Sunday, July 31, 2016

MTG: Sealed Event at Game On

Yesterday I made the drive across the state to Game On in Midland to play in an Eldritch Moon sealed deck event.
The store location. I bet that Subway and Little Caesars get a ton of gamer business.
Game On is a well-organized little store in a strip mall in Midland. They have the usual wide variety of gaming items, from lots of card games to board games to video games. There's also a rack of disc golf stuff, and a wall full of movies. Right next to the store is a gaming area, in a second section of the strip mall, with room for around 60 people to sit at gaming tables. Our event had 38 people, and there was still plenty of room for a few other small groups of folks playing other games.

This event was a PPTQ, similar to the event a few weeks ago at Realms Games. The only real difference was the card sets. Now that Eldritch Moon is out, the card pool was four packs of that set and two of Shadows over Innistrad (rather than the 6 Shadows packs of the prior event). We still had to go through all the deck registration and other bookkeeping of a Pro Tour event, which was particularly annoying since one guy took forever registering his deck pool. But eventually the event got underway.

My card pool was pretty good, though not great. Three of my rares were wolves: Ulrich of the Kallenhorde, Spirit of the Hunt, and Silverfur Partisan. I had a reasonable number of green and red creatures, and four red damage spells that served as removal. Unfortunately I didn't have any of the good green removal spells, and enough of my creatures were non-wolves that I couldn't really play any wolf-specific boosts. My white cards were decent, mostly humans, with three removal spells. The other three rares were all black, but the rest of my black cards were pretty bad so they weren't really usable. In the end, I decided on red-green, with mostly wolves and some red removal, over white-green humans with a splash of red for Ulrich. The decision came down to two things: I had one more removal spell with red instead of white, and since I had no mana-fixing to speak of it seemed prudent to stay in two colors.

Round One: My opponent was a teenager playing in his first event other than pre-releases, using a red-white-blue deck with a lot of small creatures and spells. Very nice guy, seemed to be learning his way around the game quite well. He won the first game easily with a horde of quick attacks and pump spells, but in the second game I drew some removal and was able to keep his creatures off the board. The third game went my way because he didn't get any blue mana and had blue cards in hand - the dangers of playing three colors.

Round Two: When I sat down to this match, my opponent said something along the lines of "good to meet the only one here with a lower DCI number." I hadn't noticed before he said that, but it seems we were the only two with 6-digit DCI numbers (the new ones are all much longer) and mine was just slightly lower than his. These things happen when you've been playing (on and off) since the 1990s! I won two games fairly easily because his deck just never got rolling, with some poor draws.

Round Three: I hadn't seen Ulrich at all up until this point, but he came up big in this round. The opposing deck was white/black with some really good cards, including both Thalia, Heretic Cathar and Liliana, the Last Hope. I drew Ulrich in all three games and he did yeoman (yeowolf?) work in all three, beating up opposing creatures and pumping up my guys. I lost the middle game when I was unable to stop Liliana before her emblem came out and I was buried in zombies, but won the other two.
The play area. Yes, that's a baby in the foreground. She slept most of the time, while both parents were playing in the event.
Round Four: My opponent in this round was the guy who sat across from me during card pool registration, meaning that we both knew what the other had to work with. Knowing what was coming didn't help me much, as he just rolled over me with a white-green humans deck. He'd gotten all the human synergy cards and green removal spells that my pool was missing, and my deck never turned up any answers. Lost both games in short order.

Round Five: This was a bit of a strange round as my opponent played red-green in the first game, then swapped out half his deck and played black-green in the second. I suppose the idea is that he believed his black was stronger against my deck, but it didn't really work out that way. I won both games without too much trouble, largely due to getting good draws. In these events, simply having enough land and a good mix of creatures and spells can often lead to victories, and that was the case here.

There was a sixth round, but I didn't actually play it since both my opponent and I were guaranteed to get into the top eight with a draw. This being a Pro Tour-style event, the top eight players then did a booster draft and played a single-elimination playoff.
By the time it was all over, night had fallen and everyone else had gone home.
The draft went fairly well, although I must admit I'm not very good at judging my draft decks. I almost always feel like I've picked a pretty solid group of cards, but other people are doing the same thing! In this one, I went white-black, with a pretty solid group of smaller creatures and a few removal spells, plus several larger creatures that could bring back creatures from my graveyard (a pair of Midnight Scavengers and Bruna, the Fading Light). I also picked up Odric, Lunarch Marshal which paired up nicely with the lifelink, skulk, and flying abilities that were on quite a few of my creatures. I would have liked more removal, but I didn't see a whole lot, which turned out to be because five of the eight players were picking black cards. I hadn't realized it during the draft since there were so many good creatures coming my way, but it was pretty obvious once we started playing!

I won the first round, against an opponent playing green-black. His deck was pretty defensive, with a lot of high-toughness creatures. That included several spiders, not least of which was Ishkanah, Grafwidow. In the first game, we had a board stall going with a ton of creatures on both sides, until I drew Bruna, played her and retrieved Odric from my graveyard, giving my entire army flying (and lifelink, and skulk, with the other creatures I had) for the win. The second game looked exactly the same with an army on either side unable to do much damage, until Ishkanah made an appearance and whittled down my life total with her life-loss ability. After all that, the third game was a bit of an anti-climax when my opponent kept a two-land hand and didn't draw a third for several turns. That was enough time for me to get an insurmountable lead.

The second round of the draft had easily the closest games that I played all day, which is a fitting way to close out the event. My opponent was playing an aggressive red-black deck, with quick small creatures for early damage, and spell interactions with Thermo-Alchemist and Weaver of Lightning later on. I won the first game largely because I drew Faithbearer Paladin, and used that lifelink ability to gain just enough life to stay ahead of his damage. Eventually I got Odric and was able to get through his defenses. In the second game, his deck came together perfectly, dropping the Thermo-Alchemist and then playing a bunch of instant and sorcery spells to hit me repeatedly. The real killer in that game was 3 (!) Prying Questions, which cost me nine damage and three card draws. In the final game, we went back and forth until he was down around 5 life with no cards in hand. I attacked with flyers to knock him down to 1 life, with a sure lethal attack the next turn, and one blocker to stop his biggest guy so I could survive that long. He had one card draw to find an answer, and he did...a removal spell to kill my blocker, then attacked for exactly enough damage to finish me off. It doesn't get any closer than that!

