may 2019

The NFL draft took place at the end of last week, and it was the Ravens' first where original GM Ozzie Newsome wasn't making all the calls. He retired earlier this year, handing over the reins to his longtime assistant Eric de Costa, who started as an intern with the organization before working his way up to the top of the org chart.

There were two things Ravens fans were looking for as he made his selections: first, how much would his draft philosophy differ from his mentor's, and 2) would there be a real commitment to building the offense around the unique skillset of our young quarterback Lamar Jackson.

Overall it looks like a great draft, and EDC definitely executing the plan of bolstering the offense, spending four of the first five picks on offensive positions (including TWO wide receivers with the first and third picks, a versatile pass-catching running back, and an offensive lineman) while also picking up an edge rusher in the second round to hopefully replace some of the production we lost in that area when both Za'darius Smith and Terrell Suggs departed in free agency. He also added a quarterback in the sixth round who could be groomed to be Jackson's backup in a couple of years, allowing us to move on from our veteran backup Robert Griffin.

The only need that wasn't addressed in the draft was inside linebacker. We lost former first round pick and quarterback of the defense C.J. Mosley to free agency when the Jets paid a record-setting amount for him, and we only have a couple of relatively inexperienced (but promising) younger players to take over his spot next year. There weren't any great options available in the first phase of free agency, so the thought was that we'd try to add a player through the draft to add some depth to the bench behind this position.

We'll see how it all comes together when training camp and the preseason kick into gear later in the summer, which should give us some clue about how many first-year starters we might have gotten from this year's draft, and also give us a chance to pick up some veteran players who get released during the August cutdowns. If we could get half of this draft class on the field regularly this year, and fill in with one or two veterans for leadership and depth at key positions, I'll be feeling really good about this team heading into the regular season.

A few days after the surgery on my left eye, I went to see of Montreal play at Terminal West. It was surprisingly the first time I've seen of Montreal since moving to Atlanta even though they typically play at least twice a year because they're from nearby Athens (a lot of times they'll open the tour in Atlanta and close it out in Athens or vice versa).

This wasn't a tour to support a specific album (they unusually haven't released one since last year; frontman Kevin Barnes typically releases a new album every year, almost like clockwork), so it was a grab bag of hits from across their catalog, from their breakout Satanic Panic in the Attic to last year's White Is Relic. It was a pretty good setlist, although I was disappointed we didn't get more from my favorite record, Skeletal Lamping, nor did we get a performance of the very seldom seen "No Conclusion".

I'm still getting used to seeing the world clearly (albeit currently only through my weaker eye), so I spent a lot of the show alternating between watching the lighting between my two eyes, which are currently receiving very different visual signals. The show had some pretty trippy visual effects/costumes, which is pretty typical for the band (although they peaked early—the giant aztec monkey god thing that made an appearance in the first couple of songs was definitely the highlight of the stage props), but the interesting visual shifts on my part made this even more compelling.

My most recent read was a non-fiction book called Magic Is Dead: My Journey Into the World's Most Secretive Society of Magicians, which focuses on a group of contemporary magicians who call themselves the52, but which also delves into the history of magic (mostly starting in the 20th century, when many of still-used the techniques for manipulating cards were developed).

The book was written by Ian Frisch, and it's his debut longform work (he mostly seems to be a freelancer for online publications). He's definitely still figuring out his voice—even though he gives us a sense of his age, I would have guessed from some of the tone/style elements of his writing that he was actually much younger and less seasoned as a writer than he seems to be.

In addition to a brief history of magic and the narrative about the group of magicians he makes the book's focus, Frisch also weaves in a lot of his personal history, which is another weakness of the book. I felt like there was a full book here if he had gone at the material and the subjects in a more documentary, journalistic fashion, but he clearly thought he needed to flesh out the book with additional material, and he chose a personal memoir about his mother as a way to do that. These parts didn't add anything to the book to me—I would much rather have had chapters about the pure history of magic interspersed between the chapters about his experiences with the52 members.

