Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Bowen Winter Tour Day 1

When your firstborn son comes to you during winter break and asks for a 3 day bicycle tour instead of fancy toys or trips to Disneyland, your fatherly heart swells with pride and you say, "Yeah, we can do that!" Unfortunately, I had to break that promise, as I came down with whatever viral infection his brother brought home for the holidays, so when the forecast came to good weather on the MLK weekend (which he had time off for), I decided I would make it up to Bowen.

Joining us for the start was Eva, who graciously took some nice photos of us while climbing up Old Santa Cruz Highway. We actually had to walk the dirt section (granted, the sign says "walk your bike" in both directions, but I'd never actually respected that sign before), between the Saturday hiking crowd and the slightly sloppy conditions. We did explore an alternate entrance to the Los Gatos Creek trail off University avenue, which, while not tandem friendly was something new to me.

Eva split off at Mt. Charlie road on my advice in order to avoid the nasty section on summit road between Old Santa Cruz Highway and Highway 17, and Bowen and I had lunch at the summit store just a little past 1pm.

After that, the descent down Soquel San Jose was fun and pleasant as always, and at the bottom of the descent we found the hotel with no problem whatsoever.
A shower later, we made it to Gayle's Bakery, a place famous amongst cyclists, but that I'd never actually visited. Bowen had the ginger creme brulee while I had the chocolate eclair. That must have been a pretty good creme brulee, because Bowen became adamant that we had to have dinner there as well, and so we did.
Chris Kuhar called and suggested that we walk down to downtown Capitola, and so we did. Despite having lived in the Bay Area for most of my adult live, I'd never actually visited downtown Capitola before, and found it as charming as any Italian village I'd been to, complete with waterfront restaurants, cafes, a beach, and a riverside walking path that took us past a windmill house!
I finished reading Watership Down to Bowen that night using the Kindle App on the phone, an accomplishment that I hope I didn't have to repeat any time soon.

Friday, January 12, 2018

Review: Batman, the Telltale series

Ever since I realized that the Telltale Games series are basically movies with fake choices (as opposed to the real choices provided by Heavy Rain), I've stopped buying them. While the writing is generally nice, the fact that my choices don't actually change the outcome means that the series feels more like watching animated TV episodes than like a choose your own adventure type game.

Batman: The Telltale Series was one of this month's PS+ selections, however, and I'm a sucker for all things Batman, so I fired it up and played it through. The engine is clunky and stutters, particularly during action sequences, but not so badly that you can't get through it, and neither does the game crash.

The story places an emphasis on Bruce Wayne, which is good: what's interesting to me is that unlike the Batman stories in the canon, this version of Batman discovers that his parents were not what he thought they were (or at least, one of them), and the incident in crime alley wasn't a random mugging. This has severe knock-on effects on Wayne, not just psychologically, but on his standing in society. Other versions of Batman in games (such as the excellent Arkham series) never have you consider whether Bruce Wayne cares about anything other than dressing up as a bat and beating up thugs. This also makes up for the fact that the Telltale Batman isn't as invulnerable and competent as other versions.

The inter personal relationships in the game emphasis betrayal. Wayne betrays and is in turn betrayed by many of the people in his life (all but one anyway), and this drives the plot. At every point you're given a chance to play the tough guy Batman or the compassionate fool Batman, but as I indicated earlier, the choices don't mean anything: the story will plow  ahead in roughly the same fashion anyway.

The crime scene investigations in this Batman never lives up to the billing. You're just given a bunch of clues and asked to link them together. There are never more than 6-8 clues so the solutions are pretty obvious.

I wouldn't pay the current $15 used price on Amazon for the game, but for the approximately $3.50 monthly fee for PS+, this is worth the play-through. Mildly Recommended.

Thursday, January 11, 2018

Review: Joola Compact Ping Pong Table

My wife got it into her head the Ping-Pong would be a good thing to do indoors during the rainy season. I haven't played since I was in graduate school (and even then it was more or less a social game, no attempts to keep score or anything like that --- just hitting the ball at each other trying to keep a volley going). I was concerned about space, so the compact table at a fairly low price seemed like a good idea.

Opening the box, the table's assembly is of extremely low quality. On one of the legs, 3 of the screws that are supposed to anchor the leg were missing! I dug through my tool kit and found some compatible wood screws, but wow, this is extremely low quality.
The table is small. It definitely takes quite some getting used to: any excessive force is going to cause an out. This means that you're getting even less exercise than standard ping pong. I found myself deliberately having to hold back force or I was going to be even worse a player than I already was. The net is regulation height, so there's a bit of a learning curve as you can't just uniformly back off your hits: you still have to clear the net.

Once you get used to it, it feels almost like playing "real" ping pong. But the quality of the product is poor, so I'd recommend looking elsewhere.

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

Here's how I integrate my library into Amazon

Sometimes, people assume that with the volume of reading I get done (my annual lists are the tip of the icebergs: for instance, I never review books I don't finish, nor do I review magazines I read), I must spend a ton of money on books.

