may 2020

5.1.20
So many things we've missed and are going to miss due to the coronavirus lockdown. If the lockdown hadn't started in mid-March, we would have seen a Howard Jones concert, attended several Atlanta United games, gone to a Braves game or two, seen a performance of Hamilton at the Fox, and Waxahatchee at Terminal West. Will would have had several swim meets and would have performed at his piano honors recital (which he worked for months perfecting two pieces for). I also would have spent a few days with Will during his spring break exploring Birmingham, Alabama—the first trip that would have been just the two of us.

In the next couple of months, we would have gone on a cruise, run in a 5K that ended in Suntrust Park (or whatever they're calling it now that Suntrust renamed itself after being acquired by another bank), seen the Hold Steady at Terminal West, seen the Magnetic Fields at City Winery, taken a family trip to Nashville to coincide with a conference I had there, and run in the Peachtree 10K. But all of those things have now been rescheduled or canceled, and some of them (the cruise and the Nashville trip) are not likely to happen for at least a couple of years if they ever do happen.

I will be very happy if my family makes it through this without a major illness or something more serious, but while I will be grateful for that outcome, it still breaks my heart to think of all the experiences that we, especially Will, won't have during this time, and even if we are able to make up some of them later, he'll never get back the time and all the experiences that he would have had with us and his friends and our extended family if not for this virus.

That's why it's so important to us to continue to do the right thing in terms of social distancing and staying at home—that's the best way we can collectively move beyond this until there are treatments or a vaccine, and the sooner we can get back to a more normal world, the sooner Will can get back to the experience-rich existence that he thrives on and that we've worked so hard to give him.


5.4.20
On Saturday, the Blue Angels and the Thunderbirds did a flyover of Atlanta, specifically the major healthcare facilities in the city, to honor the healthcare workers for their service during the coronavirus pandemic. One of those hospitals was the Emory hospital, which is only about a mile from our house, so we decided to drive to campus and watch from the top level of one of the campus parking decks.

One of the great things about Emory is that so many people who work there live in the neighborhoods around the university (the main Emory hospital is on the university campus), creating a real sense of community that goes beyond the campus boundaries. Unfortunately, this also meant that there were a ton of other people who had the same idea we did, and when we arrived (about half an hour before the jets were due to fly over), the top level was already reasonably full. But cars were parking at least one space away from each other, and we were able to find a space two spaces away from another car and a space away from a family that had ridden there on bicycles and were using their bicycles to save spaces around them to prevent cars from parking on top of them.

The flyover itself was pretty cool—they flew right over the deck, curved over the hospital, and then headed back towards midtown—and it was a gorgeous, sunny day with completely clear skies. It was also the first time I'd really been out of the house in about three weeks (aside from the occasional walk around the neighborhood, which I don't do nearly as often as I should, although I do use the treadmill every day), and the first time I'd driven a car in probably a month.

Most people who were there were practicing appropriate social distancing, but you could tell that people were getting restless and were collectively starting to create new norms that violated those guidelines. There were families whose kids were riding bikes around together, and while they weren't technically touching, they were definitely within a foot or so of each other, and a sneeze or a cough from one of them would have definitely impacted the kids around them. And as neighbors and coworkers recognized each other, they would edge closer and closer in conversation, not only violating the 6 foot rule for themselves, but also for the family groups that were in between them.

The really disappointing thing was how the city in general handled the flyover and the idiot governor's very premature reopening of the state. On the news that night there were segments about the crowding around the parks in the city as people came out to watch the jets (with almost no one wearing masks, and constantly walking past one another on the park paths and crosswalks) and about people lining up in a mall to buy pairs of limited release Air Jordans (the people at the mall were more likely to be masked up, but there were also spending a lot more time in line in close proximity to strangers, and of course not everyone was masked up).

A coworker of mine who also works as an EMT was working that afternoon, and he expressed real frustration and disappointment at his experience that day: as they were bringing a likely COVID patient in to the ER, the sidewalks were lined with non-healthcare workers who were there to see the Blue Angels, almost none of them wearing masks and not practicing social distancing. This was meant to honor the sacrifices and risks that healthcare workers are taking to help us get through this crisis, but he said it was a real slap in the face to see people putting themselves, their families, and their communities at risk by not following the guidelines.

Based on what we've been seeing over the past week as more places have reopened and the weather has gotten nice, I fully expect that in early June we're going to see a huge spike in cases, hospitalizations, and deaths (and that's a spike on top of the fact that we hadn't hit our peak in those metrics in the first place before the governor reopened everything). My only hope for this is that when that spike happens, people will reevaluate their decisionmaking around social distancing and staying at home, and that we will also serve as a cautionary tale to other states that will influence their plans to gradually reopen in a safer and more responsible way.


