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.
Renowned Explorers logo.png
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.

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Updating to Kodi v17 "Krypton"

It's been a while since Kodi released their most recent major update: version 17 "Krypton". I finally got around to installing it on my Fire TV recently.
I waited a while to install v17 largely because I was pretty happy with the older version. Since I upgraded to v16 a bit over a year ago, I haven't had any significant issues. So there wasn't a lot of reason to change. Also, I wanted to allow plenty of time for the add-ons that I use to be updated for the new version. So when v17 was released in early February, I didn't jump right in. In March, v17.1 was released with some minor fixes and that's what I used for my upgrade.

The actual upgrade process went very smoothly. I downloaded the Android version from the Kodi site and installed it using adbLink. Started it up and was greeted by the new user interface featuring the Estuary skin. It's different, but I didn't have any trouble finding everything that I'm used to using.

Everything carried over fine from the previous version except for Trakt.tv scrobbling of MythTV shows. That's not much of a surprise, since my modifications to the Trakt.tv add-on required some pretty specific data from Kodi and the MythTV PVR add-on. This upgrade changed how that data was presented, and for the most part the changes are for the better. It's much easier now to get information about which TV show is being played (specifically, some of the Kodi InfoLabels are being populated by the MythTV add-on). Updating my code was fairly easy, and I submitted the modifications to the Trakt.tv add-on maintainer so other people will get the same changes. Only took a couple of hours for the whole process.

The only real problem I had after the upgrade has nothing to do with Kodi itself. Around the same time, Amazon also updated the Fire TV user interface. Kodi stopped showing up on the home screen of the Fire TV, which means I had to go through the Settings menu to start it. Back in the day I used an app called Firestarter to get around this, but that's no longer an option. Fortunately, there are solutions for this. I had to try several of the things in that list but eventually I got Kodi back onto the Fire TV home screen.

This latest version of Kodi is working out fine thus far. With luck, I'll have another year before it's time to change again.

Saturday, April 15, 2017

Various Mysterious-Creepy-Suspenseful Shows

Over the last few months, I've gone through several shows on Netflix and Amazon Prime that have in common a mystery-suspense base, built around various creepy premises. You could call them horror, I suppose, though I tend to apply the horror label more to heavy-on-the-gore, jump-scare shows. These are more about the suspense and mystery.
Stranger Things (Netflix) Season One - The best part about Stranger Things for me wasn't the actual mystery, though that's perfectly well executed (despite laying on the "scary monster" stuff a bit thick). Same with the casting and acting performances, all of which are done well. No, the best part is the nostalgia, because Stranger Things is set in the 1980s in a small town in Indiana. I grew up in that era, and lived in a succession of small towns (and both parents came from small towns in the Midwest). Nerdy kids playing D&D in a basement, people using rotary phones, grainy old standard-definition TVs: it all gives me that "man, I remember those days" feeling. Stranger Things would be a solid suspenseful mystery in any setting, but in this particular one it's a great show for my generation.

The OA (Netflix) Season One - I had no idea what to expect when I started watching The OA - didn't even realize it existed until it popped up as a Netflix recommendation. What I got was an engrossing mystery, told from the perspective of a possibly-insane protagonist who draws several others into her orbit. At least, until the last half of the very last episode, at which point the whole thing takes a very strange and (for me) unsatisfying turn. I'm still glad I watched this season, and if they make a second one I'll give it a chance, but I sure hope they come up with a more interesting ending.

Fortitude (Sky Atlantic, via Amazon Prime Video) Season One - Fortitude is about a town built in arctic Norway, originally for mining, which is in the process of a crisis as the mines play out. There's plenty of political intrigue as science researchers, the miners, and tourism proponents clash. Into this mix comes a series of murders, and the unwelcome outside attention that comes with such things. The characters are really well-written and complex - almost no one is all good or all bad, lots of shades of gray. Gorgeous camera work in the landscape shots, too (at least, as long as you like snow). The big mystery was a bit of a letdown for me, since it was foreshadowed so heavily early on, but it's still a fun ride getting to the answers.

