march 2018

Earlier this week I went with some friends to Thinking Man in Decatur, where we usually go when we want to get a couple of drinks and hang out and talk. We usually meet on Thursday evening (although we hadn't gotten together in a while), but this week it worked better for everyone to meet on Tuesday, and we surprisingly wandered into their weekly trivia night.

Since they announced the questions to the whole place (although it looked like pretty much everyone there was playing), we played along at our table and found that we were doing pretty good between the three of us (aside from a badly bungled set of Shakespeare questions about which I and my British friend were deeply ashamed about).

As far as we can tell, there's no fee to enter—you just have to show up before 7:30 when the contest officially starts—and the top three scoring teams get bar credits of up to $50. So I think we're going to intentionally go in the next week or so and play for real, just to see how we do when we're really paying attention. And it won't really interrupt our hanging out time either—there is a generous amont of time between the questions each round, and there's a ten minute break between rounds, so there's still plenty of time for conversation.

I read and travel to a very small territory in my office, which presents a unique challenge for our new team-based reading approach: whenever you partner with someone else, you're always supposed to focus on the applications of the person who has the larger number of files. But since my total number of files for RD is less than 100, every time I've read with someone since January they've had more files than me (full time readers typically have a volume of 800-1000 files).

So today is the day we're supposed to be done with reading, and yet I still have the exact same number of files in my queue that I had in January, because it's only over the past couple of days that the full time readers have had their file totals dip below mine. This is a good system generally, but we're still finding unusual circumstances like mine and making adjustments, so we'll definitely need to tweak the process for the three or four people like me who have very small territories.

My plan today is to read all day with partners, focusing on the very strongest files, and then fiinish up the rest tomorrow, putting aside the more complicated cases for consultation with another reader before submitting the initial decision. That should allow me to finish by tomorrow afternoon, meaning all my applications will be ready for the next three weeks, when we do a broad collective review of all the decisions.

I usually end up working for a few hours on the weekend, but it's spread out across different projects without prolonged engagement, and I imagine tomorrow will be a day when I need to start reading as soon as I get up in order to finish by 5:00. Not a big deal, but not something I have to do very often at this point in my career.

While I was busy finishing up my files for this cycle, Will and Julie had an incredibly eventful weekend. Friday night Julie took Will (who has recently become obsessed with theater) to a play for kids at a local place called Synchronicity Theater, which included a post-show meet and greet with the performers.

Saturday morning they went together to run the Red Devil Dash 5K at a local middle school, which is challenging not only because it's a 5K, but because most of it takes place on the cross country trail for the school, which means lots of hills and dodging roots, etc. Will finished it, though, and since he was by far the youngest runner for the 5K (they also have a 1 miler that the younger kids run), they gave him a special first place medal for his age group, which he of course thought was amazing.

Saturday afternoon was a birthday party, Saturday night was movie night (we usually do that on Friday, but we moved it because of the play), Sunday was a swimming lession and a trip to the Fernbank Museum, and Sunday night was our traditional walk to dinner in Decatur. A busy, busy weekend, but Will loves being constantly active. It's tougher for an introvert like me who likes some breathing room between activities, but luckily he gets his go-go-go mindset from Julie, so they're a good pair.

I can't figure out if I actually like HBO's Crashing (starring Pete Holmes in a semi-autobiographical role). I've watched both seasons, and I look forward to seeing it every week within a day of so of when it airs (which is pretty rare for me, especially with half hour comedy shows), but I don't know if I watch it because I sympathize with the everyman Pete character and want to see him succeed or I kind of despise him and watch to see his wince-worthy moments of epic failure.

It could be that the show wants us to have both those feelings about the character (which would sort of make sense, because there's clearly some self-loathing at work under the surface here), but that's a pretty hard trick to pull off. Ricky Gervais tried it on the original British version of The Office and ended up way more on the despicable side, and while Steve Carell initially did a better job on the American version of the show, by the end the character was allowed to grow into one we loved.

