Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Telltale Games' Episodic Adventures

Telltale Games is a studio that has made a name for itself creating episodic adventure games. I've played their Walking Dead series in the past, and have others waiting in my Steam backlog.
These episodic adventure stories are basically interactive graphic novels, where the player is the central character. The "episodic" part refers to how the story is broken up, sort of like chapters of a book or episodes of a television show. Within each episode, you're regularly prompted to choose from a set of choices, usually part of conversations with other characters. The format reminds me a lot of the old choose-your-own-adventure books (which I loved as a kid). Your choices are fairly limited, but they do affect how other characters treat you and how the story unfolds.

Mostly this works smoothly, although occasionally the story will seem to jump around if you make choices that weren't completely integrated into the larger whole. For instance, sometimes a character will refer to a prior comment that they never actually said (but would have, if your choices had been different). Those are pretty rare, but it's a bit jarring when it does happen.

Another issue with the format is that you have to wait until the choices that you're given allow you to make progress. It may seem fairly obvious to the player what your character should be doing - maybe you spotted a clue earlier, or caught another character in a lie - but the choices you're given don't allow you to act on it. It's a necessity of the limited-choice format, but knowing that doesn't make it less annoying.

Unlike a book format, in a video game it's possible to add some action, so there are limited sections where you need to hit various movement keys or click on certain spots in order to help your character in a fight. Personally I could do without those portions, since I'm terrible at them and often end up having to retry them after dying. Fortunately there aren't too many, generally just one or two per episode.

Having made all those complaints, I can still say that these games are a lot of fun to play. How you treat other characters often comes back to affect future interactions, for good or bad. The choices you make don't affect the most basic components of the story, but they can have pretty big effects nonetheless. And the game will show you how many other people made similar choices, which is an interesting window into how others think about the same situations.

Unlike the old choose-your-own-adventure books, I've not gone back through these episodic adventure games to see what would have happened if I'd made other choices. Partly that's just due to time - it takes a lot longer to play through the game again than it did to just flip to another page. But another part of the reason is that the game feels complete once you've gone through it, even if some of your choices didn't lead to the ideal outcomes. I still may play through the games again at some point, but I wouldn't enjoy doing it right away. I'd need time for the old play-through to fade a bit from memory first.

Tuesday, August 30, 2016

The Dark Forest by Liu Cixin

The Dark Forest is the second in Liu Cixin's Remembrance of Earth's Past trilogy. It follows The Three Body Problem, which I also read recently.
The Dark Forest picks up the story right where The Three Body Problem left off. There are still aliens on the way, and humanity is still struggling with its own reaction. The threat of human sympathizers for the alien's aim to destroy or subjugate humanity is still present, though greatly reduced. Earth's leaders face three main problems: the aliens have stunted Earth's technology growth, they can spy on everything that happens on Earth, and most humans believe resistance to be impossible. To combat these problems, several people (known as "Wallfacers") are chosen to mastermind Earth's alien response, given wide-ranging powers and confiding their master plans to no one.

Human society changes quite a bit more in The Dark Forest than it did in the first book. Reaction to the knowledge that aliens exist and are on the way causes all kinds of changes: a major shift in economic and industrial output to focus on building up space capabilities, the formation of different political entities, and eventually environmental collapse leading to a massive reduction in population.

The characters in this book are mostly new, although a few from the first novel do make an appearance. For the most part, characters in both books are secondary to the plot and world-building. They have some depth, but only enough to fulfill their roles in the story. There's a fairly large section of The Dark Forest, though, where this changes as the Wallfacer Luo Ji explores the idea of his perfect soul mate. It's still in service of the plot, of course, but I wasn't expecting it after reading The Three Body Problem.

There are plenty of advanced science aspects in the story, from space elevators to suspended animation to long-range cosmic observations. Those things are mostly secondary, though, to the main focus on the psychology of the various actors. Characters struggle with despair, mistrust, intrigues, and the fatigue of working toward goals that won't be achieved for centuries. The advancements in technology happen almost in the background by comparison.

I didn't have quite as much trouble with suspension of disbelief in The Dark Forest as I did with the first book. I don't think this is because the plot and character actions are significantly more realistic, but once you've accepted the premise laid out in The Three Body Problem, it's a lot easier to extend it to the things happening in the second novel. The way that Luo Ji finally confronts the alien menace seems pretty flimsy when you look at it closely, but there's been enough build-up by that point that it's fairly easy to accept.

By the end, The Dark Forest resolves most everything that was left unfinished from The Three Body Problem. In the process, though, it creates more questions for the third book to take up.

Monday, August 29, 2016

Ubuntu Upgrades for MythTV Server

I recently upgraded LittleDell, my Ubuntu Linux box running MythTV, to the 16.04.1 "Xenial Xerus" LTS release.
When I first set up this machine, I used Ubuntu 14.04.5 LTS (server version). The LTS stands for Long Term Support, and is supported for 5 years. Using an LTS version minimizes the need for major upgrades, though it's still important to keep up with minor security patches regularly.

The initial version of 16.04 was released back in April, but I didn't see any need to upgrade right away. Why run the risk of problems? In July, 16.04.1 was released with some minor updates, and shortly thereafter I got a notification that the upgrade was available. I could have skipped this one as well, since 14.04.5 is supported until 2019. But at the same time, one of the hardware drivers used by my machine under 14.04.5 was also going out of support. I figured this was a good time to upgrade and avoid any potential driver issues, as well as getting onto the latest Ubuntu version.

The actual upgrade process is very simple: you log into the machine, and run "sudo do-release-upgrade" at the command prompt. I did it over an SSH connection, though that runs a minor risk since you might lose the connection in case of any problems. The installer is kind enough to set up a backup SSH port just in case, but fortunately I didn't need it. The process took a couple of hours, though most of that was just waiting, so I just left it running while I did other things.

The upgrade made extensive changes: according to the installer, it installed 252 new packages, upgraded 907 more, and removed 32. 695 MB of downloads were required. Most of that consists of behind-the-scenes system changes, of course. Everything it did was logged in /var/log/dist-upgrade, just in case I need to look back at it later.

The installer also told me that 13 packages were no longer supported. I went ahead and did the upgrade, but was curious afterward about those packages. After a bit of searching, I found the list in the installer log (grep "demoted" /var/log/dist-upgrade/main.log), but didn't recognize any of them. Several were related to perl, which I'm not using extensively anyway.

After the upgrade and a reboot, everything started up normally. But of course it couldn't be perfectly smooth - I ran into trouble with MythTV when I tried to access my recorded programs. The upgrade had caused two problems:
  1. The PHP-MySQL interface used by the MythWeb browser interface wasn't installed by the upgrade. Easily solved by "sudo apt-get install php-mysql" and a restart of the Apache server.
  2. MySQL changes from the upgrade caused an error when getting the list of recorded programs from the MythTV backend. I had to do some Google searching to resolve this one, and eventually found a solution. In the /etc/mysql/conf.d/mythtv.cnf file, add the line "sql_mode=NO_ENGINE_SUBSTITUTION", then restart MySQL and MythTV. Apparently that line is needed to force the upgraded MySQL to work more like the older version that MythTV was expecting.
At this point, everything seems to be working normally. Assuming no additional issues crop up, this machine shouldn't need a major upgrade for another few years.

Sunday, August 28, 2016

MTG: Conspiracy: Take the Crown

I visited a couple of local game stores this weekend to play in Conspiracy: Take the Crown events.
Competitive Magic: The Gathering is usually played one-on-one, but many of the more casual formats are multi-player. Commander, for example, is usually played with 3-5 people. Conspiracy is a casual draft format, where players are organized into pods of around 8 people to draft cards, then assigned to games with 3-5 players.

