Sunday, December 31, 2017

Clear Vision 2018

My eye doctor reminded me a few weeks ago that it was time for an eye check, so I decided I should go into 2018 with updated eyewear. Perfect timing, as it turns out.
My insurance covers an eye exam every year and new glasses every two years. A lot of plans care about the end of the calendar year, but mine doesn' just happens that my last exam was in a December also. Judging from how busy the eye doctor and various glasses places were at the end of December, I should probably think about shifting my timing in the future. But I managed to get everything done, though of course there were some bumps along the way.

First hurdle to clear...getting to the eye doctor. They closed their Caledonia location, which had been less than a mile from my condo. Their main location in Hastings is still going, though, so I headed down there. It's only about a half hour drive, and I liked how they operate well enough that it was worth the extra time.

The exam found very little to worry about, which is always good news. A slight increase in my prescription, but no major issues. No need to worry about bifocals (yet), which was my main concern. All that time spent with computers and books seems to be keeping my close-range vision working fine.

Next step, new glasses. I looked around at the eye doctor, but didn't really see anything I loved in the way of new frames. Turned out that was just as well, because I was a week early for my insurance coverage. When they say two years, they mean two years, not one year and 51 weeks.

So I waited, planning to go to look at various other places a week later. Of course, life happened and I didn't get around to it right away. But then I lost my glasses - I still have no idea where I left them. Fortunate timing! I pulled out my four-year-old pair as a temporary measure, which functioned but the world was really blurry. Eyes really do change over a few years!

My first stop was Lenscrafters, but the only frames I liked there were name brand and cost nearly $300. Even with insurance, that was going to run me nearly $250 after lens cost. So I went down the way to Eyeglass World, and lo and behold, they had a nearly identical pair that was only $140. Dropped my total cost to less than $150, after insurance, and I got the nice composite lenses with UV coating in the deal. (Good for lots of computer work, which is definitely right up my alley.)

Even better, my prescription was simple enough that they could get the glasses ready on the same day. So I was back to seeing clearly just a few hours later. Ready for 2018!

Saturday, December 23, 2017

Orange (anime)

Orange is a high school romance series, which in itself is not usually something I'd watch. But it also has a time-travel hook, and deals with the subject of suicide and the regrets of those left behind. (Minor spoilers below, though I don't think they'd detract from anyone's enjoyment of the series.)
The time-travel bit is what drew my attention to Orange in the first place. A high school girl named Kaho gets a letter from her 10-years-in-the-future self, giving instructions about how to avoid the thing she most regrets. The mechanics of how the actual letter delivery across time happens are pretty weak, but that's not really the point. The focus is on what future knowledge does to her actions and relationships. (Note for those who aren't Japanese-literate: make sure you get version that has English translations of the letters. They're often just shown, not read aloud. Some English dubs don't have the written translations and that really detracts from this particular series. Personally, I think the sub-titles are better than dubs anyway.)

Just a few episodes in, it's revealed that future Kaho's main regret is the death of Kakeru, a new student in her class. At first they don't specify that it's a suicide, but I thought it was pretty obvious almost immediately. The rest of the series follows the efforts Kaho makes to change that future.

There's a lot of awkward teenage romance in Orange: Kaho and Kakeru, a triangle with her friend Suwa, interfering friends, and so on. The romantic tension is largely driven by how shy and easily embarrassed Kaho is. Not really my favorite thing, but it was worth tolerating for the other aspects of the show.

What I found most impressive about Orange was how Kakeru is portrayed. He comes from a broken home, loses his mother, and withdraws from personal relationships and activities (such as soccer club). He's depressed, blames himself for his mother's death, and eventually becomes suicidal. But he doesn't show any of this in day-to-day activities, continuing normal life right up into the end. In the original timeline, where the future letter originates, no one noticed and took action. That's a realistic portrayal of how suicide can happen - my family had a recent experience along those lines, and so this story really hit home.

In Orange, the future letter gives Kaho and her friends a chance to save Kakeru. There are some specifics in the letter, of course, but the most important thing is that they recognize his situation. Even when their actions have changed things so that the future knowledge doesn't make much sense in terms of specific events, the fact that they're aware of Kakeru's pain and depression puts them in a position to help. And that's what I hope people take from this story...that recognizing someone's suffering and doing everything you can for them can make a difference.

Thursday, December 7, 2017

Paper: Paging Through History by Mark Kurlansky

Paper: Paging Through HistoryPaper: Paging Through History by Mark Kurlansky
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Paper is one of those things that I never really thought much about. There seems to be an inexhaustible supply pretty much anywhere you go, in a huge variety of shapes, sizes, and colors. This book describes the long and complex journey to that state of affairs.

I learned a lot about what actually goes into the creation of paper from reading Paper. I always thought of paper as coming from trees, but that's a fairly recent development. For a long time, various kinds of cloth rags were the primary input material. Kurlansky describes the evolution of the paper-making process from early hand methods to modern paper mills. It's only in the last couple of centuries that the volume of paper produced has exploded, making it so easy to obtain.

The subtitle mentions "history" and there's plenty of that here. The book focuses on literacy and the use of paper, of course, but that ties into a whole lot of world history along the way. From the long history of China to the Middle East to Western civilization, Paper traces how changes in society drove the development of paper-making and usage over time.

Much of the book describes paper used for writing and drawing, of course, but I was surprised at how many other uses of paper were also mentioned. Wrapping, packing, cartridges for firearms, construction materials, even clothing...paper is used in all kinds of ways that don't immediately spring to mind for me.

Any student of history will find Paper an interesting read. Kurlansky provides a view into the long history leading to the wide variety of paper products we have today.

Sunday, December 3, 2017

Ada Chili and Beer Festival 2017

Chili and beer, sounds like a good Saturday afternoon to me.

Event Logo Image
Every year, folks from the Community Church in Ada and Ronald McDonald House organize a chili cook-off. Most of the entrants are from local restaurants and brewpubs, who also bring their beers and ciders along.
Doing an outdoor event so late in the year in Michigan is a bit risky, but the weather cooperated this year. No major snowstorms and it wasn't even all that cold. Though with as many people as were crowded into the big tent, cold wouldn't have been an issue regardless. Nice to have the option of wandering around outside a bit, though.
I didn't come close to trying every chili or beer option, way too many choices! About a half-dozen of each, I think, before I was too full to keep going. Everything was good, though! I look forward to another round next year.

Monday, November 27, 2017

Moto X4 and Project Fi

I took advantage of one Black Friday deal this year, for a new phone and carrier service.
My old phone was a Samsung Galaxy S5, which was starting to show its age. I got it last year as a refurbished sale, which was cheap but I knew it wouldn't last for long. It's been acting up recently, with battery issues and needing reboots regularly. As my carrier, I was using H2OWireless, a budget outfit which only cost me about $10/month. It mostly worked, but I had occasional connect troubles, especially when traveling. And I had to very carefully watch every MB of data to avoid high usage charges, which got annoying sometimes.

Google has a fairly new phone service offering called Project Fi, which seems to cover exactly what I'm looking for. It's a bit more expensive at $30/month, but has much better coverage and significantly more data allowance. They credit your next month if you don't use all your data, which I expect will be the case for me more often than not.

I don't need a high-end phone, so I went with the budget option that Google recommends: the Moto X4. $400 with a Black Friday sale giving $100 credit on the Project Fi service. The reviews of the X4 are good for a budget smartphone - some small issues, but nothing that will affect that way I plan to use it.