5.5.20
The premiere of the second half of the fourth season of Rick and Morty was last night, and it was a pretty good one. I was initially disappointed with the first half of the season (that started airing last November), but most of the episodes have grown on me, and the fifth episode (the final episode of the first half of the season), "Rattlestar Ricklactica", is one of the best episodes they've ever made.

Last night's episode, "Never Ricking Morty" (a play on Neverending Story), was one of the most meta they've ever done—it's so stuffed with references to both the craft of writing and narrative and to previous events in the series that it was impossible to process it all in only one viewing. It was essentially a replacement for the freeform anthology episodes they've done in previous seasons (the interdimensional cable episodes from the first two seasons and "Morty's Mindblowers" from season 3, all of which aired as the eighth episodes of their respective seasons), allowing it to slingshot from one situation/flashback to another with little need for obvious connective tissue.

The overarching theme that tied everything together was its commentary about viewing expectations based on narrative tropes and structures and we have come to expect from our stories, with references to canon/non-canon, the Bechdel test, story circles/hero's journey, and a scathing critical assessment of the most popular and influential book in western culture, the Bible. This is definitely an episode that you could only love if you've been a longtime fan of the show and its whipsmart, subversive writing, but if you fit into that category, it's hard not to love this episode, especially once you can get in multiple viewings and catch all the little things that blew past you in a blur in your initial viewing.

I have high hopes for the rest of this season based on the half season finale (which also had heavy commentary about how we've been training to expect certain paths through our narratives) and the midseason opener—it seems like they're picking up steam and the next few episodes could build to something that could make this overall season seem more cohesive (it's been a little scattershot so far, with lots of completely standalone episodes that don't seem to further our understanding of the overall world these stories take place in). But even if they don't do that (which would in itself be a way of subverting the same expectations that the writers are calling out in the last two episodes), this still has the making of a great collection of episodes.


5.6.20
We got some clippers back in April so I could give Will a haircut, and I learned enough about how they worked from that session to feel like, if it came to it, I could give myself a haircut. I was due for one when we started the lockdown, so I've been contemplating it since I gave Will his haircut a couple of weeks ago, and on Sunday I finally broke down and did it.

I waited until Julie went to drop off groceries at her mom's so she couldn't help/stop me, and then took the clippers into the bathroom so I could cut my hair over the sink (with the stopper closed) while looking in the mirror. I decided not to try to do anything too fancy the first time—just pick a length and give myself a buzz cut with the same length all over.

I started out significantly longer than how I get my hair cut at the barbershop, and when the first pass went well, I lowered it (the clipper came with guards that let me cut in 2 mm increments from 3 mm to 17 mm), and then lowered it a little more. I think I ended up with the 7 mm setting (for comparison, the back and sides of my hair are usually cut around 3 mm).

It felt so good to have really short hair again—I was starting to feel like a troll doll even though to most people my hair still probably looked reasonably short. I learned some lessons for next time (because I'm assuming this lockdown is going to go on through the summer, and I don't care if our stupid governor says that barbershops and salons can be open again now)—there's a patch of hair at the back of the top of my head that I missed, giving me an Alfalfa look, and I probably don't need to cut the top as short as the sides and the back. But overall I was pretty pleased with the results from my first try.


5.7.20
Last night we paid for a virtual ticket to watch Robyn Hitchcock do a concert from his house on a platform called Stageit. Like many artists, he's had to cancel tour plans and is looking for other ways to generate revenue while in lockdown, and this seems like a good option for him: it's pretty low key (he's literally sitting on his couch with his girlfriend Emma Swift and their cats) and he's doing them once or twice a week, typically taking requests from the audience using the chat feature.

We took Will to see him last November at Eddie's Attic, where Robyn's between-song monologues largely concerned the fake adventures of his real cat Tubby, and during the show we finally got to see the infamous Tubby (who seemed very grouchy that his dinner was being delayed because of the show). We were able to cast the concert to our tv from Will's computer, so we could all sit comfortably on our couch together instead of huddling around a small screen.

Will recognized a couple of the songs he played in November, including "No I Don't Remember Guildford" and "1970 in Aspic", and he also played "I Often Dream of Trains", "If You Were a Priest", "A Skull, A Suitcase, and A Long Red Bottle of Wine", and "Antwoman", among several other songs that I can't immediately recall. The show was only scheduled for 30 minutes, but he played close to 50, until the feed suddenly cut off near the end of his last song (I'm guessing the platform has some time limit when the feed automatically cuts off, which seems pretty stupid).

