Friday, October 28, 2016

A Closed and Common Orbit by Becky Chambers

A Closed and Common Orbit is Becky Chambers' second novel, set in the same universe as her first. I enjoyed The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet when I read it a few weeks ago, so I grabbed her new book as soon as it was available at the library.
When I pick up an author's second book, I'm never quite sure what to expect. Especially if I particularly enjoyed the first one. Can it recapture the best things from the first book, without feeling like a retread? In this case, I think Chambers has created an excellent second effort, but there's no denying that it's a very different story from her first book.

A Closed and Common Orbit starts right after the ending of The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet, following two characters that appeared only briefly in the first book. Pepper is a genetically-engineered human who runs a repair shop, and she's taken in Sidra, a brand-new AI who is (illegally) installed in an android body. Almost everything from the first book is merely background in this one. You won't hear much from any of the crew of the Wayfarer that dominated the previous book.

In many ways, A Closed and Common Orbit is a pair of coming-of-age stories. One side of this Sidra, coming to terms with her existence in a situation for which her programming was not designed. The other side is Pepper's history, from slave to escapee to free citizen. The stories are interwoven, with flashbacks to Pepper's journey taking place between episodes in Sidra's life. I thought Chambers did a fine job of keeping the two in step throughout and tying everything together at the end.

In terms of structure, I think A Closed and Common Orbit is an improvement over The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet in a few ways. The overall flow is much smoother in the second book, without the disjointed "string of episodes" feel of the first. It also feels more focused, both in terms of characters and concepts. There's one clear central concept - artificial intelligence as equal to biological. Other ideas still make an appearance, but in a supporting role. Likewise, Pepper and Sidra are the clear central characters, in contrast to the first book where just about every crew member of the Wayfarer took over a central role at one time or another.

On the other hand, this book doesn't have anywhere near the scope of The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet. The first book built up an entire universe with various species, political entities, technologies, and so on. The Wayfarer's journey affected the lives of a large portion of the galaxy. In contrast, A Closed and Common Orbit is almost entirely limited to the lives of Sidra and Pepper. I didn't get the same sweeping, planet-hopping space opera feel as the first book.

For me personally, A Closed and Common Orbit was a better read than The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet. I enjoyed both, but I prefer the second book's focus on fewer characters and concepts. Someone who enjoyed the larger scope of the first book might feel the opposite, though. In any event, I do hope Chambers keeps writing in this universe as it's a fun place to explore in whatever writing style.

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Dream Theater Live - The Astonishing

Dream Theater came to Grand Rapids recently, on tour for their album The Astonishing.
I've listened to a good amount of Dream Theater's work over the years, though I wouldn't put them in the top tier of my favorite artists. I first came across their music in the 1990s when some fellow listeners of Rush recommended Dream Theater as another good progressive rock group. I haven't kept up with every album they've released over the years, and that includes this latest one, but I still occasionally break out some of their older stuff.

This particular concert was entirely about The Astonishing. It's a concept album, more than 2 hours long with 34 tracks, and they performed the entire thing. I found myself wishing that I'd spent some time listening to it before, since as with most rock concerts, the vocals were hard to follow when you don't know the songs. I certainly enjoyed the music, but it would have been nice to understand the words so I could follow the "concept" part of concept album.

The venue was DeVos Place in downtown Grand Rapids, which is built for stage plays. The approximately 2400 seats are fixed, with no open floor area, and broken up into several tiers. That means the view is pretty good in all areas, but also makes it not particularly well-suited to rock concerts where people want to move around. I thought the acoustics were fine, so the sound wasn't an issue, but there certainly wasn't much crowd energy. The place was only about three-quarters full, so that might have been true even if the venue was more open.

I sat way in the back up in the balcony section, about as far from the stage as you can get. But since it's such a small venue, that was actually a pretty good spot. No one was blocking my view, and I had no complaints about sound quality. I suspect I'd have actually seen less if I was any closer, just due to other people in front. Which is why I didn't move up - the place was empty enough that I could have, but it didn't seem like an improvement.

The band didn't play anything more than The Astonishing. That was a little disappointing, since everything of theirs that I actually know is older. Lots of other people felt the same way, based on what I overheard in the halls during a break and on the way out. Maybe with a bigger or more energetic crowd, there might have been some encores, but not in this particular case.

I'm glad I went to the concert - it would have been silly to miss an opportunity to see any band that I enjoy, this close to home - even if it wasn't quite what I'd hoped. I'm definitely going to make sure I'm more familiar with the latest album for similar situations in the future, though.