I wasn't playing when the original Conspiracy set was released, and had never really looked at the format. The release of this new set was a good opportunity to try it out, though. I went to one event at Big Kidz Games on Friday night, and another out at The Gaming Warehouse on Saturday afternoon.

The draft process for the Conspiracy format is different from normal MTG drafting in that some of the cards actually affect the draft process. Some let you look at what other people are drafting, some can affect the other cards that you draft, some have different power levels based on when you draft them (generally, better if taken late in the current pack). I enjoyed the process during these events, but I'm glad that all that added complexity is the exception, not the rule. It would get pretty tedious if every draft required all the extra bookkeeping that you need for a Conspiracy draft.

The signature mechanic of the Conspiracy format is the Conspiracy card type, which you put in play at the beginning of the game. The effects range from added abilities for a particular creature in your deck to changes in the basic game rules. One Conspiracy even turns deck construction on its head by prohibiting basic lands, instead allowing the player to sacrifice cards in hand to get special lands. This set added another signature mechanic, the Monarch, which is a title that moves from player to player as the game progresses and gives special abilities. Conspiracy cards are generally only used in the Conspiracy format, but the Monarch can be used in any format where the cards are legal - I expect Commander players in particular will get some use from it.

The actual gameplay in my two events felt very much like most free-for-all multiplayer MTG games. Everyone put out a bunch of creatures, but mostly didn't do much with them for fear that other players would take advantage of their lowered defenses. When one player got an obvious advantage - a big flyer, lots of card drawing, a powerful enchantment - the rest of the table ganged up on them. In both of my events, the players with the best early cards died first since they were seen as the early threats. The eventual winners started out more slowly, and eventually built up just a bit more power than the other remaining players. The Conspiracy format mechanics affected how the game was played, but not the way that these free-for-all multiplayer games generally play out.

I had a good time with these Conspiracy: Take the Crown events, but I don't know that I'd go out of my way to play more. A nice change of pace from normal drafting, but not something I'd want to do regularly.

Saturday, August 27, 2016

The Three Body Problem by Liu Cixin

The Three Body Problem is a science fiction novel by Chinese author Liu Cixin. It was originally published back in 2008, but an English translation wasn't available until 2014. I picked up a copy from the library recently.
There are a lot of different aspects to The Three Body Problem. At the core, the novel is about discovering an alien species via long-range contact. Along the way, it goes through political and cultural upheaval in China's Cultural Revolution, explores the psychological effects of knowing we are not alone in the universe, uses virtual reality gaming as a teaching and recruitment tool, and shapes an entire alien race based on the physics of their star system. All of this and more is revealed bit by bit as characters meet and learn each other's stories.

There's a lot to absorb in the world that Cixin has created, which I admit did cause me to work a bit at suspension of disbelief. The science and alien aspects were the easiest. Advanced nano-materials, discovering a way to greatly amplify signals to the stars, full-body virtual reality suits, the existence of aliens...those are pretty standard science fiction themes. Later on the advanced alien technology did some things that were more difficult to believe, specifically some strange dimension-warping actions with subatomic particles. But I had the hardest time with the idea that a large number of educated people, upon learning about the aliens, would decide that there's no hope for humanity in the long term, and we'd be better off either wiped out by the aliens or under subjugation. I'm used to that kind of thinking being the province of lone fanatics or cults, usually driven by charismatic individuals dominating the poorly educated. Here, though, it's a well-organized and funded world-wide conspiracy consisting mostly of society's elites - business leaders, academics, government officials. I had to stop and adjust my thinking a bit through that part of the story.

One of the most interesting aspects of The Three Body Problem for me was the difference in style and culture from the Western works that I'm used to reading. There's a lot of references to recent Chinese history, mostly related to the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s and 1970s. Footnotes are strategically placed to explain those, which I appreciated. More subtle aspects of Eastern culture show through in the writing style, and in the actions of the characters. For instance, in several places Wang Miao, one of the main viewpoint characters, is upset by the rudeness of others, most notably the policeman Shi Quiang. His reaction is quite a bit stronger than I'd expect from a similar situation in Western culture. Those kind of small differences are present throughout.

The translator Ken Liu did an outstanding job. He wrote a note explaining his goal, which was not just to translate word-for-word, but keep the flow of the story and maintain the tone. I've not read the original Chinese work, obviously, but I certainly felt like he accomplished the goal of keeping the Eastern feel to the novel while making it accessible to English readers.

There are two more novels that follow The Three Body Problem, which is a very good thing since many of the biggest plot threads remain unresolved by the end of this book. The English translation for one of them is already available, and the other is due out later this year. Looking forward to having a chance to see how it all unfolds.

Friday, August 26, 2016

The EpiPen Price Outcry

EpiPen prices have increased like crazy over the last few years, and the media has been all over the story in the last week or so. It shouldn't be a surprise to anyone when this sort of thing happens.
An EpiPen is an auto-injection device that administers epinephrine to treat anaphylactic shock, usually from an allergic reaction. The actual epinephrine is really cheap, around a dollar's worth according to Wikipedia. But an EpiPen was $97 in 2007, and the price has gone up to $600 for a package of two in 2016. There's certainly some value in having the drug available in a pre-measured dosage that's easy to administer, so the 2007 price makes some sense. Hard to see what justification there is for the huge jump since then, though.

There's all kinds of stories in the news about this, usually featuring footage of potential allergy-victim kids and their worried parents. Congress is getting involved, demanding to know why the price is so high. (Not taking any actual action, mind you. Just a lot of talk and posturing for the cameras.)

I don't get why anyone is surprised by this or any other health care price increase. All that the manufacturer Mylan is doing is following the incentives that we've built into our health care system. They've produced a product, protected it with patents, marketed it to consumers, and are making as much money from it as they can. (Some of that was done by the prior owner before Mylan bought the rights in 2007, but it's the same incentives either way.) Consumers get hit with the cost, either directly or indirectly through insurance.

Having said that, I do see why people aren't happy. I wouldn't be either, if I had to spend hundreds of dollars on something that I might need to save my life in an emergency. But going after Mylan won't fix the problem, even if they end up reducing the price in this specific case. The incentives in the system are still going to push companies to do similar things in other areas. And not all of those will lend themselves easily to media-friendly shots of kids and parents that drum up outrage from the public.

If we want to fix the problem, the incentives in the system need to be changed. Health care products and services need to come from organizations that have patient health as their top priority, not a profit motive.

Thursday, August 25, 2016

Happy 100th Anniversary, National Park Service

The National Park Service is celebrating its 100th anniversary this year.
I'm not an outdoor person, for the most part. I like my comfortable chairs, air conditioning, and lack of insects too much to spend a lot of time in the wilderness. Nevertheless, I have fond memories of the visits I've made to places of natural beauty across our country, and many of those are part of the National Park system.

Congress created the National Park Service back in 1916. National parks existed before then, but there was no single agency to manage the entire system. According to Wikipedia, the US Forest Service actually opposed the new agency, for fear of losing control of various lands being used by the timber industry. Doesn't sound all that different from environmental-versus-industry battles from more recent history.

I've visited the oldest National Park, Yellowstone, on a couple of different occasions. I have some good memories of the neighboring Grand Teton National Park as well. Seeing the Grand Canyon is something that I think everyone fortunate enough to visit won't ever forget. I haven't been to anything close to the entire system of parks, but I certainly appreciate all the ones that I have seen.

Happy anniversary to the National Park Service. May all the places under its management stay natural and beautiful for future generations to enjoy.

