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.

Sunday, March 5, 2017

Amaranthe Live in Ft Wayne

I recently drove down to Ft Wayne, Indiana to see Amaranthe in concert. It's about a 2.5 hour trip each way, but the concert was a lot of fun - well worth the drive.
The concert was held at the The Hub Entertainment Center. It's a smallish venue, and the crowd wasn't that large - maybe a few hundred people. Good thing, too, because there was only one person dealing with tickets and two doing security checks at the door, so it took forever to get everyone in. If they ever get a really big crowd there, they'll have some trouble! Inside there's a open floor area by the stage with tables for people to sit beyond. It's clearly meant more for stage shows than rock concerts, but it served the purpose.

There were four opening acts, which in my opinion was at least two too many. I got pretty restless waiting for Amaranthe, especially since all the set changes added up to more than an hour. Probably didn't help that the last two weren't my favorite music style.

Smash Into Pieces was pretty good, though since they were the first act the crowd wasn't too involved. Hard rock sound, and they certainly worked at getting the crowd warmed up. The most memorable part of their act was a sort of veil the drummer was wearing with LED lights on it that kept flashing and changing colors.
Cypher 16 started out poorly, but got a lot better toward the end of the set. Not sure if they had some technical issues or what in the first couple songs, but by the end they'd gone through some really good heavy sequences. The bass player was fun to watch, jumping around the stage like a crazy man.
Citizen Zero has too much of a generic modern rock sound for my taste, but they do a good live performance. Everyone seemed to love their cover of Stranglehold. I thought their drummer in particular did a really good job.
Failure Anthem is unfortunately well named. Another generic modern rock sound, and in this case the live performance didn't add much. Part of that was probably because they were touring with a substitute lead vocalist. I also thought the bass was cranked up way too much during their set, and as a former bass player it takes a lot for me to say that. Not impressed.

Around three hours into the show, Amaranthe finally took the stage, and the wait was worth it. The band is unique (in my experience) in that they have three different vocalists. That "three-headed monster" approach, plus guitar and bass, meant the stage was pretty crowded. It helped that they'd put up a sort of catwalk area behind the drums, where a band member or two would often retreat to open up some space. Sometimes vocalists who aren't actively singing don't add much to the show, but Amaranthe doesn't have that problem. Elize Ryd is easy on the eyes no matter what she's doing, but she didn't rely on that and was engaged pretty much constantly. Occasionally one or two of the guys would leave the stage, but mostly all three were out there: moving around, headbanging, working the crowd, etc.
Amaranthe has been described as melodic dance metal, and that's a good description of the live show. Driving drum/bass lines, heavy guitar riffs, and the growling third of the vocals for "metal"; the other two-thirds of the vocals and some slower songs for the "melodic"; and some very upbeat choruses for the "dance." I thought the most impressive single song they performed was On The Rocks, which combines all three nicely.
I was happy to hear a mix of songs from all four Amaranthe albums in the set list. Of particular note: Automatic, my favorite track; Drop Dead Cynical, which the crowd was calling for and was the last song played; The Nexus, their most popular track according to Spotify; and Amaranthine, a love ballad that was clearly a big hit with the crowd. I was mildly surprised that they didn't do Supersonic, which is from the latest album and seems like it was made for live performance, but I suppose they can't fit everything in. Also of note was a drum solo by Morten Løwe Sørensen that was very impressive, the best I've experienced live since I last saw Rush.
The Amaranthe set lasted almost exactly 90 minutes, including a short intermission of 5-10 minutes when they let the crowd chant for a bit, then bass player Johan Andreassen came out and worked the crowd for a few minutes before the band started up again. The main difference after the break was that Elize had changed clothes, so maybe that was the point. The show ended almost exactly at midnight and the road crew immediately started breaking the set down, so I guess they had a hard stop at that point. Too bad since I'd have loved another half hour or so.

I'll definitely see Amaranthe again if the opportunity arises. Maybe next time their tour schedule will bring them a little closer.

Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Gender Transition in Competitive Sport

Recently, a story has been making the rounds of the usual news outlets about Mack Beggs, a teenager in Texas who won the female state wrestling championship. Generally not national news, but in this case Beggs was born female and is transitioning to male.
Let's start with the facts (according to the link above, which I have no reason to doubt). Beggs was born female, but has chosen to transition to male. The process started a year and a half ago, and includes testosterone injections. According to Asa Merritt, a reporter in West Texas, Beggs "...wants to compete against boys" but isn't allowed to due to a Texas school rule that students must compete as the gender on their birth certificate. Thus, Beggs competed against girls. And as it happened, won every match on the way to a state championship.

