Monday, May 20, 2019

Weekend Wrap-up

On Friday afternoon, we had the entire Ahlbin family over (Ben, Anna, Ella, Rosie, Kathryn, Isaac, Felicity, and now, Gideon) for a pizza lunch and toddler dance party. They can no longer fit into normal cars and now drive a vehicle that holds 11 and looks like a cross between a SWAT team truck and a hearse.

On Friday evening, we had a family dinner at The V and then started a new puzzle (canals in Amsterdam).

On Saturday, Rebecca had to work, so Maia and I went to a nearby playground in the near-90 degree weather. I tried to teach her to express her displeasure with climate change by saying, "Boy, it's hot!" but she could only say, "Oh boy! It's hot!" We're still working on it. In the evening, we had our first barbeque of the season, featuring old work friends, our neighbours across the street, and their dog. As you can see from the photo below, our grilling experience is much brighter now that the neighbour's long-dead trees have been chopped down. Looks like it's time for a screen porch!

On Sunday, Rebecca finally got a chance to transfer her life into my old Samsung S5 phone (after having lost her iPhone in the pool last week). In the evening, Maia cooled off by playing in buckets of water and we had a dinner of pork tenderloin, weird mushrooms from the farmer's market, and kale.

How was your weekend?

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Friday, May 17, 2019

Review Day: Grim Dawn (PC)

Built by some of the team that made 2006's Titan Quest (and with the same engine), Grim Dawn is one of the best Diablo II spiritual successors you've never heard of. It's not perfect, but it effectively scratches the action-RPG itch and I've already sunk almost 100 hours into it.

Grim Dawn is closer in style and pacing to Diablo II rather than Diablo III or Path of Exile. There's much less emphasis on movement skills and enemies feel more dangerous and harder to kill. Gear upgrades are less frequent but, as a result, feel more satisfying and well-earned.

The key discriminator of the game is its dual mastery system. Instead of selecting a single class with a skill tree (like a sorcerer or barbarian) upfront, you combine 2 classes to build a hybrid character. With 8 possible classes, this results in 28 possible archetypes. There's also a bonus point system (Devotions) that takes the worst UI traits of Skyrim's constellations and Path of Exile's skill tree and offers an obtuse layer of additional customization that you probably won't fully understand until your third or fourth character. I'm currently playing a Level 70 Purifier that plays like a WoW Retribution Paladin with bombs and a rifle, and having a great time.

The area where small studio budget limitations are clearest is clicking and pathing. Picking up loot by clicking on its graphic versus its name sometimes feels off. Your character will not always pick the best path to reach where you click, or make the best decision on whether to attack or move when you click beyond a monster. Thankfully, the usual hotkeys for "Force Move" and "Force Stand Still and Attack" are bindable. There is also a hotkey for "Move", which is a revelation for someone like me who has destroyed their right index finger by left-clicking to move across hundreds of hours of similar games.

If you try this game out and choose to stick with it, the Grim Internals mod is a must-have. Among its quality-of-life enhancements are: auto-pickup of the game's billion different crafting components, a health bar that floats over your character, and floating names for major monsters so they're easier to see on the screen.

Graphically, the game has a pretty grim colour palette (think of it as the anti-Torchlight) and the sprites and animation are nowhere near as polished as a big studio might be able to produce. Most of the monsters look like cheaper knock-offs of monsters from other games. However, the graphics effectively get the point across and are good enough to support the addictive kill-loot-sell cycle. The perspective is freely rotatable at any time and has a wide zoom range. The game map has a nice feature that uses color to show where you've been in a particular session, which is very helpful to confirm that you've cleared an area after the map has been fully explored.

The music is fine. There's one awful track that grates on the ears like an undergraduate composer version of Matt Uelmen that only knows one chord. It's so long and irritating to listen to that I teleport back to town to reset the music every time it comes on. Otherwise, there's a good mix of melodic tunes and the ambient nonsense that Trent Reznor unfortunately popularized with the Quake soundtrack.

At $25 for the base game, Grim Dawn is definitely a cost-effective purchase. I've enjoyed it enough to purchase the first of two expansion packs and would recommend it for anyone that needs a new action-RPG fix.

