Thursday, December 28, 2017

Studicus Selects 2017

Once, long ago, I posted on the internet as Studicus, an in-joke nickname related to a skit from high school. When I first started blogging, I called my year-end entries "Studicus Selects." The tradition has continued since 2005...although I skipped 2006 for some unknown reason.

You'll find past entries here (scroll down for the 2017 picks):

Studicus Selects 2016
Studicus Selects 2015
Studicus Selects 2014
Studicus Selects 2013
Studicus Selects 2012
Studicus Selects 2011
Studicus Selects 2010
Studicus Selects 2009
Studicus Selects 2008
Studicus Selects 2007
Studicus Selects 2005

Biggest Family Addition, New Baby Category. On November 29, we welcomed little Lily into the family! She's my newest niece--the daughter of my brother-in-law Tom and sister-in-law Tiffany--and the first grandchild on my wife's side of the family. She is absolutely precious and absolutely loved! I once held her for nearly an entire hour and she didn't cry, which is a major victory. My other nieces and nephew had a tendency to cry whenever Uncle Matt held them.

Biggest Family Addition, Sister-in-Law Category. In July, the family hiked up to Charlotte, Michigan, for the grand wedding between my other brother-in-law and his bride-to-be. Matt and Leah's wedding was wonderful, even if my car's brakes went out on the way to Michigan (we made it safely and got them replaced when we got back). I even dusted off my old radio voice and served as emcee for the wedding reception, which was kind of a last-minute thing but worked out really well. It truly was a special event.

Biggest Family Addition, Reptile Category. In October, we added Willy to the family. We used to have a frog named Prince, but he died a few years ago. It's taken my wife and me a bit to get to a point where we wanted a new pet, but we reached that point this year. We first considered getting Russian tortoises, but then we discovered one of Anne's cousins had a 15-year-old turtle in need of a new home.

I never thought I'd reach a point in my life in which a turtle was walking around the house, but here I am. Willy likes to be fed by hand and enjoys burrowing under the Darth Maul inflatable chair. He's been a lot of fun and is easy to meme:

Biggest Indiegogo "Scam," Turns Out a Raspberry Pi Would've Been a Lot Easier Category. A company touted a retro gaming system that was "plug and play." They lied. Like--a lot. But I didn't know what I was doing and bought the RetroEngine Sigma, which was an Orange Pi slapped inside a Sega Genesis-like shell. The included OS sucked and I tinkered with the thing before ultimately installing RetrOrangePi, which is superior in every way. I've gotten tons of enjoyment out of it, but I would've been better off buying a more powerful Raspberry Pi.

See, I bought the RetroEngine Sigma because I didn't think I'd be smart enough to mess with a Raspberry Pi. I was completely wrong. The controllers included with the RES were cheap and the included software was buggy as hell. Thankfully, a bunch of RES users formed a Facebook group and I learned how to get the most out of the system.

Writing Year in Review. I finished three novels this year and, late in 2017, decided to self-publish an anthology of superhero short fiction I had lying around (you can find the Kindle version here or the paperback version here). My Crimonstreak series will come back in a big way thanks to Hydra Publications, which will publish all three books, including III Crimonstreak. That means those of you on the edge of your seat about the cliffhanger in II Crimsonstreak will finally get some answers. I'm still looking for a literary agent for some of my other books.

Most Surprisingly Polarizing Movie, Star Wars Category. It sounds like Star Wars: The Last Jedi was not everyone's cup of tea. That's fine. I need to see the movie a few more times to really get a feel for it. My initial impressions are mostly positive, though I didn't care much for the Canto Bight (casino world) stuff or any of the new characters (I'm referring to Holdo, Rose, and DJ--not the awesome characters introduced in The Force Awakens). I didn't get the Luke Skywalker I wanted to see--but then again, the Luke Skywalker I wanted to see wasn't in his 60s. The movie subverted all expectations and took some major risks, and you have to give it credit for that.

Most Pleasant Surprise, I Guess the Pacers Didn't Get Swindled Category. When Paul George's agent let everyone know the "beloved" Pacers star wanted to play in Los Angeles, the Pacers found themselves in a bind. It's kind of hard to trade someone when you have no leverage. However, the Pacers worked a trade with the Oklahoma City Thunder that shipped PG to OKC for Victor Oladipo and Domantas Sabonis. NBA analysts said the Pacers got swindled. In reality, it's worked out really well: Oladipo has turned into a freaking star and Sabonis has been fantastic. I've loved watching this team play.

Most Peyton Manning-esque Injury Season, Indianapolis Colts Category. The Colts were an absolute mess this year. I thought Andrew Luck would probably play at some point this year, but I was 100% wrong. Shoulder surgery and lingering issues with the shoulder injury relegated him to the injured reserve in November. The Colts, in the midst of a rebuild, kept most games close but usually screwed something up in the end to lose most of their games. Props to poor Jacoby Brissett, the young quarterback/tackling dummy the Colts traded for when it became clear Luck wasn't coming back soon--and that Scott Tolzien wasn't gonna cut it. May he spend all of the offseason in a Jacuzzi or bacta tank. At least Indy will have a high draft pick.