That rule about competing as the gender on your birth certificate sounds familiar - it's similar to the North Carolina Bathroom Bill that caused such an uproar last year. But I think there's a significant difference here. There's no competition involved in using a bathroom, but in sport the competition is the main focus. While I see the bathroom question as a discrimination issue, I think in sport the issue is about maintaining a level playing field for the other participants.

If anyone else took a performance-enhancing drug while participating in competitive sports, the rules would prohibit them from competing. (Or at least put them in a more appropriate category, if one exists. In this case there's probably not enough born-female-but-testosterone-enhanced participants to have such a category.) It seems to me that the only reason we're even hearing about this issue is that the drug was taken as part of a gender transition.

I don't have any problem with someone making a life choice that is appropriate for them (even if I don't understand it, which in this case I certainly don't). But I also think we need to recognize that every life choice that a person makes opens some doors and closes others. No choice should cause discrimination, but it also should not infringe on the rights of others. In this case, the right to compete fairly against other similar participants. We all make choices on a regular basis that affect our opportunities, and while this one is a bigger decision than most, it shouldn't be treated any differently.

When Beggs chose to take testosterone, that should have closed the door to participation in competitive wrestling (and likely, any other sport). The reason for taking it shouldn't matter, only that it was a free choice made by the athlete which caused an competitive imbalance.

Saturday, February 25, 2017

Representative Justin Amash Town Hall - Hastings, February 2017

I've been to a few town hall meetings held by my district's representative in Congress, Justin Amash, over the last few years. I remember one where no more than about a dozen people attended, and another where there were maybe fifty. Things have changed! In Hastings this weekend, a hall rated for 200 was completely filled, with several dozen more waiting outside. I arrived 15 minutes early and was still stuck near the very back - many of those who arrived later didn't get in at all.
Hard to tell, but that's Rep. Amash in the center. Getting closer for a better picture was out of the question, too crowded.
I've said it before and it's worth repeating - Justin Amash is one of the most professional, polite public speakers that I've ever seen. As a politician it's important to be polite to voters, of course, but that doesn't stop some from either losing their cool or avoiding public forums entirely. Amash consistently holds town hall meetings when he's here in Michigan, even now when the public temper is decidedly unsettled and contentious. He never gets angry with even the most inane (in my opinion) speakers, and answers everyone seriously, even when it's clear they're trying to bait him. In this town hall, scheduled for only an hour, he stayed for almost 2.5 hours so more people had an opportunity to speak. I greatly respect the way he goes about doing his job.

Having said that, I certainly don't agree with a lot of his policy positions, and judging from this town hall I'm far from alone. You expect opposition at public forums, of course...those who disagree are more interested in being heard by their representative than those who are happy with how things are going. But in the past town halls that I've attended, when comments about conservative hot topics (repealing the ACA aka Obamacare, environmental regulation rollbacks, balanced budget amendment, etc) came up, most people clapped and otherwise expressed support. This time, there were a whole lot of boos for those kinds of topics, and a lot of support for what are generally considered liberal positions (expanding Medicaid, federal oversight/support for schools, etc).
This is what it looked like from the entryway just before start time. There's more people behind who can't get in, and the police were turning away more at the door.
A lot of the speakers were clearly interested mostly in venting, going on for minutes at a time about one particular aspect or another of an issue. Topics ranged widely, but a few issues came up repeatedly: health care, education, environmental regulation, and inquiries into the behavior of the current administration. Everything I heard from Amash on these topics was pretty much what I expected based on what he's said on social media and in the news. One thing that does deserve special mention is that he supports independent inquiries into ethical issues, such as conflicts of interest in the administration.

Time after time in his answers, Amash expressed his belief that the federal government should pull back from direct involvement, and instead allow the state/local governments and/or free market to work. This was not a popular position, to put it mildly. I suspect part of that may be the ineptitude of our state government here in Michigan, incapable of fixing roads and presiding over disasters like the Flint lead-water debacle.

