july 2013

The Hunger Games movie made it onto Netflix sometime in the past month or so, and I finally got around to watching it last week. I read the books for free using the Kindle lending library, checking out one book in the series after the other each month for three months. I thought it was a reasonably entertaining series, but there were times when I definitely felt the writing was more appropriate for the YA audience this was originally written for.

There were lots of problems with the movie, starting with the most common problem with movies adapted from books where much of the storytelling and backstory happens inside the characters' heads: the movie has to gloss over much of what the lovers of the book remember as integral to their understanding of the characters and their motivations. As someone who has read the book, all of that backstory and inner thoughts are present as I'm watching the more action-oriented highlights that made the cut for the movie script, but I can't imagine someone who hasn't read the books watching this film and 1) understanding what the hell is going on or 2) giving a damn about any of these characters.

Also: the casting. Not great. I had very solid ideas of what each of the main characters looked like from their descriptions in the books, and almost none of the characters matched even remotely, including the three most important characters in the book, Katniss, Peeta, and Gale. Jennifer Lawrence, who I don't have any general issues with, was mopey and unresponsive; Ellen Page (who I actually don't like generally) would have been a much better choice for this role.

I'm not a huge fan of the books—I read them because I could rent them for free through the Kindle lending library, basically the same reason that I ended up watching this movie—but I don't think this movie serves the franchise well, and given how high profile this was in terms of stars and funding before the big box offices returns became a reality, I don't hold a lot of hope for the sequels, especially as the plots and subplots grow more complex and the number of characters increases.

There are tons of people out of the office this week, and I've got almost no meetings on the calendar. Translation: I'm getting a lot of work done.

It's not Will's birthday until a week from now, but my family is taking advantage of the long holiday weekend to come and celebrate on Saturday. My mom is the only person who will be staying with us, but my dad and stepmother are also coming, along with my brother, his girlfriend, her daughter, and the daughter's half-brother, and my sister and her husband may join us as well.

Add that to potentially up to six other people who may come to the actual party on Saturday, and this will be the first real test for this house as a hangout/party space for a fairly large crowd (there should be at least 15 people for the party, and 10 who will be here the rest of the weekend except when we all retreat to our corners at night to get some sleep).

I love my family (in small-to-medium sized doses, and I'm sure they think they same of me), but I prefer smaller crowds than this typically. Will, however, LOVES having tons of people around, and they all love to see him, so I'm excited that so many people are going to be here to celebrate his birthday with him. I may need a day off to recuperate, but he's going to love every minute of it.

Fourth of July events were pretty much rained out in Atlanta, which was a big disappointment for Will and the family members who had already arrived in town in advance of his family birthday party on Saturday. We ended up hosting people at our house (my mother, who was staying with us, plus my brother, his girlfriend, one of his girlfriend's daughters, and the girlfriend's daughter's stepbrother) and watching fireworks on television, alternating between the Macy's NYC celebration and the DC fireworks.

I was hoping that some of the local ones would be rescheduled for the weekend and we could go somewhere on Saturday night, but many of the Atlanta ones either never happened or are rescheduled for sometime in the fall. The Decatur fireworks, which we can walk to from our house, were rescheduled for late September, so we'll try to take Will to see those, but it didn't really feel like Independence Day without fireworks of some sort.

On Friday my dad and stepmother arrived, so we had dinner with them (and the whole group) at Golden Corral, one of the few nearby places that can handle a party of ten including a toddler with no reservations (earlier in the day we had taken the rest of the group to the Varsity for lunch).

Everyone regrouped on Saturday morning for Will's official party (although he was already having a ball just visiting with everyone, and he had also already gotten a couple of presents, including a kitchen playset, from my mom), where we also added two of Will's godparents and their seven year old son and two of Julie's friends who she knew in Baltimore and who also moved down to the Atlanta area recently.

I don't really remember much of the party itself—I get a little overwhelmed with having that many people in my house—but there was lots of food and lots of presents. After all the presents were done, we brought Will a cupcake with three candles in it, and I was somewhat heartened later in the evening when he was recounting the day and focused on the fun of blowing out the candles more than getting presents.