Best Star Wars Accessory, Vintage Inflatable Chair Category. Earlier this year, I related a story to my wife about the Darth Maul inflatable chair that I had in college. I set it up and used it a lot, but the chair got a puncture somehow and I had to throw it out. What did Anne do? She searched for a Darth Maul chair on eBay and bought one! He now sits proudly in the living room. Oddly enough, he's one of Willy's favorite hiding spots. The dude loves to burrow beneath the dark lord.

Best Membership, Large Retail Warehouse Category. It's safe to say Anne and I love our local Costco. Her parents bought us a membership for Christmas last year and we finally activated it in January. There's just something about buying six months' worth of toilet paper that I find immensely satisfying. They also sell a fantastic bottled root beer--and it pairs well with "The Mix" popcorn, which is sold in giant bags. Okay, well, everything at Costco is sold in giant quantities.

Most Laborious Installation Process, Basketball Goal Category. In June, my brother assembled a team to put together a new basketball goal for his "son and daughter." That team, coincidentally, consisted of him, my dad, and me. It took us hours to put the darn thing together. Seriously, it fought us every step of the way. We played a few games of HORSE on it, and then took a little break. Dad and I then watched as my brother shot baskets by himself and realized he'd completely scammed us. The basketball hoop wasn't for my niece and nephew at all. Hope you're enjoying it, Greg.

Most Necessary Upgrade, Upstairs Bathroom Category. It's safe to say Anne and I pretty much hated the way our upstairs bathroom looked. Thing is, we're the only people who see it so we didn't do much about it. Then one day Anne's dad decided he was going to redo the upstairs bathroom. He and my brother-in-law Tom worked on it for a month or so. It turned out great! The only drawback: having to trudge downstairs to use the bathroom in the middle of the night.

Best Concert, Anne's 2016 Christmas Gift Category. Anne and I went to see Neil Diamond in May at Bankers Life Fieldhouse. It was her Christmas gift last year. The man still knows how to put on a great show! Our only complaint was that our seats were in a section of Bankers Life that was under renovation; as a result, the stadium seats were replaced with folding chairs. That didn't put a damper on the concert, however. Diamond, 76, sang all his hits and saved his best for the encore ("Sweet Caroline," "Cracklin' Rosie," "America," and "Brother Love's Traveling Salvation Show"). He also brought a nice touch to the Indy show, singing "Back Home Again in Indiana." His piano player, Tom Hensley, grew up in the Bloomington area.

Movie Year in Review. As usual, Anne and I went to see plenty of movies in 2017. We saw a lot of comic book movies. Here are some capsule reviews (you may encounter some SPOILERS):

Logan.  Since X-Men continuity is pretty much broken, you can do pretty much anything you want with a character like Wolverine. This movie felt more like a pseudo-Western than anything, but we got some great performances from Hugh Jackman and Patrick Stewart in what is supposed to be the swansong for Logan and Charles Xavier. Ultra violent, my only nag would be the use of a cloned Logan in the third act.

Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol 2. I enjoyed seeing Star-Lord and the gang back in action, but I think Vol. 1 is the better film in the series so far. Make no mistake, this one was packed with some great moments and Kurt Russell and Mantis were welcome additions, but it didn't feel quite as solid as its predecessor. It did have one of the best lines of the year: "I'm Mary Poppins, y'all!" RIP, Yondu Udonta.

Wonder Woman. The DC movie universe introduced us to Gal Gadot's Wonder Woman in haphazard fashion during last year's laborious Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice, but we finally got to see Wondy in her own movie. This movie basically serves as the Captain America: The First Avenger of the DC universe, eschewing the WWII setting for WWI. Gadot was pitch-perfect as the titular character and brought Chris Pine along for the ride. The final battle devolved into that Doomsday/CGI-heavy fight thing the DC loves, but the movie was thrilling and charming enough that a weak final battle can be overlooked (kind of like the final fight in Iron Man, which, let's be honest, wasn't that great of a battle).

Spider-Man: Homecoming. Want some Tony Stark in your Spider-Man? No? Too bad! I really like what Marvel did with the latest theatrical version of Spidey. Tom Holland was a lot of fun in Captain America: Civil War (if introduced a little haphazardly, like Wonder Woman), and he shines in this movie. Add in some Tony Stark, a little Happy Hogan, a great villain in Michael Keaton, and it truly was a memorable homecoming for the web-slinger.

Thor: Ragnorak. Probably the most fun you'll have in theaters this year, Thor: Ragnorak brought back the god of thunder and his brother Loki (he's adopted) for an intergalactic romp packed with lots of laughs and plenty of "Hulk smash!" Most of the gags landed, with my favorite being the "Get Help" scam Thor and Loki have obviously run tons of times. Too bad about Asgard, though. Wait...I hear it's a people and not a place or something? Also, we hit peak Goldblum in this one.

Justice League. The tone was all over the place, the product of two different directors with divergent styles and goals plus lots of interference from Warner Bros. That said, I thought Justice League was a lot of fun. The movie had lots of ground to cover and felt rushed because of the two-hour runtime and the number of characters smashed into the plot; it needed some more time in the cooker and a little longer runtime to make it all coalesce. I liked the new characters (the Flash, Cyborg, and Aquaman) and was glad to see Superman return. Audiences didn't respond that well to the movie or poor Henry Cavill's CGI'd upper lip.