Even more than simply not trusting our state government, though, I think there's an underlying assumption about human nature that differs between Amash (and many conservatives) and the town hall crowd (and many liberals). If you believe that authorities will deal fairly with everyone in their domain (regardless of race/religion/sexual preference/social status/etc) then the idea of pushing control down to state/local levels makes a lot of sense. It minimizes overhead and bureaucratic waste, provides opportunity for diversity based on different local preferences, and follows the principals of limited government. On the other hand, if you believe authorities will play favorites, doling out benefits to certain groups and refusing to address the issues of others, then it makes much more sense to have a strong central leadership that can ensure equal treatment. I definitely fall into the latter group, and while our federal government leaves much to be desired in terms of maintaining equality, it's better than some of the things we see state and local governments doing.

(Edit: I've gotten several replies to the above paragraph which are along the lines of "why do you think a strong central authority is better for equal treatment than smaller local authorities?" My belief is that the wider and more diverse the constituency that the authority must answer to, the better that authority will be at providing equal treatment. In the long run, at least - certainly not every individual election bears that out, as we saw last year. I'm not saying that the federal government is inherently any better than state or local authorities, but it is more likely to have the best interests of the most people in mind since more people have a say in its makeup.)

I'd like to thank Representative Amash for spending his time to conduct these town hall meetings. A lot of politicians pay lip service to the idea of listening to their constituents, but Amash is one of the few who actually does it on a regular basis.

Life Is Strange

While it is certainly true that life is indeed strange, this post is about the video game, not the philosophical observation. Life Is Strange is an episodic adventure game (similar to the various Telltale games). Note: It's pretty much impossible to completely avoid spoilers when talking about this kind of game, but I'll try to keep it minimal.
Life Is Strange cover.jpg
The protagonist in Life Is Strange is Max, a photography student recently returned to the town of her childhood in order to attend the prestigious, private Blackwell academy. She almost immediately discovers that she's somehow gained the ability to rewind time. Her first use of this power is to save her friend Chloe, who she hasn't seen for years, from being shot. Max proceeds to use her abilities to solve problems from the mundane (saving the occasional small animal, moving a fellow student to avoid a puddle splash) to the remarkable (saving lives, finding missing persons).

Life Is Strange has two main drivers: a missing-person mystery and the relationship between Max and Chloe. The missing person is Rachel, a girl from Blackwell who was Chloe's friend and went missing just before Max came back to town. Max had dropped out of contact with Chloe after moving away, but they rediscover their friendship as they work toward finding out what happened to Rachel. Chloe has had some terrible life experiences and has reacted by becoming a prickly, difficult-to-like rebel. But she and Max genuinely care for each other, and the game does a great job of showing that relationship.

The game touches on quite a few modern social issues while moving through the mystery-solving and relationship-building. Chloe's step-father is an ex-soldier struggling with reintegration into civilian society. There are several instances of bullying at Blackwell, including one that leads to a suicide attempt. Drug use is rampant among the students. It's fairly heavily implied that Chloe is lesbian or bi-sexual, but unwilling to be open about it. Max does have some opportunity to help in these areas, though she can't always find a resolution..and sometimes attempting to help makes things worse. Much like real life.

Storytelling in Life Is Strange is uneven, particularly early on, but it does get better later. At first, everything you encounter seems mundane and unimportant. Max mostly wanders around Blackwell and discovers a whole lot of standard teenage drama, occasionally using her time powers to harass a bully or smooth out a relationship. I might have been tempted to give up, had I not heard good things from friends about the game. It wasn't until the third episode that I felt the story really picked up, but once it did I was hooked and anxious to finish it out. The storytelling may not be smooth, but in the end I found it to be well worth the effort to get through the rough patches.

There are also some technical and mechanical issues with the game. I noticed several places where the video and audio weren't properly synced up. There were more than a few times when I had a hard time maneuvering Max and/or the camera view so I could select a particular item or other interaction. Nothing game-breaking, but certainly annoying.

The player never gets an explanation of how Max got her powers. We do learn eventually that she has limits, and her abilities might even be causing some of the very catastrophes that she's trying to prevent. I didn't mind that the writers chose to leave that part of the mystery unrevealed, largely because it doesn't really matter where the time abilities came from. The way the story unfolds, it wouldn't make any difference whether it was magic or future technology or anything else.

Playing through Life Is Strange was a very interesting experience. It may not be the most polished game, but I thought the characters came alive, and the story was engrossing once it got going. Well worth the 10-12 hours of playtime.

Monday, February 20, 2017

Continuum

After watching Travelers, I was in the mood for more time-travel sci-fi, and Netflix's recommendations turned up Continuum.
Like many time-travel-based stories, Continuum gets its start in a dystopia future. The protagonist isn't usually trying to preserve that future, though. The heroine of Continuum, Kiera Cameron, is part of the private police force in a future controlled by corporate power. The villains are terrorists trying to change things to prevent the corporations from taking over and causing indentured servitude or death for millions. It's an interesting tension, where the viewer isn't always sure which side should win.

