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.
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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.

Saturday, July 8, 2017

Grand Rapids Tots and Beer Festival

The idea of sampling craft beers and eating interesting preparations of tater tots is a good one. The execution could use some work, though.
This festival was held in downtown Grand Rapids at Ah-Nab-Awen Park, right by the river. A friend and I drove down, found parking easily, and walked over to the park. Nice area, and there was plenty of room fenced off for the festival goers. Couldn't ask for better weather - sunny with occasional cloud cover, upper 70s, bit of a breeze off the river.

There were eight beer-serving stations, with about 30 beer options. Unfortunately, they needed about twice that many for the number of people who showed up. Compare that to last year's America On Tap festival, which had a couple of dozen serving stations. The problem isn't overcrowding - they limit the number of available tickets - so I can only assume the organizers simply didn't plan properly.
With so few places to get the beer, the lines were ridiculously long, running 20-30 minutes to get one sample. Obviously there's no way to sample every beer at that rate, or even a third of them. I ended up trying three, but no more - couldn't bring myself to stand in line any longer. I had a brown ale that was pretty good, but the others were forgettable.

The food part wasn't nearly as busy, no more than a couple of minutes wait. There were about a half-dozen stands that served a few tater tots with various toppings. Nothing amazing, but nice snacks to have in between beers. My favorite was the jalapeno popper version. They even had some dessert choices, but fried potatoes with powdered sugar or chocolate didn't seem like a particularly good idea, so I skipped those.
I like the idea of this festival, and despite the lines my friend and I had a pretty decent time. Still, I can't recommend that anyone go to this particular festival. There are enough others that don't have the organizational issues and long lines that it's kind of silly to spend money and time on this one.

Thursday, July 6, 2017

A Visit to Blandford Nature Center

I recently went along on a trip to the Blandford Nature Center, as a volunteer helping out with a summer education trip.
I had no idea this place existed until this trip, although I probably would have if I'd grown up in the Grand Rapids area. They do a lot of work with area schools, bringing kids out to experience a bit of nature and see some of the wildlife being rehabilitated. It reminded me of Oregon's outdoor school program, which I attended way back when I was a sixth grader, though not nearly as involved.
The nature center is on the northwest side of Grand Rapids, in a fairly heavily wooded area. There are quite a few trails to walk around in the woods, though on this short visit we stuck to the shorter ones. There's also plenty of open meadow area and some swampy wetlands spots, so visitors get to see all sorts of different habitats. Our group was large enough that we split up and cycled through all the various areas a few at a time, with the center staff leading us through some areas and exploring others on our own.
In and around the central building are habitats for injured or otherwise incapacitated animals. We saw owls, turtles, rabbits, and even a bobcat. The kids I was with were particularly impressed with this part of the trip, especially when they were able to touch the turtles.
There's also a farm on the premises, growing all sorts of vegetables and other crops. Not a lot of quantity, but plenty of variety. Same with animals, with a small flock of chickens and a few pigs. They also make maple syrup in the winter - we didn't see that part in action, of course, but did pass by the barn and saw the equipment.
It's good to see these kind of nature centers available to the public, particularly for school groups. It's important for city kids to get exposure to the world as it exists outside of the urban areas where they spend so much of their time. Hopefully the Blandford Nature Center will continue to serve that need for a long time to come.

Sunday, July 2, 2017

Air Show in Battle Creek

Every summer down in Battle Creek, the Air Show and Balloon Festival is held around the 4th of July. I've thought about checking it out in the past but never got around to planning a trip, but this year I spent a few hours visiting.
I have fond memories of attending air shows when I was younger, living out in Oregon. (Well, fond except for the sunburn.) I'm not enough of a airplane enthusiast to go well out of my way for a show, but since this one is only about an hour from home I decided to check it out.
A friend and I made the drive down to Battle Creek on Saturday, which this year was early in the festival. Things generally peak on July 4th, but we were happy to go on an earlier day and avoid the worst of the crowds. There were still plenty of people wandering around, but we didn't have to wait very long in any lines - just about the best we could hope for.
The festival name is a bit of a misnomer since there's a lot going on that's not in the air. The main attraction is the aerial acts, of course, but there's also a live music stage, carnival rides, half-mile car races, and even timber sports. And of course, plenty of vendors.
I was a little surprised that there weren't more planes on display on the ground. The Air Force recruiting area had one, but otherwise all the vehicles on display were cars. Guess the organizers decided not to move display models around from nearby museums.
We got to see several planes in the air, though no balloons (they were scheduled for several hours after we left). I particularly liked Kent Pietsch's act featuring a landing on top of an RV driving along the runway. The Air Force heritage flight was pretty neat, too, with a WW II-era plane flying in formation with a an F-22 fighter jet.
I had a good time for my first visit to this air show festival. I'll probably go back in the future, maybe planning a visit so I'll catch the balloon launch.