The LEGO Batman Movie. Pretty much a series of extended Batman-ish skits, this one was a lot of fun. I loved Robin in this movie ("Hello secret camera!") and all the shout-outs to the different past versions of Batman. The only complaint: this movie could've stood to step back for a minute to take a breath.

Assassin's Creed. We saw it although I barely remember anything about it.

Beauty and the Beast. Disney hits another remake out of the park with this live-action-ish version of its Best Picture-nominated animated musical. My favorite part of the movie was Luke Evans' Gaston. Most of the big moments landed, and I even liked the new songs.

The Boss Baby. Alec Baldwin voices a baby. Another one I barely remember.

The Fate of the Furious. Charlize Theron had weird hair. Bad guy Jason Statham is now one of the good guys. I don't know any of the characters' names aside from Vin Diesel's, whose name is Dom. Everyone else I refer to as the actor who plays them. Oh, and The Rock threw a torpedo. On the ice.

King Arthur: Legend of the Sword. There were a couple Game of Thrones actors in this one, including Littlefinger. Jude Law had fun. I'm not sure anyone else did.

Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales. This one felt more like the first one, which is a compliment. They wisely tamped down on Johnny Depp and let some of the other characters take the spotlight.

Dunkirk. In many ways, Dunkirk is the war movie you don't expect. Christopher Nolan tells the story in multiple parts that are shown chronologically out of order and then come together near the end. Artfully done and masterfully acted, you'll be disappointed if you expected something a little more traditional from a narrative standpoint like Saving Private Ryan or Band of Brothers.

Despicable Me 3. I liked the first two, but when a movie series goes the "secret twin brother" route, you know they're out of ideas.

War for the Planet of the Apes. Astounding visuals and surprisingly compelling characters make this an incredible finale for the three-film rebooted Apes series. Andy Serkis will probably never win an award for his work as Caesar, but he totally should.

The LEGO Ninjago Movie. Like LEGO Batman, this is pretty much a series of extended skits in LEGO form. Pretty entertaining but also kind of forgettable, although I did have a pretty good time.

Murder on the Orient Express. This adaptation of the classic Agatha Christie boasted an A-list cast. A couple relatives of mine said they fell asleep during the movie, but I found it pretty compelling.

Saturday, December 23, 2017

My review | Star Wars: The Last Jedi


Star Wars: The Last Jedi is the best Star Wars movie ever made.

Star Wars: The Last Jedi is the worst Star Wars movie ever made.

There is no middle ground.

That seems to be the general reaction to the latest addition to the Star Wars saga. It's a divisive film. In some ways, it takes the series off in bold new directions; in other ways it serves as a big "FU" to longtime Star Wars fans. It's big, bold, audacious, tragic, disappointing, nonsensical, brilliantly written, terribly written, and both builds upon and destroys the sturdy foundation built by The Force Awakens.

Here are my thoughts on the movie.

Kylo Ren. How did this guy become such a compelling character? He was an easily memed "Vader fanboy" in the TFA, but The Last Jedi turns him into an incredible villain. He is haunted by his past but is determined to destroy it. In fact, I believe that's the central message of the movie: "Let the past die. Kill it if you have to." He pulls a fast one on Supreme Leader Snoke and kills him while trying to make Rey his own apprentice so they can rule the galaxy. It, um, doesn't work out.

Rey. She is so certain that the "Legend of Luke Skywalker" can save the Resistance, but she finds out the reality is something else entirely. Still, she knows the situation is dire and refuses to give up. She follows the Jedi Master around "Stairmaster Island" and tries to convince him to train her in the ways of the Force. Like Luke in ESB, she's headstrong and concerned about the fate of her friends. She rushes off to save them and hopes she'll be able to find goodness in Kylo. She's very, very wrong.

Luke Skywalker. It was fantastic seeing Mark Hamill back on the big screen. I didn't get the Luke Skywalker I wanted, but I also understand I got the Luke Skywalker this new generation of Star Wars movies needed. He is haunted by his past and by his own legend. He saved the galaxy only to see evil rise again in his nephew. Luke resolves to stay on the sidelines until prodding from Rey and R2-D2 convinces him to train her. It's a wonderful character arc, even if it doesn't satisfy 30+ years of expectations.

I'll be honest: I wanted to see Luke wreck shop and ignite the green lightsaber. I wanted to see him stare down a hundred First Order stormtroopers and dispatch them with a single gesture. I wanted him to raise his hand and collapse those First Order walkers, deflecting their blaster bolts with his lightsaber.

That isn't what happened. Instead, Luke Skywalker cut himself off from the Force and went to the island to die. He couldn't live with what he almost did to his nephew; he couldn't live with what happened to his students at the Jedi training temple. He ran and hid, which is a very un-Luke Skywalker thing to do. This guy blew up the Death Star! He survived two duels with Darth Vader--and won the second one! He brought down an AT-AT on his own!

But young Luke Skywalker did those things. He, like Obi-Wan before him (let's think about this in terms of OT Obi-Wan and not prequel Obi-Wan) thought he could train new Jedi as well as Master Yoda--just as Obi-Wan thought he could train Anakin. Luke was wrong, just like Obi-Wan. Luke bought into his own legend, and the results were catastrophic. As the Jedi of the Old Republic fell by their own hubris, so did Luke Skywalker.