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

First Seven Jobs

I'm late to this party, which is the usual for Twitter trends. I rarely watch what's happening on my feed. But I did hear about a #FirstSevenJobs trend on Twitter not long ago, where people talked about the first jobs they held. It seemed like an interesting topic to explore in a bit more than 140 characters.
Here's my list, as best I can remember.
  1. Strawberry picking
  2. Newspaper delivery
  3. Pizza at Little Caesars
  4. Espresso cart
  5. Computing center help desk
  6. Construction
  7. IT consultant
Two of those barely count, since I lasted only a day or two as a strawberry picker, and only a few days at the construction site. I was terrible at the former, and miserable in the Louisiana summer weather at the latter.

The newspaper delivery was only partially my job, since the rest of my family was just as much part of the job as I was. The delivery route wasn't what you see in the movies, with a kid on his bike delivering a few dozen papers before school. You needed a car to cover many miles of neighborhoods, handling around 300 papers each morning. Not my favorite employment memory, but it did teach me some discipline, getting up before the sun every morning. I also learned that a manual transmission is a terrible idea when your car is making 300 stops a day.

Working at Little Caesars and the espresso business were good opportunities for a high school student, plus the year I took off before going to college. The food service industry didn't lose much when I left, though. I was pretty good at doing the routine work, but dealing with irate customers isn't my strong point. And in those jobs, there are always irate customers.

I felt much more at home when I went to school and got a work-study job at the computing center. There were still irate clients, but I could almost always do something to deal with the problem. The paper route early-to-rise experience came in handy, since generally no one else wanted the early shifts. Eventually I was put in charge of all the other work-study students, which looked great on my resume, as well as providing very useful experience for my future consulting career.

With a computer science and mathematics degree, I could have gone on to graduate school, but I was anxious to get out into the real world. Partially that was to make money, of course, but also because I was tired of theory at that point. I hadn't even really considered consulting as a career choice before I started going to all the various events that companies held for prospective hires. The idea of working in many different fields for a variety of clients sounded much more appealing than a job with a single company. It worked out well - I spent nearly 10 years as a consultant before deciding that I'd like to stay home a bit more often, and switching to a single employer.

Interesting idea, that #FirstSevenJobs trend. I hadn't thought about most of those first six jobs in years.

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

The Magicians (Season 1)

With my recent subscription to Playstation Vue came access to Syfy's on-demand episodes. Perfect opportunity to check out The Magicians, which has been on my radar since it was announced last year.
The Magicians is based on Lev Grossman's novel of the same name. I've read the book, but it was several years ago, and I barely remember anything more than the general setting and very high-level plot. Most of the show seemed vaguely familiar because of that, but I certainly didn't feel like I knew what was coming next in any specific sense.

The general idea behind The Magicians is that magic is real, but hidden from normal people. There's a hidden magical university in upstate New York called Brakebills where magicians are trained. Yes, that's basically Harry Potter on the other side of the Atlantic, but much more worldly. The characters are college-aged and fully aware of (and engaged in) drinking, drugs, and sex. Brakebills isn't entirely filled with good guys, and those outside it aren't entirely bad. The magic-versus-muggles part is more or less the same, though.

The Magicians also borrows from another classic fantasy work in its use of a magical world called Fillory, which shares a whole lot with Narnia. Fillory turns out to be pretty dangerous, which I suppose isn't entirely unlike Narnia, but it certainly feels much darker. That's true of the entire show, in Fillory or elsewhere. It's not quite full-on horror, but there are plenty of dark and frightening elements, from psychological breakdowns to haunted houses to a mysterious and murderous Beast.

I wasn't greatly impressed with any of the primary characters at first, but some of them have grown on me as I got further into the episodes. I think that's largely because there's so many: Quentin is clearly the main protagonist, then there's his childhood crush Julia, his classmate and eventual girlfriend Alice, and four other classmates that have extensive roles. That's a whole lot of development needed to connect the viewer to each one. That makes for some early confusion, but by about halfway through the season, their motivations and personalities were mostly clear. You definitely want to watch this series all the way through from the beginning, as otherwise much of how the characters act won't make sense. There's too much going on in their heads to fill in the gaps from missed episodes by context.

Events progress through this first season fairly quickly, with a lot happening in just about every episode. Some parts move almost too quickly, such as Julia rising through the ranks of a "hedge witch" group practically overnight. There are only 13 episodes, which is more like half a season than a full one, so that's not entirely unexpected. The story is kept interesting even as it moves quickly, with a "big mystery" aspect set up in the very first episode with the first appearance of the Beast. I think the pacing is done well, considering the limitations of such a short season format.

The Magicians has a very worldly feel with plenty of adult themes, so it's probably not for everyone that likes Harry Potter or Narnia (particularly younger folks). But if a darker take on those magical fantasy worlds sounds interesting to you, then The Magicians is well worth a look.

Monday, August 22, 2016

Olympics Thoughts, Final Weekend

Another collection of thoughts from watching the Olympics on the final weekend.
  • I very much enjoyed watching the women's triathlon on Saturday. I was a bit disappointed that NBC showed very little of the men's race earlier in the week, but we got the whole women's race. I assume that was because American Gwen Jorgensen was one of the favorites. She came through with the gold medal win, which was especially nice after she had bike troubles back in 2012. And she was an accountant until just a few years ago - an inspiration to cubicle-dwellers everywhere!
  • The bronze medal match for women's volleyball was a good one, at least through the first three sets. The US ended up winning the fourth to defeat the Netherlands, but I didn't get to see it since the local NBC station broke in for the better part of an hour with weather reports. There was a thunderstorm and tornado warning in neighboring counties, but that was already scrolling along the bottom of the screen. Severe weather is bad, I get it, but there's plenty of ways to disseminate that information that doesn't require preempting live TV.
  • Brazil versus Germany for the men's gold medal in soccer - couldn't have written that up any better for drama value. After their 7-1 World Cup loss a couple of years ago to the Germans, the entire Brazilian populace was hoping for a rematch. Fortune smiled on the home side in the first half, as the Germans had several good chances go off the goal frame, while Neymar scored for Brazil on a shot that just glanced off the crossbar and in. Germany tied it up in the second half, and neither side could score again through regulation and extra time. So it ended in penalty kicks, never the most satisfying of endings, but I don't think anyone in Brazil cared when Neymar put in the fifth and clinching shot. The celebration in the Maracana was just as loud and emotional as if they'd won by 10.
  • No weather interruptions in the gold medal match for women's volleyball, fortunately, and it was a good one. China started out terribly against Serbia, losing the first set badly, but then got it together to win the next three sets. Much like the tournament overall for China - started badly, ended great. History for both sides: the silver is Serbia's first ever medal in this event, and China coach Lang Ping is the first ever to both win a volleyball gold as a player and lead a team to gold as a coach.
  • I'd never heard of Israeli marathoner Ageze Guadie before his name came up in Sunday's men's marathon. He's part of a group of Ethiopian Jews who were taken from poverty and famine into Israel. Guadie just barely qualified for Rio at the last opportunity, and certainly he didn't have much chance at a medal. But he was able to go to Rio, not only an opportunity for him, but a chance to draw attention to his people's situation. Great story.
  • Tokyo's bit in the closing ceremonies was right up my alley. Shinzo Abe coming up out of a Mario pipe, Hello Kitty and Pacman cameos, anime stuff. The 2020 opening ceremony should be something to see.