So, in the end I lost in the semi-finals, putting me at 3rd/4th place. It's always nice to win, of course, but that last match was such a good one that I didn't mind the loss. The top 8 all got cash prizes, too, which was a first for me...usually the events that I play in give out product or store credit. Nice to get back my entry fee, plus enough to pay for another few events in the future! Thanks to Game On and the folks who ran the event, who did a great job - it's a long drive up to Midland, but I'll definitely consider it again at some point for another event.

Saturday, July 30, 2016

Magic Knight Rayearth

I've watched a good amount of anime over the years that falls into common archetypes. Magic Knight Rayearth is about as good an example of the "kids from the real world become heroes in a fantasy realm" archetype as you'll see. Which may make it sound derivative, but since it first aired in 1995, in many ways it staked claim to the archetype first.
The first season of Magic Knight Rayearth follows three girls who are pulled from Tokyo in our world into another world called Cephiro. In that world, magic is real and abilities are driven by willpower, which the girls conveniently have in plenty. They have various adventures around the world of Cephiro in a quest to become Magic Knights and save a princess, who can send them back to Tokyo.

The world of Cephiro as encountered by our heroines feels very much like a generic fantasy adventure. (At least, until the last couple of episodes, which introduce a twist that I haven't seen often.) Meet a mysterious mage, fight different enemies along the way to get magical weapons and/or training, go after mysterious big bad guy - it's all very familiar, not only from books and videos, but also games. Twenty years ago, though, that was new ground...or if not completely new, at least not as well-trodden as it is now.

I couldn't help making comparisons to other fantasy anime series that I've seen as I watched Magic Knight Rayearth. The fighting isn't all that different from something like Lagrange: The Flower of Rin-ne. Parts of the quest/adventure arc feel like Sword Art Online. The three girls each embody a character type that is repeated in all sorts of other series: headstrong fighter, proper and intelligent, hot-tempered but loyal. Even mecha make an appearance, albeit as magical spirits that take the form of giant armor-suits. It says a lot about quality, that a 20-year-old series did so many things that have worked well in later productions.

The production quality is limited in Magic Knight Rayearth because of its age, but I thought it was pretty good once you take that into account. There aren't any breathtaking visuals, of course, but considering its age the art isn't bad. The sound effects remind me more of 1980s cartoons than the 1990s, but that's probably just my memory of Voltron and Transformers using similar sounds.

The least impressive part of the series is the characters, in my opinion. The three heroes are over-the-top sweet and perky, the many enemies are consistently one-dimensional, and so are the various allies they meet along the way. The story progresses, but the characters don't really change. At least, not until the last couple of episodes, and perhaps character growth gets better in the second season (which I haven't watched).

Magic Knight Rayearth isn't for everyone due to its age, but if you're feeling nostalgic for a bit of anime history, it's worth a look. It does a lot of things that you'll recognize if you've seen just about any fantasy-world anime from the last twenty years.

Friday, July 29, 2016

Power Outage

Lost power recently for about 90 minutes in the early evening. I couldn't help but be reminded of this bit of genius:
A quick Internet search didn't turn up the info of where it was originally from, but I know it's several years old at least. Anyway, kudos to whoever wrote it, great bit of work.

Losing power certainly brings home just how reliant we are on electricity. Can't see once the sun goes down, can't watch anything on TV, no music, no air conditioning, no computer, not even cooking. Even my garage door is electric, so getting in the car to go anywhere else isn't easy. (You can raise it manually but then you have to reset the opener, which is a royal pain.) Worst would be losing refrigeration and spoiling food, but the outage would have to be longer for that to be a real issue.

Having said that, I still managed to spend the outage time on an electronic device. My tablet does just fine for a couple of hours of comic-book reading on battery power. Good thing, since it was too dark to read anything without back-lighting. Saved me from having to pull out the candles.

My power company sent me an email about the outage, which is a nice bit of customer service that I don't remember seeing before. It had a time estimate for restoration, which they actually beat by about an hour. It also included the cause: "Car/Pole accident." Sounds unfortunate for the car and driver, wherever it happened.

This outage didn't last long, fortunately. Great response by the power company folks, taking care of the problem quickly. But it does make you appreciate having constant, steady electricity the majority of the time!

Thursday, July 28, 2016

Half a War by Joe Abercrombie

Half a War is the conclusion to the Shattered Sea trilogy. I read it shortly after finishing the first two books (reviewed here and here).
Each of the first two books followed different characters, and Half a War continues that trend by introducing three more viewpoints. We see the story unfold through the eyes of Koll, Skara, and Raith. Koll has been in both of the earlier books, the son of one of Yarvi's shipmates from his slave days, and is now Yarvi's apprentice. Skara is a teenage princess who becomes queen when her family is destroyed - not so different from what happened to Yarvi in Half a King. Raith is a warrior who comes to serve Skara, but has to balance loyalty to his prior master.

A lot happens in Half a War, as one would expect from the conclusion to the trilogy. An alliance of three kingdoms, largely held together by Yarvi's manipulations, fights against the much more powerful High King and Ministry. The alliance is plagued by constant in-fighting, and nears defeat several times. The various ways in which the alliance is held together, and overcomes its enemies, makes for a consistently entertaining read.

Like the first two books, the viewpoint characters in Half a War are coming of age against the backdrop of the larger conflict. Koll is torn between becoming a minister, or following his heart. Skara has to learn very quickly how to lead her kingdom while helping to hold the alliance together. Raith has always seen himself as nothing but a warrior, but finds other aspects of life becoming more important - an illicit romance with Skara driving that change. The personal touch of these individual stories nicely offsets the great power struggle and army battles.

Like Half the World, this book also has plenty of appearances by existing characters. Yarvi continues to be the driving force behind the major conflict between nations, becoming even more of a Machiavellian manipulator. Thorn plays a fairly major part also, continuing in the warrior role that she earned in the earlier book. The kings and court of the countries in the alliance are familiar faces (other than Skara). I don't think that Half a War stands alone quite as well as Half the World did, with so much happening that has its roots in the earlier books. Probably not a good idea to pick it up before reading the rest of the trilogy.

Explicit subject matter does appear regularly in the trilogy. Graphic violence is common in all three books, though I don't feel like it was overdone. There are some sexual encounter scenes, and references to abortion. Several major characters spend time as slaves, and many more are slave-owners with no apparent regret. If any of that is a major problem for a reader, then this may not be the series for them. I didn't find any of it to be a problem, but rather felt that these things added to the depth of the world-building.