There are great parts to this book, and I'm not sorry I read it, but there is a much better book that could be built on the bones of this one. In addition to the sometimes-amateurish writing (including the constant inclusion of banal conversations that don't yield any insights about the people engaged in them), the book is not so much an expose as it is a clubby, cheerleading narrative about only the parts of the history of magic and of the52 that the group members want him to write about. In fact, they induct him into the group, and although that technically means he's giving us a real insider's view, it's also clear that 1) there are a lot of the group's secrets that he's not privy to even after he is inducted and 2) they're clearly influencing both what he writes about them and what he knows/writes about in the larger history of magic.

If you took out the very best parts of this book, it would make a great longform magazine article, which, with proper guidance and research could have been developed into a great book-length piece. But that's not what this is, which is a real shame—that book will never be written (at least not by Frisch), but it deserves to be.

It was a pretty quiet weekend for me (although Will had his typically busy schedule with a school talent show and a Cub Scout picnic), but I did walk down to Decatur on Saturday night to meet a friend named David for dinner.

I've known David for several years—his daughter and Will went to preschool together, played soccer together, go to some camps together, and have fairly regular play dates—but most of the time when I've seen him, it's been in that sort of context: family events with our spouses, kids, and usually other families that we both know. So I've never really hung out with him one-on-one.

We ended up going to No. 246, which is one of the first restaurants I ever ate at in Atlanta (and my first Decatur restaurant). Since it was a Saturday night and we hadn't made reservations, they didn't have a table immediately available for us, but they were able to seat us at the bar. And since we were on the short end of the bar and we didn't have any immediate neighbors, it was almost like our own little table.

I got a scallop dish that was one of the most amazing scallop dishes I've ever had—the detail that I especially appreciated was the addition of capers, which added a nice pop of salt and umami. We ate leisurely and had a couple of drinks before heading over to get ice cream around the corner for dessert.

It was a pretty good night with some nice conversation. His schedule is usually pretty busy—he's a physician who works the kind of hours physicians typically work—but I'm going to start inviting him to the Decatur pub meetups that I do every month or so with a group of friends (some of whom he already knows).

Episode 4 of the final season of Game of Thrones covered a lot of ground—wrapping up the Battle of Winterfell, moving the people and armies in place for a confrontation with Cersei at King's Landing, and an important romantic development—but it was one of those infuriating episodes that have become all-too-common the last couple of seasons where not only do some things move way to fast, but there some that are outright implausible (in the context of this show's world) and others that seem unnecessary and/or out of character for people we feel like we know pretty well at this point (and therefore shouldn't be getting surprises from in terms of their motivations).

I don't know. There's no way this final season could have lived up to the staggering hype, but out of four episodes so far (with only six total in the season), I've only really liked one of them, and that was the one that had the least action/plot movement. It's increasingly clear that not only are the showrunners at their best when adapting other people's material (as they were doing for the first 4-5 seasons), but that they needed a lot more time to finish telling these stories.

Their desire to rush to the next part of their careers combined with their less-than-amazing writing skills are giving us a season that, even with some distance and even after we have the full scope of it, are likely going to leave a stain on this franchise. Which HBO should be concerned about—they're making a serious investment in a prequel series set in the same universe, and if this season leaves a bad enough taste in fans' mouths, it could affect their desire to make the same sort of emotional investment in a similar show.

Will and I went out shopping together for Mother's Day, and he ended up picking out a nice necklace and a pair of earrings for Julie at one of the shops in Decatur that features the work of local artists and artisans. He also insisted on getting a scrap metal sheep for Gabby for her front yard. It was cute, but I think it was more for him than it was for Gabby.

We started off Sunday morning with a trip to Revolution Doughnuts to get an assortment of Julie's favorite flavors. I supplemented that with scrambled eggs and bacon, and then Julie opened her presents. We went out to my mom's house in the afternoon, and since she was being visited by one of her best friends (who is also my godmother), we had presents for both of them.

