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Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Montebello Open Space Preserve Backpack Camp

Last year's S24O with Bowen gave me confidence to propose another camping trip this year to him. He enjoyed the camping, but didn't want to go beach camping again. For this year's trip, Arturo had told me that there's a backpack campground on the Montebello road in the open space preserve. I'd ridden past the site before, but always thought it didn't have water, but it turned out that the site is fed by a spring. At $2/person, and an easy 2 mile hike in from the parking lot, it was a great idea.

When I broached the idea to Bowen, he was enthusiastic about it, and was constantly looking forward to the trip. You book the site via the website at the MROSD. They e-mail you a permit, which you print, and then you pay after you camp, which is very friendly. They note that  the spring water requires not just filtration, but chemical treatment to make it safe to drink, so we bought potable aqua tablets. That didn't turn out to be necessary because we ended up boiling all our water.
We left the parking lot at around 2:00pm, and started the walk towards the campground. Bowen asked to be carried at first, but then we offered him marshmallows in exchange for walking, and that got him motivated. Heck, after enough marshmallows, he didn't just walk, he ran, and we actually had to jog along to keep up with him.
It was a beautiful spring day, perfect weather for hiking, and we saw plenty of poppies, deer, and had great views of San Francisco and the Bay from the ridge, but could see a fog bank hanging out near the coast. A couple of backpackers passed us on the way to the group camp, but we were the first to arrive at the individual tent sites.

The first order of business was to pitch the tent. This went well, but I broke my Easton tent stake. It was very disappointing, as these stakes hadn't been used for very long. Fortunately, Arturo had extra stakes, so we pitched the tents anyway.

Bowen got excited and crawled into the tent, as I handed him all the sleeping equipment. He played for a while while Arturo and I unpacked, stuck all the food into the food lockers, and setup the stove to make tea, Apple Cider, and hot chocolate. He liked the hot chocolate, but once he tasted Arturo's apple cider refused to try anything else! On our last camping trip I'd made the same Apple Cider but he refused to have any of it. What a difference half a year makes.
After this, we walked up to the top of black mountain for the panoramas, availing ourselves of the late afternoon light. It was sweet: I'd cycled up to the area and hiked up to it many times, but had never been here near sunset. It's gorgeous.
We went back to the campground for dinner to find that everyone else had arrived. I expected that Bowen would be one of the youngest kids camping, but I was wrong. There were two 1-year olds, and 1 2-year old, and Bowen was in fact the oldest kid at the campground! The 1-year olds were carted in on bike trailers, with the dads riding mountain bikes to ferry the camping gear as well as the kids. The two year old was carried in by his father.

After dinner, we went to see the city lights from the top of the Black Mountain summit, and got to identify where our house might be from the well lit streets of the area. Since the park's closed half an hour after sunset, this is the only way to get those night views of the area, which makes this trip all the more special. Arturo has a tripod which he used to shoot more pictures of the night scene, and I look forward to seeing them.

The next morning it rained, so we quickly ate breakfast in the drizzle, packed up our wet tent, and then quickly walked down the mountain. Bowen got his socks quickly wet, and begged to be carried. Well, this was the downhill direction, so Arturo and I took turns adding the 30-pound handicap weight to our shoulders and hoofed it back to the car.

I'd never considered camping on Black Mountain before, since when I had time, I'd always want to be further from home. But that's a mistake. It's a beautiful location, and an excellent site to boot. The closeness of it to the trailhead makes it such that bringing along a small child is plausible and enjoyable, and easy if you use bicycles. And you can't beat the price.

Recommended. P.S. Because of running out of Google's quota, I've switched to OneDrive (where I have 250GB of free quota) for photo hosting. Here's the complete photo album for this trip.

Monday, March 16, 2015

Review: Diablo III Ultimate Evil Edition (PS4)

Diablo III: Ultimate Evil Edition is the latest iteration of Blizzard's randomly generated dungeon crawler. I remember getting a demo of the first Diablo way back in 1996 at Mpath from Blizzard's team and thinking, Oh, just a Nethack with prettier graphics. To my surprise, not only was the game very well received, it was one of the few games I actually finished.