Monday, June 26, 2017

Red Hot Chili Peppers at Van Andel Arena 2017

I'm not a big fan of the Red Hot Chili Peppers (RHCP), but I like their music well enough. I wasn't planning to see them in concert, but when a friend said she could get tickets if we split the cost, I figured why not?
The concert was in Van Andel Arena in downtown Grand Rapids. It holds about 12,000 people, and it looked full to me. Not a surprise - not a lot of big names come through western Michigan, so when it happens people come out. Our seats were in the last row in one of the upper sections, but that wasn't as bad as it sounds. The arena isn't really big enough for even the furthest seats to be too far away.
We caught the tail end of one of the opening acts, Deerhoof, which wasn't particularly impressive in my opinion. Not really a surprise since I'd never heard of them before. It's harder to get involved with unfamiliar opening acts in these bigger shows, as compared to smaller venues where you can get up close and (sometimes) get better sound quality.
No such problems with RHCP. They've been around more than 30 years now, but it doesn't look like they've lost a step. Plenty of energy on stage, and considering the iffy acoustics that you get in an arena, they sounded great. I recognized about half the songs they played, which means they played plenty of older stuff, since I haven't paid much attention to anything they've done recently. They worked in a couple of covers, too - I particularly liked their rendition of Jimmy Hendrix's Fire.
The stage setup was interesting. There was the usual screen behind the band, as has become standard in the last decade or two. Largely it showed various wild color patterns, but they did sometimes have live shots of the band members. Often put through some kind of filter, so you'd see black-and-white or jerky stop-motion versions of the musicians. But the most notable component was a big field of LED lights hung over the stage and the front portion of the crowd. Those lights moved up and down and flashed on and off in some neat patterns as the band played.
There were a couple of fairly emotional moments. Flea asked for a moment of silence for Hillel Slovak, a founding member who died nearly 30 years ago. Later on, Anthony Kiedis talked for a minute about his father, who is in the late stages of life. It wasn't a sad moment, but rather a celebration of a full life. That moment in particular really resonated with me - everyone eventually is in that situation where a loved one has passed on (or will shortly). Having that mindset of celebrating the time we had with them, rather than focusing on the loss, strikes me as a healthy attitude.
Overall it was an enjoyable show. Not my usual style, but I'm glad I was talked into going. RHCP is still worth seeing after all these years.

Saturday, June 24, 2017

Reeds Lake Run 2017

This weekend was the 39th annual Reeds Lake Run in East Grand Rapids.

I like running in the Reeds Lake area. I've gone there several times to jog, when I get tired of the same old scenery around my neighborhood. Reeds Lake is fairly small and surrounded by quite a bit of private property, so there's only a fairly short stretch where you actually run by the lake. But the surrounding neighborhood streets are nice to run through also.
I've run in this race a few times in prior years, but always the 5k distance. This time I did the 10k distance. With warm and humid weather it was tiring, but I enjoyed it. The races are run at different times, so some people did both. One run for the morning was plenty for me, though. Took me just over 53 minutes, which is more or less what I expected and right about the middle of the pack for my age group.
Getting down to the event was less than ideal since I didn't think about the area being closed off for the 5k race. It was already underway by the time I arrived, so I ended up parking about a mile away and walking in. Might have to arrive a bit earlier next time, or at least pick up my registration packet the night before.

Parking troubles aside, this is a great event. Nice area to run through, well organized, and they include everyone with additional events like a kids run and handcycle races. I plan to be there next year for the 40th anniversary!

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

The Righteous Mind by Jonathan Haidt

The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and ReligionThe Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion by Jonathan Haidt
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I picked up The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion by Jonathan Haidt from the library recently. It was recommended by the Make Me Smart podcast, which I listen to regularly.

Seeing the term "righteous" in the title immediately made me think of this as a religious book, but that's not really the case. The theme of the book is morals and ethics, and of course religion does play a role, but not a major one. The author explains the use of "righteous" in his introduction as an intentional way to point out that the human mind is not just moral, but also judgmental and critical and intolerant (as in "self-righteous").

