december 2016

12.1.16
We've gone to two Emory women's basketball games in the past week, the second and third home games they've played this season. Usually it's just Will and I, but the game on Sunday was pretty special—Will's whole Cub Scout den attended as part of the fulfillment of a badge requirement, and not only did they announce the den's attendance during the game, the coach even let them come back in the meeting room after the game to talk to the team and take a group picture. Will's beloved Shellie was there, of course, and had a great game, and Will really enjoyed being the know-it-all about the game and the bleachers and the team to his Cub Scout buddies.

The next game was on Tuesday night, and although it was just Will and I, it was still a pretty special game. As she did for the last few games last season, Shellie let Will wear her away jersey. He was a little embarrassed at first and hung out way up high in the bleachers even though there was almost no one there (most Emory sporting events are poorly attended, the women's teams especially so), but he eventually warmed up to it just like he did last season.

After the Cub Scout visit on Sunday, Coach Christy told him that if the team won the next home game he attended, he could come back in the team room again, and she made good on that promise. As a thank you for hosting the Cub Scout den, Will and I had gone to a local gourmet cookie place and gotten a couple of dozen for the team and coaches to share, so he went by himself and distributed them to everyone, leaving the leftovers with Shellie to take back to her roommates.


12.2.16
Since I last wrote about them, the Ravens have lost to the Cowboys—expected by everyone but still a disappointment, especially given that they held their own for the first half—and then won what became a critical must-win game against divisional rivals the Cincinnati Bengals, who they've dropped five straight games to. It helped that A.J. Green wasn't in the lineup, but even still it was a close game, and not the decisive victory they need to convince fans and pundits that they are a legitimate playoff contender.

Up next are the Miami Dolphins, who have reeled off six straight wins and have turned into a likely wildcard team. It almost doesn't bear repeating that this is a must-win game for the Ravens, because every game from here on out will almost have to be a win in order to stay in contention for either the AFC North divisional title or a wild card spot. The schedule doesn't get any easier after that, either, with their next three games coming against New England (at Foxborough), at home against the Eagles, and then finishing with two away games at Pittsburgh and then back to Cincinnati.


12.5.16
On Saturday afternoon, we all went to run a race in the evening in downtown Decatur, which I think is the first 5K I've ever run at night. The reason they ran it after the sun went down was because it was a glow run, where people were encouraged to wear glowing and light up gear (there were plenty of Christmas-themed deocorations in evidence).

I haven't been able to keep up a regular training regimen with all my travel, the busy times at work, and it's even more difficult over the next couple of months with it getting dark so early, so my time was not very fast at all, even for me, and in addition there was also a light rain falling for the entire run. So it was not my favorite run, even though the weather was warmer than you'd expect for this time of year, but it was still fun to go out and do it with Will and Julie (Will had a ball, of course, and he loved the giveaway LED flashlights that also doubled as laser pointers).

On Sunday Will had a Boy Scouts den meeting, and then we headed to church for an early evening service to celebrate the feast of St. Nicholas. This is a pretty casual service in the chapel with mostly singing, but the kids are encouraged to leave their shoes off outside the chapel and in the European traditional St. Nick puts gold foil covered chocolate coins in them during the service. St. Nicholas also made an appearance at the service (Santa dressed up in fancy priest-like vestments) and posed for pictures afterward.

Another busy weekend in a season of busy weekends, but a pretty fun one overall.


12.6.16
The game against the Dolphins on Sunday was their most decisive victory since a 34-14 win over Kansas City last year, and the first time in years I can remember watching Baltimore play and not being worried about the outcome up until the very end. It was a comprehensive victory, with the offense racking up nearly 500 total yards (including Flacco throwing for 381 yards and four touchdowns) and the defense keeping the Dolphins scoreless until the fourth quarter, when Miami recovered a fumble only eight yards from the Ravens' endzone and proceeded to score a touchdown.

I doubt we'll see another game like that this season—it will be tough sledding from here on out—but it was great to have a game like that, especially as the team prepares to meet its most formidable foe this season when they play the Patriots in primetime on Monday night next week.


