september 2017

9.1.17
I haven't written much about the Ravens this offseason, but I have been keeping up with the team as obsessively as ever. They did pretty well with their pickups in the draft and free agency, signing a new experienced wide receiver (Jeremy Maclin) to replace the retired Steve Smith, and also picking up a star strong safety (Tony Jefferson) to pair with last year's addition Eric Weddle. If the starters can stay healthy, this secondary could go from being our biggest weakness over the past five years to one of the strongest elements of the team.

But the injuries. Oh man, the injuries. There have been so many, with two medical issues leading to the retirement of two otherwise healthy and productive players (Dennis Pitta and Zachary Orr) and countless other injuries leading to missing time in training camp or ending the season for players before they've played an official down. There are two many of these to list, but the highlights include quarterback Joe Flacco (who hasn't practiced yet in training camp and who hasn't played a single preseason snap), our left tackle, and our new free agent pass-catching running back.

So whiile the first team defense has looked pretty sharp in the preason, what should be our first team offense—wide receivers, running backs, quarterback, and offensive line—haven't played together as a unit either in a preseason game or even in practice. Which means that not only may the offense have not gotten any better—the real weak spot for the team last year—they may actually be worse, especially for the first few games when they're all working out their timing, etc.

We open up the season in Cincinnati, where we haven't won since 2011, trying to not only figure out how to put points on the board from something other than 50+ yard field goals from Justin Tucker, but also trying to contain a primary divisional nemesis in A.J. Green, who our own coach has called the best receiver in football.

This is the time of year when you're supposed to be your most optimistic as a fan, but this first game is going to be pretty important in terms of setting the tone for this team. Can the defense be as dominant as it's supposed to be and give the offense great field position? And even if they do, can the offense take advantage and put any points on the board?

Losing to the Bengals certainly wouldn't be a death knell for the season, but it would be great to start with a win against a division rival where we haven't won in years and shake that monkey off our back, and would set us up well for September—if we play well, we ought to be able to beat the Browns in our home stadium and the Jaguars in London. And being up 3-0 would make the fourth game, against the Steelers in Pittsburgh, a little less of a must-win in terms of preserving our playoff chances this season.


9.5.17
UGA played their opening game of the season on Saturday against Appalachian State, and while Appalachian wasn't exactly supposed to be a challenge for the ranked Georgia team, but we still had some interesting things happen during the game.

First: UGA won decisively, and it wasn't never close. This is a change from previous UGA teams, who tended to play down to the level of their opponents and could have some real nailbiters (and even losses) to lower-quality unranked teams. When Kirby Smart took over this team last year, they still had moments like that even though Smart was supposed to bring more of the discipline and consistency from his years as the defensive coordinator at Alabama. Well, he seems to have finally taken full ownership of the locker room culture and player expectations, because the wild and woolly Georgia team of years past was nowhere to be found.

The defense was very sharp, and the offense was good enough, especially considering that they lost the second year starter, Jacob Eason, very early in the game to injury, and he had to be replaced with rookie quarterback Jake Fromm, who is still learning the playbook and the system. Granted, they have two amazing running backs who they can (and did) rely on to drive the offense, but Fromm had some great moments, and if Eason is out for an extended period, he shouldn't be a liability to the team's ability to score points.

Their first significant game will come next week when they play Notre Dame in South Bend, but UGA needed to have an unquestioned win here as a warm up for the real season, and that's exactly what they delivered on both sides of the ball.


9.6.17
Over the holiday weekend, we took it pretty easy. Julie and Will ran some errands on Saturday, and then we went out to dinner at Holy Taco, one of our favorite places in Atlanta that we would probably go to a lot more often if it was a little closer (it's over in East Atlanta). Will branched out and tried a chorizo quesadilla with roasted poblanos, which he seemed to like pretty well. We followed that with a trip to Morelli's for ice cream, another favorite that we haven't been to in a while.

On Sunday we took our annual trip to the Decatur Book Festival, which is still billed as the largest book festival in the world even though it seems to get a little bit smaller every year. We walked, as usual for our trips to Decatur, and we ended up spending about three hours altogether. There was one writer speaking on Sunday afternoon whose books I've read, but we couldn't quite make it to his session—Will started to tire out, so we decided to head back home.