Saturday, October 22, 2016

Dear Grandma - How about those Cubs?

Dear Grandma Scott - It's finally happened. The Cubs are playing in a World Series.
I don't have a lot of memories of you, since you passed away when I was still a teenager. Much of what I do recall is from the last part of your life, when you lived with my family but were mostly confined to your own room. I didn't see much of you other than mealtimes, and not even that when your lifelong heavy cigarette smoking led to your hospitalization and eventual passing. But that was the end, and I prefer to remember earlier times.

Before the sports media explosion of the last decade or two, it wasn't nearly as easy to be a serious sports fan as it is now, particularly if you didn't live in a team's home area. There was no Internet to look up all the bits of information about every player, no streaming video to watch individual games from across the country (and world), and cable TV options were much more limited. The Chicago Cubs were an exception, though, thanks to WGN Sports broadcasting a large number of their games. Our family didn't watch a lot of TV, but when you lived with us, my mom made sure we had cable so that you could see the Cubs games.

You sitting close to that little black-and-white TV in your room, turned up loud to help you hear it, the voices of Harry Carey and Steve Stone - that's how I best remember your time living with us. I was more interested in reading and games and music than in actually sitting down to watch a baseball game, so we didn't actually watch very many games together. I still heard plenty, though. Thanks to you (and mom, who got it from you) I knew all about baseball, and in particular the Cubs. And I followed your example in becoming a life-long fan.

We all know that it hasn't been easy. Even those who know nothing else about baseball can tell you that the Chicago Cubs have a ridiculously long World Series drought. Much of the time the team was just bad, and even when they were good the playoffs never went well. From what I remember, though, the winning (or lack thereof) wasn't what you focused on. Whether the team was in contention or losing 100 games, you'd be watching. Sure, it was great when they won, but the important thing for you was hearing Harry and seeing Wrigley Field and watching the games played.

The current Cubs would be both easy for you to recognize, and completely different. Wrigley Field has gone through some changes, but it's still the same hundred-year-old park with the ivy walls. They've built up an amazing roster, largely with young players that could be around for years. There's no Harry in the broadcast booth, but his face still looks down on the field, and manager Joe Maddon is a kindred off-the-wall soul. They've always sung "Take Me Out To The Ballgame" during the 7th inning stretch at Wrigley, and now there's a song after every win, too.

Over the next couple of weeks, as Chicago and Cleveland (yes, the Indians made it too) play for the World Series title, I'll be watching. And I know you are, too.

Love,
Your Grandson Sam

Thursday, October 20, 2016

Death's End by Liu Cixin

Death's End is the conclusion to Liu Cixin's Remembrance of Earth's Past trilogy. I read the first two books, The Three Body Problem and The Dark Forest, a few weeks back. The English translation of Death's End was just recently released, and I was able to pick up a library copy.
This third novel is the longest of the trilogy, nearly 100 pages more than The Dark Forest. It covers a lot of ground, starting with a flashback to ancient Earth history and moving through multiple eras in the future. The majority of the story takes place in our Solar System, though we do also see a bit of deep space travel and even one glimpse of an alien civilization that makes up part of the "dark forest" that was the key theme of the second book.

Much of Death's End is told from the perspective of one person, which helps to maintain some continuity across all these changes. That person is Cheng Xin, a spaceflight engineer who becomes an intelligence operative and ends up traveling to future eras via hibernation technology. She's a very empathetic character, quickly identifying with the people and situations she finds when reviving in a new era. That empathy also means she is unable or unwilling to sacrifice others for potentially greater gains, though, and she makes several key decisions through history that have some dire consequences for humanity.

The idea of using more (or less) than three dimensions is a recurring theme throughout the series. The Trisolarian civilization uses multi-dimensional technology to build "sophons" in the first novel, and those play a huge role as instantaneous communication conduits, spies, and agents of sabotage. In Death's End, the idea of regular three-dimensional objects moving into either four- or two-dimensional space plays a large role, and various theories about the structure of the universe imply even higher dimensions. Liu Cixin isn't the first author to delve into the idea of changing dimensionality, but I thought the way he used those ideas was unique and interesting.

One of my favorite parts of Death's End is a series of allegorical fairly-tale stories which are used to communicate direction for scientific research. The Trisolarians are listening in on communications between the one human with access to their knowledge and those in back in the Solar System, so the information can't be stated directly. Trying to decipher the meaning of the stories becomes a puzzle that lasts years. Each hidden meaning that is revealed leads to shifts in the direction of humanity's understanding of science and technology. I enjoyed the mystery aspect of guessing the meaning in the stories, as well as appreciating the literary skill involved in integrating the very different fairy tale style in the middle of a science fiction novel.