Having Luke fly his X-Wing onto Crait and confront Kylo Ren and the First Order wouldn't have made sense for the Luke Skywalker the movie presented us with. Again: "Let the past die. Kill it if you must."

In the end, Luke shows he's the most powerful Jedi ever by using a Force projection to buy time for Rey, Leia, and the Resistance. The exertion is too much for him, and he becomes one with the Force. It's a bittersweet moment and a fitting end for him. I hope we'll see Force Ghost Luke in Episode IX.

The more I thought about it, the more I liked Luke's character arc. It made sense for him to go into exile--just as Yoda and Obi-Wan did.

Porgs. They were adorable and didn't get in the way of the movie. That scene where Chewie was about to eat a cooked porg was really funny.

Snokescreen. Supreme Leader Snoke was positioned as the new Emperor Palpatine, the kind of uber-powerful Force-wielder who'd pull the strings and bring the galaxy to its knees. I expected him to be dispatched in the final movie of this new trilogy, but that's not what happened at all. Instead, Snoke was Kylo Ren's final test. Kylo turned the tables on him and killed him. Like Palpatine before him, Snoke's overconfidence was his weakness. Now Kylo Ren is the supreme leader and ultimate villain of this trilogy.

General Leia. It's a shame we won't get to see Carrie Fisher complete Leia's arc. She was great in this movie, bringing gravitas and desperation to the plight of the Resistance. I love the idea of Leia using the Force, though I'm not sure I'm thrilled with how the movie executed that. I also kind of rolled my eyes at using the well-worn trope of putting someone in a coma to provide some artificial drama.

The Force. From Luke's Force projection to Jedi Skype and Force Ghosts that can interact with the physical world, TLJ expanded the Force in some exciting ways. I liked that it made that "hokey religion'' a little more mystical in the process. The Force is spiritual again. The truth is, we don't know that much about the Force; the movies don't tell us much about how it works. The movie shows us that the Force is much larger than we thought.

Things go wrong. This is the second act of a three-act story, so stuff is supposed to go wrong. Oh, man, does it go wrong. Poe's plan results in lots of people dying, Rey's plan to get Luke on her side goes wrong, Rey's plan to redeem Kylo goes sideways, Finn's mission to beat the First Order backfires. We're used to seeing these types of gambits go in the heroes' favor, but that didn't happen this time.

Artoo's message. Luke is beaten and broken in this movie, but Artoo pulls a "cheap" move by bringing back Princess Leia's message to Obi-Wan Kenobi from Star Wars. That moment tugged at my heartstrings.

Yoda. Honestly, I initially thought puppet Yoda still looked kind of weird. I also thought, while he was cantankerous in Empire, that his goofball shtick was a little out of character. However, as is the case with Yoda, there's always more to it than you think. His ability to set the Force tree on fire also gave some added depth to Obi-Wan's warning to Luke before he rushed off to Cloud City: "If you choose to face Vader, you will do it alone. I cannot interfere."

I always wondered why Obi-Wan said that. I mean, the dude's a blue ghost! What could he do--appear in front of Vader to tick him off? Now I see it's possible that Obi-Wan could've physically intervened to help Luke. It's interesting to see a new spin on a movie that's nearly 40 years old.

Still, it was good to see Yoda and to learn he has more lessons to teach.

Canto Bight. Ask just about anyone what didn't work for them in this movie--even people who loved it--and they'll probably say the Canto Bight subplot dragged. I think the movie really struggled with finding something for Finn to do and wanted to find a way to expand Rose's character. I don't think Canto Bight came off the way the director wanted.

This should've worked like the cantina scene or Jabba's palace/sail barge. Or, really, even the "sports bar" the Attack of the Clones. It didn't work at all. It felt tacked on and I never felt like Finn & Rose were in any real danger. Secret Rebel Alliance decoder rings? I know some senators used to wear them back in the day, but they were never introduced in the movies, so that fell flat. The concept of war profiteering and playing both the First Order and the Resistance against one another to make money was an interesting idea, but the execution was lacking.

I think the whole subplot needed to be streamlined, reconsidered, or cut entirely. Mostly because...

The Canto Bight subplot was useless. We didn't gain much from Canto Bight. It didn't reveal much about Finn's or Rose's character to the audience. They never had to make a tough decision during the whole thing. Aaaaaand they really shouldn't have gone there in the first place because Admiral Holdo shouldn't have withheld information from Poe Dameron. I get it: Poe's a hothead. His refusal to follow Leia's orders at the beginning put the Resistance in peril. His decision to give Finn and Rose the go-ahead on their mission almost resulted in the destruction of the whole Resistance.

Unless Holdo thought Poe was a spy, however, she shouldn't have withheld the information about their real strategy from him. All it did was make a mess of things--a mess you're supposed to blame on Poe, Finn, and Rose, but was really Holdo's screw-up. Canto Bight was plot-driven, not character-driven, and that's why it failed.