He could get a little spoiled being not only an only child for us, but for so far being the only child of his generation in our immediate family (and therefore the only grandchild for our various sets of parents), but he really doesn't seem to get too caught up in expecting things on his birthday or Christmas (at least not yet). Sure, he enjoys opening presents and playing with the toys afterward, but when he talks about these events after their done, he's much more focused on and excited about getting to see people or with doing things like blowing out his candles, and not on getting more stuff.

I'm sure he will futher develop his consumerist tendencies and start wanting specific things as he grows older, and I'm sure that the expectation of presents will become a bigger part of what he looks forward to with these celebrations, but it's nice to know that, even at age 3, he's still not obsessed with that aspect to the exclusion of the time spent with members of his family he doesn't get to see all that often.

It is Will's actual birthday today, so Julie and I have both decided to take the day off with him and do something fun. Not sure what yet—we're going to let him choose between Stone Mountain, the zoo, or the Fernbank Museum—but it will be fun to hang out with him all day.

Another cool thing that happened during Will's family birthday party on Saturday: he got to see a ton of butterflies hatch and let them go in the backyard. Last year we discovered Will's growing love of butterflies when a friend of Julie's (one of the people that attended his party, actually) gave us three chrysalises that we watched hatch and then set free. (This person knows A LOT about butterflies—she actually goes out to parks or the woods or wherever and find butterfly eggs, which she takes home and nurtures into caterpillars, then chrysalises, and finally butterflies.) We also took him to a butterfly festival at a local nature center last summer, which he loved.

Earlier this year, my mom bought him a butterfly tent, which came with a certificate for ordering caterpillars through the mail that you could watch turn into butterflies. We were trying to time their arrival with my mom's visit, not knowing exactly how long they would take to hatch, but we couldn't have guessed better. The ten caterpillars (they accidentally sent us two sets—we were only supposed to get one jar of five) turned into chrysalises on Tuesday or Wednesday, and we attached them to the butterfly tent on Friday and put it on the screen porch.

Late Saturday morning, just after Will's party got underway, one of the guests noticed that one of the butterflies had hatched and was crawling up the side of the tent. Throughout the rest of the day, all the others hatched as well, and by the time Will got up from his afternoon nap, they had all unfurled there wings and were groggigly climbing around inside the tent.

They were all flapping and fluttering by the next morning, but it was still a little rainy out, so we decided to delay turning them loose. By the evening, however, it seemed pretty clear weather-wise, so we took them in the backyard and let Will open their tent. A few of them immediately found the opening and flew out, but several others had to be coaxed out. After seeing me do this once and having a butterfly rest of my finger for a few seconds, Will decided he wanted to try as well.

I was a little nervous, because it's hard for kids to understand how delicate these creatures are and how easy it is to hurt them, and their fine motor skills are also still developing, but Will was amazing—he put his hand in the tent, extended a single finger, and let me guide his hand near one until it crawled on his finger. When he took his hand out of the tent, it didn't just linger for a couple of seconds like mine had—it stayed on Will's hand for 30 or more seconds, gently opening and closely its wings and letting Will take a good look at it. He did this twice more, and both times the butterflies stayed on his hand for much longer than I would have expected:

Amazingly, all ten butterflies had hatched and seemed to be healthy, but there was one who didn't seem quite ready to go yet, so we left him in the tent and let him go the next day. But that was a cool birthday present that we couldn't have planned that way if we had tried—we just got lucky and the timing worked out perfectly.

On Sunday my mom left, but everyone else was staying until Monday morning, so we all ended up going to the Georgia Aquarium together. Will loves the aquarium, but we haven't been since last fall despite being members (although we did end up using our membership three times, so it was still cheaper than buying individual tickets). My dad and stepmother have been before (last year when they came to visit for Will's birthday), but my brother and his crew had never been, and it's a pretty impressive spectacle if you've never been before (or to an aquarium period, which I gather was the case for the two kids).

Will had a ball as usual. First we went to see the jellyfish, then made our way to the beluga whales and the sea otters, then finished with the walk around the big tank and the ride through the tunnel where the fish swim above you.

Even though we got there pretty close to the opening of the aquarium, our dolphin show tickets weren't until the 1:30 show, so we took a break for lunch, which was as much for us all to get something to eat as it was for Will to switch to a different activity for a while.

