september 2018

Will has been playing piano for almost a year now, and I continue to be amazed with his talent and his progress. On Thursday night he had a mini-recital at his music school, and he played an honest to god Beethoven piece, and played it pretty well. Many of the kids there were older and/or had more experience than him, but his was the hardest piece.

He loves performing, and it's so great to see him progressing in his skill and understanding of music. He, like me, has always loved music, but he appears to have inheirted Julie's talent (she has been playing piano since she was a child as well, and used to give recitals when we were in college). I'm envious, but I'm also very happy—I don't want to pressure him into things, but I wish that I had more talent and more dedication to learning an instrument when I was younger, and I'm happy to see that this is not a regret he will have later in life.

We took it relatively easy over the holiday weekend, but we did make our annual trek to the Decatur Book Festival. It was a pretty hot day, but we had a good time walking to Decatur and back. We got lunch from the noodle vendor and found a shady spot to sit on the ground near the gazebo and listen to a performer while we ate.

This festival seems to get a little bit smaller every year, but it's still a pretty big deal, with lots of speakers and tons of booths—everyone from university presses to individual authors to sellers of used books. I wish they would expand it to include some arts and craft vendors as well—that would add a little new life to the festivities and break up tent after tent of books that you've never heard of.

I just finished reading a non-fiction work by David Christian called Origin Story: A Big History of Everything. It's based on a teaching concept called Big History that breaks our development as a species up into nine significant thresholds where we crossed into a new era of increasing complexity and increasing use of energy to maintain that complexity.

It's a companion piece to books like Stephen Hawking's A Brief History of Time (the first four thresholds are about the Big Bang and the increasing complexity of the unverse that eventually led to the creation of our solar system) and Bill Bryson's A Short History of Nearly Everything (although Bryson's humorous tone is sorely missed in some of the drier parts of Christian's narrative). You get the feeling this book is meant to be the core textbook of the Big History curriculum and wasn't written with the goal of entertaining the audience in mind, so while it has some really great concepts and ideas, it can be a little hard to get through, especially when he's telling you stuff you already know.

The thresholds idea is rightly at the heart of story, and the narrative element focuses on exploring how we crossed a threshold and built to the next one. Much of the natural development of the universe preceding the start of life on Earth is covered by Hawking and Bryson, but Christian's discussion of how life developed and then grew to form complex organisms like humans lays the groundwork for a parallel narrative of how modern humans crossed their own thresholds of increasing complexity with collective learning as the main driver of all subsequent human developments.

This would be a great book for a smart, engaged teen to read as an overall blueprint for not just the history of the universe and life on our planet but also for the systems and processes that give structure and form to all human endeavors, and you have a feeling that this is actually the intended audience (or possibly college first years takiing an intro course to the liberal arts).

Since I've read books in this vein several times before, there weren't as many new discoveries awaiting me, but there were still some core concepts that I've continued to think about and apply to my understanding of different situations, from personal relationships to work matters to earlier historical eras that I'm familiar with. On that basis alone, this might be worth reading even if you feel like you have also read books like this before—the framework that it provides for viewing both macro and micro history is very illuminating and given me a new way to critically analyze the world around me.

As a palate cleanser from the Origin Story book, I returned to humorist David Thorne and read his most recent book, Walk It Off, Princess. Like the two books that preceded this one, Princess is a mix of memoir essays, recounting of pranks he's played on people (often in email epistolary format), and random interactions with his neighbors and coworkers.

I liked this one better than the previous two, because I was either better prepared for the more emotional and serious pieces or those pieces weren't quite as dark and depressing as the ones in the previous two. He has turned into a gifted essayist, and those pieces are certainly worth reading, but here I think he struck a better balance with the lighter, more humorous pieces and the essays about his personal life and upbringing.

Next it's back to science fiction and a trilogy from Chinese author Cixin Liu, who is a rising star in the sci fi world. I haven't read any of his works before, but his Remembrance of Earth's Past trilogy has gotten rave reviews and I'm eager to see if it lives up to the hype.

Our big outing over the weekend was the Yellow Daisy Festival, and big arts and crafts festival that happens every year out at Stone Mountain. I really like going to arts festivals, and I was excited to go to one this big, but unfortunately, the emphasis ended up being more on the crafts than the arts.

There were lots and lots of jewelry booths, and lots and lots of vendors selling t-shirts, nick nacks, or other things that they clearly didn't make themselves but were simply buying from a wholesaler and hauling to festivals like this to resell for a markup. If you had thrown out everyone who didn't have at least 20% of their stock comprised of things they'd had some hand in making, I bet you would have lost about 80% of the vendors.

Still, there were a few artists there and some craftsman actually making original works, although it was like hunting for treasure to find them. We got caught in a late afternoon thuderstorm and waited out the rain in a tent that belonged to a couple from North Carolina who made metal wall sculptures, and we ended up buying a piece from them to hang on our screen porch. We also bought a handmade dragonfly lawn decoration to add to Will's growing collection.

I doubt we'll return to this one, but I'm glad we went once to see what it was all about. It was more like an outdoor crafts tradeshow than an arts festival, and I'd rather find a real arts festival with local artists to support.


