november 2014

For once we were pretty on top of the whole pumpkin situation for Halloween: we bought our pumpkins a couple of weeks ago and got them carved the day before (we've had some recent years where the purchase hasn't been made until the day before). Here they are:

I carved the bat, while Will picked out and helped mommy with the pirate kitty.

For trick or treating this year, Will decided he wanted to be a jellyfish, so Julie did some research on the internet and came up with a good game plan to make a costume herself. Here's how it turned out:

Before the Halloween parade at school

Trick or treating at a neighbor's house

As you can imagine, this got a lot of positive comments. It was really awesome for when it got dark and especially towards the very end of the night when it started to rain a little bit—the lights meant he was always very visible, and the fact that it's made primarily out of an umbrella meant he didn't get wet.

My sister and brother-in-law came to town for both the school parade and trick or treating, which Will really enjoyed. Most groups we saw had a parent-to-kid ratio of 1-3; Will's was the opposite at 4-1. But it's always fun to do these things with him—he's so outgoing and talkative that he always makes an impression on people.

It's hard for me to even talk about the Ravens-Steelers game this week, it was that embarrassing. What made it even more painful is that I decided to join a friend to watch the game at a nearby sports bar, and it was PACKED with Steelers fans.

The first quarter was pretty amazing—the Ravens scored a touchdown on their second possession, and the defense kept Roethlisberger from making any real progress on his drives, including a couple of three and outs from deep in Pittsburgh territory. On the drive when he finally did get a rhythm, the Ravens blitzed and sacked him three straight times, and it was looking for all the world like this was going to be a lopsided blowout.

But then the Baltimore offense turned over the ball twice in the second quarter (running back fumble and quarterback interception), and the Steelers turned both of those possessions into touchdowns, and added another for good measure, putting the score at 22-10 in favor of the Steelers at halftime. This certainly was still a winnable game at that point, but nothing happened for either team in the third quarter, so the Ravens started to press in the fourth and that led to disaster: the offense couldn't get anything done, and the weaknesses in our secondary were exposed. Roethlisberger got away a ton of long passes and added three more touchdowns for a total of six, and while the Ravens also scored 13 more points (including a kickoff return touchdown from Jacoby Jones), it wasn't nearly enough to match what the Steelers were doing, much less even the score.

I don't think that the lopsided penalty calling affected the outcome of this game as much as the terrible offensive pass interference call that cost the Ravens a game-winning touchdown in Cincinnati last week, but the officiating was terrible by any measure, and it seemed to benefit the Steelers almost exclusively. The Ravens were called for all sorts of stuff, but equivalent acts on the Steelers side were completely ignored. A Steelers challenge that should not have been overturned was, while a Ravens challenge that clearly should have been overturned was upheld, and I've seen at least four plays from angles that the broadcasters declined to show on replays during the game where the Steelers engaged in late hits or where the receivers clearly pushed off (and made big plays as a result) that were all just ignored by the refs during the game (and what's worse, since they didn't show those angles during the game, it made the Ravens secondary look even worse than it was).

This is a bitter, bloody rivalry, and both teams tend to play very aggressively, but usually the refs make sure to penalize both sides. In this game, the refs were almost encouraging the Steelers to play very dirty, because they never got punished for it, and often they would actually end up gaining yards on a penalty against the Ravens. Who wouldn't play as dirty as possible under those circumstances? I still don't know if the Ravens could have won this game with the offense not performing and with the very real problems we have in the secondary, especially with our best cornerback Jimmy Smith sidelined, but I do know we would have had a much better chance and that it wouldn't have been the blowout that it appeared to be if there was any balance at all to the refs calls.