I thought the first two seasons of Continuum were very well done. The viewer is kept guessing as to which side is winning, or whether either side is having any effect on their future at all. The characters have plenty of personal issues to keep things interesting, in addition to the big picture. But I was less enthusiastic about the third season and the short six-episode fourth season, largely because the writers introduced actual timeline changes. In most of the first two seasons, the viewer was never sure if anything in the future had actually changed, or if everything we saw was just part of a big causality loop. At the end of the second season and into the third, though, it's very clear that things are actually changing. Once that started happening, I felt that a lot of the suspense went out of the plot. (Also the ending is fairly sappy, but I don't hold that against the show since they had to wrap everything up in that short final season.)

There's a lot of the usual suspects in the plot of Continuum: nearly magical future technology, lots of hiding from present-day characters, future people trying to protect their ancestors, and so on. For the most part I thought all that stuff was handled well, if not in a particularly original manner. That's OK, since the real originality of Continuum comes from how the characters change their views about what the future should be like over time.

For anyone who loves sci-fi based dramas, Continuum is worth watching. It's really good at the beginning, and by the time it starts to slow down you'll likely be invested enough in the characters and plot to forgive the weaker portions of the later seasons.

Thursday, February 16, 2017

Good Dental News

As far as teeth go, 2017 is already a much better year than 2016.
I had my first cleaning visit of the year this week. Not only did they not find any problems, but my hygienist actually complimented me on how well I've been doing with tooth care. I'm used to hearing how my flossing isn't quite up to par, or I need to pay more attention to my gums, etc. Apparently I've been doing everything right lately, though.

That's a far cry from last year, when I got the news that I needed a half-dozen fillings during my first cleaning visit. Leading to my least favorite dental experience yet a couple of months later, a root canal, later capped off with a crown. I still get the occasional ache in that tooth, but they did a small adjustment to it so maybe that'll go away too.

I suppose maybe that terrible experience last year is the reason that I got the clean bill of mouth health this time around. Going through the root canal process gives you a solid incentive to follow all the appropriate dental guidelines, so as to avoid ever having to do it again. So far, so good on that front.

Monday, February 13, 2017

The House of Daniel by Harry Turtledove

The House of Daniel: A novel of wild magic, the great depression, and semipro ballThe House of Daniel: A novel of wild magic, the great depression, and semipro ball by Harry Turtledove
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

There's a lot of baseball in The House of Daniel, but not the kind you may be familiar with. The book is set around the time of the Great Depression, which for baseball players meant that a lot of the lower-level minor league professional clubs folded. Semipro teams featuring local players who happened to live in the area were the norm, as well as barnstorming traveling teams - some with big-name players since they didn't get paid millions like today's stars. Outside of one organized tournament, the baseball in this book is the kind played by a traveling team against a different small-town semipro team every day.

Money, or lack thereof, is a constant theme - unsurprising in a Great Depression-era story. Jake "Snake" Spivey, our narrator, is grateful for his athletic ability to play center field well enough to earn money at it, since other jobs aren't easy to find. Even so, the opportunity for a little extra cash leads him to fall in with the wrong crowd. He gets lucky when the House of Daniel traveling team happens to need a center fielder after an injury, giving him a chance to make better money while also leaving behind some of his own problems.

As is usual with a Turtledove book, there's a lot of actual history mixed in with the more fantastic elements. There was a traveling team called the House of David which formed the basis of the House of Daniel team, and many of the towns and ballfields are based on those that actually existed back in the 1930s. References to the wider world are sprinkled through the book, from mention of the "War to End War" (this being before WW II) to Weeghman Park (our narrator not yet knowing that it was renamed Wrigley Field).

The world of The House of Daniel is also one of magic, where wizards work alongside engineers and vampires roam the night. This affects the story only in fairly minor ways, aside from one big dangerous event around the middle of the book. Most of the time, Jack takes the magical side of the world in stride and describes it no differently than the more mundane aspects. Honestly, I didn't think the magical aspects added anything to the story - you could have replaced it all with equivalent mundane activities without changing much. But it doesn't hurt, either, and I'm guessing Turtledove enjoyed putting in zombies and elementals and chupacabras.