We'll definitely do this again if we can—he's got another show this Friday where he's doing nothing but Syd Barrett covers, but Will already has a ticket at the same time to a virtual magic show by the magician who teaches his magic club at school. I'm also hoping some other artists I like will find their way to the platform—I love the idea of being able to support artists and see them in a more intimate setting during a time when I would normally be going to a live show every week or so.


5.8.20
I've been watching Survivor since the first season, and Julie and I watched it together for probably the first 15 or 20 seasons. She lost interest after that—she's never been a big tv watcher—but I continued to record the seasons, using bingeing them over a few days by speeding through the episodes (if you just fast forward through the competitions to see who wins and only really watch the scheming, you can get through an episode in less than half an hour).

Since we've been confined to home, we've watched more shows together as a family, and we've been searching for things that Will might like, so when I remembered that we had almost a full season of the latest season of Survivor (the 40th season, which features all winners from previous seasons), we decided to give that a try. And he LOVES it—we've watched an episode almost every day since we started watching it last week. For whatever reason, he has latched onto Sophie, a player I don't really remember (and who is also a pretty low-key presence on this season), and he cheers like crazy whenever she does something good or her team wins a challenge.

He gets like this with game shows sometimes (like Jeopardy), and it gives me hope that he'll someday grow into my love of sports and be able to get as excited about the Ravens as I do. I didn't get into sports until I was in college, and I didn't get into football until around 2004, so it might take awhile (and if he's anything like me, if I tried to pressure him into it, that would just delay his engagement). But since he can get emotionally invested in competitions that he's just observing, there's at least a chance.


5.11.20
We've been extremely cautious about social distancing, so we haven't seen my mom since sometime in February. She was actually supposed to come stay with us for the weekend when things started to get serious, so we had to cancel that visit. But we decided that it was time to go visit her on Saturday for Mother's Day, although we continued to be very cautious about our interactions.

We stopped and picked up Bojangle's for lunch on the way to her house, and then we set up chairs on her back patio while she sat about 10 feet away in the back doorway. She took in a stray outdoor cat who gave birth to kittens seven or eight weeks ago, and of course Will wanted to see them, so my mom left the room and I went inside with my mask on to put them in a box so we could play with them on the back porch.

We're likely going to adopt one or two of them to replace our recently deceased Oliver, and we spent that time getting to know their personalities and thinking about which one(s) would hopefully be a good fit for our other two cats. We ended up staying for a couple of  hours, and although I know it was hard for Will and my mom not to be able to hug each other, it was still really good for both of them to spend some time together.

Usually on Mother's Day we go out for breakfast at our neighborhood diner, Rise n' Dine, but of course that wasn't an option this year. Instead we ordered Krispy Kreme delivery, which must have been a popular option—our DoorDash driver spent an hour in line waiting to get our order (we tipped her $20 to make up for it).

For dinner, we had Julie's mom come over to our house, also a first since the lockdown started. We followed pretty much the same procedure that we used at my mom's house—we set up a chair for her on the far side of our back porch and we set up our chairs on the other end of the porch and shared a meal and chatted for an hour or so keeping our distance.

Both our visits went pretty well, and I think we can keep our social distance if we follow the same process, so we'll likely see Julie's mom once a week and try to go out and visit my mom every two or three weeks. I don't know how much longer this is all going to last, and it really sucks to think about months and months of this, but it's incredibly important that we keep Will and ourselves safe, so we're going to do whatever we have to do to give ourselves the best chance to make it through this.


5.12.20
After The Lost City of Z, I turned to another non-fiction book that I bought awhile ago but hadn't felt like reading until now: Tulipomania: The Story of the World's Most Coveted Flower & the Extraordinary Passions It Aroused by Mike Dash.

It focuses, of course, on the year-long period in Dutch history where the market for tulips became so overheated that it eventually crashed, taking a lot of the Dutch economy with it. But it also gives the broad history of the flower, including its origins in Asia and its cultivation by Persians and later the Ottoman Empire before making its way to Europe via the city that was then known as Constantinople.

The book also spends some time on the biological features of the species—how often it flowers, how new strains are developed and cultivated, and even a disease called the mosaic virus that led to the creation of some of the most coveted strains during the Dutch mania. All of this nicely sets up the narrative for a focus on the mania that started in 1636 and ended with the entire market for tulips crashing in February of 1637.

This part of the book is less about the tulip specifically and more about the dangers of a rapidly escalating market that is increasingly based on partial shares and futures that are purchased with the assumption that the market will continue to grow and that profits from future sales will finance the costs for current investments.

The Dutch tulip market during this period was very much like the mortgage market immediately prior to 2008 or some aspects of the bubble and burst cycles of 21st century dotcom/tech companies, and the dissection of the failure of the speculative tulip market in 17th century Holland serves as both a cautionary tale and a reminder about how terrible we are at learning from our past mistakes.