The events in Death's End do wrap up most of the questions posed by the earlier novels. The resolutions aren't necessarily great for humanity, though. There are some pretty bleak outcomes for a lot of people. It's not just humans, either - the Trisolarians have serious troubles as well. The threat of the "dark forest" of the universe is very real in this story, and the author doesn't hand out any sort of magical solution to the situation. While the results may not be great for a lot of people in the book, I appreciate this approach. It would have been very easy to give humanity some kind of breakthrough discovery that made them immune to the universal threats, but if he had done so, I think it would have invalidated the entire idea.

It's not all doom and gloom for the end of this trilogy. There's no perfect happy ending for Cheng Xin, or the human and Trisolarian races, but life and hope persists. I found Death's End to be a satisfying conclusion to a grand epic story set in an intriguing universe.

Sunday, October 16, 2016

MTG: Kaladesh Sealed at Game On

I made the drive over to Game On in Midland to play in their Kaladesh sealed event this weekend.
This is the same store where I played in the Eldritch Moon sealed event a few months ago. This time, I didn't go alone - my friends Mike and Tim drove up from Owosso to play as well. (Neither had much success in terms of winning games, but both got some great cards - couple of Smuggler's Copters for Mike and a Torrential Gearhulk for Tim, among others.) Like last time, it was well attended, with a total of 34 people. Once again I was pleased with the way the folks at Game On ran the event. Nice play space, good group of players, solid organization and control by the organizers and judges.
My sealed pool was middling, with only one really great card: a Bristling Hydra. Also had a Wildest Dreams in green, though I didn't put it in the main deck. My other rares weren't playable, unfortunately - either too reliant on other cards that my pool was weak in (Depala, Syndicate Trafficker, Blooming Marsh) or just bad (Paradoxical Outcome). I had a good number of other green creatures, mostly notably two Longtusk Cubs, but no good green spells. My red removal was fairly decent: two Furious Reprisals, one Welding Sparks, one Chandra's Pyrohelix, and an Aethertorch Renegade. None of my other red creatures were great, but enough were playable to fill out the deck. Some good artifact creatures would have helped, but only two were worth playing: Sky Skiff and Weldfast Monitor. There were a couple of artifact removal spells for the sideboard - both Demolish and Creeping Mold helped out when I had to deal with some big vehicles. Outside of that Hydra and the Cubs, my creatures weren't good enough to take over a game, so the plan was to keep pressure on my opponent and hope the removal plus those three good creatures was enough to put me over the top.
That plan went nowhere in the first round, when I faced a red-white deck with several vehicles and plenty of tempo spells. I lost quickly in the first game to an onslaught of aggressive creatures, removal spells, and a couple of vehicles. In the second game, I was the one who drew aggressive creatures and removal spells to take a big early lead in the life totals, but didn't get any of my three finishing creatures until my opponent had clogged up his side of the board. That game took forever, almost taking up all the time in the round. In the end, I won since I had that early lead to work with and a higher creature total, just barely squeaking past his defenses with sheer numbers. Time was called before we could finish game three, so the first round was a draw.

The next three rounds went mostly according to plan. I won every game where I drew the Hydra, and several where I didn't but had a Cub and/or some good removal spells. I won all three rounds despite seeing some pretty good cards on the other side of the table. Noxious Gearhulk, for instance, and it's a good thing I'd sideboarded in that Demolish to deal with it. Two of those rounds were against opponents using three colors, and I'm pretty sure that helped me out quite a bit in those games. It's possible to play enough mana-fixing for three colors in this format, but it tends to slow you down and that's trouble if the opposition gets a good start.
To make the top eight, I needed to win one of the final two rounds. Sadly, it was not to be. I took both rounds to three games, so it was very close, but in the end the other players just got the better draws. My round five opponent had some amazing artifact/vehicle combinations that just overran me, with red and black removal to back them up. Chief of the Foundry plus Fleetwheel Cruiser is a real beating if you don't draw an answer right away. He got that Cruiser in all three games, and I was lucky to take one of the three. Round six was closer, against a green/white deck that had both large ground creatures and flyers. Lost the first game when I couldn't remove enough of his flyers, then won game two when I got the removal and kept a Cub alive long enough to win. Game three was close, but I couldn't keep up with his Skysovereign killing several of my creatures, a Durable Handicraft pumping up all his guys, and even a Wildest Dreams bringing back some of his creatures that I'd managed to kill.