What a waste of Laura Dern. Laura Dern's a great actress. Holdo should've been an interesting character. She wasn't. Why cast Laura Dern if you're gonna throw her away in one movie? I mean, she went out in a hell of a way with the hyperspace battering ram thing (which was awesome!), but her character meant nothing. She was just an obstacle to Poe's character and a tool to provide some growth for him and propel the whole Canto Bight thing.

You know what they should've done here? Instead of creating Admiral Holdo specifically to throw her away in a self-sacrifice that was cool but had little emotional stakes, give that moment to another character. I would've put Admiral Ackbar in charge of the fleet after Leia was injured (although I think I wouldn't have put Leia in a coma in the first place!). Instead of having Ackbar die like a chump, have him slide into the Holdo role and make the big sacrifice. It would've had more emotional impact on Star Wars fans because, though he doesn't have a ton of screen time in Return of the Jedi, the audience knows who he is.

DJ. After first viewing of The Last Jedi, I didn't care for Benecio Del Toro's character. However, I missed a key scene because I had to use the restroom: the scene where he shows Finn that the rich people on Canto Bight are selling weapons to both the Resistance and the First Order. He tells Finn not to "join" anything. That scene makes a huge difference for his character, and I had an incomplete reading of him the first time around.

I liked him much more the second time I saw the movie. Yeah, he sold out our heroes, but he pretty much made it clear that's what he does. I liked how he occupies that gray area in the Star Wars universe. He suggested something along the lines of "they blow you up today, you blow them up tomorrow" as he was leaving. I wonder if we'll see him again.

But even if DJ was a good addition to the movie, that still doesn't make up for the Canto Bight subplot.

The First Order's plan was pretty dumb. The Resistance ships could stay out of range of the First Order big ships because they were faster at sublight speeds. Got it. No problem. The First Order didn't want to send starfighters out of range because starfighters rely on the protection of capital ships to operate at peak efficiency. Okay, got it. No problem. The First Order knows the rebels will run out of fuel soon and will just keep chasing them until they run out. Um, okay.

So why didn't the First Order, knowing full well the heading of the Resistance ships, jump a few capital ships on an intercept course that would've sandwiched the Resistance between two First Order fleets? I mean, maybe the First Order was too busy using the rest of its resources to subjugate the entire universe, but I would think destroying the Resistance would be priority one.

I suppose there's also the likelihood that the destruction of Starkiller Base crippled the First Order's military, but it seems pretty clear to me that the First Order is incredibly powerful and well-equipped, even with the loss of Starkiller Base.

Just a little food for thought there.

The score. As I'm writing this up, I'm listening to the musical soundtrack, and it's really good. John Williams brought back a lot of music from the original trilogy and used it in some different ways and arrangements. I liked The Force Awakens soundtrack (especially Rey's theme and the Resistance theme), but I think The Last Jedi is a stronger effort. The score feels like it plays a much more integral role in the movie than in Episode VII.

In conclusion. The first time I saw The Last Jedi, I was so overwhelmed that I couldn't really tell if I enjoyed it or not. I had to reflect on it for a few days before writing out my thoughts. A second viewing really provided some clarity. I still have some issues with general plotting--mostly anything that doesn't involve Luke Skywalker/Rey/Kylo Ren has some structural gaffes and logic problems. That said, the fact that Luke Skywalker embraces his legend at the end makes everything worth it.

And when Luke steps into the cave on Crait and has his moment with Leia, I got emotional. Knowing what's coming really has an impact, and we're allowed to once again embrace the Legend of Luke Skywalker.

And I didn't even mention how awesome the throne room scene with Rey, Kylo, and the praetorian guards was!

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Unboxing the RetroEngine Sigma

I've bought a few books via crowdfunding, but I've never purchased any hardware until I saw the RetroEngine Sigma back in December.

It promised a "plug-and-play" experience with several video game emulators. It comes pre-installed with a few of its own licensed games, but you'd have to provide your own ROMs (a gray area, of course). I was most interested in emulators for the Sega Genesis, Sega CD, Sega 32X, Game Gear, Super Nintendo, NES, and N64.

I owned an NES and a Sega Genesis/Sega CD. I almost bought a 32X when it was on clearance thanks to Sega's botched long-term plan that saw the 32X and Sega Saturn released just months apart. The RetroEngine has several other emulators, too, like the Atari 2600, Gameboy, TurboGrafx, Neo Geo, Intellivision, and Sony PlayStation.

I'd looked into getting a Raspberry Pi and making my own emulation box, but this sounded like a less labor-intensive product.

The units were supposed to ship in June, but I didn't get mine until August 14 due to production delays, according to Doyodo, the company that ran the campaign on Indiegogo. I wasn't happy about the delays, and neither were the other backers of the project.

When units finally started shipping, the comments didn't look good. Most people appeared to have problems with their units, with the biggest problem being a Wi-Fi error. Some backers couldn't get their units to boot up out of the box, which was a troubling proposition.

The RetroEngine box isn't anything special. Not glossy, not flashy. It's just a cardboard box with the logo.

This is everything that came in the box: the system, two controllers, an HDMI cable, a power adapter, and a bag containing the MicroSD card, MicroSD card reader, Bluetooth dongle.
To set up the RetroEngine, you're supposed to connect the unit to your home Wi-Fi via a phone, tablet, or computer. The included "quick start" guide wasn't very helpful in that regard, so I went to the RetroEngine website and followed the steps.