As a fan of both baseball and alternate history novels, not to mention just about anything Turtledove has ever written, The House of Daniel was right up my alley. I had a great time reading about the little details of the team's games as well as following the larger story arc. Those who aren't as much into either baseball or the concept of an alternate history may find that the amount of detail is overwhelming, but that won't bother those familiar with how Turtledove works.

Friday, February 3, 2017

Some Cars

The Michigan Internationl Auto Show is in town this week. A friend and I went downtown to check it out.
A pair of Prii.
If you're not in Michigan, you've likely never heard of this particular show, which is held in Grand Rapids. The much more famous North American International Auto Show takes place in late January over in Detroit, and pretty much every year it makes the national news. Once that's over, the car companies pack up a small portion of their wares and truck them over to Grand Rapids for the smaller Michigan show in early February.
The modern muscle car lineup. None of them transformed, sadly.
I'm not much of a car person, but I like looking at shiny things as much as the next guy. I won't go much out of my way to see a bunch of new cars (say, driving to Detroit) but when it's happening nearby, I figure why not? Especially when the entry was free, since Michigan Radio was kind enough to provide me with a couple of tickets (via a contest drawing).
The modern Meijer would need a whole lot of these to keep the stock coming in.
When you walk in the front gate, you could be forgiven for a bit of confusion since all the cars are old. That's the Gilmore Car Museum collection, which is right in the front hall. There's also a replica of the very first Meijer truck, complete with replica 8.5 cents-per-gallon gas pump. Which gives you an idea of what era was represented.
A small herd of student-built vehicles.
Behind the classic cars was an area with student-built vehicles from local schools. As an engineering school graduate, I found those interesting, even if they weren't the solar-powered types that I remember from my days at Rose-Hulman. One was a restored classic car to be driven in the 2017 Great Race - a student driver, adult navigator, and no modern navigation devices going from Michigan to Florida.
A Great Race vehicle.
Then there was the giant room of modern automakers, showing off all the various current models. I'd say about half were trucks or SUVs, which I mostly ignored except to be thankful that I have no need for such a gas-guzzler. There were plenty of luxury models as well, some in the "you can buy a nice house for that" price range. Makes no sense to me, but some folks have more money than they know what to do with, I suppose. I spent most of my time looking at hybrids and economy models.
Pictured, approximately 2 mansions worth of car.
I found the 2017 Toyota Yaris, which didn't look much different from my 2010 (except cleaner, of course). About the same price and fuel efficiency, and no major form changes. I consider that a good thing, no reason to be anxious about upgrading.

Wandering around looking at all the new vehicles made for a fun couple of hours. Certainly there are plenty of interesting options out there in the market. In the end, though, I mostly was glad that I'm in no immediate danger of going through the hassle of getting a new car.

Sunday, January 29, 2017

How I Retired

Last January, I wrote a post on this blog about Why I Retired. A year later seemed like a good time to address the "how" portion, as in "how did I afford this?"
Here's one of those completely accurate yet almost entirely useless "easy steps" lists that you see in self-help books everywhere.

1. Make lots of money.
2. Don't spend much of it.
3. Invest the remainder wisely.

Simple, right? Obviously not, but it's a useful outline.

Step 1: Making money involves being both skilled and fortunate. Thanks in large part to good genes and upbringing, I had the aptitude needed to succeed in school and work with technology. Choosing computer science as a field of study meant that I had no lack of job opportunities, and I put in the work needed to be at the top of that field. Across my 15 years as a consultant and systems architect, I averaged around $100,000 a year.

Certainly the hard work was important to my success, but I think luck played a big part as well. If hadn't enjoyed working with technology and chosen a less lucrative field of study, or been born into different circumstances and never had the educational opportunities, I'd have had a much more difficult time making good money.

I also had several chances to take bigger risks - joining start-up firms, jumping to other career paths - but I chose to play the odds and stay on the less risky path. Could those risks have paid off with greater rewards? Sure, but it likely would have taken longer, and there's a chance I'd have ended up with much less.

Step 2: People spend money on all sorts of things, most of which never appealed to me. I don't really care for fancy cars, a huge wardrobe, a giant house, the fanciest home theater system, and so on. I do like travel and good food, but my choice of career meant that much of that was provided for me in the form of business trips. Keeping expenses down by buying economical cars, a small condo, used TV/stereo, etc was pretty easy for me. I'll admit that I did splurge on some high-end computers on occasion, but even there I'd usually build my own.

