same genre as the Diablo franchise, but it's unique enough to stand on its own. Two unique things about PoE jump out almost immediately: the passive tree and skill gems.

To gain skills to use in the never-ending monster-slaughter, your character has to find gems and slot them into equipment. There are dozens of different skill gems, for all sorts of fighting styles: melee, ranged, magic, physical. In addition to the basic skills, some gems provide modifications to the skill's effect. For instance, you might have an archer character using Burning Arrow to set individual monsters on fire, but you'd like it to work as an area effect. Add a Lesser Multiple Projectiles support gem, and now the skills sends out three fire arrows at a time instead of one. That's a very simple example, but the combinations can get very complex as you approach the end game.

As your character levels, you gain points to spend on the passive skill tree. The tree is massive and a little daunting to the new player, but after playing a while things start to make sense. You use points to move along the tree, picking up nodes which provide bonuses to various stats. Usually the goal is to reach one or more keystone nodes that provide major bonuses and/or changes to how the game plays. There are a ridiculous number of choices on the passive tree, making possible all sorts of different builds.

Another unique feature of PoE is the economy - there's no money. Almost every game has "credits" or "gold" or "dollars," but not PoE. Instead, you get "currency" items as loot drops and in exchange for selling items to vendors (or other players), each of which is usable. The currency item effects range from mundane scrolls that can identify magical items to orbs that modify gem sockets to a mirror that can copy an item.

There are two major weaknesses in PoE, as far as I'm concerned. One is a lack of direction for the inexperienced player. In addition to the aforementioned overwhelming complexity, simple things are difficult to find - for instance, if you want to buy gems from a vendor, you have to click on a small numbered tab in the correct vendor's inventory. It's not intuitive at all, and easy to overlook. As you complete quests, more gems may be available there, but nothing tells the player about the new options unless you happen to look. Searching the PoE wiki can get around a lot of the confusion, if the player knows about it...which new people may not. Obviously this problem goes away over time as the new person learns, but I suspect a good number of potential players never got that far. Secondly, the game requires a huge time investment. Changing a character's passive tree build in any significant way is nigh impossible, so trying something different usually means investing hours into a new character. Many skills and important passive tree nodes aren't available until high levels, so you may not even know if your idea will work until you've invested many hours. Once you do get up into the highest levels, keeping your character supplied with maps to clear is another major time sink. The time investment requirements are a major reason that I don't play PoE more.

PoE is a free-to-play game, and as far as I'm concerned they've nailed the right way to run that model. You can buy all kinds of cosmetic items to change your character's appearance. Nothing in the store affects how you play the game, though, outside of additional storage space. Unlocking all the content and playing to the very highest level is possible without spending any money, although I suspect most people do buy some things. I certainly have - primarily that extra storage space.

Every few months, the developers come out with a content update that adds new features to the base game. Those new features are first introduced into challenge leagues, where players must create new characters and use items found only within the league. Those challenge leagues usually run for a few months until the next content update. It's a system that encourages trying new and different things rather than building up one character to use constantly. The newest PoE content update is called Prophecy and was released earlier this month.

I find myself coming back to PoE for a short time on a regular basis, usually to see what's new after a content update. It's such a time-intensive game that I tend to burn out after a while, though. I'll try out Prophecy and see how long I want to keep with it this time around.

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Nearby Fire

Occasionally you'll see stories about local homes or businesses burning down on the news. I don't usually think much about it after the story ends. But it's a bit of a different animal when it happens nearby.
As I was out jogging around the neighborhood behind my condo complex a week or two ago, I passed the house you see above. I'd gone past that place any number of times before and it looked fine, but obviously a fire had gotten out of control there. Fortunately no other homes appeared to have been affected, and no one was injured.

It wasn't just the house, but also a car that had been parked in the attached garage (removed by the time I took this picture). I don't know exactly what happened, but it wouldn't surprise me if the garage caught first, since the worst of the damage is on the driveway side of the house. I poked around the Internet a bit and found this story about the fire, which says basically the same thing. (Some pictures of the actual fire at that link, too.)

A disaster like this happening nearby sure makes you think about fire safety. Keeping garages and kitchens clean, not over-using power outlets, keeping the fire alarm batteries fresh...mundane things, but important. And it's a good reminder to appreciate the firefighters who are constantly ready to respond when the worst does happen!

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Happy Flag Day

In 1777 on June 14th, the Second Continental Congress adopted an official flag for their new country. We in the United States also celebrate the birth of the US Army on this day - that same congress had reached consensus on the army two years earlier.