The Ravens are far from out of the race, however, even though they are technically in last place in the division. The AFC North is the tightest division on football, with all four teams having winning records, and with the difference between first place and last place being only one game. The Ravens get a home game against a rookie quarterback next week before they take their bye, their schedule the rest of the way isn't nearly as tough as what they've faced so far (at least on paper), and the majority of their remaining games are at home. The offense is still capapble of putting up points, and if the defense can be more like the one we saw in the first quarter of the Steelers game than the one on the field in the fourth quarter, Baltimore still has a good chance to go on a run and take the division title or at least grab a wild card slot.

I didn't vote yesterday, for the first time in my life since I've been eligible to vote (indeed, I used to be one of those people who would excoriate friends and family who said that they weren't planning to vote). Part of it was logistics: my driver's license still has the address of the house we rented when we first moved to Atlanta, so I wasn't sure where I was supposed to go to vote and whether or not I would actually be allowed to vote, and I didn't get around to voting early.

But it was really more about my apathy towards the political process, which has strangely decreased over the past few years. I still read about politics, but I don't really like any candidate anywhere, especially for the federal offices—Obama's administration has been a real disappointment to me, because he hasn't had the muscle to push through any real reforms other than Obamacare (the dismantling of which will proceed at a rapid clip now that it looks like the GOP will control the legislative and judicial branches through at least the end of the decade regardless of who is in the White House), and on issues where he could make a difference, especially around transparency in government and restoring some of the civil liberties that were taken away by the Patriot Act, he's been just as bad as (and in some ways worse) than the Bush administration that put those laws in place.

I worry that this is actually part of the plan—you take educated people who have previously engaged with the process and get them so fed up with it that they are non-factors and it makes it that much easier to use dollars and advertising to control the outcomes. But I still think if there was a candidate I was genuinely excited about, I would be motivated to at least get out to the polls, and maybe even given time and money in support of that candidate. But in today's political world, the compromises you have to make to your party, to the moneyed interests that pay for your campaign, and to the many faces of your constituency, I don't know if it's possible for a candidate to have a sincere point of view that they can stick to through debates and policy discussions, much less in their actual voting record.

It also doesn't help that I live in states where the outcome is all but predetermined: Maryland was pretty blue at the national level (although we lived in a more rural congressional district, so I was usually voting against the tide there), and Georgia is so red that, despite the media playing up how close the races for the senate seat and the governorship could be, there was really no doubt that the Republican candidates were going to win (and they won handily).

Even though I wasn't really excited about any of the candidates and didn't think my vote would end up mattering, I still feel bad about not voting. I'm sure I'll vote in the 2016 contests (and with its changing demographics and the higher turnout that you usually get for presidential elections, I actually think Georgia has a chance of turning more blue), but I really don't have an excuse for why I didn't vote in these midterms. There are plenty of other areas of my life where I'm in a frustrating circumstance that's not likely to get better, but that doesn't stop me from engaging with those problems and doing what I can to at least keep them from getting worse.

Not sure who to root for in tonight's game between Cleveland and Cincinnati, both of whom are above the Ravens in the AFC North. If Cincinnati wins, they'll be that much closer to repeating as division champs (that tie game could end up playing a major role in deciding the title), and Cleveland will drop back into a tie with the Ravens (and since the Ravens currently own the tiebreaker, that would move Baltimore to third place in the division).

A Cleveland win, however, might be better for the long-term—even though it would keep the Ravens in last place for the moment, Cincinnati is the team I see as being a bigger threat as the season goes on, so any loss on their record is a good thing for Baltimore if the Ravens can get back on track after the last couple of games.

But it's really hard for me to do anything close to rooting for either of these teams, so hated are our rivals in the AFC North, especially when the outcome doesn't have an immediate or predictable impact on the playoff picture. So maybe the right thing to do here is root for another tie, as unlikely as that is: nobody gains on the Ravens in the win column, and Cincinnati could then have that other tie on their record essentially become equivalent to a loss.

Recently I've been going to a sports bar to meet some relatively new friends (the primary guy I know has had a son in Will's school since we started going there, and Will also plays on his son's soccer team), and although I've really enjoyed it, I'm starting to wonder if this particular bar has a curse.