My unit booted fine and I saw the initialization screen. However, the screen stayed up for much too long (about 30 minutes) and I restarted the unit. After that, it booted. I was able to connect it to my Wi-Fi using my Microsoft Surface and selected the option to install the emulators, which weren't pre-installed on the 32GB MicroSD card that came with the RetroEngine.

My first impression of the unit was favorable. It was packed well and everything came wrapped accordingly. I didn't find any loose parts or SD cards, which was a problem other backers experienced. The unit is tiny--even smaller than an Xbox One controller!

The unit isn't very big at all.
The perk I ordered comes with two controllers: the default Dual Shock-like RetroEngine controller and a six-button Genesis/Saturn-style controller. The RetroEngine controller feels just okay (has just a little bit of heft...a little) and the other one feels pretty darn cheap (it's super, super light).

I'm not really sold on either controller, to be honest, but I'm glad they give me something to tinker with.
This controller feels okay. I'll probably get a better one somewhere down the line.

This controller feels very cheaply made. I think it'll break if I try to use it. We'll see.
I had my choice of a silver shell or a blue shell; I opted for the blue one. I thought it would be a more metallic blue, but it's pretty much just blue. As you can see, it resembles a (non-copyright-infringing) blue mini-Sega Genesis. Maybe that's why I was attracted to the product in the first place!

The resemblance to the Sega Genesis/Mega Drive is no coincidence, I think.
Installation started at 1:55 p.m. on Monday, August 14. I kept thinking it would get everything loaded within a few hours, but by the time I went to bed at 9:55 p.m., I still saw the loading screen. When I got up for work in the morning at 3 a.m. Tuesday, the unit had finished loading the different emulators.

Get used to this screen...'re going to see it for a long time.
My biggest complaint about the product is that it's not, in any way, a "plug-and-play" device. Setup worked for me, but it hasn't worked for others. The emulators have to be downloaded, which took several hours. That wouldn't be a problem if Doyodo didn't claim it would be ready to play pretty much when you took it out of the box.

This was supposed to be "emulation made easy," but it's basically just like any Pi 3/RetroPie kit you can buy on Amazon or eBay. Those kits, by the way, include a more powerful board (the RetroEngine is an Orange Pi Lite board) and cost about the same or are cheaper. I was intimidated by the assembly and setup process, but I think I could've pulled it off after taking a closer look at it.

That said, I did have some different ROMs for a few systems, and they worked fine. I put my Genesis games in the Genesis folder, but they weren't recognized. I had to move them to the Mega Drive folder, which made me feel so European. SNES and Sega 32X games worked great as well.

It wasn't perfect, though. The N64 games wouldn't load; one of the default emulators simply froze while the other would load the game to a black screen and let you dump out of the game. The pre-installed arcade games included "BurgerTime" and "Lock 'n' Chase," and while they played, they didn't have sound!

The system is also supposed to "scrape" metadata for games so they display nicely, but I'm having mixed results with that. Some of it, I think, has to do with how my ROM files are named, so maybe some light editing will help with that.

So I have to reiterate: it's not quite the easy-to-use product I'd hoped for. Several other RetroEngine owners have suggested getting a better quality MicroSD card and flashing RetrOrangePi to get rid of the buggy RetroEngine UI. I may get a new SD card and give that a try.

After all, the RetroSigma OS is basically just a splashscreen on top of the RetrOrangePi interface anyway. May as well just cut the fat from the equation. I'm wondering if that will help the N64 emulator run more smoothly.

Wednesday, August 2, 2017

So, I've still been writing!

It's been a long, long time since I've blogged about writing.

Heck, it's been a long, long time since I've blogged at all.

My last post was for the new year, my annual "Studicus Selects" roundup.

Why have I gotten away from blogging? I'm not sure, really. I stopped writing about Indianapolis Colts games because I found myself so intent on analyzing them and making observations that I stopped enjoying the actual games. Seriously, I'd sit in front of the TV with a laptop and make notes, and then rush to post a story after the game was over.

It probably hasn't helped that the Colts have been completely mediocre since their memorable defeat at the hands of the New England Patriots in the "DeflateGate" game.

But while I haven't been blogging, I have been writing.

A lot.

I just finished the first draft of my 16th novel! It's pretty incredible to think about it. I have 14 books that I consider "ready" or "nearly ready" for submission. Two of the 16 are recently finished drafts that need tons of polish.

I've sent out several query letters for books, and I've come close a couple times. A partial request here. A full request there. Just nothing that quite makes it all the way.

A few years ago, I probably would've sulked and stopped sending queries. But you know what? Books don't publish themselves. You can't get published if you don't submit.

So I keep at it.

I've got a funny superhero series with the Crimsonstreak books. The rights have reverted back to me, and I'm going to finally resolve the huge cliffhanger from book two with the third book. Can't say much about it right now, but expect some news soon.

I have another series that's superhero related, but it's more serious in tone. For a long time I referred to these books at The Franchise series, but I've rebranded them as the OMNI series. They've got a cool retro-futuristic vibe and I'd describe them as a more hopeful Watchmen.