Monday we stayed around the house, but we did walk down to dinner in Emory Village. It was Will's turn to pick, and he surprisingly chose Dave's Cosmic Subs, where we get takeout every now and then but we've only actually eaten at two or three times. Will tried a spicy chicken sub and liked it pretty well, especially with jalapeno chips.

It was nice to have a pretty low key weekend heading into the start of the intense part of our work year. I'm not planning to travel as much as I have the past couple of years, but there are still a lot of projects to get done over the next few months, and this long weekend will be my only real break until the holidays.


9.7.17
I just finished reading Lab 257: The Disturbing Story of the Government's Secret Plum Island Germ Laboratory by Michael Carroll, which is about animal disease/germ warfare research lab that has been in place on an island off the northeastern end of Long Island since the 1940s.

Overall it was a worthwhile read, especially if you're interested in government coverups/conspiracies that have some basis in truth. There were some parts of the book that were very well done and some others that were less than compelling or less thoroughly researched (although, to be fair, that's likely because witnesses were unwilling to talk, records were not produced under Freedom of Information requests, or the records had just plain been destroyed).

The were two areas where the author shined: first, with a general history of the island and the animal disease research facility that was installed there had strong links to German scientists who were not just interested in developing vaccines and cures, but who also wanted to weaponize viruses that could harm both livestock and humans as elements of germ warfare. The other well-documented and well-written section of the book had to do with recreating an event during a hurricane when the containment systems for the island failed, which directly infected several workers with dangerous diseases and which could have also exposed local populations of animals and people to those same viruses.

The dicier parts of the book have to do with the author's speculation about outbreaks at the lab that he was not able to document as well, all of which are solidly in conspiracy theory territory. The most plausible of these were outbreaks of foreign animal viruses on Long Island that, based on germ vector regression, point to the eastern end of Long Island as their source, and which wiped out local commercial farms of sheep and ducks. The next two concern weaponized anthrax and the West Nile Virus, both of which the author claims were researched at Plum Island with some evidence that the releasing of West Nile into the wild and the terrorist use of anthrax have some links to the disease research center.

The most exotic conspiracy theory, which is both the one you are most likely to find by googling Plum Island and the one with the least amount of evidence to back it up, is that Lyme disease was a custom virus created on Plum Island that accidentally escaped by way of ticks that were infected with it attaching themselves to deer and birds who then took it back to mainland Connecticut (Old Lyme, where the disease first appeared, is just north of Plum Island across the sound, and there is documented evidence of animals making their way from the island to the shores of Connecticut).

Aside from these less-well-documented chapters, the book's other weakness is the repetitive nature of the final chapters, where the author documents repeated failures in containment/facilities and lays out his solutions for how to either shut down to the facility, or how to drive the government to reinvest in bringing the facility up to modern biocontainment standards. He also spends a lot of time on the personal politics of the various directors, and his animosity towards them sometimes clouds what might have otherwise been more objective reporting.

Despite my occasional frustrations with this author, the book overall had a lot of compelling evidence that Plum Island needs more transparency, better facilities, and better security in order to protect the public from potential disaster. Whether you believe that the lab is involved in germ warfare meant to be used against humans, or whether you think they are sticking to their stated mission of trying to cure pervasive and destructive animal diseases in order to protect our commercial herds, the work being done there is potentially catastrophic if there is a loss of containment, and right now it appears as if the government is not supporting the facility appropriately.


9.8.17
What a great start to the NFL season: the Patriots got walloped by the Chiefs in New England, with Kansas City racking up more yards and scoring more points against the Patriots since Belichick became the coach in New England.

Of course I'm more concerned with how the Ravens are going to do on Sunday, but a loss (especially a brutal one) for New England or Pittsburgh sure do a lot to lift my mood.


9.11.17
...