See, the only times we go are when one of the people in the group has their home team playing in a primetime game (Sunday, Monday, or Thursday), and so far every time we've gone, the team that we collectively are rooting for on behalf of the one person in the group who really cares has lost, and usually lost badly (the Ravens loss the Steelers on Sunday and the Bengals loss to the Browns last night being the prime examples).

At this point, as much as I enjoy hanging out with those guys, I don't think I'm going to run the risk of going to a Ravens game there again unless it's a game with zero playoff implications (which is pretty unlikely given the current state of the AFC North race).

The AFC North continues to be one of the strangest divisions in football. Cleveland sits all alone in first place, and the Ravens are still in last place, but after Baltimore's win over Tennessee yesterday and Pittsburgh's humiliating loss to the Jets, the Ravens and the Steelers are tied with a 6-4 record and sit only a half game behind the Browns. That's right: all the teams in the AFC North have a winning record, and only half a game separates first place from last place with seven weeks left in the regular season.

The good news for the Ravens is that their schedule is the weakest for the rest of the season, they have their bye week this year, they play more games at home than away to close out the season, and they have played all but one of their divisional games while the rest of the AFC North still has some big matchups against each other. The Ravens still have a great shot at the playoffs, and a decent shot at winning the division, especially if no one steps up and dominates the division games remaining among the other AFC North teams.

The win against the Titans was a solid one, but there were still some concerns. The secondary played better (how could they not after that collapse against Pittsburgh, multiple blown calls by the refs notwithstanding), and in general the defense was lights out the last three quarters, but the offense took a while to kick into gear, and there were still several series, especially in the first half, where Flacco looked flat-footed and lost. Yes, they started to come together as the game went on, and the running game was pretty strong all day, but this is a very up and down team on offense still, and even if they make the playoffs, they're going to have to be a lot more consistent to have a chance to make a run.

Still, given the schedule so far, this isn't a bad place to be (although winning in Cincinnati a couple of weeks ago would have put them solidly in first place and in a much better position to win the division title), and with the bye week next week, they'll get some much needed rest as they prepare for the home stretch of the season.

There are many, many things I appreciate greatly about the place I work now compared to the place I used to work. But one thing that drives me absolutely batty is the extreme amount of maintenance work and the sheer number of people we have to negotiate with each year just to get our process back to the state it was when our previous reading cycle ended.

Our counselors start reading files today, and we're not even back to where we ended last year yet despite having a much better summer in terms of getting data from our vendors and having no major upgrades happening to the systems we use to support our process. Last year our only online application vendor had a nightmare of a year that led to the ouster of the longtime executive director, plus we did some major moves/upgrades to our primary reading system (moved it to new hardware, upgraded to the latest version of the software, and migrated the database from Microsoft SQL Server to Oracle), and yet despite not having those obstacles (which were completely out of our control) to deal with this year, we're no farther along at this point than we were last year.

It's very frustrating, because we're not making as much forward progress annually as I'd like, and my team is also incredibly stressed out because we're running only two steps ahead of our customers: for the first month or so we have multiple points where a failure on some other team or with one of our systems can lead to our work coming to a halt. I'm really not sure what to do about it—this approach is deeply ingrained in the IT culture here, and no one seems to really see it as a problem, much less be willing to do anything to change it.

Julie is leaving for a conference this afternoon, so it's just me and Will until Sunday afternoon when she gets back. I think we've each done this two or three times since we've moved to Atlanta—gone to a conference leaving the other one solo with him—and it usually goes pretty well. But I'm well exhausted by the end of each day—he's a high energy kids who needs a lot of interaction, and I'm at heart an introvert who needs personal space and quiet time to get through the day.

It should be fun, though—I'm not planning to go full solo dad mode and let him eat nothing but junk food, not clean up anything, etc., but I probably will take him out to dinner at some of his favorite restaurants, especially tonight—he's been really upset about Julie leaving and I think he needs a little extra TLC to help him with the first day of her absence.