Probably the most successful example of this is Larry David's Curb Your Enthusiasm, although again, as that series has aged, there's a lot less to like about Larry, and his awkward social situations seem a lot more self-induced than stumbled into. Of course, Pete Holmes isn't nearly as funny as Larry David, and Crashing is also meant to present a more realistic take on the world, which makes it harder to see the Pete in the show as a character—instead, he's just a thin cipher for Pete Holmes himself. And since you are led to view the character as a real person, you're led to feel bad for disliking him—and that setup makes me dislike him a little bit more.

At any rate, because of the prevalence of comedian guest stars (including big names, b-level stars, and up and comers) and its portrayal of the behind-the-scenes life of being a stand up comedian, it's a nice companion piece to Jerry Seinfeld's Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee, which has conversations between Jerry and other stand-ups where they discuss the craft and share anecdotes from the road. That's a series I would recommend without reservation, but I'm still drawn—whether from a sympathetic or a hate-watching perspective, I'm not sure—to Crashing.

I woke up early this morning to get a drink of water and found that the water was coming out at a very slow trickle, but since it was 4 in the morning and I was only awake for a few minutes, I didn't think much of it. But then when I got up for real at 7 and it was still happening, the news had an explanation: a major water main break that was affecting the whole county (and anybody in the watershed for the county).

DeKalb schools did the dumbest thing possible: while other affected school districts delayed until 10 and then canceled the whole day by 9, DeKalb instead told everyone school was happening, so all students in the district were in their classrooms by 8, only to then almost-immediately cancel for the day, meaning that as soon as many parents had dropped off their kids and headed into work, they needed to turn around to get their children before 10.

Julie didn't have any appointments this morning, so she was able to watch him for the first half of the day, and since the university was similarly affected, they had closed by 11, so I was able to come home and watch Will for the remainder of the day. And since my work is only about a mile from Will's school, hopefully the school system and my campus will be in sync, so if he's out, I'll be out with him.

We're under a boil-water advisory, the water pressure is still pretty low, and the county is saying it might not be until this weekend that the water main is repaired, and it could be a few days more after that before we don't have to boil our drinking water. In the meantime, we can take showers and run the dishwasher and the clothes washer, but we are using boiled water for drinking, brushing teeth, and washing hands.

I have foolishly decided to participate in a university health challenge that involved me being on a team in my office that is competing not only with all the other teams at the institution, but also with a second team from our office. My problem: the challenge is based primarily on step count totals, and even given the disparity between Fitbit devices, which most of the people in the office use, and the Apple Watch, which I use (Fitbit devices are known for a lot more false positives when counting steps, which mean they overcount compared to an Apple Watch) there are some people who seem to be unabashedly cheating. And although it wouldn't necessarily help my genetically instilled sense of outrage at even small injustices, the cheaters also all happen to be on the other team in my office.

There is one person in particular who is clocking in an AVERAGE of 23,000+ steps a day since the challenge started, which, even being very generous about the Fitbit false positives, meaning she is walking at least ten miles a day, every day—something that would require a daily 3-4 hour time commitment from a person with a full time job and a small child at home.

It's not impossible, it's just very, very unlikely, especially given that this person didn't have any regular workout habits prior to the start of the challenge. For comparison, I work out every day for at least half an hour and walk quite a bit around campus during my normal course of meetings, etc., and although I've been adding in two or three extra 15 minute sessions on the treadmill to boost my stepcount each day, my daily average is around 11,000-12,0000 steps—half of what this other person is claiming.

The solution for me, since I can't bring myself to stop getting incensed about the likely fraudulent activity (which I think happens by this person simply moving their arm back and forth while sitting at their desk), is simply not to have knowledge of it. So I'm just going to do my thing for my team, making sure I hit at least 10,000 steps a day, and not login to the challenge site at all to see what other people/teams are doing. This is supposed to be a challenge that gets us all healthier, and it's definitely not healthy for me to raise my blood pressure over something that I realize intellectually is not important at all, but which the emotional side of me can't help but engage with.