The Kettering Incident (Foxtel, via Amazon Prime Video) Season One - After watching the eight episodes that currently exist, I'm not much of a fan of The Kettering Incident. I enjoyed the build-up of the mystery and liked several of the characters, but it feels unfinished. The last episode just sort of ends, with what I thought was an unsurprising reveal - that particular "surprise" had a whole lot of foreshadowing in the last couple of episodes. Rumor has it that a second season is in the works, which could change my mind if it picks up the story and has a more satisfying conclusion.

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Telltale's Game of Thrones Season 1

I bought the Game of Thrones episodic game from Telltale a while back during a sale, and just recently got around to playing it.
It's unfortunate that the first thing I noticed about this game is how non-user-friendly it is. Installation required me to download direct from Telltale, rather than using Steam or some other distribution platform. (I assume that was because of the sale price, since it's available on those platforms, but I only had the one option.) Then I had to wait through an installation and update process, which was extremely slow. After playing the first episode, I had to download each of the other five episodes one at a time (also very slow). The game runs in a tiny window on my desktop with no option for higher resolution. The graphics are choppy, even more so than in other Telltale games I've played, and on occasion the sound gets out of sync. Several times the game screen blanked out and I had to kill the program to restart, and once it crashed trying to reload my save (fortunately a second attempt worked). It takes a lot of patience to get through all those technical and distribution issues.

Beyond the technical issues, the game shares the pros and cons that go with pretty much all episodic adventure games. My least favorite of these is the action sequences, including one almost immediately after starting the first episode. I had the usual trouble with them, dying several times largely because I didn't understand what was being asked of me (why isn't my character crawling away from the bad guy...whoops, I'm dead...oh, it wanted me to press down instead of up) and had to repeat the sequence. But I was always able to get through it once I'd seen what the game was asking for, and the sequences aren't terrible...just annoying.

This Game of Thrones adventure does a reasonable job of replicating the Game of Thrones feel. The player represents the Forrester family, a northern noble family traditionally tied to the Starks. The game switches you back and forth between various family members in different locations, which is a bit different since most of these kind of games are from a single viewpoint. It's familiar here, though, since the books and HBO show use the same kind of viewpoint switching. There's plenty of intrigue, betrayal, and spiteful enemies, as well as the occasional death of a character who seemed central to the plot.

Both the strongest and weakest points of the story in this game are its close ties to the events in the books/HBO show. On the one hand, I understand that it's a big draw to see the main characters like Tyrion or Cersei or Jon Snow, and to be affected by major events like the Red Wedding. These kind of interactions give the player a feeling of being part of the same world they read about or watch on TV. But the same close ties limit what can happen in the story and make the player's choices seem less important. When you know what's about to happen at the wedding of Joffrey and Margaery, for instance, it seems pretty silly to be engaged in political maneuvering for the favor of Tyrion.

Much of the time, I felt like I was just watching the story rather than being part of it. I could make some small impacts, but some pretty bad things were going to happen no matter what I did. That's a problem with all of these episodic adventure games, but it seemed worse with this one than most. I suppose that's to be expected in the Game of Thrones setting, where bad things seem to happen to most everyone all the time.

Don't expect to learn much in the way of answers at the end of the sixth and final episode. It feels very much like the middle of a story, with only one really big question answered (whether or not the North Grove is a real place). Clearly they're setting up for at least one more season. Had I realized just how much they were going to leave unresolved, I probably wouldn't have played at all until season two was out.

If you're a Game of Thrones fan and looking for something to augment the books/show, this Game of Thrones episodic adventure game is a decent choice. But if you don't like or have no opinion on Game of Thrones in general, I wouldn't bother with this game. It's unlikely to change your mind about the world if you dislike it, and the books/show are a much better way to get involved for the first time.