I usually watch the newest Walking Dead episdoe the night it airs, but I haven't made it past episode 2 yet, and I'm not quite sure why, especially because I thought the first two episodes were very good.

Like most Walking Dead fans, I look forward to each half-season, and dread the many months that the show is on hiatus. I don't think I'm tired of the show or that it has run its course, but I am starting to wonder if the familar cycle (run into a group of strangers, camp out in a location for a while with them and either integrate with them or have a bloody separation) has started to get a little too predictable.

Don't get me wrong: I like it that, when we meet someone who clearly needs to die, the characters don't sit around and talk about it forever like in seasons 1 and 2—the writers have gotten very good about showing that there is an unsolveable conflict (although they usually have the other side instigate to give the moral high ground to the main characters, which is starting to feel a little too easy). And I sure don't want a slew of episodes like the ones in the second half of season 4 that featured only two or three chracters and were relatively slow-paced. But I do think they could give the group some new goals, like getting one of the new guys to DC where he can supposedly create a cure for the zombie virus (although I think he's full of shit, and I'm betting that will come to light sometime in this block of episodes), that would allow us to engage with the show and the characters in a different way.

Because if they don't find some way to make this a show about something other than basic, brutal survival where everyone's luck will run out eventually, then the show is going to become unwatchable sooner than it should. Even in the zombie universe, there's got to be some hope that things will somehow eventually get better, and right now, I'm struggling to find that in the Walking Dead world as it currently stands.

Well, the hard part of Julie's absence is over—we've gotten through the workweek with no major physical or psychological injuries for either party, and now we cruise into the much more relaxed weekend, starting with our Friday night movie and pizza night tradition that I inheirited from my parents.

I was thinking of taking him to see Big Hero 6—he has been NUTS for the trailers—but Julie wants to see that one too, so we'll hold off and see that sometime before Thanksgiving after she gets back. I may indulge him and let him rent a new movie that I have pretty much zero interest in seeing, the Planes sequel that I really see as the fourth movie in that universe, coming after two Cars movies and the first Planes movie.

I really just want to sleep and lay around the house this weekend—not only has he been sick all week and I've been fighting something off, a new expansion for the only video game that I really play on a regular basis was released on Thursday, and I'd like nothing more than to pretend that I don't have any responsibilities and play through Sunday—but Will is really excited about the possibility of going to the Fernback Museum of Natural History, so we'll probably go over there right when it opens to see an IMAX movie and do the standard tour of the exhibits.

The weekend with Will was pretty fun—we went to the museum and saw an IMAX movie about the Galapagos Islands before spending a couple of hours exploring the rest of the museum, and then went to run some errands and got dinner to bring home.

It's amazing to me how much it takes to keep up with Will on my own—except for a couple of times when I was deathly ill, I've kept up my minimum-of-five-times-a-week exercise routines for over a year now...until this week when Julie was gone, when I wasn't able to fit in my exercise at all during the days she was gone (I got in exercises all the days when she was here for at least a portion of the day, but that only got me to four).

It's been a lot of hard work on my part to get this routine down and stick to it, but having Julie not here made me realize just how much she has contributed to this effort as well—if I was a single parent, I don't think my weight loss over the past year would have been possible.

The AFC North continues to be completely bonkers, but people outside the division are trying every way they can think of not to give these teams credit for how tough the division is (they've all played a lot of games against the terrible AFC South, there's a lot of inconsistency from week to week, etc.).

And granted, some of that is true. But the fact remains that no other division in football has four teams with a winning record, and no other division has a race this close between their top three teams, much less all four (even the vaunted NFC West, which most pundits call the best division in football, has the St. Louis Rams for the rest of the division to beat up on; we usually have the Browns but they are surprisingly right in the thick of things this year).