By contrast, I never finished Diablo II, mostly because I started getting worried about RSI from clicking the darn mouse so much. Thus I avoided Diablo III on the PC, and only picked up the Ultimate Evil Edition for the PS4 when it went on sale during the holidays.

The big disadvantage of the game on the PS4 is that the controller has much fewer buttons than the keyboard, so you're restricted in attacks to the 4 face buttons, R1, R2, and L2. (L1 is reserved for the healing potion: there are no other potion types in the game as far as I can tell!) The flip side of this UI is that the PS4 controllers are much better for you ergonomically than the mouse, and you're much less likely to get RSI from the PS4 controller than any mouse.

The most impressive thing about Diablo III is how well balanced it is. I have no shame when it comes to playing video games: I start every game on Easy, and I never upgrade difficulty levels because "Easy" hardly ever matches the description when you're over 40 and the typical gamer is 9 years old and has the reflexes of a ninja by comparison. Well, "Easy" on Diablo is called "Normal", but within 6 play sessions, I'd realized that I wasn't ever using healing potions and upgraded to Hard, then Expert, Master, and then Torment I, before dropping back down to Master for the final boss fight when I died once. The algorithm suggested on the internet for determining the correct difficulty level is that if you have an easy time killing the treasure goblin, then you should up the difficulty level. If you have a tough time killing the treasure goblin, then you should go down one difficulty level. In practice, being one difficulty level too hard (on a Wizard, at least) is no big deal and won't kill you too often, but makes progressing challenging as every minor fight takes a long time.

The smartest thing about the difficulty level system in Diablo III is that it gives you something back for picking a higher difficulty level: you gain experience faster, and the loot drops are better. That gives you an incentive to self-adjust the difficulty level to optimize your experience. Far too many games rely on trophies to drive you to play at higher difficulty levels or new game plus, but those incentives don't work on me. Diablo III's rewards, however do.

After a bit, I realized that the reason for this is that Diablo III's difficulty is dependent much more on character optimization than on game play technique. In other words, if you frequently check your character stats, and optimize your character's equipment loadout, then pick spells (I was playing a Wizard) your playstyle (which in my case was to forget about staying far away from enemies but just getting close to them and unleashing a barrage of spells) didn't matter that much. Your total damage per second would be so high that you would essentially wipe the floor with enemies. Only in special situations (when facing elites that could block off escape routes) would my character die.

Death has a very low penalty in the non-hardcore version of the game (and I'm not dumb enough to start off in hardcore mode): your equipment loses 10% of it's durability, and you'd have to pay to repair it. Given that gold is fairly easy to come by and you quickly run out of uses for it, this is no big deal, and you could respawn and finish wiping the floor with a renewed character (dropping in difficulty if you have to) and then keep going.

Up until around level 60, the leveling up frequently unlocks new spells and other character abilities, giving you new modes of play, which would change the game enough to keep you interested. The story is cliched and boring, but you don't play any version of Diablo for the story anyway. Even the cut scenes seem particularly uninspired in this one. I was pleasantly surprised when I discovered even the hidden level during my first play through.

I tried a few levels in co-op, and the game is surprisingly fun, even when the two of you don't coordinate and end up playing Wizards. The difficulty of the game gets bumped when you add players, but this didn't seem to affect game play much. The game truly is well balanced and scaled well. There's even an apprentice mode, where the lower level character is beefed up so as to not automatically die if a 1st level character was paired up with a 30th level character. I tried this with my 3 year old son playing my 30th level Wizard, and me playing a 1st level Monk, and it did work. I had to quickly stop, however, when Bowen started discarding valuable magic items through some combination of key presses on the controller which I hadn't known about and have no way to disable.

There are a few nits in the PS4 version of Diablo III. There's no explicit save that I could find, so occasionally, I'd play until I get to some level of the dungeon, have to quit the game for whatever reason, and upon coming back discover that I'd have to redo most of the work. My memory of the original Diablo was that on the PC at least, you could save anywhere and resume anywhere and retain all your state, but the PS4 version for whatever reason doesn't do that. It took me a while to figure out that I had to keep playing until the next "Checkpoint Reached" banner, which could take quite a while, since the randomly generated dungeon could put your objective in the opposite corner from where you started exploring.

