Early voting in Massachusetts

Monday was the very first day of in-person early voting in Massachusetts, ever. I didn't have much in the way of a practical reason to do it, but I was curious (and was probably looking for a bit of early closure to this enervating election season), so I went and voted at City Hall.

Massachusetts of course has long had absentee ballots for people who can provide excuses for not being around on Election Day1, but in 2014 the state passed a law allowing anybody to request a mail-in ballot, or to vote early in person for a period of a couple of weeks before the election. This year's general election is the first one for which the law is in effect. Every city or town has to have at least one early-voting location, though the details vary from place to place. The main location here is in the basement of City Hall, at the opposite corner from the RMV office. They're going to have a few other locations open just on Saturday, at a couple of fire stations and the Department of Public Works. The operation seems modest compared to what already exists in some other places, but it's a start.

I've heard reports of brisk business in some other towns, but when I went there (about an hour after early voting began), interest seemed fairly low. The poll workers were still getting the hang of the system, but it didn't matter much, because there were only a few people there, most of them elderly. The late and weekend hours might get a more diverse crowd.

In any event, it was interesting. Regular Election Day voting here is a pretty streamlined affair in which you check in at a table with paper voter lists, get your optical-scan ballot, retire to a cardboard cubby to fill it in, then check out at a different table with another set of voter lists, and you stick your ballot in the box. Early voting is a little different, since there are people coming in from all over the city, and the ballots have to be sent back to the voters' individual precincts in sealed envelopes. It's basically an in-person version of voting by mail.

The poll workers checked me in on a tablet computer, with the option of scanning driver's license dot codes to get my name and address faster--though they were very careful to emphasize that this was optional, and ID was not required. The tablet was connected to a little printer that spat out a numbered, receipt-like slip, which they kept at the table. Then they gave me a yellow envelope, a ballot, a sheet of instructions, and a marker pen. There was a long line of cubbies for voting off to the side, most of them unoccupied.

The ballot was a regular optical-scan ballot, only pre-creased for folding so it would go into the envelope. Aside from filling out the ballot itself, I had to write my name and address and sign an affidavit on the outside of the envelope, then seal the ballot inside. (So from the voter's perspective, there isn't 100% assurance that these early ballots are secret--but that's the case with voting by mail as well.) I then brought the envelope back to the original table, where they stapled the printed slip to the front and stuck it in a box. The envelope is apparently going to go back to my home precinct, where it will be opened sometime after the polls close on November 8 and the ballot scanned along with all the Election Day ballots. The voter lists that the poll workers have on Election Day will also note that I've already voted, so I can't do it again.

For most people here, it was probably not more convenient than voting on Election Day, aside from the greater time flexibility. There is the advantage that if something goes wrong, you can always come back later; there's less chance of a disaster that keeps you from actually casting a ballot. But my precinct usually has very light crowds and little trouble anyway.

Still, there is something nice about getting it done when most of the country still has a couple of weeks to go.

1 The old absentee ballots apparently still exist as a separate system from the new mail-in ballots, which is a little odd. Presumably there's room to streamline that some more.

More video games

I got an XBox One for Christmas (with Halo 5), but only got to actually play with it for the first time yesterday, as the first unit had a broken optical drive and I had to send it to Redmond for warranty replacement.

Mostly what I can say at the moment is: man, Halo 5 is a beautiful game. The high-res textures and high frame rate give new games a subtly hyperreal quality; the latest console generation's graphics are approaching the point where human figures can look photorealistic if they're not too close. They seem to be moving away from the brown-and-dusty aesthetic that was prevalent in Halo 4; everything is shinier. After playing so much Destiny, the traditional Halo mechanic of not getting too attached to your weapons takes some getting used to.

I'm not too fond of the XBox One's use of the Windows Metro interface. There are a lot of situations in which it's actually difficult to figure out how to get rid of a dialog or navigate to some visible part of the user interface.

We'll probably end up keeping the XBox 360 around for a while, since the XBox One is not backward-compatible with all XBox 360 games. Also, I'll need a second controller for the One, and, probably, an external hard drive before long (the storage seems to fill up quickly, but at least the XBox One actually allows external USB expansion).

We played through to the end of Disney Infinity's The Force Awakens playset's main story. The story here is a bit shorter than in Rise Against the Empire; there are only two "sandbox" planets instead of three (Jakku and Takodana), and Han's freighter and Starkiller Base are more linear levels. But there's a fairly significant number of side missions and challenges. Like many Disney Infinity levels, this one has an area just for doing trick jumps on a vehicle; here, it's a lake on Takodana (apparently hovering Star Wars speeders can all go on water) that you outfit with stunt ramps.

A cute thing that it took us a while to realize is that both planets in this one have a tiny spherical moon that functions like a Super Mario Galaxy planet, and one player can actually land on it while the other is still dogfighting in space. We also haven't unlocked all of the "Hologame Console" arcade mini-games.

Mystery: Maz Kanata is strangely absent, unless there's some way to meet her that we missed. I was wondering if she was or is intended to be a playable character figure (there is none currently released).

Disney Infinity 3.0, now with added Star Wars

I got my daughter Disney Infinity 3.0 for Christmas, prompted by extensive pleading.