The Ravens had a bye this week, and the Steelers have one next week, but after that everyone will have played the same number of games and we'll have a more accurate picture of where everyone stands. I'm not going to be shocked if the race is still only separated by half a game or a game; there's no one who is anywhere near out of contention at this point, and it's not going to surprise me if both the division title and at least one wild card slot is decided in the final week of the season.

Finally watched the second Hunger Games movie on Netflix, and I think I may have liked it even less than the first one. There are two real problems I have with this franchise: the first is that the books (which I read), really aren't all that great, but they are much better than the movies. The second is that I don't really care for Jennifer Lawrence as an actress, and I certainly don't see her as Katniss.

Even if I did really like the first two movies, I still think I would boycott the third and fourth because I don't like this pattern of studios realizing that their hit series is coming to an end so they needlessly stretch out the final installment into two movies. Mockingjay was the least interesting book of the series (it also felt like it was milking the success of the first two a bit), and I don't think we really need to spend another four or five hours in that universe to wrap things up.

It's like no one is planning to have any meetings between now and the end of the year, so they're jamming them all in now. Yesterday the whole morning was taken up with a big data summit meeting to introduce a new institution-wide policy (which was actually pretty good), and that came after two days where I had an average of five meetings each day.

I'm happy I'm in a position where I'm included in a lot of important discussions and have visibility with a lot of decision makers at the institution, but there are days when I miss being a producer of real work, when I could look at what I'd accomplished at the end of a workday and feel like it was something more tangible. But that's just not what my boss and my boss' boss needs me to spend my time on these days, and I'm very fortunate that I have such a solid team of people who produce great work that I can live vicariously through.

Work was as deserted as you would expect it to be the Friday before a holiday week: aside my my two teams and the front desk staff, the only people in the office were my boss and the rookies on the counseling team, who either got stuck with on-call duty or still have acclimated to the culture of the office where most of the file reading is done from home.

Still firming up Thanksgiving plans, but we're definitely doing it at our house with my parents and my sister and brother-in-law. Unfortunatley, Julie and I both have work through Wednesday (I actually had someone schedule a meeting for 9 a.m. Wednesday morning, even though he knows that we close at noon that day), so we won't have a lot of time to prepare before the big dinner on Thursday.

Luckily, I've got my Thanksgiving routine, especially the turkey part of it, pretty down pat, so I'm not too stressed about it. We could end up with as many as ten people in the house, but I'd be pretty happy with that number.

A neighbor of ours is the president of a Scandanavian cultural association, and she has long used her connections at my place of work to reserve a meeting space for their big annual meeting. Any faculty or staff member can sponsor a group that's not directly affiliated with the institution, and for years her group's sponsor was her husband, who was a faculty member.

When he retired, they relied on another member of the group who was still employed there, but he retired last year, so, knowing that I worked there, she approached me to see if I could help them out, which of course I was happy to. And when I stopped by on the night of the event to make sure they had everything they needed, as a way of saying thank you, she gave me an invitation to a members-only party at the Atlanta Center for Puppetry Arts for their interpretation of the classic animated Rudolph stop-motion television special, which featured puppet making and free food and drink in addition to the puppet show.

We had never been there before, but we couldn't pass this up, so we made our reservations and headed over last Friday night. We got there early enough to park in the free parking behind the center, which was a relief to me because I always get stressed out about parking downtown. The first thing we did was head up to the puppet making stations, where Will made a Rudolph puppet with the assistance of a nice but extremely precise attendent, and then we went downstairs to check out the museum and get some snacks while we waited for the show to start.

We started with the more advanced puppets, and Will was frankly a little freaked out by this exhibit—at one point he was actually running through the circular exhibit looking desperately for an exit, which isn't like him. The puppets were a little extreme sometimes, and it was dimly lit, etc., so I can see how a kid might get a little scared. Luckily we were able to convince him to go into the kids' section of the museum, which he really liked—he stayed in there until it was time for us to go into the theater.