The hardware arrived today and everything's working as expected so far. I'll be testing the new phone and service out over the next few months, but I don't expect any significant issues. And if anyone decides to try out Google's Project Fi as a service, let me know and I'll share a ref link that gives us both some credit.

Friday, November 24, 2017

Underground Airlines by Ben H. Winters

Underground AirlinesUnderground Airlines by Ben H. Winters
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I picked up Underground Airlines on a friend's recommendation after he saw that I'd read The Color of Law. Both deal with racial issues in America, though otherwise the books couldn't be more different: fiction vs non-fiction, thriller novel vs historical research.

Underground Airlines takes place in an alternate reality where the Civil War was prevented, just barely, by a compromise that left slavery in place as an institution in the South. Over time, it shrunk to only four states, but also modernized and scaled up like any other industry. Giant plantations with thousands of "Persons Bound to Labor" feed demand for cheap cotton and other goods.

There's plenty of action and suspense in Underground Airlines, as our protagonist searches for an escaped slave and eventually makes his way into the lion's mouth of a slave plantation. But I found the development of his character and revelations about his history to be just as interesting as the action. He assumes identities as needed in the work, never showing the deeply scarred mind underneath...except to the reader, of course. We never even learn his real name, only that he barely remembers hearing it from his mother before being taken from her.

I was struck by how many of the differences in this alternate world seemed to be of degree rather than kind. For instance, in one scene a white woman and black man are checking into a small hotel, and the (white) clerk asks her if she is all right, obviously assuming that she's being forced. Or when a free black man in a free state is harassed by police. Or how neighborhoods are described as white or colored. We've made progress in racial integration and equality in our world, but we still struggle with those kinds of issues.

Underground Airlines is a great read just for the mystery and action, but it's even better due to the alternate reality setting. Every reader is likely to find something to make them consider our own world in a different light.

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Car Shopping

After my 2010 Toyota Yaris lost its battle against a deer, it was time to go car shopping.

I don't enjoy vehicle shopping. To me, a car is a tool to get from point A to point B, with as little fuss as possible. I don't much care about looks, high performance, fancy interiors, and just about anything else that a salesman is trying to sell the customer on. My selling points are reliability and economy, which means I'm about the lowest commission that they're likely to see. But, it's a necessary evil, so I made the rounds.

That deer did me no favors, but at least the timing wasn't too bad. Now is a pretty good time of the year to be looking for a new vehicle. The dealers still have some 2017s sitting around that they're wanting to get off the lot, so they can show off the 2018 models. And everyone has Thanksgiving, Black Friday, and Year-End deals getting off the ground.

There's no lack of places to look for a car in my area of West Michigan. Within a 15 minute drive, there are at least 7 different dealerships. Drive another 10-15 minutes and you can double that. In a couple of days, I stopped in at a variety of brand dealers: Chevy, Ford, Honda, Toyota, and Kia. Plus a couple of used lots. And looked at just about every local dealership's online listings.

I basically had three choices. One, buy a new car: most expensive but least risk of problems in the near term. Two, buy a lightly used vehicle from a dealer: a bit less expensive, but slightly more risk of problems. Three, buy a cheap older used car: almost free after my insurance payout, but highest risk of problems cropping up.

In the end, I decided on the lightly used option. I really didn't want to deal with the maintenance issues of an older used car, so that eliminated option three. I wouldn't have minded a new car if the right deal had come along, and there were some fairly decent deals available. However, there was a 2017 Chevy Cruze with 30k miles on it at the dealership right down the road that still beat the new car prices by several thousand dollars. A good chunk of the manufacturer's powertrain warranty remaining, only one previous owner, and certified by the dealer service department. The only downside was that the previous owner was a rental car agency, but the dealer certification and limited warranty that goes with it mitigates that concern.
The new Cruze, at home in the garage.
So now I'm mobile again, hopefully for many years with minimal maintenance. And no deer encounters.

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Oh Deer

I hit a deer.

It’s a dark Sunday evening, and I’m going about 50 along Broadmoor Ave, which in that spot is a 4-lane divided highway. A deer comes running left to right from the median and across in front of me, so I reacted by swerving a bit left and hitting the brakes. Which meant that I hit the second deer, right behind the first one, broadside right on the hood. I had no idea it was there until I hit it, and I had to still be going about 45 at impact.
It doesn't look too terrible...
Good news: No human injuries. The car coasted a good quarter mile down the road to a convenient parking lot entrance, so I didn’t block traffic. I didn’t go back to check on the deer but the road looked clear, as best I could see in the dark, so it probably survived. I called my auto insurance folks at State Farm and they handled roadside assistance. Both the state trooper who came to report the incident and the tow truck driver who picked up the car were awesome. They made the reporting and towing process as painless as possible under the circumstances.

Bad news: The engine died immediately and wouldn’t restart. The hood crumpled up, and one headlight shattered. Deer > car.

The tow truck dropped me off at home and I settled in to deal with insurance and repairs. I had no major plans for the next couple of days, so having no transportation didn't hurt me. By Monday afternoon, the car had been moved to a repair shop (also arranged by State Farm). And by Tuesday afternoon I had a preliminary estimate...lots o' money, likely enough to total the car.
...but a closer look shows that the front bit, with the air filter, is badly bent and pushed back into the section behind.
Why so high on the estimate? This little Toyota Yaris is a very compact car, and all the space under the hood is used very efficiently. Which means that when something impacts the front and crumples it up, it also damages engine parts. The body damage would be bad enough, but add engine repairs and the cost skyrockets.
Yep, that thing is hosed. "Twisted" is a bad look for engine parts.
So, now I'm just waiting on the official estimate and then the insurance verdict. I'll be shocked if they don't just call it totaled. Meanwhile, I'm doing a month-long rental to give myself time to figure out my car situation without too much time pressure. Not exactly the kind of holiday shopping I'd intended, but the deer didn't ask if it was a convenient time!

Saturday, November 11, 2017

Byron Center Fine Arts Boosters Craft Fair

There was a craft fair today held at the Byron Center high school. I heard about it from a friend, whose wife had a display booth for her artwork.
A herd of wooden reindeer, one of many craft items available. Managed to snap this in a rare moment when no child was trying to climb on them.
I showed up expecting a few dozen exhibitors, probably set up in the gym, and hoping I could do a bit of Christmas shopping. This was a gross underestimate. The first sign was the completely full high school parking lot - I had to park on a nearby road and walk in. There were not a few dozen booths in a gym - there were over two hundred booths set up in two gyms and lots of hallways and other areas. Hundreds of people crowded through the halls and around every booth. Clearly this is a major event!
All the cars. They had a shuttle to a nearby middle school for even more parking.
All kinds of craft art was on display. Paintings, wood carvings, clothing of various kinds, pillows, and so on. Several booths had collections of rock pieces. There was a group selling "yard yahtzee" with giant wooden dice, and several with various versions of the cornhole beanbag-toss yard game. And food, of course, from kettle corn to bake sale tables. It was not hard to fill a few spots on my Christmas list!
One of two gyms full of people. Not to mention all the hallways.
The fair benefits the Byron Center Fine Arts Boosters, which is a volunteer organization that raises money for fine arts programs like theater, band, and choir. I'm always happy to help out those kinds of causes, though it does sadden me a bit that it's necessary. Personally, I'd be happy to pay a bit more in taxes so all schools could have this level of support for these kinds of programs, not just the districts that are wealthy enough to support organizations like the Fine Arts Boosters.
I did not purchase the Batman pillow-and-blanket combination. But it was tempting.
My visit to the craft fair was a fun couple of hours, and useful in the annual holiday shopping quest. I'll be keeping it in mind for next year, too.

