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.