The show itself was really great—very faithful to the original tv show, but the way they staged it was pretty incredible, a mixtues of puppets (of course) and images project onto a mostly transparent screen in front of the stage for the puppets. It weirded me out for the first few minutes—it's hard to explain, but it was 3D in a way that my brain couldn't quite process—but once I got used to it, it was pretty cool, and Will seemed to really enjoy it as well.

We'll definitely be heading back there for another kid-oriented show, but I'm not sure we loved every part of the museum, etc. to think about becoming members ourselves.

On Sunday afternoon, we took Will to see his second movie ever in a theater: Big Hero 6, which he's been watching the trailers for for several weeks now and which is the first movie that he's ever asked to see before it came out. His first movie was just about a year ago (Frozen), and it was also one of the few movies he'd seen in any format at that point. Since then, he's watched a lot more movies on tv, mostly Pixar and Dreamworks Animation, but until Big Hero 6, he hadn't expressed much interest in going back to the theater.

He was much better behaved this time, which was probably a combination of his high interest in the movie, having another year under his belt, and having more experience with the length of time it takes to watch a movie. But it really was the perfect movie for him: machines and buttons and good guys and bad guys and a main character who is a sweet, helpful robot. I liked it pretty well too (although let's be clear about this: this was a Pixar movie, not a Disney movie—if Disney hadn't bought Pixar and put Pixar head John Lasseter in charge of all Disney animation, this movie would have been made by Pixar, and it's much more in keeping with the films in that studio's catalog), but not quite as much as I was hoping for reasons that I haven't quite figured out yet.

Still, it was a worthwhile trip to the theater, and I liked it enough that if Will wanted to go back and see it in the theaters again, I wouldn't object. I can't imagine a little kid between the ages of 4-8 that wouldn't be completely in love with this movie; even though in some ways it seems marketed more towards boys (just like Frozen was more girl-oriented), I can see this one being a crossover draw that all kids love, just like there was a large percentage of boys who loved Frozen.

The Ravens seem incapable of an easy, runaway victory, but they were pretty well in control of Monday night's game against New Orleans the entire time. Yes, the Saints took a 3 point lead into halftime, and it was a bit of a back-and-forth shootout for much of the game, but it just felt like the Ravens were clicking in a way that would eventually lead them to victory, especially with the run game.

The biggest sign of hope for the rest of the season was the performance of the secondary against a big-time quarterback with a big, strong receiving corps. They weren't outstanding, but they performed well enough that, as long as the offense for Baltimore could do its part, the Ravens could stay in it and keep fighting (contrast this with the ridiculous six touchdown blowout against the Steelers a few weeks ago, when the secondary might as well have not even been on the field).

And of course, the AFC North continues to be ridiculous; after the Ravens win, the records in the division were 7-3-1, 7-4, 7-4, and 7-4, marking the first time in the history of the NFL that an entire division has been at least three games above .500. And the division of the Ravens' opponent, the NFC South, is similarly remarkable in the other division, and these two records are intertwined, since the AFC North plays the NFC South as their interconference opponent this year. In the NFC South, two teams are tied for first place with a 4-7 record, and it's highly likely that someone in that division will become only the second team in NFL history to go to the playoffs while having a losing record (the first was the 2010 Seattle Seahawks, who won their division with a 7-9 record), since whoever wins it will have to win 4 of their next 5 to go 8-8 (and they'll have to win out to have a winning record).

If Baltimore doesn't end up making the playoffs, that's really going to get under my skin, especially because the Ravens have won all four of their games against NFC South teams this year, meaning no matter who wins the division, they will have been beaten by the Ravens. And although the Ravens' playoff chances got a boost with this win, which puts them in second place in the division with the easiest on-paper schedule for the remainder of the season, it's still really anyone's division to call, and it's not necessarily the case that, no matter how strong the division looks now, it will be sending anyone other than the division winner to the playoffs this year, as there is also fierce competition around the conference for the two wild card slots, and none of the AFC North teams would take either one of them if the season were to end today.

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