We've eaten there a couple of times before, and we usually eat upstairs, but on Sunday they had the ballroom open, which was really cool because one wall was a huge aquarium window into the beluga tank. It's never been open to the public when we've been there before, but we're going to check every time we go from now on—it was really cool to be able to watch them swim as we ate.

Will was getting tired by the time we finished lunch, so most of the group went to get out seats for the dolphin show (it was still about 35 minutes from starting, but the theater itself was open) while Julie and I went with my stepmother to take Will upstairs to see the frog exhibit so he wouldn't fall asleep. We got back to the dolphin theater about five minutes before the start of the show to find that our group had managed to get seats four or five rows back on the left side of the theater—perfect for dolphin viewing, since several of them start or end tricks there.

Will had a great time as always, and even though he was tired, he was attentive to the show throughout. Afterwards it was clear he didn't have anything left in the tank, so Julie, my stepmother, and I took him back home for a nap while everyone else stayed to enjoy the aquarium a little longer. It was a good way to spend the day, though, and a reminder that we need to get back more often to take advantage of our membership.

We were sort of birthday-ed out after the long weekend with family, but Julie and I still decided to take the day off and take Will to do something fun with just the three of us. We gave him three options: Stone Mountain (he loves the train), the zoo (he loves the animals but also really loves the train), or the Fernbank Museum (no live animals and no trains). Surprisingly, he picked Fernbank, which was mommy and daddy's choice anyway—the sky was threatening rain and Fernbank is all indoors (it's also only about five minutes from our house, whereas the other two are a bit more of a hike).

Julie and Will have been a couple of times before, but I never have. The building has a cool design and layout—it reminds me a bit of the welcome center/museum in Jurassic Park, the one with the big t-rex skeleton in a central dome—but I didn't really get to look at many of the exhibits. We went straight for the third floor, where they have some sort of adventure time explorer room, which basically means the kids get to run around an indoor treehouse with a fake cave and waterfall and go crazy.

Will did just that, and we probably could have just stayed there for a couple of hours and gone home and he would have been happy. But we had tickets for an IMAX movie about fish (Will had seen it before, but he wanted to see it again), so we got a quick lunch and then saw that film before we left. He was getting tired before the movie started, but as he usually does with big experiences like this, he did a pretty good job of staying awake and focusing.

We're members there now, and we really, really need to take advantage of that membership. We're so close that I could run him by after I pick him up from school after work, let him play upstairs for a half hour or so, and still get him home in time for dinner and our normal bedtime routine.

Even though Will had more than enough birthday celebrations by the time we took the day off to take him to Fernbank on his actual birthday (in addition to the weekend-long celebration with family from out of town, we also brought cupcakes for his class the day before his birthday), we had one final party to get through: the one for his friends.

This is the first time he's been old enough to have a party with other kids his age really mean something, and Julie found a great solution: a party at a nearby Gymboree. It wasn't that expensive, it didn't require us to get our house ready for 30 visitors (roughly half of whom were under the age of five), it had a defined time limit, and it came with a Gymboree teacher who kept the kids engaged with different activities for the hour-long play portion of the party. All we had to do was bring the food and beverages and get that set up while the kids were playing, and then do a quick cleanup after the half hour of birthday cake/party time.

I think the other parents liked it too—you could come and let your kid(s) run around like crazy without worrying that they were going to break something or hurt themselves, and there was none of that awkward being the first one to leave—at 90 minutes, everyone showed up pretty much right on time and left at the same time. Plus the kids LOVED it—in addition to the Gymboree playroom, there were structured activities involving music, bubbles and playing inside a parachute dome that the teacher taught the parents to make. And we also made it a no-presents party—instead, we used a book exchange idea that Julie borrowed from a party she took Will to earlier this summer.

But we are, needless to say, all partied out. It sounds a little excessive when I say on paper that Will had 3 1/2 parties (family, school, us, friends), but I really don't think, given the unique circumstances, that it was over the top, especially because he only got presents for the family party (plus we allowed him to pick out one thing from the Fernbank gift shop as we were leaving). And when we ask him about his birthday, what's the one thing he remembers excitedly? Getting to blow out candles.

Will had his three year checkup yesterday, and he ended up giving us quite a scare (but everything's fine). He's always been incredibly healthy—never any major issues, and rarely even gets a cold—and he's been acting fine, so we weren't expecting any negative findings. But as the exam was going along, the doctor said she felt a mass above his kidney that shouldn't be there, and she wanted us to get him an ultrasound immediately. As in two hours later.