The other nit has to do with the display. The game doesn't always do a good job of telling you where your character is in the display. This is particularly bad if there are walls occluding the characters and your characters are surrounded by monsters. During those fights you just fight blindly and are thankful that there's no such thing as "friendly fire" in the game. The game does run well at 60fps, with very rare glitches that aren't noticeable no matter how busy the game gets. The PS4 does however run the fan pretty hard while you're playing.

With console games, I'm always tempted to sell them after I play through the first time since it's unlikely I have enough time to play it again. However, I'll make an exception for Diablo III: with 5 more character classes, an adventure mode I haven't explored yet, and a co-op mode that's very promising, I could see it as a game that I could return to time and again.


Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Review: Counterspy (PS Vita)

CounterSpy is a side-scrolling stealth/action game available for Android, iOS, and Playstation (PS3, Vita, and PS4). I'm reviewing the PS Vita version, but I don't expect the Android version to be much different, and the PS4 version was pretty much identical.

The game consists of sneaking through a military base, pilfering secrets from safes, killing or avoiding enemies and security cameras, and finally recovering ammunition or health from various cabinets. The controls are pretty basics, and the initial tutorial does a great job of covering all the basics and then letting you go wild.

The story is ignorable and tongue in cheek, giving you nothing except an excuse to pilfer bases from both American and Soviet sites. What's interesting to me is that the game gives each side an alert level (called DEFCON) that persists from one level to another, ensuring that if you screw up on one side, then your next visit to that side will be much harder and more prone to failure. The game does give you ways of lowering DEFCON, either by threatening officers (which can only be done after you've killed every other soldier around them) or by paying.

There are also weapon upgrades that can be found, which lets you turn the game from being a stealth game into a shooter. The game's not great as a shooter, with basically duck and roll being the only options other than the joystick controls, but it's serviceable and still fun. Once the shooting starts, however, you usually have a limited time to kill everyone off before someone gets on the radio and calls for help, raising the DEFCON level and making life hard. One nitpick here is that on a level with multiple locations, sometimes someone standing at a different location will get on the radio and then you won't have time to stop them before the DEFCON goes up because the travel time is too long. This is a nitpick because as long as you pick off everyone quietly it shouldn't happen.

This is all great until you get to the final level, where you're required to stealth into the base of the highest DEFCON side you've got. Well, that means you have to do more missions to attempt to lower the DEFCON before attempting the final, tough mission. Fortunately for me, I triggered some bug trying to do so which gave me the lowest DEFCON side instead for my final mission, and successfully beat the game without much trouble.

The game provides network play by telling you about other rival spies (users) with the same amount of score. If you beat that rival's spies' score, you get to loot their body, which gets placed somewhere randomly on the next mission.

All in all, the game was fun. On the technical side, my biggest complaint is that the loading times for levels are too long (each level is randomly generated, so my guess is that their generation algorithm is single threaded) on my PS Vita, though the PS 4 version wasn't much faster. The game ended up staying on my PS Vita for a long time because in many ways it's the ideal mobile game: each level takes just a few minutes to play through, and there's not a ton of context carried over level to level so you're never lost. Since the Android version is $5 (I got the game as part of this month's Playstation Plus subscription) and has no micro-transactions (what a concept!), it definitely deserves your attention.


Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Review: Chaos Quarter

Chaos Quarter is David Welch's science fiction novel about a travel through space. It reads like a setup for a bunch of sequels, and is full of cliches.

The characters, kingdoms, and worlds described in the book seem drawn out of a cookie-cutter, with serial numbers filed off and names changed.

What makes the book bearable is that the writer can actually string sentences together and make them flow, which is no mean feat given how bad the other elements of the novel (characters, plot, and setting) are. What this tells you is how important style and readability is when writing a novel.

Not recommended.

Monday, March 09, 2015

Review: On Immunity: An Innoculation

On Immunity is Eula Bliss' book about vaccination. It's not a science book. Rather, it's written in the style of Susan Sontag, meant to explore the issue of whether or not to vaccinate your kids from an English major, "I can't read the papers or understand the scientific background, but I'm full of empathy" perspective.

This drives me nuts. For instance, Bliss' father is a physician. She'll ask him why people would organize measles parties for their kids. His answer (which I love, being the kind of empathy-lacking person he is) is, "Because they're idiots." Bliss, on the other hand would prevaricate, and talk about all sorts of irrelevant issues without providing statistics, facts, or science.

