july 2017

Our Independence Day weekend was a lot quieter than normal. Because of the proximity to Will's birthday on July 10, we usually have several visitors in town, but this year it was only my mom.

My brother has managed to come down all the way from Ohio most years, but we all just gathered together in May to celebrate his graduation from law school and his marriage in the same weekend, and he has his hands full adjusting to those changes and helping to raise two kids. My dad and stepmom also typically come this time of year, but it just didn't work out for their schedules (they're hoping to come up for several days in August instead).

It was nice for my mom though—she got to spend a lot of quality time with Will, including the rest of this week, when Will isn't in camp and will instead be hanging out with her all day (which is also convenient for us). She only lives six hours away in Myrtle Beach, but even that drive is gettng to be a challenge for her; we're hoping that she'll consider moving to Atlanta (where she'll be close to both us and my sister) in the next few years.

It was also pretty low key on the Fourth itself. We had originally planned to go out to my sister's house for a barbecue and pool party, but those plans were predicated on us having our car back, since the Leaf I use on a daily basis doesn't have enough juice to get all the way out to her place and back on a single charge (she lives about 45 minutes away, out towards Athens). And as of today, we still don't have our car back (every week it they have told us it will be ready "by the end of next week", and since last Thursday it has been "by the end of the day tomorrow", so...progress?).

We went over to Decatur for the fireworks as usual, but since my mom couldn't do the walk, we decided not to fight the crowds and logistics of seeing them downtown, so we took a friend's recommendation and parked at a middle school a few blocks from downtown and set up lawn chairs on a strip of grass that had a clear view with no trees. It wasn't as good as watching them from a closer vantage point, but it was a lot easier to manage with my mom, and we still got to see them.

I watched both seasons of Amazon's The Man in the High Castle over a period of about three weeks, and I'm really torn about this one. The show is based on a Philip K. Dick story that imagines a world where the Nazis and the Japanese won WWII after Hitler developed an atomic bomb and dropped it on DC.

In this universe, America is divided into three zones: the American Reich (the east coast through about the Mississippi), the Japanese Pacific State (everything west of the Rockies), and the Neutral Zone in the middle, which is a fairly lawless area that is controlled by neither the Nazis or the Japanese but which both can enter as it suits them. The titular character is a man who has films that show the world that we know—the one where the Allies won and Nagasaki and Hiroshima were devasted by atomic weapons.

The cinematography and set design are beautifully done, and the writing and acting are pretty good, but the pace is too slow too often. It feels like the producers are dragging things out because they know Amazon wants a certain number of seasons out of them (both of the current seasons have not ended in ways that would allow you to see them as the end of a story).

This purposeful throttling infects the pacing sometimes down to the scene level, with dialogue (or worse, silences) that don't really add anything to the plot or the character development but which are clearly meant to read as important and weighty. The biggest example of this: after two seasons—20 hour long episodes—we have seen the man in the high castle, but we only a glimmer of an idea of where he gets the films from and what their significance is to the world of the series. And we didn't really even get a taste of the meaning until the very end of the last episode of the first season.

Another big problem: there are no characters that you are allowed to like or trust fully. Every major character has betrayed their closest friends and allies more than once, and all of them have proven to be very unlikable people (with the possible exception of Tagomi, the Japanese trade minister whose role seems to be becoming more important as the story advances). But by and large, all of the characters, even the minor recurring ones, are not good people and they don't do good things. It's really, really hard to root for anyone, especially since we don't understand the world well enough to know which actions might change the course of history back towards a world that we know and understand.

I'm sure I'll watch the third season (it's due out later this year), and I have a feeling that there is a definite end point for this show that will wrap everything up, but the producers are very coy about it, claiming that the show is renewed on a season-by-season basis and they don't have a masterplan for the show. That seems like a pretty ridiculous claim to make when you watch the first two seasons, however—the first season really only hints at the balance between our two worlds, and season 2 also ends in a way that would be deeply unsatisfying if that were to be the final episode for the series.

I thought about drifting back to nonfiction after finishing All the Birds in the Sky, but I stayed in the fiction realm, picking up the first book in a series called The Invisible Library by Genevieve Cogman.