I was in meetings all day and couldn't come to the appointment, but Julie called me as soon as this was decided, and I was completely freaked out. I had two big presentations for a project that I've been working on for over a year, and Julie could handle the logistics of getting him to the ultrasound place (although she was a complete wreck too), so I couldn't justify stepping away from work to join them, but it obviously threw me off my game because I could focus on little else.

Luckily, a few minutes before my second presentation (to the campus-wide committee that signs off on new software implementations, one of the biggest steps in moving forward with the project), Julie called me to say that the ultrasound technician thought he was just really, really constipated, so I went into that meeting not quite as stressed as I might have been otherwise. This finding was confirmed by Will's doctor by the end of the day, and we all breathed a big sigh of relief.

Will had a great time going to see the "new doctors" though—Julie said he couldn't have been any better about waiting around for his appointment and sitting still during the procedure. He got stickers at various stops in his journey, too, so he thought it was a pretty fun day overall—you'd have thought Julie had taken him to an amusement park rather than a series of medical appointments.

Finished watching both seasons of Veep, and it's pretty good. I'm not a huge Julia Louis-Dreyfus fan, but I'm a bigger fan now than I was before—this isn't just her Elaine character as a politician, and that's honestly all I thought she was capable of.

The downside of getting into an HBO comedy series, especially one with only a season or two under its belt, is that you have to wait a year or more for the equivalent of a third or half of a season (compared to a traditional broadcast network comedy). I watch so few comedies these days that when I do find one I like, I'm extra hungry for more episodes, so its going to be an especially long wait for season three of this show.

I'm in the midst of reading Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief, and it's pretty good. It grew out of a profile that the author, Lawrence Wright, wrote for the New Yorker about one of Scientology's most high-profile members, screenwriter and director Paul Haggis, (at least at the time—he has since left the organization),but it goes far beyond the scope of that article, delving deeply into the biography of founder L. Ron Hubbard, the early formative years of the church and its doctrines, and finishing with a look at the current leader and his ties to Hollywood stars, especially Tom Cruise.

I'm sure that Wright, like many other writers who have attempted to document the church's uglier side, will be hounded by them for the rest of his life, even though he has gone to great lengths to have multiple sources confirming every allegation he makes in the book, but he's actually so fair that at times it seems he biased in favor of the church despite the extensive documentation of their human rights abuses and generally cultish nature.

This is probably the best book that Scientology could have hoped for coming from an outsider: it's very honest and truthful about some of the negative aspects of the church, but it also spends a lot of time creating a space for the religion alongside other, more established creeds, especially when Wright compares some of the more draconian policies directed at church members in order to keep them in line to similar policies from other religions when they were just starting out. (I don't necessarily buy this argument—there are lots of abusive practices, religion-centric or not, that were tolerated hundreds or thousands of years ago that are illegal and almost universally recognized as unacceptable in the western world today, and I don't think Scientology should get to live in a special time warp/religious freedom protection bubble to be allowed to legally perpetrate those abuses on its members today.)

Scientology has always been of interest to me, because I consider it (along with Mormonism) to be one of the two truly American religions. I read extensively about the Mormons in my 20s, but at that point, there really wasn't a history of Scientology that you could read—this was pre-internet, and aside from a couple of magazine exposes in the 80s, there really wasn't any material published about the church anywhere that didn't come straight from the church itself (in one of their ballsier moves in the 90s, the church sued one of its most vocal public critics, the Cult Awareness Network, into bankruptcy, and then bought the assets of the organization and used it as a propaganda machine for Scientology).

I'm not sure the book would be for everyone, although Wright creates an engaging narrative, but if you have a taste for oddball conspiracies or the nature of cults, you'll probably like this book. And the fact that Scientology is so intricately tied to one of America's most popular informal cults, the worship of Hollywood, might make it all that more compelling a read for some.

Every summer, our office arranges 3-4 field trips to other offices around the university so we can have a better idea of what else is going on around campus and also have a truer sense of the different options and opportunities that prospective students would have access to if they applied and were admitted.

