october 2018

Back from a work trip, and now immediatley off again to take Will to Disney for the first time. Someday before the end of the year I'd like to spend an entire week at home...

Before I get to our Disney trip, I need to circle back to talk about the conference I went to at the end of September in Salt Lake City.

The conference itself didn't start until Thursday, but since I usually fly out a day early, especially if flight is more than a couple of hours, I headed to Salt Lake on Wednesday. Normally I would pick a flight that gets me there late afternoon/early evening, but a couple of friends who live a few hours away in Colorado were able to arrange their schedules to come spend the day in Salt Lake City, so I took an earlier flight and met up with them around 2 after checking into my hotel.

These are people I've "known" for years, but this was the first time I'd met them in person. We've been part of an online gaming group together for a long time. They are a married couple, and while they didn't actually meet in the game, they were both players already when they met and it was definitely part of their bonding process.

This isn't the first time I've done this—I've met more than a dozen people in real life that I first met in the game (my brother even met his wife in the game)—but it's always a little weird to meet people in real life who you already have a detailed mental picture of. You hope that you get along as well in the real world as you do in the game world, but you never know for sure.

Everything went great with this meeting though. They picked me up at my hotel, and after a few minutes of awkward chit chat, we all got comfortable enough to have real conversations. They indulged my desire to see the Great Salt Lake up close by driving me out to Antelope Island State Park, and then we went out to dinner at a Mexican restaurant that has a dedicated following in the Salt Lake area, Red Iguana. (We actually went to Red Iguana 2, which is down the street from the still-active original and which is supposed to have a smaller crowd, but even at 5:30 on a Wednesday night, the place was already packed.)

After dinner we went to a local Dave & Buster's-type place and played a round of outdoor minigolf, which is where I got my first taste of the weirdness of living in a desert. Even though it had been the the low 80s since I arrived, once the sun went down the temperature plummeted, and by the time we were done with minigolf around 10, it was in the 40s.

They drove me back to my hotel and we said our in-person goodbyes. Even though I'll still connect with them online through the game a few times a week just like I have for the past few years, there's every chance we'll never meet in real life again. But it was great to have that one day to get to know them better.

The rest of my time in Salt Lake was spent doing conference stuff, although this conference (the largest trade conference in our industry) is a lot more about networking and meeting with vendors than it is about the conference sessions themselves. In addition to the socializing with my colleagues from around the country, I also had three coffee meetings with vendors, three trade show booth meetings with vendors, and two dinners with vendors.

It was more fun than it sounds, though—for one of my dinner meetings, I met up with the VP and the president of a consulting firm (who just happen to be a son and his mother; dad is the founder and primary consultant for the firm) before our dinner to go see the Mormon Tabernacle Choir rehearse (you could tell the pros that are hired guns from the actual church members who are good enough to be in the choir by how they dressed for rehearsal—the true Mormons were all dressed up as if they were actually going to church, whereas the pro singers and musicians were wearing the equivalent of their hanging-around-the-house clothes).

Our trip to Disney was exhausting but pretty fun. We knew Will was going to love it, but we actually had a really good time too, which was a little unexpected.

We drove down to Orlando on Tuesday afternoon and arrived at the Art of Animation resort around dinner time. This is an official Disney resort, but it's not in one of the parks itself. We picked it because 1) it was one of the cheaper options for a Disney-branded place to stay; 2) it has the biggest pool in all of the Disney properties; and 3) we were able to get a Finding Nemo-themed suite that gave us our own bedroom and a murphy bed for Will in the main room.

After we got checked in and unpacked, we were too tired to do much of anything besides eat dinner, especially because we were planning to get an early start the next morning. Will was super excited, so it was hard to get him settled down, but eventually we all went to sleep before it got too late.

We were up bright and early on Wednesday, and we got out to the shuttle stops in time to catch the first bus to Animal Kingdom, where we would spend our first day. I went to Disney a few times when I was a kid, but back then they only had Magic Kingdom and Epcot, so this was a completely new experience for all of us. It's a weird hodgepodge of different IP and experiences—live animals, an Avatar section, a Nepal-themed area, and random things like Bug's Life sprinkled throughout.

The premiere attraction currently is the main Avatar ride, Flight of Passage, and since we weren't able to be a Fast Pass for that one, we ran straight there as soon as they opened the gates. Even though pretty much everyone else who got there first thing was doing the same thing, we only had to wait in line about 20 minutes. It was a pretty cool ride, and we liked it enough that we came back later in the day and were willing to wait about an hour to go on it again.