End result, 3-2-1, just outside of the top eight. My one draw and two losses were all to players who made the top eight, and all three of those went to a third game. Any of those could have gone the other way with just a slightly better draw. Also, I only caught myself in one play mistake that actually mattered (forgetting to trigger energy gain off a Longtusk Cub, which later meant I couldn't give it a counter to save its life) and that turned out not to make a difference in the result of that particular game. Always feels better to know you played your best, even if the end result wasn't quite what you'd have liked. All in all, an enjoyable event, well worth the drive out and back.

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

MLB Division Series

Seems like they were in a hurry over in the American League, where both division series ended in sweeps. But neither National League series was a one-sided affair.
I'm not surprised by anything that happens when the Toronto Blue Jays and Texas Rangers face off, though I wouldn't have predicted a sweep. The Jays offense came to play, jumping out to big leads in both of the first two games, which is not an easy task against Cole Hamels and Yu Darvish. Toronto was down in the third game but again the offense came through, forcing extra innings. Some shaky Texas defense and good Toronto baserunning led to the walkoff, series-clinching win.

Three losses in a row for Boston, on the other hand, was a major surprise. Most of the year, the Red Sox were scoring ridiculous numbers of runs and pitching fairly well. I kept expecting them to struggle at some point, and it just didn't happen. Well, now it has, at the worst possible time for them. Worked out well for the Indians, though. Two close wins and one big shutout has Cleveland in the championship series.

The Cubs just barely won their first game against the Giants, just a single run scored in a great pitching duel between John Lackey and Johnny Cueto. In game two, Chicago starter Kyle Hendricks was injured by a line drive (fortunately no broken bones) and had to come out. Travis Wood came in and did a solid job in relief, and provided some offense with a home run in another Cubs win. But then the Giants won game 3 in San Francisco, despite Jake Arrieta driving in more runs (3-run homer) than he allowed (2). The Chicago bullpen blew the lead in the 8th and then allowed a walk-off score in the 13th. But in game 4, the Giants bullpen returned the favor by blowing a 3-run lead in the 9th, sending the Cubs on to their second championship series in a row.

I didn't watch much of the Dodgers-Nationals series, but I did see game four. The Nationals won two of the first three, so it was an elimination game for Los Angeles. Clayton Kershaw started on short rest and was pretty impressive after a shaky first inning. He had a 5-2 lead in the 7th, but couldn't quite finish off that inning, and after he left the Nationals tied the game. So the Dodgers had to rally late to win and force a fifth game in Washington, which I'll likely be watching Thursday night.

Regardless of who wins that fifth game in Washington and both championship series, some team is going to break a fairly long World Series drought. Most baseball fans know the Cubs last won in 1908, but it's been a long time for the Indians also - the last Cleveland title was in 1948. It's been since 1988 for the Dodgers, Toronto hasn't won since 1993, and the Nationals franchise hasn't even played in a World Series (in either Washington or Montreal). Some team's fans are going to get a celebration that hasn't been seen in at least a generation.

Monday, October 10, 2016

Year and a Day

Yesterday was the first day in a year that I haven't posted daily on this blog.
I started the blog largely to give myself a reason to write. Since I retired, I haven't had any real reason to write much, and it felt like I was getting out of practice. I suppose I could have just posted directly on Facebook, but a blog felt a bit more permanent and accessible.

Ideas haven't been that difficult to come by. Between world events, local news, things I've been doing, and just random stuff I run across on the Internet, I've not lacked for topics. Nearly any idea can turn into a few paragraphs within a half-hour or so.

The idea of posting every single day wasn't the plan at first. I had several ideas when I first started, of course, since I hadn't done any writing at all in a while. After a couple of weeks, I looked back and saw that I'd managed to put up a post each day and decided I might as well keep it going.

I did eventually start to feel a bit tired of posting something up every single day. I almost took a few days off in July when I was out of town for a few days visiting with family, but decided I'd like to push on until I'd hit a full year of daily posts.

Now that I've gotten to that full year, seems like a good time to cut back a bit on the blog postings. I'm thinking once a week for now. Maybe a bit more if something especially interesting is going on. In any event, I don't plan to stop entirely. Still plenty to write about.