Most of the time the trips are to interesting but relatively normal places like the business school, the nursing school, etc., and every now and then we get to do something a bit more out of the ordinary like the CDC or the Carter Center. But I think today's trip is going to top them all: we're going to visit the Yerkes Primate Center Field Research Station, a facility about half an hour outside of town where primates are bred and observed for behavioral studies.

This is particular interest to me because when I was in high school I did a year-long internship at the Duke Primate Center. I was interested in anthropology and animal behavior at the time, so it was a great fit for my interests. Most of what we did was build, paint, and clean out enclosures for the animals, and prepare their food, but a portion of each visit (I spent one whole day a week there) was dedicated to either participating in research (by observing a group of animals and recording instances of a certain type of behavior, for example) or geting to watch medical procedures (typically ultrasounds on pregnant females).

I wasn't even aware that my current institution had a primate center until I saw the invitation for this event, and I signed up immediatley. Things are really, really busy right now, and I could probably find more productive things to do with a half day at work, but I'd rather make it up on the weekend than miss an opportunity for a behind-the-scenes tour of the facility.

HBO started airing The Bourne Legacy over the weekend, the first Bourne movie not featuring Matt Damon in the title role. I'm enough of a fan of the franchise that I almost saw this in the theater, but I'm not a huge Jeremy Renner fan and that was enough to keep me away.

It's a pretty good movie, though (I mean, in the context of the Bourne franchise). It definitely had a different feel than the Damon films, and Renner's agent was demonstrably less human-seeming than the original Bourne character (which is one of the reasons it was easy to love the Damon's character). Renner generally reads as a blank slate to me, which is helpful when portraying a Bourne-like supersolider, but it makes it hard to identify with any of his characters, including this one. His Aaron Cross character seems to have a more instinctual, animal intelligence than Bourne, and he's lacking the touches of humor and style that made Bourne so much fun to watch in action. To put it simply: Damon as Bourne is just cooler than Renner as Cross.

Still, I enjoyed the movie and will be more likely to see the inevitable sequel in the theater.

After I finished the Scientology book (the beginning was better than the end—even though this might be a big draw for the mass audience, I have very limited interest in reading about the details of celebrities who are Scientologists, especially Tom Cruise), I started poking around best-of non-fiction lists from the past couple of years in search of new books, and I settled on The Secret Race: Inside the Hidden World of the Tour de France.

It's co-written by Tyler Hamilton, a pro cyclist who was a teammate of Lance Armstrong's for years and who also won an Olymipic gold medal (which he later returned after admitting to blood doping) and NY Times writer Daniel Coyle. It was a very quick read, but not because it doesn't have a lot of content—it's gripping and engaging (thanks to Hamilton's life story) and incredibly well-written (presumably thanks to Coyle). This is the kind of book that I think anyone would love, whether you have a general interest in sports, a specific interest in cycling, or no interest in either. It's just a good book.

You grow to like Hamilton for his honesty and forthrightness, which is ironic because the book is about he spent virtually his entire professional cycling career cheating to get to the top. The book was instrumental in changing my opinion about performance-enhancing drugs/techniques, though—I've generally taken the approach that every athlete is enhancing their performance in some way, and so if some choose to push the limits of their body by ingesting certain substances, that's their choice, because everyone they are competing with has access to the same tools if they choose to use them.

But this book convinced me that this is not really the case, especially in the cycling world where the timing and dosage of the different drugs and blood transfusions are critical. First, not everyone does have access to these chemicals or techniques, and even the ones that do still have varying degrees of expertise from the doctors who administer them. There's no doubt in my mind that one of the reasons Armstrong won is because not only was he aggressive in his desire to get ahead at any cost, but also because he had more or less exclusive access to the best doctors in the field. Sure, you could make the argument that this is the same difference as having a good coach or a bad one, but that analogy only goes so far in this case, because there were only a handful of doctors in the world who knew enough about the drugs and the sport to have access to the chemicals and blood doping technique that Armstrong used over the years.

Second, the drugs don't affect everyone equally. Even at the same relative dose and the same approach for the timing of the doses, there are some athletes who will simply never get more than a 10% boost over their natural metabolism, where others (like Armstrong and Hamilton) can potentiall achieve four times that. True, this comes down to genetics, and you can argue that a significant percent of who wins and who loses in a given competition comes down to genetics, but this argument still resonated for me.