9.12.17
It's going to be mostly sports posts this week, so prepare yourself. Before we get to that, however, I want to mention our Saturday night adventure to see Atlanta's annual Lantern Parade on the BeltLine. We went to this last year with our friends Connie and Jeff and their son Noah, and our strategy then was to go to Ponce City Market prior to the start of the parade, eat something at one of the places there, and then head up to the BeltLine to watch the parade.

That was pretty chaotic, however, so this year we decided to be a little more low key and start with dinner at Slice & Pint in Emory Village before heading over to see the parade. We got there a little later than we wanted to, and parking was really hard to find, but eventually we both found spots and met up at the entrance to the market. By the time we got up to the BeltLine, a lot of people were leaving, but we still saw a good 30 minutes or so of the parade, and then hung around for a while longer and saw some of the leaders of the parade head back past on their way to the start of the route.

Next year I'd like to plan ahead enough to actually participate in the parade, so we might show up very early to get dinner and then get our lanterns out of the car so we could join in as it starts to make its way past Ponce City Market.

Okay, back to sports. Let's start with the UGA game against Notre Dame, which was both their first away game of the season and their first game against a ranked opponent.

It was a great, great game, made even moreso by the fact that UGA ended up the victor. The final score was 20-19, and the victory was sealed when the Georgia defense sacked the Notre Dame quarterback, caused a fumble, and then recovered the ball. Both teams fought hard—neither team ever led by more than a single score—and while the rookie quarterback for UGA had some impressive moments in his second game, it was really the Georgia defense that shined and alllowed the team to take the win.

Next week is another gimme game against the unranked Samford, but Georgia needs to make sure those gimmes are solid wins if they want to stay in the conversation for the national championship. We'll see where they land in the revised rankings this week, but you'd hope that a win against another nationally ranked team would help them move up a few spots.


9.13.17
We fared pretty well personally when the remnants of Irma came through Atlanta—even though our neighborhood is filled with large old trees, we only had the power flicker a few times, and when it went out it came back on within a minute.

We prepared as if we were going to lose power for a day or two—we put all our frozen stuff in the downstairs freezer, packed it it further with bags of ice, and set it to the coldest setting—and Julie also made sure we had water, batteries, etc. We kept waiting for the other shoe to drop, but it never did.

The rest of the city, and even parts of our neighbhorhood, were not so fortunate. My workplace was closed Monday and Tuesday, and Will's school is still out today (not because his school specifically is damaged or out of power, but because around 60 schools in the district aren't yet ready to hold classes, and there's still so much debris on the road that traffic is an even bigger nightmare than usual, which would make it difficult for the buses to get students to school).

I don't know why our part of our neighborhood fared so well—perhaps it's proximity to a university and to a hospital, which presumably have more redundant connections to the power grid, or maybe it's that we had some very intense storms last year that took out some pretty big, pretty old trees—but whatever the reason, I'll take it. I suspect that power won't fully be restored in the city until sometime next week, and it could be weeks more before all the trees are cleaned up.


9.13.17
My first sporting even on Sunday was attending the first home Atlanta United game since July. That game was played at Georgia Tech's Bobby Dodd football stadium, but all the games going forward will be played at the brand new Mercedes-Benz Stadium, which was built for the Falcons but which will also be home to Atlanta United (both teams are owned by Arthur Blank, one of the founders of Home Depot).

There have been a couple of college football games that have been played at the stadium over the past few weeks, and at least one preseason game for the Falcons, but the United's game against FC Dallas was the first game played in the stadium by a professional sports team during the regular season. I normally ride the MARTA with a friend and his son (we have three season tickets together), but he was celebrating his wedding anniversary and was out of town, so I instead chaperoned his sister (who was visiting from England) and his son to the inaugural game at the stadium.

We got there earlier so we could look around, and it really is impressive. Not only is everything shiny and new, but the architecture is stunning up close, and the staggering amount of glass used on the exterior lets natural light shine through no matter where you are in the fully enclosed stadium, which is a nice change from the traditional sports domes. There were tons of unique concessions, and they were cheap too—three bottles of water and a bag of popcorn cost less than two bottles of water at Bobby Dodd (and, wonder of wonders, we got to keep our bottlecaps!).