Saturday, April 8, 2017

The Killthrax Tour in Grand Rapids

Grand Rapids' new 20 Monroe Live concert venue picked a good one for their first metal show: the Killthrax tour featuring Anthrax and Killswitch Engage. Both of those headliners played a full 90 minute set.
When I first saw the announcement for this come through my inbox, I was pretty surprised that Anthrax was still around. I listened to those guys 25 years ago in high school, but had pretty much lost track of them since college. Turns out they've been busy, even releasing a new album last year. All but one of the members were with the band back when I first encountered them (though some have left and come back a few times). They're not quite in Rolling Stones territory yet, but there's definitely some impressive longevity there.
20 Monroe Live has only been open for a few months, right downtown next to the BOB in Grand Rapids. This was my first visit, and I'd say they did a pretty good job with the place. Nice wide stage, elevated enough so that it's fairly easy to see from most anywhere on the floor. The acoustics seemed fine (though with thrash metal it's kinda hard to tell sometimes). A second level has reserved seats with a great view of the stage. My only complaint is that they put the restrooms on the second floor with only one main staircase for getting up and down, so it's terribly congested during breaks in the show.
I showed up a little late on purpose, since I knew the opening bands (Jasta and The Devil Wears Prada) would play for a while. I'm sure they're both fine, but after listening to their albums a bit on Spotify, I decided I didn't really care if I saw their entire sets. I caught the last few songs of The Devil Wears Prada, which seemed fine but aren't really my favorite style. (Side note - during the set change before Anthrax came on, I ran into a guy who actually recognized my Drain STH shirt. Since they haven't existed for nearly 20 years, it's a rare day when someone actually knows who they were! It goes without saying that both he and I were above the median crowd age.)
Anthrax was amazing, in my humble opinion. They looked like a group with 30 years of experience, comfortable on the stage and having fun. I'd been listening to them quite a bit for the last few weeks so I recognized a good number of the songs they played. Quite a few were older, including a couple from the Among the Living album and what may be the most recognizable Anthrax song, Antisocial. Those guys may be getting up there in age, but they haven't lost a step.
Killswitch Engage was a lot of fun as well. They've been around for nearly 20 years, which surprised me a bit when I looked it up. A way to go yet to catch the Anthrax guys, but that's a good long time, and they have plenty of material to show for it. At several different points they played three or four songs in a row in a kind of medley, which I thought was a cool way to give the set lineup some variety. Popular songs like My Last Serenade got played in full, though, which the crowd certainly seemed to appreciate.
Both headliners gave a fine performance, but personally I preferred Anthrax over Killswitch Engage. The old guy in me, I suppose. In any event, it was a great show that I'm glad came through my town.

Thursday, April 6, 2017

An Unexpected Upgrade

I bought a new video card yesterday. I hadn't planned on doing so, but when your old card dies, it's time for a new one.
Sometimes you can tell when computing equipment is on its last legs, and sometimes failure is pretty much a complete surprise. This was the latter. My screen flickered once early on yesterday, which seemed odd but everything kept working. Then an hour or so later, the screen went black and nothing I did brought it back. A single screen flicker isn't much in the way of warning.

I didn't know right away that the video card was the problem, but it was a pretty high-percentage guess. That earlier flickering screen was a giveaway, as well as the fact that I could see keyboard and case lights come on when attempting a reboot. Motherboard or power problems would likely not show any lights at all, and drive- or memory-related issues should show something on the screen (even if only an error). Just to be sure, I broke out an old video card (from several years ago before my last upgrade) and tried it out. That worked, confirming that the video card was the issue.

The card that just died was a NVidia GeForce GTX 650 Ti Boost. It's just over three years old, which is pretty ancient in terms of computing technology. I hadn't had any complaints in terms of performance, and three years is pretty decent in terms of life of a video card that's used regularly on a gaming machine. Using that old card wasn't an option - way too underpowered, which is why it had been replaced in the first place - so I needed a new one. I figured my best bet was to go with a similar card in hopes of the same kind of lifespan and performance.

The 650 is way out of date now, but NVidia makes a GeForce GTX 1050 Ti that's basically a later version of the same thing. I poked around on various shopping sites and found that it was pretty affordable, around $160. That's right in the sweet spot for gaming video cards, at least in my opinion. A bit more than the super-cheap cards with short lives and/or bad performance due to cheap manufacturing, and a lot less than the high-end cards that provide way more power than necessary for my needs.