Sunday, November 5, 2017

The Color of Law by Richard Rothstein

The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated AmericaThe Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America by Richard Rothstein
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The Color of Law makes the case that racial segregation of African Americans in the United States was largely enacted by government action, and has never been sufficiently addressed.

Much of the book is devoted to explaining the many practices, at all levels of government, that caused segregation that persists to this day. From zoning boards to police to union regulations to school boards, discrimination and segregation has resulted directly from government actions or refusal to halt unconstitutional citizen activities. I don't think there are many people who would disagree that this was the case from the Civil War until the Civil Rights movement in the 1950s and 1960s.

Rothstein takes the argument further, though, explaining how the results of segregation have caused lasting harm to those affected. Explicit racism has largely been eliminated through legislation and the courts, but very little was done to correct the results of decades of government-sponsored segregation. Generations of African Americans have lower wages, less housing equity, and fewer educational opportunities than their white counterparts. Those disadvantages compound over time, and have never been corrected.

Today's policies may no longer be explicitly based on race, but many still effectively target African Americans due to the legacy of segregation. Public services based on property values, for instance, will provide lower funding and service levels for low-income areas, which is where many African Americans still reside. Government provides more support to affluent suburbs (the mortgage interest deduction is one example), which are largely white. Even programs which support low-income citizens have restrictions which serve to keep those people in the same locations and professions...segregation in all but name.

Rothstein puts forward a few ideas for making corrections to this inequality, but he himself says that it's highly unlikely that any would be enacted. Allowing African American buyers to purchase houses at a discount proportional to their income (vs equivalent white residents), for instance. That might be correct some of the historical discrimination, but would assuredly be seen as favoritism in today's political climate.

I must admit, I found The Color of Law to be somewhat depressing. The extent of the racial discrimination in the history of our country, and the impact it still has to this day, isn't easy to face. But I think it's important to recognize these kinds of flaws, both to avoid repeating past mistakes, and to have perspective on current issues. If more people recognized this history, we might find more support for the kind of policies that can begin to undo the damage.

Friday, November 3, 2017

New Game!

New Game! is an anime series about a girl who gets her dream job as a video game character designer right out of high school.

New Game! volume 1 cover.jpg
The series follows Aoba Suzukaze, who is starting her first job at a video game company. She's working alongside the designer of her favorite games, learning the ropes as she goes along. We see the daily lives of Aoba and her co-workers as they proceed through the game development schedule.

Most episodes focus on one aspect or another of Aoba's adjustment to the working world. It was a bit nostalgic for me, watching her go through situations that I remember from my own first days in the workplace. Who hasn't locked themselves out of the office by forgetting their badge, or unknowingly caused trouble for another team because you didn't know the right processes to follow in your own work? The parts about over-working hit particularly close to home.

Pretty much every character in New Game! is female, which isn't uncommon in seinen manga and anime. There are some minor yuri references, but for the most part these are co-workers and friends, with no romance angle. The art style reflects that, with only minor fan service aspects. Very little in the series would have to change if they'd chosen to go all-male or mixed genders, which I appreciated. A sign of good writing, in my opinion, not relying on tired over-the-top sexual tropes for drama and humor.

I really enjoyed the initial set of twelve episodes. Later on, in the second set of twelve episodes, I felt that the quality went downhill a bit. The show began to feel repetitive, and very similar to other shows of the same type. The fan service was more pronounced, too, though still not anywhere near as bad as many other anime shows. I still liked it, just not quite as much in the second half.

Despite the weaker second half, I had a lot of fun watching New Game!. I'd be happy to see the creators do additional similar series.

Sunday, October 29, 2017

The Wolf at the End of the World by Douglas Smith

The Wolf at the End of the WorldThe Wolf at the End of the World by Douglas Smith
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The Wolf at the End of the World takes stories from indigenous North American cultures and brings them to life in a modern fantasy world where the spirits are real. Smith mixes modern life and the spirits from the stories together smoothly to tell a story of world-threatening danger.

This is a story about the interaction between the modern world and a spirit world that has been all but forgotten. A few Ojibwe elders still remember the old ways, and there are a few shapeshifters, or Heroka, who live in secret and have direct links to the spirits. But the Heroka are caught between a government agency that fears them from the modern world, and malevolent spirits bent on world devastation from the spirit world. The oblivious destruction of the natural balance by ignorant humans have given those spirits an opportunity that could mean the end for humanity.

A variety of relationships develop throughout the story: family ties, the bond between lovers, the close-knit communities of the Ojibwe people and the Heroka, the Heroka's partnerships with their totem animals. All the main characters are well rounded and developed, both the heroes and villains (and it's not always clear which those are).

I enjoyed Smith's writing style, which kept just enough action in the early going to keep things interesting, then built to a whirlwind of activity in a climactic final confrontation. There's plenty of good dialog, and the occasional humorous interaction (mostly involving the young Heroka Caz) breaks up some of the serious tension.

There's some fairly obvious cultural commentary in the book. Greed of the white man upsetting the natural balance is a central theme. Younger generations leaving behind their cultural roots, fear and hatred of those who are different, abuse of power against minorities...plenty of clear warning messages. But it never felt to me as if Smith was preaching, rather just letting the results of bad choices come to light.

I thought The Wolf at the End of the World was a solid story and an enjoyable read, though the concept of bringing old stories to life isn't particularly original. It's a good implementation of that well-trodden path, though, well worth a look.

Thursday, October 26, 2017

From Eeebox to ThinkCentre

The tiny little computer I bought back in 2011 finally gave up the ghost last week. It did yeoman's work for six years as a proxy and file server. This week, I spent a few hours setting up a replacement.
That little computer was an ASUS "Eee box" that I picked up from Newegg for less than $200 (of course, I named it Eeebox). Very low-powered - didn't use much electrical power, didn't have much processing power. I put Ubuntu Linux on it, added a couple of external drives for storage space, and used it as a file server at home. It also did duty as a proxy server, routing traffic over a VPN connection for security. For a while it was also my MythTV server, but it really didn't have the power for that, and eventually I moved MythTV over to another machine.

I've had a few problems over the last year or so, with the machine occasionally rebooting itself or locking up. So I'd kept an eye out for a replacement, and back in February there was a sale on Woot for a Lenovo ThinkCentre tiny desktop (obviously, this one is Thinkbox). About twice as expensive as Eeebox had been, but more than twice as powerful in pretty much the same small footprint and with similar low power usage. So when the Eeebox hard drive started making seriously disturbing noises last week, I was ready to make the switch.

Ubuntu works fine as an operating system, so I saw no reason to change to anything new. Installation was straightforward via a USB drive, using the server version of Ubuntu since I don't plan to use any desktop applications. It was pretty obvious right away that Thinkbox is a much faster machine - installation and updates went much more quickly than just about anything I'd done on Eeebox. Recovering my file shares was as simple as plugging in those external drives and copying over the filesystem and sharing entries.

The bulk of my setup time was spent making sure that my VPN and proxy configuration was correct. The VPN software I use is openvpn, which is a standard package for Ubuntu, and my VPN provider has an easy download package with all the configuration files. The tricky part is that I use a three-network setup: my local home network, a US VPN connection, and a European VPN connection. (Why two VPN connections? Some things only work with one or the other.) It's easy to configure openvpn to start both connections - just put both in /etc/default/openvpn and put unique port numbers/device names in their configuration files - but then you need to make sure network traffic goes to the correct connection.