Saturday, October 8, 2016

Bee Brave 5K 2016

This weekend was the 9th annual Bee Brave 5K run and walk here in West Michigan, supporting breast cancer research at the Van Andel Institute. This was my first year at the event. I had heard of it before, but never got organized and actually signed up until this year.
The location in Alto MI is great for me, not even a 10 minute drive from home. The race didn't start until 9 AM, but they warned us to be there early since the race course included the road leading into the parking area. Show up too late and you can't get in! Didn't look like anyone had any trouble.
It was a fairly chilly morning, though not quite at frost level at this point in the year. Most everyone (including me) was wearing a couple of layers, although there's always a few crazy people dressed as if it's the height of summer. I spent a half hour or so sitting in the car after checking in, rather than standing around in the cold. It had started to warm up a bit by the time we started running, though, and after the first half-mile or so I barely noticed it.
There were about 300 runners, and a good-sized group of walkers as well. The start was a little disorganized since everyone was bunched up together. It would have been nice if the walkers had been separated to the back, but it was all sorted out after the first few minutes. The course was almost entirely along country roads, with a final lap around a field to the finish. You walk up a hill to get to the start, so there's more downhill than up, but there are still a couple of fairly steep climbs. That field at the end is all flat, though, which I appreciated.
I felt decent during the run, which is a bit of a surprise considering that I've been a bit under the weather for the last week. Fortunately the worst of it was over a few days before the race, and it might have even worked to my advantage since I'd been getting more rest than usual. There were only 8 guys in the 40-44 men's age group, and I was second among them (55th overall). I was hoping to be under 25 minutes, but I'll take 25:30 considering how I'd been feeling the week before.
Thanks to the Bee Brave organizers and volunteers for a fun little race, supporting a good cause and close to home. I enjoyed it, and hope to be back in future years.

Friday, October 7, 2016

Batman: The Killing Joke (2016)

Google was kind enough to give me another movie rental discount coupon recently. Used it on Batman: The Killing Jokethe animated film that came out earlier this year.
I believe I've mentioned before that I'm a big fan of Batman, and so I tend to like just about anything based on the character. This movie was no exception, though there are certainly some parts I'd have done differently.

Most of this animated movie is based on the graphic novel of the same name, which was published way back in 1988. I've read it several times, so I was familiar with the story and characters going into the movie. Which was confusing at first, because the beginning of the movie doesn't seem much like the graphic novel at all.

The first half-hour or so of the movie isn't in the graphic novel. It's mostly about Batgirl aka Barbara Gordon, daughter of Commissioner Jim Gordon. Unlike the source material, this version is in love with Batman. At first it's unrequited, but eventually they consummate the relationship. After that, she loses perspective. She eventually gives up being Batgirl after realizing that she's unable to be objective when Batman is in danger.

After that, the movie follows the graphic novel very closely. The Joker enters the story, having recently escaped from Arkham Asylum. We see some flashbacks to the events that caused a normal man to become the Joker...at least, one possible version, as he says himself that he prefers the past to be multiple choice. The rest of the story is about the terrible things he does while free, and how it impacts the Gordons and Batman. If you've read the graphic novel then you already know what happens, and if not, I won't spoil it.

The parts of this movie that were from the graphic novel were great. The visuals are well-drawn. Kevin Conroy is the best Batman voice actor hands-down, and same for Mark Hamill with the Joker. The story follows closely with the source material, and if you ignore that first half-hour, it hangs together nicely. And I know I'm not in the majority here, but I actually like the ending...it feels somewhat abrupt, but I think it fits together with Batman's stated desire from earlier in the story to understand the Joker on a non-violent level.

Unfortunately, that the first half-hour doesn't fit in with the rest of the movie at all. Showing that Barbara used to be Batgirl, that's necessary and could have been done in about five minutes. Instead, the movie adds a subplot with a random criminal trying to seduce Batgirl, with no Joker involved at all...who is supposed to be the primary villain.

Then there's the bizarre sexual relationship between Batman and Batgirl. Batman shows no signs of being attached to her as anything beyond a work partner, so why would he sleep with her in the first place? A normal man, sure, but this is supposed to be the always-self-controlled superhero who won't let anything interfere with his mission. If sex was necessary for some reason, why not add Robin, who is Batgirl's love interest in the comics and would make much more sense? The writers were clearly trying to come up with a reason for her to quit being Batgirl, but it falls completely flat and doesn't mesh with the graphic novel story.

By the end of Batman: The Killing Joke, I was happy to have watched it, since the last hour is a well executed adaptation of the graphic novel. I just wish they hadn't bothered with that first bit.