The premise seems like it would be right up my alley: there's a secret library that exists between multiverses that contain variations of the Earth we know, and some of those Earths have variations on classic texts or texts that are completely unique to that world that have special significance. The Librarians live in the Invisible Library (where they do not age—time only passes when they are in one of the worlds), going on missions to the various worlds to collect the rare variant texts for the Library.

I thought this might be a book that would lead me into the larger series and occupy me for a few weeks, but sadly that didn't turn out to be the case. The writing is really not that great, and it ended being much more of a YA fantasy book than sci fi or adult-oriented. The plot was unengaging, the characters were pretty flimsy and very caricatured, and the book also spent as much time world-building for planned future installments as it did caring about the quallity of this particular book.

The ending sets you up to fall right into the next book, but I have no desire whatsoever to spend any more time in that universe with those characters. If the author had taken a more grounded literary approach—for example, digging deeply into a known and significant work of fiction and WHY a variation was important for that world—then it might have fared better. But as it was, it was a nonsensical lurching from setpiece to setpiece without any real connection to the characters or the mission of the Library. The potential was there for a great series, but I just don't think this writer has the talent and imagination to pull it off properly.

It's Will's real birthday today, but we celebrated a little early over the weekend. We started on Saturday by letting him pick where he wanted to go for dinner, knowing that he'd likely choose the "game place" (Taco Mac, which has a small arcade in the back).

We walked to Decatur instead of driving, and then we gave him five dollars in quarters to play games. His selections: $2 spent on a racing game where you sit down and use pedals, $1 spent on a grabber game where he got two tries but didn't pick up any toys, and $2 spent on two tries on the other grabber game that lets you play until you win something. He got a bonus, too—the guaranteed win game didn't register his first toy, so he got two toys out of that round.

On Sunday we went out to my sister's house for the day to have lunch, go swimming, open some presents, and have cake. We haven't been out to my sister's for an afternoon swim party all summer, so it was great to get back there, and of course Will was showered in birthday gifts from his aunt and uncle (and a couple more from my mom).

He was pretty exhausted on the way back, and so were we, so we stopped at McDonald's (which Will talks about all the time but which he has eaten at probably once a year or so) and let Will get a cheeseburger happy meal with apples and milk to eat in the car on the way home. That's the first time he's ever had a meal in the car, and he thought that was pretty great.

Today he wanted to go to his science camp, which six or seven of his friends are also attending this week. But before he left, he did see the big pile of presents from mom and dad that he'd get to open when he got home. We're also getting him a cookie cake and meeting my mom, my sister, and my brother in law for dinner at a new Mellow Mushroom location in downtown Decatur.

We finally got our car back on Saturday, more than six weeks after the original accident. Granted, we had a week delay where we didn't make any forward progress because we were out of town on vacation (the accident happened less than 48 hours before we left for our annual beach trip), and we lost another few days waiting for the tow company to get it to the body shop, but the body shop had it for over a month.

We selected them based on a triangulation of reviews from Yelp, Angie's List, and Nextdoor, and while most people thought they did a great job with the actual repair, there was a pretty common undercurrent of caveats about delayed timelines, etc. Still, I didn't think it would take more than a month. I'm not sure if I would use them again because of the constant moving of the goalposts in terms of repair time, and I definitely wouldn't if time was a factor.

But the good news is that Geico (the other driver's insurance company) covered all the costs, including five weeks of rental cars, and the repairs were impeccably done. It's nice to have our normal transportation setup back after weeks of juggling rental cars and one week of getting by without a second car.

After The Invisible Library, I turned back to something that I new was hard sci fi, specifically the near-future technothriller genre that Daniel Suarez has become the master of. I've read his two book series, Daemon and Freedom, and enjoyed that quite a bit, so I turned to his novel that preceded those, Influx.

This book is about a contemporary to very near future timeline where there is a secret government agency (the Bureau of Technology Control, or BTC) that has existed since the middle of the 20th century. The mission of this agency: to identify disruptive technologies and both keep them from the public (by abducting their inventors and all associated inventions and documentation) and continue to develop them to create ever more advanced technologies. Some of the tech that gets brought up in the book is fusion energy, genetic manipulation/enhancement, new material science products, advanced AI, and, the focus of the book, gravity waves manipulated to create antigrav devices.