Sunday, August 21, 2016

Mitchell's Run in Rockford

This weekend was the 18th annual Mitchell's Run in Rockford, MI.
Mitchell's Run supports Parent Project MD, a non-profit dedicated to muscular dystrophy research. The name comes from a young man named Mitchell suffering from the disease, who attends the race and calls out the start. His parents started the event 18 years ago, and over that time it has raised a million dollars - that milestone was reached this year.
I've done this run several times over the last few years. It's a few hundred runners, so not too crowded, and they set up a nice course up in Rockford. Plenty of space to run and not too much in the way of hills. It was cloudy, but the rain held off so the run was dry. Pretty happy with my 26:08 time this year - put me in the top half of my age group.
There's other stuff going on around the race, too. There's a farmer's market just down the road, they have a silent auction with a bunch of donated items to raise additional funds for PPMD, and there's a kids run. They had a bunch of people dressed up as superheroes leading the kids this year, which was pretty funny.

Every time I've done Mitchell's Run, it's been a good time, and this year was no exception. Glad to be able to go out for a nice run and support a good cause.

Saturday, August 20, 2016

Olympics Thoughts, Late Week Two

Another collection of thoughts from watching the Olympics on Thursday and Friday, on the second week of competition.
  • On Thursday, about an hour was dedicated to a documentary film on Martha and Bela Karolyi which was really well done. It followed their personal and professional journey across 50+ years, starting in Romania then moving to the United States. I knew the high points - all those Olympic gymnastics champions that they coached - but much of the rest of their journey was new to me. Great story of love, perseverance, and amazing success across decades.
  • I still think that media coverage of the US swimmers' late night altercation has blown the whole thing out of proportion, but the facts certainly seem to indicate that it's their own fault. It's disappointing that Olympic athletes weren't able to stay under control and be good representatives, particularly those from the US, and worse that they appear to have lied about it. They certainly deserve to be punished, and I'm glad an overdue apology was finally made. Hopefully now it'll be out of the news cycle.
  • Ashton Eaton and Brianne Theisen-Eaton are almost too good to be true. Gorgeous young couple who are both medal-winners in the decathlon? Marketers' wet dream. I'm pretty sure NBC showed a bit more coverage of the decathlon because of them, which is fine by me. Every Olympic athlete is amazing, but those in the decathlon are the most impressive of all in my book.
  • Here's something you didn't hear about in the Olympics coverage: gay/lesbian athletes. I know they were participating - I can think of four off the top of my head, and I'm sure there are many more. A few of the "meet the athlete" segments mentioned same-sex fiances or spouses, with no more or less emphasis than with hetero couples. Whether you agree with the lifestyle or not, I think it's great that the personal life of competitors is no longer newsworthy. (This aspect of it, at least.) 
  • Congratulations to the US women's water polo team, who won the gold medal game against Italy on Friday, and it wasn't even close. The most dominating performance of any of the team sports that I watched, although US women's basketball is up there as well. Lots of very young players, including the youngest water polo gold medalist ever (Aria Fischer), so it'll probably be a very similar story in 2020.
  • The big story of Friday night was, of course, Usain Bolt and his Jamaica teammates winning yet another gold medal in the 4x100 relay. It tells you something about just how big a star Bolt is that the NBC coverage was focused heavily on him, rather than the 3rd-place US team. They did get back to the US eventually, unfortunately for a bad reason, as they were disqualified for an illegal baton pass. 

Friday, August 19, 2016

Elder Scrolls: Legends

A digital TCG based in a major fantasy world that has its own MMO....where have I heard that one before?
Elder Scrolls: Legends entered its open beta phase recently, so I decided to give it a try. It has a whole lot of similarities to Hearthstone, as one would expect. There are enough differences for the game to be more than just a clone, though. There's the obvious difference in theme, using the Elder Scrolls world rather than Hearthstone's Warcraft, but also some significant gameplay innovations.

To introduce new players to the game, Elder Scrolls: Legends has a pretty extensive single-player campaign. The presentation is very polished, with plenty of pan-and-zoom semi-animation effects as the story is introduced in each chapter. There are even a few choices in the story for the player to make, which affect some of the cards you receive along the way. The single-player campaign won't be competing with any RPGs for story awards, but for a TCG, it's nicely done.

Mechanically, Elder Scrolls: Legends plays very much like Hearthstone, but there are some major differences. The similarities are many: your magicka (mana) starts at one and grows automatically each turn, there are creatures to summon and actions (spells) to cast, the goal is to reduce your opponent's health to zero, and so on. Just about all the same keywords exist, albeit with different names. As for the differences, there are three major (and a variety of minor) things:
  • Deck Construction. There are no hero classes as in Hearthstone. Instead, cards are categorized into five attributes: strength, agility, intelligence, willpower, and endurance. Decks can use cards from any combination of two attributes (plus neutral). Minimum deck size is 50 cards, with a limit of 3 of any one card. Some powerful unique cards are limited to one per deck.
  • Lanes. Creatures are summoned into one of two lanes, and creatures can only attack other creatures in the same lane. This adds a level of strategy, effectively creating two battlefields for attack and defense. Lanes can also have special effects that are applied to each creature placed there.
  • Runes and Prophecy. In Hearthstone, your hero participates in the battle largely through the use of a specific hero power. In Elder Scrolls: Legends, there are no hero powers, but your player's avatar starts with five runes. At each 5-point damage threshold below your starting 30 health, a rune is destroyed and a card is drawn. If the card drawn has the Prophecy keyword, you can play it right away for free. This provides a bit more balance than in most TCGs, since the player losing the most life gets more cards and thus a better opportunity to recover.
There's an Arena mode in Elder Scrolls: Legends, again very similar to the same Hearthstone feature. You choose a set of two attributes, then pick one card at a time from a random selection of three, until your deck is complete. Then play games against random opponents until you've lost three - the more wins you get in the process, the better the rewards. The major difference from Hearthstone is that you can also play in solo mode, against a variety of AI-driven enemy decks, culminating in a boss battle. In fact, you must play through solo mode at least once before going up against other players.

I've only played for a few days, so I don't have a good feel for how well the free-to-play business model works yet, but my initial impression is favorable. There are quests each day to be completed, giving gold rewards that can be used to buy cards or enter Arena runs. I haven't seen any way to trade cards, but there's a crafting system to get rid of extra cards and fill gaps in your collection (again very similar to Hearthstone).

I'm looking forward to seeing how Elder Scrolls: Legends develops as they move the game forward out of beta. It's got plenty of potential!

Thursday, August 18, 2016

Olympics Thoughts, Early Week Two

Another collection of thoughts from watching the Olympics on Monday through Wednesday, on the second week of competition.
  • I caught the badminton men's doubles quarter-finals match between Malaysia and Korea, and it was amazing. The speed of the game and reaction times required from those guys is incredible. I know nothing about Olympic-level badminton, but the announcers were saying that the Koreans were huge favorites. Nonetheless, the Malaysian team took them to a third set and then pulled ahead, winning in the end by two points.
  • I've probably seen a steeplechase race at some point in a prior Olympics, but I don't remember it. This time around I'm finding it to be one of the more interesting races to watch - 3 kilometers, a bunch of hurdles, and even a water hazard after one of the jumps. Congratulations in particular to Emma Coburn, the first American woman ever to medal in the event with a bronze.
  • Poland's Anita Wlodarczyk won the women's hammer throw, setting a world record in the process. Her reaction right afterward was great, celebrating well before the hammer landed - she knew right away it was a great throw. Most of the time, the athletes are looking for scores or waiting on judges in those kind of events, but it was fun to see someone so confident right away for a change.
  • They really like their volleyball in Brazil. The home country's athletes always get big crowds and cheers, of course, but it sure seemed like the spectators were especially worked up for Monday's matches. I watched both the beach and indoor men's volleyball matches on Monday, and the crowd noise was huge. Nice to see both Brazil teams advance, although it's too bad that the beach win was at the expense of the US men. Same big fan base on Tuesday, but things didn't go so well as the Brazilian women's indoor team was beaten by China, and the top-ranked women's beach volleyball duo lost. It wasn't until the very early morning Wednesday that Brazil finally pulled off another big volleyball win, on the beach over the top US women's duo in the midnight madness match. They lost both the medal games, so Brazil ended up with just the one silver medal on the beach. The crowd was fully into every match, win or lose for the home teams.
  • The Brazil women's soccer team ran into the same Swedish defensive wall that took down the US women, and lost the same way, on penalty kicks. Unlike the US match, though, it sure looked to me as if Brazil was the better side almost the entire way through. I know FIFA makes rules changes even slower than MLB does, but I sure wish the game encouraged more of an offensive stance. Perhaps giving the team with more shots on-frame an advantage in the penalties, to discourage the kind of defend-until-time-runs-out stance we've been seeing.
  • This whole mess with US swimmers reporting being robbed at gunpoint is being blown all out of proportion. It's getting more coverage than a lot of the events. I'm not surprised - drama sells - but I'll be really happy when it goes away.