That's actually not true. Here's the primary tool I use, which is Library Extension. I set it up on Chrome, enter all my library cards and library accounts, and then whenever I visit an Amazon page for a book, the extension automatically checks whether the book is available at the library, both as an ebook and a paperbook, and how many copies of each are available (if any). This lets me decide on the spot whether the book's something I want to pay for so I can read it right away, or whether it's something I'm happy to have on my hold queue. (In cases where there are no ebooks, sometimes it tips me into buying the book)

This extension has saved a ton of money for me. And what's nice about it is that it fills my hold queue with a bunch of great books for free. The extension makes money for its author by injecting a referral link so that the author makes money from stuff you buy from Amazon. (Yes, he makes money even if you always change the URL to smile.amazon.com) But it's such a useful extension that he deserves however much money he makes that way.

And yes, Amazon's OK with this of course, since even more than before, I'm now trained to search on Amazon for books. I don't consider Google Play (no support for Kindle --- Google doesn't understand my love for epaper), I don't even bother visiting my library's web-site directly, since Amazon's reviews are so much better.

My biggest complaint about the extension is that it doesn't work on Android. (Not a surprise when you look at the UI)

If you have a library and a Kindle (or some other electronic reading device), this extension is a must have. Highly recommended.

Tuesday, January 09, 2018

Review: Summer Wars

I came to Summer Wars with low expectations, thinking that it was part of Hosada's pre-Girl Who Leapt Through Time work. Turns out that it actually post-dates that work and of course is a much better title than the latter.

There are several cliches that seem popular in Asian literature and film. One of them is the person who has to travel to a family gathering and (to keep up appearances) decides to present a friend as a significant other to his or her family. At first, Summer Wars seems to be exactly this movie.

Mixed in with all this, however, is a story about virtual reality and the take-over of an essential online service by a malicious AI. The technical details of this part of the story are far-fetched and unbelievable (no computer scientist will consider this plot anything other than laughable), but it serves the purpose of bringing the story of a multi-generational family with its long-term unfathomable disagreements, bitterness, and history together.

With all that in place, the story suddenly transitions into a family drama, with the people we think of initially as the primary protagonists suddenly shoved into the background. In any other director's hands this would be a major disaster, but Hosada somehow makes it work, and the end result is impressive.

Make no mistake, this isn't nearly as good as The Boy and the Beast. But it's significantly better than The Girl Who Leapt Through Time and is worth your time. Recommended.

Monday, January 08, 2018

Review: Runaways Vol 7-8

I picked up Runaways Vol 7, 8, and 9 from the library. Live Fast is the last collection written by Brian Vaughan, and unfortunately, it's also his weakest. The story involves resurrection and an attempt to undo a sacrifice done in the previous volume, which always leads to disaster.

Vol 8 Dead End Kids, written by Joss Whedon, was also disappointing. In one scene, he has the leader of the group yell, "Runaways, RUN AWAY!" I groaned at the pun and unfortunately the plot isn't anything worth writing home about, with a complicated mess involving time travel and more ret-conning of the timeline. With that, I did not even bother cracking open the covers of Vol 9.

I guess that means I'm done with the series.

Friday, January 05, 2018

Three Mamoru Hosada Films

This holiday period, I was hoping to take Bowen on a bike tour. (Yes, rather than ask for a Christmas present, he asked for a bike tour!) But instead, I caught a flu virus from his brother and could only spend most of the holidays catching up on media.

I'd missed all of Mamoru Hosada's movies over the years, but caught them both up due to a trial subscription to Funimation. (The app is horrible, and the selection seems slim, so I'm going to cancel)

Wolf Children, is the middle work, showing how Hosada's maturing as a film maker. Mature, poignant, and well-written, it's full of the bittersweet nature of parenthood, as well as the duality of nature and how much of parenting involves letting go. It's not as compelling a narrative as say, Totoro, and Bowen got bored and couldn't even make it past the first 20 minutes, so don't buy or stream it hoping that your kids will love it the way they love Totoro. They won't.

The Girl Who Leapt Through Time, an earlier work is both a time travel story and a rumination on the nature of relationships and lost opportunities. The time travel story is unfortunately very weak: not only is it low on exposition, the protagonist seems clueless about the limited nature. Worse, one of the characters in the story talks about time leaps as though they're a commonplace mechanism, but no one else in the world experiences them as such. OK, time travel is mostly fantasy, but the rumination on relationships and lost opportunities is equally weak. The writing never quite sells the protagnoist's feelings and epiphany, and as a result the emotional impact of the final 20 minutes of the movie gets completely diluted. I wouldn't avoid it, but it's clearly much weaker than Wolf Children or Your Name, another time travel movie.

The Boy and the Beast is a revelation, and clearly catapults Hosada into the stratosphere. It starts off fooling you into thinking that this is one of those traditional kung fu movies, where a boy comes under the tutelage of a master and becomes a major ass kicker. Then it throws in literary and cultural references to A Wizard of Earthsea, Journey to the West, Moby Dick. The movie blew me away with its intelligence, resolution, and a unique look at the relationships between master and disciple, between a boy and his father, and a deep understanding of what it means to come of age into a society while retaining what's unique about yourself. If anything can convince you that Mamoru Hosada is the true successor to Hayao Miyazaki, this movie will. Go watch it. I'm going to see if I can convince Bowen to watch it, though I suspect he might need just a bit more maturity to appreciate it more. But that's OK. Miyazaki's best movies are great for kids and even better with a few years of experience behind them. Do what you have to in order to watch this wonderful movie, which beats out everything I saw in 2017, including the surprisingly under-rated Dr. Strange.

I guess I'm going to have to watch Summer Wars next too.