It was a little dry in places, and sometimes the tributaries from the main narrative felt like they were there just to add to the page count, but overall I enjoyed this book, and it ties in nicely to my longstanding fascination with books that examine our obsessions with collecting, like The Orchid Thief and The Feather Thief. I'd definitely recommend those two books over this one, but if books like that are your cup of tea, this one is worth picking up.


5.13.20
Last September, two of my favorite artists, Robyn Hitchcock and Andy Partridge (of XTC), teamed up to release a four song EP called Planet England. I immediately wanted to purchase it, but there was just one problem: it was only released on physical media (CD or vinyl), and even if you bought the physical media, you did not get an accompanying download. Since I no longer own either a record player or a CD player, this left me without the ability to listen to it even if I purchased it.

I was hoping this was a temporary situation and that the digital version would soon become available on either the major digital services (Amazon or Apple), the record company website, or a platform like Bandcamp. But the months went by and it never appeared, despite me checking in every few weeks.

Then in April one of my friends posted something about it on Facebook, so I reached out to him to see if he had a way to digitize it (he mostly listens to vinyl, so the physical-only release wasn't an issue for him). He didn't have a way to convert it to digital himself, but just coincidentally he had gotten a digital copy on a semi-dark site where music fans could trade files. He offered to share it with me, and since it had always been my desire to pay for the music, I immediately ordered a CD copy from the record company website.

I've had a chance to listen to it a few times now, and it sounds like exactly what you would think it would sound like if you're familiar with the work of both songwriters. As much as I like Robyn Hitchcock's unique voice, I was disappointed that he sings lead on all of the songs—despite two of the songs sounding like they were written primarily by Andy ("Got My..." and "Planet England"), he mostly sings gentle, ghostly backing vocals. The closest we get to him being the main vocalist is on "Got My…", but even on that track Hitchcock slides in and takes over as the main voice fairly frequently. Still, that's the closest we've come to hearing an Andy Partridge vocal on an XTC track in nearly 20 years, so we have to be happy with what we can get at this point.

If you like either of these artists, this is a solid pickup. But you'd better be okay with Hitchcock's voice, because that's mostly what you're getting in terms of vocals.


5.14.20
After Tulipomania, I started on a book that was released relatively recently: American Sherlock: Murder, Forensics, and the Birth of American CSI by Kate Winkler Dawson, which just came out in February.

This is essentially a biography of Edward Oscar Heinrich, a forensic scientist before that was an official job who worked on numerous high profile murder cases, including a Stanford professor who was accused of killing his wife, a botched train robbery that resulted in the slayings of the entire engine crew, and the Fatty Arbuckle case where he was accused of sexually assaulting an actress so violently that she later died of her injuries.

The cases were interesting in the way that any true crime writing is interesting, but what sets this book apart is  when it delves into the pioneering techniques that Heinrich developed (many of which are still in use in crime scene forensics today), including: microscopic analysis of grains of dirt and sand; insect life cycles on a deceased body as a tool to help pin down time of death; handwriting analysis; microscopic fiber analysis; blood spatter analysis; and developing a psychological profile of the criminal(s) based on circumstantial evidence.

Dawson strikes a pretty good balance between Heinrich's personal life (his relationship with his wife and two sons, his financial woes, etc.) and his work on criminal cases, but there are some cases he worked that are probably worth exploring in a standalone book, both to get more detail about the case itself and to better understand the techniques Heinrich used to help solve it.

There's also a pretty good amount of time given to descriptions of the trials themselves, which of course required Heinrich's testimony. There's a lot of rich unlined material there as well, particularly around how dueling experts can leave juries mystified as to the validity of scientific evidence, and the difficulty of presenting new forensic techniques to laypeople in a jury such that they're willing to accept the conclusions of the investigation.

This book is solid as a biography of a fascinating polymath who, in addition to having a brilliant reductive mind, also had professional-level expertise in chemistry, physics, mathematics, biology, and psychology. But it probably has enhanced value for people who are into true crime narratives, since the non-biographical sections definitely follow the templates from that genre.


5.15.20
After I finished Tiger King (I tried to watch the wrap up episode with Joel McHale, who I like, but it was so clearly a cash grab that diminished the quality of the proper episodes that I quit about 10 minutes in), I was looking for another documentary about a weird little subculture, and various internet site suggested another Netflix documentary, Cheer.

This is the story of the multiple national championship winning cheerleading at a little community college in Texas called Navarro College, specifically the story of their 2019 seasons, when they were trying to repeat as national champions in their division and go for their 14th title this century.