12.7.16
Okay. It has been a really long time since I've written about what I've been reading (I think the last time I wrote about a book I had read was in April), so that's what we're doing the rest of this week. Here's the list in the order that I read them:

For God, Country, and Coca-Cola—Mark Pendergrast

Don't All Thank Me At Once: The Lost Pop Genius of Scott Miller—Brett Milano

Seveneves—Neal Stephenson

Trouble Boys: The True Story of the Replacements—Bob Mehr

Anathem—Neal Stephenson

The Midnight Assassin: Panic, Scandal, and the Hunt for America's First Serial Killer—Skip Hollandsworth

Neverwhere—Neil Gaiman

Salt: A World History—Mark Kurlansky

Your Favorite Band Is Killing Me: What Pop Music Rivalries Reveal About the Meaning of Life—Steven Hyden

Complicated Game: Inside The Songs Of XTC—Andy Partridge

Rogues' Gallery: The Secret Story of the Lust, Lies, Greed, and Betrayals That Made the Metropolitan Museum of Art—Michael Gross

Arcadia—Iain Pears

Stuff Matters: Exploring the Marvelous Materials That Shape Our Man-Made World—Mark Miodownik

NFL Confidential: True Confessions from the Gutter of Football—Johnny Anonymous

Men with Balls: The Professional Athlete's Handbook—Drew Magary

The Elephant in the Room: A Journey into the Trump Campaign and the "Alt-Right"—Jon Ronson

Annihilation (The Southern Reach Trilogy Book 1)—Jeff VanderMeer

Plane Insanity: A Flight Attendant's Tales of Sex, Rage, and Queasiness at 30,000 Feet—Elliott Hester

The Call of the Weird: Travels in American Subcultures—Louis Theroux

Kanye West Owes Me $300: And Other True Stories from a White Rapper Who Almost Made It Big—Jensen Karp

Authority (The Southern Reach Trilogy Book 2)—Jeff VanderMeer

Acceptance (The Southern Reach Trilogy Book 3)—Jeff VanderMeer

For the purposes of discussion, I'm going to group these into three categories: serious non-fiction, humorous/sports/music non-fiction, and fiction. There are a couple of books that I could throw into either of the non-fiction categories, so where they end up will be more about balancing out those two lists than a strict classification of the material. I'll tackle short reviews of the more serious non-fiction starting with tomorrow's entry.


12.8.16
Here are the books I would classify as more traditional non-fiction and the order I read them in:

For God, Country, and Coca-Cola—Mark Pendergrast

The Midnight Assassin: Panic, Scandal, and the Hunt for America's First Serial Killer—Skip Hollandsworth

Salt: A World History—Mark Kurlansky

Rogues' Gallery: The Secret Story of the Lust, Lies, Greed, and Betrayals That Made the Metropolitan Museum of Art—Michael Gross

Stuff Matters: Exploring the Marvelous Materials That Shape Our Man-Made World—Mark Miodownik

Of all these, the first one about the history of the Coca-Cola company was the best, and not just because of my bias towards the material from living in Atlanta the past few years and working for an insitution that has benefitted greatly from the generosity of various CEOs of Coke. The writing strong, the story was compelling, and the narrative the author created did justice to the world-changing company whose birth and evolution he was documenting. And although he gives the company due credit for their industry-defining work in distribution, sales, and marketing, this is not a company-sanctioned piece of propaganda—it's a warts-and-all history that has plenty of negatives about the company and the people who ran it.

The two best after that one were Midnight Assassin and Stuff Matters, but they each had their negatives too. The Midnight Assassin was compellingly written, describing a series of brutal, ritualistic murders that occured in and near Austin, Texas near the end of the 19th century, prior to the Jack the Ripper murders in London. And the reason it was ultimately frustrating is not really the author's fault: the murders were never solved, and there was never a clear motive for the killings. He makes a compelling case for this being the first documented serial killer, but there are even fewer clues to the identity and motives of this killer than there were for Jack the Ripper.

