february 2018

I've come down with something that's knocked me out for a couple of days, but I don't think it's the flu. So far we've been spared that in our household, but the season's not over yet...

Is having to watch the Patriots in the Super Bowl the NFL fan's version of Groundhog Day—a punitive reset on the same day over and over again until we make some sort of change for the better? Please god tell us what lesson we're supposed to learn so this STOPS HAPPENING.

Maybe it's that we're supposed to stop watching football altogether...

I did not watch the Super Bowl this year, for probably the first time since the early 90s (and I've only considered myself a pro football fan since around 2004). But I did tab over to the gamecast on ESPN every now and then and watch some of the video highlights on Deadspin as the game went on, and of course I was happy that the Patriots lost—and I especially enjoyed that drive at the end where Brady was strip sacked.

Mind you, having the Eagles win is only marginally better than having the Steelers, the other Pennsylvania team, win, because their fans are terrible and will for at least the next three years become the mid-Atlantic version of Red Sox fans after they won their first World Series in over 80 years earlier this century. But the important thing is that the Patriots (Brady and Belichick specifically) lost, and we got to see whiny poutboy sitting on the turf in a full glory boy tantrum. That's really all I want out of a Patriots Super Bowl appearance.

I was pretty out of it most of the weekend, but Will and Julie were busy: a piano lesson, a trip to the Georgia World Congress Center to pick up racing bibs, and Cub Scouts. I did join them for a shrimp boil at our church on Saturday night, but that was about the extent of my time out of the house.

The racing bibs were for the Hot Chocolate run, which I did a couple of years ago. Will did his first 5K last fall, and he's been wanting to do another one, so this seemed like a perfect one for him (they give you a treat plate with hot chocolate, chocolate bars, and other sweet stuff when you finish, and they also hand out marshmallows on the course). Unfortunately, it was raining hard and the temperature was in the 30s when it was time for them to leave, so they made the right decision and didn't end up going.

I recently finished Altered Carbon by Richard K. Morgan, which I was inspired to read after learning that Netflix was going to make a series out of it. The story is set a few centuries in the future, and the key premise behind it is that at an early age, all humans have their consciousness transferred into a digital holding device called a stack, which is implanted at the base of the neck. And if your body dies, as long as the stack is undamaged, it can be transferred to a new body, which is called a sleeve.

Some sleeves are artificial, but many are actual human bodies whose stacks have been removed and put into different sleeves. Another source of sleeves for rent: prisoners, who have their consciousness stored on a server farm for the duration of their sentence, and part of their punishment is that their bodies are now availble for use by others during their sentence.

The narrator is Takeshi Kovacs, who comes from another human settlement called Harlan's World and who was also trained as an Envoy, sort of an interstellar special forces. The novel opens with him being captured after going rogue, and then cuts to the main setting for the book: he awakens on Earth in the body of an imprisoned police officer with an offer from a very wealthy person to help solve his "murder".

In this universe, the very wealthy can essentially live forever, creating offsite backups of their consciousness in case the physical stack of their current body is destroyed, and also creating clones of themselves so they can live at basically the same age and state of health forever. So this client obviously didn't die, but one of this bodies was killed in his own house, and since his remote backup was nearly two days old, he has no memories of the murder or the events leading up to it. In exchange for figuring out what happened, Kovacs will get a new body of his choosing and a hefty cash payday.

At this point the book essentially becomes a hard boiled detective novel where our narrator follows leads, gets embroiled in the agendas of various actors whose motives and involvement in the crime further add to the mystery, and pummels his way to a solution. The writing is pretty good for this style of book, and Morgan keeps the plot moving along. He's also good about revealing more about the ramifications of the digital human technology on society—in addition to the very rich being able to live forever, you also have people who constantly shift between different bodies, or who eschew the phsycial and live completely as digital entities. The mystics are fond of telling us that our bodies are just shells; in this world, that because a scientifically accurate statement, and the philosophical implications of actually separating our minds from our bodies are fun to play around with.