That's something of a negative start, but it's an important point that drives much of what Haidt has to say. The book is divided into three sections, each of which presents a principle of moral psychology:

1. Intuitions come first, strategic reasoning second. Haidt describes the mind as being like a rider (reasoning) on an elephant (intuition - comprised of emotions, gut reactions, etc). When the elephant has a reaction to something, the rider's primary job is to support that reaction. While it's possible for the reasoning rider to change the elephant's direction, it's difficult and rare. Most of the time, our reason looks for a way to justify whatever our gut feels to be true, ignoring evidence or arguments to the contrary.

2. There's more to morality than harm and fairness. This section presents the Moral Foundation Theory, which describes how different morality systems around the world can all be traced back to a few "foundations". The MoralFoundations.org website describes the theory and foundations as well as some of the research supporting the theory. I think this makes a lot of sense - just about everyone has a sense of "liberty" (to use one foundation as an example) but exactly what that means can be very different between people or cultures.

3. Morality binds and blinds. Moral systems are about more than just personal beliefs, they apply to the groups that we identify with. We gravitate toward groups that line up with our intuitions, and those groups also influence our ways of thinking and behavior. People are willing to do things for their groups that aren't necessarily in their individual interests. That can lead to positive or negative results - the same group instincts can lead to supporting charitable organizations or becoming suicide bombers. We're rarely willing to listen to points of view that run counter to the interests of our groups, even if we would benefit at an individual level. Religious and political associations are used as two examples of groups that can have significant impact on how their individual members behave.

I'm far from an expert on ethics or the philosophy of the mind, but the ideas that Haidt presents in this book certainly seem to make sense to me. I've long thought that most people behave in a largely rational manner if you consider that they have an internal set of assumptions (which they are rarely willing to reconsider, despite whatever evidence may exist to the contrary). Haidt's rider-elephant metaphor fits nicely into that concept, so it wasn't much of a stretch to wrap my mind around his model.

Understanding this is one thing, but it can still be difficult to accept for those of us that consider ourselves rational people. I like to think that presenting evidence and well-ordered arguments is a good way to convince people (including myself). When I really stop and think about it, though, there are examples everywhere that reasoning really is secondary to intuition, including many that Haidt describes in the first third of this book. It's especially true in cases where time is short, either because a snap decision is required or because I simply don't bother to spend a lot of time on something.

This model of "intuition first, reasoning second" has obvious applications for advertising, political campaigns, and other kinds of marketing. If you want people to buy your product or vote for your candidate, you need to present something they identify immediately as good, at an instinctual level. Then you can add logical arguments to that gut reaction to seal the deal. Sounds obvious, but it's not always easy, particularly if you're trying to convince a diverse group.

The Righteous Mind was a very interesting read, though not a quick or easy one. The morality model presented by Haidt is a good fit for explaining how diverse groups of people can have such different ideas about what is moral or ethical. I consider my time with this book to be well spent.

Sunday, June 18, 2017

New Holland Pub on 8th 8k

I took a trip a bit east to Holland this weekend for the New Holland Pub on 8th 8k run.

Holland is about a 40 minute drive to the east for me, so I don't get out there regularly, but it's an easy trip. The New Holland Pub is right downtown on 8th Street (thus the 8k distance). Parking was amazingly easy, lots of places within a few blocks. Probably helped that it was a Sunday afternoon, not as busy as a Friday or Saturday would have been.
This was a fairly small event, probably a couple of hundred runners all told. As far as I know, this is the first year they've done it, so it'll probably grow in the future. There was both a 5k and 8k course, and from what I could tell there were about the same number of folks doing each distance. We all got a nice commemorative beer glass, the usual T-shirt, and a complimentary glass of New Holland Brewing beer after the run. (I had a Mad Hatter.)
I enjoyed the course, which ran out from downtown by the river, then back through a park and back to the brewery. A couple of spots did have distinctive odors, though - by the Heinz plant where you could smell the vinegar, and a swampy smell by the park entrance. But the wind was blowing in off the water and those smells didn't linger once I ran along a bit. There was a decent amount of up and down, but no really big hills to slow us down.
The weather was hot and fairly humid, and I felt it, especially in the early going. It's nicer to do these runs in the morning during the summer, but I suppose that would have been a difficult sell with the beer at the end. I felt better a mile or so in when we ran along the river for a while - it wasn't much cooler, but being along the water made it feel less oppressive. I ended up running just over 43 minutes - far from my quickest 8k time, but considering the heat I'm happy with it.
It was nice to make the trip out to Holland and take a run out by the river, and of course sample some New Holland Brewing beer. A race well worth keeping in mind for next year.