I do a lot of shopping online, but when I want something quickly it's nice to have local stores. Best Buy had the card I wanted for basically the same price as I could get at online retailers, and they have a store about 15 minutes away. I used their in-store pickup option to place the order, and drove up to pick it up about an hour later.

Back in the day, installing a new video card was a major pain, but these days it's a pretty painless process. Honestly, the hardest part was lining up the screws to hold the card in place against the back of my case. Even driver installation was no trouble, just a quick download from the NVidia site. I did make sure to choose the clean install option so it would remove the old drivers, just in case, but even that was likely unnecessary.

Everything I've done on the computer in the last day or so has worked fine, so I believe the new card has settled in nicely. With luck, it'll be another three years before I have to worry about it again.

Wednesday, April 5, 2017

Ghost in the Shell (2017)

I recently went to see Ghost in the Shell (the 2017 movie). While it wasn't as bad as reviews have been making it out to be, it certainly could have been a whole lot better.
As I've said previously, I'm a big fan of the Ghost in the Shell franchise. Which made it difficult to see this kind of movie without preconceptions - I have all sorts of assumptions about the characters and world rolling around in my head. And the movie didn't make it easy to disconnect, as it went out of the way to throw in all kinds of references to the original movie, SAC series, etc. But I did do my best.

If I think of this movie as the origin story for a human-android hybrid in a cyberpunk world (trying to ignore previous incarnations of the franchise), then it's not terrible, but not good either. The plot, revolving mostly around the Major's self-discovery, is adequate but doesn't have a lot of depth to it (to be fair, that's not uncommon in an origin-style film). The writing is just downright poor, I'm afraid. They do too much "tell, not show" - for example, the entire opening sequence showing the prosthetic body creation and then explanation by the doctor fell flat for me. Why not have that information be revealed naturally as the story goes along instead of just laid out in unimpressive dialog? The action is merely adequate as well - some of it is interesting (I enjoyed the last big fight, for example), but also there are some cringe-worthy slow-motion shots that probably spiked the CGI budget for no good reason.

Then there are all those Ghost in the Shell franchise references. They are absolutely everywhere, from the Major dropping off a building and disappearing (twice) to a chain-smoking technician to Batou's dog. It felt to me as if someone took a big handful of iconic components from all the franchise properties and said "Use as many of these as possible, whether they make sense or not." Some of it does fit in without disrupting the flow of the film, but other parts just make no sense. Even the name (or title?) "Major" is never really explained and just seems out of place.

For me, the constant references jarred me out of this new version of the franchise by reminding me of the older works (and the contrast between the two). The feeling is doubled when they made changes that seemed to have no purpose. For example: Aramaki is out in the field on his own near the end, and using a revolver. Why not have Togusa there with him and using that gun, as in pretty much all the other versions? It's not like Togusa had anything else to do at that point in the story.

The casting is worth a mention here, since it's gotten a good amount of negative attention. This is a Japanese series and there are a lot of white faces in the cast, most notably Scarlett Johansson in the lead role. That didn't bother me too much, since the whole premise of the movie is that she's not in her original body. The city that they are in is pretty clearly Asian but with a very cosmopolitan feel, so it doesn't seem out of place that there are non-Asian people roaming around without causing comment. Still, it seems like an unnecessary controversy since I'm sure there are plenty of actors of Asian descent that could have performed just as well. I wish the producers would have taken a different direction from the beginning.

This Ghost in the Shell movie had a lot of potential, but squandered it with poor writing and way too many incongruous franchise references. I'm guessing we won't see any follow-up to this particular version, which is probably just as well. A great live-action movie is possible for this franchise, but to get there someday they'll need to start over from scratch.

Sunday, April 2, 2017

Office 365 Day

I spent part of this weekend attending Office 365 Day, a professional event focused on Microsoft's Office 365 software. The event took place at Davenport University's main campus, just up the road from where I live in Caledonia. It's a smallish campus as universities go, but well designed and only a few years old.
The event was created by Andy Tabisz, a Microsoft MVP from here in Michigan. He and the other organizers did a fine job pulling together sponsors, gathering speakers, and all the other details needed to make an event like this happen. About 30 people attended, which is on the small side, but that's normal for a regional event that isn't part of an ongoing series.