The protagonist is the scientist who first discovers how to manipulate gravity waves, and we follow his story as his invention comes to the attention of the BTC and his subsequent imprisonment, escpae from, and rebellion against them along with other scientists who have been similarly coopted by the agency.

As with the other Suarez books I've read, the characters are well crafted for their roles in the plot but not especially deeply drawn, and he does a great job with the action setpieces. The tech ruminations are fairly plausible, and because he's great at keeping the plot moving along, it's a quick read. My only real quibble with his story choices are spending a decent amount of time on a backstory on a couple of federal agents who are investigating the BTC only to waste that investment for no good reason. I suspect they were originally utilized differently, but then their original purpose was gifted to another character, but it was too hard to go back and rewrite them out of the story.

For the life of me I can't figure out why one of his books hasn't been made into a movie yet—done correctly, they would be technology-centered action films that could translate as well as the best adaptations of Tom Clancy or Michael Crichton. The way they're written is practically begging for a film adaptation, and given how well his books have sold, it's a little mystifying that a major studio hasn't given one of them ago, to say nothing of a major star deciding to make it one of his pet projects.

After Influx, I turned to a long short story or a short novella (Amazon calls them "singles") by Martha Wells called All Systems Red: The Murderbot Diaries. I saw it recommended on a couple of tech sites, and really liked the tone after reading the first few pages.

It's a story told from the point of view of a cyborg-ized clone who is owned by a corporation and gets rented out to various planetary expeditions to provide security for the scientists/explorers/whatever. There's some good, subtle world building that happens as we get to know this person through his reactions to the events on his current assignment, which is protecting a small team of scientists as they survey a new planet for potential resources.

I love the voice of this character, and I saw enough intriguing about the universe he lives in that I'm not going to be surprised if this short piece is followed by a full novel (or, more likely in the sci fi realm, a series of novels), especially after the success it has had. But while I will certainly read that novel, I think the world building and the peek we get inside this character's head are going to be the strongest things that remain from this particular work—the plot isn't all that compelling, and the ending falls a little flat.

I've been slowly working my way through the first season of Netflix's Daredevil during my workouts over the past two or three weeks, and after watching the first ten episodes, I think I can get behind this take on the character. Daredevil was one of my favorite comics when I was a teenager, but I couldn't even watch the movie starring Ben Affleck all the way through because it was just so awful. It would be hard not to get a grittier take than the cinematic version, but I still wasn't sure they'd be able to nail the unique tone of the book and Matt Murdoch's complex, somewhat distance character.

The cinematography on the show is generally pretty good, although they focus on realism so much that the close-ups become hyperreal—you can literally see each individual pore on the faces, especially in the harsh, otherworldly lighting they prefer for many of the sets. But the casting is nearly flawless—Foggy, Murdoch, and Kingpin are all perfect, and many of the supporting characters are also played by just the right actor. I love the guest appearance by Scott Glenn, too—I don't know why he doesn't show up in more roles, but it was a great surprise when he popped up in one of the later episdoes.

I'm curious to see season 2 to see how things progress, but I need to take a break for a while—it's a very intense show that takes a lot out of you if you're really paying attention. I hope we quickly get to the point of actually having Murdoch as Daredevil now that he doesn't have to hide his secret identity from Foggy anymore—it's very weird that we never see the horned red suit from the intro credits during the entire first season, which is where the Daredevil name comes from (viewers who don't know the comic must be completely baffled by this, as they don't even attempt to explain it).

For the first time since April 17, when they were 6-6, the Braves are at .500, with a win last night against Arizona giving them a 45-45 record. It's been a long road to get here—they've been as many as nine games under .500—and they have yet to have a winning record this season.

The Nationals are so far ahead that there's very little chance of catching them to win the division even though the Braves now sit in second place, and even the wild card is pretty much out of reach barring an epic collapse by at least two teams and the Braves not having a couple of their patented extended losing streaks.