The history of the world becomes more important in this book, as some of the characters actually make a trip into the ruins of an ancient city. What they find there literally turns the course of the war for the alliance. There's little doubt that some kind of nuclear holocaust destroyed the ancient world, though Abercrombie never states anything explicitly. There's plenty of hints in what the characters encounter, so he doesn't have to. It's a bit of a stretch to believe how smoothly the trip into dead city goes, and how well-preserved they find their targets. But the author clearly wanted to focus more on the living world, not the ruins of the dead one, so I found it pretty easy to accept and move on.

The entire Shattered Sea trilogy was an enjoyable read, though it does deal in some explicit subject matter. For those who don't mind that, it's a very well-crafted story that I can certainly recommend.

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Half the World by Joe Abercrombie

Half the World is the second book in the Shattered Sea series by Joe Abercrombie. It follows Half a King (which I discussed here).
Like the first book in the series, Half the World is largely a coming-of-age story. This time there are two main characters: Thorn, a girl struggling to be a warrior despite pressure from established society; and Brand, a boy also in warrior training but finding that it doesn't suit him. Both end up going with Father Yarvi, the protagonist of Half a King who is now minister of the kingdom, on a year-long journey that takes them far from home.

This second book doesn't treat its protagonists quite as badly as the first book did Yarvi. They're not enslaved, or betrayed by family, and both are sound of body - though they do get plenty of injuries along the way. There's still plenty of troubles for them, though. Almost everyone in the story is caught up in the intrigue and manipulation that Yarvi engages in while trying to win allies to keep their home safe, none more so than Thorn. And both Brand and Thorn contribute to their own unhappiness when they fall for one another, but fail to communicate, such that neither believes the other returns the feelings.

Several of the characters from the first novel make an appearance, and there have been changes. Yarvi in particular is much more self-assured, but also colder and more ruthless. He's no longer the viewpoint character, but his actions still drive the larger story-line that sweeps people like Thorn and Brand along in its wake.

I don't believe it's really necessary to have read the first book to enjoy Half the World. I certainly recommend it, since there are many references and actions by various characters that make more sense when you know the prior story, but it would be possible to start with this book. That's a tribute to Abercrombie's writing, which is clear on explaining what is necessary to understand the current book, while at the same time referring to earlier events.

Much more of the world of the Shattered Sea is revealed in Half the World, as the travelers journey to foreign lands. They go as far as the "First of Cities" where an Empress reigns who is more wealthy and powerful than all the kingdoms of their home sea. More references are made to the ancient world, including a priceless still-functioning artifact meant as a present for that Empress. It seems pretty clear that this world came about after some kind of apocalypse ended a technologically-advanced civilization (possibly our own). The details of that history aren't important to the story, though, which is good since time has caused those details to be lost to the characters.

Half the World wraps up the stories of Thorn and Brand nicely, while still leaving open the fate of the kingdom (largely Yarvi's responsibility). The setup for the third novel is present, but I didn't feel like that was all that this book had to offer. Half the World is a fine story in its own right, not just the middle of a larger story-line.

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Half a King by Joe Abercrombie

I first came across Joe Abercrombie's work a few years ago, with his First Law series. I enjoyed those enough that I've kept an eye out for more of his work, which led me to the Shattered Sea series and its first novel, Half a King.
Half a King follows Yarvi, a younger son of a king who was born with a crippled hand and never expected to take the throne. He's thrust onto it, though, when his father and brother are killed. In short order, Yarvi is also murdered...or at least that's what his uncle believes. While his uncle takes the throne, Yarvi goes through all kinds of danger and hardship. Finally he returns home, seeking revenge on those who wronged him.

This book is as much a coming-of-age story for Yarvi as it is the story of intrigue and war over a throne. At the beginning, he knows little outside his life in the nobility and his studies to become a minister - an adviser to kings and member of the Ministry, similar to the medieval church. But as events throw him into dangerous situations, he's forced to grow up quickly to survive. It's by no means an original formula, but I thought it was executed well. It helps that Yarvi is a very likable character - he has his flaws, but on the whole he tries to hold to his word and do right by his friends.

Much of Yarvi's story involves significant suffering. He's thrown into slavery, nearly starves and freezes to death, barely survives attempts on his life, goes ill-prepared into battle, and so on. It's all described in quite a bit of detail, though I don't think the writing is overly graphic. There's a gritty realism to the descriptions, though, that may not be for the faint of heart.

The way events unfold in the story does stretch credulity a bit, with many miraculous escapes and overly-convenient plot twists. I didn't mind too much, because it's an entertaining ride. And I certainly appreciated that, in the end, it turns out that the old adage "follow the money" led right to the reason for all the intrigue.

The world that Abercrombie has built is medieval with few, if any, magical or spiritual qualities beyond human belief. There are hints of some great cataclysm in the distant past, which could mean that some sort of apocalypse created this world in the far future of our own. It doesn't really matter much, at least not in this first novel. I expect the other books will reveal more of the world, possibly including its past.

I had a good time reading Half a King, and I'm looking forward to the following books. Recommended for anyone that enjoys the genre.

Monday, July 25, 2016

A For-Profit System is Terrible for Health Care

In a free market economic system, providers of goods and services succeed by maximizing their profits through the low costs and high prices. That's a fine system as long as consumers have the option to refuse the service if they think the cost is too high. Unfortunately, you can't just refuse health care when you really need it. Even in situations where it's possible to do without, you're almost always heading toward a later, larger health crisis.
There's an inherent conflict of interest between providing a service that everyone needs, and charging individuals for it. The people able to pay a premium get good service, and those who can't get less (or none). Consider public services like fire services or law enforcement. Firefighters and police officers aren't paid by the people they help, but rather from taxes levied on an entire area. They work directly for the government. It's not a perfect system, with constant struggles against corruption and bias, but on the whole the system works without a profit motive.

Here in the United States, our health care system is largely based on the profit motive. We've built a highly complex system of private and public providers, with insurance as a middle-man to manage financial risk. Some components of the system are non-profit, but they almost always do business with other portions of the system that do have a profit motive. Large portions of this system are motivated primarily by making money, conflicting with the aim of keeping people healthy. It may be possible to do both successfully in the short term, but eventually situations always come up where a decision has to be made between what's best for patients versus making the best profit.

Making the system work for most people has required the government to get heavily involved. There's tons of regulation, as well as programs like Medicare and Medicaid for those unable to pay the costs. With the Affordable Care Act, the government has also gotten involved in pushing consumers into the system, with penalties for the unwilling.

I'd much rather see a health care system that works more like the way those first-responder services are provided. For universally necessary services, the government should provide the whole system, including payment. There could still be private for-profit providers for non-essential services, like cosmetic surgery. (Similar to how private security companies exist, to draw another parallel to law enforcement.) That would cut out two huge flaws in the current system: the conflict of interest between profit and patient, and the inefficiency of the whole concept of health insurance (with no financial risk to the individual, there's no need to manage that risk with insurance).