Thursday, October 6, 2016

MLB Wild Card Games Deliver

Well, those Wild Card games certainly lived up to the hype.
Earlier this week when I posted about the upcoming MLB Wild Card games, I was half-expecting one or both of them to be a blowout. In the AL, you had a ton of run-scoring potential on both sides. The NL looked like a great pitching matchup on paper, but how often do those actually work out in real life? Fortunately, both games turned out to be great baseball.

The AL game did come down to home runs, though it wasn't the high-scoring shootout you might expect. Six of the seven runs in the game came off the long ball, including the final three on a walk-off blast by Edwin Encarnacion in the 11th inning. The big story in this game was Oriole manager Buck Showalter choosing not to use Zach Britton, the best reliever in the game this year, with baserunners on in that final inning. But well before that, the Orioles had plenty of chances to go ahead...always the case when a game goes into extra innings...but Toronto was able to hold them off.

In the NL game, the pitching was as good as advertised. Madison Bumgarner and Noah Syndergaard matched zeros through seven innings. The Mets went to their bullpen after that, and Giants third baseman Conor Gillaspie drove in the only runs of the game with a home run off Mets closer Jeurys Familia in the top of the ninth inning. Bumgarner ended up closing out the game with yet another shutout performance in an elimination game...he did the same thing to the Pirates in 2014.

So we had one game where the manager chose not to use his best reliever, and lost the game on a home run...and one game where the manager chose to use his best reliever, and lost the game on a home run. Managing a baseball game is no easy task.

While I like the Orioles and would have liked to see them advance, I'm not unhappy that the Blue Jays are moving on to face the Texas Rangers in the AL division series. Who doesn't want to see those two meet up again in the playoffs, after last year's dramatic division series and the bad blood from earlier this year? I'll be pulling for the Blue Jays to win again.

Cleveland and Boston are playing in the other AL division series. I don't particularly care for one or the other, but I suppose I'd rather see the Indians win. Better another midwest team advancing than the Red Sox, if only to avoid hearing endlessly about David Ortiz in his last postseason. I do hope ex-Detroit-Tiger Rick Porcello does well for Boston, though.

As for the NL, can't say I'm enthusiastic about the Giants going to Chicago to face my Cubs. San Francisco can't seem to lose every other season, having won the last 3 World Series in even-numbered years. And it sure would have been nice to have a chance for revenge against the Mets after they eliminated the Cubs last year. But it's the Giants now, and this year's statistics do favor the Cubs. Here's hoping they can live up to it.

In the other NL division series, I don't really have a particular favorite. Regardless of who wins between Washington and Los Angeles, I'll be hoping they lose in the next round, ideally to the Cubs.

Should be quite a week of baseball in the division series. Looking forward to all the dramatics!

Wednesday, October 5, 2016

Heart Readers by Kristine Kathryn Rusch

I occasionally pick up a group of books from StoryBundle, when one of their offerings contains several that look interesting. In the most recent of those bundles was Heart Readers by Kristine Kathryn Rusch.
Heart Readers is a fairly dark story. It takes place in the kingdom of Leanda, and within the first few pages the king has already considered killing one of his newborn twin sons. The king himself had killed his brother in a struggle over succession, and knows he should spare the kingdom another contested inheritance. But instead he lets both live, and they grow up together, until the day the king is dying and a decision must be made.

The book has two major story threads: the succession to the throne, and the story of Stashie. Her village is conquered by a soldiers led by a man named Tarne, who personally killed her family and brutalized Stashie. She barely survives, and eventually finds her way into the company of Dasis, a woman who becomes both life partner and companion Heart Reader. Despite Dasis' help and support, Stashie still is very traumatized by her experiences and finds life extremely difficult.

The world is mostly mundane in a medieval age, but Heart Readers are an exception. These are pairs - usually two women - who can see the true character of a person and describe it. This is known as reading the person's heart, and is consulted primarily by people wanting to understand themselves better.

All the major characters come together when the king wants to read the hearts of his sons, to determine which deserves to be the heir. The results of the reading, and the eventual death of the king, trigger the succession struggle that everyone fears, with Tarne pulling the strings behind the scenes. And Stashie gets her opportunity for revenge, but not without cost and risk.

If I had to categorize Heart Readers, it would be as a tragedy. Much of the subject matter is difficult and Rusch pulls few punches in describing the effects of violence, brutality, and fear. None of the characters make their journey without wounds. Some are more extreme than others - Stashie in particular has a really rough time. The ending is a bit too cheerful to be a true tragedy, but I think the description still fits given everything that leads up to it.