So the target audience isn't you if you're a scientist or engineer. As far as I can tell, the target audience is someone who's not a scientist or engineer, who's incredibly neurotic about her kids (i.e., will panic over every little event --- those people shouldn't have boys, because boys will do things like break bones and play with fire, making such mothers into nervous wrecks), and is incapable of understanding statistics, but would love to debate morality.

Now, there are a few little titbits here and there that make this book not a complete waste of time, but by and large, they're buried in so much other verbose garbage that I got very impatient. I suppose there's a possibility that a book like this could persuade non-vaccinators who belong in her audience, but my experience with anti-vaccine folks is that they're not persuadable by any reasonable means anyway. The book describes how America used to deal with such people, which is via gunpoint.

Not recommended.

Thursday, March 05, 2015

Fictional Leadership

I've often maintained that fiction is as good a source of leadership training as non-fiction, since much non-fiction is written in terms of platitudes and generalities, while fiction frequently presents specific situations. Of course, leaders in fiction are always superb, but humans always learn better from positive examples than from negative examples, so that's not a bad thing.

I was watching the Battlestar Galactica reboot's Hand of God episode the other day with Xiaoqin, and was particularly struck by how great an example of leadership the episode had in the form of commander Adama. We see him in various different roles that illustrate what role leadership plays, and what a great manager should do.

The episode begins with a planning meeting. Adama's role here is simple: he needs the proper diversity of thinking and expertise in the planning stage to design the best plan for the assault on the Cylon base. Note that while the news media loves to consider diversity of races as a proxy for diversity of thinking, here Adama cares very much about having a diverse of mindset. He turns to Starbuck (Kara Thrace) to provide that. Not only that, at the meeting he carefully backs up Starbuck, by telling both Apollo and Colonel Tigh: "With all due respect, none of us are as crazy as Starbuck." There are lots of subtleties about that meeting, including that Starbuck and Tigh hate each other, and Adama is aware of that. Notice how deftly he shuts down the name calling that the two of them were about to start, which would have been unproductive and prevented a good plan for being formed. Leadership is frequently about bringing the right people in the room and managing the context so that you can get the most out of everyone, and this is a great example.

Starbuck is a great pilot. In the arena of technical management, she'd be considered a great tech lead. That made her a natural to lead the assault, but her healing leg meant that she had to be kept out of the fight. Adama convinces Starbuck of this not by giving her an order, but by showing her that her legs are not yet strong enough to  let her perform at her best. This is another great example of leadership as persuasion: it's not enough to say "no, you shouldn't do this." You have to provide examples why.

Then there's the scene where Apollo is up the night before the mission. He's anxious, and already defensive because everyone knows that Starbuck's the best pilot in the fleet but he's having to substitute for her. Adama's aware of this, and carefully steers Apollo's anxieties away from this, providing assurance that he's going to do a great job. He even hands Apollo his personal lucky charm to assist. He then tells Apollo to get some rest in preparation for the mission.

During the execution of the mission, Adama provides leadership mentoring to Starbuck, telling her that once she's laid down the plan, the execution is in the hands of the others, and that her obvious anxiousness would actually undermine the operation if she doesn't retain a good grip on herself in the operations room. Not only does that calm her, he's clearly also grooming her as a future leader.

Finally, when the operation is successful and everyone's celebrating, notice what Adama does. He carefully places himself at the edge of the celebration. He's cheering folks on, and there to receive the lucky charm back from Apollo, but at no point does he attempt to steal the credit for the success. His people are allowed to say to themselves, "We did this great thing!" This is servant leadership at its greatest, and you very rarely see it in real life.

Of course, the fictional universe Adama is in is very stark. Adama isn't racing for the next promotion (there's no one to promote him), and the stakes are high, so it's easier to motivate people to do the right thing. But that's actually not that much different from a startup (getting a promotion at an unsuccessful startup isn't going to do much good). But it's still great to watch a great leader in action, and I can only think of a very small handful of people who in real life could match what Adama did in this episode.

If you haven't already seen this, it's well worth the $1.99 to watch this episode for these leadership lessons. As a technical manager, it's well worth the 44 minutes of your time.