My mom and her friend already had dinner plans for just the two of them, so we finished the afternoon by meeting my sister and her husband for a low key dinner at Bojangle's. Will had a great day, but he was completely exhausted by the end of it and fell asleep on the way back home.

My second eye surgery was last Wednesday, and it went pretty much the same as the first. I have more flashes of memory about the actual procedure than I did the first one, but it was still a pretty big blur. Tomorrow I have my one week checkup, and I expect that they will find that my vision has returned pretty much to where it was a few years ago before the cataracts started to develop.

I'm so relieved and thankful to have this over with and for it to have gone so smoothly. I still have to wear reading glasses (and interestingly, the distance at which the reading glasses work properly seems to have significantly narrowed since my lenses were replaced), but that's something I'm already used to and isn't really a big deal. I feel so blessed to have my long distance vision back—the world is so clear and so full of color that every day is a revelation that reminds me anew of just how much I had lost (and how much more I could have lost) before the surgery.

Game of Thrones, season 8, episode 5. For the penultimate episode of the entire series it was a disappointment, spending too much time on yet another epic battle and featuring too many moments that were in direct contradiction to previous events and previous character developments (in the case of Dany, the biggest character shift in the episode, you could see how she could have ended up where she ended up in this episode, but the writers didn't do nearly enough to transition her smoothly to that point).

At this point I just want the show to be over so we can view the last season as a whole piece and see if it's salvageable from that perspective, because despite some nice moments in each episode, there's really only been one episode this entire season that was written well, paced well, and where the characters did things that made sense in the context of who we've gotten to know them as over the course of several years.

Julie left on Monday to go to North Carolina to help her mom make the move down to Atlanta (something we've been working on and planning for several years), so Will and I have been on our own this week. It's mostly been pretty low key, although he did have a class event yesterday where each of the kids read a poem they'd written about themselves and gave presentations about what they'd done and learned in class that year.

Julie and her mom get back in town today, and the movers will move her stuff into her new apartment tomorrow. She only lives about 10 minutes from us, which might be too close for my comfort with a different kind of person, but she's pretty good about respecting our boundaries and our need for nuclear family time.

I expect that we'll still see her 2-3 times a week, and I'm sure Will will occasionally stay with her (either so we can have a night out or just because he wants to), but it will be good for her to be closer to family and it will be good for Will to have another grandparent close by.

After the Magic Is Dead book, I wanted to get back to the world of fiction, so I gave another one of those kind-of-sci-fi/kind-of-dystopian books a try. This one was called Inspection, and it was written by Josh Malerman (whose Bird Box book was recently made into a series on Amazon).

The premise is that two true believers in the concept of raising boys and girls separately set up two identical schools in a remote part of the upper midwest and recruit same-gendered staff members for each school to raise and teach orphans who were adopted at birth. The two headmasters (who go by the eyerolling names D.A.D. and M.O.M. to the pupils) believe that making each group of kids think that there is only a single gender in the world will keep them from being distracted by the pursuit of the other sex as they enter puberty and adulthood and will allow them to achieve remarkable scientific and intellectual feats.

The writing was pretty good, and for once I liked the slow reveal of the world (which is sometimes used in sci fi as a way to dodge the fact that, in terms of plot, there's not much there there), which expanded to include new characters as the world itself expands, including background on some of the instructors at each school. But because of several nagging inconsistencies, I had a hard time really suspending my disbelief for this world, which took away from my ability to enjoy it.

The biggest things were raw scientific realities that weren't dealt with at all. First: how can you expect these children to become great scientists and researchers when not only are they not aware of one of the core aspects of their own species (sexual desire), but because the instructors don't even want them to be aware of the concept of a separate sex, they have no idea how a major component of biology (reproduction) works?