The rest of the day was dictated by the timing of our Fast Passes, making choices about what other attractions to explore based on proximity and wait time. We also ate lunch somewhere in there, and we ended up gettting to ride everything we wanted to. We ended up riding the Everest roller coaster the most (six times total for Will and me), which was kind of surprising—Will was very reluctant to try it at first, so I bribed him with a promise that I'd buy him a few donut keychains that he likes if he rode it and didn't like it. He was still kind of iffy after the first ride, but about an hour later he said he wanted to ride it again, and then when we returned to the ride shortly before the park was closing, there was no line, so he and I rode it over and over until it was time to go.

It was a good first day in what ended up being my favorite park, and we once again ate dinner at the resort food hall before heading back to the room to get some sleep in preparation for the next day.

Thursday we went to the Magic Kingdom, and Friday was spent at Hollywood Studios, and both days we met my sister and her husband and spent the day with them. My sister is a Disney fanatic, so we followed her lead those days, especially at Magic Kingdom. She's really good at logding petty grievances with customer service, so we ended up with a bunch of extra Fast Passes for the whole group (although some were leftover from a previous visit).

Magic Kindom was an especially long day because that evening they had a special event where the park was open until midnight for a Halloween event: trick or treating, a special light show, and Halloween themes for some of the rides. The whole day was pretty fun, but the Halloween stuff was especially good, and was well worth the extra ticket price. It was strange going back to some of the rides that I visited 30 years ago on my childhood visits and finding them essentially unchanged—I don't really have a lot of nostalgia about those trips, but there was an odd comfort to the continuity of the experience.

Due to the late night Thursday, we got a later start on Friday, which turned out to be fine, because Hollywood Studios was our least favorite park: not as much to do, poorly laid out, and very little protection for the blistering sun. Even the new Toy Story land was kind of blah and was also a cul de sac with no flow through to the rest of the park. We did enjoy the Rock n Roller Coaster and the Tower of Terror, but the rest of it was pretty forgettable. It might be worth revisiting when the Star Wars section of the park, Galaxy's Edge, is completed, but the placeholders they have for the IP are pretty underwhelming currently.

Saturday was our last day at a Disney park, and we spent it at Epcot, the only park we hadn't visited yet. There were two rides that we weren't able to get Fast Passes for, Test Track and Soarin' Around the world, so we arrived first thing and were able to fit both of those in before our first Fast Pass. The park was crowded because it was a Saturday, but most people were there for the food and wine festival, so a lot of the crowds stayed near the country-themed pavilions that surrounded the lake.

This turned out to be one of Will's favorite parks—he liked the focus on technology and the future, but there were two other experiences that were some of our most memorable of the whole trip. The first was on the Journey Into Imagination with Figment, a basic ride where a troublemaking dragon named Figment guides you through a series of wacky science labs. We were about halfway through the ride when everything just...stopped.

We sat in the car for about 15 minutes while they gave us periodic updates on the repair status, but after about half an hour they gave up and closed the ride. That meant they had to come around and open up every car manually and then walk us out through the attraction with all the lights on. I was annoyed, especially when there was no real compensation for wasting out time and not getting to complete the ride, but Will was so taken with his experience that when we let him pick out a toy to commemorate his week at Disney, he picked a stuffed Figment.

The other experience was a planned surprise for Will. The whole trip was his birthday present for this year, but we wanted to have a extra special dinner, so we made reservations for a restaurant at Epcot where you dinewhile looking out of giant windows onto an aquarium, so it feels like you are underwater. We told them it was Will's birthday, and they gave us a great table where we had a close view of the animals.

There were two in particular that I remember: a gigantic manta ray named Luna who mostly sat in one spot on the bottom of the tank next to the window and looked out at the tables, and a shark with an anxious expression who we nicknamed "worried shark". We also got Will a birthday cake there to celebrate, but it was way too big for the three of us, so we gave half of it to a table of seniors next to us, one of whom was also celebrating a birthday.

On Sunday we headed back to Atlanta, where we all took a day on Monday to recover before we went back to work/school. It was an exhausting and expensive trip, but we all had a good time, and Will was a real trooper - we were out at least 12 hours a day and walked at least 10 miles each day, but he never complained or freaked out because he was just so excited to be at Disney.