Wednesday, March 04, 2015

Review: Uncommon Stock, Version 1

Business novels are rare, and rightly so. They're impossible to get right, and most are simply downright boring. For instance, I love DeMarco's Peopleware, but The Deadline is boring and insipid. Typically, the best way to get good ideas about leadership and management is to read fiction that's not intended to be about business. (Battlestar Galactica's first two seasons, and any of the Horatio Hornblower series come to mind)

Uncommon Stock, therefore, surprised me in being readable. Not only is it readable, the characters are well-written and not completely stupid. The conflicts between the technical co-founder and the business co-founder is well-done, with very well negotiated scenes, and the exposition about term sheets, venture funding, and angel investors (as well as the worthlessness of startup competitions) is interesting. Complete with the baggage that the startup is about accounting, and you've got challenging material that's surprising that the author managed to make interesting.

There are a few gotchas in the book. The first is that the novel is clearly setup for sequels, and that makes the novel weaker. The author felt obliged to stick in a long running plot-line (some obvious bad guys who are dumb enough to send thugs solo to kill people) that's not resolvable in one novel and that "spices up" the startup process. This betrays a lack of faith in the topic of the novel not being exciting enough by itself. The second is that the fifty-fifty split in a startup is an inherently unstable structure (as Raising The Bar describes), and you'd expect it to cause trouble, but it doesn't.

Regardless, though, the novel is an achievement in that it's interesting to read, doesn't have too many stupidities, and if you don't know much about the startup world, does a good enough job at explaining the necessity of a vesting schedule for founders, for instance. It's worth a quick read.

Mildly recommended.

Tuesday, March 03, 2015

Review: Jamaica Blue Mountain Coffee Costco package

I was intrigued by varying reviews of Jamaican Blue Mountain Coffee, but the priced seemed prohibitive. Costco, however, sells a package where you get 4 pounds of blend and 1 pound of pure coffee for about $60, so I figured it was worth trying once just to see what the most expensive coffee bean in the world tasted like.

The pure Blue Mountain Coffee is pretty good. There's not much of an aroma when you grind the beans, but the taste is very pure. There's almost no bitterness, and there's no need to add milk or sweetener in the coffee: you should just drink it black. In fact, add milk and it doesn't taste as good as the cheap stuff. You can get this for about $30/pound if you don't want to buy it in a package.

I expected the blend to be a step down, being at most 5% of the good stuff. In reality, however, it has many of the characteristics as the pure stuff, with a little bit more bitterness, but not enough for me to want to add milk or sweetener. At $9/pound, it's not bad if you're in the habit of drinking the coffee black.

I think I do enjoy coffee with milk, however, so I'll probably go back to the $5/pound cheap costco coffee in the future.

Monday, March 02, 2015

Review: Macross

Years ago, I wrote a review of the Macross TV series. I wanted to hyperlink to it recently while writing another review, but realized that it came from an old website which I never updated and has now been lost in time. So I'm reposting this review. Macross was one of the best shows out and still holds up well today, and it turns out that my AnimEigo set is now a collector's item. Who knew?

I first saw Macross when I was a kid of about 15 in Singapore, rushing home from school every Thursday evening to try to catch the latest episode, which had been dubbed into Mandarin by the Taiwanese. My brother recently got a DVD player, borrowed the entire TV series (36 episodes) from his friend Jason, and we watched it all over again, this time in the original Japanese with Chinese subtitles. What a difference 13 years make!

Macross is a girl’s story
For some reason, when you’re a kid, you don’t notice that Macross is really a girl’s story. Sure, it’s got giant transforming robots. It’s also got space batttles, lots of neat gadgets, and a cool science fiction plot that stands up even to adult scrutiny (well, the corny parts of the science fiction plot are motivated by the romantic bent of the whole series). But the heart and soul of Macross is the romance between the main characters. Nobody’s motivated by anything else!