Second, it's not just the idea of heterosexual reproductive sex that they want to hide from the children, they don't want them to have any sexuality at all. With the size of the populations of each school (they each started with 26 children), it's likely that at least a couple of the students would not be hetero anyway, but if the same sex was their only outlet for sexual impulses as they entered puberty (which is the point in time where most of the book takes place), then certainly more than just a couple would express themselves sexually with the only partners available to them.

Finally, it's hard to believe that, no matter how much you paid them, all of the instructors at both schools would be willing to participate in creating this false world for 20 years as the students come to maturity. We see hints of rebellion, but no real action in that direction, even as it becomes increasingly clear that this is not a sustainable model as the children become more adept at understanding the world and people around them and gain more agency in deterring their own fates. Also: what was supposed to happen when they reached adulthood? Would they be sent out into the real world to fill in their educational gaps and never have sexual desire even when exposed to the opposite sex?

I like the premise, but this was one of those cases where we didn't get enough information to make us feel like the author had really thought through some of these questions but we got too much information which immediately gave rise to those questions. This might have been better as a short story, where we wouldn't have needed to fully understand how these schools were set up and we would have had less time to ponder the major plot holes.

I don't read a lot of short stories anymore, but I decided to read a couple of collections by Ted Chiang (Stories of Your Life and Others, which I was interested in because it contains the short story that the movie Arrival was based on) and Chris Beckett (Spring Tide, because a review of the opening/closing stories (two halves of the same story) was intriguing to me.

Spring Tide was a bit of a disappointment. The collection was billed as an off-kilter sci-fi influenced collection, but there were only a few stories that I would fit into that category, including that opening and closing one, that was about a man who finds a secret trapdoor in his living room floor and discovers a huge underground labyrinth of hundreds of empty rooms spread across dozens of floors. With that story and with the more typical stories (that were just about people without any magical realism/sci fi context), the author had a habit of just ending it abruptly, in what I assume was meant to be some sort of meaning final image. But most of the time it just felt like he ran out of sentences to write about his characters and just gave up.

Stories of Your Life, on the other hand, was amazing. The stories frequently had a hard sci fi background, but they always had a very human heart, and often the science of the worlds he has created in these stories isn't our science, but the science of an alternate universe (like one where angels are real, but their visitations cause devastation and destruction and often end up killing as many people as they heal/save).

I can't say enough about how much I loved this book. I rarely re-read anything, but I wanted to start this collection over the second I finished it. Instead, I will turn to his second collection, Exhalation, but I fully expect that I will revisit his first collection before the summer is over. I'm already planning a return to these stories, characters, and worlds; I'm going to delay as long as I can so when I do go back to them, their return to my life will seem all the sweeter from the anticipation.

On Tuesday I flew down to New Orleans for a conference, and I got back home last night. I hadn't been there since 2005 (also for a work conference), just a few months before Katrina hit and devastated the city.

Both times the conference was hosted by Tulane, but before our hotel and the conference were both near the French Quarter. This time, the conference sessions took place on the Tulane campus, and our hotel was a couple of miles away in the Garden District. So were weren't really close to the campus where the conference was being held, and we weren't close to the popular tourist areas for after hours fun. Not sure who did the planning on that one, but it seems like the hotel should have either been adjacent to campus or in the French Quarter instead of this weird in-between place.

The conference itself wasn't bad, but it was so scheduled out that we didn't really have any time to see New Orleans. Both days started early in the morning (the shuttle left the hotel at 7:30), and the first day of the conference (the only full day) ended at 9, with a cocktail party and a dinner at Tulane following the conference sessions.

There was also a pre-conference cocktail meetup the evening I arrived, and it was following that get together that I got my only real taste of New Orleans. I had met the VP of Enrollment at Tulane last year at the same conference (which was held at Notre Dame last year), and at this cocktail party, he invited me out to a local restaurant with his admission director, another Emory person, and another person on the Tulane staff.