There are some positives to this documentary, in that it showcases just how athletic you have to be to compete in a modern cheerleading competition and how hard you have to work to get your routine down. These kids work just as hard as any other athletes on any campus, training for hours each day for months on end, grinding through injuries and trying to balance their academic and social lives with the all-consuming goal of winning a national championship.

But there's a lot of ugliness that gets exposed here too, a lot of in common to many other sports in college athletics: schoolwork is clearly secondary (there's even a member of the cheer staff who essentially functions as a full time tutor for the athletes, helping them with their homework and assignments and making sure they get to class and turn things in on time), and there's a lot of emotional and psychological manipulation by the coach, Monica Aldama.

The most brutal instance of this is where she benches a star athlete, La'Darius, who is mouthing off to her, and gives his spot to a less talented (but far more pliable and likable) alternate, a fan favorite named Jerry. It's clear to everyone that Jerry can't really replace La'Darius and that Monica is just benching La'Darius as a motivational tactic—clear to everyone except Jerry, that is.

His joy at having a spot on the final roster is palpable, as is his crushing disappointment when he is again moved to alternate status and realizes that Monica was just using him to punish La'Darius and that she never intended for him to be on the final roster (in one of the few happy endings for this show, Jerry does end up making the final roster when another player with a similar skill set has fatigue and consistency issues).

Most of these kids come from broken and/or severely dysfunctional families, and Monica takes full advantage of their psychological states the way an adept and charismatic cult leader was, alternating between the caring parent most of them never had and the brutal disciplinarian who expects perfection every time. And it works: these kids are so desperate for approval and praise that they suffer through her anger and degradation the way an abused spouse keeps coming back after the beatings because of the apologies and promises to change.

It's hard to watch if you have reached a point in your personal development where you can recognized toxic or harmful relationships and make the choice not to subject yourself to them, but you can understand whey these kids, given what we know of their backgrounds, are susceptible to this kind of control. And for many of these athletes, her presence in their live is overall a very big net positive, giving them confidence in themselves in other areas of life and an ethos of hard work and discipline that also impacts their life long after they leave the cheer program at a community college.

Watching the series, you will want to see her as a villain or make her into a hero, but she's really both depending on the circumstances, and the filmmakers do a good job of not reducing her into an easily categorized stereotype. She simultaneously really cares about these kids while also using them and occasionally abusing them for her own ends.

And she's likely not that different from many high school and college coaches in that regard, so what you should really be criticizing is the system that has been built around these young amateur athletes. They endure intense pressure for no compensation and no guarantee of a good education or healthcare if their injuries for a retirement from their sport.

The filmmakers don't go too far down that path, but if you follow college athletics at all, you're doubtless aware of the problems with the NCAA that have been exposed over the past decade or so, and it's clear to see how a program like Navarro's is part of the same issues that you would see at a top flight football or basketball program at a major university.

The series overall was somehow lacking for me: was this a documentary about college cheerleading, focusing on the most successful small school program this century, or was it a reality show about the cheerleaders themselves? It tried to be both, and in doing so, it watered down the impact and confused the audience who was looking for one or the other.

I'd still recommend it—it's very well made, and it doesn't take too long to watch—but it's not one that's going to inspire or surprise you if you're looking at it with clear eyes, recognizing that it's essentially a cult in the guise of a college athletic team.


5.18.20
Will's school year (virtual since March) officially ended last week, so Julie has been working on alternatives to summer camp to help keep him occupied during the day for the summer months (Julie and I are both working full time from home).

She's found a bunch of smaller online camps that last for a couple of days to a week, and typically only meet for a couple of hours a day. Combined with some expectations about his activities the rest of the day (required amounts of time dedicated to outside time, non-screen creative play time, and reading time, with incentives for going beyond those minimums), we're hoping that this will keep him busy without feeling overwhelmed and still giving him some autonomy about how his days play out.

It was a shame that he, like his classmates and so many other kids across America, didn't get to experience the end-of-year milestones and time with his teachers and friends, but the school and the parents did the best we could given the circumstances. We won teacher for the day for Will at the annual school auction (really the last social event we went to before the coronavirus lockdowns started), so to fulfill that, Will was the assistant teacher on the class Zoom sessions for a couple of weeks, and he got to run the class one day (he spent a lot of time creating a Jeopardy-like quiz game where he wrote all the questions and answers, and they were all specific to his class and the school). They also put a sign in the front yard acknowledging him as one of the kids-run-the-school winners, which he loved.

I don't know what the future holds for school, but if the virus continues its current transmission rates (or increases them as people relax their social distancing), I can't imagine that anyone will comfortable by August having 30+ kids sitting together for hours in a small indoor space, masks or no masks. There are a lot of potential solutions that would still allow some contact—a mix of virtual and in-person classes where students only go in person 2-3 days a week so the school can minimize the number of students in a room together, upping the filtration on the HVAC systems, spreading out the desks, requiring masks, and letting the kids go outside every hour for 15 minutes, among other ideas—but there's very little chance that school is just going to return to the normal we remember from last fall semester.