This doesn't really settle the question of athletic performance enhancers for me, though, because the real question is, where do you draw the line on what's legal and illegal? Why are cortisone shots unversally accepted in pro sports but other forms of steroids and hormones are not? Is it cheating if an athlete has Lasik surgery to improve their eyesight to better than 20/20 vision? If that crosses a line, then why doesn't wearing glasses? And let's not even start with Olympian Oscar Pistorius' artificial legs, which opens up a whole new dimension in potential body modification for the sake of better performance.

The fact is that athletes who compete in and win modern, professional sports are all winners due to some combination of good genetics; having access to the best trainers, coaches and equipement; taking advantage of as many enhancements as they feel comfortable trying to get away with; and old fashioned hard work. And no matter how you look at this issue, the last one is really the only thing the athlete has true control over, but committment and drive can only get you so far against less motivated athletes who are stronger in the other areas.

Great book, though. Whether or not it changes your views on doping in sports (whatever those views may currently be), it's gives a very clear picture of the fascinating world of professional cycling over the past twenty years.

We've decided: we're going on a vacation. A real one, where we go away for a week and it's not to visit family.

Julie and I have traditionally been very bad about this—in 17 years of marriage, the only vacations that were at least a week were our honeymoon and our 10 year anniversary. Now that we have Will and he's getting to the point where he's going to start developing long-term memories, it's about more than just us, and so we're really going to make an effort to take at least one real family vacation a year.

We do lots of little stuff with him—probably every other weekend at least we're taking a day trip to do something fun—but it's different being gone for an extended period and being completely away from home. It will also be good for us to get away from our jobs for a bit—we're both feeling more pressure with the higher profile roles that we have in our new jobs, and even though I do my best to disconnect after hours and on the weekends, I don't really do that great a job, and it will be a lot easier to put aside work for a while if I'm not in my normal habitat where I can easily get sucked in.

It's not for another month, but just signing the rental agreement made me feel like a weight had been lifted—I know for sure I'm going to get a break now, and my mind is already reducing some of its stress implulses in anticipation.

After finishing The Secret Race, I bought the Kindle edition of Beautifully Unique Sparkleponies: On Myths, Morons, Free Speech, Football, and Assorted Absurdities, a book of essays by Chris Kluwe, an NFL punter (formerly with the Vikings, now with the Raiders) who first gained national attention with his open letter to an anti-gay marriage Maryland legislator who publicly asked the Ravens to muzzle one of their players who was pro-gay marriage.

I enjoyed the essay (which is reprinted in the book), so I started following Kluwe on Twitter, and his Twitter feed was pretty good, too, so I was intrigued about a whole book of essays from him, especially one with the title Beautifully Unique Sparkleponies that featured Kluwe on the cover looking for all the world like a younger Fabio riding a carousel horse.

But I didn't care for the book. At all. And it's not the message or his delivery/language—I knew what I was getting in those departments from his Twitter feed and his online essays, and I agree with most of his political views. I just think that I'm not really a book of personal essays kind of guy—the only other book I haven't finished that I started since I bought my Kindle was the misleadingly-titled (and reviewed) The Way the World Works by Nicholson Baker. I like the style of writing okay, but in the end, these are still just some very personal essays that don't really have any resonance for me.

So I think I'm done with that genre. Maybe I'll finish those two books out of stubborness eventually, but I don't want any more like them.

I haven't written much about the Braves this season, but that's because there hasn't been a lot to write about. After getting off to a hot start in April, they been at the front of the normally-competitive NL East pack, and are currently sitting a comfortable seven games ahead of the next closest team in the division.

Part of that is luck, becuase they have gone through long stretches of playing .500 ball in the last month or so, but this year they are playing in the weakest division in baseball. If they were in almost any other division, they'd be in second or third place and in a desperate several-way battle for a wild card spot, but if they can continue winning at least half their games, it seems unlikely that anyone in the NL East will catch up to them before the end of the season.

Of course, Tim Hudson's season-ending injury changes that calculus a bit, and it also makes me far more concerned about the postseason. I'm hoping they'll make a trade for at least one veteran pitcher to shore up the starting rotation before the trade deadline (it would actually shock me if they didn't), but whoever that might be won't necessarily bring the same playoff experience and veteran clubhouse leadership to the table like Hudson would have.