I've written in some genres I didn't expect. I churned out a paranormal fantasy and a YA epic fantasy. I wrote a middle grade book based on a "novel" I wrote when I was in sixth grade (obviously, I expanded the story and characters quite a bit).

I even wrote, God help us all, a book called Timey Dancer based on some interactions I had with a friend and my brother on Facebook. It's about a male stripper who goes back in time to save Julius Caesar through the power of pole dancing and 80s music.

It is ridiculous.

That's pretty much where things stand right now. I attended the Midwest Writers Workshop last year and had a blast. I also went in 2010, when I thought I knew a ton about writing and publishing. I'm a lot smarter now and realize that there's a bunch of stuff to learn. I couldn't quite make it for the 2017 edition, but I'm hoping to attend Imaginarium in Louisville in October.

Sunday, January 1, 2017

Studicus Selects 2016

Once, long ago, I posted on the internet as Studicus, an in-joke nickname related to a skit from high school. When I first started blogging, I called my year-end entries "Studicus Selects." The tradition has continued since 2005...although I skipped 2006 for some unknown reason.

You'll find past entries here (scroll down for the 2016 picks):

Studicus Selects 2015
Studicus Selects 2014
Studicus Selects 2013
Studicus Selects 2012
Studicus Selects 2011
Studicus Selects 2010
Studicus Selects 2009
Studicus Selects 2008
Studicus Selects 2007
Studicus Selects 2005

Worst pre-ordering fail, large online retailer category. I usually don't pre-order items because you'll usually find plenty of stock at the store (NES Classic excepted, of course). However, I was super excited about the arrival of Star Wars: The Force Awakens on Blu-ray and pre-ordered it from Target.

While friends who ordered their copies from Amazon got them on the day of release, I waited and waited for my precious copy to arrive. It finally came Saturday morning. The Blu-ray was released on the previous Tuesday.

I'm still ticked off.

Best sports adventure, brothers category. Proving that 2015 was a giving year, my brother and I went to see the Cincinnati Reds on Star Wars Night. This was a 2015 Christmas gift from our mother that combined our two favorite things: baseball and Star Wars.

It was notable for a couple reasons: 1) the Reds won (they didn't do that a lot last year) and 2) there were fireworks set to John Williams' iconic Star Wars themes. It was awesome.

Best sports adventure, father-in-law category. Before 2016, I'd never been to Hinkle Fieldhouse. That all changed when my father-in-law took me to a game in February. The Bulldogs lost to Xavier, but it was a great experience. We even got t-shirts because it was a "whiteout!"

Best spoof, Star Wars: The Force Awakens category. I'm so happy Adam Driver was game for this. He reprised his role as Kylo Ren for a fake episode of Undercover Boss. First Order Force wielder/patricide enthusiast Kylo Ren portrayed "Matt the Technician" for a truly memorable sketch with some laugh-out-loud moments.

"I'm 90% sure Matt is Kylo Ren."

"After the rain comes the rainbow. Sorry I killed your son."

"Kylo Ren is a punk b****. That guy looks like he weighs 30 pounds soaking wet underneath that little black dress."

Best get out of the house experiences, couples category. My wife and I haven't always had the opportunity to get out that much, but we did a couple really cool things this year. In July, we saw Beauty & The Beast at Beef & Boards. One of our first big dates in college was going to see the traveling version of the show in Indianapolis. Anne loves Beauty & The Beast!

She's also always wanted to see the stage version of The Lion King. We traveled to Dayton to see that. I bought Anne the soundtrack, which came with a free Lion King tote bag.

Most touching welcome back ceremony, great uncle category. My Uncle Morrie took part in an honor flight to Washington, D.C. Anne and I traveled to Columbus, Ohio, to welcome him and a large group of veterans back from their trip.

These men fought for their country and we're losing more of them by the day. I think they got the heroes' welcome they deserved, no matter which war they fought in.

I should probably also mention that we used the trip as an excuse to "do history" and stopped by the Rutherford B. Hayes home in Fremont, Ohio. By the way, there's no quick way to get between Fremont and Columbus.

Saddest passing, family category. We said goodbye to a good man this year when my brother's father-in-law, Mark Gardner, passed away in December. Mark was an incredibly smart man with a great sense of humor.

We loved him even though he was a Kentucky Wildcats and Pittsburgh Steelers fan. He always had a kind word and a quip whenever I saw him, and he never failed to ask how Anne and I were doing--and he genuinely cared about the answer.

We mourn the loss, but we know Mark's in a better place free of pain and watching over his family from above.

Remarkable comeback, knee surgery category. My father has had bad knees for as long as I can remember, and things had gotten worse over the last few years to the point where he's been in pain and unable to enjoy much.

He had knee replacement surgery in June at Ortho Indy, and it's been great for him. A few months out of surgery now, he's walking about 90 minutes a day--which is a big deal because Dad loves to walk and hasn't been able to because of his knee.

The picture above was taken in July a little more than a month after surgery. He wasn't walking long distances then, but he was way ahead of schedule.

Best 100th anniversary event, Indianapolis 500 category. The Greatest Spectacle in Racing reached a milestone in 2016 with the 100th running of the race. I've worked a fair amount of Indy 500 Sundays because I work in TV news, but this year I got to go to the race as a spectator.