You might ask why a retired guy is spending eight hours on a weekend to attend an information technology event. Primarily it's because I'm still an IT worker, just on a volunteer basis now rather than as a paid job. Much shorter hours and less stress, but the same general knowledge base. In addition, this particular event made sense because it was about 5 minutes drive from home, free of charge, and one of the speakers was an ex-co-worker of mine from my consulting days. And besides, I'm enough of a technology nerd to enjoy keeping up with what's happening in the IT world.

There were 15 different sessions available across the day, organized into 5 blocks of 3 concurrent presentations. The five that I attended dealt mostly with administration topics, such as security and how to organize SharePoint sites. I figured those are the kinds of things that no one else is likely to know at the small organizations where I'm spending my IT support time these days.

In addition to the Office 365 information, a chance to talk with some other IT folks from around the area, and free food, I was one of the fortunate ones to win a raffle prize. (These events always have raffle prizes at the end - encourages people to stick around all day.) I'm now the proud owner of an Amazon Echo Dot, which is one of those techno toys that I'm not likely to buy for myself, but I'm sure I'll love playing with now that I have it. 

Thanks to Andy and all the others who organized the Office 365 Day event. It was informative, a good networking opportunity, and going home with a new toy was a nice bonus!

Monday, March 27, 2017

Voters Not Politicians Town Hall Meeting

The group Voters Not Politicians (VNP) held a town hall meeting yesterday in Kalamazoo which I attended. VNP is a ballot question committee working to get a state constitutional amendment on the 2018 ballot that reforms the redistricting process.
VNP has been holding these meetings all over the state of Michigan this month. Normally I'd have attended one closer to home, but my schedule was such that Kalamazoo was my best option. It's only about an hour drive. The First Congregational Church in downtown Kalamazoo were very gracious hosts, providing space for the around 100 attendees. The main presentation was given by Wayne State political science professor Kevin Deegan-Krause. He's a very enthusiastic and engaging speaker who kept things interesting, not an easy task with this kind of potentially dry subject matter.

The purpose of the meeting was to explain what VNP is trying to do, why they're doing it, and communicate the process. Put simply, they're trying to end the practice of gerrymandering in Michigan. Gerrymandering is the process of drawing political district boundaries to give advantage to a particular group, and as for why it should end, it's a major factor in skewing representation away from the actual voter proportions (which is something I've talked about before). In Michigan today, the districts are drawn by the legislature, who are the people who most directly benefit from that process - an obvious conflict of interest.

To end gerrymandering in Michigan, VNP is putting a state constitutional amendment on the ballot in 2018 to establish an independent commission to draw district boundaries. That's a pretty long and involved process, thus the meetings happening more than a year before the election. They're working on the amendment wording now, and will be collecting voter signatures over the summer. Assuming that all goes well, the group will then be promoting the ballot measure next year leading up to election day.

The turnout for this meeting was great, with over 100 people on a Sunday afternoon, and the leaders mentioned that other meetings had been just as well attended. Gerrymandering has been a problem for a long time, but not many people in Michigan have been motivated to address it. The extreme partisanship of recent times and unhappiness with the last year's election results make this a great time to push for change in the political process, though, and VNP is in a good position to take advantage of that. They have my support and I very much hope they succeed.

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Strangers in Their Own Land by Arlie Russell Hochschild

Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American RightStrangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right by Arlie Russell Hochschild
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

You hear a lot in the media about the divisions in American politics. It's easy to find writing to support one side or the other. What you don't see very often are real attempts by one side to understand the other, but in this book Hochschild does exactly that.

Hochschild is a liberal university professor from Berkley, California. In this book, she recounts her experiences getting to know conservatives living in Louisiana. It's hard to imagine a larger gap in political viewpoints, which was exactly the intention. Hochschild wanted to personally talk to people in the opposing political camp to understand their viewpoints.