He is Indian, so he took us to a very cool Indian restaurant called Saffron that does a fusion of traditional New Orleans/cajun cuisine and Indian dishes. The VP goes there frequently enough that the owner knows him by name, and he managed to find us a booth despite the lack of reservations. The concept worked surprisingly well—the dark roux that is the base of so many cajun dishes pair well with the rich spice blends on traditional Indian cooking. There were a lot of small plates, and everything I tasted was excellent, but the tamarind shrimp and especially the curried seafood gumbo were real highlights. Since we were sharing around the table, I only got a small sampling of the gumbo, but if I were returning to this restaurant, I would order a big bowl of that. Or three.

After the first full day of the conference, I was so exhausted that I decided to walk back to the hotel and rest for a bit before dinner, and then take a cab back to campus. It was fun walking through the Garden District—lots of old historic homes, and the street I was on had streetcar tracks running down the middle that many of the locals used as a jogging trail. But it was so hot and humid that I was absolutely soaked when I got back to the hotel, and after a nap and a shower, I decided to skip dinner and got a sandwich from a fresh market around the corner from the hotel.

The flight back was quick and uneventful, and I was back home in time for dinner. I wish I had had time to revisit the French Quarter and get to know Magazine Street (which seems to be the place where the locals go for hip boutiques and innovative dining) a little better. I had originally hoped to bring Julie and have a couple of days before the conference just to have a mini vacation, but that didn't work because of Will's end of school schedule (his last day was yesterday) and the recent arrival of Julie's mom. But we are planning that kind of trip for a conference I have in Chicago next month, which we're both really looking forward to.

When I got back from New Orleans, it was Will's last day of school, so we did what we usually do: took him to dinner at Downwind Restaurant and Lounge, a little place at the Peachtree DeKalb Airport with an outdoor deck overlooking the runways. Julie's mom joined us this year as well, and as usual it was a nice meal. One funny part: two tables near us were loudly discussing the final season of Game of Thrones, and at one point Julie politely asked them if they would mind talking a little more quietly so as not to spoil it for her (she's still working her way through season 3). I would have loved to have joined in, but I'm also doing my best to let everything in the show be a surprise for her as she's watching it (and I'm rewatching it with her).

On Saturday we walked to the Decatur Arts Festival, which we haven't been to in years because we usually leave for our beach trip the Saturday before Memorial Day. Since we used our vacation money to take Will on a cruise for his spring break, we were in town for once. It was super hot, and there wasn't a lot of art that I wanted to buy, but I did talk to an artist whose work I saw at a show last year who I'd like to do a custom piece for me.

That night we went to Holy Taco for dinner (a favorite place in East Atlanta), and then relaxed on Sunday and Monday. It was nice to have a couple of quiet days after all the activity of the past couple of weeks, and even better to have a short week this week.

I know I'm kind of working backwards here, but the weekend before I went to New Orleans, I went to see a Saturday night show at the Earl with my friend Steve. The band was Filthy Friends, an indie supergroup featuring Corin Tucker of Sleater-Kinney, Scott McCaughey of the Minus 5, and Peter Buck of R.E.M., and although I don't find anything disagreeable about their music (they just released their second album together), I also haven't been taken enough with it to actually purchase the albums. But I couldn't miss the novelty of seeing such huge stars in such a tiny club, and especially in seeing Buck play a hole in the wall club only an hour from the town where he became one of the biggest rock stars in the world.

The opener was Dressy Bessy, who have been around for about 20 years. I own one album from them (their self-titled record from 2003), and while I adore that little gem of an album, it feels like enough. At their best, they sound like what the Breeders might sound like if Kim Deal was more consistently relaxed and cheerful; singer and guitarist Tammy Ealom's voice has an uncanny similarity to Deal's. They played a great set, full of energy and joy. I'm not sure how they landed such a plum gig, but it looks like they are part of the circle of friends for Filthy Friends—both Buck and McCaughey played on their 2016 record.