Flag Day isn't one of the most well-known holidays, but in my family we always paid attention. Not so much for the flag part; more because it happens to be my Mom's birthday. Very fitting that she was born on a day with such historical importance, given how much she loves the subject of history.
For a year or so when I was a kid, my family lived in Baltimore. I don't remember a lot about our time in Baltimore, but a trip we made to Fort McHenry has stayed in my mind. I particularly remember viewing the original Star-Spangled Banner, the flag that was flying over the fort during the Battle of Baltimore. It was that flag which inspired Francis Scott Key to write the poem that later became our national anthem. I highly recommend it to anyone who has the chance to visit that part of the country.

So happy birthday to my Mom, the US Army, and the official adoption of the US flag. Many happy returns to all three!

Monday, June 13, 2016

Solforge Revisited

There's been a new Solforge client in the works for a good long time. It was released late in May, and it did not go well.
I've barely paid any attention to Solforge for several months, since I wrote about it last November. My feeling at the time was that the game had some interesting concepts in terms of gameplay, but had some technical problems (such as lack of turn timers). It also suffered from the usual TCG issues where the guy with the bigger collection has a huge advantage, and a few popular deck archetypes dominated the constructed play scene.

The Solforge team sent me an email when they released their new client, so I decided to check it out. It was completely unplayable right after release. Just about anything that could go wrong, did go wrong...slow server response, UI bugs in the client, you name it. Things were so bad that the game was put into a testing mode, where you could play basically for free, but no progress would be saved. That was eventually turned off and everyone's account was restored to the pre-testing state, but the fact that it was necessary gives you an idea of how messed up the new client release was.

They're still working on fixing problems, but the game is playable now. The client certainly looks different, with a cleaner user interface. There are still some interface issues, such as changes to cards made during play not always showing up in the UI, but it mostly works OK. I don't really see a major difference from the old client in terms of functionality, to be honest, but maybe I just don't play enough to see how it's better. I did notice that playing a game against the AI no longer counts as a win for daily reward quests, which is a major step backwards, if it's not a bug.

I was pleased to see that a turn timer is in place, although it's a weird implementation. The default timer is three minutes and forty-five seconds, for the whole game. You have 20 seconds to take each turn before it starts to count down. It seems unnecessarily complex to me, but it's better than nothing.

As far as gameplay, nothing seems to have changed. I tried a few constructed games and got destroyed, by opponents who played mostly a bunch of top-rarity heroic/legendary cards. Draft games were a lot closer, although it would take some practice to learn what strategies are actually good. A few cards seemed different from what I remember, so presumably some balance changes have been made since I last played, but I'd have to spend a lot more time to understand the differences.

I don't see anything in the updated Solforge client that gives me a reason to start playing regularly again, even if you leave aside the terrible launch. If the team is looking to improve the game, they need to get back to the drawing board.

Sunday, June 12, 2016

Forty-One

Doesn't feel any different than forty, really.
Thanks, Google.
Which is always the case, right? Each day or month or year feels much the same as the one before. Then you look back a bit further and see how things have changed little by little. Forty-one may not feel any different than forty, but it's a far cry from thirty or twenty!

Lots of good birthday wishes today. Some came in the old-fashioned way, by mail and in person, over the last week or so. Many showed up on Facebook, which seems to be the standard well-wishing platform these days. Even an email or two, kind of in-between the old and the new.
Gift from my parents, a nice T-shirt featuring Japanese slugger Sadaharu Oh.
I'm not doing anything special today, but next week I've got a trip planned with friends to the Origins gaming convention in Ohio. That's my birthday present to myself. Should be a good time.

Thanks to everyone who sent birthday wishes and/or gifts. Appreciate the good thoughts!

Saturday, June 11, 2016

Diemer Run 5K 2016

Whew, that was humid. Good run, though.
Today was the Brian Diemer family of races, over in Cutlerville. It's a fairly small event, with about 1200 runners. (By comparison, the River Bank Run gets over 20000.) It takes place every June, and parts of the proceeds from the race go to various charities.
I like the course for the Diemer run in large part because it's so flat. There are no real hills, just a few gradual slopes. That's especially nice when it's as humid as it was today. The temperature was around 75° F at 9 AM when the race started, but it felt a whole lot warmer. By about halfway through the run, I felt like I'd been swimming...a far cry from the near-freezing conditions back in March!
A few bands had set up a various points around the course. One spot was playing a recording...maybe someone couldn't make it? But several others had folks playing live music. The music is a nice touch for a small event, and makes a nice distraction as you're pushing through the middle distance.
This weekend is also the Cutlerville Days weekend festival. There were some groups of people already set up to see the parade later on in the day, which added a few extra spectators. It also made parking a bit of a pain, but it wasn't too terrible. Not a big enough event to have real issues.
After the finish line, the usual tables of water and snacks were set up for the runners. They even had one table with a bunch of ice cream sundaes. I wasn't feeling quite that adventurous, but I did have a banana.

