We finally went to see Star Wars: The Force Awakens today. It’s fun! Action-packed. Great special effects. And Max Von Sydow!
But it’s by no means a perfect film. I wonder if it’s even worth reviewing a Star Wars film, because historically they’ve been either fun-but-not-very-deep, or utter crap. But I’m not going to let that stop me, so: Spoilers ahoy!
Read on, Macduff! »
Because I Have Opinions, I’m going to write about this past week’s Doctor Who episode, “Heaven Sent”.
In isolation, the episode instantly became the best of the Peter Capaldi episodes to date. Not that that’s saying a lot, since his run has been extraordinarily weak so far, with only “Under the Lake”/ “Before the Flood” being above average. (Most of last season was completely forgettable.)
What sets this episode apart is that it seems Steven Moffat remember what made his four stories during the Russell T. Davies period among the best of that era: While his stories didn’t always hold up to close scrutiny, they always had a successful emotional resonance and felt true to the characters and situations. But as show runner, Moffat’s stories have lost that emotional resonance and often feel downright manipulative. And his plots have gotten increasingly contrived, and just needlessly complex. While there is some of that here, fundamentally “Heaven Sent” is a simple story which works on an emotional level, relying heavily on Capaldi to pull it off, which he does, in perhaps his best performance in the role to date.
Much more spoilery discussion after the break. No plot summary, though; read the Wikipedia article if you need a refresher.
Read on, Macduff! »
As I mentioned last time, while we were on vacation in Florida our cat sitter wrote that our dishwasher was leaking. Specifically, the bottom of the machine was filled with water and was leaking onto the floor. This was right after the first of two big storms that hit home while we were away, so of course I worried that something had gone wrong with the dishwasher (bad), with the water supply to it (bad), or with the backflow valve on our house’s line to the sewer (worse). Still, despite my worrying about the worst case, apparently it was just water on the floor, and not any of the other wonderful stuff you would expect if you had a sewer back flow.
Our sitter, wonderful person that she is, brought over some super-absorbent pads to put under the front of the washer, and also turned off the hot water to the washer and to the sink, just to be safe.
For the rest of our trip, now news was good news; despite another storm hitting the house, we heard nothing more about the problem from her. That seemed like further evidence that it wasn’t a sewer backflow problem. We have not been thrilled with our dishwasher (a General Electric model which came with the house) as it doesn’t do a wonderful job of cleaning dishes, and we’ll probably replace it before too long. (Of the appliances our builder installed, it’s the only one we haven’t been happy with.)
So, we got back last Monday night and inspected the washer before going to bed: It was clean and dry. The next day I turned the water back on, and we kept an eye on it for the rest of the week, and nothing happened. So we planned to run the washer this weekend when it was reasonably full.
Late this afternoon Debbi noticed that the washer was filled with water on the bottom, and on the edge of leaking out. Very mysterious, since we hadn’t had any rain at all! My theory at this point was that there was some blockage in the side of the sink that the washer drained to and when we ran the water on that side of the sink it was draining to the washer instead. But I couldn’t see anything in the drain. So, after a short debate we decided to run the dishwasher as planned.
Two things happened: First, the dishwasher immediately started venting water into the sink drain as expected. Second, two of the front lights were flashing as it did so, which is not normal operation. Debbi checked the user’s manual, but didn’t find out what it meant. So I decided to stop the washer, wait a moment, and then start it again. This time it started normally, no flashing lights, ran to completion, and did not leak.
So my best guess is that the washer somehow got into some weird state while we were away, so that the drain from the washer to the sink was open, and thus the sink was partly draining into the washer rather than vice-versa. Maybe we bumped something before we left, somehow. Maybe our sitter was making sure everything was working and somehow triggered something with the washer by accident. Who knows.
But as of now, anyway, it seems to have been a transient fault which has been fixed.
Which is good, because I hate dealing with plumbing problems.
We’re back from our big vacation for the year! Debbi and I flew to Florida to visit her parents, and then spend several days at Walt Disney World with Debbi’s friend Lisa and her husband Jeff.
We flew out two weeks ago, on Friday November 6, on United Airlines, which is the only airline with direct flights from the Bay Area to Orlando. It’s the first time in quite a few years I’ve flown one of the so-called major carriers (we fly JetBlue to visit our families in Boston, and smaller carriers around the west coast), so I was a bit worried about the experience, but it was actually fine: The flight was only slightly delayed, and the seats were not as cramped as I had feared they might be. Once we landed we rented a car and drove a couple of hours (with a stop for dinner) to Debbi’s parents’ house.