From those conversations, Hochschild gathered what she calls a "deep story" for the conservative right. This story largely deals with feelings of being left behind while others are given advantages which have not been earned. (Whether that's actually the case or not isn't the point...the feelings are real either way.) When political leaders appeal to the emotions behind that deep story, the people respond, even if the actual actions of those leaders cause them harm.

Harm caused to the population is a pervasive theme in the book, mostly in terms of Louisiana's serious pollution and environmental issues. Most of those interviewed have suffered direct harm from industry causing environmental damage, and yet continue to support leaders who cater to those same industries and oppose environmental regulation. The appeal of the deep story is offered as an explanation for this seeming contradiction.

You might think that a book entirely about a liberal having discussions with conservatives over environmental damage and other political hot topics would be full of arguments and anger. There's very little of that to be found here. Hochschild repeatedly refers to the people she met as her conservative friends, and the tone of the book certainly supports that. I give her plenty of credit for that, since an interviewer with the wrong attitude will almost certainly cause an angry reaction. And just as much credit goes to the interviewees, who clearly were willing to share their experiences and feelings honestly.

I highly recommend reading Strangers in Their Own Land, no matter your political viewpoints. I think it makes some good points about certain specific issues, primarily around environmental regulation, but that's not the main reason. What I found most compelling about this book is that way that people on opposite sides of the American political divide had honest conversations, learned to understand each other, and parted as friends. We should all strive to follow that example.

Sunday, March 19, 2017

A Trip to Southeast Texas

I recently took a trip to the Houston area in Southeast Texas, meeting up with my parents, brothers, and families. We stayed in Montgomery (about an hour northwest of Houston). Most of the time we spent catching up with each other, but we also found some time for a little sightseeing.
In case there was any question that you're in Houston, this is what greets travelers leaving Terminal A in the airport.
Before this trip, I knew in theory that the Houston area is heavily populated, but being there really gives you a feel for how many people live in and around the city. Wikipedia says that Houston is the 4th-largest city, and the wider metro area is the 5th most-populated, in the United States. We made the drive from the city to Montgomery several times during our stay, and it never felt like we were out in the country. Texas has a whole lot of land, and the people are certainly spreading out across it.
Full-sized shuttle mock-up at the Space Center.
The place we stayed at is a condo complex on Lake Conroe called Villas on the Lake. The buildings are a bit older, but are well enough maintained. There was plenty of room for all eight of us (six adults, two kids) in the three-bedroom condo. There's not a whole lot nearby other than the lake itself, but within moderate driving distance you can find a good number of stores and restaurants.
Memory Park in Montgomery.
Visiting in the middle of March was a wise decision as far as weather goes. Mostly upper 70s during the day and 60s at night. There were a couple of minor rain showers and some fog, but mostly the skies stayed clear. It was easy to imagine just how hot and humid things would be in the height of summer, though. I don't think I'd want to go back in August!
A few hanging fish at the Museum of Natural Science.
We took three trips for sightseeing while we were in the area:

  • Space Center Houston is right across from the NASA Johnson Space Center. It's set up largely like a children's museum, with lots of interactive exhibits and learning presentations. For us old people there's also some displays on the history of NASA's various programs and a full-sized space shuttle/carrier plane mock-up.
  • The Houston Museum of Natural Science has three floors packed full of all kinds of exhibits, from Texan wildlife to Amazon tribal culture to ancient Egypt. We picked this particular museum largely to indulge my niece's love of mummies by visiting the "Mummies of the World" special exhibit. We only spent an afternoon in this very impressive museum, but I could easily have spent twice that long and still not seen everything.
  • On the other end of the sight-seeing spectrum from those large establishments was Fernland Park and Memory Park in Montgomery. Fernland Park is a collection of historic buildings that have been moved to Montgomery from their original locations, some from nearly 200 years ago. I particularly liked the log cabin that was built in the late 1800s. Adjacent to Fernland is Memory Park, a pond surrounded by walking paths with many memorandum signs from those who have donated time, money, and labor to creating the park. 
The hour or two spent to see those small Montgomery parks was a nice contrast to the hours spent at the larger Houston establishments. Nice to avoid the drive through Houston traffic, too.
One of the log cabins at Fernland Park.
This short trip was a nice introduction to some of what Southeast Texas has to offer. If I make another visit, I'd like to see the rest of the museum district, and maybe catch one of the Houston sports teams in town.