Monday, June 12, 2017

Wonder Woman (2017)

Bringing a female superhero to the big screen in a leading role hasn't been done often, but DC did a solid job of it with Wonder Woman.

Wonder Woman (2017 film).jpg
Unsurprisingly, Wonder Woman is an origin story. The character appeared briefly in Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, and the entire movie is basically a flashback sequence from that modern-day version of Diana. The entire movie takes place in the past, specifically the World War I era. If that sounds familiar, it's because Marvel did more or less the same thing with Captain America. It's hard to really fault the writers for copying, though, since all these superhero movies have their roots in decades of comic book stories, many of which are very similar. Hard to really say who is copying what, with all that history.

I felt like the movie did a good job of setting up Diana's past, explaining the role of the Olympian gods and her home of Themyscira. Seemed to me that there was enough explanation to make sense to a non-comic-nerd, though I admit that it's hard to tell since I am one. There have been lots of versions of Wonder Woman over the years, and this one seems as good to me as any.

Gal Gadot did a fantastic job as Diana, and I thought the writers and director captured the character very well. Diana's naivete is very clear as she makes her first foray into man's world, but she never seems weak or lost because of it. There's very little sexual content, which isn't easy when your main character is a gorgeous woman running around in skimpy battle costume. There's a fine line to walk with this character, and I think they did an outstanding job.

I wish I could say the same about the action scenes. There's constant use of slow-motion sequences in the middle of the action, and just about every one of them annoyed me. The scenes themselves were fine, well designed and executed. I particularly liked the no-man's-land advance, with Diana playing the "tank" for the soldiers. I just wish the director hadn't been so in love with slowing the action down over and over again. It's fine to do that once or twice, to call attention to some particularly impressive feat or important small detail, but it was badly over-used here.

The plot and minor characters are serviceable, if not particularly impressive. The "twist" with Ares' identity and the god-slayer weapon was so heavily telegraphed that I hesitate to even use the term. Outside of Steve Trevor, other characters are present only as opportunity to show off some aspect of Diana. But none of that is surprising, as it's hard to do much in an origin story film outside of the main character without making things too complex to easily follow.

Wonder Woman is a big step forward for the DC cinematic universe. I know we'll be seeing more of Diana, and I look forward to it. I hope to see more of this quality of writing, directing, and production in the future DCU movies as well.

Saturday, June 10, 2017

Diemer Run 5k 2017

The Brian Diemer run was held this weekend over in Cutlerville.
Just about every year the race sets a record for the number of runners, and this year was no exception. An email sent out earlier in the week said that they had passed 1280 registrations for the 5k. And there's a handcyclist race and some kids events as well.

The weather was warm and humid, though a bit less so than last year. Still, plenty of heat, and there were warnings to beware of dehydration. The race officials had plenty of water available, and I didn't see anyone having problems.
I felt fairly good throughout the run, although the heat did take a toll. I was pretty beat by the end - certainly glad this was a 5k and not 10! It helps that the course is nice and flat, along suburban streets with no narrow chokepoints. Finished right around the top third of both my age group and overall, which is about what I expected.

As is the custom, there were several bands set up along the race course. One of them was a bit late and was still tuning up when I passed, but the rest were ready to go. I bring my own music to listen to, but it's nice to have a serenade along the course as well!
Always good to get out in the early summer for a run, especially at an event like this that supports good causes. I certainly plan to be back next year!

Monday, June 5, 2017

Fortitude Season 2

I recently watched the second season of Fortitude via Amazon Prime streaming. It originally aired earlier this year.
Fortitude-titlecard.jpg
Season two of Fortitude is going to look very familiar to those who watched season one (as I did a few months back). Obviously you expect that from the second season of any show, but I thought it was particularly striking here. Almost all the central characters are back (even a couple that didn't look very healthy at the end of season one). The big mystery from season one continues to have effects into season two. Political intrigue, personal relationship drama, and unexplained mysterious deaths are everywhere. And the landscape is still snow, snow, snow with the occasional ice and freezing-cold water mixed in for variety.

None of that is bad, since I liked season one and more of the same is pretty much what I signed up for when I hit play on season two. I will say, though, that this season felt weaker, as if it was a less intense version of the first. Some of that is familiarity with the setting and actors, taking the shine of discovery off, but I also think the writing may have been struggling a bit. It's not easy to follow up success, and I think that shows here.