Certainly this system wouldn't be perfect, but I believe it would be much simpler and more effective than what is currently in place. Of course, making such a change would require overcoming major resistance. The inefficiency of the current system makes a lot of money for a lot of people, and those interests are entrenched in the political system. The worst-case scenario of any possible change is trumpeted across the media (see: Death Panels), no matter how unlikely, and even honest politicians with good intentions find it hard to move forward.

I'm not sure how it would be possible to make these kinds of major changes in the US healthcare system, given the power and money with interest in the status quo. I'd certainly listen very carefully to any politician that came up with a plan, though.

Sunday, July 24, 2016

Ancillary Mercy by Ann Leckie

Ancillary Mercy is the concluding novel to the Imperial Radch trilogy, which started with Ancillary Justice. The trilogy is very much a single story, so I don't recommend reading it out of order.
I very much enjoyed the first book in the trilogy, Ancillary Justice (as I said here), and I thought it stood on its own fairly well. The second book, Ancillary Sword, felt much slower and smaller in scale (as described here). I still thought it was decent, but much of it was setup for this third novel. So I went into Ancillary Mercy with high expectations of seeing resolution to much of what Ancillary Sword had left unfinished.

Breq remains the viewpoint character, like the prior two books. Her character growth is a key component of the entire trilogy, running in parallel with the external events that she is shaping with her actions. Both of these come to a head in Ancillary Mercy, leading to a significant change in the world that Leckie has built.

One of my complaints with Ancillary Sword was the small scale - confined mostly to one planetary system, and limited interaction with the empire-wide conflict that was started in Ancillary Justice. We don't see much more territory in Ancillary Mercy, but the conflict certainly comes into play. It's not fully resolved by any means, but much of the novel involves Breq and her cast of supporting characters working to thwart the aims of the Lord of the Radch (one of her, anyway). In that way, this third novel feels much more like the first than the second.

I was glad to see that the alien Presger had a larger presence in Ancillary Mercy as well. One of their Translators (human-life ambassadors) plays a major role in the story, in addition to the weapons and political influence that we'd already seen in the prior books. The Presger play a large role in the way Breq eventually secures the Athoek system against the Lord of the Radch. I particularly liked the way that the Translator was portrayed, with very alien desires and motivations that led to some pretty strange actions.

As far as serving as the end of the trilogy, I think Ancillary Mercy does well. In particular, Breq's personal concerns are mostly resolved, and she seems to be in a place of contentment. The fate of the Athoek system isn't an endpoint, but rather a shift in political and inter-species relationships that have significant ramifications for the world at large. There's quite a lot of story left to tell on that front, but I suspect that if Leckie does decide to continue, it will be with another viewpoint character.

Ancillary Mercy is a solid conclusion to the trilogy. I do hope that Leckie has plans for more stories in the same universe, though. It's an interesting place with plenty left to explore.

Saturday, July 23, 2016

Cookie 5K

Heat, humidity, cookies, milk, running a few miles - what could possibly go wrong?
Yep, that's some cookies. Not pictured - the giant stack of unopened cookie boxes!
No, really, it wasn't bad at all. Yes, it was hot and humid, but we ran starting at 8 AM so the heat wasn't too oppressive. Plenty of ice chests for the milk that was waiting at the finish line, and if the chocolate chips in the cookies were a bit soft, well, who cares?
The race info area.
The Cookie 5K is organized in support of Team Orphans, a group of folks who raise funds to support worldwide orphan services (such as Brittany's Hope). The Team Orphans members participate in other events as well, but this one is organized specifically for this charity. They had some signs set up along the course showing some of the children that their efforts had been able to help, which I thought was a nice touch.
Robinette's Apple Haus and Winery
This was a small event - I'd guess maybe a couple of hundred participants. That was good, because there wasn't a lot of room on the course. The race took place at Robinette's Apple Haus and Winery on the north side of Grand Rapids, with a course that wound through the orchards and woods in the area. It was a very pretty area to run through, but with narrow trails that weren't made for large numbers of people.
Finish line
Fortunately, most of us were in no hurry. There were a few spots early on where the crowding forced us to slow down and walk for a bit, but that was OK. The really fast folks were all up at the front anyhow. After about the first mile, everyone had spread out enough that crowding was no longer an issue. Over the rest of the course, there were lots of small but steep hills as we went though some woods and circled back to the finish line.
Cookie and milk table at the finish line. Chocolate milk tasted surprisingly good at the end of a run!
I ran almost exactly 30 minutes, which I was pretty happy with considering how slow that first mile was and all the little hills later on. At the end were those cookies, which I ate three of, completely undoing any calories that I might have expended on the run. Worth it, though! I even took some extra cookies home, since the organizers were basically begging everyone to take the extras home. When I left there were still several big boxes full, so I suspect a whole lot of cookies may have ended up being donated somewhere.
More of Robinette's.
I had fun at the Cookie 5K, and it helped to support a good cause. Well worth getting up early on a Saturday morning.

Friday, July 22, 2016

North Beach Park

When the weather forecast is for a heat index near 100 degrees, the beach looks really good. So I decided to visit one instead of my usual walk or jog around the local neighborhood.
The Grand Haven/Spring Lake area is about an hour's drive for me, so I don't go out there regularly. But that's close enough to go out for half a day, without having to plan out a whole trip. The most popular beach in the area is down in Grand Haven, but I decided to go up to North Beach Park this time out.
North Beach Park is in Ferrysburg, on the south side of the North Ottowa Dunes area. It's a smaller beach, but generally less crowded. Rather than park right at the beach, I stopped at Coast Guard Park, which is less than a mile away. Left my car there and walked down to the beach.
I made my trip on a weekday, to avoid the really heavy crowds. There were still a good number of folks out, but plenty of empty beach as well.
North Beach Park may be small, but it's got everything the larger parks have. Kids play area, plenty of picnic table space, a covered area that groups can rent out, public restrooms, and even a set of life jackets for borrowing.
It was a beautiful day at the Lake Michigan coast. The heat and humidity that seems so oppressive in the city is merely comfortable at the beach. Well worth the drive.

Thursday, July 21, 2016

UNU AI Swarm

I recently learned about the UNU beta site through a post on the QT3 forums.

UNU was created by a company called Unanimous AI. Per their website, "UNANIMOUS A.I. develops technologies for Swarm Intelligence, allowing groups to combine their thoughts and feelings in real-time, to answer questions, make decisions, or just have fun." What that means is that they're making use of the idea that asking a large group of people to answer questions is generally going to lead to the best answer, regardless of how much the individuals know about the subject matter.