The Diemer Run is a nice small event, and I enjoy going out for it. Thanks to all the organizers and sponsors who make it happen!

Friday, June 10, 2016

State-Run Lotteries

The lottery is everywhere. Billboards, TV ads, radio spots, every gas station and convenience store, and a whole lot of other places. It's incredibly popular, and that's a sad thing.
Personally, I've never understood the attraction of the lottery. Don't get me wrong, I get the idea of gambling, and even enjoy a bit of it myself on occasion. But the lottery is a different animal than going to a local casino or out to Vegas. The odds on the big games are so low that I'd barely consider it gambling. More like waving your arms on a clear day in hopes that a storm will suddenly form and hit you with a lightning bolt.

So why do people do it? I suppose a lack of math skills has something to do with it, but I'm pretty sure the real reason is that people like to dream of a fairy-tale-style life change. Quit your job, buy your dream home, pay off all the bills, travel the world...that's the stuff of dreams. An opportunity to realize them is attractive, even if you know the chances are so low that it's almost as likely you'll pick up a winning ticket off the street as pick the numbers yourself.

All that is fine if you know it going in and have the money to spare. Unfortunately, a lot of lottery sales go to people who can least afford to throw money away. The same "big dreams" effect that makes the lottery attractive is most likely to appeal to those with the least spare cash.

The reason all this has been on my mind recently is the number of lottery ads that I happened to run across. I listen to quite a few MLB radio broadcasts, many of which are sponsored in part by their local state lottery, or at least have paid commercials. I see big signs each time I walk into a convenience store, and in most bars. And I happened to drive past several buses with big lottery signs on the side.

But wait, isn't the lottery money usually used to pay for schools and similar government programs? That sounds great, until you realize that the use of lottery funds is used as an excuse to avoid funding through taxes (mostly property and income taxes). If the lottery ever stops making money, those programs will be in some big trouble. Even if that never happens, this kind of school funding is effectively a tax transfer from the wealthy (who would pay a lot of income and property taxes) to the poor (who buy the majority of lottery tickets).

Rather than go on further in this vein, I'll just put a link here to John Oliver's piece on the lottery on Last Week Tonight. Highly recommended, if you haven't seen it yet. He talks about all the things I've mentioned and a few more besides.

So, what should be done? I'd love to see state-run lotteries eliminated completely, but I know that's incredibly unlikely, since it would require action by the very people profiting from the system. I think the best case scenario is restrictions on how lottery money is considered in funding formulas, such that other sources of funding (i.e. income and property taxes) have to be used to pay the full budget for schools and other public services used by all income levels. The lottery money should be directed to programs used primarily by lower-income people (social services, rent assistance, Medicaid, etc), since they're the ones putting the money in. It's not a great scenario, but it's better than the current one.

Thursday, June 9, 2016

CD Closure

For years, I've used CDs as a place to keep medium-term savings. Now I'm about to close out my last one, and things will have to change pretty significantly before I'll get another one.
A CD is a certificate of deposit account. It's like a savings account, but instead of being able to deposit and withdraw whenever you like, the account has a fixed term. You have to pay a penalty fee if you withdraw your money before the end date. In return, the interest rate is higher than a normal savings account. Like savings accounts, CDs are FDIC insured.

Using CDs for savings that I expected to use somewhere in the 2-5 year range made sense, back when I first started using them. I got the benefit of the higher interest rate, and the FDIC insurance meant that I didn't have to worry about losing the money if something catastrophic happened in the financial markets. In an emergency, I could get to the money quickly, though it would incur that penalty fee.

If interest rates are decent, CDs make good long-term investments as well. The usual strategy for this is a "ladder." Buy some longer-term CDs, usually 3-5 years, but stagger the maturity dates so you have a portion maturing each year. That way, every year you have the option of renewing or withdrawing part of the money, while still getting the benefit of longer-term interest rates.

Lately, those interest rates have not been decent. From 2008 to 2010, rates fell sharply as the economy slowed. Since then, rates have remained historically low. (Fortunately for us savers, inflation has been low as well, but it's still not a great situation.) Super-low rates means that CDs aren't much better than simply keeping your money in a savings or checking account, where you have easy access to it all the time.

Without the incentive of a reasonable rate of return, I don't see any point in locking my medium-term savings up in account that restricts access. I may look at CDs again in the future if interest rates rise, but until then, basic savings and checking accounts are a better option.