Her parents live in a nice community on the Gulf coast. Once we arrived, we stayed up a bit late that first night since we were still on west coast time (and we didn’t get in until close to 9 pm).
The one downer to the trip was that central Florida was setting temperature records for the first few days we were there; Saturday it got into the 90s and had very high humidity, which made for a pretty nasty day to be outside. Despite this we went out to an art fair and got lunch at a restaurant and did not completely melt. But we were pretty motivated to spend much of the rest of the visit with her parents inside in the air conditioning due to the weather.
Sunday Debbi’s uncle (her father’s brother) and his wife came to visit for a few hours, so I got to see a bit of the family resemblance (and hear a little of the family gossip). Debbi thinks she hasn’t seen her uncle since her sister got married almost 20 years ago, and everyone had a good time.
We got up a couple of mornings to go running (me) and walking (Deb), which was about as rough as you’d expect since it was mid-70s and muggy even at 8 am. But the humidity did start to go down so the second day was a bit more pleasant than the first, even if it was still hot.
Monday we went down late in the day to the Venice chalk festival, but we got there just as the one rain shower of the week kicked in, so we went back again on Tuesday. It was pretty neat, even though we were there for the early stages of the drawing! A big 3D painting from the previous year was done in latex paint and was still there, and the same crew were working on a larger painting to set a world record. And there were several smaller pieces in progress. I observed that the references the artists were working from were stretched onto a perspective grid so they would have a 3D look when placed on the ground – a technique I remember my dad showing me when I was a kid.
Otherwise we had a pretty relaxed time visiting her parents. I spent a bunch of time playing The Room Three on my iPad (which is great – each installment has been better than the last), and I read one book and part of another. I believe Debbi got through a few more books, too. So, it was a good visit.
Oh, one wrench in the trip was that our cat sitter e-mailed us that on Monday the dish washer had somehow gotten filled with water and leaked onto the kitchen floor. It didn’t seem to have gotten too bad, but it happened the day of a big rain storm, which made us worry that something was backing up from the outside or that something else had happened. The sitter shut off the water to the washer just in case and said she’d keep an eye on it for us.
Wednesday we drove back to Orlando and dropped off the rental car. Lisa picked us up and we spent the evening at her house before heading to Disney World on Thursday. We stayed in a suite at the Saratoga Springs resort and took the bus to and from the theme parks. This was a bit annoying as they don’t run enough buses (in my opinion), and sometimes they get bogged down in traffic. But, so it goes. The suite itself was nice, though.
We last visited Disney World in 2007 with Debbi’s family, so we did things a little differently this time: We didn’t go to Animal Kingdom, and we spent more time in Epcot. Thursday we first went into the Magic Kingdom, followed by Epcot Thursday night and Friday, Hollywood Studios on Saturday, and back to the Magic Kingdom on Sunday. We used the FastPass+ system to plan out rides for the various days, and used Magic Bands for admission. These are new systems since we last visited, and which are not yet available at Disneyland, but they’re pretty convenient.
A big difference between Disneyland and Disney World is that the parks at Disney World are much larger. This has the advantage that you do not feel as packed in with the other people as at Disneyland, but it also means you have to walk farther to get between places, and that though it might not feel as crowded, it might actually be more crowded, and thus the lines for attractions might actually be longer.
Among the most fun things on this visit was Epcot’s International Food & Wine Festival. Epcot features exhibits from many countries around the world, and the festival set up booths where food and drink associated with each nation was available. And lots of it was really good! I especially remember some crispy pork belly, and an especially good glass of sangria. Of course, being Disney, I wondered how authentic the food selections were, and scratched my head at Argentina being referred to as Patagonia, and the lack of diversity of African stations (one was just called “Africa”!). But I didn’t worry about it that much.
The FastPass+ selections were handy for getting to some of the most popular rides, although it was strange not being able to just walk on to some of them if the lines were short as at Disneyland – because the lines were rarely short. It was also weird not knowing where many things were, or things being just a little different at the Magic Kingdom than at Disneyland (no New Orleans Square, no Indiana Jones). Some of the rides are slightly different too, such as some of the details being moved around on Pirates of the Caribbean or The Haunted Mansion.