Stuff Matters was sometimes brilliant and sometimes awful. The conceit the author (a material sciences researcher) used was to have each chapter focused on an everyday material and then talk about the history of that substance and how it shaped our culture. This worked brilliantly for some of the materials, like glass, concrete, and especially chocolate, but he made the unfortunate choice to structure the chapter on celluloid like a screenplay, which just didn't work. Overall, though, this was a book that I'd definitely recommend.

Salt and Rogue's Gallery both had promising subjects, but these books didn't manage to tell great stories about them. I know there's a fantastic narrative about how salt has shaped our history, culture, and politics, but while the hints and outlines of that narrative may be present somewhere in this book, this is more a raw cataloging of the uses and importance of salt without a compelling narrative to knit all the pieces together. Similarly, Rogue's gallery goes into too much detail about cataloging the various acquisitions and expansions of the Met (and the accompanying board politics), but the most interesting parts of the story of this institution get buried under an avalanche of details that essentially amount to "a bunch of ridiculously rich people squabbling with each other". Again, there's a fascinating story somewhere in here, but this work is too dry and preoccupied with the transactional aspects of the museum.


12.9.16
Up for discussion today: non-fiction in the music, sports, and humor categories. Here's the order I read them in:

Don't All Thank Me At Once: The Lost Pop Genius of Scott Miller—Brett Milano

Trouble Boys: The True Story of the Replacements—Bob Mehr

Your Favorite Band Is Killing Me: What Pop Music Rivalries Reveal About the Meaning of Life—Steven Hyden

Complicated Game: Inside The Songs Of XTC—Andy Partridge

NFL Confidential: True Confessions from the Gutter of Football—Johnny Anonymous

Men with Balls: The Professional Athlete's Handbook—Drew Magary

The Elephant in the Room: A Journey into the Trump Campaign and the "Alt-Right"—Jon Ronson

Plane Insanity: A Flight Attendant's Tales of Sex, Rage, and Queasiness at 30,000 Feet —Elliott Hester

The Call of the Weird: Travels in American Subcultures—Louis Theroux

Kanye West Owes Me $300: And Other True Stories from a White Rapper Who Almost Made It Big—Jensen Karp

Interestingly, I seem to have gone through these books clustered by categories—music, sports, and humor (although both of the sports books have a pretty humorous viewpoint)—even though in the big picture view of my reading they were interspersed with other works of non-fiction and fiction.

All of the music books were great, although each in their own way. The Replacements book was probably the one that would work for non-Replacements nerds in terms of telling a compelling rock band story without needing to have every bit of minutiae about the band's music for context, while the other biography of Game Theory's Scott Miller was a bit more for fans only. Complicated Game was a conversational style rumination on two or three XTC songs from each album they released that also wove in stories about the people in the band, and it was great for getting to hear frontman Andy Partridge's voice firsthand. Your Favorite Band Is Killing Me was for general music nerds, but it was entertaing and funny and had some larger insights about how communities are formed and what they mean to the individuals in them.

Both of the sports books were meant to be funny, but as much as I like Drew Magary's writing on Deadspin, this book felt a little forced and bloated. There are still some funny bits, but overall there was a lot more filler than you get in his columns (his annual review of what's terrible about each NFL team is one punchline after another from start to finish). NFL Confidential was a great read if you're a fan of the league, especially a morally conflicted one due to any number of negatives: injuries, drugs, big money, big egos, etc. It's told by an anonymous current backup lineman in the NFL, and it has a lot of great behind-the-scenes stories of life in the modern NFL from the perspective of the players.

The last four books all fall into the humor category generally, but they each deal with a subtopic within the overall genre: politics, an insider's view of a particular industry, a journalist's interactions with people who are members of extreme subcultures, and the music industry. All except for Plane Insanity were worthwhile reads—the writing in that book feels like it's at an 11th grade level, which might have been tolerable if the stories were more interesting. But frankly, most of these supposedly industry insider stories are ones you've heard before if you just read the news regularly (in fact, a lot of the book was actually reprints of AP wire stories related to air rage, etc.).