Sunday, March 12, 2017

Marvel Heroes 2.0

The Marvel Heroes folks sent me an email a while back announcing the launch of their "Biggest Update Ever." It had been several months since I played the game, so this seemed like a good time to see what had changed.
It turns out that what changed is darn near everything about how you build out each character. The action-RPG gameplay is more or less the same, and you still have pretty much the same story content and challenge modes. The level of difficulty has been reset in that content, though, so that higher difficulty modes are more of a challenge than they used to be.

Under the old system, a large part of character planning involved trying to get as many levels as possible in your key powers. The new system eliminates power levels entirely, and adds the concept of talents that can change how powers work depending on which talents you select. If that sounds familiar, that's probably because it's pretty much the same change we saw from Diablo II to Diablo III. In general I like it, especially since it means you see all of a character's powers (except the ultimate) by level 30.

The change to eliminate power levels had a big impact on items as well, since adding power levels was a big part of gearing character in the old system. Almost every item got a revamp, and for the most part you can do pretty well just by getting the unique items specific to your character plus a few artifacts. When I logged in some of my old characters, I was mostly able to jump right in without worrying too much about changing out their old gear, even though the stats on that gear had changed. I'm sure there's new ways to min-max stats, but the old stuff is mostly still usable.

Another major change is the simplification of the end-game character improvement system. The old OMEGA point system was extremely complex, so a key feature of the new Infinity system is simplicity. There are only 6 groups of 5 options for Infinity point placement, much fewer than the number of OMEGA nodes. I found it to be fairly easy to understand, and it certainly seems to have plenty of room to grow in the future if the developers decide to go that route.

I was less enthusiastic about the ramping up of difficulty. The "green" lowest level is still pretty much the same, but "red" and "cosmic" levels seem significantly harder than I remember. I suspect that the designers realized that power creep was becoming a problem - high-end characters with the best gear were just too powerful - so decided on an across-the-board difficulty increase during this major update. I'd rather that they'd paid more attention to the power creep to begin with. Still, at least this addresses the situation to some extent, and hopefully they've learned a lesson and won't make the same mistake going forward.

After spending a few days going back to some of my old characters, I felt fairly comfortable with the changes. It's a credit to the design and development teams that they were able to make these big changes in such a way that it was pretty easy for players to make the transition.

Thursday, March 9, 2017

Black Mirror

Pick a near-future technology and ask "What could possibly go wrong?" That's Black Mirror in a nutshell.
Image result for black mirror
Black Mirror takes some kind of technology that we have today, extends it, and creates a dystopia around it. It's not a series as such, since each episode is independent, although some themes (such as the prevalence of social media) are shared by most. What you'll find in every episode is a disturbingly recognizable world in which people have found a way to utilize technology in the worst way.

In some cases, Black Mirror barely moves into the future at all. The very first episode is a good example - it's based around a kidnapping and the use of social media to make public demands, something that is possible today. Other episodes make use of advanced technologies such as direct brain interfaces for gaming or ubiquitous personal life recorders. Those may not yet exist, but it's not much of a stretch to see such things developed in the near future.

Most of the episodes are either disgusting or horrifying, dealing with everything from murder to sexual deviancy to genocide. If that's all there was to Black Mirror, I wouldn't have bothered with more than an episode or two. Below the obvious disturbing theme, though, there are always ethical questions to consider.

For instance, in one story the government secretly installs back-door access to an environmental project that is used for warrant-less surveillance. It goes well for a while, even being used to solve or prevent crimes, but eventually that access is hacked and used in a killing spree. Giving law enforcement the ability to circumvent security, despite the risk of misuse...sounds like a question that our society struggles with today. Pretty much all the Black Mirror episodes have a similar kind of ethical theme that prompts thought about current events.

It's probably not a great idea to binge-watch a bunch of Black Mirror episodes all at once, because they're all pretty disturbing. I found it well worth the time to go through the series slowly, though, and think a bit about the ethical questions raised in each episode.