The game was excellent as well. Both Atlanta and Dallas are aggressive on offense, which sometimes leaves the defense exposed, but while there were plenty of shots on goal from both teams, the final score was a shutout for Atlanta, 3-0. The first goal came about 15 minutes into the game, the second just after halftime, and the third with about 20 minutes left. Dallas definitely had their opportunities, but the home field advantage and the adrenaline from opening up a new luxury stadium probably helped.


9.14.17
Sunday was also opening day for the NFL, so as soon as the Atlanta United game was over, I rushed back home to watch my Ravens play their opener, an away game in Cincinnati against the hated Bengals, who they haven't beaten in Cincinnati since 2011.

There were a lot of question marks for this team going into the regular season, especially on offense, where the biggest issue was our veteran quarterback—Flacco hasn't played a snap in the preseason and didn't even start practicing with the team until the beginning of September. But we were also starting an offensive line that hasn't played together much all training camp, a running back corps with no clear bellcow, and a trio of starting wide receivers who haven't gotten any significant time with the passer since the spring.

The defense was less of a question mark—there were many returning players, and the two biggest free agent additions to the secondary (a cornerback and a safety) are both durable, proven veterans—but even still you never really know what to expect from a team until you see them on the field in a real game for the first time.

But man oh man was this game an epic way to start the season. The defense crushed it, forcing turnovers five times (four interceptions and a forced fumble) and sacking Andy Dalton five times (one of which led to that forced fumble), leading to a shut out on the road. The offense wasn't spectacular, but it did what it needed to do, scoring a touchdown and a field goal after two of the turnovers and scoring another touchdown and field goal on normal drives.

The most impressive thing was that, while the run game wasn't spectactular, it did what it needed to do with a lead: ate up lots of clock and led to some points. Flacco only passed four times in the second half, but the Ravens offense had the ball close to two thirds of the second half, including one monster drive that ate up almost ten minutes of clock.

All in all, it was a very encouraging start to the season. Next week they play the Browns in Baltimore, which should be an easy win but which becomes a must-win simply because it's so winnable. They have the challenge of playing game 3 in London the following week and then have to play the Steelers in Pittsburgh in week 4, and simply because of the jet lag and other issues associated with playing in London, it would be great to head into the Steelers game with a 3-0 record.


9.15.17
Even though we didn't lose power, Will's school didn't get back into session until today because so many of the schools in the district eithere didn't have power, were damaged in some way, or the bus routes were impassable.

We split watching him on Wednesday, and I watched him yesterday while I got as much work done from home as I could. This meant he got a lot more screen time than usual, but I think even he was starting to get bored with it after four days straight.

Luckily we got one of his Kiwi Crates yesterday afternoon, so we spent a couple of hours doing all the activities in it. The theme was learning about the human body, so we built a stethoscope, made felt organs for the heart, brain, and stomach (including googly eyes and happy faces), and did x-rays with a sheet of glow in the dark construction paper.

After that he spent some time playing with Cozmo's new update, which features some tamagochi-like features that require the owner to keep his energy and happiness levels at a certain level each day to earn coins that you can spend on bonus features.

We've luckily been keeping up with his homework all week, because when they announced that school would be open today, his teacher sent a note that their weekly spelling test would be given as usual. Will was also selecting to be the first class scientist, where you have to choose from a book of experiments and demo one for the rest of the class. Will chose a homemade lava lamp that uses water, oil, food coloring, and a bubbling tablet, and since we've practiced it four or five times since last Friday, he was all ready to go despite the time away from school.

He had fun being out of school, but he was definitely ready to get back into his routine and see his friends again, and it was nice for us to have a day to focus on work where we didn't have to figure out who was going to watch him. I think we're all looking forward to getting past the aftereffects of this storm and having life get a little bit more back to normal.


9.15.17
The second Atlanta United game in Mercedes-Benz Stadium was on Wednesday night, and it might have been the craziest game we've seen all season. We were playing the New England Revolution, who have not won a road game all season.