The plot revolves around 3 main characters. Hikaru Ichijou, a boy pilot who grows up eventually to be a squadron leader, Linn Minmei (also spelled Lynn MinMay), a school girl of about 16 who wins a beauty contest and goes on to become a pop singer, and Misa Hayase (a good translation might be Lisa Hayes, which the American "Robotech" uses), a flight controller/battle coordinator for the ship, Macross. Of course, there’s a love triangle between them, and how the interaction between the characters play out and whom Hikaru eventually decides in favor of presents the series with its romantic climax. To give you an idea of how unimportant the military climax was, it occurs fully 8 episodes before the end of the series, to give the creators more time to focus on what was obviously dear to their hearts. The science fiction elements of the plot are discussed elsewhere (see below for a collection of links to various home pages), so I won’t go into them in detail.

So, ok, Macross is a trashy romance/soap opera. But if all soap operas were like this I’d watch them. None of the characters are stilted or artificial. Hikaru seems like a dork at times, but he does wake up to his situations and corrects himself. Lynn Minmei seems like your stereotypical cute airhead at first, but even she has to suffer the consequences of her decisions and becomes a stronger person. Misa Hayase seems like a rigid, strictly military person, but she suffers from her own bouts of insecurities and when she eventually gives in to her feelings becomes such a sympathetic character that you find yourself rooting for her. Nobody’s a bad guy (or a bad girl), and character development is handled consistently and with great care. Everybody has to suffer a little in order to grow up, and the primary characters in Macross are not immune to suffering. A common theme seems to be that the characters have to let go of their desires in order to deserve what they desire. But unlike the morality plays you see in Saturday morning cartoons, these themes are handled very subtly (so subtly that they were lost on me, of course, when I was a kid).

How has Macross aged over the last 15 years for me personally? What I’ve found is that the situations I found myself in over the last 10 years or so were in some ways paralleled in Macross. There are lots of little touches, like in the ambiguous way Minmei treats Hikaru throughout most of the series was something I’ve encountered in the Asian dating scene. It is entirely possible that if you're not familiar with how Asian-Asian dating works a very few of the cultural cues might not work for you. There are some poignant moments, like the time when Misa Hayase waits a whole day at a road side cafĂ© for Hikaru, who shows up in the evening after being much delayed. While Misa is waiting, a little friendly dog comes up to her and she looks at him and says, "Hey, you’re alone too." She picks him up and starts feeding him but in the middle of it the dog’s owner (a little girl that we can’t quite see) shouts the dog’s name from across the street and the dog leaps out of Misa’s arms and bounds towards the little girl. Hikaru shows up right after that and the parallels that the preceding scene has with Misa's relationship with Hikaru and Minmei just about broke my heart. These quiet scenes become by far the most powerful ones. They have a haunting quality that sticks with you even after you’re done watching the series.

While technology mostly stays in the background, the characters in Macross are facile with it, and use it naturally as part of day-to-day life. In one episode, for instance, as Hikaru escorts Misa's shuttle towards Earth, he sends a farewell message to her by signalling (in Morse code) with the wing-tip lights on his fighter.

There are quite a number of corny scenes however. Given the series' preoccupation with romance, it shouldn't surprise you that characters find themselves working through their issues while bombs are literally falling around them. But then again, I've already told you that Macross is a trashy romance, haven't I?

One of the things I missed watching the series in Singapore was the end title credits. The end credit sequence shows a helmet, and a photo album. A hand moves in and turns the photo album’s pages, revealing photographs of Minmei, and Minmei and Hikaru. The helmet is a standin for Hikaru’s pilot’s helmet, but what you don’t realize is that the hand moving the photo album isn’t Hikaru’s (the helmet doesn't belong to Hikaru, either)! The scene shows up 28 episodes into the series. The final episode ends with a freeze-frame, and a hand turns the page over to the end of the photo album while the caption comes up "2012: So long!", giving one a sense of closure about the story as a whole. The end theme is also sung by a different performer for the last episode. It is little touches like that that distinguish the long running Japanese/Asian TV series from the American series. It is quite obvious that Macross was a story planned with a beginning, middle, climax, and end right from the start, while American series (except for the mini-series, which don't typically run as long as the Asian series) do not usually have the coherency of a single vision guiding their work.