Though we spent most of our time at the parks, we did come back on Friday to relax in the room for a bit, and came back early on Saturday and went down to the pool. Had we had more free time I might have gone running, since their running path was about the right length for the distance I’m currently running.
Anyway, we all had a good time. Debbi has been wanting to do this trip for several years, and we’d postponed it either due to my Mom’s health, or because I wanted to go to Cape Cod last year. I think she wishes we’d spent a couple more days at Disney World so we weren’t running around quite so much. Maybe next time!
On our flight home we bought first class seats, because for some reason they were a lot cheaper for this leg than for the flight out. And factoring in baggage fees and extra leg room seats – both included in first class – it was not a lot more than we would have been spending anyway. And it was pretty nice! Only two people per row per side, with a two-course meal for dinner (and better food than I’d expected), with wine and warm cookies added in. To top it off our luggage came out first on the other end. The only wrinkle was that we hit some nasty turbulence which caused Debbi’s wine glass to take a dive off her tray table and break, but at least it didn’t hurt anyone (plus it was empty).
We took today off from work to catch up on sleep and get some things done. And a good thing, too, since we both came down with colds, probably from the flight. Nothing too horrible, but definitely feeling under the weather.
Fortunately, no further incidents with the dish washer, even though there was another rain storm last weekend. Strange.
So that was our big fall trip! And now back to reality, and to brace ourselves for the holiday season.
Even though the leaves have been changing color for weeks now, the end of Daylight Savings Time marks the end of summer for me. Thursday was my last day of biking to work for the season, mainly because I don’t like biking home in the dark.
Friday night we drove around looking at Halloween lights, and Saturday we hung out with the neighbors passing out candy together. We think our family is a “well-known neighborhood” because we think we got 200-300 kids over the course of 4 hours of trick-or-treating. We never quite got the sea of kids at one time that we had a few years ago, but it was still a lot of kids. We went through at least 4 bags of candy from Costco.
It’s cooled off considerably the couple of days since, and last night we got a pretty big rainfall which lasted until late morning. My jogging has been going pretty well, and I went out running in the rain this morning – the end of DST means it was light out before 7 am when I started, instead of having to wait ’til 10 past 7 to get started. Neither my Apple Watch nor my iPhone shorted out from the water, and I didn’t get totally drenched. But I don’t think I’ll run in much heavier rain than that this winter. I am trying to get braced for colder temperatures, though.
The big sycamore tree over our house is turning brown and dropping its leaves, and I’ll be raking them up for the next two months, I’m sure. Maybe a few more good rainfalls will knock most of the leaves out a little early – that would be nice.
This morning I also tested out the furnace to make sure it’s in good shape. Even with windows open, it started heating up the house within a couple of minutes. The smell of the heat in the brisk air made me smile.
Here’s hoping we have a nice normal winter, and take a bite out of the state’s drought.
We watched the premiere of the new Supergirl TV show last night. I’m not sure why I decided to watch this one while I sat out The Flash last year. Maybe because Supergirl isn’t up against shows I already watch (my interest in Gotham is somewhere south of zero), and I sometimes feel like I watch too much TV anyway.
The pilot episode’s first act was the closest thing I can recall seeing on TV to a true cinematic experience: The staging, the pacing, the effects, even the particular wittiness of the dialogue, all felt like I was watching a movie. If that’s what they were going for – and, frankly, I thought it worked really well – then they nailed it.
I’ve seen a little criticism that Kara’s secret identity is too close to that of Clark Kent’s, but I’m okay with it, especially since Melissa Benoist carries the role off with a fair bit of nuance (I actually liked her better as Kara than as Supergirl). Of the people at her workplace, Mehcad Brooks as James Olsen is the clear standout. I haven’t seen Man of Steel so I have no idea how much Supergirl’s world matches up with that one, but I thought this was the best portrayal of Jimmy Olsen since, well, maybe the 1970s (thought the version in Grant Morrison’s All-Star Superman was also pretty good). Calista Flockhart has a one-note role (in this episode, anyway) as Cat Grant, and Jeremy Jordan is fine as her cow-orker and would-be romantic interest Winn Shott.