The way I accomplished this is using iptables. First, I configured both VPN connections so they don't try to take over the system's default routing with the route-noexec directive in their configuration files. Then, using this blog post as a guide, I created two sets of rules that enforce routing for each network interface. Using the route-upup, and down directives in the VPN configuration files, those rules are updated every time the VPN connections start or stop. This means that I can still use my default network for basic stuff (like checking for OS updates or installing new software), but the two VPN connections can always be available at the same time. Finally, I use the dante proxy server to bind to the VPN network interface.

So what does all this do for me? The end result is that any machine connected to my local network can use a VPN connection simply by setting the proxy server. I can even have two different applications on the same machine (say, Chrome and Firefox) using separate connections at the same time. Depending on what I'm doing, I might use my normal Internet connection, the US VPN, or the European VPN - all I have to do to switch is update the proxy settings. No need to have VPN software installed on multiple machines or worry about turning the connections on and off.

Thinkbox has been up and running for a few days now and seems to be functioning just fine. With any luck, it will last at least as long as Eeebox did.

Saturday, October 21, 2017

Club Anyone by Lou Agresta

Club AnyoneClub Anyone by Lou Agresta
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Club Anyone has an awful lot packed into one book. Dystopian corporation-ruled future. Human cybernetic augmentation. Colonization of Mars. Drug addiction. Romance, both failed and successful. Artificial intelligence. And that is by no means an exhaustive list.

The story follows Derek, a mid-level employee of a major corporation who has big plans to make a new life for himself and his family on Mars. Plans that almost immediately fall apart as his wife refuses to leave Earth to join him, initiating a downward spiral that leads him into ever-increasing debt to his employer and dangerous underworld involvement. The first half of the book is all about Derek's fall into danger, depression, and some terrible life choices.

Things change significantly in the second half of the book, as Derek (barely) survives the trouble that he fell into. It's hard to say much more than that without spoilers, but I doubt anyone would be surprised to know that there's plenty of action, wild and crazy people (and other entities), and romance to heal his broken heart. The story ends well, but with enough open questions that future stories set in the same world are certainly possible.

The world that Agresta builds is nicely detailed, describing a blend of cyberpunk and space colonization genres. Cybernetics are common, corporations are ultra-powerful, and there's a thriving black-market of illicit tech and drugs...very much the cyberpunk style. Setting the book on Mars adds an interesting twist to what I'm used to thinking of as the standard cyberpunk world.

I enjoyed Agresta's writing style, which has plenty of wit and does a fine job bringing the story's characters to life. I thought the pacing dragged a bit in the first half of the book, but once the action really started in the second half, I had no trouble staying engaged through to the end.

For anyone that enjoys the cyberpunk genre, Club Anyone should be high on your read list. Fans of any kind of sci-fi action and intrigue will likely enjoy it, for that matter, even if cyberpunk isn't usually your thing.

Thursday, October 19, 2017

Stay Crazy by Erica L. Satifka

Stay CrazyStay Crazy by Erica L. Satifka
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

"It's not paranoia if they're really out to get you." That old saying isn't entirely accurate in Stay Crazy, because our heroine Em really is paranoid (specifically, paranoid schizophrenic with depressive tendencies). But as strange things happen at the local superstore, it may that something really is out to get her, too.

Em is a young woman dealing with mental illness in rural Pennsylvania. She's had to drop out of college, returning home to live with her mother and younger sister. When she takes a job at the local Savertown USA big-box discount store, she begins to hear a voice coming from another dimension. Strange suicides plague the store's employees, and Em follows the voice's instructions to stem an extra-dimensional incursion and save the day.

At least, that's how Em describes things. Since the story is told entirely from her perspective, and her illness is certainly not totally under control, it's not clear to the reader whether the unnatural extra-dimensional events are really happening or not. It all seems to merge into the world as Em sees it, but is it reality or something warped by her perceptions?

In the end, I don't think it really matters, since Stay Crazy is less a story about extra-dimensional beings and more a window into Em's life as she deals with her illness. Struggling with her medication, dealing with well-meaning but unhelpful doctors, relationship troubles, and many other aspects of living with schizophrenic and depression. All made more difficult by the knowledge that she's in a dead-end job in a small town with little prospect for improvement.

Em is a sarcastic and witty narrator. There's plenty of humor, even when things appear to be pretty bleak. Satifka's characters are nicely developed as the story moves along, though few are particularly likable (at least as colored by Em's perceptions).

Em certainly has her fair share of problems, both self-inflicted and external. The author doesn't end with a happily-ever-after scenario, but things are looking up for her, though plenty of work remains. In the end, I felt like she'd made it through a difficult time and had hope for a better life ahead. Despite all the difficult subject matter, Stay Crazy manages to be both an entertaining and hopeful story.

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Envy of Angels by Matt Wallace

Envy of Angels (Sin du Jour, #1)Envy of Angels by Matt Wallace
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

"Everyone else sees a legion of undead clowns worshiping a giant chicken, right?" If that sentence makes you want to read more, then Envy of Angels is the book for you.

If the modern world was home to fantasy races (goblins, demons, etc), and they had formal events just like normal folks, then they'd need someone to do the catering. That's the basic premise behind the Sin du Jour series, of which this is the first book.

Wallace writes with a light and humorous style, suited perfectly to the fantastic-but-not-too-serious subject matter. I ran across quite a few lines worth a chuckle, and the parody of a certain segment of the fast-food industry is great.

I enjoyed all the characters, though none had a lot of depth. That's not surprising in a fairly short book with quite a few different characters. I haven't yet read further into the series, where I expect one would learn more about many of them.

I'll be seeking out more of the Sin du Jour series. If the later books are as good as the first, I'll go through them all and be looking for more.

Friday, October 13, 2017

Cracked! A Magic iPhone Story by Janine A. Southard

Cracked! A Magic iPhone StoryCracked! A Magic iPhone Story by Janine A. Southard
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I wasn't entirely sure what to expect from a book with "Magic iPhone" in the title, to be honest. Urban fantasy, to be sure. An immortal elf, not too surprising. Set in Seattle, that fits (if not as obvious as Silicon Valley would have been). And less-than-ideal romance, sure, that works in any story. But there's less focus on either the magic or the technology than I would have expected.

The focus of Cracked is much more on relationships, particularly the three main characters. Morena and Suzyn dominate the first half, and Magic Guy (that's the aforementioned elf, who is fine with the nickname) makes it a trio later on. Morena spends a lot of energy on romance, but that's not really what the story is about. It's about friendship, and realizing that while everyone may need someone, traditional romance isn't the only solution.

There is magic involved in the story, of course, but it doesn't dominate. Morena and Suzyn never even acknowledge that it exists. The iPhone of the title plays a large role in driving the plot, but it's not until late in the book that the magic is really front-and-center. For most of the story, there could have been no magic at all, if you allow for some pretty strange coincidences.

The novel is set in Seattle in 2013, and there's a lot of specific references that make sense in that context. I suppose in 50 years it might be difficult for younger folks to relate, but right now it works just fine. It certainly helps if you're familiar with the Pacific Northwest, but I don't think it's necessary. Enough is explained that anyone should enjoy a good portion of the references, even if some of the more subtle things go unnoticed.

The story is a fairly quick read, and easy to follow. There's not much in the way of page-turning action or suspense, but the characters are enjoyable and well defined. I found myself happy to keep reading to find out what they'd do next. Give Cracked a try, and you'll likely find yourself doing the same.

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Blood Blockade Battlefront

Blood Blockade Battlefront is an anime series about an alternate New York where a hole to another dimension has turned the city into a crossroads for all kinds of non-humans, mixing with the human population. A magical barrier keeps the intersection between our world and "Beyond" contained, preventing the two dimensions from destroying one another.