The game started off with a bang, with Atlanta scoring in the first two minutes. This was swiftly followed by lots of dirty plays from New England that resulted in two yellow cards in the first 15 minutes, two red cards before half time (each issued to a player who didn't already have a yellow card). Josef Martinez, who scored the goal in the second minute for Atlanta, also got two penalty kicks after his shots on goal were blocked by non-goalies using their hands to swat the ball away, and he made both of those shots.

All this meant that, going into halftime, Atlanta was up 3-0 and New England was down to nine players for the remainder of the match. Some teams would have played a slower, less aggressive second half, but Atlanta didn't let up, and the final score ended up 7-0 (Atlanta's second straight home shutout). This was the most goals ever scored by Atlanta, and not only did New England not score, they didn't even have any shots on goal.

Funny sidenote: Atlanta United and New England Revolution are owned by Arthur Blank and Robert Kraft, who also happen to own the Atlanta Falcons and the New England Patriots—the two teams that met in the Super Bowl this year. Now I'm sure that Blank would much rather have had a championship come out of a 28-3 lead with barely more than one quarter left to play, but it had to be somewhat satisfying to have his other team give such a thorough ass-kicking to the companion MLS team from the owner who beat his Falcons in February.


9.18.17
Will has started taking piano, and he had his second lesson on Saturday morning. He's doing pretty well with practicing so far, although he's already falling into one of the traps that contributed to me not being such a great piano player—he reads the music just enough to plink out the song one note at a time on the keys, and then quickly memorizes it. So he's playing it correctly, and his hands are learning the muscle memory for chords and sequences, but he's not really learning to sight read music.

I don't necessarily want to discourage this or to have him think that having a good memory is a negative—it will serve him well in many, many circumstances in life—but I do want him to gain that essential skill of being able to read music fluidly and to hear the notes in his head as he's reading them, so that he doesn't have to pick out the notes on a keyboard to know what the song is going to sound like. His teacher suggested covering his hands sometimes while he's playing, so that he's developing muscle memory but his eyes will be on the sheet music and not looking for visual patterns on the keys themselves. That might work—we'll have to try it and see.

But I am very glad that so far he seems interested in practicing and seems really excited about learning new songs. Julie was a really good piano player, and as much as I love music, it's one of the great tragedies of my life that I can't read music or play an instrument.

I've been thinking of re-learning along with him for his first couple of years, and intentionally trying to do things the hard way so I can finally learn to read music (the teenage me was very interested in learning how to play but was also interested in doing my lessons in the most time-efficient way possible, so I only practiced just enough to get over the minimum homework requirements for my next lesson).


9.19.17
It was another sports-heavy weekend, starting with yet another Atlanta United game on Saturday night. Unlike the previous three games in the new Mercedes-Benz stadium, they opened up the third level of seats and ended up selling over 70,000 tickets, which set an MLS record for single-game attendance.

The crowd noise was a lot louder too, not just because there were 25,000 more people there than normal, but also because the banners they drape around the third level to hide the empty seats at other games really put a damper on the acoustics, absorbing a lot of the sound waves before they could bounce around and get amplified.

They were playing Orlando, who got off to an early lead after about 10 minutes, but Atlanta came back to score a goal (after getting close so many times) in minute 36. However, three minutes later Orlando came back with their second goal, taking the lead again. After halftime, Atlanta tied it up in minute 55, only to have Orlando score their third goal three minutes later. Finally, in minute 69, Atlanta tied it up at 3-3 and that's how the game would end.

It was a really excited match—both teams played very quickly and very aggressively, and Orlando was very tight in their man coverage. Although a win would have been better, a tie still gave Atlant one point in the standings and keeps them solidly in the top 6 in their division and likely headed for the playoffs. They have five home games left (and two on the road), and if they came come away with wins in half those games, it's very possible that they'll be in the top three finishers in their division.


9.20.17
On Sunday we made our first trip to see the Braves in their new home in Suntrust Park. It was a special day for the Cub Scouts, and we got there very early so Will (and we) could line up with all the other Cub Scounts in attendance and walk around the field before the game. That was pretty cool—I've never set foot on a major league field before, and we got to walk pretty much all the way around it, starting in the outfield right behind third base and walking all the way around the edge (including right past home plate) to the left field wall. Will even got a special Cub Scout patch to put on his uniform to commemorate the occasion.