Even though it's been cold for the past few days, we had a few weeks of incredibly warm spring-like weather in February, which I think was enough for many of the plants to start blooming and producing pollen. As a result, I think my occasional allergies have kicked in—I've had terrible sinus headaches the last few days, and I'm also congested and generally fatigued.

I don't know exactly what I'm allergic to, and the frequency and severity of my reaction can vary broadly from year to year, but this is the worst I've felt from this in a while, especially coming on the heels of having the flu in February, which I think I'm still also recovering from to a small degree. Hopefully whatever it is is one of the early-blooming plants and this won't continue when we really get into spring later this month and into April.

Another busy weekend for Will and Julie: a 5K on Saturday morning, a visit to the Fernback Science Center on Saturday afternoon (where Will got to play with lots of different kinds of robots), a magic show on Saturday night, church on Sunday morning, and both a swim lesson and a piano lesson on Sunday afternoon. Somewhere in there was a trip to the grocery store as well.

I mostly took it easy—it's our busiest time of year at work, so I spent the weekend recovering from the previous week and trying to store up some energy for the coming week—but I did go to the first Atlanta United game of the season on Sunday night and get some work done that I didn't have time to tackle during the workweek.

Sunday was the opening home game for the Atlanta United, and it was, as usual, an amazing experience. They lost their first game of the season, an away game against Houston where they were demolished 4-0 and just looked terrible and out of sync, so there was some trepidation among the fanbase for this game given that they've never beaten their opponent in this match, DC United.

They started off hot, getting lots of close attempts, but fans were still tense—the final game last season, a playoff match, featured a lot of close calls that they couldn't convert into points. But they had a breakthrough 24 minutes in, and then added two more back to back goals in minutes 73 and 75 to put them up 3-0 with only 15 minutes left.

DC did manage to score a goal by the end, but this game was all Atlanta. It was a great homecoming for the record-breaking crowd (over 72,000, setting a new MLS record, and given Atlanta the top three best attended games in the history of the league); this should be another fun season to watch.

I finished Ancillary Sword, the second book in Ann Leckie's Imperial Radch series, and remain just as unimpressed with it as I was the first one. In fact, a little moreso, because at least with the first one we got two very different locations and what amounted to two different narrators. This time, we're stuck in a single place with the same narrator that I'd already gotten bored with by the end of the first one.

Another problem is that there's really no conclusion to this one, so I'm just going to finish it out and read the third one too. Again, that's not because there's some cliffhanger at the end of this one that's enticing me to read the next one—the end of this book and the beginning of the next are so seamless that in a collective volume you wouldn't know that you were moving from one book to another.

I'm just hoping that somehow, at the end of all this, there will be something worthwhile to justify the heaps of praise that have been lavished on this series. But so far it's not really doing anything for me.

I finally watched Captain America: Civil War on Netflix, and, well...meh. I watched it while working out, so let's start with an obvious annoyance that affects all Marvel films when you don't see them in the theater: the dynamic volume contrast in the dialogue-focused scenes and the score-oriented action scenes is way, way to high.

The conversations are so whispered and low that I couldn't hear them on the treadmill even with the television turned up to max volume (I had to resort to turning on closed captions just to have some clue about what was going on), and the other scenes were so bombastic that having the television above 50% volume level felt like the neighbors could hear it.

Aside from that, the quality of this movie just plain sucked though. I'm not a huge fan of the Captain America entries in the MCU, but this might be the worst of the bunch. Whether it's the return of Bucky (the worst named, worst casted, worst written recurring major character in the MCU), the recycling of plotlines from many other superhero movies (including previous Captain America films), or the ridiculousness of pretending that the Avengers are actually going to do any real damage to one another, it all felt so pointless.

Even the climax, which featured two teams of 6-8 heroes each facing off against one another, was a bit of a disappointment, even though Marvel traditionally does those big set pieces pretty well. Part of the problem was there were so many characters who were somewhat hastilly added to the two factions that when two minor characters were battling one another, you couldn't really remember which team they were supposed to be on. It was overblown differences for the sake of staging a big battle—it was meant to be very high stakes, but the argument seemed so trivial.