The protagonist in Blood Blockade Battlefront is Leonardo Watch, an unremarkable human except that his eyes have been replaced by a powerful artifact that lets him see nearly anything, no matter how well hidden or disguised. He got those eyes when an unknown entity took his sister's sight in exchange, and he's in New York looking for answers and to find a way to help her. Leonardo joins a group called Libra, a secret society that works behind the scenes to curb dangerous magic and non-human attacks. The other members are much more skilled in terms of fighting prowess, but Leonardo's vision is a huge asset in tracking down threats. He also meets a brother-sister pair who call themselves White and Black, who have a similar history to his own.

There's a good balance in Blood Blockade Battlefront between advancing the plot, developing characters, humor, and action. Some shows focus on one or two of those things largely to the exclusion of the others, and that can work fine, but I appreciate that the writers put the effort into using all those aspects. The humor in particular is often understated and dry, but fits in well, usually at the expense of one character flaw or another. Action encompasses not just fighting but also other scenes, like high-speed chases. Actual fighting is largely limited to the combatants shouting names of their "secret techniques" at one another. Not my favorite style, but it's not over-used here so I can put up with it.

Blood Blockade Battlefront reminds me a bit of Monogatari, in a few different ways. Both deal with confronting supernatural threats outside the public eye, use some pretty strange visual aspects, and have occasional weird perspective shifts. All of this is much less pronounced in Blood Blockade Battlefront than it was in Monogatari, though. The character types and development felt similar to me, too. However, there's no harem aspect and more action in Blood Blockade Battlefront, which is all to the good. If you liked Monogatari, there's a good chance you'll like Blood Blockade Battlefront too.

I enjoyed this first series of episodes for Blood Blockade Battlefront, and look forward to the second set later on this year.

Saturday, September 30, 2017

Great Pumpkin Runs 2017

The folks who organize The Great Pumpkin Run stay busy in the fall, organizing races in ten different cities this year. I went to two of them, near Lansing and Grand Rapids.
Both events took place at cider orchards. Early in September, I drove over to Uncle John's Cider Mill north of Lansing. And a few weeks later at the end of the month, I went up to Klackle Orchards in Greenville, north of Grand Rapids. It took me an hour or so in each case, since I live south of Grand Rapids.

Both of these cider orchards are popular family outing places even when there's not an event like The Great Pumpkin Run. Play areas for the kids, band stages, cider and donut vending, etc. Fortunately the races happen early in the morning before the rush of regular visitors arrive. I'm glad I signed up for the early race waves, because there were a ton of people showing up even as I was finished and leaving. Traffic was pretty heavy, especially at Klackle.

The race routes went through apple orchards, as you'd expect, as well as pumpkin fields and some forest trails (in the case of Uncle Johns). Part of the Klackle course even went through their corn maze. Probably not going to set any personal records on those courses, but they're a fun change of pace from road routes. My GPS said that both courses were a bit under five kilometers, which was probably intentional as there were a lot of twists and turns, plus the finish lines were uphill from the starting area.
For the adventuresome, runners could sign up to carry a pumpkin around the course. I have enough minor back pain without carrying extra weight while running, thank you, but I saw quite a few other people doing it. One guy had a huge pumpkin that he had balanced on one shoulder as he made his way around the course. Weird, but impressive.

Always nice to have a little cider at the end of a run, and the orchard routes are interesting as long as it's not raining. The Great Pumpkin Run was fun, though I probably won't do two of them in future years. One per year is plenty!

Friday, September 22, 2017

Orconomics: A Satire

Orconomics: A Satire (The Dark Profit Saga, #1)Orconomics: A Satire by J. Zachary Pike
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Since it's right in the title, it's no surprise that Orconomics: A Satire pokes fun at the high fantasy genre. It's more than just a parody, though, with some interesting extrapolation of what could happen when such a world runs into some of the more sophisticated and manipulative ideas of the modern world.

The world that Pike has built in this novel has all the familiar underpinnings of high fantasy. Many races - Elves, Dwarves, Goblins, and so on - roam the land. Wizards throw fireballs and delve into forbidden magic. Kings and queens and various heirs to thrones are (at least nominally) in charge. Heroes of all stripes go on quests of all kinds. A pantheon of gods, some modern and active, others ancient but never totally forgotten, are served by temples and priests. The author makes quite a few references to other such worlds - Tolkien's Middle-Earth, role-playing games like D&D - so there's no doubt of the foundations.

This world, though, has progressed further than the typical high fantasy setting. Technology is mostly the same, largely in the medieval era, but other areas of society have innovated. The hero profession has been institutionalized and drives the economy. Powerful financial houses invest in heroic quests and wield great economic and political power. Manufacturing of magical items is done at scale with assembly-line techniques. Traditionally evil races (orcs, goblins, etc) have begun to integrate into society.

The story follows a small company of largely disgraced heroes, who are forced together by circumstance to join the followers of a mad goddess. Motivated by the opportunity to regain their status in society, the group takes on a quest and stumbles through repeated danger. Interpersonal relations in the party are tense at best, but improve over time, and eventually the group works together well enough to complete their task. At which point it all falls apart, setting our heroes against pretty much all of society.

I liked pretty much all of the main characters, who start largely as fantasy stereotypes and then develop more depth. I thought Pike did a fine job capturing the feel of a misfit adventuring party, and then giving the reader reason to care about each of the less-than-perfect characters. Even the least likeable (for me, the "bard") have redeeming moments.

Pike's writing style fits nicely into the story and setting. There are a few awkward placements of jokes that fall flat (at least for me), but that could just be differences in sense of humor. On the whole, I found the book to move along at a good pace with plenty of interesting happenings along the way.

Orconomics was a fun read, though I suspect anyone not familiar with high fantasy worlds might feel a bit lost at some of the references. Pike is writing a sequel, which I'm certainly interested in taking a look at once it's finished.

Sunday, September 17, 2017

Hidden Figures (movie)

I'm a sucker for pretty much anything to do with space travel. Hidden Figures takes place at NASA in the 1960s, so it definitely falls into that category. But it's the extraordinary story of black women overcoming racial and gender stereotypes that really drives this film.

Three women standing in the foreground. In the background a rocket is launching.
As a computer nerd with a moderate interest in history, I'd heard of Dorothy Vaughan, a supervisor and self-taught programmer who worked with the first computers at NASA. Only the basic outlines, though, without much of the personal detail that the movie shows. And the stories of Katherine Johnson and Mary Jackson were entirely new to me.

There's a lot of casual racism and sexism portrayed in the film, as you'd expect when the setting is the early 1960s. In quite a few spots, I found myself thinking "I'm sure glad we're past that" - segregated fountains, separate coffeepots, refusing to let a woman into meetings, colored-only bus seating, etc. But then there were other parts that I think haven't changed as much as I'd like. Mistaking Katherine for a janitor, for instance. Or high-level decisions being made in meetings consisting entirely of white men. Anyone who thinks that society has moved past the issues portrayed in this film needs to look a bit more closely - there's been progress, but there's still plenty to be done.

The tension of the space race and cold war is worth noting, too. For people of my generation and older, it's not all that remarkable - we grew up with the Soviet Union always out there, with nuclear holocaust looming if either side blinked. But anyone who can't remember the world before 1991 has never known that tension, so references to "duck and cover drills" and the fierce patriotism felt by the entire country when opposing the Soviets has got to be an alien concept. I thought the movie did a good job of portraying this, though of course I'm not exactly the target audience.

