august 2020

We had our second major power outage in the last couple of weeks over the weekend, despite the lack of strong storms, etc. A tree fell across the an intersection a couple of blocks away and pulled down a power pole in the middle of the night (and also took out the traffic lights there).

They got the power back on around 9:30 a.m. on Sunday, but when it came back on, we discovered that the cable and internet were also out. We don't know if they were related—it looked like there were a lot of other cable outages around Atlanta, not just in our neighborhood, so it could have been a wider issue—but the cable stayed out through the afternoon, so even though we had power, we had to revert back to some of our strategies for the last power outage when we used the cell connection on our phones as a hotspot for our other devices.

After the problematic Django Unchained, I moved to Tarantino's next film, The Hateful Eight, which also has a Western theme and continues the gratuitous use of the n-word by both friends and foes of the black protagonist. Putting those issues aside, this is unquestionably the worst film Tarantino has ever made.

The setup is that eight strangers end up trapped in a remote general store/motel due to a raging blizzard, and in addition to the mystery of what happened to the owners and their staff, there's also the individual mysteries of who each of them are and what they doing out in this remote land. It's kind of a locked room puzzle box movie in the vein of Murder on the Orient Express, which should have real potential in Tarantino's hands. But it really fell flat for me.

It has great art direction as usual, but I get the feeling that Tarantino made this movie for two reasons: to continue his fetishistic exploration of the antebellum American West, and so he could have a chance to work with legendary Spaghetti Western composer Ennio Morricone, who wrote the score (and who I was somewhat surprised to discover Tarantino hadn't found a way to work with before).

The biggest problem for me is that I didn't really care about any of the characters or what happened to them. Aside from Samuel L. Jackson's protagonist (a bounty hunter who was originally written as Django for a sequel), everyone else is instantly untrustworthy and unlikeable, so you don't really mind it as they slowly pick each other off and their relationships to one another are revealed.

Overall, this was incredibly disappointing, especially coming on the heels of Django, which I currently consider Tarantino's second worst movie. I have yet to see Once Upon A Time In Hollywood, and I have serious concerns about the subject matter (the Manson Family murders of the pregnant actress Sharon Tate), but I've heard good things from my film buff friends. I'll still give that one a watch whenever it comes to one of the streaming services I subscribe to, but he's going to have to really hit it out of the park to regain my respect after these past two outings.

We've been watching a lot of baseball since the Braves started playing again. Sometimes it's in the background while we're doing other things, but we can perk up and focus when something exciting happens.

The Braves had a little bit of rocky start, losing 3 of their first 5 games, but since then they've won 6 of their last 7 and have won the most games in the NL East. Miami is technically in first place due to their winning percentage, but because they got a late start to the season due to a Covid outbreak on the team, they have only played 4 games so far compared to the Braves' 12.

The one game they lost in the past week was on Monday night when our young ace, Mike Soroka, tore his Achilles' tendon in the third inning. This means he'll be out for the rest of this season and possibly part of the 2021 season as well, which is a real blow to a rotation that is thin on starters (our only other reliable starter so far is Max Fried). That was our biggest weakness at the start of the season, and losing our best starter makes that problem even worse.

Fortunately our bullpen has been excellent so far, which, when combined with the offense's ability to score lots of runs late in the game once we get to the other team's bullpen, has masked some of the issues with our starters. Given this situation, it would be interesting to return to a pitching rotation experiment that Tony LaRussa tried with the Oakland A's back in 1993: mixing up long relievers and starting pitchers so that each pitcher is only expected to pitch three innings (once through the batting order if they are pitching well), but the starters could pitch more often than every five days (at least every three days and possibly even every second day).

I don't think we'll do that—the salary stratification between starters, relievers, and closers would be the biggest barrier to this, as well as the way wins are assigned (you have to pitch at least five innings as the first pitcher in the game to get any credit for a win)—but I still think this is an experiment that can and will be revisited at some point to great success, which will lead to it becoming the default for pitching staffs from that point on. But given that it's been nearly 30 years since someone last tried it, it could still be decades before that happens.

When it does happen, it's likely going to be on a team with the pitching strengths and weaknesses like the Braves have this year, but probably one with a player-friendly manager who has both the risk-tolerance and the contract/confidence of management AND low expectations, should try this again in a serious season-long experiment. The Braves are doing too well right now to take that risk, but I have no doubt it would be a winning formula for us if we were willing to give it a shot.