5.19.20
While searching around for another nonfiction book to read after American Sherlock, I remember the Freakonomics franchise, which I hadn't heard much about since reading the first two books, Freakonomics and SuperFreakonomics. I read the second book in 2011, and since I like it and its predecessor, my assumption was that the two writers (one an economist and one a journalist) had decided to call it quits after that.

So I was a little surprised to find that not one but two more books in the franchise had been published since 2011: Think Like a Freak: The Authors of Freakonomics Offer to Retrain Your Brain, published in 2014, and When to Rob a Bank: ...And 131 More Warped Suggestions and Well-Intended Rants, published in 2015.

As I looked at these closer, trying to decide which one I might want to read, I realized that neither of them was really a sequel to the first two books: Think Like a Freak was some kind of business-oriented self-help book, and When to Rob a Bank was a collection of highlights from the long-running Freakonomics blog. Neither was exactly what I was looking for, but I definitely didn't want to read the business book, so I settled on the blog book.

Despite my relatively tame expectations for it, I was extremely disappointed. If this is the cream of the crop for the blog, then I'm glad that I haven't been paying attention to it, because very few ideas covered are worth thinking about for more than a couple of seconds, and there are a lot of criticisms that could be leveled at the writers for their combined lack of research, lack of a thorough, rational thought process, and lack of basic insights into and understanding of human behavior.

So I'm definitely not going to read the business book, and even if they come up with a true sequel at some point, I'm not sure if I'll read it—I really grew to dislike their points of view on the world while reading this book, and I don't know that I ever want to hear from them again. I've been on a nonfiction kick for a while now, but this book got me sufficiently irritated that I'm definitely going back to fiction for a bit—I had purchased another pop science book written by a British economist, but I want nothing to do with that kind of writing after slogging through this book.


5.20.20
Today I was on a six hour conference call for a virtual conference (that, if we had been able to hold it in person, would have been held on our campus this year) that featured 80+ participants and required me to be on video the entire time. I didn't think anything could turn that experience into a good day, but the universe found something that did: Jeff Rosenstock surprise releasing a new album.

It's called No Dream, and it's his first record of new original material since he put out Post on January 1, 2018, an incredibly long gap between releases from a normally prolific artist. Part of that is likely due to his relocation from NYC to Los Angeles and his work scoring the cartoon series Craig of the Creek. I saw an article announcing its release within a few minutes of finishing my web conference, and within a few minutes after that I had paid for and downloaded a copy of it.

I've listened to it a couple of times already, and while it initially seems like it's not as dense with ideas or as conceptually focused as Worry and Post, it's still a very listenable record with tons of hooks and some great lines. It reminds me more of We Cool?, his second solo album and the one that immediately preceded Worry: it's a good collection of songs but not necessarily as coherent an overall statement as Worry or Post. Which is fine—We Cool? is a great record, and comparing No Dream to that album is not meant to be a negative.

I'm sure I'll be listening to this one many more times in the coming days, and if it's like other Jeff Rosenstock records, my appreciation of and love for it will likely only deepen the more I listen to it. But if you haven't heard this guy yet, and you like punk or rock or guitar-centered pop music, pick up something of his immediately. It doesn't really even matter which one (although Worry is his current masterwork), because they're all amazing.


5.21.20
I watched Tiger King and Cheer while doing my treadmill work, so I wanted something else along those lines once I finished Cheer. Based on some internet research, I settled on McMillions, the HBO documentary released earlier this year that details the criminal investigation in a scam that defrauded McDonald's (and less directly, it's customers) out of tens of millions of dollars in cash and prizes over the course of more than a decade.

It's a pretty good documentary, partly because the story itself is so bizarre, but the first couple of episodes are mostly entertaining because of FBI agent Doug Matthews—not only was this the biggest case of his career, it was also one of his first. His commentary on the bureau, the investigation, the suspects, and especially himself is hilariously sarcastic and brutally honest. Even now, 20 years later, he's still a ball of youthful, short attention span energy that doesn't fit the stereotype of an even-keeled, professional career FBI agent.

It's sad in the way all these things are, and aside from law enforcement, there's really no one to root for, even the "winners" who were peripherally involved in claiming the prizes only to have to send most of it back to the actual scammers who were stealing the prize pieces. Like all criminals, they don't find much fault with themselves and put the blame on people who did worse things or who "tricked" them. But to a person, every single one of them knew they were doing something wrong, and for most of them, their only real regret seems to be that they got caught.