Call of the Weird was probably the best of the remaining bunch, although there were problems with the self-serious and hyper self-aware tone. I never saw the shows that spawned this book (where the author revisits the subjects of his television series a few years later), but it wasn't necessary to have that background to appreciate this book. Kanye West Owes Me $300 was the most unexpectedly good: it's an autobiography by a Jewish kid from California who came this close to being a massive rap artist on the level of Eminem, and it combines unique insights into the music industry with a self-depricating humor that made it a pleasure to read.


12.12.16
I'm actually going to save half this list for tomorrow—three of the books are composed of the Southern Reach trilogy, and I just finished the final book, so I'm going to do a post just for that series. Otherwise, here are the fiction books I read interspersed with all the non-fiction:

Seveneves—Neal Stephenson

Anathem—Neal Stephenson

Neverwhere—Neil Gaiman

Arcadia—Iain Pears

Gaiman and Stephenson are both old favorites, and each book was a great read in its own way. Seveneves is Stephenson's latest, and it's his most classic/hard sci fi ever. It concerns an extinction-level event that forces humanity to create an ark for the species in a pretty short amount of time, and then what happens to the survivors a few centuries later. I enjoyed it despite the enormous plot holes, but the hastily put together ending was probably the most frustrating aspect. It's as if he had a much longer work in mind, but then got bored just as he was going to start writing book two of a mapped out trilogy and shoved about half the events that could have gone into book two into side stories in the last third of this book, and then just decided not to write book three at all. But I did get to work a lot of orbital mechanics jargon into casual everyday conversations as a result of the first half of the book, so I guess there's that.

I've owned Anathem for a while, but I could never bring myself to start it because other Stephenson fans warned me that it was one of his most dense and complex (which, if you've read a Stephenson book, is saying something). And it is one of his most difficult to penetrate, but it's also overall his most rewarding and substantial book. I've never re-read a Stephenson book—it feels like such an accomplishment just to get through one the first time—but I have a feeling this novel is one that will pay dividends if I revisit it at some point. Not recommended as your gateway into Stephenson—Cryptonomicon is still your best starting point for this author—but an amazing work that is worth the investment of time.

Neverwhere is full of all the charming, weird things that the charming and weird Gaiman has made his signature. Reading through it, it seemed like his most ready for translation to a televsion series or a movie, so I wasn't really surprised when I discovered that it had originally been written for the small screen and that Gaiman had then adapted it into a novel so he could include all the stuff they didn't have time to or couldn't afford to do for the show. This wouldn't be a bad place to start if you're new to Gaiman, but it's a great read whether you're familiar with his work or not.

I've never read anything by Iain Pears before, but Arcadia was pretty enjoyable. It's a bit complicated to explain, but it weaves different narrative timelines and characters together in a way that gives you some sense that these things are interconnected while slowly revealing those connections, and although there are probably some pretty sizable problems with the science that he uses to drive the plots, it's no worse than most fantasy-infused sci fi, and again, it's a fun read, so completely excusable. Just don't think about it too much and you'll be fine. This found a happy spot somewhere between the uber-complexity of Stephenson's Anathem and the lightweight goofiness of Scott Meyer's Off to Be the Wizard series.


12.13.16
The other three works of fiction that I've read in the past few months were part of the Southern Reach trilogy, which consists of Annihilation, Authority, and Acceptance. I decided to read Annihilation because I discovered that it is currently being adapted into a movie by Alex Garland, the screenwriter of 28 Days Later and Sunshine and the director of one of my favorite sci fi movies, Ex Machina. Just knowing he had chosen this as his next project was enough to get me to give it a try, and then once I had finished Annihiliation, I wanted to see how it all wrapped up.

Annihilation itself is a decent read, although there's a lot of weirdness and unanswered questions to entice you to keep pushing through the other two books. The tone was a little sterile and distant, but that matched the main character (I won't go so far as to call her the protagonist) and seemed like an intentional style choice.