The site itself is pretty easy to use. You can participate as a guest at first, or create a free account which allows greater participation. There are various rooms to choose from on topics of all kinds, from sports to politics to investing. Once in a room, there's the usual chat room functionality as well as the ability to ask a question to the room at large. Questions are answered by everyone in the room pulling a "puck" onto the answer they like best, using their mouse as a magnet.
Example question. You can see the "puck" in the upper left being moved around by various people's magnet icons.
Like all Internet chat rooms, the UNU rooms have a low signal-to-noise ratio. Dropping into a random room for a few minutes isn't likely to yield anything particularly interesting, but when there's an organized event asking coherent questions some useful answers can be obtained. The UNU blog has quite a few examples of the swarm picking winners in sports, politics, finance, etc.

Since this is only a beta at the moment, the participation is fairly low. Most rooms are capped at 100 participants, and they rarely fill up even during the peak hours of 8 PM to midnight (US Eastern time). I hope they're able to get through this beta period and scale up, because I think it would be much more interesting to see answers generated from a swarm of a few thousand participants. Even with fairly small groups, though, it's an interesting experiment that deserves a look.

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Ancillary Sword by Ann Leckie

Ancillary Sword is the second book in the Imperial Radch trilogy by Ann Leckie. I read it shortly after finishing the first book, Ancillary Justice (review). Ancillary Sword is very much a sequel to Ancillary Justice - you definitely want to read them in order.
Breq is back as the viewpoint character, though now as a ship captain rather than playing the lone wolf. Being a captain doesn't stop Breq from being constantly in conflict with existing authority figures, though, such as the leaders of the Athoek planetary system. There's plenty of the same writing style that made Ancillary Justice such an enjoyable read: well-developed characters, detailed cultural descriptions, historical revelations at just the right time to explain the action. That's the good news.

The bad news is that Ancillary Sword suffers greatly from "second book of three" syndrome, and perhaps also from being the followup to a huge award-winner. The story is on a smaller scale than the first book, it feels like little is accomplished in the story-line of the overall trilogy, and there's not much more revealed in terms of world-building. Even Breq's internal struggles don't seem to make much progress toward resolution.

The story in Ancillary Sword affects just the one planetary system, with only indirect mention of events going on outside. Breq's actions do make a difference there, but on a small scale - one section of a space station, a single opposing ship to neutralize, one abusive noble brought to justice. Compared to the empire-wide implications of the plot in Ancillary Justice, it seems like a big step backward.

The events in Ancillary Sword drop hints about a bigger conflict, perhaps involving another ship or two, and maybe an alien race. But none of that is resolved in this book. Presumably the third in the series will pick up on those threads. This makes Ancillary Sword feel like nothing but several hundred pages of setup for the next book, which is a common problem for middle-of-trilogy novels.

One of my favorite things about Ancillary Justice was learning about the world that Leckie has built. I expected that Ancillary Sword wouldn't have nearly as much new information, but even so I was disappointed in how little additional detail was revealed. The reader learns a decent amount about the Athoek system, but very little of that feels new - it's just a variation on themes already described in the first book.

I'm a bit on the fence about Ancillary Sword. It certainly has some major faults, but I enjoy Leckie's writing style and characters enough that it was still an enjoyable read. If the third book in the trilogy is as good as the first one was, then I'll be happy to forgive the "only a setup" feel to this one.

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Master of Magic

Over at the Quarter to Three forums, we occasionally pull out a classic game to revisit. A bunch of people play it, and we compare notes and reminisce over the old days when it was cutting-edge gameplay. Recently one of my all-time favorite games, Master of Magic, was chosen as the spotlight game.
All Life magic, all the time.
Master of Magic is a 4X turn-based strategy game, a genre I've written about before. It was first released way back in 1994, so it's certainly old enough to be considered "classic." I remember playing it in my college days, when VGA graphics were top-of-the-line for PCs, and floppy disks were common. The graphics certainly seem dated now, but much of the gameplay and user interface in the game have held up well over time.

Part of the reason that Master of Magic is still an enjoyable game today is work by the community. Some very dedicated fans released a patch to update the AI and fix some bugs back in 2010, which I've used each time I reinstalled the game in the last few years. There's another update that's new this year as well, though I haven't tried that one yet. These patches are largely a way to update the AI for the computer players, who have a hard time properly making use of the complexity available in the game.
The outcome was never really in doubt, of course!
That complexity is the main reason that I keep coming back to play Master of Magic, even after more than 20 years. There are so many ways to approach the end goal, which like all 4X games is basically to rule the world. (Or worlds, since the game takes place on two "planes" each with its own map.) There are fourteen different races to choose from, each with its own strengths and weaknesses. You can choose to focus your resources on magical might, a large population with mighty armies, or (almost always) a balance between the two. The system of magical spells and abilities is highly complex with many different directions to choose from. Powerful hero units will occasionally become available for hire, which with appropriate care and feeding will become your best weapons. All that may sound fairly commonplace today, but Master of Magic was one of the first games to pull it all together, and even today has one of the best implementations of the concept.

The game has plenty of less-than-ideal characteristics as well, of course, even leaving aside the obvious one of its advanced age. The higher difficulty levels are largely implemented as simply giving the AI a whole bunch of extra resources, so a player who can win on Hard might get simply overwhelmed on Impossible. (The community patches help, but it can still be an issue.) There are certain combinations that are way overpowered - Undead War Trolls was always my favorite - so it's necessary to avoid those if you'd like a challenge. And the game can really drag on past the point where you have the obvious victory, since you must either defeat all opposing wizards or cast the Spell of Mastery (which takes a very long time to research and cast).
Fairly poor score, but then, I wasn't really trying to run it up.
For the current classic game thread on the forums, I started up a game on Hard difficulty using a custom wizard with maximum Life spellbooks, leading the High Elves. My starting position wasn't too great, on an island with lots of high-level monster lairs around, but I managed to expand across the ocean eventually. The game moved fairly slowly, both because of that unfortunate starting area and because I hadn't played in a couple of years, but eventually I got the war machine rolling and took the fight to the other wizards. There were four opponents, and I defeated three of them by taking their capitals - in-fighting among the AIs got the fourth. I was confident of the win about halfway through, once I'd banished one opponent and was nearing the capital of the second. The clean-up to finish off my win was a bit boring, but using my crazy-powerful stacks of heroes, Elven Lords, and Slingers to conquer city after city was still amusing.