My father-in-law, mother-in-law, brother-in-law, and sister-in-law went to the 100th running, which was full of pageantry and great racing. In the end, rookie Alexander Rossi took the checkered flag, somehow defying the laws that say you have to have fuel to win the race.

Best Star Wars movie, non-episode category. For the first time, Disney-Lucasfilm released a Star Wars movie that wasn't part of the episodic Skywalker story. In essence, Rogue One is the very first Star Wars spinoff movie.

While it's tied to the events of the first Star Wars (that's 1977's A New Hope), it's not the continuation of a story and there won't be a sequel (or you could consider A New Hope to be the sequel).

I absolutely loved it. We got to meet some great characters, even though they weren't, um, long for the Star Wars world. And we got to see Peter Cushing again!

I thought Grand Moff Tarkin would make an appearance, but I never expected he'd have such a large role.

Best anniversary, marriage category. Incredibly, my wife and I have been married for 10 years. I really can't believe it!

While we didn't do anything remarkable for the anniversary itself, we had plenty of adventures throughout the year. I also put together a video of our wedding day (October 7, 2006).

Best short nonfiction novella, 40 Years of G-Man category. To my utter astonishment, my brother turned 40 year this year. I wanted to do something special to mark the occasion, so I came up with 40 different memories and wrote a short book with 40 chapters, one for each year.

Our mother even retroactively grounded us after learning about a couple of those memories, including Home Plate Collision, a baseball-themed game we used to play where a runner came in from third base and tried to knock over the catcher. My brother knocked me out cold one time when we were playing this. Not coincidentally, that was the last time we ever played Home Plate Collision.

David Pumpkins. I mean, Davis. S. Pumpkins. To be honest, I don't even know what this is. I've watched it a bunch of times, and I have no idea why it's so funny.

Is it Tom Hanks' dedication to the bit? The dancing skeletons and absurd music? I'm not sure.

Any questions?

Best movie experience, awesome AMC chairs category. I think AMC's new chairs have spoiled me forever. These things tilt back and let you put your feet up. They make every other theater chair seem inconvenient and uncomfortable.

I went to an IMAX movie with my brother-in-law, and we didn't have these chairs. That theater-going experience was definitely inferior as a result.

Movie Year in Review: The Good. I won't get into extensive reviews for any movies, but I'd like to mention some of my favorites. Rogue One, Captain America: Civil War, Moana, Deadpool, Dr. Strange, Sully, Star Trek Beyond, Zootopia, Finding Dory, and The Jungle Book are a few that stick out.

Marvel had a solid year with its latest entries. Dr. Strange was visually very cool and Civil War gave us some of the best superhero moments in the history of superhero movies. Deadpool was so right yet so wrong on so many levels.

I think it was a strong year for animated movies, with Finding Dory, Zootopia, and Moana giving us some of Disney's best. While Star Trek's 50th anniversary passed with little fanfare (thanks CBS/Paramount, losers) Star Trek Beyond was a terrific return to the big screen for the franchise.

Movie Year in Review: The Bad. While Marvel continued its roll, DC continued to try to find its footing. Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice was a mess. I couldn't wait for the credits to roll on that one. It was long, ponderous, and made zero sense. I will say the Ultimate Edition significantly improved the film, but that cut was nearly three hours and that's still way too long.

Suicide Squad appears on several "worst movies of the year" lists, and while I thought the villain was weak, I liked the characters enough to keep it off my worst list.

I didn't care for Warcraft. I don't remember much of the movie, and it was just kind of bland. Independence Day: Resurgence tried to mimic The Force Awakens template by mixing new characters with old ones but forgot to give us new, likable characters. Jeff Goldblum was Goldblumming hard, and it still didn't help. Brent Spiner appeared to be the only person in that movie who was having any fun at all.

I didn't like the BFG, which tried very hard but was sort of all over the place. The Ghostbusters reboot committed the ultimate sin of being simply mediocre. A couple of good laughs in there, but the story was thin and things never clicked. Too many distracting cameos as well, although the leads were likable.

Gods of Egypt was awful in that so-bad-it's-good way.

Writing Year in Review. I finished a few drafts of novels this year and polished a few manuscripts in need of some love. I had a short story published in an anthology and had some more nibbles on some of my novels.

I also attended the Midwest Writers Workshop for the first time since 2010. I pitched projects to agents and met some new writing friends. Toward the end of the year, I took a writing break, but I'll get back to it at the start of 2017.

Best impulse buy, Microsoft Surface category. When Anne's phone broke, we went to the AT&T store to get her a new one. At the time, they were running a deal on the Microsoft Surface, so I went ahead and bought one.

It's a great tool that's replaced my clunky (but faithful) laptop computer. I'm writing this blog entry on the Surface, in fact. It's compact and you can use it as a tablet or traditional laptop. The model I bought, the Surface 3, doesn't have the power of a Surface Pro, but it definitely gets the job done.

I found the keyboard cover--sold separately for an absurd $120--on clearance for $30 at Best Buy.

Unexpected purchase, replacement oven category. Appliances eventually break down. Nothing lasts forever.

Our gas oven bit the dust in July, and we replaced it with an electric stove. It's so shiny!