The problem with the overall trilogy, however, is that it doesn't really answer any of the questions or solve any of the mysteries in any sort of conclusive way, and it takes an awful long time to do so. Yes, by the time you finish book 3, you understand a little more about Area X, a mysterious section of a secluded coastline that has been home to strange happenings for decades, but you still don't know what it is, whether and how it is expanding, what its purpose is, and whether or not it can be contained. And quite frankly, the marginal amount of extra information you get from the final two books compared to the first just isn't worth it given that you're never really given a character to root for and you're never given any definitive answers on the nature of Area X. And that's sort of where you were at the end of the first book, so it just wasn't a good time trade-off for me.

One thing I have to give the writer credit for with the second book, however, is the strong sense of paranoia he was able to bring to the page, and the sense of unreality and weirdness around banal events and interactions in a bureaucratic workplace. In the same way that I had to stop reading House of Leaves occasionally to get a grip on the horror of everyday architecture, I had to put this one down a few times to get some equilibrium back so I didn't end up going into the office with the same sense of dread that was evoked by the main character of this book once he reallized that everything at his workplace was not what it seemed.

But overall, the trilogy is not worth the payoff because there is no payoff. Annihilation is interesting as a standalone object, but I beg of you, no matter how much you may like that book, DO NOT finish the trilogy. You will be disappointed, and you will likely end up resenting and disliking the first book because of the sense that it tricked you into reading the other two.


12.14.16
Julie's mom arrived last week for a visit, and so the weekend was spent doing Christmas-related activities with her. We rarely see her during Christmas because she spends that with her brothers and sisters in North Carolina, and we don't travel up there for the holidays too much more, and she doesn't like competing with the crowds at our house for Thanksgiving, so she will usually come for a several-day visit in early December to fit in an extended holiday visit with Will.

There was cookie making, breakfast with Santa, and an early present exchange with Grandma, and Will loved all of it. That's one thing I really like about him—all of his grandparents are very different in terms of interaction style, and he really doesn't seem to have any preferences—he loves all of them, and gets equally excited about spending time with any of them.

We also went out to get our tree while she was here. The lot we usually go to at a local church didn't have many trees left, but we found a decent one that was simultaneously fat (it didn't really taper much as it progressed from bottom to top) and sparse (there were some big gaps between some of the layers of branches). But once we got lights on it, it looked pretty good.


12.15.16
As most prognositcators had predicted, the Ravens lost their game in New England against the Patriots, which makes their path to the playoffs that much harder.

They usually do much better in that environment even when they lose, but this game was much more of a blowout than the score indicated. The final score was 30-23, but it could have easily been 35+ for the Patriots and fewer than 10 points for the Ravens. Two turnovers gave the Ravens great field position which led to quick touchdowns and simultaneously meant that New England didn't score on those possessions.

The Ravens still technically control their fate—if they win out, they will win the AFC North and be guaranteed the third or fourth seed and at least one home game—but it just doesn't feel like they have all the piece they need to be a genuine playoff contender this year, and even if they make it to the playoffs, I don't see them making it to the conference championship game, much less the Super Bowl.

It would be nice to see them in the postseason again so the younger players could get some experience in that high pressure environment, and of course I'd be thrilled to watch those games as a fan, but there's a long way to go before I can start to get excited about that possibility.


12.16.16
We hit our first major milestone of the admission cycle yesterday, releasing our Early Decision 1 decisions, and for the first time my team was completely responsible for every aspect of it—we released the decision letters in a student portal in a system we've been implemeting for the past couple of years and just this summer got permission to move this part of the process into our system from the main student information system.

It's been a strange few months at work—we have a new president, and several high-level roles with interim or new hires, including the two people my boss reports to, and everyone is a little bit off their game because we're distracted by all the chaos and change that's happening above us. And we saw a little bit of this during this decision release—typically about half the counseling staff, the dean, and all the leadership elements in the office are present for the actual moment when decisions are shared with students online at 6 p.m., but this year, for the first time since I've been at this institution, it was just my team and a couple of counselors.