Revisiting older favorite games doesn't always work well - the technology changes, our perceptions are different, and our tastes change. But Master of Magic has always held up for me, and it was fun to have an excuse to pull it out again.

Monday, July 18, 2016

MTG: Eldritch Moon Pre-Release (2HG)

After playing in a solo pre-release event for the newest Magic: The Gathering set, Eldritch Moon, I finished out pre-release weekend with a team event.

My friend Dan suggested that we play in this two-headed-giant format event. I don't remember ever playing in a formal limited team event before, though I'd played the format in casual games. Your team gets two pre-release packs, and you share the card pool to build two decks. The expanded card options means that you can generally build better decks this way than in a solo event, though of course your opposition has the same advantage. Then you play your games as a team, with a shared life pool starting at 30, against another team of two.
I quite like the team format, but it does have one major drawback - you only get to play one game in each round instead of the usual best-of-three. That only makes sense, as games take a lot longer with four people instead of two, but it doesn't give you much chance to recover from a poor draw in one game. Still, I think the fun of playing as a team makes up for it.

Dan and I didn't get any of the really big bomb rares in our card pool, but there was still plenty to work with. We ended up building an aggressive white-red deck for me, and a slower green-black deck for Dan. I'd put pressure on the opposition early, Dan's removal could clear the way for my attackers, and he'd bring out big creatures late for the finishing blow. That plan worked pretty well in a two of our matches, both of which we won. Our draws weren't so good in the other two matches, but we still managed to win one of those.

Round 1: Our opponents were a team of brothers, neither of which had played this format before, so they were learning as they went. Our decks cooperated and went pretty much according to plan, winning fairly easily. Afterward we helped out a bit with some deck construction advice for the brother team - I like the way these casual events allow more experienced players to help newer folks learn as they go along. Hopefully it'll be a good experience for them so they're likely to come back next time!
Round 2: We played a father-son team who had some pretty incredible cards, including both pieces of Brisela, Voice of Nightmares. (They'd pulled off that meld in their prior round.) We were pretty fortunate that our decks worked pretty much according to plan, so we were able to knock out Gisela, The Broken Blade before her sister showed up. Dan finished off the game by melding Chittering Host and coming across with all his menace-enabled creatures for the kill. Always nice to use the signature set mechanic for a cool play like that.

Round 3: Our good run of draws had to run out eventually, and here it was, against a couple of guys that both Dan and I have played against quite a bit in other store events. Both of us had to mulligan (fortunately, the first one is free in team formats), and I had to do it again to drop to six cards. Even then my draw was pretty slow, and Dan was short on lands. Fortunately, our opponents didn't have great draws either, so the game devolved into a standoff. We poked at each other a bit, but nothing major happened until our opponents dropped a Tree of Perdition. I then pulled Malevolent Whispers off the top of my deck - incredibly lucky! - stole the Tree, used it to knock them down to 13 and give the tree something like 27 toughness, before giving it back. That big blow was enough to let us whittle them down and eventually send in the Chittering Host for the kill, before they were able to build up a big enough force to overwhelm our side.

Round 4: Another set of poor draws, but this time the other side wasn't similarly afflicted. This was another father-son team, and they had a really good couple of decks: red-green wolves, and white-black with both removal and creature enhancements. They drew enough removal that our defenses were pretty weak, and got an Always Watching out so we had a hard time making good creature trades or mounting any kind of offense. The swarm of vigilance creatures and wolves finished us off without too much trouble.

That put us at 3-1, and ended up being good enough for third place out of ten teams. We got 12 packs to split up as a prize. I had a lot of fun with this event, and I'll definitely be interested in trying the team event again next time it comes around.

Sunday, July 17, 2016

America On Tap Beer Festival

The America On Tap Beer Festival made a return visit to Grand Rapids this weekend.
Everyone gets a nice little double-shot glass for sampling.
They held the event downtown, at Calder Plaza. Not quite as nice as last year when it was held just outside John Ball Park Zoo, but the location worked out well enough. Grand Rapids is small enough that getting downtown isn't a major hassle.
The line. You can just barely see the tents way up ahead on the left.
No question that this was a popular event - the line to get in was evidence of that. I arrived just a couple of minutes after the official open time of 3 PM, and then proceeded to spend the better part of an hour waiting in line. They only had a couple of people checking IDs at the entrance, which explains the bottleneck.
One of many sample tables.
Fortunately, lines weren't much of an issue once you got inside. There were two big tents with around a dozen tables in each, plus a few booths around the outside of the event area. Most of those were set up with two or three drinks to sample. I say "drink" rather than "beer" because there was quite a bit of variety: beer was the most common, but I also saw a lot of cider, some wine, and even one table with mead.
Another sample table. We saw everything from coolers to ice buckets to full kegs.
The beverages on display came from all over. I'd say about half were local to Michigan, or at least the Midwest US. There were plenty from further away, though, both elsewhere in the US and international. Some familiar corporate names were present - Sam Adams, Guinness - and so were plenty of smaller breweries.
Plenty of attendees wandering between the tents.
Normally I gravitate toward heavier dark beers, and there were a good number of those present, but not on this occasion. It's hard to sample more than one or two of those, especially on a hot summer day. Instead I mostly tried ciders and lighter ales, especially the ones with a fruit flavor. There were some really good grapefruit drinks, for instance. I suspect if I ever go to one of these festivals in the winter months, I'd be much more likely to go for my usual stouts and other darker beers.
Joe and I outside the tents, in between drinks.
After spending a couple of hours trying out samples, my friend Joe and I headed over to a nearby restaurant before heading home. We spent an hour or so drinking water and lemonade and snacking, letting the buzz die down before heading home. I'd guess that quite a few local downtown restaurants did a pretty decent business that afternoon from other festival goers doing the same.
Plenty of open space outside the tents, so it didn't feel too crowded.
If you enjoy a good beer or cider, I recommend giving a festival like this a try. Grab a friend or two, and spend a couple of hours trying out samples. You're almost guaranteed to find a few that you like.

Saturday, July 16, 2016

MTG: Eldritch Moon Pre-Release (Solo)

It's pre-release time again for Magic: The Gathering. The new set is called Eldritch Moon, the companion set to Shadows Over Innistrad.

Pre-releases are held officially on Saturday and Sunday, one week before the set is available for purchase. I usually find a tournament running on Saturday afternoon, like I did for Shadows Over Innistrad, but this time I had other plans for that time slot. I also was already committed to play on Sunday, in a 2-headed-giant team event (which I'll post about later). That only left one option for a solo pre-release event: midnight Friday night/Saturday morning. Normally I prefer to avoid those, as I make enough mistakes when I'm not tired, and it isn't great for your sleep schedule. But I made an exception in this case, and it turned out all right.