My main complaint is that, as a detective novel, the mystery that lies at the heart of the plot turns out to be pretty anticlimactic and banal. There are times when it feels like the author purposely holds things back just to keep it a mystery for a little bit longer, which isn't what a first person narrator would do—we're supposed to get their thoughts in real-time, not have hints doled out to us that keep us engaged but don't really get us any closer to solving the puzzle.

But if you're a fan of cyberpunk or techno thrillers like William Gibson, early Neal Stephenson, or Daniel Suarez, you'll probably like this book. There are times when the violence and sex scenes seem gratuitously violent and/or graphic, but there's probably a large portion of the readership that will put that down in the plus column.

The Netflix adaptation of Altered Carbon started airing last week, only a few days after I finished the book, and so I've watched the first couple of episodes now. In terms of production quality, I'd put it up there with Syfy's adaptation of The Expanse or Syfy's reboot of Battlestar Galactica, but the casting is much better than The Expanse—lead character Kovacs looks exactly like the picture I painted in my head when I was reading the novel.

It seems like at least part of the reason Netflix chose this book as the basis for its first major foray into sci fi is because of all the graphic sex and violence—there's clearly an attempt to turn this into a futuristic version of Game of Thrones in that regard. But even though some viewers have reacted negatively to this aspect, the fights and sexual content in the series is if anything toned down from the novel.

If it's a big enough of a hit for them to continue the series, it will be interesting to see where they go with it—apparently other Takeshi Kovacs novels are set in completely different locations with a completely different cast of characters, including different sleeves for Kovacs himself. It's one thing to be able to stay attached to a character in a book who's appearance changes but you still hear the same internal voice narrating the story to you; it's something else entirely for a different actor to recreate the same persona, especially when the current version of Kovacs seems so perfectly cast.

Because the show is so weighty, I don't think I'll end up binging on it, but instead dole it out more slowly and watch an episode or two a week. But I'm enjoying it so far, and I'm looking forward to seeing if they can pull off a better, more satisfying conclusion than the book, which fell a little flat for me.

I know I'm way behind the curve on this one, but I finalliy started watching Rick and Morty, a cartoon about a mad scientist grandfather and his grandson who he takes on adventures with him from Dan Harmon, the creator of the cult television show Community. That's too simplistic a description of this show, however—that's like me telling you that Trump is a non-traditional politician. The show is profane, dizzyingly pointless, wickedly funny, and just plain bonkers.

I'm not going to tell you to watch it, or even attempt to tell you why I watch it, but what I will tell you is that if you get it, you're probably going to think it's one of the best shows on television. And that's pretty much where I'm at with it.

It was Julie's birthday on Saturday, so we had a pretty busy day. We started off by taking her to brunch at Callie's Hot Little Biscuit, and came in at just the right time—there was no line and plenty of seats when we came in, but by the time we got our food, the line was out the door and all the seats around us were filled.

Will and I did a little quick shopping in a boutique jewelry store that we've shopped at before, and Will picked out a nice necklace for her birthday and a set of earrings that we'll save until Valentine's Day. Will also made her a card, and unbeknowst to me, he put $5 of his own money in it so she could buy whatever she wanted (Will doesn't have an allowance yet, but has slowly accumulated about $40 over the years, so that was a very generous gift).

I arranged for a neighbor to babysit Will that evening so I could take Julie to Two Urban Licks, a restaurant off the beltline that is unique in that they prepare most of their dishes in a wood fired oven that sits in the middle of their large dining room. I made the reservations months ago, as it's typically hard to get a table the weekend before Valentine's Day. It was a little hard to find—it's located in the middle of commercial warehouse buildings—and the parking was a bit of a mess, but once we got inside, we were seated quickly.