Heart Readers was an interesting read, though I felt a bit let down by the ending. It's almost the perfect outcome after a story in which almost nothing else goes perfectly. Despite that, the story is entertaining and kept my interest throughout.

Tuesday, October 4, 2016

Abortion in Politics

Abortion is one of the most contentious issues in US politics today. I've made the decision to leave it off my list of issues that affect how I vote. Here's why.
Just to be perfectly clear up front, I believe abortion is morally wrong. If I was in a position where a woman asked me if she should have an abortion, I'd recommend against it. I believe life begins at conception. I don't believe this infringes on a woman's right to control her body - the control point was earlier, when choosing to have sex. (For the purposes of this discussion, I'm leaving aside situations where the woman was not in control, like rape and incest. Those are rare enough to be handled on a case-by-case basis.)

So if I believe all that, why isn't abortion an issue in my political views? My logic is that abortion doesn't outweigh any other issue that might affect my vote. My reasoning is as follows:
  • From the perspective of compassion, it's difficult to ignore abortion. Regardless of where you put the beginning of "personhood," a potential life is ending. I certainly don't condone this, but I do think that there are other ways to show just as much compassion while being more effective (and efficient). Provide birth control and sex education, particularly to poor communities. Improve education and quality of life for the least fortunate, particularly children and young parents. Expand the services available to orphans. Consider all the good that can be done if the resources spent protesting and fighting over abortion was used to actually improve the lives of those already out of the womb. (It's also worth noting that the politicians most strident in support of abortion tend to want to shrink or completely eliminate funding for programs similar to the ones I've mentioned above, which I find highly hypocritical.)
  • From a spiritual perspective, I believe that God will accept the innocent who had no opportunity to make their own decisions. One can argue over exactly where the line is drawn to say that a child is capable of making a decision to accept Jesus Christ, but I don't think anyone believes that an unborn child could have done so.
  • From a purely logical perspective, the world does not need the additional people that would be born if there was no abortion. There are over 7 billion people in the world, and that number will pass 11 billion by the year 2100. Over 130 million more are born each year. Another 40-50 million pregnancies are aborted. There is no lack of people in the world, and the growth rate is significant. Eliminating or slowing abortion rates exacerbates overpopulation problems.
  • I've heard the argument that every abortion robs the world of the opportunity to benefit from whatever that child might have done. While that may be true, I think it's just as true that the world also avoids any problems that child may have caused. From an opportunity cost perspective, I think the good and bad are pretty much in balance.
  • From a political viewpoint, fighting over abortion is a losing battle, at least in the US. Viewpoints are so ingrained on both sides that making any change is nigh impossible. It leads only to gridlock.
In a perfect world, there would be no abortions. But in the real world, I believe that the good that could be done by focusing on other issues far outweighs the harm done. Focusing on abortion as a political issue - even taking it into account at all - does no good and prevents that focus from being spent on issues that could actually improve people's lives. That's why I don't let the issue affect my vote.

Monday, October 3, 2016

A Day Off, then MLB Wild Cards

One brief day off, then the MLB playoffs get started.
I was hoping that Monday wouldn't be a day off. We might have had a Tigers-Indians game today, if Detroit had managed to beat the Atlanta Braves and either Baltimore or Toronto had lost. No luck on any of those, so the Tigers missed the postseason by 2.5 games. Rough ending for the Tiger offense, who managed only 3 runs in the final two games. You have to beat the bad teams to have a shot at the playoffs, and Detroit wasn't doing that down the stretch.

We could also have seen a game today if the Giants and Cardinals had ended up tied for the second NL wild card spot. But San Francisco beat the Los Angeles Dodgers to grab that spot, even though St. Louis won as well. For a while it looked like the Giants were going to fade enough in the second half of the season to miss the playoffs, but they did just enough to squeak in on the final regular season day.

The wild card games this year couldn't be much more evenly matched, at least as far as regular season records are concerned. Both AL teams have 89 wins, and both NL teams have 87. The games will be in Toronto and New York since the Blue Jays and Mets won the season series against their opponents, but it was only by one game in both cases.

I had thought the Blue Jays would win the AL East, but losing 16 games in September kept them from keeping up with Boston. The Orioles were slightly better, losing only 12 games in the final month, staying just ahead of Detroit. Both of these teams are sluggers, so this game could well be decided by who hits more home runs.