This does not bode well for the big climax to this phase of the MCU that will happen in Avengers: Infinity War (coming next month) and Avengers 4 (the second half of that movie to be released in 2019). Those two films are supposed to wrap up all the plotlines that have been developing in the Avengers and standalone films since the first Avengers movie, and will feature EVERYONE in the MCU, including not only all the characters who appeared in Civil War, but also Dr. Strange, Guardians of the Galaxy (already a pretty sprawling team), and all the side characters from the Thor movies.

That's going to make the plotlines and battle sequences from Civil War look like child's play, and given how much they struggled with this film, I have a hard time believing they'll be successful by tripling the number of characters involved, all of whom will need to have at least a minor subplot and a few significant scenes in order to justify their inclusion in the first place. It's always been an ambitious plan, and they've tried to build to it slowly by upping the stakes with each successive Avengers and Captain America film, but this was the first movie where I got concerned by the MCU team's ability to pull it off. Even more troubling: the directorial team behind this movie, brothers Anthony and Joe Russo, are also taking over for Joss Whedon and will direct the final two Avengers films.

I've only been watching Rick and Morty for a little over a month, and I've already watched all the episodes at least three times each and bought all the seasons digitally. So yeah, I kind of like it.

The big bummer? It's likely going to be a long, long time until a fourth season appears, if it ever does. Cartoon Network hasn't even officially ordered a fourth season yet, and there seems to be some sort of spat between the network and creator Dan Harmon, a known pain in the ass to work with who also seems to be bargaining hard for his share of the money for the next season.

Given that the season hasn't even been written yet and the lag time between when the voices are recorded and the animation is completed, it seems like that, even if the contract disputes are resolved soon, it will still be 2019 at the earliest before the new season is ready to air, and it could easily be 2020. And that's only if they work something out.

I was out of it this weekend—I seem to be having some sort of allergy thing where I have sinus headaches and zero energy (I even missed the second Atlanta United game of the season on Saturday night because I was feeling so bad)—but it didn't slow Will and Julie down.

Saturday was a piano lesson in the morning and a trip to the Fernbank Science Center in the afternoon (Snake Day!), finishing with a viewing of the new Peter Rabbit movie on Saturday night. Sunday was church and errands, and I was feeling okay enough after a weekend of rest to do our traditional walk to dinner on Sunday night (we ended up at Farm Burger in Decatur, which we haven't been to in quite some time).

Alright, let me get this straight: the majority of February was in the 60s and 70s, and we had a day where the temperature approached 80 over the weekend, but now that we've officially moved into spring, the temperatures are starting out near freezing every day and are topping out in the 50s?

Related rant: why do we still call it Standard Time when we now only use it for just over four months of the year?

Here's my three word review of Dr. Strange, which I finally watched on Netflix this week:

Cool visuals, bro.

It's not a bad movie, but there was enough to nitpick that it just didn't live up to the hype for me (unlike a similar origin-story-for-a-minor-character film by Marvel, Ant Man, which I loved). I think I would have liked Benedict Cumberbatch's portrayal a little more if they had just let him be British instead of forcing a weird American accent, but I also didn't understand the need to make the character a literal doctor, and to hang so much of the dialogue around that.

There were lots of problems with the character development: they emphasize that, despite his innate talent, Strange will still need to spend years studying and practicing the mystic arts before he is able to stand shoulder to shoulder with other great sorcerors (Magicians? Wizards? Mystics? I don't know that the movie ever gives us a label for the people who practice sorcery), and yet within weeks of being accepted as an apprentice, he's doing just that. And half the reason he survives more than one battle is because a sentient magic flying cloak intervenes for no apparent reason to trap, trip up, or beat the hell out of his opponents for him. They just don't give enough time for the character to either develop the skills required for the magic arts or for him to change from the selfish, reckless, entitled ass he was in the beginning of the movie to the more benevolent character we're supposed to believe he's become by the end.