All TV animation series have to be relatively low budget. Watching all 36 episodes in order in relatively short time gives you a very good sense as to which episodes were important to the producers. There are entire episodes that seem stitched togther from flashbacks in order to either let the audience catch up from the previous episode or in order to meet a deadline. Then there are episodes like the military climax, or the last 4 episodes of the series, where the producers pull out all stops---the machines and ships look almost real, and the women and men look gorgeous. It almost looks as if Misa Hayase underwent a facelift in the last 8 episodes of the series! Even in the best-drawn episodes, however, budget seems a primary consideration: you can definitely recognize battle scenes that have been cut and spliced from previous episodes. However, don’t let this deter you—even the badly drawn episodes have the virtue that the story line is consistently high quality. There’s an episode devoted to Hikaru’s dream sequence that is hilarious, for instance. It is not at all unusual to find humor thrown into the mix to good effect, and even the serious episodes can have a bit of farce thrown in.

Minmei's singing
A frequent source of derision whenever the Macross comes up among anime fans is Minmei's pop songs. If you like Japanese pop, there's nothing wrong with her performance. Iijima Mari is a pop/idol singer who did voice-acting as Lynn Minmei when she was nineteen (Minmei is 16 at the start of the TV series), so not only was she a good fit for Minmei's voice, she could sing as well. If your exposure to Minmei was through the American dubbed series, you will definitely find Iijima Mari to be at least someone who can hit the notes when she wants to. That said, however, even Iijima Mari is embarrassed about the most overused song in Macross, Watashi no Kare wa Pairotto (My boyfriend is a pilot). Apparently, things that weren't embarrassing to sing when you were nineteen have a way of catching up to you when you're 35. Well, you can always fast-forward through the singing without missing anything.

The background music in Macross is reasonably well-done. In fact, if you watch any kind of Asian television, you will run into some low-budget Taiwanese shows that have "borrowed" background music from Macross. (Presumably, they just cut their background music from the myriad CDs that have sprung up) If you're going to buy a soundtrack album, the movie soundtrack has the best orchestrations.

Is it worth 18 hours?
So how do I feel about spending 18 hours watching this series over a period of a few weeks? I’d do it again. I wouldn’t do it unless I could watch all of it, since you will not be satisfied without getting to know the climax and the ending, and there’s no easy way to skip episodes without missing some character or plot development. There is one catch-up episode around episode 12 that you can skip because it’s used to catch laggards up with the series, and that’s about it. If I had only 2 hours to spend, I’d definitely just watch the last 4 episodes or perhaps the last 8 episodes if I had more time. (These are the "reconstruction of Earth" episodes—other science fiction shows have the heroes saving the world, this one has the heroes failing to save the Earth) These episodes focus almost solely on the romance, but the caveat is that you’ll miss a lot without getting the setup that the first twenty-something episodes give you. For instance, Roy Fokker plays a major part early on in the series, and episode 33 doesn’t make much sense if you don’t know who he is. If you can, watch the series in the original Japanese. Not only is the voice acting much better, but you’ll get a stronger sense of what gets lost in the translation. (I’ll never forgive whoever translated "Merry Christmas" into a long awkward Chinese sentence!) There’s a surprising amount of English in the TV series, too, so you might not find yourself as lost as you might imagine.

The movie
A final word before going into the hyperlinks. The movie isn’t the same story as the TV series. If you’ve seen the movie, it will still be worth your while to watch the TV series, just as it’s worth your while to read a novel of a movie that was made from a novel. There are many plot differences between the movie and the TV series. Outright contradictions are common: in the TV series, Minmei is never kidnapped by the Zentraedi, while in the movie, she was captured and persuades the aliens to return her with her songs! Your feelings about the characters will be much stronger if you watch the TV series. If you had to choose one or the other (and given that the movie’s only 90 minutes but the TV series is 18 hours, they’re not quite comparable), the TV series is definitely better. The movie, as might be expected, has gorgeous animation, and if you want to see the characters drawn at their best, that’s a good place to see them!
Just a note. I've tried to keep spoilers away from this review of Macross in the hopes that you'll go ahead and try to watch it. Some of the hyperlinks below contain spoilers that you might not want to see. (In particular, the compendium site can be very dangerous)
  • The Official Macross Website. Hosted in Japan, this is a very poor site with relatively few stills from the movie or the TV series. However, the description of the characters in "Japlish" is hilarious! If you want to see pictures of the characters I've mentioned, this site contains no spoilers.
  • The Macross Compendium. This is the mother of all fan-sites, and has a chronology as well as explanations of all the varying Macross TV series.