Twelve games wouldn't be a significant sample size in a normal baseball season, but in this shortened 60 game season, that's 20% of the season. Barring any serious injuries to our offensive stars and possibly adding another solid starter by the trade deadline, the Braves have a chance to make a strong run in this weird shortened season.

After The Hateful Eight, I watched a Netflix movie that's been getting a lot of good reviews since it came out last year. It stars Adam Sandler as a jeweler who moves from one hustle/scam/con to another, both personally and professionally.

I didn't care for it at all. Sandler's performance was fine, especially given the lowest-common-denominator comedy schlock he's been pushing out for Netflix in recent years, but there was nothing particularly revelatory about it. Beneath the distraction of (significant) guest roles by stars from other entertainment industries (most notably singer The Weeknd and basketball player Kevin Garnett) and a truly outstanding performance from Idina Mendel (best known as the voice of Elsa in Disney's Frozen movies), this is a very average script. The whole thing could have been encapsulated into a five minute prologue for a Law & Order episode and lost almost nothing.

There's no one in the entire cast of characters who is at all likable or undeserving of the fates that await them, especially Sandler's Howard. He makes bad decision after bad decision, and even after he gets a couple of windows where he could extricate himself from trouble, he instead pushes his gamble even farther and ends up in a worse predicament than before. He's frantic and empty, deeply unlikeable and deeply disliked by virtually everyone in his life, and it all seems to result from his selfish and short-sighted choices.

I don't know how you could be rooting for him to win by the end of the movie; after about 20 minutes of the character I was just waiting for whatever brutal ending was in store for him. The only reason I can think of that this got such good reviews is because Sandler has set such low expectations for himself lately than anything vaguely competent/serious seems Oscar-worthy by comparison. It could also be because the production company, A24, has been on a hot streak over the past few years, and their imprint on the film gave it bonus points with critics.

We're leaving on Sunday for another trip to the mountains before Will returns to (virtual) school next week, and also so I can use up all the excess vacation I've accrued over the past few months before it expires in September. We're not staying in the same cabin as before (it was already rented), but we're staying in the same general area.

We expect to spend the week hiking and relaxing, and hopefully the fact that several school districts have already started up will mean the area is even less crowded than it was when we went in June. It will be nice to get away for a while—trips like this are likely to be the closest thing we get to a vacation for the duration of this pandemic, since we aren't willing to risk tourist attractions or even more crowded venues like the beach.

The Friday before we left for the mountains was Julie's mom's birthday, so we had her over for dinner (socially distanced). For a special treat, we set up an old tv on a stand on the porch, plugged in a Chromecast, and watched a movie with her (again, socially distanced on the screen porch).

We left for our cabin on Sunday afternoon. Originally we were supposed to be able to check in by 4, but at the last minute they changed it to 6, so we delayed our departure time and picked up take-out Zaxby's for dinner as we went through Ellijay on the way to the cabin. It was a little hard to find—the written instructions they gave us didn't give the detail we needed, and the GPS got momentarily confused, but we made it without too much trouble. After unpacking the car, we had dinner on the deck outside and explored the house.

We took it easy on Monday morning, partly because we just wanted to relax and partly because there were thunderstorms early in the day, but they cleared by mid afternoon so we decided to go for a hike. The closest area was Fort Mountain State Park, which was about a 15 minute drive. There was a nice trail to a beautiful overlook that was about half a mile each way. As we hoped, it was nice and quiet—we passed a couple of other people on the trail, and we saw a few more come and go at the overlook, but it really wasn't crowded at all.

For dinner we made a small fire in the fire pit down by the creek using a starter log that was made for cookouts, and we roasted hot dogs and had them with chips. After dinner, we used the fire to toast marshmallows for smores. I was kind of skeptical the hot dogs would work, but it was surprisingly easy and fast, and it was really delicious after our hike.

On our second day, we returned to Fort Mountain State Park, but this time we walked up a set of stone stairs to the ruins of an ancient stone wall, and then continue on from there to the top of the mountain where there is a (sadly locked) fire tower. We then took a trail around the other side of the mountain to take the long way back to the overlook we visited the day before.

On Wednesday afternoon, we decided to go to Bear Creek Trail, which had conflicting directions on how to get there. I read up as much as I could, and I thought I had a good plan, but we ended up driving around looking for it so much that we ran low on gas and had to zip back into town to fill up before we tried another strategy.