But the episode kind of went to pieces in the second act. Already overburdened with too many oblique references to Superman, the series throws us both a spaceship of criminals who have escaped onto Earth (with the attendant feelings of guilt since they followed Kara out of the Phantom Zone, not that she had any control over any of that), and the Department of Extra-Normal Operations, which Kara’s sister Alex (Chyler Leigh) works for. Presumably intended to provide some structure to the first season (giving Supergirl some people to work with and also feel suspicious of, and some people to fight every week), both of these elements are really just cheap contrivances, and it immediately made the show feel more run-of-the-mill. If the series turns into monster-of-the-week even for just a few episodes, its quality is going to sink like a stone. And I’m so done with Superman and his cast being threatened by menaces lingering from Krypton long after it’s destruction. Doing away with all that was one of the best parts of the 80s reboot of the comic book, and staying away from it (except for Brainiac) was important in the Superman cartoon of the 90s. Just say no.
Also, while I don’t mind repurposing names of minor comic book characters for a new medium, the fact that Winn Shott and Hank Henshaw both ominously share names with Superman villains is not at all welcome. Another thing that sucks the life out of adaptations like this is the slow reveal of some character we know about from the original material. (This is one reason I have no interest in Gotham.) If Hank Henshaw (David Harewood) turns into the Cyborg Superman, you’ll know the series has jumped the shark.
The third act was a fairly run-of-the-mill “heroine overcomes self-doubt” resolution, with a lot of punching and things blowing up. Which is not bad – before seeing this episode I felt the keys to the series would be a witty script and not welching on the superhero action (which is what sunk Lois and Clark back in the 90s). But the back end of the episode did not live up to the execution of the first 15 minutes.
Overall it was a pretty good episode, but I think they missed the boat by throwing Kara into the mess of the DEO and the ship of escaped criminals, which essentially prevents her from finding her own way to being her own hero. The premise is already burdened by her living in the shadow of her famous cousin without being able to ever show him on-screen in a satisfying manner. So the show should be about her establishing herself and building her self-confidence, not rounding up someone else’s criminals or worrying that the DEO is going to capture her again. I think it’s going to try to do both, and I worry that it’s not going to work.
I’m writing this a few weeks after the fact, but on this day I went down to Isle of Gamers in Santa Clara to play in a prerelease for the new Magic: The Gathering set, Battle for Zendikar (BFZ).
You always head to one of these sealed deck events hoping to get a nice pool of cards that works well together. In the case of BFZ, that meant a neat Allies deck, maybe a grindy Ingest-Processor deck, a ramp deck which could power out some huge threats, or a strong aggro deck with some decent removal (this last one being what I got at the Journey Into Nyx prerelease). Instead, what I opened was this:
(click for larger image)
The first thing to notice in this pool is that the cards are spread pretty evenly across all 5 colors, which meant I was struggling to come up with 23 playable non-land cards for my 40-card deck in 2 colors. I don’t think it’s possible to do without playing really bad cards like Kitesail Scout. The second thing to notice is that the pool is very short on 2-drops. If you exclude the bad 1-drops (of which my pool had 4), the pool has 7 acceptable 1- and 2-drops, but again spread across all 5 colors. Which meant whatever deck I put together had to survive to turns 3 and 4 doing basically nothing – not a good recipe. Finally, I had three big Eldrazi which were nearly unplayable because I didn’t have a good way to ramp into them before I died.
It was, in short, a dismal pool. At least I got a foil Prairie Stream as my promo card.
I played my first match with the following deck, which was Blue/Red splashing a few White cards:
This is basically the worst kind of Ingest/Processor deck – card which can Ingest, but with no payoff from Processors. And I couldn’t ramp into Breaker of Armies. I should probably have replaced a Sure Strike with Smite the Monstrous, but oh well.
My opponent for this match was a 9-year-old kid playing his first prerelease. His deck was so-so, but my deck struggled to fend him off and ultimately lost a long game 1 before getting run over in game 2. My deck just didn’t have enough payoff to play for the long game.
After that match I decided to upend my deck and instead go Red/White with a Blue splash:
This was a better deck, and I won my second match 2-1 against a woman playing a pretty good Allies deck. But her deck had left out a couple of very good cards – such as Sheer Drop and Felidar Sovereign – which after we finished our match I suggested she put in. So I kind of feel like I stole a win.
And ultimately my deck still didn’t have much oomph to it, so I lost my third match 0-2 to a guy who said he’d slept only 2 hours the night before due to working late. And my fourth match also went down, though 1-2. But both times once we got to the late game their plays were just much better than mine, and I didn’t have much of an early game. So it was a mess. With one round to go I decided to call it a day, not feeling like playing for another hour for the small chance to win a pack, and with a deck that just wasn’t much fun.