As with version 2.0, I don't think this is a great value-for-money proposition; the various starter kits only give you one Play Set campaign unlocked (far short of the three you got with v1.0) and you have to buy the rest à la carte. This game can hit parents' wallets pretty hard. But that's Disney for you.

However, the Star Wars-themed Play Set content for this version feels considerably richer than the Marvel-based Play Sets in v2.0, more on par with the clever Disney/Pixar campaigns in v1.0. There are also more Play Sets overall (three Star Wars campaigns, one based on Pixar's Inside Out and a new Marvel campaign), not all of which have been released yet.
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Cixin Liu, The Three-Body Problem

I just finished this book, which was a bestseller in China and recently won the Hugo for Best Novel (in a year somewhat marred by the Sad/Rabid Puppy mess, though this book was not on the Puppy slate). I don't have a lot to add to James Nicoll's review, which I largely agree with, except to say that even the more "modern" elements of the book read to some degree like an old-fashioned idea-SF story from the mid-20th century (and that I enjoyed it for that). I suspect Cixin Liu was heavily influenced by Isaac Asimov; he explicitly references an Asimov short at one point ("The Billiard Ball"), but I can also see elements of Asimov's stories "Breeds There A Man..." and "Nightfall" in the setup, and his novel The Gods Themselves.

He's better at characters than Asimov was, though motivations still tend to be simple and stark. In real life, I would expect his aliens' propaganda techniques to produce at least as many terrified wannabe resistance fighters as enthusiastic turncoats. I found the sections dealing with the Cultural Revolution and its aftermath affecting, horrifying and fascinating (translator Ken Liu's footnotes do an excellent job of getting a Western reader through the unfamiliar aspects).

Unfortunately, the involvement of the three-body problem mentioned in the title is perhaps the least believable thing in the story, given that Cixin Liu is using a real triple star system that, given its configuration, shouldn't behave like he describes it behaving and should be fairly tractable to numerical prediction (also, he doesn't understand how tides work). That is, the least believable thing up to the final chapters, in which we finally see the extraterrestrial menace without a highly figurative filter and the super-science becomes colorfully goofy, in what Nicoll accurately calls the Edmond Hamilton mode. This is the first volume of a trilogy, and I would expect to see more of this in the later installments.

More Moomins

A couple of years ago, I posted reviews of a couple of Tove Jansson's classic children's books set in the world of the Moomins: Comet in Moominland (in which Moominvalley is threatened by an extraterrestrial impactor), and Moominsummer Madness (a charming adventure set largely in a theater cast adrift on the water). I loved these books when I was a kid, though I didn't read all of them. A couple of the others in the series have become favorites of my daughter by now, but I never got around to reviewing them.

The Moomin books were written over several decades, and the style gradually evolves, from straightforward, if whimsically strange and occasionally wise, adventure tales early on; through more experimentally witty and psychologically complex stories in the middle books; to the melancholy, largely interior narratives of the late stories. Eventually Jansson entirely abandoned Moominvalley for adult mainstream fiction. Comet is from the early period, and Moominsummer Madness (my personal favorite, I think) is a middle book.

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Other stuff at Universal Florida

Honestly, apart from anything with Harry Potter stamped on it, I didn't experience a lot of the best stuff at the Universal resort. Partly this was stupidity/lack of research/occasional unwellness on my part; partly it was having to wrangle a frequently grumpy 8-year-old. I shouldn't be too hard on her, though; she was, as always, far, far more intrepid about going on rides than I was at her age. When you're traveling with a kid you expect some opportunities to pass by unseized.

I made some mistakes. Two primary ones.
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Our hotel, the Loews Royal Pacific, was a very nice place with cod-Hawaiian decor and a gigantic pool--I can't really make an apples-to-apples comparison with our Disney trip a couple of years ago, because we stayed at a budget resort then and we sprung for the next level up this time. My one complaint is that there was something in the room that had us all coughing with allergic reactions every night, maybe just leftover seasonal pollen in the air ducts. Fortunately I'd been having trouble back home for the previous week and brought lots of Benadryl. But it did mean that for my first full day at the parks I was not by any means operating at 100%, which cut down on the amount of fun stuff I was willing to do.

The Harry Potter stuff at Universal Florida

This is my daughter's school vacation week, so we spent a few days at the Universal resort in Orlando, a pair of large theme parks (Universal Studios and Islands of Adventure) with an associated shopping/restaurant/entertainment area (CityWalk) and a bunch of hotels.

The obvious comparison here is to Walt Disney World: Universal's the only other theme-park operation in the area that is really trying to play on something approaching Disney's level. They have much, much less real estate, so the scale isn't anywhere near as colossal, but for the visitor, that's not necessarily bad. It's really easy to get around Universal's territory, much easier than in Disney's vast pocket universe.

Universal has a number of renowned big steel looper roller coasters... which I didn't ride. I don't know, maybe I'm slowing down. Part of it, I suppose, is that I was more interested in the park's signature motion-simulator/dark-ride attractions, and they provided more than enough sensory assault for one visit. There were also only two of us adults along to wrangle my 8-year-old daughter. I did ride one very special coaster at Universal, more on which below.

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