As with most historical movies, not everything is perfectly accurate. I'm no expert, but I did read a few articles afterward about where the movie made some changes. From what I found, I think the film makers did a fine job of making sure the concepts were communicated, even when they couldn't use the exact people or events. And when they did follow the historical record, everything I read said that they did an outstanding job.

I really enjoyed Hidden Figures, and recommend it to anyone. I hope it's a part of inspiring the next generation of mathematicians and engineers, regardless of who they are or what they look like.

Sunday, September 10, 2017

ACCA: 13-Territory Inspection Dept.

ACCA: 13-Territory Inspection Dept. tells a story of politics, intrigue, and long-lost royal scions on a vaguely old-world-European fictional continent (shaped for some reason like a bird).

ACCA Volume 1 Manga Cover.jpg
The series takes place in the kingdom of Dowa, which is divided into 13 territories which are mostly autonomous. An organization called ACCA provides most of the essential services in the entire kingdom, operating mostly independently of the monarchy. The main character, Jean, is an ACCA inspector who visits each of the 13 territories in the course of his job.

Each of the territories is a themed caricature - a desert region with only mining industry, a super-fertile region where everything grows to huge size, a Las-Vegas-like tourist region with casinos, etc. Much of this is just side flavor in the story, but two territories in particular have more significance. One is Furawau - a Middle-East-style region with large oil reserves, made very rich by that bounty of natural resource, and controlled by a single large family. The other is Suitsu, where travel restrictions and a very strict division between nobility and commoner have resulted in economically poor conditions and rebellion.

The story takes enough twists and turns that it's not easy to talk about it without spoilers, but it's probably no surprise to anyone that Jean gets caught up in intrigue that affects the entire kingdom. This takes the form of a coup, timed to prevent the ascension of a new ruler to the throne. Prince Schwann, the heir apparent, is dismissive of ACCA and plans to dismantle it. The powerful figures behind ACCA have no intention of going quietly.

In the last few episodes, particularly the last one, the path the story took isn't particularly credible. There are a lot of plot twists, which are very exciting but not very believable. Perhaps with a bit more explanation and/or groundwork to set up the sudden shifts, it would have felt more realistic. As it was, it felt like deus ex machina at the end.

ACCA: 13-Territory Inspection Dept. has some fairly pointed commentary on social and political systems. Condemnation of the restriction of freedoms in Suitsu is an obvious one. Strength through diversity is emphasized, as ACCA incorporates people and resources from all 13 territories. The dangers of autocratic rule is a central theme, both in terms of the kingdom monarchy and the hereditary control in Furawau and Suitsu. At the same time, there's a heavy emphasis on maintaining culture and tradition, exemplified by the fact that no one advocates actually overthrowing the monarchy - just replacing the prince.

There are some fairly silly side themes in ACCA: 13-Territory Inspection Dept., too. Many of the characters have a fascination with sandwich bread, which for some reason is only made in the Badon territory. Jean is a heavy smoker in a society where almost no one else smokes, and giving him gifts of territory-specific cigarettes becomes a plot device. These sorts of things add a lighter side to the series - silly, yes, but I think it mostly worked well to balance out the heavier intrigue plot points.

I thought ACCA: 13-Territory Inspection Dept. was reasonably good for a short series, despite what felt like clumsy writing in the plot twists at the end. Not bad if you like the intrigue theme.

Monday, August 28, 2017

The Man in the High Castle (novel)

The Man in the High CastleThe Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I recently read Phillip K Dick's novel The Man in the High Castle . Re-read, technically, though the first time was more than twenty years ago, so my recollection was hazy at best.

I'm writing here about the novel, not the video series on Amazon Video. That's a good show, but it doesn't actually have a lot in common with the novel. It borrows the name of the novel and high-level world-building concept (the Axis powers won World War II), but little else. Character names, locations, and various plot elements from the book are present in the show, but almost none of them are used in the same way. The show uses much more of the world, has a much wider cast of characters, and describes a more detailed narrative than the book.

That world-building concept is the main draw of The Man in the High Castle. The author works in a good number of details about the alternate history of the world. Germany ended up with the hydrogen bomb, not the United States. Great Britain is portrayed as a major villain, the source of war criminals that committed atrocities in Africa during the conflict. Germany and Japan have divided the USA between them with a narrow buffer state in the Rocky Mountains. The inferiority of non-Aryan, non-Japanese races is accepted by the public at large, and Jews in particular live in fear. It's certainly the picture of a dystopia, but close enough to our own world's history that it's easy to picture as a possibility.

What the book doesn't do particularly well, at least in my opinion, is deliver a consistent and interesting narrative. The characters tend to sort of wander around aimlessly much of the time, with no real connection between them. There's a lot of reference to the I Ching , a Chinese divination text used as an oracle by most of the characters, which it seems to me was largely a crutch they used to deal with their lack of control over their own lives. There are a few major threads, following characters like Mr Tagomi, Juliana, and Frank, but all that really ties them together is a few chance encounters. I think that may have been part of the point, that people and events are influenced by seemingly inconsequential meetings, but in my mind it didn't make for a particularly compelling plot.

That's all right, though, since as far as I'm concerned the real point of the book is the world-building and exploration of how people live in that world. The German empire has expanded and made scientific advances that are the envy of the world, and undertaken great public works projects, including a Mars space program. Japan is the world's other great power, but clearly an underdog in any conflict. Both great empires are harshly oppressive by the standards of our world. Conflict between the two is looming. It's a detailed and coherent picture of the alternate world, though not a particularly bright one.

One major thing that sets The Man in the High Castle apart from many alternate history stories is the presence of "The Grasshopper Lies Heavy", a book that describes a world where the Allies won the war. Most of the characters encounter the book and largely dismiss it as fantasy, which makes perfect sense as that's exactly what the reader is doing with The Man in the High Castle. Mr Tagomi actually has an experience in an alternate world, but his mental state is precarious at best. In any event, the idea of an alternate world has little material impact, but it certainly affects the thoughts and actions of several of the main characters.

I really enjoyed the concepts set forth in The Man in the High Castle, with the alternate end to the war and the world that results. The actual writing wasn't really to my liking, but the ideas came through clearly enough and that makes it a fine read.

Friday, August 25, 2017

Kado: The Right Answer

Kado: The Right Answer is a short anime series that takes alien invasion in a bit of an odd direction.

Kado starts with a giant cube-shaped alien artifact showing up on an airport runway and engulfing a jet and its passengers. Things progress from there through the usual panic, confusion, and eventually communication with an alien being (named Yaha-kui zaShunina). Over time, the plane passengers are all returned safely, but that's just the beginning of the alien encounter. Knowledge of huge scientific advancements follow, starting with unlimited clean energy, and quickly cause infighting among nations across the world. In the end, humanity has to deal with the zaShunina's real interests - I'm sure it's not much of a spoiler to say that it's not necessarily good for the humans involved.

The alien encounter here is framed as coming from higher dimensions, rather than life from elsewhere in our own universe. Not a new idea, but certainly less common than little green men or bugs or whatever from a distant star. The series uses some interesting visuals to emphasize the differences - for instance, zaShunina's arms aren't generally attached to his body and move independently, sometimes appearing and disappearing into thin air. There's also quite a lot of complex moving patterns used on the alien artifacts to give a sense of their strangeness and complexity.

Some of the usual themes in an alien encounter story are turned around in Kado. For instance, there's basically no secrecy involved - the media are fully involved at pretty much every step, at the insistence of zaShunina. He deals specifically with the government of Japan and shows no interest in other authorities, even when the United Nations gets involved. There's effectively no violence at all. The writers did a good job of making all these different themes work within the framework of an alien encounter.