The only part of the documentary that I wish had been included was direct interviews with the Atlanta man who was head of security for the company that ran the game (and worked with a printing house to produce the actual game pieces). We don't really know much about his motives (other than pure greed), and although we get a basic understanding of how he pulled the scam and stole the tickets, we don't really have the full picture.

Highly recommended though—not as weird and engaging as Tiger King, but definitely better than Cheer.


5.22.20
After the Freakonomics book When to Rob a Bank, I finally turned back to fiction, somewhat randomly selecting a book (from the several I have purchased in the past few months) called Anthropocene Rag by Alexander C. Irvine. I hadn't read him before, and looking at his published works, it's easy to understand why: aside from this book (more like a novella), he's mostly written novelizations/tie-ins to comic books, video games, and movies (like, he's written novels set in the Transformers, Halo, Pacific Rim, and Independence Day universes).

But the book got good reviews, and the premise sounded intriguing, so I thought it was worth a shot. It takes place in a world where a sentient AI that manifests itself as trillions of nanobots called "plicks" (and collectively known as the Boom) has essentially taken over the world, but without a central, governing intelligence, no one knows what it's going to do. Humans have learned to sort of coexist with it, although it's an uneasy peace—the Boom can manifest itself as real or fictional people (Mark Twain and Paul Bunyan both make appearances), and it's constantly reinventing and reshaping the landscape in an attempt to act out and understand stories from human history.

The prime mover of the plot is that some fairly robust, independent manifestation of the Boom has created a new city in the desert called Monument City (so called because many famous historical landmarks from around the globe have been relocated there), and he has summoned six seemingly random humans to join it there. It is supposedly a place where a more human-friendly manifestation of the Boom is trying to find a way for the Boom and humans to live together in a partnership of mutual respect and growth, but it's also more of a mythical place since no one knows how to find it without being invited and no one has has been invited ever reappears to tell their story.

The narrative follows the stories of these six people and their journeys to Monument City, with several of them clumping up and meeting along the way (again, manipulated by the Monument City Boom). It's kind of a Charlie and the Chocolate Factory/Wizard of Oz journey: strangers thrown together with different backgrounds and different needs who find themselves entwined together in someone else's narrative construct.

The ending for the book falls a little flat, but the world is a compelling one, and the characters that we actually get to know (there are a couple of the six that we really don't get to spend much time with) are all compelling. My real complaint with the book is that it is far too short. I think about what an author like Neal Stephenson would have done to not only expand our experience with and understanding of this world and the Boom, but also how much he would have put into the backstories and the journeys of each individual character.

The book we have feels very much like Irvine intended it as a short story, then realized it needed to be more than that, but didn't have the in his busy licensed-novelization schedule to devote the year or two he would need to write the story the right way, so he turned in what he could with the time he had. It's too bad that circumstances didn't work out to let him write the book he could have written—this is still a book I would recommend even though it makes my heart break to imagine the narrative body that could have been layered on top of this skeleton.


5.26.20
As with most people, the long Memorial Day weekend didn't feel all that different for us than any other week. We went to visit my mom again (socially distanced visit where we sat on her back patio and she sat inside in the doorway of her house) and Julie's mom came over for a meal (again, socially distanced on the porch with us sitting on one side and Julie's mom sitting on the other side 10 feet away), but other than that, there wasn't really anything we felt safe doing, especially given the very poor mask/social distancing behaviors we've witnessed when we've been out.

We've had to cancel at least four family trips due to the coronavirus (a spring break trip to Birmingham, a five day cruise paired with at least one day at Disney, a weeklong trip to Nashville, and a trip to visit my parents in North Carolina), but we didn't want to just sit at home all summer, especially because we're being extremely careful about social distancing and we really are at home most of the time. We thought about a trip to the beach, specifically Hilton Head, where we know the area pretty well and the beaches aren't that crowded even during the peak summer season, but we didn't feel comfortable staying at the condo where we normally stay—there's just too many shared spaces and surfaces.

I thought about getting a house on the beach, but that was way out of our price range, so then I started thinking about other standalone house options and ended up researching lake and river cabins in north Georgia. We found a great little on that's on a dirt road with only four or five other houses on it, and it sits right over a river, with great river views from almost every room. There's a deck you can walk down to that has a fire pit and a ladder that goes right into the river, and a couple of outdoor porches, including one with a hot tub.

It was all booked up for the weekends through August, but there was a week in June where the five weekdays hadn't been booked yet, so we booked those. There's plenty of stuff to do nearby—lots of hiking and some tourist attractions—but we're hoping that by going up during the week (we won't check in until Monday afternoon, and we leave Friday morning), there won't be crowds at those. But even if we decided just to isolate in the rental, we're excited about the change of scenery and look forward to swimming and hiking a lot right around the cabin.