Having said that, it's still a fun ride through the second season. Some of the new characters are fairly weak - the shaman in particular - but they still have depth. No one is all good or all bad, and there's plenty of misdirection about motivations to keep things interesting. Disturbing and mysterious deaths show up regularly, keeping the suspense going. I also thought the family drama of the Lennox family on the personal relationship side of things was a good addition.

It's certainly very possible that we'll see more Fortitude at some point. There's plenty of plot threads left dangling in terms of the big mystery. While a few characters seem pretty well gone, there are plenty left to keep going. If the powers-that-be decide that they want more tension in the ice and snow, there's room for it.

Saturday, June 3, 2017

2017 Hard Cider Run at Sietsema Orchards

This weekend I went up to Sietsema Orchards for the Hard Cider Run. It's a 5k race through the orchard and surrounding area, with cider waiting at the end.
I did this same race last year, when the weather was terrible. This year, it was a whole lot nicer. There were some clouds in the sky, but no rain, and it hadn't been raining in the past few days either. That kept the trails (mostly) dry. So unlike last year, I wasn't spending a lot of energy simply trying to stay upright on slippery, muddy trails.

That doesn't mean it's an easy course, though. The trails are pretty narrow and the hills are steep. I saw one person trip over a tree root and nearly fall, but fortunately she was able to catch herself on her hands and keep going. According to the GPS on my phone, the course goes up and down more than 100 meters overall. It certainly seemed like we were pretty much constantly going up or down!

The race was much better attended this year. Last year's total was only around 600, while this year we had over 1000. That's good for the race, but it did make things a little more difficult out on the trails. There were several bottlenecks where there wasn't room to pass anyone, even if you set aside the initial starting spot that's always crowded. Plus there were some people who didn't get the memo about there being a race...I ran past a few hikers and an entire scout troop, who had clearly come into the forest elsewhere and wandered into the race course.

Crowding aside, I thought the event went very well. Plenty of volunteers taking care of handing out race materials, enough parking (though it got a bit tight as the morning went on), and even the line for the portable bathrooms wasn't too bad. And of course, there's the cider and doughnuts when you're done, always a good way to end a morning.

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Renowned Explorers

The folks at Abbey Games know their business. I loved their first game, Reus - one of the very few that I've enjoyed enough to unlock all the achievements on Steam. Renowned Explorers is their second effort and it did not disappoint.
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In Renowned Explorers, you take charge of a group of three adventurers who set out on expeditions around the globe to discover fame and treasure. The gameplay takes place on three levels:
  1. The between-expeditions strategy phase where you improve your crew, make scientific discoveries, and plan where to go next.
  2. Moving from location to location on each expedition's map. This part is semi-randomized. Many of the map components are always the same, but located in different spots and connected in different ways from one game to the next.
  3. Turn-based battles between your crew and various enemies, ranging from animals to villagers to cultists, and even the occasional angry ghost.
I use the term "battle" loosely, because you have three different approaches for conflict resolution. You can be Aggressive with actual physical harm, or Devious with calculated insults, or make Friendly overtures. The idea is to overcome their resistance to your cause, and any of the three approaches is viable as a primary focus. In each conflict, there's an overall "mood" based on the combination of your approach and that of the enemy. You often need to tailor your approach based on the specific enemy you're facing. For instance, if you encounter a bunch of Devious monkeys, it may not be a bright idea to charge in Aggressively, since your crew gets a penalty when the mood is "Escalated" (you Aggressive, enemy Devious).

I really like this "combat" system that gives you more options than just smacking around the bad guys. Making good use of the mood can swing a conflict in your favor (or vice versa, of course). Which crew members you have along in a particular game can make the exact same encounter play out very differently from one game to the next. And the game might give you bonuses for using a particular approach, giving you incentive to find a way to prevail even despite negative moods.

A game consists of taking your crew on five expeditions. You collect renown based on how well you find gold, gain status in the eye of your peers, and make scientific discoveries. A game is won if you exceed 2500 renown after finishing your five expeditions. I won most of the games I played, though occasionally I'd fail to reach 2500 renown or my crew would be defeated in a tough encounter.

There's plenty of crew members to choose from, divided into four classes: scientist, fighter, scout, and speaker. Each class gives you bonuses at certain types of challenges, and each individual crew member has strengths and weaknesses during conflicts. Choosing a crew such that the members compliment one another is important!

The game got quite a bit easier once I picked up More to Explore, the first expansion. It added two new mechanics that give you additional bonuses: Campfire stories, where your crew's expedition stories give you bonuses; and Treasure bonus choices, allowing you to choose from a set of bonuses when finding a significant treasure. The latter is especially useful since Treasure bonuses are very powerful, so being able to choose one that fits with the crew you're playing helps a lot.