Wednesday, June 8, 2016

Distance Driving

I used to love driving long distances. Not so much any more. Partially that's just me getting old, but also some of the reasons for taking a long drive no longer apply.
When I first learned to drive, getting in the car for a few hours was a nice way to be alone for a few hours. Just me and my music - on cassette tapes, this being the early '90s. It was before everyone had a cell phone, so I had no fear of being interrupted. I remember making several-hour-long trips around the Portland, OR area with no destination in mind. Even went all the way up to Seattle and back once or twice. Since I graduated from college and moved out on my own, driving hasn't been necessary to have alone time. Sitting in front of a computer or laying on my couch with a book works just as well.

Living east of the Mississippi is another reason that long distance drives aren't as necessary any more. Getting from one major metropolitan area to another in the western US usually means 4+ hours on the road. Here in the midwest, it's usually more like 2-3 hours. Even less on the east coast, where in some places you effectively never leave such areas.

Simply getting older has taken some of the shine off making long drives, of course. Sitting in a car for hours on end isn't as appealing when your back hurts, but there are ways around it. I find that stopping once every hour or so to walk around for a few minutes really mitigates the aches and pains. Those stretch breaks cause a bit of a slowdown in overall travel speed, but it's worth the time.

When I was on my way to college, I took a trip all the way across the country rather than going straight to school. One long drive across US route 20, from coast to coast. No good reason, other than just to mark the change in life status to college student. It was an interesting experience. You see a lot of the country taking a largely non-highway route over extended distances. I don't think I'd do it again now, but even if I did, it probably wouldn't have the same impact. That kind of trip isn't the same the second time.

I still take the occasional trip that requires multi-hour drive time. Not just for the sake of driving, though - I need some kind of purpose to the trip. And not without breaks to give the old aches a pains a chance to subside.

Tuesday, June 7, 2016

Switch Pyramid Agreement

That's Switch the company, the West Michigan pyramid they're buying, and the tax agreement made with Michigan governments. (Not to be confused with willingness to swap geometric objects.) The pyramid in question is the old Steelcase building in Gaines Township, MI.
Late last year, there was some question as to whether the pyramid would be sold at all. There was a legal challenge from a non-profit education group seeking to block the sale, but that was denied by a judge back in January. That group could still try to get some money out of Steelcase (though that seems unlikely) but the actual building sale will go ahead regardless.

There was also a matter of taxes - Switch wanted tax breaks before they'd agree to move business into Michigan. Their stance was basically this: if Michigan wouldn't play along, there are other states that would. Getting this done meant that our state government would have to set ideology aside in favor of pragmatism. That's a tall order for our famously dysfunctional state government, but they managed it. The state legislature passed bills in December to grant the tax breaks, and they were signed by the governor. Those bills even included a bit of forward thinking to make sure promises were kept: the data center industry has to create 400 new jobs in Michigan by 2022 and 1000 new jobs by 2026, or the tax breaks will end. Nothing is perfect, but as government action goes, this seems to be properly crafted and well-thought-out. Nice to be pleasantly surprised by something out of our state government, for a change.

I was reminded of all this by a news story recently about Switch taking steps to have their data center declared a "Renaissance Zone". Those zones are areas designated for various kinds of tax breaks by the state. Sometimes they apply for everyone in the area, but more commonly just for a specific project. This particular Renaissance Zone would allow Switch to avoid paying taxes on the equipment they purchase for the new data center, which would easily go above the million dollar mark.

Some of that money would normally go to local governments to provide services to the area, so the exemption isn't too popular with them. Approval from Kent County and Gaines Township is needed, though, so part of the whole package is a "payment in lieu of taxes" from Switch to the local governments. It's a lot less than the full tax bill would have been, of course, but it means the local governments still get support for local services.

All in all, I'd say this agreement is a good example of how I'd like to see government make things happen. It's not perfect, but it takes into account the reality of the situation for everyone involved and makes a reasonable compromise. And it includes some metrics to make sure promises are kept. Now, if some of that thinking could just be applied to paying for infrastructure maintenance...

Monday, June 6, 2016

One More Turn

Conquering the world is addictive.
The 4X turn-based strategy game is a major obsession of mine. It's probably good that I don't have a good way to count up the number of hours spent on such games, since Civilization V alone is up over 200 hours according to Steam. I played both the original Civilization and Civilization IV a whole lot more than Civilization V, so I'm sure I'm easily into a four-digit hour count on the Civilization series alone. Add in all the other 4X games and it might end up being a five-digit count.