Even in a smaller city like Grand Rapids, there's a good number of stores holding pre-release events. For the midnight event, I went over to The Gaming Warehouse in Grandville, which at about a 20-minute drive is the closest to me that was holding an event at that time. The turnout was pretty good, 51 participants, although the guys running the event said that was a bit less than they'd expected. With that many people, we played six rounds over almost 8 hours...glad I got a nap in the day before!
Nice art featuring Lilliana on the pre-release pack. Very happy with my promo Ulrich!
I was fairly happy with my card pool. My promo was Ulrich of the Krallenhorde, the new Legendary Werewolf. Always nice to open up a card that I was hoping to get for theme deck play later on. When I also saw that I had Decimator of the Provinces and Flameblade Angel, with a reasonable number of other red and green creature, that pretty much locked up the deck I was going to play. I'd have liked some more removal - I only had one Fiery Temper plus Ulrich's ability - but none of my other color choices were any better. Even my black card pool only had two removal spells. So I built around my big red and green creatures, plus a few combat trick spells. I also splashed in black for a Rise from the Grave and Boon of Emrakul, which was workable since I had a Deathcap Cultivator and Foul Orchard. That put me in the minority, as most people were playing primarily white or black (or both) - the organizers even ran out of Swamps and Plains, and had to proxy some for the late-finishing deck builders.

My final record was four wins, one loss, and one tie. Three of those - two wins and the tie - were very close rounds that could have gone either way. The very first round was against a guy that I'd played before in booster drafts, but everyone else was a new acquaintance. I'd guess that only about a quarter of the people there were folks that I'd played with before, the majority being people who normally play at other places or only come out for pre-release events (much like me, up until a few months ago). Everyone was a good sport and the games were mostly fun, though there were the usual bad draws to contend with that made a few games less than enjoyable. Some of my opponents were a bit less talkative than I'm used to, but that's no surprise when everyone is sleep-deprived!

Round 1: White-Green deck, fairly aggressive with a few fliers. We split the first two games fairly quickly, but the third game took a while. I won it largely because my opponent was a little too aggressive, attacking with a Fiend Binder to allow his fliers to get through. I had just enough life to survive that attack, and my ground forces killed off the Fiend Binder. A few turns later I had built up enough creatures to get through his defenses for the win. I didn't draw any of my rares in this round, but the rest of the deck was strong enough...just barely.

Round 2: White-Blue deck. This opponent was just coming back to playing Magic after a long absence, much like I had recently, so we talked about that a bit as we played. I won two games in fairly short order, despite again never drawing my big rares, and even having a terrible draw that necessitated a mulligan to five cards in one game. The second was closer than I like when he hit me with Startled Awake - one more turn and he'd have been able to mill my deck out, but I had just enough damage to finish it off before that happened.
Event on-going. It was a bit of a tight squeeze with 50 people, but everyone had a place to play.
Round 3: White-Red and Blue-Black decks. I lost the first game in this round to a fairly aggressive White-Red assault, and a fairly poor draw from my own deck that forced another mulligan down to five cards. I was expecting to see the same again, but my opponent decided to switch his entire deck out for a slower Blue-Black build. I finally saw some of my rare cards in the next two games, and won both. I think the White-Red would have been a tougher match-up, but you never know - certainly my draw was a lot better in the second and third games, so I may have won anyway.

Round 4: Green-Black aggro-control. I was pretty heavily outmatched on card pool in this round! Both games were over very quickly, as my opponent drew some fairly small creatures and a whole lot of removal spells. I never really had a chance to go on the offensive at all, and the removal took out my defenses as quickly as I could play them. The final blow in the second game came at the hands of the first meld card that I saw played, a Chittering Host. After the games were over, my opponent showed me his deck, which had twice as much removal in his two colors than I had in my entire card pool. A bit frustrating, but you have to expect such match-ups occasionally in sealed deck events, and my opponent certainly did a good join with his deck-building and play to take advantage.

Round 5: White-Black with lots of tokens. This first game of this round was epic. Both of us built up large armies with no clear advantage: mine mostly wolves and werewolves, his mostly zombie and spirit tokens. I got Ulrich out and was able to use him to kill off a few individual threats (mainly fliers), but all the token creatures made an effective wall to keep me from getting through to his life total. He finally was able to keep a flyer on the board after killing off Ulrich, but then I drew the Rise from the Grave and brought him back to kill it. The stall continued until I finally drew Decimator of the Provinces, and that pumped up my army enough to roll over his wall of zombies. I lost the second game when he got an early flyer that I couldn't draw an answer for. Never got to the third game, as we ran out of time in the round since that first game had taken so long.

Round 6: White-Green aggro. I won this round purely by dumb luck. My opponent got terrible land draws in both games - only green-producing lands in the first game, and only three total lands in the second. I suppose that means he should have taken a mulligan, but from what he told me it sounded like the opening hands weren't too bad. In both cases he had an opening-hand Grapple with the Past that should have helped him get to the necessary lands, but it just didn't work out that way. I was fortunate to have no mana issues in either game, leading to the easy win.

Everyone who played got one additional pack as a door prize, and I was pretty happy to get a Tamiyo, Field Researcher out of it. My 4-1-1 record put me in sixth place, good enough for a prize payout of thirteen Eldritch Moon packs (which I haven't yet opened). I was fortunate to be at the top of the tiebreaker list for those with a 4-1-1 record, since prizes only went to the top eight finishers. My opponent from round 4 finished just ahead of me, which I'm sure helped my tiebreakers.
Prize packs.
The guys at Gaming Warehouse did a good job running the event, and despite everyone's lack of sleep, all the participants seemed to have a good time. I'd still rather play at a more normal hour, but I'm happy to have gone to this particular midnight event. It always helps when you win something, of course, but I was pretty happy with the cards I got even before the prize packs. Overall, a fun time that was worth losing a little sleep.

Friday, July 15, 2016

Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie

I picked up Ancillary Justice from the local library on recommendation from some folks online. It was a good choice.
Ancillary Justice is set in an era when the human race is spread far across many star systems. The political landscape was widely varied, until an empire known as the Radch conquered much of it. There are also alien species, which largely keep away from human space, though their presence is definitely felt in a political sense and through some of their technology.

The book centers around the military and political structures of the Radch. The main character is one of the Radchaai soldiers who is no longer in service, and as the reader learns fairly quickly, not actually human either. The Radchaai ships are run by artificial intelligence minds that make use of multiple bodies, and the protagonist (who goes by Breq) is a final survivor of one such.