I've now finished the second book in Cixin Liu's Remembrance of Earth's Past trilogy and am onto the third. Book 2 was titled The Dark Forest, a title whose meaning doesn't become clear until later the the narrative, but which is a particularly fascinating concept to me. The dark forest theory is an intriguing new answer to the Fermi paradox, which asks why we haven't detected an alien civilization despite the high likelihood of millions of civilizations across our galaxy and other galaxies who have reached a technological savvy far beyond our own.

There has been a lot of speculation and many different ideas about why we have no evidence so far of intelligent life elsewhere in the universe, but as long as you accept the basic proposition that intelligent life in the universe, while still relatively rare, still exists, the most popular explanation is that, due to the distances and timeframes involved, the likelihood of an intelligent civilization existing at the same time as us and located close enough to us for some sort of communication to be possible is extremely low.

This is all assuming that the speed of light is an absolute in our universe, this limiting even basic communiucations to that constraint. For example, the closest star to Earth outside of our solar system is about four light years away. That means that, if that star happened to have a planet with intelligent life with the technology to communicate with us, it would still take eight years for a dialogue to take place: four years for a message to be sent, and four years for the reply to be received (interestingly, Liu uses a quantum entanglement theory to reduce this timeframe to real-time, but we don't have enough evidence in our own understanding of physics to know that this is a real possibility).

When you take that limit and start to look at stars that are 50, 100, 1,000 or more light years away from us, and suddenly you can see why it would be very tricky to have meaningful contact with another civilization. Liu's dark forest theory, however, posits that even if the universe is teeming with life, and even if the light speed constraint can be somewhat mitigated, we'll never hear from another civilization because everyone that has made it to certain level of development has adapted to one or both of the following strategies for survival: hide all evidence of your existence and/or destroy any other civilizations that you detect.

From a purely rational perspective, this makes a lot of sense. Imagine you are trapped in a room with finite resources with a complete stranger—a stranger of another species whose culture and values you have no idea about—and you have the technology to make a weapon that will destroy that person while he does not (yet). You can't communicate with him, and even if you could, you don't have enough context about his motives and goals to really trust him.

Now imagine that at any moment, due to rapid advancements in technology, that person might suddenly have in his possession a weapon that could destroy you, and not only you, but your entire civilization. In order to protect yourself and your culture, your only real options are to destroy him while you have the chance or to hide and hope that he can't find you when he does develop a weapon capable of destroying you.

The dark forest theory expands the scale of this concept and imagines that we live not in a room with one other civilization, but a forest full of millions of civilizations, any of whom might destroy us if they discover us because they are afraid we will destroy them if we discover them. The nature of this theory makes it harder to prove than some of the other explanations to the Fermi paradox, but there is a certain elegance and lethal simplicity to the dark forest idea.

Even though the narrative relies on this concept, the book itself only spends minimal time explaining it, and then only towards the end of the book. The plot picks up where the Three Body Problem leaves off, with the Earth under observation by the Trisolaran society, who are also able to block any advances in our understanding of physics (there are solid scientific explanations for this, but I won't go into them here).

But we have discovered a crucial weakness in our new foe: due to their unique anatomy and methods of communicating, they are unable to hide their thoughts to each other and therefore have no concept of the idea of lying. So the UN commissions four "wallfacers", individuals who are given unlimited resources and virtually no oversight.

They are tasked with initiating projects meant to defend Earth agains the Trisolarans in ways that won't be immediately obvious to the alien civilzation. They can't write or speak about their plans because they are under surveillance, nor can they do things a way that the outcome or strategy is guessable by the Trisolarans, so executing these projects is extremely difficult.

The book follows one wallfacer in particular, Luo Ji, who appears to have abandoned his duties as a wallfacer and instead embraced an isolated, hedonistic life. The authorities and the general population of Earth become disenchanted with him, believing he is choosing a selfish path where he lives a great life and doesn't have to live to see the consequences of the Trisolaran invasion, and he falls into disgrace.

This is, of course, part of his plan to hide his intentions from the alien civilization, and Liu does a great job of also leading the reader down that path. But everything that seems like a red herring in this book does eventually have a payoff, and the ending here is really one of the best reveals I've read in a long time.

Overall, I liked The Dark Forest even better than The Three Body Problem, and I highly recommend both books if you are into sci if, especially hard sci fi. I can't wait to read the concluding volume, Death's End.