The biggest way that I kept my expenditures low, though, is by not marrying or having kids. Those are pretty important things to most people, but I'm just not built that way. I actually like living alone and I'm not particularly concerned about leaving a legacy (my brother's kids have the next generation covered anyway). Being single and unattached means that just about every line item in my budget is smaller than the average family: I need less space in my home, smaller car, less food, pay less for insurance, and so on.

It's also important to mention that even if you keep your regular expenses down, it's important to allow some slack in your budget. Everyone makes the occasional impulse purchase, or goes for a spur-of-the-moment dinner out with friends. (In my case, I tend to buy books and games that catch my eye, and make unplanned visits to brewpubs.) Have a miscellaneous line item in the budget that allows for such things.

Step 3: Investing wisely means setting up a plan for yourself, then avoiding two things: shortcuts and panic. The plan part is pretty easy since it's well-documented by just about every financial institution on the face of the planet. Take full advantage of tax-advantaged and/or employer-supported options such as 401(k) accounts. Create an emergency fund that you can access easily if needed. Split your remaining investments between long-term growth (usually stock index funds) and low-risk (bonds), starting with lots of the former and slowly moving to a more even split over time.

Avoiding the pitfalls isn't necessarily hard, but it does require discipline. By "shortcuts" I mean extremely risky methods like day trading. Sure, you can make a lot of money, but you can also lose a ton, to the point where it's basically gambling. You can also include actively managed funds in this category, which almost always under-perform index funds while charging higher fees. (I'll admit that I've fallen into that trap occasionally myself, but I've since learned my lesson.) By "panic" I mean deviating from the plan due to outside circumstances: a fall in the stock market, political upheaval, dire warnings from talking heads on finance cable shows, etc.

All of the above is what gave me the means to live my current lifestyle indefinitely. It wouldn't work for everyone, but in my case it gets the job done. Nothing is guaranteed, of course. Any number of disasters could poke a hole in my plan, but I have enough safeguards that in the worst case I should have plenty of time to get back into the work force. Hopefully, disaster can be avoided and I can stay with the plan as long as I like.

Monday, January 23, 2017

A Week in the Warm

I recently returned from a week's vacation in the Dominican Republic. January is a great time to get out of Michigan's winter and enjoy some Caribbean weather. (Here's some more pictures, besides those you see here.)
The beach in Costambar.
A group of guys I know make this trip nearly every year, and this is the third time I've joined them over the last decade or so. We spent a few days in each of three different areas: Costambar, Puerto Plata, and Sosua. Going with a group that's used to the trip makes things easy. I'm able to mostly leave the trip planning to others and enjoy the ride. Nice to have insider knowledge about good places to visit.
Food on the beach in Costambar.
Costambar is mostly an ex-pat community. There's a nice beach area that's not too crowded, since most of the tourists are elsewhere. Several local restaurants are run by folks from places like Germany and Italy. For the golf-inclined there's a local course, not that I made any use of it, but the paths around the outside of it made for a nice jogging route.
Big Lee's on the Malecon.
Puerto Plata and Sosua are much more tourist destinations. There are several all-inclusive resorts in the area. We weren't staying at those, but you see a lot of groups from them wandering around. In Puerto Plata, we took tours of a couple of local factories, Del Oro chocolate and Brugal rum. More good food, too. I particularly enjoyed visiting Big Lee's Beach Bar on the Malecon (roughly, "road along the ocean") - great fish and chips, and my friends knew Lee from years past so we hung out for a while and talked with him. And the main beach in Sosua is a big tourist attraction with a ton of small shops and food stalls, though I spent more time at the smaller Alicia Beach where it's not so crowded.
Ugly tourist by a beach sign in Sosua.
Streets and buildings are noticeably more run-down in most places in the Dominican Republic than we're used to here in the United States, and you have to be careful to drink bottled water. The traffic is pretty crazy - I certainly wouldn't want to drive myself around, so it's a good idea to make friends with a local cab driver. But those are fairly minor things to deal with, and it's pretty safe as long as you stay with a few friends and don't go wandering around in the dead of night or anything. And the cost is very reasonable - I spent less than $200 per day overall, including all the flight and lodging expenses. In a lot of places, you'll spend that on hotel alone.
Alicia Beach in Sosua.
Taking a trip down to the Caribbean makes a fine mid-winter break from the cold and snow. I'm not sure I'd ever want to move down there full-time like some of the ex-pats I met, but as a vacation spot the Dominican Republic is a fun place to visit.