We've been looking for that one spot to be our go-to nice place to eat in Atlanta for years, and unfortunately this isn't it. Don't get me wrong—it was very good—but it was a very large, echo-y space that didn't make it easy to have a conversation. The meal itself was pretty nice, and we found ourselves going seafood-heavy, which is unusual for us: salmon chips for the shared appetizer (smoke salmon on house-made potato chips), Georgia white shrimp in a curry broth for a shared second course, and then scallops over grits for my main plate (I can't remember what Julie got, but I think it was some sort of seafood too). We concluded with carrot cake (me) and milk chocolate creme brulee (Julie).

The food itself was pretty good—the curry broth with the shrimp was amazing, and the scallops were honestly the best I've ever had—but it wasn't cozy enough to be a romantic dinner spot, and like many restaurants in Atlanta, the service went off a cliff at the end—it took us at least 20 minutes after we finished dessert to get our check, and then another 10 after that to pay it.

We might come back here with Will sometime as a special treat, parking at Ponce City Market and then walking down the beltline and sitting outdoors in the summer time. And it wouldn't be a bad place to come with a group of 4-6. But as much as I liked the food, and as likely as I am to return at some point, I'm not ready to call it my favorite restaurant in Atlanta.

So it finally happened: we (all of us) have the flu.

It started with Will on Saturday. He was feeling a little under the weather in the afternoon, and we briefly considered canceling our dinner plans, but he perked up at the thought of getting to hang out and watch a movie with his favorite babysitter (and she was fine watching him after we told her he might be coming down with someting). But by Sunday morning he had a high fever, and when Julie took him to urgent care later in the day, they did a test and confirmed that he had a strain of the flu.

Later than evening and certainly by Monday morning Julie and I were feeling the same symptoms. She went to urgent care as well and although she didn't officially test positive, they gave her Tamiflu anyway because sometimes the tests return false negatives (and her symptoms were EXACTLY the same as Will's). I don't really have the fever part as much, but I definitely had all the other symptoms: sore throat, fatigue, congestion, muscle aches, headache, etc.

We're all in the thick of it still today, and we're supposed to have friends from out of town come visit tomorrow. The current plan is for them to still make the trip but stay in a hotel for at least one night, giving us time to recover to the point where we're not contagious (supposedly 24 hours after last registering a fever). It seems like a lot of people get taken out for a week or more by this, but we're crossing our fingers that that won't happen to us—this visit was planned months ago, and Will especially was looking forward to a few days of Atlanta fun with his friends from DC.

Because of the proximity of Julie's birthday to Valentine's Day, we don't often go out for dinner as a couple, instead choosing to make something at home or get takeout (usually thai). This year we really knew we wouldn't be going out because of a visit from out of town friends, but then the flu came along and even nixed hanging out with them. So we just had a quiet dinner of takeout chinese at home (they serve a spicy thai coconut soup which is just what I'm in the mood for when I'm not feeling well) and watched a movie together.

Julie's and Will's fevers abated yesterday, and Will was back in school today while Julie was able to go out and do things with our visitors (who have now also relocated from a hotel to our house). I still haven't really gotten a bad fever, but I just have no energy, and it may actually be worse today than it was a couple of days ago.

It sucks that this seems to be lingering longer for me (although Julie and Will both have pretty remarkable immune systems), but at least our friends' trip won't be wasted—we're actually pulling Will out of school tomorrow so he can do a full day of activities with his buddies.

I was laid up for the entire weekend, but Julie and Will had a lot of fun with our guests, making trips to the Center for Puppetry Arts, CNN Center, the Varsity, Centennial Olympic Park, and a restaurant near the smaller private airport where you can sit on the deck and watch the planes take off and land.

I did make it to the Emory women's basketball games with Will on Friday and Sunday, because those are the last two home games this season. It's been a rough year for the team—no seniors, an interim coach, and an all-new coaching staff to go with the interim—but they've fought hard, and hopefully this will harden them a bit as a unit for next season.

For the past few years, we're been using an Apple AirPort Extreme as our router, and it has worked pretty well for us. We get coverage throughout the house, and it has enough ethernet out ports to plug our desktops into a wired connection where we get full throughput.