There's also a second expansion out now, The Emperor's Challenge. It adds a whole new game mode where you're collecting trophies based on completing specific challenges, rather than just going for the highest renown score. I haven't played it quite as much yet, but I've liked it so far. The trophy requirements often go against the strengths of your crew, so you need to be extra careful in planning how to get those trophies while still staying alive and completing your expeditions.

There's very little to find fault with in Renowned Explorers, in my opinion. If the style of gameplay appeals to you, then the game will have its hooks in you pretty quickly! My only real complaint is that the options for expeditions is fairly limited, so you end up doing the same things repeatedly as you play more games. The expansions are helping with that by adding more expedition options.

I've made it through about 70% of the achievements in Renowned Explorers, and I fully expect that I'll keep playing until I get the rest. After this and Reus, I'm looking forward to seeing what Abbey Games comes up with next!

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Michigan Radio "Issues and Ale" in Grand Rapids

Michigan Radio puts on occasional panel-discussion style events around the state, in a series called "Issues and Ale." This week they came to Grand Rapids.
The event was held in a theater at Celebration Cinema, and the place was full. This was the first "Issues and Ale" that I've attended, but judging from what I've seen about past events, they're usually held in smaller venues. (Brewpubs, often, thus the "ale" part.) Good thing they booked a larger venue this time, as the Michigan Radio folks were saying that they ran out of tickets. They brought in a small corner bar set up in one corner of the theater, too, so the ale was still present.

Michigan Radio analyst Jack Lessenberry moderated the discussion, along with four panelists:

  • TJ Bucholz, President & CEO of Vanguard Public Affairs
  • Scott Hagerstrom, state director for President Trump's 2016 presidential campaign
  • Cheyna Roth, capitol reporter for the Michigan Public Radio Network
  • Gleaves Whitney, presidential historian and Director of the Hauenstein Center for Presidential Studies at Grand Valley State University

The subject of the discussion was "President Trump: A Michigan Report Card." The idea was to talk about how the first few months of the Trump presidency has affected Michigan. It started out approximately on subject, but once audience questions started I didn't think there was a whole lot specific to Michigan. There was some discussion of Great Lakes water protection, but otherwise the subjects were the same you hear at the national level: health care, overcoming partisanship, education, etc.

There was no doubt that this was a left-leaning crowd. No one raised their hand when asked if anyone present had voted for Trump, and the audience response was pretty hostile to much of what Scott had to say. Not too surprising for an event put on by NPR, though I noticed much the same thing in other political events recently (such as town halls for Republican congressman Justin Amash).

I thought Jack did well as moderator, stopping the discussion several times when it got heated and keeping the panel more or less on topic. He called out the panelists a few times when they dodged questions or tried to deliver incorrect information. Honestly, I'd have rather had him as one of the panelists, as I like the daily commentary he provides on Michigan Radio and I think he'd have had some good opinions to share. But he did a fine job as moderator, too.

Nothing that was said surprised me all that much. Scott supported much of what President Trump has been doing (when not battling scandals) and repeated many of the points he campaigned on. TJ provided a response from the Democratic party point of view. Neither said anything that would be out of place on one of the cable news channels. The other two panelists did provide some interesting takes on some questions, particularly some of the historical perspective from Gleaves, but they didn't get the majority of the speaking time.

All in all, an interesting evening. I'll certainly consider going to another Issues and Ale event in the future, though preferably one on a less contentious subject.

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

BioShocked

First-person shooters are not my favorite genre. I played my share of Doom, Wolfenstein 3D, and Quake like every other nerdy high school and college student in the 1990s, but they always took second place to strategy and role-playing games. So it takes something more than just running around with a weapon and a target-rich environment to convince me to devote time to a shooter. BioShock is one of only two such series that have done that and held my attention enough to play all the way through. (The other is Mass Effect, though I've yet to try the new Andromeda entry in that series. Probably not a coincidence that both have science-fiction aspects.)
Much of BioShock's appeal for me is the world-building. BioShock and BioShock 2 take place in the 1960s in Rapture, an underwater city with a steampunk feel that's populated largely by genetically modified monstrosities. The environment has a post-apocalyptic feel as you pick your way through what remains of the once-luxurious city. BioShock Infinite is a bit of a different animal, as it takes place in a floating city called Columbia in the early 1900s. Unlike Rapture, Columbia isn't a run-down wreck and many of the people are normal civilians. (At first, anyway. Plenty of destruction as the game progresses.)