With the benefit of hindsight, I think BFZ is a rough format for sealed deck. Several of its best decks have a lot of synergy, and if you have the pieces but not the payoff (as I did), then they’re not very good. There are some decks which are more modular, but I didn’t have them. Ultimately I think my pool was just too diffuse. Maybe if I’d had some keen insight I could have put together something with a little more top end that could have survived to the late game – maybe a Blue/Green with some Eldrazi. But I keep looking at it and there just isn’t very much there.
Oh well, better luck next time.
Well, not literally. But this week has been nice and cool at night (compared to the over-90s highs we suffered through most of last week), so at night we’ve not had the fan on while we slept. And that’s confirmed that our cat Jackson really does not like the fan in our bedroom.
He doesn’t especially hate fans, but when the fan is on overnight he doesn’t sleep with us. And in fact he tries to wake us up once or twice by pawing at the venetian blinds, to the point that we often chase him out and close the door. This week, he’s slept with us more nights than not, and has hardly disturbed us at all. And at least twice he’s been snoozing on Debbi’s side of the bed when I woke up (Debbi leaves for work before my alarm goes off – we have a time-shifted marriage).
Well either that or there’s some temperature threshold above which he won’t sleep with us, but the correlation seems stronger with the fan. I don’t know what it is about the fan that does it, since he’ll sleep on the couch downstairs underneath a running fan, and he doesn’t seem hostile towards any of the fans. Just some funny association in his little kitty brain, I guess!
Last Friday on my ride home from work I popped a spoke on my rear wheel. This bike lasted over a year before finally popping a spoke, which I guess is not bad. I made an appointment to take it in on Wednesday to get fixed and tuned up.
Meanwhile, I decided it’s time to start getting more exercise, so on Monday I started jogging again. I don’t think I’ve jogged since before we moved into our house in 2011, so my expectations were not high. However, I managed to run about 2/3 of a mile before I had to stop and walk for a couple hundred feet, and then I ran the rest of the way home. The 1-mile loop took me about 12:30.
Tuesday I did the loop again and ran it without stopping, albeit in about the same time. I got my bike back Wednesday, rode to work on Thursday, and then ran again yesterday and today. Today I stretched my run to 1.2 miles, though at a slightly slower pace since it was horrendously humid (at least for northern California) today.
I can definitely feel it in my legs, using muscles that aren’t often used to that extent. In particular my calf muscles have been tight all week, I suspect because I use them to run with a gait where I land on the balls of my feet rather than the heels, in order to not aggravate my recurring shin splints. But they’ve felt better today than earlier this week.
I know that the main factor in popping spokes on my bike is my weight, so my hope is I can alternate biking and jogging to work on getting that down. I’ve traditionally loathed jogging, so we’ll see how long I can keep it up, and what sort of distances I can reach on a regular basis.
Oh, and to go along with this I’ve started getting up an hour earlier on weekdays. We’ll see how long I can keep that up too!
Most days I’ve biked in to work this year I’ve seen a young tabby cat on the Stevens Creek Trail:
She’s a small cat (which is why I think of her as “she” though I don’t really know), and she’s usually lounging by the side of the trail. She seems (appropriately) cautious of bicycles, since the one time I tried to attract her she seemed to want to avoid it. I started thinking of her as the “trail tabby”.
Last Friday I saw her wearing a light blue collar, which was comforting because it meant someone was taking care of her. (She is small, but not thin.) There aren’t any homes nearby, but there’s a hotel so maybe she’s the resident mouser.
This morning, though, I stopped because a couple of guys on bikes were standing over her and she was lying on her side. Fortunately she was okay, just relaxing in the sun, but it turned out that the collar had been put on her by another passer-by, and it had a note asking if whoever received it owned the cat. So, apparently she’s not owned after all! One of the cyclists was considering taking her to a vet, and contacting the person who’d left to note. So, I decided to leave it to him.
While I’d miss seeing her on my rides, hopefully those folks can find her a good home, since she seems like a friendly little cat.
I continued riding down the trail and half a mile on was almost stopped by two other cyclists who was blocking most of the trail talking to each other. I rang my bell and said “Excuse me, coming through”, but they didn’t move or even acknowledge me. So I maneuvered between them…
…and saw a four-foot snake stretched halfway across the trail on the other side of them.
Thanks, guys, for doing nothing to alert me to it, just standing there seeming like jerks blocking the trail.