But it would be nice to see them end with a winning record, which would be the first time they had achieved that goal since 2013 (which was also the last time they had a (very brief) playoff appearance).

I haven't been to the new stadium yet—I'm still so irritated that the thing got built in the first place when Turner Field was still a perfectly good venue (and it was actually in Atlanta)—but I think we'll pick a lazy Sunday afternoon game to attend sometime before the end of the season. It's hard to root for them given all the myriad problems, both with the team and the owners, but they're still my team, for better or for worse.

It seems like Will always has severa birthday parties each year—one for family/close friends, one on his actual birthday, and one for his friends from school—and this year was no exception. We had already done the family party on the Sunday before his birthday and took him out to dinner on his birthday, so the Saturday after his birthday (last Saturday) was when we held the party for his friends.

He decided he wanted to do bowling again this year, after having his party at a bowling alley two years ago. Last time we had to go up north a little bit because the bowling alley closest to us as they tore down most of the shopping strip near it to build a new Walmart, but they took the time to refurbish and redecorate the bowling alley during that time, so now it's open again with a fresh coat of paint.

It was a huge party. There were probably around 20 kids there (including siblings of his friends), and it was about evenly split between his preschool friends that we've stayed in touch with and his elementary school friends (zero overlaps on the Venn diagram). We had four lanes reserved, but that was barely enough, even though we only let the kids roll one ball whether it was a fresh set of pins or not.

Will was a bowling maniac. He bowled for the entire two hours, and we practically had to drag him away to come have cake and pizza, and then it was right back to bowling for a few more minutes until they started to shut our lanes down. I'll definitely have to take him back some quiet afternoon and bowl a few games with him—he enjoyed the bowling parties he's been to before, but this was an entirely new level of engagement.

For dinner on Saturday night we walked to Decatur and ate at Chai Pani, an Indian street food place that serves small, tapas-like plates. Will has never had Indian before, and intially he was resistant, but we told him it was a new kind of spicy food, and that pretty much got him on board.

We wanted to have him try a bunch of different things, so we got the sev potato dahi puri (puffed pastries filled with spices and vegetables), samosas, matchstick okra fries, and the daily special, a General Tso's-type chicken dish with Indian spices. He liked pretty much everything except the sev potato dish, because it wasn't spicy and it was served cold. I hate okra, but the way they prepared this dish—basically julienned okra with the slimy gunk removed that is crispy fried and seasoned with a good dose of salt—made me willingly eat that vegetable for the first time in years.

This was the second week in a row that we've walked to Decatur for dinner, and I think we might make this a new tradition to go with our Friday night movie routine. Both Decatur and Emory Village are about a 25 minute walk for us, and there are plenty of places to eat that we all like. And this being Atlanta, it's something that we could do pretty much year round.

I snuck out for one of my late night weeknight solo movie excursions last week to see Alien: Covenant, the sequel to 2012's Prometheus, which itself was a prequel to Ridley Scott's original Alien. I was surprised to see it was still playing—it disappeared from the theater I normally go to—and the 8:45 start time was perfect for me.

This movie happens some number of years after Prometheus, but it doesn't get us to the Ripley timeline of the original movie yet, and the only character who reappears from Prometheus is the android David. He's joined this time by a more recent model with his same features named Walter, who speaks with a thick midwest inflection (compared to David's British accent). Both roles are of course played by Michael Fassbender, who does a brilliant job with the characters even though the different accents at times seems like a sop to the audience to make it easier to tell them apart.

It was as usual for Scott brilliantly shot and paced pretty well, and the casting/acting was pretty on point too. My main complaint is the same one I had for Prometheus: we still aren't given any clear links to the Ripley timeline (though this film steal liberally from some of the classic moments in that film), nor are we really given any further information about the originas of the xenomorphs and whether they have any culture/purpose besides eating, killing, and replicating.

The movie is far more about David than it is the aliens or any of the other characters, and it's clear now that the proposed trilogy is really going to be David's story. I'm just not sure that's what I signed up for with an Alien series, and I hope we get some sort of reasonably satisfying conclusion/explanation with Scott's next installment in the franchise.