In both games, you pursue leaders who created a dystopia while following their own vision of perfection. In Rapture that largely takes the form of genetic modification, with lots of physical and psychological manipulation to keep the resulting monstrosities under control. In Columbia, you're working against an elitist, racist cult. There's a "grand society gone wrong" feel to both Rapture and Columbia, paired with a mix of old and future technology. That combination reminds me of golden-age science fiction in many ways; playing through these games feels much like reading some of those old stories.

In Rapture, there's a major moral choice in whether to save or harvest "little sisters" that provide power for your genetic modifications. (Personally, I have a hard time believing that anyone doesn't want to save the little cuties.) The choices don't have a lot of effect on the gameplay, but the ending differs based on what you've decided to do along the way. Nothing in BioShock Infinite's Columbia setting seemed to provide the same kind of moral decision-making, which was a little disappointing.

The two settings do eventually connect, but not until near the very end of BioShock Infinite. There's an add-on story called Burial at Sea that was released as DLC for BioShock Infinite that makes the link much more explicit. I thought the add-on was very well done, worth playing for anyone that enjoyed BioShock Infinite, but it's clearly targeted for people who have played the games in both settings.

I played these games mostly to work my way through the story, so the actual gameplay mechanics weren't my main focus. I purposely chose the easiest difficulty mode to avoid getting stuck in long fights, and picked abilities that minimized the need for shooter skill. For instance, in BioShock 2, I picked up the Security Command ability and upgraded it so I could summon a robot to fight for me. You can't ever avoid the shooting entirely, but it can be made less painful. Even so, there were sections where I had trouble making it through alive. Fortunately, death is a temporary state in these games.

It's possible to find some replay value in the BioShock games, either finding different ways to fight or changing moral choices to get different endings. None of that appeals to me, though. Most of the fun for me is in discovering things about the world as I move through the story. Once those surprises are gone, it's no longer very interesting, even if there are some differences. And playing with more difficult combat, like BioShock Infinite's 1999 mode, holds zero appeal whatsoever for me.

The BioShock series is well worth playing through at least once for any gamer. Even if first-person shooters aren't your thing, the story and world-building are worth the effort.

Saturday, May 13, 2017

Fifth Third River Bank Run 2017

What a difference a couple of weeks makes. Downtown GR was cold and wet the last time I was there for a run, but it was beautiful this weekend for the Fifth Third River Bank Run.
I've not participated in the River Bank Run the last few years, largely because it's such a huge event. The organizers do a good job, but with so many people crowded lines and race courses are inevitable. The last time I ran, I did the 5k, and it felt like I was constantly having to dodge people who were slightly faster or slower.
I went downtown early on Friday afternoon to pick up my race packet at DeVos Hall, and even during that low-volume time it was really busy! I had to park several blocks away to avoid waiting in long traffic lines near the hall. They had plenty of volunteers on hand, though, so there wasn't much waiting involved once I got inside.

This year, I ran the 10k and the crowding during the race was much less of an issue. There were still plenty of people - 3200+ according to the results page - but the field spread out pretty quickly. There were a few times where I felt the crowding, but not nearly as much as a few years ago.
The course is fairly easy, without too many big hills. The biggest one is about 1.5 miles from the finish, which isn't ideal placement, but on the bright side it's pretty much flat to the finish once you're over it! According to the results site, I finished in just under 53 minutes, putting me well inside the top half of finishers.
There's a nice after-party area at the end where folks can hang out while the 25k race finishes and results are announced. I didn't stay for that, but it's nice for those that want to stick around. I was pretty happy to eat some fruit, drink some water, and head home for a shower.

Sunday, April 30, 2017

Growler Gallop 5k

Downtown Grand Rapids was very damp on Sunday, but that didn't stop the organizers and about 200 participants of the Growler Gallop 5k run.
The weather forecast was for rain all day with possible thunderstorms. We were fortunate to avoid the latter, but it was still damp, chilly, and windy. I didn't think it was too bad once the run started, though. Moving around the course warmed me up, and there were only a couple of short stretches where we were running directly against the wind.

After the race, a good portion of the participants headed down to the Atwater Brewery. Normally we'd have stayed out in the race area to cool down and hear the results, but with the wet weather, we all crammed into the brewery. Tight fit, but it was only for about an hour. Apologies to any non-race customers who had to put up with all of us filling up the place!