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

The Long Earth series by Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter

The fifth and final book in The Long Earth series was released earlier this year. I picked up the whole series from the library recently.
I picked up the series back in 2012 when the first book was first released, and I've kept up with it ever since. Sir Terry's name on the cover was the initial draw for me, since I've enjoyed just about everything he's ever written. Not to imply that Baxter is any kind of slouch, either. They make a potent combination for imagination and writing skill. Sadly, Sir Terry passed away last year, but the plan for the entire series was already in place and Baxter completed the work.

The series is based on the concept of parallel worlds, which can be accessed by an ability called "stepping." Each world is different in detail, and the more steps that are taken, the greater the differences become. Sapient life is rare, but natural resources are plentiful. So plentiful that survival is possible largely by simply moving along from one world to the next, hunting and gathering...which is exactly what a large portion of our world's population chooses to do.

All those parallel worlds and the impact of their discovery on our world is enough fodder for any amount of science fiction writing, but Pratchett and Baxter added plenty of other components as well. There's the super-intelligent artificial intelligence known as Lobsang, who may or may not have a reincarnated human soul. There's a major natural disaster on our home world. Humanity itself changes, as it moves out across many thousands of Earths. And of course, there are dangers out in far-away worlds that could threaten the entire continuum.

I appreciate the imagination, but I must say that it feels to me that there are more moving parts than necessary. The parallel worlds are always part of the story-line, but at times it feels like that core concept takes second place to all the other things that are going on. Having too many interesting things going on is a pretty good problem to have for a science fiction series, I suppose.

There are any number of characters used as viewpoints for the story-line. The three most prominent are Lobsang and two "natural steppers" who can easily navigate between the parallel worlds: Joshua and Sally. The character development of these and a few other major characters is fairly well done, though not in great depth. I think that lack of depth comes from the sweeping scale of this series: decades of time, thousands of worlds, and a huge cast of characters. Nevertheless, I did have a good feel for the personalities and motivations of the primary characters, even if some of the others felt one-dimensional.

I didn't feel that any one book was significantly stronger or weaker than the others. The Long Earth, first in the series, has a special place since it first introduces much of the framework of the parallel worlds. The themes of the whole series are advanced in each novel, while at the same time each of the other books has its own major focus: changes in politics, culture, and even the human species itself in the The Long War; a trip to another planet in The Long Mars; an alien menace in The Long Utopia; and expansion out into the larger universe in The Long Cosmos.

As a lover of science fiction, I found The Long Earth series to be an engrossing exploration of an imaginative world. I'd recommend it to anyone who enjoys such things.

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

MTG: Eldritch Moon Game Days

This past weekend, game stores around the world hosted events for the Eldritch Moon game day. I found time to attend two different events, one on each day.
On Saturday, I went out to Rookies Sportscards in Lowell. They had a pretty low turnout, less than eight players. That meant no large prizes, but it was a casual and friendly event, which is what I prefer anyhow. We played three rounds, and I was fortunate enough to win all my matches. And we did get the standard game day rewards: a couple of promo cards for everyone, and a playmat for me as the overall winner.

I was playing Mono-white Humans, an all-or-nothing aggro deck. Nothing in the deck costs more than 3, and most are only 1 or 2. The idea is to simply flood the board with creatures and win before your opponent can recover. Key cards include Thalia's Lieutenant, Always Watching, and a whole lot of small Humans for them to make larger. It's not a top-tier deck because there are so many control decks that can kill all your creatures, but I was fortunate and didn't see any of those.

For Sunday, I built a completely different deck: White-Green delirium, with a splash of black. Vessel of Nascency and Grapple With the Past to enable delirium. Small creatures like Deathcap Cultivator, Topplegeist, Sylvan Advocate, and Gnarlwood Dryad for early board presence. Planar Outburst and Descend Upon the Sinful to clear the board when needed. Explosive Vegetation and Thalia's Lancers to search out lands and finishing creatures, respectively. And big creatures as finishers: IshkanahAvacyn, Sigarda, Bruna, and Gisela. Unfortunately, I don't have multiple copies of many of the cards, so the deck isn't very consistent. It's a lot of fun when it works, though, particularly if you can get Brisela, Voice of Nightmares in play. That ends a lot of games very quickly.

There were more people, around 20, in the Sunday event at Big Kidz Games. I won my first match against a white-red-black control deck, largely because Grapple With the Past and Bruna allowed me to keep bringing back creatures. Eventually he ran out of ways to kill them. My second match was a draw against blue-red-black emerge, running a lot of big emerge creatures and red damage like Kozilek's Return and Fiery Temper. We each won one game, and I was ahead in the third but time ran out on us. That's where my luck ran out, though, because I lost both the third and fourth rounds, with not enough lands in three of the four games. Lots of mulligans, but the deck just didn't want to cooperate. Despite that poor finish, I enjoyed playing the deck - I may try to trade for some more copies of the key cards to make it more consistent.

The Eldritch Moon game day weekend was good fun. Thanks to the various stores that organized the events!

Monday, August 15, 2016

Olympics Thoughts, Weekend Two

Another collection of thoughts from watching the Olympics on Saturday and Sunday, the second weekend of competition.
  • The early heats of the 100 meter races rivaled swimming for over-coverage. Literally hours of those first-round races, both men and women. There's a whole lot of other sports going on, NBC. No reason you couldn't use those hours to show some of them, and just the highlights of those preliminary rounds (i.e. Bolt and Fraser-Pryce). I fast-forwarded through most of it.
  • Speaking of swimming, it's finally over. I enjoyed the approximately 15 minutes of actual finals races, and mostly ignored the other 200 hours. Slight overstatement, maybe, but it sure felt that way.
  • Mo Farah of Great Britian won the men's 10k, but it wasn't easy. He actually fell down early on! Recovered nicely, though, and it was clear he was just plain faster than everyone else on the last lap. Nice to see him defend his medal from London, which was one of the great moments of those Games.
  • It feels like there should be some kind of weighting to the medals from different events, instead of just focusing on overall counts. Sure, Michael Phelps won a metric boatload of medals, but a single water polo medal probably required just as much effort by a whole group of swimmers. I suppose it doesn't really matter, but the focus on medal count just annoys me.
  • You know the security measures are pretty extensive, but most of the time, the media coverage avoids showing it. But during the women's marathon on Sunday, there were a few times where armed soldiers standing guard were very obviously positioned right by the course. Gives me mixed feelings seeing that - glad the protection is there, but it's kind of sad that it's necessary.
  • The big hype on Sunday night was for Usain Bolt, of course, but if you only watched him then you missed South African Wayde van Niekerk setting a world record in the men's 400 meter race a few minutes earlier. NBC had a nice piece on van Niekerk before the race, showing him with his coach and his mom - an athlete in her own right, but in her day, apartheid limited her opportunities. I was thinking that his was one of the better stories regardless of how well he ran, and then it became amazing with that world record run.