I know a lot of the NFL pundits have been very negative about Baltimore's chances to make it to the Super Bowl again next year, largely because of the loss of so many players (through retirement, free agency, trades, and salary cap cuts) who started for them in the playoffs last season, but I haven't been too concerned. Ozzie Newsome has done a great job of filling the holes, and the defense especially was upgraded with younger and stronger players, who might not be the Hall of Fame caliber of Ed Reed and Ray Lewis, but who could likely outplay those aging veterans in a head-to-head matchup today.

The one trade I questioned was letting Anquan Boldin go to Super Bowl opponent San Francisco—he was a tough, physical receiver who was perfect for short to middle distance routes. The hope was that he would be replaced by tight end Dennis Pitta, who would pair with tight end Ed Dickson to give Flacco more short options. Throw in the always-dangerous Ray Rice as another checkdown option, and Flacco should have plenty of options at his disposal, despite losing Boldin, who was his favorite target for those short throws.

But now Pitta is out for the season, and someone—really several someones—is going to have to seriously step up his game to give Flacco the weapons he needs to succeed in the passing game. Not only do we need another reliable, physical short threat, but we need another genuine wide receiver to complement Torrey Smith, and I'm not convinced that current frontrunner Jacoby Jones can handle it despite his stellar playoff performances—I think our best use of him is going to continue to be as a kick returner and occasional part of a multiple-receiver set.

The Ravens have become adept at overcoming major losses over the past few years—during last year's Super Bowl season, for example, the defense lost stars Ray Lewis, Terrell Suggs, and Lardarius Webb for significant portions of the season, and bench players stepped up to fill the gaps. The offense seems like a different story, however—that's traditionally been Baltimore's weak spot, and I'm not sure we have the depth to overcome the loss of two of Flacco's favorite targets in red zone and short yardage situations.

I'm not making the claim that Pitta was going to transform into a superstar this season (although he was poised to have a big year), but losing him might just be the straw that broke the camel's back—combined with all the other offseason changes, losing him for the whole season just might be the thing that pushes the team over the edge from having a decent shot of making the playoffs to having that journey be a real struggle.

The book I decided to tackle after giving up on Chris Kluwe's book of personal essay, Beautiful Unique Sparkleponies, was another book of essays/articles by a journalist David Grann called The Devil and Sherlock Holmes: Tales of Murder, Madness, and Obsession.

The subtitle is a good enough description of the loose thread that ties these stories together, and although some of the stories involve all three elements, the chapters range from a profile of baseball star Rickey Henderson at the end of his brilliant career to a peek into the underground world of the sandhogs who have been building a new water tunnel to NYC for the past 40 years (and who are likely to be at it for at least 10 years more) to the story of James Trafficant, a corrupt sheriff in Ohio who was indicted on RICO charges, chose to represent himself in his criminal trial, was acquitted, and then later became a member of Congress, where he was also accused of corruption (and this time was convicted and expelled from the House of Representatives).

The best stories are the true mysteries: a Sherlock Holmes expert and would-be Sir Arthur Conan Doyle biographer who was found dead under mysterious circumstances that only Doyle could have dreamed up; a 30 year old man who is discovered impersonating a teen girl in France who apparently had been engaging in this deception all over the world for half his life; and an incredible, fascinating tale of a philosophy student in Poland who is convicted of murder based mostly on details described a work of fiction he wrote as an exploration of his philosophical ideas (although other circumstancial evidence piles up; it's hard to believe he didn't do it, but whether or not he should have been convicted based on the evidence the police had is another matter).

Very highly recommended, especially if you're a bit obsessed with obsessives and if you can handle a little gore (there are graphic descriptions of the crimes committed by the Ayran Brotherhood prison gang and the atrocities committed by Haitian death squads, among other things). Even when covering stories I already had some familiarity with (such as Rickey Henderson and the sandhogs), the writing and new details were strong enough to make it worth it to revisit those subjects.

July lasted forever and went by in a flash. There have been a lot of months like this since we moved to Atlanta.

december 2013
november 2013
october 2013
september 2013
august 2013
july 2013
june 2013
may 2013
april 2013
march 2013
february 2013
january 2013

daily links
cd collection