The story in New York will be the pitching matchup. Madison Bumgarner for Giants, and Noah Syndergaard for the Mets. Those are the top two NL pitchers in ERA that don't play for the Chicago Cubs, and both are in the top 5 in the NL in strikeouts. Combine that with the fact that both New York and San Francisco are in the bottom half of the NL in offense, and this could be a real pitcher's duel.

Of course, now that I've said that, we'll probably see a 1-0 game in the AL and a blowout in the NL. Because baseball.

Sunday, October 2, 2016

ArtPrize 2016 Visit 2

I made a second trip to check out ArtPrize in downtown Grand Rapids recently. Between this and my first trip, I've seen most of the pieces in that area, probably around 2/3 of the entire competition. There are more scattered around the rest of the city, and a good number of live events as well. I doubt I'll go out to attend those, but I see a bit of them on the news or the ArtPrize website.
 
These metal dragon sculptures were a good way from downtown, up in Heritage Hill near the apartment I had when I first moved to Grand Rapids. Too bad, since a lot of folks might not make it out that far and miss seeing them. The one on the bottom actually breathed fire, with a little fuel tank built into its belly. (Under the careful watch of the artist, of course - that's him in the lower right.)
Nice autumn road-through-the-woods landscape photograph.
This Last Supper wall hanging was huge, covering most of an entire wall in the sanctuary of a church also in Heritage Hill. It was made entirely with colored pencils according to the info sign.
Outside that same church was this piece named "His Love Remains" with what I thought was a unique take on the crucifixion of Christ. It has many of the associated items - crown of thorns, spear, etc - on an empty cross.
Wall hanging of eagles in flight.
These ceramic sculptures are vaguely cactus-like, though apparently not meant to represent actual plants. Pretty, though.
Cute painting, reminded me of anime style visuals.
These two are part of a larger group of images, featuring old barns and train locomotives.
When you looked at this circular DNA helix sculpture closely, it's very spiky - all those strands are made out of screws. The artist's wife has cystic fibrosis and this was his way to express the combination of life and pain from such genetic diseases.
Interesting piece on the interaction of nature and civilization - that's an endangered species of tiger, with various man-made structures built into its body.
A display of wooden carvings of a whole range of cycles, from tricycles to those old-time big-wheeled bicycles.
The picture doesn't do this justice since a lot of the appeal is the movement. All those little sparkly pieces that make up the bodies of the animals are hanging from strings and are free to shift a bit as the air moves.
I think this was the single most popular piece that I saw, with people lined up to get a chance to walk around the circular display of carved wooden service dogs. Each represented a different era in the military, from the world wars through Vietnam into the modern war on terrorism. The wooden canine sculptures each have an injury representative of what they and their human companions suffered during their service.
Stained-glass piece showing a tropical scene. Nice placement on the display, right at the Amway Grand Hotel's front windows so that the headlights of cars pulling around the hotel entrance shone through.
This is only a small number of the hundreds of bronze butterflies in this display, which took up an entire large room.
This display of masks is a collective effort by people recovering from brain injury. Each patient made their own mask and wrote a small description of themselves underneath.
Nice pattern piece, part of a sequence that started fairly simply and increased in complexity.
One of three very complex drawings (sadly my pictures of the other two were poor) with an interesting techno-fantasy theme.
Two of four paintings representing the seasons. Each of the trees is made up of animals as well as branches - you can see a deer at the bottom of the trunk on the left, and a shark at the base on the right.
A very long, beautiful landscape painting, moving through all four seasons as you follow it along the wall.
A large painting of swirling smoke, with images of people formed within. That's a foam cigarette in the corner representing the source.
There's no consistent pattern in this worked-iron piece, but I enjoyed looking at the various complex components.
Wooden sculpture of salmon swimming upstream.
Still-life sculpture of a hawk descending on smaller birds.
Nice landscape piece, although it's hard to tell in this image since it's a bit too dark.
These wooden planks are nicely worked with twisting patterns. Each of the colors is a different type of wood, not stains or other finishing.
There were quite a few of these little bucket sculptures, with all sorts of strange things in each. I particularly liked the geese in the middle.
This isn't a camera zoom on my part - the photograph is a tight close-up of an eagle's eye.
Another nice landscape. I thought it was a painting at first, but it's a photograph that captures the scene perfectly.
A pattern piece made up of tiny dots.
These are part of a series of images representing change in the manufacturing economy and culture. There were several pieces along this theme, not a surprise here in the Rust Belt.
An incredible-machine-style piece with a bunch of balls moving through a complex series of ramps and loops. It's placed such that you can see it from ground level as shown here, or walk up to the second floor and see it from above.