I've had a nagging illness for the past week or so, the main symptom of which is that my eyes simultaneously feel like I have grit under my eyelids and like I'm peeling onions. I also have extreme sensitivity to light, so much so that I feel like a vampire when I go out in the sunshine, wishing I had a thick dark cape I could shield my head under.

I went to the doctor about it on Wednesday, and she said it looked like a virus, which means there's no real treatment and I just have to wait it out. It's been getting a little bit better every day, so hopefully it will work itself out over the weekend. It's one of the most annoying ailments I've had in a while, especially because it seemingly came out of nowhere and just keeps hanging around.

Will went to circus camp last week, and on Friday they had a big finale where all the kids got to be part of the performance. For the smaller kids and the ones who hadn't done circus camp before, it was pretty limited, but Will got lucky and got chosen to be part of the aerial performance, which meant he climbed up a rope, wrapped his leg around it, and got spun around while he did a little pose.

He was only three or four feet off the ground, but he loved it, and he really liked the camp overall. I don't know if he'll stay excited enough about it to stick with his request to do it once a week during the school year too—he tends to get bored doing the same thing over and over pretty quickly—but I can almost guarantee he's going to want to do it again next summer.

This week is music camp at a place he went last year and really enjoyed, and it will be his last camp of the summer—next week we'll stay home with him (mostly Julie, although we're planning to both take him to Six Flags on Thursday), and then school starts again. These summers feel so short now—I can't believe he's almost in second grade.

Julie and Will were really busy over the weekend, but I was taking it easy trying to recover from some sort of weird allergy that makes my eyes feel scratchy and stingy and makes my vision blurry.

On Saturday they went to a special STEM day at the Fernbank Museum (which included making a bracelet in which the alternating colors spelled out his name in binary), then I helped him build a robot kit that he got for his birthday, and then he and Julie went to the pool for a Cub Scouts party.

Sunday was church and then his swimming lesson in the afternoon, followed by what we are making into a weekly tradition—walking to either Emory Village or Decatur for dinner. This time we picked Lucky's in Emory Village because they have fried pickles, which Will loves. Despite the heat and humidity, and it was a nice night for a walk, and a nice way to end the week together.

I'm out of town until Saturday for a work trip, so no more posts until next week. My eyes are mostly better at this point, so hopefully they won't interfere with my meetings and presentation. I had very little notice to prepare for this one, but the actual presentation isn't until Friday, so I'll have some time tomorrow afternoon after I get settled into my hotel to work on it a bit more.

One cool thing with Will's music camp today: he had a session with the guitar teacher, who taught him how to play Mary Had a Little Lamb on guitar, and also helped him write out some sort of notation on where to put his fingers on which strings. He insisted on playing it on a toy ukulele when he got home, so we humored him and tuned it up enough for him to give it a try.

He was very, very slow reading the notation, but amazingly, he played the entire song exactly how he was supposed to! We almost didn't believe it at first, but you could hear the song coming together the more notes he played. We've been waiting to get him into music lessons (probably piano first) until he was a little older, but he's always loved music, and maybe now that he's seen that with practice he can actually start to play it, it might be a good time to find a teacher in the neighborhood.

I didn't get back from my work trip until late in the afternoon on Saturday, so I mostly crashed for the rest of the weekend, but Will and Julie stayed very busy. Friday night Julie took him to see the Emoji Movie at one of the theaters that serves food, and Will got a sriracha hot dog. He also LOVED the movie, which I was happy to avoid (at least until it comes out digitally, at which point Will will no doubt insist on seeing it again).

Saturday started with a Cub Scout hike in Fernback Forest (where Will got sick from a combination of dehydration and overexertion), and then some housecleaning in the afternoon. That night, he lost another tooth, and this time wrote a note to the Tooth Fairy asking what she does with all the teeth she collects (she said he might tell him next time he loses a tooth).

Sunday morning was the blessing of the backpacks at church, which they do every year before school starts, and then we did our weekly walk to dinner that night, this time going to Decatur to the newly opened Mellow Mushroom. I could have used another day off to recover from my work trip, but it's back to work today (although it's only a three day week for me since I'm taking Thursday and Friday off).

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