However, despite its six antenna beam forming technology, the chips are still five years old, and we needed newer technology to take full advantage of our internet throughout the house. If Apple was making updated versions of these, I would have seriously considered buying another one (it has been very reliable and easy to manage), but they stopped making them a couple of years ago. So I needed to find a whole new setup.

After doing some research, I decided to try one of the newish mesh systems to see if we could get better coverage upstairs away from the router base—we got good overall coverage, but the signal was pretty degraded and we would only get about half the download speed that we get downstairs, and upstairs is where most of our wireless devices live (including the TiVo and the Xbox One, the two devices we use to stream Netflix, Amazon Prime Video, and HBO Go). I settled on the Netgear Orbi, and headed out with Will to Best Buy to pick up the setup that has a base staion and two satellites that you can plug directly into a wall socket.

Will had a lot of fun plugging everything in with me and testing different outlets around the house to see which ones would be best for the satellites. It took us about an hour, and then I spent a few minutes longer messing around with the web-based admin panel, but so far it's working pretty well. We have much better coverage, and pretty much anywhere in the house we not only have a strong signal but the speed is not degraded at all—I get the same speed on my iPhone in the farthest corner of the house that I do on my desktop that sits right next to the base station and which is connected to the base by an ethernet cable.

While I was sick last week, I somewhat randomly decided to watch The Founder on Netflix. This film is the story of Ray Kroc, who is wrongly known as the founder of McDonald's, but who is the man responsible for franchising the concept the McDonald brothers came up with at their original stand in California.

The movie's not bad, but it's not great either, and I say that as someone who has a pretty big soft spot for Michael Keaton (oddly, before I started watching, I had it in my mind that the Ray Kroc role was played by Greg Kinnear, but I must have been thinking about his portrayal of that windshield wiper guy in a movie I never saw). The pacing wasn't bad, and there was certainly a lot of good information about those early years when Kroc started to spread the concept and process the McDonald brothers had developed from the west coast to the midwest, where it really took hold, but there weren't really any electrifying scenes or revelations. It honestly could have been a tv movie.

I don't know if this was meant to be a sympathetic portrayal or a commentary on the levels of douchbaggery that you have to engage in to be a success in our America's capitalist corporate culture (similarly, it was hard to tell if we were supposed to feel empathy for the good guy McDonald brothers who were cheated out of a fortune or if we're supposed to view them as suckers who got what they deserved for not playing the game harder).

Anyway. Not a bad way to spend part of an afternoon when you're home sick and can't sleep and can't do anything else, but I'm glad I didn't invest two hours of time that could have otherwise been productive in watching it.

A couple of nights ago Julie and I went to City Winery to see Howard Jones (the 80s synthpop artist from the UK) play a solo acoustic show. It was my second trip to the venue and Julie's first.

I'm not a huge Howard Jones fan (Julie was/is a much bigger fan), but I'm familiar enough with his music that I recognized all the songs he played except the ones he's written in the past decade or so (which I'd venture to say very few people, even the ones who consider themselves to be Howard Jones fans, would recognize. It was a little odd to hear them played only on piano (or, more preceisely, a synth mimicking a piano that sounded more like an electric piano), but it was pretty amazing how much volume of sound he was able to create without banks of sequencers and drum machines.

He didn't actually play that many songs—there was a lot of talking and storytelling before each number, which was pretty okay. Some of it drifted a little too far into the name dropping and I-was-there-when kinds of anecdotes, but there was also a decent amount about how and why he wrote a song, and what was going on in his professional and personal life when that song became a hit.

I generally enjoyed the evening, but Julie LOVED it. It was much more the kind of concert experience that she appreciates—everyone has a comfortable chair, and it's not too loud—so I think we'll be back again for any other artists we like.

It was a pretty standard weekend for Will—i.e., it was very busy. He had a piano lesson on Saturday, and then Julie took him to the Fernbank Natural History Museum in the afternoon. Sunday was church, followed by a bizarre (in an entertaining way) performance of Shakespeare's Twelth Night put on by the teens and preteens at a local Methodist church. The visual framework was a circus, and they inserted lots of contemporary music into it, so it was definitely a spectacle.