This series moves along fairly slowly. It's only twelve episodes and about 4.5 hours long, and yet it still felt like the plot didn't progress much in places. I think the story could have fairly easily been put into a movie format rather than a series and been handled just as well. The extended time didn't bother me too much, though, since it gives the viewer some time to think about the various odd happenings.

The weakest part of Kado in my opinion is the ending. (Minor spoilers here but nothing too specific.) It turns out that zaShunina isn't the only alien being in the story, and in the end his plans are upset by cooperation between humans and that other alien. I thought the introduction of another non-human force felt contrived, coming into the story as late as it did. If they'd had some indication from the start that zaShunina wasn't alone, I think that would have worked a lot better.

Despite the weakness near the end, I had a fun time with Kado. Definitely not for the action lover or impatient viewer, but it brings up some interesting ideas and the production is excellent. Worth the short watch time if the concepts are at all interesting to you.

Monday, August 7, 2017

Grand Rapids Race to the Bar Crawl 2017

Here's a terrible idea: run 3-4 miles, stopping at five bars along the way to drink a beer at each. So of course I did it.
The Race to the Bar Crawl event is the last in the Grand Rapids Beer Flight Running Series that Trivium Racing started this year. I'd already run in the Growler Gallop Atwater 5k at the end of April, HopCat Extra Time 5k in May (no blog post on that one), and New Holland Pub on 8th 8k in June. Those first three were regular races, mostly about the running, though you did get to drink a beer at the end.

This time the event was much more about the beer. We went to five different bars around downtown Grand Rapids, and had a beer ticket for each. You didn't have to drink them all, or do it while running...some people went back afterward, some just walked between the bars, others didn't drink at all. But you did have to go to each bar, where a volunteer would give you a sticker to show that you'd made it to that checkpoint.

There was no official course, just the start/finish location and five bars. There was a suggested route, but you were welcome to find your own path, as long as you obeyed the traffic laws. There were no streets closed, so we all had to watch out for cars! According to my GPS tracker, I ended up going a total of 5.9 km. I never really got lost, although I did nearly run past one of the bars since I ended up approaching it from the back instead of the front - fortunately they had a sign! I ended up jogging along the river for quite a bit of the run, which was nice.

Being a moron, I both ran and drank at all five bars along the way. That's four and a half pints (City Built Brewing had a smaller size glass) in 50 minutes, which is a lot by itself. Add in the running and I was certainly feeling a bit rough around the edges! I enjoyed it, though. They had plenty of water and snack food at the finish - both pretzels and similar bar food, and granola and bananas and other post-run food. I stayed there for more than an hour, talking with other participants and cheering the award winners, and by the time that was all done I felt fine.

All four of the Beer Flight Series races were a good time. I'll be keeping an eye out to see if they're doing again next year.

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

Terror in Resonance

Terror in Resonance is set in an alternate modern-day Japan where a series of terrorist attacks are being carried out in Tokyo. It follows the young terrorists and the detective hunting them, through the attacks and the discovery of the reasons behind them.
Terror in Resonance Poster.jpg
It's clear very early on in this series that the heroes of the story are the two young men who are carrying out the terrorist bombings. You don't learn their reasons until nearly the end, but even in the first couple of episodes it's clear that they're not out to do major harm. They're careful to avoid deaths and minimize injuries, and even help to stop one of the bombings when things go wrong. I don't think the writers intended to condone the use of terrorism, but it's certainly not painted as the ultimate evil that we tend to think of in the modern world.

The evil in this series comes largely from governments. The main detective character is an outcast with the police force, having previously been demoted for pursuing the wrong powerful government official. Secret government programs played a large role in our young terrorists' background. The United States sends an armed contingent to "cooperate" with the police, effectively taking over and making things quite a bit worse. The corruption of authority is overwhelming, leading to those terrorist tactics.

Considering how short the series is (only 11 episodes, about 4 hours), I thought the characters were fairly well developed. There's time to get a good feel for the two young men, a girl that they befriend along the way, and their detective pursuer. Most of the other characters have little depth, but that's not really an issue since they don't get a lot of screen time anyhow. The limited length of the series means that it stays focused on the main characters and key story elements without much in the way of tangents, which I appreciated.

The production quality of Terror in Resonance is solid, if not particularly eye-catching. This isn't a series with a lot of flashy action sequences, but what action there was worked well. The voice actors did a solid job, the visuals were well done, and the music was great. (No surprise there, music by Yoko Kanno.)

I was very impressed with Terror in Resonance. It may be short, but that's not a drawback in a series that has a well-crafted story to tell. Definitely worth the watch.

Friday, July 28, 2017

Active Raid

Active Raid follows a police unit in near-future Japan that uses personal robotic suits called Willwear. They're basically miniature mecha, taking on threats that largely come from misuse of technology.
Image result
Active Raid caught my eye primarily because it was broadly in the police/military genre, which I enjoy (one of the many reasons I'm a Ghost in the Shell fan). There are quite a few plot points that revolve around bureaucratic in-fighting, a staple of the genre. The unit members fit broadly into the usual stereotypes: techie handyman, calm but rule-bound fighter, info hacker, hot-headed fighter, and so on. The overall story progresses from seemingly unrelated crimes to tracking down a shadowy mastermind (twice, since it's broken into two seasons). I'd say the series does an adequate job of representing the genre, though nothing particularly new or exciting.

At first glance, Active Raid does very little to make it stand out from any similar series. A bunch of young officers are gathered in a special unit that takes on mecha...I mean, Willwear...threats. Just about every episode makes sure to spend time going through the Willwear-equipping process, making it look like a toy commercial. The villains are caricatures, from bank robbers to love-crazed idol fans. Fan service is minimal as far as these kind of series go, but certainly not completely absent. Not exactly breaking new ground.

That impression never completely goes away, but there's more to the series as it goes along. Quite a few contemporary societal issues are brought up, from government corruption to dealing with dementia to the dangers of widespread malware attacks. It's all done in a fairly light-hearted way, but it seemed clear to me that the writers wanted to give viewers something to think about beyond just the robot suits zipping around. You could pretty easily choose to ignore it, but those themes are there if you're inclined to consider them.

Active Raid is worth the time to watch if you're a fan of the police/military and/or mecha genres, as long as you don't mind that it doesn't take itself too seriously. It's unlikely to change your mind if you don't particularly like those genres, though.

Sunday, July 23, 2017

Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor

First-person action brawlers aren't really my thing, but I can be persuaded to play them if the theme is interesting. And themes don't get a whole lot better than the Lord of the Rings universe.

Shadow of Mordor cover art.jpg
Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor came out last year, which makes it a fairly new game for me to be playing. There's a sequel on the way soon, which of course means good deals on the original, so I picked it up for just a few bucks in a recent sale. I played it on my PC, though it's available on just about every gaming platform.

The story takes place in the time between the Hobbit (when Bilbo finds the One Ring) and the start of the main story in Fellowship of the Ring (when the Fellowship starts their quest and the War of the Ring begins). The main character is a ranger named Talion, who used to patrol parts of Mordor before Sauron and his minions began to reclaim it. He's haunted/possessed by a mysterious elven spirit, giving him all kinds of interesting abilities. Learning about that spirit makes up a good chunk of the storyline.

Shadow of Mordor does several interesting things as far as combat mechanics. There's the usual assortment of physical attacks - sword for melee, dagger for stealth, bow for ranged - but everything can be augmented by special spirit abilities. You can drain enemies of their energy to replenish ammo, for instance, or have your spirit augment melee attacks to stun enemies. Lots of blood and gore while beating up orcs, too, of course. I'm not particularly good at these kinds of first-person action combat mechanics, so it took me a while to get the hang of it, but eventually I got fairly decent at taking on hordes of orcs.