Earlier this week I did my annual two days of recruiting travel to Macon and the surrounding counties. I've gotte pretty used to that area over the past few years, and I feel like I'm making progress there. This year in particular I did events at two schools that I hadn't been able to visit before, and did drop-ins at a couple of others.

I stay in the same hotel every time I visit, and it has been my habit to go to a Chinese restaurant to get takeout for dinner. The first year I went, the counter was manned by a teenager who told me he was a junior in high school. Because that's exactly who I'm there to recruit, we started talking about college, and he told me that he loved being in the restaurant so much that all he wanted to do was take over management of the place (his parents owned it) when he graduated, forgoing college or trade school.

He was clearly very intelligent, and I think college is a worthwhile experience for most people, but I can't argue with someone who has found something they love to do that they are good at.

The next time I visited he was a senior and still had the same plans: forgo any kind of secondary education and manage the restaurant. So I was looking forward to seeing him again this year, when he would have been in his first year of working full time. But when I went to the restaurant's location, the tiny strip mall it had been located in had been replaced by new freestanding buildings for franchise restaurants.

This particular restaurant isn't exactly a chain, but there are multiple chinese restaurants in Macon that share this name. Assuming that there is at least some relationship between the owners of the different locations, I went to the next closest one to order dinner and inquire about the fate of the one I usually went to. I was hoping to find out what had happened to the young man—were they building a new location that he was going to manage? was he working at one of the other locations? had he changed his mind about college or culinary school?—but the woman behind the counter had nothing for me.

I'm very curious to know what happened there, but I doubt I'll ever get any further information. I never expected to have a weird little mystery come out of my time in Macon, but I guess that's what happens when you spend enough time in a place.

I was out all last week finishing up the last of my business trips for the year, but we had a pretty good weekend when I got back. I was in recovery mode on Saturday, but Will and Julie took a quick trip to the science center. Our big family outing was a trip to the symphony to see a Disney-themed Halloween performance.

It was designed to be very family friendly, and it was well structured for that purpose. None of the pieces lasted longer than seven or eight minutes, there were dancers for some of the pieces, and they would talk about the music before each piece. The show was also less than an hour, which was a plus for the attention span of the audience.

We got tickets through Will's music school, the director of which is married to a trombone player in the symphony. So after the performance all the music students got a chance to go up on stage and have their picture taken, which Will loved. Aside from a run in with a parking garage attendant (she was so rude that I went inside to write a report for customer service, which I almost never do), it was a great afternoon.

I actually had two trips last week: one to Dallas for a conference and one to Columbus and LaGrange to finish up my fall recruiting travel.

The Dallas conference started on Monday, and I usually like to fly out the day before, but Sunday night was also the final regular season game for Atlanta United, who are definitely going to the playoffs again this year and who had a chance to win the Supporters' Shield for the best record in MLS. So I did the best I could to sort all that out, taking the latest flight I could on Sunday night, which allowed me to watch the game, head home to change and grab my bags, and go immediatley to the airport to catch my flight.

The conference was okay, but there weren't as many good sessions as I remember from previous years. I did get a chance to catch up with a lot of colleagues while I was there though, and that's what ends up being the most valuable part of the experience most times anyway.

I got back home on Wednesday, and then left bright and early on Thursday morning for my recruiting trip. I started out the day in Americus and then wound my way back up towards Columbus, where I spend the night. I did a couple more schools in Columbus before heading north to LaGrange, and then made my way back to Atlanta after my last school visit, arriving home around the time Will got back from his Friday afternoon piano lesson.

I was hoping to head down to the river walk in Columbus to do a training run (I haven't run a 5K since last year, but there's one coming up that Will really wants to do), but it was cold and rainy the night I was there. The downtown area was much nicer than I expected, but the rest of the place was a nightmare maze of highways and strip malls that I don't think I could navigate without a GPS assistant even if I lived there for a decade.

I have one more trip planned this calendar year, but that's a personal trip to DC and Baltimore to see a band and watch a Ravens game. I shouldn't have to travel out of town for business until sometime next May, and hopefully my schedule won't be as packed as it was this year. All of my trips had positives, but I'm really glad to finally be home after being on the road at least once a month since last May except for July.

For Halloween this year, Will is going as a sriracha bottle, which is very fitting—he uses that stuff like ketchup, so much so that hte sandwich makers at our local Subway call him "sriracha boy".

My sister and her husband are joining us again this year, and we're also going to go with Will's friends Evie and Anika, two sisters who are the daughters of one of our neighbors.

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