That's not to say that I'm particularly good at 4X games. Most of them have 3-5 difficulty settings, and I can usually do well on the middle setting. I might try the occasional game on a higher difficulty, but those tend not to end well. I like the big, sweeping strategy aspect of these games, but the higher difficulties seem to require a lot of micro-management. I don't have the temperament to stay focused on every detail for hours on end.

Civilization is the big name in the genre, but I've played a whole lot of other 4X games. My all-time favorite is still Master of Magic, which is set in a fantasy world (or two worlds, depending on how you look at it). That game is more than twenty years old, and I still fire it up every once in a while to cast the Spell of Mastery. Then there's the galaxy-spanning space games like Master of Orion. The world you conquer can be as large or as small as you like.

Part of the appeal of these games is that there are so many different ways to play. Nearly every 4X game gives you the option of different permanent bonuses, usually tied to a race or character that you choose at the beginning. Games play out very differently depending on which bonus you have. The same goes for choices made throughout the game, particularly technology research. If you're trying to win a military victory, better have your scientists focusing on weapon technology, or you might end up sending spear-waving warriors into a hail of rifle bullets.

Firing up one of these games is a good way to lose several hours at a time. Each time you finish moving all your units, setting your production, directing research, and so on, you naturally want to see how it all turns out. So you end the turn, and inevitably something didn't go quite according to plan, or simply needs a bit more time. So you make adjustments, and take another turn. And another. And another. Then you look up, and it's four hours later.

The next big 4X release on the horizon is Civilization VI, due out sometime in the fall of 2016. I tend to be about a year behind the curve on these releases, largely because I'm cheap and don't like paying full price, but also because there are inevitably bug fixes and balance adjustment patches. Some of the additional content for Civilization V (i.e. Gods and Kings) added features that made it almost an entirely different game. So I'm likely to wait a bit on the newest installment in the franchise, at least until it hits its first Steam sale.

In the meantime, 4X game options abound. Maybe it's time to install Civilization V again. I hear there's a community patch that fixes a lot of the more annoying balance issues. Or there's Fallen Enchantress, or Warlock 2, or Age of Wonders III, or Endless Space, or another half-dozen games still sitting on my Steam wishlist. There's no lack of worlds to conquer.

Sunday, June 5, 2016

Jupiter Ascending

Jupiter Ascending is a science fiction space opera. Lots of special effects, various aliens, threats to end the world...the usual.
The story follows Jupiter Jones, a Russian immigrant girl in Chicago who happens to be the genetic reincarnation of a space queen. Various people show up to capture or kill her, she falls in love with a hard-bitten mercenary type, many things explode, and in the end she goes back to her plain-old-Earth-girl life. It's about as engrossing as it sounds, which is to say, not at all.

Which is too bad, because I think Jupiter Ascending had some promise. There's certainly plenty of action, and the effects seemed mostly to be well done. The sound effects could have used some more work, I thought, since all the high-tech alien weapons sounded like they came out of a cartoon. But the visuals were solid, and no more ridiculous than what you see in every movie of this kind.

As a backdrop, the idea of a universe run by mostly-immortal humans intent on living forever didn't seem too terrible. Their plan to "harvest" the Earth by turning everyone into immortality-body-wash makes an interesting way to threaten the planet, but I never really felt any suspense over the possibility.

Largely that was due to the villains being incredibly bland and inept. Three siblings take a run at getting Jupiter-reincarnated-as-their-mother to either join them or go away, but none of them felt like a serious threat. Even the guy who steals Jupiter's family and holds them hostage was so transparently planning to wipe out the Earth (and them with it) that it was impossible to believe that she'd ever go along with him.

The heroes weren't much better. Jupiter pretty much just wanders around wherever people lead her, gets into trouble, and waits for Caine (the mercenary-type guy) to save the day. For his part, Caine has basically no personality, but of course he can survive anything and overcome any obstacle. There are hints of more interesting character development, such as Jupiter being desperate enough for money to sell her egg cells to a fertility clinic, or Caine's need to belong to a larger organization. But after establishing those things, there's not really much in the way of followup.

You expect over-the-top heroics in space opera, but usually there's some attempt to surprise the viewer with a twist or two. I didn't feel like any of that happened in Jupiter Ascending. Maybe I'm just jaded from seeing too many stories of this type, but this one didn't stand out in any way. Every step along the way felt predetermined.

Jupiter Ascending isn't bad, exactly, just generic and uninspired. The world-building was serviceable, the characters did what they needed to do, the special effects were pretty...but none of it made me want to see more. If you like the genre and you happen to have the opportunity, Jupiter Ascending is worth watching. But I wouldn't go out of my way for it.