The Cub Scouts had a block of seats in the outfield that were $24 each, but I started poking around Stubhub to see what other options we might have, and because this is a truly terrible team playing around truly terrible team (the Mets), I was able to find three seats in the Infiniti Club level behind home plate. They only cost me $45 each, which is well below the face value price, and they gave us a great place to watch the game behind the home plate netting (I'm a little paranoid after Will's close call at a Gwinnett Braves game earlier this summer). Will might have been most excited about the invisible stamp they put on your hand—if you left the club, you had to hold out your hand for them to shine a blacklight on the stamp, which made it glow.

The Braves gave up two runs in the first, but then pulled it together and didn't allow another run...until the ninth inning. They scored a run in the seventh to bring the score to 2-1 in favor of the Mets, and so they had a chance late in the game to tie or win, but then the bullpen gave up three runs in the ninth and it was all over.

It was a nice park, even though it was completely unnecessary to build it and it's nowhere near as convenient to get to as Turner Field. Plus the concessions were super-overpriced, especially compare to Mercedes-Benz, which not only has more interesting, higher quality food options, but also has them for much cheaper. For example, I got a hot dog and a soda in a souvenir cup, which cost me $13 at Suntrust. The same meal would have cost me only $6 at Mercedes-Benz, less than half the cost.

Afterwards they had an event where kids are allowed to run around the bases, but we didn't realize that people start lining up for this a few innings before the end of the game, so by the time we found the line, it snaked up the ramps all the way to the top level. It probably would have taken at least an hour from that point, an since we had been there for nearly five hours already, none of us had it in us to wait that long, even Will (it probably helped that we had already been out on the field once that day). They do this every Sunday, though, so we'll have to head back on a Sunday next season and plan to get in the line early.


9.21.17
After we got home from the baseball game, I immediately got set up to watch the second Ravens game of the season, this one against the Cleveland Browns. And aside from not getting a shutout, it was a pretty similar gameplan and outcome as their first game against the Bengals.

Once more the defense was the star: for the second game in a row, they forced five turnovers: four interceptions and one forced fumble. This paved the way for another fairly conservative but also effective strategy on the offensive side of the ball, with the final score ending up 24-10.

They play the Jaguars in London next week, and even if they perform well again, there are still going to be doubters that this team is for real. After all, each of these teams had terrible records last year—Cincinnati won 6, Jacksonville won 3, and Cleveland won only 1, and only Jacksonville is generally considered to be a team that made improvements in the offseason—but still, if Baltimore was to start the season 3-0, especially with the defense continuing its dominance, you have to give them some credit despite their opponents.

The real test, of course, will come in week 4, when they play the Steelers in Pittsburgh after a travel week that finds them flying to London and back for their game against the Jaguars. If they manage to start the season 4-0, including an away win against the team that most football pundits have picked to win the AFC North, then those same analysts will have to take them a little more seriously.


9.22.17
That was it for the weekend sports, but we had yet another Atlanta United game on Wednesday night, this time against the LA Galaxy. It was another amazing game, with both teams being very aggressive (similar to the Sunday game against Orlando, the Galaxy were very quick and held very tight coverages on United players), but Atlanta came out on top, scoring four goals in the first half and shutting out LA.

Some of that came down to luck—the Galaxy had a lot of shots on goal, especially early on, and it could have easily been a 2-2 match by halftime instead of 4-0. But an LA player got a red card in the 39th minute, and Atlanta was able to effectively control the game in the second half with very few legitimate runs at the goal from the Galaxy.

We have two more games in the next week—a Sunday afternoon game that I'm planning to take Will to see, and then another Wednesday game on the 27th. After that, there are only two home games left in the season, one on a Tuesday night in early October and then the final game on Sunday, October 22.

However, Atlanta has a very real chance to make the playoffs in their inaugural season, and if they can maintain or increase their current position, they may well be able to host a playoff match at home in Mercedes-Benz. The crowd enthusiasm is pretty amazing to see even on a weeknight game; I can't imagine how electrifying it would beome for a postseason match.

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