Final Grade: B+

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Wednesday, May 15, 2019

15th Work Anniversary Swag Day

I reached 15 years at my company last month (adjusted slightly for the 11 months I spent in the zany world of software startups) and was awarded with several thousand "points" to spend on an online Awards website. The website was clearly from the Web 2.0 years since its primary interface was Flash-based and the "mobile" version consisted of HTML tables showing 6 pieces of swag at a time. This was actually a huge limitation since there were multiple categories of prizes and way too many pieces of diamond jewelry to wade through.

Several thousand points was actually very generous of my company -- even after signing up for the big ticket items, I still had over half of my points left over. It got to the point where I was just buying extra things to use up points:

  • A Weber Genesis II E310 LP Gas Grill ($800)
  • Another Oculus Rift + Touch VR System for regifting ($400)
  • Samsung Galaxy S8 64 GB ($390)
  • Canon PowerShot SX620 HS ($230)
  • Samsung Soundbar+ ($170)
  • Traveler's Club 3 Piece Luggage Set ($35)
  • Black and Decker 16" Electric Hedge Trimmer ($30)

Packages arrived like clockwork for the next several days. Other than the built-in annoyances of transitioning from old technologies to new ones (assembling the grill took equally as long as transferring my phone number to a new unlocked phone), it's nice to be a little more modernized without spending any of my own money!

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Monday, May 13, 2019

Chad Darnell's 12 of 12

12 pictures of your day on the 12th of every month

6:56 AM: Bagel for breakfast.
7:32 AM: Early morning Grim Dawn before the house awakens.
8:58 AM: Showered and ready for the day.
9:32 AM: Good morning!
10:41 AM: A soggy day at the lake, made exciting by holding the umbrella (and a wooden pig).
11:19 AM: Helping me mix'n'match a six-pack. "Daddy drinks burr!"
12:42 PM: Learning about the Solar System while helping us with a planets puzzle (cross-functional training).
1:18 PM: Helping Maia build towers.
2:33 PM: Running on the treadmill while starting the TV version of 12 Monkeys.
6:44 PM: Enjoyed the rocks outside of Mellow Mushroom more than the food.
7:16 PM: Bathtime!
7:35 PM: Ready for PJs.

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Friday, May 10, 2019

Review Day

There are no major spoilers in these reviews.

Bosch, Season Five:
The latest season of Bosch is fairly mediocre. It starts with a tense situation immediately followed by "THREE WEEKS EARLIER...", a device that J.J. Abrams believe adds suspense, but really just serves to annoy the viewers. The various plots don't really work in isolation, and the "main" plot is fairly mundane. I think the biggest problem of this season was that the main characters spent too much time isolated into their own stories without the great interplay that shows how strong the relationships are. The "satisfying high point" of the season occurs in the penultimate episode (in a court case, of course), leaving one more episode of meandering and unbelievable action scenes before it's all over.

Final Grade: B-

Catastrophe, Season Four:
The final season of Catastrophe is of middling quality -- lots of great insults that tiptoe the meanness line and a plot that doesn't go in any particular direction. It ends on an upbeat note, and is over quickly. Free on Amazon Prime.

Final Grade: B-

Santa Clarita Diet, Season Three:
The most recent season of this show about suburban undead is not quite as good as previous seasons but still worth a watch. By the end, I was a little tired of Drew Barrymore and the constant jokes about gender equality, but still enjoyed the ride. Netflix cancelled the show after this season (on a minor cliffhanger), which is only slightly disappointing to me. Free on Netflix.

Final Grade: B

Healers and Thieves by Susan Quilty:
Susan Quilty, a local writer from Rebecca's yoga studio who also wrote The Insistence of Memory, delivers a solid Young Adult novel with fantasy elements. The YA Fantasy genre has a reputation for being overcrowded with mediocre mashups of Harry Potter and Twilight, so it's refreshing that Healers and Thieves is built from a palette of concepts and plot devices that don't already feel overused. This story does a good job of capturing and conveying the main character's wonder and sense of discovery as she leaves her comfort zone. It sometimes reminded me of Elizabeth Winthrop's classic, The Castle in the Attic, but with much more robust world-building.

Quilty does a good job of incorporating the modern world YA elements without bogging down the momentum of the main plot. When it comes to the first book in a trilogy, there are usually two ways to go -- either tell a small, complete story with hints at a broader universe that are unfolded in subsequent books, or start progressing towards the final book without delay, treating each conclusion as a pause point in the action. Healers and Thieves falls squarely in the latter category. While I wish that the book had more self-contained finality in its ending, I thoroughly enjoyed the ride and look forward to Book Two.

Final Grade: B+

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