5.27.20
After Anthropocene Rag, I read another recently released novella, this one called Hearts of Oak by a writer named Eddie Robson. It starts off slowly, dipping into the lives of a few characters in a quasi-fantasy setting (a city that's constantly expanding but never reaching the  mysterious border, everything is made of wood, the king has a talking cat, etc.), before rapidly accelerating around the big reveal and taking a complete left turn.

I won't give you any further details so as not to spoil it, but while I enjoyed the book, the pacing was off—it was too slow in the beginning with way too much happening around the reveal point, and before doing one of those fake endings so it can do one last twist. Despite some inventive details and settings, the characters all read a little flat, and the plot felt formulaic inside of a somewhat original world-building effort.

Still, I'd recommend it if you want a quick sci fi read (and yes, it starts as a fantasy setting but veers hard at the big reveal)—it's a light time investment, it's entertaining enough, and it gives you enough elements to discover and puzzle together to make the world engaging. I'd probably give another book from this author a try, but I'd also make sure it got decent reviews first.


5.28.20
Although we're not going to feel safe eating out at a restaurant for along time, especially with the recent studies showing that being in a recirculated air environment for an extended period of time is a really good way to catch and spread the virus, we've done our best to support our favorite restaurants during the shutdown by ordering out more frequently than we usually do.

The subset of our favorite restaurants that we've chosen to support the most are the ones who have good procedures in place to protect their employees and their customers—either places that do delivery or places like the Hawaiian barbecue place near us who have an elaborate routine for minimizing contact between themselves and customers and between different customers.

One of the places we've gone to pretty regularly was a Po Boy shoot that opened up last year. They have great food, and the first few times we went they had pretty good procedures, setting up a tent in the parking lot for pickup and masking the employees who were interacting with customers. It wasn't perfect, but it seemed like they were doing the best they could.

We ordered there on Monday when we had dinner with Julie's mom, and when I went to pick it up, I was pretty shocked at their current procedure: there were a bunch of employees and customers standing around in the parking lot in fairly close proximity, and although only about half the customers had on masks (there's not a whole lot they can do about that since no one is actually going inside the restaurant), NONE of the employees had on masks, even when they came to take a credit card for payment or hand off a bag of food to a customer. Worse still, I saw at least one unmasked employee standing inches from an unmasked customer having a conversation that lasted at least 3 or 4 minutes, and neither one of them seemed bothered by the disapproving looks they were getting from the masked customers.

I really want this place to survive, but I don't feel safe going there with the cavalier attitude from both the staff and other customers. I'm going to write the owner to voice my concerns and see 1) if they knew about and endorsed it and 2) if they are willing to revamp and enforce safer procedures. I really hope they do, but if not, we'll see them on the other side of this thing, and we hope they get enough business to survive.


5.29.20
After we finished watching Game of Thrones (my second full series viewing, and Julie's first), we were looking for something else to watch together and settled on HBO's His Dark Materials, based on the book series by Philip Pullman that started with the Golden Compass (on which the first season of the show is based). Julie and I read the book series back when it came out, but I don't think we ever saw the movie starring Nicole Kidman.

I only vaguely remember the plot at this point, but I do remember Lyra, the central protagonist, and I remember some details about the world she exists in (an alternate world that exists alongside our but which has significantly less technology than our world does at the same points in the timeline, but one where every human has an animal companion with whom they share experiences and sensations).

I thought, therefore, that it wouldn't be too hard to follow the story, but after two episodes, I'm still pretty confused, and I can't imagine what someone coming into this cold would think. It's a pretty interesting world from what I recall, but the world building they've done the first couple of episodes seems more interest in creating a complicated, disorienting puzzle box than getting us acclimated to the basics of that world so we can start to understand how the events of the plot fit into that context.

I'm also not sold on the casting of the actors. Lyra is a great character, but the girl they've chosen to play her doesn't seem to have the same spark or spirit as the book character, no matter how awkwardly the showrunners try to force that on us. And her primary nemesis, Mrs. Coulter (who was played by Kidman in the movie), is so naturally evil-looking/acting that there's no depth to her, although a big part of both the book and the earlier screen portrayal was wondering if she was a good guy or a bad guy. There's no mystery here: you know she's going to be a bad guy the second you see her, and you wonder why the highly emotionally intelligent, independent, untrusting Lyra blithely wanders away from the world she knows to go live with this woman.

We'll finish watching to the end, but it might take us a while if we don't get more into it in the next couple of episodes. I'll probably also reread the His Dark Materials trilogy at some point—he has a new trilogy set in the same universe called The Book of Dust (the final volume of which is expected to be published sometime this year), and I'd like to reread the original books before I jump into those.

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