Football season is back, and so far it's off to a good start for the two teams I follow: the UGA Bulldogs (college) and the Baltimore Ravens (NFL).

UGA went to the national championship last year and nearly won against SEC rival Alabama, but they lost several great talents to the pros (in the first round alone, their best defensive player, their best offensive lineman, and their best running back were taken, and three more ended up being taken in later rounds, including their second-best running back). It will be a while before they are really tested, but in their first two games, they are picking up where they left off, including an impressive win at South Carolina, a place where they have historically struggled.

The Ravens have a lot to prove after three seasons of coming achingly close to the playoffs. Quarterback Joe Flacco is sensing some pressure from the organization and the fanbase for the first time since winning the Super Bowl after the 2012 season—Baltimore took a Heisman-winning QB (Louisville's Lamar Jackson) in the first round of the draft this year, and it's entirely possible that they will make Jackson the starter just to get him some experience if this season starts to slip away.

Flacco also has a new trio of starting wideouts, and although he and the new receivers all looked good in the preseason, it was great to see them carry that over to a game that counted with a great offensive performance in their first game against the Bills, which they won 47-3. The early part of their schedule won't be easy—they have all three divisional away games in the first five weeks of the season, combined with two other away games in the three weeks after that and a home game against the Steelers the week before their bye.

But if they can come though that series of games with a 6-3 record or better, they will be in prime position to end the season strongly and contend for the postseason and potentially a division title. Even a 5-4 record during that stretch will give them a decent shot, but they have to prove that they can put points on the board and close out games defensively if they not only want to make it to the playoffs but also go on a run in the postseason.

Apple did its annual iPhone unveiling earlier this week, which has also turned into its annual macOS, iOS, and Apple Watch event. There wasn't a whole lot that came as a surprise, and since I just upgraded both my Watch and my iPhone last year, I don't think I'll be buying any of their hardware offerings this year.

The thing I'm actually most excited about is the new macOS, which includes an official dark mode. I run everything I can in dark mode, as I find it much easier on my aging eyes, and it will be great having this option for all my applications and for the OS itself without having to resort to hunting down plugins and extensions or just having to go without for apps that don't support addon integration.

Hurricane Florence is headed directly towards Wilmington NC, where my father, stepmother, sister, brother in law, and eight month old nephew currently live. Unfortunately, even though between my other sister and me we have plenty of room to house everyone, they have made the decision to get a hotel room a couple of miles inland and wait it out.

The storm has lessened in intensity, but they didn't know it was going to do that when they made their decision, and even though the winds may not be as intense, it's still going to be a serious storm that's likely to have a longer duration with much more rain and flooding than other storms in the same category that have hit the region over the years.

We're hoping everyone will be okay, but I'm especially disappointed with my sister's decision to stay given that her son is not even a year old yet. Adults get to make whatever stupid decisions they want when they're the ones that will suffer the consequences, but when you become responsible for another life that has no power, agency, or decisionmaking capability of its own, your perspective has to change. I can't imagine putting Will in harm's way when I have other options even at his current age of eight years old, much less when he was only eight months old.

Again, hopefully everyone will come through this okay. Fingers crossed that even if it's as bad as the forecasters think it will be, the houses will survive and the hotel will protect them in the meantime.

On Sunday we took Will to our first Braves game of the year. I was once again able to score relatively cheap seats in the Infiniti Club level right behind home base (which also came with $15 in food credits per ticket that considerably added to the value), which Will probably gets more excited about than the game itself. For the first time in years, the Braves are solidly in the playoff hunt, and their games actually mean something in September.

They ended up losing this game, but we watched the last two innings on GameCast on my phone because we were waiting in line for the Kids Run the Bases event after the game, which they do after every Sunday home game. That was a pretty cool experience—we all got to walk together around the edge of the field, circling around from third base along the warning track all the way back to home base, where the kids then got into a line to run around the bases.

Afterwards every kid got a t-shirt saying they had run the bases and a certificate, which Will proudly hung on his wall once we got home. I still really dislike that stadium—it's too far away with no public transit options, the food is way expensive (especially compared to the new Mercedes Benz stadium downtown), and the parking is not convenient or cheap—but I'm glad we've been able to make it to a game at least once a year. This was another good experience for Will, and one that we would repeat a lot more frequently if not for the problems with the stadium location and secondary costs of attending a game.

UGA continues to roll with another decisive win, but the Ravens had their first stumble of the season, falling behind Cincinnati 21-0 in the first 20 minutes of the game after giving up three touchdowns to standout receiver A.J. Green.

The good part of that game for Baltimore: the touchdowns came immediately after star defensive linebacker C.J. Mosley, who wears the radio helmet for the defense and is esentially the quarterback of the defensive unit, left the game with a knee injury. Once they settled back down in the second half and gave the green dot to veteran safety Eric Weddle, they didn't allow a touchdown and only allowed 6 points total on two field goals.