Filthy Friends themselves were entertaining, mostly because it was cool to see Corin Tucker and her intense vocals up close and to see Peter Buck ten feet away doing his arena rock god guitar moves on a stage that was barely big enough to hold the entire band. There were also clearly a lot of Athens music royalty who made the trip to see the band (even though they were also playing Athens the following night), because the crowd was much older and much cooler-looking than the standard Earl crowd. They called out Apples in Stereo frontman Robert Schneider by name (fun fact I just learned: last year he earned a PhD in mathematics from the university where I work), but I'm sure there were others.

It was a cool show, but I'm still not entirely convinced that I should buy one of their albums. I think the new one would be a better fit if I were to buy one, but it still seems like one of those projects that emphasizes the weaker aspects of each members skill set rather than bringing together their strengths: it's not as stridently off-kilter as Sleater-Kinney at their best, it doesn't have the pop craftsmanship of the Minus 5, and it's missing the bold rock chords or the Byrds-like jangling arpeggios that became hallmarks of his work with R.E.M. A fun little experiment, but one that seems destined to be a side project/trivia question answer more than a worthwhile creative entity.

It's been nearly two weeks since the series finale of Game of Thrones aired, and I'm still processing it. I'm mostly okay with how things ended up, but I'm still pissed about many of the decisions the showrunners made over the last two seasons to get us there. The bones of a great ending to the series are all there, but the show probably needed another 4-6 episodes of character and plot development to get us there in a reasonable way.

I'm still rewatching the series with Julie (we're just starting season 4), so I'm hoping that some of my strong negative feelings will be softened after taking some time to absorb the overall arc of the series and rewatching it from that distance.

I've gotten through two more books in the last couple of weeks, one the second collection of short stories from Ted Chiang called Exhalation and one a novel by Adrian Tchaikovsky called Children of Time. Exhalation was just as brilliant as Chiang's first collection, Stories of Your Life and Others, and I can't say enough about this brilliant author. Each of these stories is a gem (although some of them are more capable of standing on their own than others), and together the collection is the most insightful, compelling, and thoughtful book published this year (possibly this decade). The only heartbreak is that, just having discovered Chiang's work, it's unlikely that we'll get another collection anytime soon. But the stories he's given us so far are all worth revisiting, which I think I'll be doing more than once in the coming years.

Adrian Tchaikovsky has been writing for many years and is best known for his Shadows of the Apt fantasy series, but Children of Time is a solidly sci fi novel and is a great start to his career in this genre. It's set in a universe where the Earth is becoming uninhabitable, and over the generations two intertwined large scale, long-term strategies to ensure the survival of our species are attempted: terraforming hospitable worlds to not only create climates where humans can live, but also populating those worlds with Earth species to recreate our entire biosphere, followed by generation ships where most of the population has been in cryogenic sleep for hundreds of years while the terraforming process takes place.

The story centers on a world terraformed by a rogue scientist who unleashes a genetically engineered virus on her target planet that is meant to evolve primates into a new species of humanity that she will control the development of. Things go wrong, however, when the primate colony is destroyed by the virus they carried makes its way into the biosphere anyway, leading to the rapid evolution of non-primate species, especially spiders and ants.

The second narrative (which eventually collides with the first) focuses on the generation ship that was sent to colonize that planet, whose crew has no knowledge of the failed experiment and its consequences for life on that planet. This is a more traditional generation ship/extraterrestrial colonization story, but it's a well-told one that blossoms into something completely unique and original when combined with the first story thread.

Tchaikovsky was trained as a psychologist and zoologist, and both these backgrounds are evident in his storytelling here. He's very adept at not only envisioning what a society of intelligent spiders might look like, but of getting into the heads of a very different kind of consciousness and making those thoughts and perceptions makes sense to us as human readers while still being very distinctly spider-y.

It's a standalone book with a solid ending, but there is a follow up set in the same universe that I'm absolutely going to pick up soon. There are a lot of directions he could take using the world building he's done in the first book, and I wouldn't be surprised to see this series expand to fill several novels eventually.

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