Sunday, August 14, 2016

Hard Cider Run in Grand Rapids

I went out this weekend to Sietsema Orchards for the Hard Cider Run. It's a 5k race through the orchard and surrounding area, with cider waiting at the end.
Thanks to the weather, this ended up being about equal parts run and balance challenge. The first two miles of the course are largely on dirt trails with lots of up and down. It had rained heavily the night before, and was raining again during the event. All those dirt trails were really muddy and slippery. Keeping my balance has never been a strength of mine, so I did quite a bit of very slow jogging and walking - and even so I almost fell a couple of times. Traded places with a few of the other runners multiple times, in fact, as I was faster on the stable stretches but they had better balance in the mud.
Considering the weather, I was happy with my time of almost exactly 30 minutes. More importantly, I didn't injure myself. Turning an ankle, or falling flat on your face, would have been very easy. I didn't see anyone else with trouble either, fortunately.
The course was narrow in a lot of places, but that didn't matter a whole lot since there weren't many people running together. The event was broken up into a bunch of different start times, each a half hour apart. I was in the second one, and there were maybe 40-50 people. (My results page said there were only 545 total runners across the whole event.) That gave us plenty of space out on the trail, once everyone spread out after the start.
At the end of the run, there was (of course) hard cider for the runners. It tasted fine, although I'd want to go back and try it again to really form an opinion. Right after a run, I'm not sure my taste buds are at their best! Got a nice commemorative glass and shirt, too. Good fun, and I'll certainly consider doing this again next year.

Saturday, August 13, 2016

Olympics Thoughts, Late Week One

Another collection of thoughts from watching the Olympics on Wednesday through Friday.
  • I missed a lot of the rugby, but since I decided to try out Playstation Vue for access to extra coverage, I was able catch the men's medal matches. Both matches were blowouts, which I had not expected. South Africa beating Japan wasn't a surprise, even as a blowout, although the Japanese certainly put up a fight early on. I thought the Springboks were a bit unsportsmanlike at the end, running up the score with no time left on the clock. Perhaps some revenge from the South Africa loss to Japan in last year's Rugby Union World Cup? In the gold medal match, though, I expected a closer score. I was pulling for Fiji to win their first ever Olympic medal, and boy did they deliver. Great Britain looked completely outmatched in the first half, and by the time they gathered themselves it was already over. Congratulations to the Fiji Bati!
  • I remember watching the US women's water polo team win gold in London four years ago, with this teenager named Maggie Steffens setting scoring records and winning the MVP awards. She's 23 years old now and it looks like she could be just as dominant in Rio, but seems to me that she's purposefully letting others get involved. There are plenty of team members even younger than Maggie, so it looks like the US women will have a solid team for years to come.
  • The weather got involved with rain, and enough wind to delay some events (such as rowing). It certainly affected the cycling, where at least one rider slipped on wet pavement and went down. Looked a bit chilly for events like beach volleyball, too. Part of the risk you run when holding summer events in the winter (southern hemisphere), but I suspect everyone is happier with this than the alternative of heat and humidity that you'd get in a Brazilian summer.
  • Speaking of weather, it's affecting even some sports that I wouldn't have expected, such as indoor volleyball. Apparently the concourse of that venue is open to the outside, so outside winds can blow through the doorways and swirl around the playing area. No roof on the diving and water polo pools, either, which apparently isn't completely unheard of but not what you usually see. A couple of times, rain was falling hard enough that it was pretty obviously affecting the athletes' concentration.
  • NBC is doing some interesting things with their people, having them do some unfamiliar things. The Golf Channel's David Feherty spent some time with swimmer Ryan Lochte at his home in North Carolina, for example, and I thought it was a pretty good piece. I was less impressed with Pierre McGuire as poolside reporter for water polo, though.
  • The diving pool turned a weird green color, which prompted some comment and concern. Then the water polo pool next to it started to show the same. Apparently it's a problem with the pH balance in the pools, and doesn't pose any danger to health for the athletes in the water. It's got to be disconcerting, though, when you're standing on a diving board and trying to concentrate.
  • Phil Dalhausser and Nick Lucena of the US played an amazing beach volleyball match against Paolo Nicolai and Daniele Lupo of Italy on Thursday afternoon. Both teams were going to advance anyway, so this match was just to determine seeding for the knockout rounds, but you'd have thought this was the gold medal match from the way they went at it. Three sets and 17 extra points before the US finally won it. We can only hope the medal matches are nearly this good.
  • Almaz Ayana of Ethiopia ran an amazing 10k race to win gold on Friday, breaking the world record by nearly 15 seconds. Her time of 29:17.45 is about what I a 5k. And it looked to me as if she could have kept going for a while! Congratulations to her on an incredible run and a well-deserved gold medal.
  • Friday was a disappointing day for US women's soccer. The US team dominated ball possession, but allowed so many scoring opportunities to go by the wayside. The chances were there - 27 shots by the US to only 6 for Sweden - but the finish wasn't. The match ended in a penalty kick shootout won by Sweden, but really the US shouldn't have gotten that far. Their one goal came off an incredibly lucky bounce off a defender's head, and Sweden had a goal disallowed that should have counted. You never want to see your team lose, but in this case, I'm glad Sweden won the shootout. They deserved the win, after the inability of the US team to convert their opportunities into goals. And as for Hope Solo - who called the Swedes "cowards" after the game - I hope we've seen the last of her in USWNT play. I'd much rather see Alyssa Naeher take over in goal.
  • Seeing Michelle Carter take the US flag from her father Michael after her gold medal win in the shot put was fantastic. He's a silver medalist in the event himself, and though he wasn't showing a lot of emotion, you could just feel his pride in his daughter and her accomplishment. Great family moment.

Friday, August 12, 2016

Jury Duty

I was called to jury duty recently, here in Kent County in west Michigan.
This is the first time I've actually gone to a jury summons. I've been called before, but in the past my work schedule has been an excuse. Generally they let you off the hook if you travel a lot, and I certainly used to do that. But this time, no reason not to go.

I was fairly pleased with how easy the initial process was. Most of the necessary information came in the mail, and I was able to fill out the information they requested on an online form. The only mildly strange thing was that you had to call into an information line over the weekend, before reporting Monday morning. I guess that was the best way they had to get out last-minute details, but when I called it there was no new information.

Some jurisdictions keep jurors on call for service for a long time - weeks or even months - but here the service time is only a week. Could be longer if you get assigned to a really big trial, but that's rare. Once your week is up, you don't have to worry about another summons for at least a year.

I had a little trouble figuring out where I was supposed to park, since the information wasn't very clear on the phone line. Turns out there was more detail in the mailer that I'd received, but I didn't notice it until after I'd already parked in the wrong lot. Minor issue, only cost me $4 for the lot I used, and it's my own fault for not reading more closely.

Once I arrived at the courthouse, the waiting began. There was a whole lot of that. The report time is 7:45, but nothing happens until a brief intro speech at 8:30. Then you sit around until they call a group of around 30 people to go up to a trial. That happened four times in about three hours, and I was in two of those. Once you're in a courtroom, 12 of those 30-ish are chosen for the jury, and you wait around some more while they answer questions. Once the 12 are confirmed, then you go back to the waiting area and sit around some more, repeating the process until all the cases have juries. I feel fortunate that I was able to leave around 2 PM - not a very heavy case-load on my week.