Very little of all this is explained to the reader directly, but rather is gathered as the story follows Breq's travels while also exploring memories of the (relatively) recent past. This approach means leaving a lot of the history unexplained, and it's possible some is actually wrong since we're seeing it only from Breq's perspective. I like the approach, though, as it keeps the reader curious and adds a sense of mystery as the story unfolds.

None of this is to say that Ancillary Justice is only about the big picture. Individuals drive the story, as they come into contact with Breq. Character development is a large part of the book's progression, mostly notably Breq and Radchaai ex-officer Seivarden. Motivations aren't always clear - even to their owners - but as the story progresses, gradually enough is revealed to explain (or at least imply) the reasons behind what everyone does.

Leckie does an excellent job of making the different cultures come to life as the characters encounter them. The Radch's largely fatalistic religion is described in detail, as is their highly stratified class-based family structure. The conquered regions keep much of their own unique structures as well, which come into play as the story moves through those areas.

One particularly noticeable aspect of Radch culture is their use of feminine forms for all people - she, her, sister, aunt, etc - regardless of gender. This causes confusion to Breq's AI thought processes when she's forced to use other languages that distinguish gender. It also caused me as a reader to think twice about some passages. We make some subconscious assumptions based on gender, intentional or not, and so more than once I found myself having to consciously adjust how I interpreted the writing when something didn't match my expectations. It's an interesting literary device and I'm glad to have encountered it, as an opportunity to examine just how much is implied by gender in my own culture.

Ancillary Justice won a whole lot of awards in 2013-2014, and they're well deserved. I'm looking forward to the sequels.

Thursday, July 14, 2016

Talking Rock Caverns

During our recent trip to Branson, Missouri, my family took a short drive outside of town to visit Talking Rocks Cavern.

It's around a half-hour drive outside of Branson to get to Talking Rocks Cavern, but you don't have to worry too much about getting lost. There are lots of signs along the way, mostly featuring a very happy lizard (probably a salamander, since they have those in caves) with a camera. The route goes right past Silver Dollar City, the large theme park outside of Branson, so you can zoom past the long lines of cars waiting to enter there and feel good about your choice of destination.
The outdoor Speleo Box.
Before we even entered the building above the cave, we discovered the Speleo Box, a big wooden structure that simulates crawling through a cavern. There are actually two of them, one inside the gift shop, and one out in front. The sign on it recommends that no one larger than 6'2" or 240 pounds try it out. My brother isn't too far shy of that, but he tried it anyway and was able to make it through. I didn't feel like contorting myself quite that much, and considering how much my brother complained about soreness later on, it was probably a wise decision. Lots of the many kids running around had a great time crawling through, though, without consequences on old bones and muscles.

My niece Frances, on her way out of the Speleo Box.
The cavern itself is around 100 feet deep, with just one human-sized opening at the top. It's quite damp, with a pool at the bottom, and there are some small drainage holes which keeps it from flooding (except in really heavy rains, which take some time to drain out). You walk down some fairly steep steps until you're fairly near the bottom, just above that muddy pool. It's not a difficult climb, but you definitely want to be careful and take it slow to avoid slipping. Our guide told us that the steps were built by lowering cement down one bucket at a time through that top opening - not a quick or easy task.
The "angel" formation in the cave...from the right angle it looks like a tall thin person with wings.
Speaking of our guide (whose name was David), he (and all the others working there) were knowledgeable and friendly. My nieces were particularly curious about just about everything in the cave, and he was very patient answering their questions. In between their interruptions, he told us some of the history behind the discovery of the cave and how the various owners over the years had made use of it as an attraction.
More cave formations.
None of the rocks in the cavern actually talk, although previous owners of the cavern thought it would be a great idea to hide speakers in the cave and use them to startle visitors during the tour. This went over about as well as you'd expect, and the whole talking rock idea was abandoned. The current owners opted to avoid frightening people and instead play some music with a bit of a light show for the tour groups, of which I approve.
Our family at the bottom of the cave.
In addition to the cave itself, visitors can explore a nature trail that's about a mile long. There's a few interesting-looking rock formations along the way, and a wooden lookout tower that commands a nice view of the valley where Talking Rocks is located. It mostly goes through fairly thick woods, so I imagine that some wildlife moves through there as well, although I didn't notice anything beyond insects.
View from the lookout tour on the nature trail.
All told, we probably spent 3-4 hours at the Talking Rocks Cavern, and I thoroughly enjoyed it all. Well worth the visit if you're in the area.

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

The 87th MLB All-Star Game

The American League all-stars beat the National League all-stars last night in the 87th MLB All-Star game, 4-2, in San Diego.
Normally, I'd watch the MLB All-Star Game on TV, since it's one of the few games that are still shown on broadcast television. The vast majority of baseball games are on cable TV now, even including much of the playoffs. MLB.TV fills in much of the gaps, but not all. Non-cable subscribers like myself simply can't (legally) watch certain games. But the All-Star game has to this point stayed on broadcast channels.

This year I happened to be on the road, driving around the Chicago area on my way back to Michigan. It just so happens that ESPN does the radio broadcast of the All-Star game, and there's a Chicago station that comes in pretty clearly for a long distance. So I got to listen in, which for baseball is a perfectly good alternative to watching.

Jon Sciambi and Chris Singleton are the announcers for most of ESPN's MLB radio broadcasts, and they did a fine job. I'm not as used to them as I am to the Detroit duo of Dan Dickerson and Jim Price, or the Chicago north-side team of Pat Hughes and Ron Coomer, but it's nice to listen to some different voices occasionally anyway. Though they did have a few awkward moments when the action on the field paused for various All-Star game extras, such as the Stand Up To Cancer pause.

I was pulling for the National League, so the final score was a little disappointing, but the game itself was great. I was very happy when Kris Bryant put the NL in front with a home run in the first, of course. The AL took the lead with some home runs of their own in the second inning, though. They'd never give up that lead, but the NL had plenty of chances so the game was still interesting the entire way through. For an All-Star game, I'd much rather have a game that's close than a blowout with no drama, even if my preferred side loses.

It was a little odd that the game was held in a National League park, but the American League was the home team. Just a quirk of scheduling, I assume. The announcers were saying that San Diego was such a nice venue that they'd be happy to come back every year, but I suspect there's a lot of other team owners who are anxious for their own chance to host the Mid-Summer Classic!

Two more days and it's back to the long grind of the baseball season for the second half. This All-Star game was a nice break in the middle.