Part of the race entry fee included a beer afterward, so I had a Corktown Rye IPA. Not my favorite beer type, but it was what they had available for us, and it was pretty good as far as IPAs go. Under normal circumstances I might have tried something else also, but sitting in my sweaty running stuff didn't really sound appealing. I'll have to make a return trip sometime!

Thursday, April 27, 2017

Using the Echo Dot

I've had my Amazon Echo Dot for a couple of weeks now (since I won it in a raffle). I like the concept, but I just can't get it to do much of use for me.
The main draw for the Echo is voice recognition, used to command the voice assistant Alexa. That part works pretty well. As long as there isn't too much background noise, Alexa recognizes my commands almost every time. When there is a failure, I can use the Alexa phone app to provide feedback and improve the system.

Where I run into problems is finding things that I want to tell Alexa to do. My first thought was to hook up my Amazon Fire TV to the Echo, so I could use voice commands when watching TV. But despite both being Amazon devices, the Echo and Fire TV won't talk to one another. It's possible to use voice commands directly on the Fire TV, but only with a microphone-equipped remote control. If I've already bothered to find the remote and pick it up, I probably don't need voice commands any more.

OK, if video is out, how about audio? The Echo Dot has a speaker, but it's pretty weak, not suitable for much of anything but short responses. Hooking up an external speaker is supported, and I was able to do that with the stereo in my media center. But that doesn't work well, either. If I switch the stereo's input to something else (I also use it with the Fire TV and my PC), then the Echo is useless since it has no output. It's not smart enough to switch back to the internal speaker when the external one isn't available. I suppose I could switch the stereo input every time I want to listen to something, but if I'm doing that, then it would be easier to just use whichever other device is already connected.

If I did work around the speaker issue, what could I listen to? Alexa will recognize podcast names and play the latest episodes, but I'm often a episode or two behind. Plus, it doesn't know what I've already listened to on my phone or PC. Easier just to listen on those other devices than to manually mark which ones were played somewhere else. There's a MLB At-Bat skill for listening to baseball games, but it doesn't work with the Echo Dot. Music works fairly well - I mostly use Spotify these days, and there's a Spotify Alexa skill that works just fine - but with that speaker issue the sound quality is poor. About the only thing I do find useful is the ability to occasionally ask for the latest NPR news headlines.

What about home automation? I have a Logitech Harmony remote for my media center, and it was very easy to link that to the Echo. I can ask Alexa to turn on and off my various preset configurations, but that's not very useful. For instance, I can ask Alexa to turn on the Fire TV, but then I still need the remote to actually do anything (see above about Amazon devices not talking to one another). Same thing for playing DVDs. Might as well just use the remote in the first place.

I also tried lighting control, with TP-Link smart plugs and bulbs which are advertised as working with the Echo with no need for a hub. Getting those connected was fairly easy, but after a few hours, the connection stopped working. Alexa would say that the device wasn't responding, and I'd have to manually turn the device on and off to reconnect. Kind of defeats the purpose of a smart device if you're manually cycling it on a regular basis! I suspect it would work better if I got one of the hub-based systems rather than connecting to the devices individually, but that's a ridiculous expense for a tiny condo like mine.

I love the idea behind the Echo, and I do occasionally find a reason to ask it a question. But it just doesn't do quite enough to make it a reasonable replacement for what I already use.

Sunday, April 23, 2017

Squarecells

Another Matthew Brown game, another few hours of puzzling. After playing through all the Hexcells games, I was happy to pick up another of Brown's puzzlers.
Squarecells is a logic puzzle game like Hexcells, but the cells are all square instead of hexagonal. Obvious, yes? That's pretty much where the obvious stuff ends, as each puzzle gets more complex with more limited starting information.

The game starts out easy and gets gradually more complex as you move through each of the 36 puzzles. (Arranged in a 6x6 square in the menu, of course.) Various types of clues - number of pattern cells in each row/column, number of connected pattern cells, separation between pattern cells in a row/column, and so on - show up as you move along. All the different types are combined in the tougher puzzles to make the player's life a little harder.

Brown believes in minimal UI design, and for the most part it works well. There's not a lot of options needed in this kind of game. But I did find myself wishing he'd included one option - different colors for cells once you've marked them as part of the pattern. That was the case in Hexcells, but in Squarecells the color stays the same with a small dot added in the upper right. Not nearly as much contrast, so that late in the larger puzzles I found myself doing a lot of squinting at the screen as I looked for which cells weren't yet marked. It's not a major flaw, just annoying.

I spent a happy few hours working through the puzzles in Squarecells. Well worth picking up for anyone who likes these kind of logic puzzle games.