The offense also fought back after being in a deep hole, pulling to within 5 with less than 10 minutes left in the game, but it wasn't quite enough for a comeback. There were definitely moments they could build on though—most games that start with a 21-0 deficit, especially on the road after a short week, end in a blowout, but they didn't give up and would have had a real chance to win if we didn't lose our defensive centerpiece in the first ten minutes of the game.

They get an extra long rest after playing on Thursday night before they face off against Denver in Baltimore this Sunday. I still have high hopes that the team we saw in week 1 is the team we'll see more of the rest of this season. But if they blow a home game against what looks like a beatable team, they could put their playoff hopes in jeopardy even this early on.

Well, my family got lucky and came through the hurricane okay, and so did the houses. There was definitely damage, but nothing major, and they certainly fared better than many others in the region. Despite the outcome, I still think it was the wrong bet to stay there, but I'm glad there weren't any serious consequences, especially for my nephew.

Will got his report card today, and it was just as strong as its ever been. We're not obsessed with him getting perfect marks every time, but we were concerned about this one a bit—he's had more trouble focusing on homework (although it's completely stupid that they have homework at this stage of their education in the first place), and he's had some trouble socially and behaviorally, and we weren't sure if that would impact his grades and his comments from his teachers.

He did very well, as strong as always, and for that we're relieved, because that hopefully means things aren't as bad as he's making them out to be and he's able to focus in the classroom in ways that are hard for us to see at home. He also seems to be adjusting to his new classmates, and more often than not these days he's coming home feeling good about friends and seeing the beginnings of some new friendships in his class.

I just finished the first book in Cixin Liu's Remembrance of Earth's Past trilogy, The Three-Body Problem, and overall I was pretty impressed. The version I read was translated from the Chinese, so it's hard to tell if some of the awkwardness in the prose and in parts of the plot is because of different cultural norms or because of a poor translation, but those issues were trivial compared to the bounty of ideas in the text.

The plot revolves around contact with an alien civilation, and the implications of them wanting to come to Earth to escape the inevitable doom of their planet, which is located in a trisolar system whose gravity wells bat the planet around like a billiard ball (figuring out the movement of the planet around the suns is the three-body problem referenced in the title), causing unstable and unpredictable chaotic eras that destroy their civilization over and over again.

A group of independent thinkers have established contact with them and are internally divided into two groups: those who hope that inviting them to Earth will lead to a new golden age of peace and tranquility by utilizing their advanced technology to transform human society, and those who think humans no longer deserve the Earth and want the Trisolarans to conquer us and take the planet for their own.

This is a good solid old school hard sci fi read, packed with descriptions of advanced potential technology and ideas. There are moments of poetic beauty in the writing, but it's still pretty plot driven and focused on science. The only real issue is the structure, which unfolds at a maddeningly slow degree at times. The only positive to this is that eventually it's all explained, so you just have to hang out and there will be a payoff to all of the seeming red herrings and weird mysteries from the earlier parts of the book.

I'm going to finish off this trilogy before moving on to something else, starting with volume 2, The Dark Forest. Very curious to see how the author builds on the world he's created, and I'm hoping the payoff for the whole trilogy will be just as worthwhile as the plot resolutions in the conclusion of this first book.

Another busy weekend. We started on Friday night with our normal movie night, but we finally talked Will into watching Spielberg's adaptation of Ready Player One, a book that I loved when I read it a few years ago. He was sort of interested by the virtual world part of it, but he wouldn't bite until Friday. Of course he loved it once he watched it, and I actually found it pretty enjoyable too, especially given that the trailers looked like a bunch of overstuffed retro nonsense. I'm definitely watching this one again at some point.

On Saturday morning we drove out to where my mom lives and met her, my godmother (her best friend since nursing school), my sister, and my brother in law for brunch. We went to a chain place that I hadn't heard of before called First Watch, and it was surprisingly good for a franchise kind of place. Much more in the vein of Panera than Cracker Barrel. The only downside was the lack of parking (it was in a strip mall) and the long wait, which was lengthened by the size of our party.

Later that afternoon we headed to Mercedes Benz stadium for an Atlanta United soccer game using tickets we purchased through the Cub Scouts. This meant we were in the very back of one of the very worst sections—we could turn around and touch the back wall of the stadium—but it didn't matter to Will, who had a great time as usual. The team has clinched a playoff spot already, so now they're just playing for prime position and home games, but they still played hard and came away with a 2-0 victory over Salt Lake.

We finished off the weekend with a Sunday visit to the North Georgia State Fair, one of Will's favorite annual traditions. We usually go with my sister, but our schedules weren't in sync this year, so it was just Will, Julie, and me this time. It was pretty hot out, much hotter than it's been in previous years, but we still stayed for a long time and Will had a great time. It seems like the food was a lot more run of the mill than it has been in the past, but they had a new exhibit hall that Will enjoyed exploring.

I'm leaving on a business trip to a conference in Salt Lake City for the next few days, and when I get back I'll only have one day back in the office before we head out for a multiday trip to Disney World that we gave to Will for his birthday this year. It will be Will's first visit there, and I know he's going to have fun no matter what, but hopefully we've done all the prep we need to do so we can have a good time too.

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