Of course, there's less waiting if you're one of those 12 people that actually gets on a jury. My name was never called, but quite a few of the folks in my groups-of-30 did get called up. The lawyers and judge are able to dismiss people for various reasons, so you might get called even after the initial 12 are chosen. Sitting in the audience, I wasn't sure if I wanted to be called or not. I was tired of waiting, so doing anything would have been nice, but of course then you have the responsibility of deciding a case. In the end, I'm not unhappy that I didn't get called.

The process certainly didn't seem very efficient, but then I don't know all the details behind it. There's probably a reason for all the waiting around and delays before potential jurors are called into the courtrooms. I did appreciate that a judge came down early on to the juror waiting area and gave a short speech about the trial-by-jury process. It was a nice way to explain the importance of jury service, and made the waiting slightly less annoying.

That's a civic duty discharged for at least another year. I know it's important, but I'm OK with having done nothing more than spend a few hours sitting around and waiting.

Thursday, August 11, 2016

Playstation Vue

Playstation Vue is another streaming video option for non-cable-subscribers (similar to Sling TV, which I dropped a few months ago). I decided to try it out while the Olympics are on.
I'd not really considered Vue before, largely because I'm not a Playstation owner. (Well, technically I still have a PS2 someplace. But nothing recent.) I barely even knew it existed, to be honest. It showed up when I was searching for Olympics-watching options, though. Since it has a free week trial, I figured it was worth a try.

My first impression is that Vue has all the polish that Sling TV was lacking, back when I was using it. Signing up was very smooth, once I'd created a Sony Playstation Network account. There's an app for the Amazon Fire TV, which I had no trouble installing and found easy to navigate. I was prompted right away to set up DVR functionality for watching live TV. There's a straightforward guide grid to use for browsing what's on various channels. Things that required effort to get working in Sling were no problem in Vue.

I don't know yet how well the service will hold up as far as performance and quality, but the first few days have been great. I assume that usage is pretty heavy for the Olympics, so that bodes well for being able to actually watch big events (rather than looking at connection errors or stuttering video, as happened regularly with Sling).

Vue costs a bit more than Sling did, at $30/month for the basic tier. It includes more channels than the basic Sling tier, though. Most channels that I'd watch are in the list, particularly the sports networks, Cartoon Network, Comedy Central, and Syfy. The only notable exception is the local regional FOX Sports network - it's available for another $15, but I don't think it's worth that much.

I'll likely keep Vue for at least the next six months or so. That covers the rest of the Olympics, baseball playoffs, and the football season. Maybe longer, if I find other things to use it for.

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Olympics Thoughts, Early Week One

Another collection of thoughts from watching the Olympics on Monday and Tuesday.
  • Every time I spend a decent amount of time watching an Olympic games, I discover a sport that I've never really paid attention to in the past. This year, it's whitewater canoe/kayak slalom. I vaguely remember seeing it in the London games, but it didn't catch my eye. There's been a decent amount of it on the NBC coverage this time, though, and it's really interesting. The course has gates to go through, not just downstream but also some that have to be passed going against the current. Just a tiny mistake can result in missed gates and crippling time penalties. It looks incredibly difficult, and every run is exciting to watch.
  • Gymnastics really isn't my favorite sport to watch, but you can't deny the drama. The men's final on Monday was equal parts suspenseful and painful to watch, as the USA did just well enough to stay in medal contention until a final fall on the horizontal bar ended their chances. The Japanese team took the gold, led by Kohei Uchimura, who said the team gold brought "5 times the happiness" over an individual win. And he would know, having won the gold individual all-around medal in London.
  • The women's gymnastics, on the other hand, had no suspense at all. The US team was so dominant that the whole thing was basically a coronation. All respect to the US athletes, but it really wasn't all that fun to watch. The few times that they showed performances from other countries' gymnasts were more interesting. NBC tape-delaying the whole thing into prime time didn't help. I look forward to the day when networks realize that the days of people hiding from the results until TV decides to show the competition are coming to an end.
  • Sure are a whole lot of support folks around all these events. People chasing down volleyballs, cars full of cycling team equipment, even a person for each boat in the rowing competition making sure they don't start early. Not to mention the thousands behind the scenes dealing with the spectators and setting up venues. I noticed Kerri Walsh Jennings made a point of going around to thank each person who helped at her volleyball matches, down to those chasing down loose balls. Good on her, those folks deserve the thanks.
  • In the US women's soccer team game versus Columbia, Hope Solo gave up the softest goal that I've ever seen her concede. Looked like she had it lined up, got hands on it, but it went right through the five-hole before she could grab on. After that, the whole team looked rattled for a while. They eventually recovered and the game ended in a draw, but that was a bit of a scare for the top-ranked team in the world.
  • I'm getting pretty tired of all the swimming, to the point where I skip anything that's not a final (or at least tune it out). I like Michael Phelps and Katie Ledecky as much as the next person, but the coverage is the very definition of over-exposure. However, I have to say that 3-time gold medalist Rowdy Gaines is great as the analyst/commentator. Does anyone get more excited for the finish of a race?

Tuesday, August 9, 2016

Delta's System Outage

It's been all over the news that Delta Airlines had a system outage yesterday that delayed or cancelled flights affecting thousands of passengers.
According to Delta's news page on the issue, the original issue was a power outage in Atlanta around 5 AM. Several hundred flights ended up being cancelled, and full system operation wasn't restored until 3:40 PM. Delta's CEO had to issue an apology to customers, and more flights on Tuesday were affected as Delta's operations reset after the outage.

My first reaction when I heard about this was "gee, glad I'm not flying anywhere today." Followed immediately by sympathy for the IT people who are having to deal with all of this. And shortly after, incredulity that an organization the size of Delta wasn't better prepared.

I never did any work directly for an airline, but during my IT career I worked with a lot of mission-critical systems for large corporations. The IT department of every good-sized organization has plans for disaster recovery and business continuity. Basically, these are meant to handle situations where something outside your control shuts down your computer systems. I'm sure Delta had those plans like everyone else, but they certainly weren't adequate to this challenge.

I don't have any direct knowledge of Delta's systems, but I'm pretty sure I know the general gist of how this happened. I've seen it in several other industries. They've got a bunch of old systems that have been around for decades which were never modernized. Either it's too expensive to do so (and thus never attempted), or modernization attempts were made and failed. Over time, a bunch of newer systems have been added that integrate with the old stuff, relying heavily on networked communication. The newer infrastructure might be designed to be redundant and deal with outages, but the older parts are not.

So when an outage hits, the old systems don't handle it well. They crash right in the middle of whatever they were doing, resulting in bad data writes and other unexpected states that the system can't handle. The newer systems might keep running, but that can be just as bad - they'll start getting errors when trying to communicate with the older stuff, likely causing a cascade of failures. Error logs fill up, bad data might be written to databases, filesystems get full, etc. All of these things require a human to troubleshoot and fix manually, so simply turning everything back on after the outage doesn't work. It can take hours or even days to get everything back to normal.

If handling system outages is a high enough priority in the organization, there are ways to deal with these situations. When new systems are put into place, they need to deal gracefully with outages from the older systems. Even the oldest systems can be put into some sort of redundant configuration - one place I worked ran two parallel AS400 systems, and switched back and forth every few months. We knew for sure that we could recover from one of them going out, and the users never knew it was happening. Most importantly, someone high up in the organization has to champion all of this, putting their foot down when someone tries to cut a corner and move forward without the disaster recovery in place.

I suspect Delta will be making some pretty major changes in their IT organization after this fiasco. It won't be easy or quick, though. Whether they stick with it and get it right...well, we'll know when the next power outage hits.