There's quite a bit of Middle-earth flavor in the game, which I really liked. You can find various artifacts with bits of lore embedded, each of which has a bit of story attached. There's small silvery runes called Ithildin to collect, which unlock portions of a image similar to the hidden Moria door. And throughout the main story there are references to the larger world, from references to coming war to an appearance by Gollum. They do take some liberties with the world that may upset some of the Middle Earth purists out there, but I don't mind that sort of thing, figuring I can just ignore the bits that don't seem to fit.

As Talion goes around Mordor, he'll run into stronger enemy leaders that are tougher to kill. These captains and war-chiefs are unique, and they'll remember if you run from them or if they kill you. They get more powerful over time, too. You can even find special missions to defeat captains who defeated your friends (assuming you're playing online and linked to a friends list). Those encounters add some extra depth to the kill-'em-all gameplay mechanics. And eventually you can use spirit domination to bring some of them around to your side, which adds a whole new facet to your fighting style.

There are some extras beyond the main story, mainly combat challenge modes. I didn't really mess around with most of that, since the combat wasn't the draw for me anyway. I was there for the story and Middle-earth world. I'm sure players that are more into the combat would enjoy them, though.

I had a great time roaming around Mordor in Shadow of Mordor. Well worth playing for any Tolkien fan, or if you like the gameplay style. If you like both, all the better!

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Re:Zero − Starting Life in Another World

Last year, Re:Zero − Starting Life in Another World was one of the more popular anime series to air. I caught up with it on Crunchyroll recently.
A silver-haired girl against a medieval-style city. She is wearing a white robe with eagle motifs emblazoned on the sleeves. A gray cat is hovering in the air behind her. The series' title is superimposed across the front in Japanese, with the circled number ① in the upper left-hand corner.
The series follows a boy named Subaru who is pulled from our world into a fantasy land. He welcomes the change and assumes he'll get fantastic powers like the stories he's read, but instead he remains basically himself. The only power he seems to have is that dying sends him back to a previous point in time, reliving hours or days, but he can't tell anyone about it.

I like those concepts - the involuntary time jumps, interesting fantasy world, a hero who isn't an amazing prodigy at combat. Through the initial discovery phase of the series, as Subaru learns about the world and figures out his time jumping power (or curse), it all works together pretty well. The way he manages to ingratiate himself to some fairly powerful people bends the limits of credulity, but that's not uncommon in these kind of stories.

Unfortunately, then the series bogs down. Entire episodes are spent largely listening to Subaru complain about how powerless he is. Characters that were central to early episodes disappear entirely, both friends and enemies, while others pop up almost at random. Even Subaru's main love interest Emelia is absent from large stretches of the series. Hard to do any real character development when everyone but Subaru is constantly fading in and out of the story. And very little progress is made on understanding mysteries that were introduced in the early going.

The last few episodes get back on track, for the most part. There's some moderately interesting action, particularly in the whale fight, and some of the problems laid out earlier are resolved. It still feels like quite a bit is left undone, though. Perhaps there's more complete resolutions in the manga, but in the anime the story feels unfinished.

I watched all of Re:Zero because of the interesting hooks - the time jumps, a comparatively weak hero, exploration of a new world. Sadly, the execution doesn't hold up to the promise. If the hooks sound like your thing, try it out; otherwise, you're probably better passing it up.

Sunday, July 16, 2017

America on Tap Beer Festival in Grand Rapids 2017

I enjoyed last year's America on Tap Beer Festival enough that I decided to go back again this year.
The event was in the same place as last year, Calder Plaza in downtown Grand Rapids. We arrived a bit earlier this time, about 15 minutes before the gates opened, which meant we weren't quite as far back in line this time. It still took a good half hour to get in, though, and plenty of others were waiting behind us. Definitely a popular event.
The America on Tap folks know how to organize this kind of event, in start contrast to the terribly organized Tots and Beer event that I went to earlier this summer. No long lines for beer - I think the longest I had to wait was just a couple of minutes. Around 3 dozen different breweries represented, with plenty of space under a couple of long tents. Live music and several food carts if you'd like a snack. My only complaint was that they only had a couple of people checking IDs at the entrance, but once you got inside everything was set up well.
The weather was just about perfect, plenty of sun but not too humid and a bit of a breeze to cool things down. Like last year, quite a few of the beers I tried were lighter fare since that goes with the weather better than heavy dark stouts. I did try a couple of the latter as well, though. Just about every kind of beer you can imagine was represented, as well as plenty of mead and cider.

As long as this festival is making stops in Grand Rapids, I'll try to make it out. Good fun with a friend or two, and plenty of excellent beverages to try.

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Long Strange Trip - The Grateful Dead

I'm not a Deadhead, though I've known a few, and never attended a Grateful Dead show. Heard plenty of stories, though. Watching Long Strange Trip was a window into some of that folk rock and counter-culture history.
A skull with roses on it, colored to suggest the Grateful Dead lightning bolt skull logo.
The documentary follows the Grateful Dead from their formation in the 1960s all the way through to the 1990s and the death of Jerry Garcia. There's a good amount of background in the early going: hippie culture in California, the musical roots of the band members, and of course a bit of the history of LSD. I learned quite a bit - I had no idea Jerry was a banjo player with several bluegrass bands in the early '60s, for instance. The history is nice for those of us who are too young to remember the '60s and didn't know much about the band members before their famous days.

The documentary doesn't pull punches on the subject of drugs. Acid parties are credited as building a sense of camaraderie, and limiting the clash of egos that is such a struggle for many musicians. There was experimentation with laughing gas in the studio, video crews who learned quickly not to drink anything the band gave them, and even a rivalry between coke-heads and acid-heads on tour. That sort of casual mind-adjustment has never been my taste, but it's interesting to see how the Dead used it to maintain the lifestyle and relationships that they wanted. All of this worked well early on, but eventually people started dying (such as Ron "Pigpen" McKernan from alcoholism, and Brent Mydland from overdose) as the lifestyle took its toll.

Unsurprisingly, none of the band members were particularly business-minded. Their first studio album went way over budget, and one of the interviews talked about how they rarely had any money left after tours since it was spent as quickly as it was made. They talk about the "wall of sound" speaker setup that cost a ridiculous amount to buy and maintain, the chaotic leadership (such as there was any), the lack of planning. It's pretty incredible to me, someone who likes plans and organization, that the whole thing held together...but somehow they made it work through those lean days. And of course, later on the commercial success came almost despite whatever the band did.

That lack of business acumen worked in their favor sometimes, too. Allowing fans to tape the live shows was seen as a terrible business move - who would buy albums if they could get a copy of a live recording? It worked to the band's advantage, though, by expanding the audience who wanted to go to live shows for more of what they'd heard on the tapes. A good number of self-identified Deadheads got their first exposure to the band from those live recordings.

To me, the whole story revolved largely around one theme: the band (especially Jerry) was interested primarily in everyone having fun. Whether that meant using drugs to get in the right mindset, or spending too much money to give fans the best concert experience possible, or having semi-controlled chaos instead of a single leader, or ignoring rules and regulations, or being the face of the Grateful Dead for legions of fans. It seems to me that in the end, Jerry had put others having fun ahead of his own well-being for too long.

Long Strange Trip was a very interesting watch. I'm sure there's plenty more depth to the story of the Grateful Dead, but this sure covered a lot. I'm glad to have had the chance to learn a little more about the band through this documentary.