Also: way too many hospital scenes.

The visuals were pretty fun though, but totally nicked from the Inception morphing dream cityscapes, and again, it seemed like they came up with the idea to use that visual vocabulary first and then worked in a reason for it in the script afterward. If it wasn't for this unique visual style, this would probably be the weakest Marvel film so far, especially since they hit their post-Avengers stride. And the visuals are only going to keep you distracted for the first viewing or two.

Over time, the bones of the movie are what's going to matter, and this is probably the worst Marvel script since Iron Man 2 or Guardians of the Galaxy 2 (that film was also fun and visually overwhelming, but not really significant). It's certainly the weakest intro film in the MCU canon so far, and given that origin stories are usually the easiest superhero films to do, that doesn't bode well for sequels despite the box office performance.

It's our big decision release today, the culmination of 18+ months of work on this cohort, and everyone in the office is pretty calm about it. We've gotten really good at our process in the past few years, and more importantly, we've gotten confident enough with our predictive models that leadership isn't tinkering with things until the last minute, meaning we can do our testing and audits for all our various websites and systems a couple of days before release.

It's always good to get to this point of the cycle, but honestly, the projects I spend my time on these days are looking months or years down the road, and I'm already on to the next class (and the class after that). It's a great milestone, and it looks like we're on the way to another impressive incoming cohort, but the work never really stops. The counselors still get a pretty significant break from May until August, but for my team, the summer has become one of our busiest times of year.

I realized earlier this week that I needed to take a vacation day before the end of the month to keep from going over max accrual, and what better day than the day after decision release, when even the people who are in the office are taking a pause and a deep breath in the little space we have between decisions going out and our April events starting up.

I'm still likely going to work from home some today, just because there's so much to get done before we take a week off for Will's spring break to go visit family, but I'm really going to try to relax and enjoy a three day weekend. No real plans either, which is nice, but I'm sure Julie and Will will end up with a packed schedule on Saturday and Sunday.

Let's see: Will had a piano lesson on Friday afternoon (after some drama, we've switched teachers, so his new lesson time will be on Friday afternoon instead of Saturday morning), did a fun run with Julie on Saturday morning, and then went to a friend's house for a playdate in the afternoon.

Saturday night we walked to dinner with Will's friend Evie and her dad and sister, and ended up at Lucky's in Decatur because that just seems to be where we end up most of the time with Evie. It was a nice evening though—Will and Evie really get along well, and it's nice for her to have some friends in the neighborhood still (her parents got divorced last year, so she doesn't go to our school anymore even though she spends about half her time with her dad, who still lives in the house a couple of streets away from us).

I tend to watch the American version of The Office while I'm on the treadmill, but when I finished season 9 for the most recent run through of the series, I wasn't ready to start with season 1 again, so I turned back to the original British version of the show with Ricky Gervais. I haven't revisited that one in a long, long time, and there were some things that struck me about it:

  1. Dawn is not nearly as compelling a character as Pam.
  2. Tim is supposed to be around 30, but it would have felt more apporpriate to have him be a few years younger.
  3. I forgot just how much stuff the first season and a half of the American version "borrowed" from this show.
  4. I had completley erased the Christmas special from memory, which revisits the characters a few years later. I don't mind that they at least set up the possibility that David Brent was going to have a chance at a happy ending.
  5. Overall this show hasn't aged as well as the American version, even though that series definitely should have ended when Steve Carell left (and maybe a season before that).

I've finished this series now too, but I'm still making the most of Ricky Gervais' catalog by working my way through his Extras series next. Despite his brilliance in creating The Office, this show is probably the pinnacle of all his work—his stand-in character (and series protagonist) Andy Millman has plenty of the same wince-worth moments that David Brent did, but there's a real heart to this show—we're actually allowed to like him and sympathize with him and with other characters on the show.

Not sure what I'll turn to next for my treadmill time when this one is over. I can occasionally watch an action movie in pieces, or an episode of Altered Carbon or The Expanse, but I really want a half hour comedy, and there just aren't that many of those that I've enjoyed over the past couple of decades.