Will really loved it—I think he's highly likely to become a theater kid someday given his extroversion and his budding performance tendencies (and it doesn't help that the reason we go to a lot of these kinds of shows is because we know someone in it—in this case our neighbor's youngest daughter—which makes it even easier for him to envision himself doing it).

Saturday night Will got to see his favorite babysitter again because we went to his annual school auction. Last year we won aftercare boss for him, which meant for one day he got to walk around school with a walkie talkie and help keep kids going where they need to go after school but before parents came to do a post-work pickuup, and he made it very clear that this was a priority for him. Julie and I divided an conquered, with me bidding on his second choice (teacher for a day) and Julie bidding on aftercare boss. We ended up winning both, and he was thrilled.

After Altered Carbon, I stayed with sci fi and read Ann Leckie's Ancillary Justice, her debut novel which is the only novel to have won the Hugo, the Nebula, and the Arthur C. Clarke awards. Given that, I went into it with pretty high expectations.

And although I mostly enjoyed reading it, it didn't really live up to the hype for me. The writing is good but not revelatory—I compare Leckie's fairly workmanlike prose to someone like Neal Stephenson, who can't let a single page go by without a breathtaking description or metaphor. I was also very disappointed in the pacing, which is plodding at best.

The first half of the novel splits the chapters between two different time frames, and that gives the illusion of more things happening than actually are, but by the time these timelines merge and we're experiencing a single narrative point of view, it becomes abundantly clear that there's not really much to the plot. The major climactic event of the book is so anticlimactic that, even in a novel that generally lacks tension and genuine conflict, I hardly even noticed it was happening and didn't realize that this was going to be THE event of the book until the story ended a chapter later.

Leckie can write the kind of slow-moving, nuanced scenes that might be more at home on a subtler tv series like Downton Abbey, where every glance or gesture means something, but that's a lot harder to read than it is to watch. If there were more vivid, memorable descriptions that accompanied this conversation-oriented approach to progressing the narrative, that might make it more palatable to me, but so far I'm disappointed.

That said, there are two more books in this series, so I'm likely going to read those just to see if they get better or if there's a payoff at the end of the story that makes it worth it. I'm less optimistic that this will be the case than I was when I first picked up Ancillary Justice, but I'm willing to give it a shot given all the rave reviews this trilogy has gotten.

I've recently become fascinated with a cultural phenomenon that, as usual, I'm very late to the party on: Jerry Seinfeld's series Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee. This started out as a web series back in 2012, but now Netflix owns the rights to it and they are paying for new episodes that will air later this year.

The basic premise is the Jerry Seinfeld, who loves old cars, takes a different classic car to pick up one of his comedian friends, and then they drive to a coffee shop and have coffee together. The whole time they're in the car and getting coffee, they're talking about comedy, both anecdotes from their career and technical discussions about the artform.

The episodes are only about 15 minutes each (there's no set time, so they vary in length), and it's a pretty watchable show even if you aren't a gearhead or know the comedian. The quality of the shows is also highly dependent on the guest—some are Jerry's friends from his early days who never really made it big, and some are well known stars like Jim Carrey, Alec Baldwin, and David Letterman.

Two of my favorite episodes didn't feature comedians as the guest: Barack Obama and Sarah Jessica Parker. Obama wasn't suprising because 1) he has a pretty good sense of humor and 2) because he was actually president at the time his episode was filmed, I'm guessing a lot of it was at least lightly scripted. Sarah Jessica Parker was the most surprising one: I don't generally like her as an actress or like the things she chooses to star in, but she was genuinely funny and had great chemistry with Seinfeld.

This has been a fun show to watch an episode or two of while I take a quick break on the treadmill. Seinfeld doesn't tarnish his reputation from his hit tv show from the 90s at all, and seeing him still in fighting shape makes me wish he was making new episodes of this show more frequently or that he was more active in a traditional show format (maybe even one for a network like HBO where he wouldn't be as constrained by network television norms).

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