The process went off without a hitch, which made the absence of other staff members more disappointing—this is the first time that the process was wholly in the hands of our office, and it was more momentous because of that, because it was the culmination of a couple years of work to build this new system and convince the central IT unit to let us move more and more of our process into that system. I know not to take it personally because everyone is so burned out right now, but I'm really proud of what we've accomplished, and it would have been great to have the rest of the office acknowledge that at this critical moment.


12.19.16
The Ravens kept their playoff hopes alive with a win over the Eagles on Sunday, but even though it was a win, it featured what has been a chronic problem for this team over the past couple of seasons: the inability of the offense to chew up clock with extended drives in the fourth quater while protecting a lead, and the inability of the defense (which otherwise has been pretty outstanding this season) to prevent the other team from scoring in the fourth quarter.

After starting off the quarter with a touchdown drive to put them up 27-17 with 11 minutes left to play, the other two offensive series (other than the final meaningless one with only four seconds left) were a three and out that only used up 43 seconds and a four play drive the ended with an interception and only used up a minue and a half of clock time. Philadelphia, meanwhile, scored a field goal and a touchdown in while using up just five and a half minutes.

If you're doing the math but didn't see the game, you're probably wondering how Baltimore could have won 27-26 when the Eagles were down by 10 and scored a field goal and a touchdown, which should have given them 10 points and a tie which would have sent the game to overtime. It's not because the Ravens blocked the point after attempt—no, it's because Philadelphia decided to go for two points and the win with only four seconds left in regulation, and they didn't convert. It was a gutsy move but a stupid one—they were pretty much guaranteed to force overtime with an extra point, and even if their conversion rates on two point attempts is high, it's still nowehere near the extra point conversion rate.

But a win is a win, so I'll take it, even if it was more about the Eagles' stupidity than Baltimore's ability to stop them. Now everything comes down to the Christmas Day game against the Steelers in Pittsburgh—if the Ravens win that game, they still aren't guaranteed a trip to the playoffs, but it does mean that the Ravens still control their fate, because even if they end up with the same record as the Steeles, they will hold the tiebreaker because Baltimore will have beaten them twice this season. But if the Ravens lose, that's it—the Steeles win the AFC North and Baltimore is pretty much out of the playoff hunt.


12.20.16
Will had his first basketball game over the weekend, and overall I'd say that the experiment with this sport is going pretty well compared to soccer. He's much more engaged during practice, and he's eager to get his hands on the ball during the game. He came really close to scoring a basket during this game (a rarity—I think our team scored two baskets and the other team scored four), and he hasn't complained about not wanting to practice like he did for soccer.

He also had a rehearsal for the Christmas pageant on Sunday, followed by us hosting a bunch of his preschool friends and their parents that afternoon for a cookie decorating party and pizza for dinner. That was pretty chaotic—we think we had 18 people total in the house, including nine kids, and while Will has sometimes had one or two friends over at a time, this is the first time he's had to deal with that many kids in his space playing with his toys (although he's done plenty of play dates with this group of kids at other people's houses).

He was a bit overwhelmed, and he had a couple of meltdowns/freakouts, but overall I think it was a pretty successful evening. It will be even better if we can host sometime when the weather's warm—then the grown ups will have more room to spread out by using our screen porch, and the kids can tear around the backyard without as much worrying from Will about his room and his toys.


12.21.16
This is my final post of 2016, coinciding with my final day of work for the year. I'm bummed out about this year for a number of reasons—the transition at my institution and the incoming new president chief among them—but in my own little world with Julie and Will, it's been a pretty great year, and I'm trying to focus on that rather than the external things like work issues and politics.

I hope my family continues to grow and be strong together in the new year, and that the larger collectives I'm a part of—my office, my city, my state, my country—can find a way to get along and work together to weather the storms of these troubled times.

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