I finally finished Ancillary Mercy, the final book in Ann Leckie's Imperial Radch trilogy, and I was just as disappointed with this one as I was the second one. The first book had some compelling ideas, but they were never really capitalized on, and the lack for action/forward progress/character development in the last two books of the trilogy made it painful to read and left me with a sense of deep disappointment once I was finished.

Here are some other major problems with this series that I haven't complained about in the previous two entries I've written about the first two books:

  1. We're never given a history of how the human race got to the universe described in this book, despite Leckie continually referring to the people on the various planets/stations that are part of Radch space as humans. What kind of timeframe would we be looking at for there to be a human diaspora across the galaxy where each colonized planet would be able to exist as an independent entity long enough develop several languages and cultures, lose contact with one another (despite having access to spaceflight and long-range faster-than-light communications) long enough to forget most or all of the rest of humanity, and then be reassembled into a singular society/territory called the Radch.

    We're told that this last process alone has taken thousands of years, and that the civilation that started the reintegration of human planets into a single culture exists on a Dyson sphere, which itself would have taken thousands of years to construct. So I guess in that context, it's possible that we're talking about tens of thousands of years, so all of these things could happen. But it would have been nice to have been given some sort of overview/deep history of how this civilation and these characters got to where they are.

  2. Leckie insists on having her narrator/protagonist refer to everyone as "she" whether they are male or female. This isn't a pet peeve because she chose the female gender—this would have been just as irksome if she had used male pronouns exclusively. I guess it's some sort of statement/turnabout-is-fair-play for "he" being the default for humans for so long in western civilation, but if something's stupid, doing a parallel stupid thing as a counterpoint doesn't really get you anywhere.

    This is especially irritating because it's clear that there are several situations where gender matters TO THE CHARACTERS, and yet we are often left to guess what the characters themselves know for a fact and for whom that knowledge influences their behavior.

  3. I think I have mentioned this in my previous entries about this series, but the main flaw is that NOTHING REALLY HAPPENS. We aren't that much closer to understanding how we got to where we are or where we're going at the end of three novels than we were when we were first learning about this world in the first book. A less internal-monologue-focused writer could have condensed the entirety of the events of this trilogy into a single book (or even half a book depending on which sci fi writer we're talking about), which would then lead to other books where we would actually get some sort of conclusion. It's maddening and frustrating to have invested so much time in a series where I didn't really learn anything, I didn't really care about any of the characters, and there was no real resolution to any of the supposed conflicts.

Anyway. You can probably guess that, despite all the accolades it's received, I would NOT recommend this series. I had such high hopes, but even with my lowered expectations after the disappointing second book, the conclusion managed to be even worse than I had imagined.

I'm not enough of a collector to have invested myself, but I was so pleased to see that the initial project for Haslab, a massive and detailed model of Jabba's sail barge from Return of the Jedi, more than met its 5000 backer goal (each of whom will pony up $500 for the toy) and will be created.

Haslab is a crowdfunding site for Hasbro Toys, where they will propose projects that they don't feel confident going into manufacturing with and taking a chance that they market will make them profitable and allow people to prepurchase them. If they make the break-even point (which I'm sure involves some profit margin for Hasbro), which in this case was 5000 backers (they ended up with close to 9000), then they will make the toy.

In this case, it looks like they are only going to make as many as are ordered, which makes sense for such a massive project (the toy will be nearly 4 feet long with three decks and won't start being delivered to backers until about a year from now). But I'm curious to see what they will do for future projects, especially ones that are a little more modest in cost—this could just be a launch platform to guarantee fan interest for toys that will then be available in the mass market as well.

We're leaving tomorrow for a week-long trip that will see have us visiting all of Will's grandparents during his spring break week. It will be nice to get away from work, but family trips are always exhausting in their own way to me, especially with as much driving as we'll do (of the eight days we'll be away, we'll be driving for a significant percentage of at least four of them).

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