Monday, August 8, 2016

Olympics, Opening Weekend

Some random thoughts from watching the Olympics thus far.
  • I enjoy the opening ceremonies as much as the next person, but it takes so long. Did we really need to watch Gisele Bundchen walk all the way across the stage? Or a bunch of samba dancing near the end, when everyone just wanted to see the torch lit? No organizing nation is ever going to want to go shorter, sadly - have to top whatever the last place did.
  • Having every athlete plant a seed that will end up in a special forest area was a cool way to draw attention to global climate change.
  • Watching all the athletes walk in the opening ceremonies, it's a bit surprising how normal they all look. Then you see the actual competition, and realize that "normal" is relative. The announcers talk about "short" 5'11" swimmers and volleyball players, or "tall" 5'5" gymnasts. In theory, you know all these folks won a genetic lottery as well as working incredibly hard, but it really sinks in when watching it.
  • NBC's coverage seems pretty decent, all things considered. Focused on the US team, of course, and pretty heavy on the feel-good happy stories, but that's pretty much what I want out of the Olympics. I'd go crazy if I tried to just sit and watch it, but as something going on in the background while I do other things, it's fine.
  • Congratulations to Ginny Thrasher, who surprised everyone by winning the 10-meter air rifle event. You could tell that NBC wasn't expecting it since they didn't have one of those "meet the athlete" profile bits on her. Bet they wish they had, because she was great on camera afterward - killed an interview with Dan Patrick.
  • No time was wasted in getting dramatic. The men's cycling road race on day one had the leaders crash on the last big downhill section, then the eventual gold and silver medalists closed a 20+ second gap over the last few miles to pass the leader (who took the bronze). I wasn't sure a 6+ hour event would be all that interesting, but this one was. The coverage was well executed: 10-15 minutes on the race, then off to some other event for a while, then back for an update.
  • Seven Olympic games is an incredible run for anyone, and especially a gymnast. Oksana Chusovitina first competed in Barcelona in 1992, and keeps coming back for more. She has a son older than the youngest gymnasts that she's competing against this year. Really impressive to see.

Sunday, August 7, 2016

Age of Wonders 3

After playing Master of Magic recently, I was feeling up for a bit more fantasy-themed strategy gaming. Didn't have to look any further than my Steam backlog, where Age of Wonders 3 has been sitting since I picked it up in one sale or another.
Age of Wonders 3 is only a couple of years old - it was originally released in 2014. It's quite a difference going from Master of Magic's 1990s graphics to a modern look and feel! The game looks beautiful in all aspects, from the strategic overview map down to the battle animations of individual units. I'm sure my graphics card is working harder to keep up, but the performance was fine without me needing to turn down any of the settings, so the implementation is efficient enough.

The basics of Age of Wonders 3 are familiar to anyone used to playing 4X games: explore the map, build cities, crank out armies, relish the tears of your enemies as their cities fall before your might. You can play a half-dozen different races (and expansions add more, but I just have the base game for now). The player is represented by a hero unit, and other heroes can be recruited as well. Each of those has certain class abilities: powerful fighters, high mages, sneaky rogues, etc.

Magic is a major part of the gameplay, with spells available to cast both on the strategic and combat level. There are several different "spheres" of magic, each with its own specialization: fire, air, destruction, etc. I haven't played with every different possible combination, but thus far it seems that the magic abilities are fairly well balanced. Nothing has jumped out at me as being incredibly powerful (unlike Master of Magic, which had some very overpowered combinations).

I've been playing the campaign (as opposed to open-ended skirmish battles). You play as an Elven princess battling against the treacherous Commonwealth. The story isn't particularly original or exciting, but that's all right since it's just a framework to give you a bunch of maps to conquer. As with most campaign missions in this kind of game, you start out in a pretty weak position on most of the maps, and have to build your way to victory. I thought it was decent, though parts got very tedious. In some maps, any kind of slight over-extension of your forces caused the AI to hammer you; in others, going too slowly meant the AI would build up to unbeatable levels. Takes a few attempts to figure out which map is which.

Age of Wonders 3 seems like a good choice when you feel the need to conquer the world with magic and dragons instead of tanks and guns. There are a lot of 4X games to choose from, so I'm not sure how long I'll stick with it, but I'm glad I gave it a try.

Saturday, August 6, 2016

Yearly Check-Up

I generally try to get to the doctor once a year for a check-up. Not for any specific ailment, but just for the opportunity to catch anything going wrong in the early stages.
My latest appointment was in July, but I'd forgotten to put it on my calendar. When I got the reminder call from the doctor's office, I was out of town, and so I had to reschedule. That's not an easy thing to do for these check-up appointments. I'd have to wait an entire year to see my primary doctor, since they only allocate a few times slots a week to check-ups, and most of them get filled months in advance. As long as you don't mind seeing a different provider, though, rescheduling is easier. So I ended up with an appointment in August.

The most annoying part of these check-up visits is that you're not allowed any food or drink, other than water, for 12 hours beforehand. They do that for the blood tests. To minimize hunger and low-blood-sugar irritation, I like to schedule early morning appointments. That way I'm only hungry for a couple of hours in the morning, instead of all day.

The early appointments are also nice because you generally don't have to wait as long. Later in the day, prior appointments running long can cause yours to be delayed. There's usually not a line at the blood-drawing area in the mornings, either. This time through, I not only didn't have to wait, but actually got in a few minutes early. Pretty sure that's the first time I've ever had zero wait time at any kind of medical appointment.

The actual appointment was quick and easy. About 15 minutes of various poking, prodding, and taking of measurements. No immunizations out of date, or special testing needed for this particular year. I do have a history of cancer in the family, so they do some extra tests on my bloodwork (like PSA for prostate cancer). Nothing major, though.

A few days later, my test results came back - all normal. Not even low vitamin D, which I had last year...apparently the supplements I've been taking are working. It's nice that the doctor's office provides the results electronically on their website. I can access it any time I like, and look back to see how things have changed since prior years.

So it seems I'm doing all right for another year. Body isn't breaking down just yet.

Friday, August 5, 2016

Rio 2016 Olympic Games

After a whole lot of bad press and worry, the Summer Olympics in Rio are finally getting started.
The Rio games have had a lot of problems reported on extensively, from terrible water quality to an unfinished athlete's village. There's a political crisis in the country's government, and the police have held protests. Yet we've seen predictions of doom before these kinds of big events before, and somehow the show goes on.

Not that we need to have any actual games to have troubles with the Olympics. The International Olympic Committee seems to be just as corrupt as any other major sport governing body. The Guardian has an article about corruption in the Tokyo 2020 games, for instance, from back in May. There's always plenty of problems with doping - this time around, over 100 Russian athletes have been banned. And the cost of the Games is almost always a problem for the hosting country - this time around, there are protests about the cost ahead of the Olympic Torch.

Despite all that, I enjoy the Olympics, whether summer or winter, when they come around every couple of years. There are always interesting stories to go with the very high levels of competition. I always find it fascinating to see people perform in these events, doing some pretty amazing things with an almost casual ease. Which is deceiving, of course, since nearly everyone competing has spent years training to make it look that easy.

Events have already started, even though the official opening ceremonies aren't until Friday evening. The US women's soccer team has already won their first group stage match, for instance. The bulk of the events will start on Saturday, and competition will be almost non-stop for the next three weeks.

NBC has the exclusive broadcast rights to the games here in the USA, and sadly they've chosen to limit their coverage to cable subscribers. I can legally watch whatever events they broadcast on NBC, but nothing else. I'd have happily paid a one-time fee to get the Internet feeds without a cable subscription, but I suspect the various agreements between the network and cable providers doesn't allow that. I couldn't watch everything anyway - there's way too much going on - but it would have been nice to be able to choose.

I'm looking forward to enjoying the various stories that will come out of this Olympics, hopefully with minimal emphasis on doping or other scandals. It should be an interesting three weeks.