We eventually found it—all the directions on how to get there were overly complicated, and the GPS directions to the supposed trailhead were just plain wrong—and had a nice hike to the Gannet Poplar, the second largest tree in Georgia. We continued from there up to an old Forest Service road that was completely deserted—we didn't see another hiker or bicyclist the entire time we were on that part of the trail.

Thursday was our last full day in the mountains, and we drove to the Tumbling Waters Trail in another park. This trail was a little more crowded, but it wasn't too bad, and the payoff was huge—a couple of bridges and overlooks onto an extended, gentle waterfall, with pretty easy access to go out and sit on the rocks amongst the water. That was one of my favorite experiences this trip, but I don't think we'd do it during peak season unless we have well and truly conquered Covid—the trail was very narrow, and it's clear from the facilities that this a very popular destination.

After spending a couple of hours at the falls, we went to another trail on the way back that was completely deserted where we walked down the mountain to the edge of the lake. It was very peaceful and serene—it would be a good place for a picnic—but we couldn't stay that long because it was getting late in the day. The only thing I didn't like about it was that it was all downhill on the way and all uphill on the way back.

We had to leave by 10 on Friday, so we got packed the night before and got on the road back to Atlanta the next morning, getting home in time for lunch. On Saturday we had one more back-to-school surprise for Will: we drove down to the Atlanta Motor Speedway for the car-based (due to Covid) Jurassic Quest, where you drove through a parking lot where giant models of dinosaurs had been set up. They normally do this in a mall environment, but this year they couldn't do that safely, so they moved it to a parking lot instead.

Will had no idea where we were going, so he was very excited on the way down. And even though the dinosaurs were kind of cheesy, we had a really good time together—it was one of those so-bad-it-was-good kind of experiences. I don't know that we'd ever go back, but we've curtailed our activities so much in the past six months that it was a welcome diversion.

After Liz Phair's memoir, I stayed in the musical realm, but this time shifted to fiction with David Mitchell's (of Cloud Atlas fame) newly released novel Utopia Novel, which is about a fictional band from the 60s that both intersects with the Mitchell-verse of horologists, etc., and goes into great detail about the music scene of London in the 60s (including cameos from Bowie, Hendrix, Lennon, Joplin, Syd Barrett and other musical and artistic luminaries of the time).

I've only read Cloud Atlas and The Bone Clocks, both of which are grounded in human stories but which have a sci fi/magical realism vibe, and this is far more grounded than either of those (despite one of the band member's being inhabited by an ancient and malevolent spirit). It's an impressive piece of work, not the least because of the perpetual issue with describing songs with words: to recall the famous quote (which Mitchell also quotes in the novel), "writing about music is like dancing about architecture".

Mitchell does an admirable job with this, especially given that he's lacking something that real music journalists always have: real songs to reference. His descriptions of the band's performances and their songs are exactly what you would expect from a music writer to write if they were writing an article about the show or a review of the album, and even though we don't have any real source material to match it up with, you still get a good sense of the kind of music the band is making.

The book is laid out so that each chapter is named after a song on one of the band's two albums, and it tells the story of that song in an oblique way by describing the events in the songwriter's life that led to and/or inspired the creation of the song. In this way we not only get the backstory of the songs, but of the band itself, in terms of both the personalities of the members and the shared experience they have playing together and becoming an established act.

I like the weirder stuff that Mitchell did with both Cloud Atlas and The Bone Clocks, but the lack of that here (aside from the spirit inhabiting the brain of the guitarist) doesn't make this book any less enjoyable. In fact, for readers who might have been turned off by the sci fi/future-predicting aspects of those two books might be more open to this story, because the links to the larger MItchell-verse are much more subtle (so subtle that you don't even need to be aware of the connections to fully appreciate the story of the four protagonists of this story).

I don't know that he'll ever top a masterwork like Cloud Atlas, but his writing remains simultaneously nuanced and efficient, find just the right balance between the external actions and circumstances that make up the plot and the interior narratives of the characters that give us empathy for their experiences and make their stories universal. I very much enjoyed the time I spend in this world with these people, and I was sad to reach the end of the book knowing that I have now experienced all that I ever will about their stories and their lives.

A few weeks ago, we purchased a cutout of Will that would be placed somewhere in Truist Park when the Braves played home games. We didn't know when it would be put in the stadium or where it would be placed, but we hoped we might be able to catch a glimpse of it during a game at some point.

A couple of days ago the Braves made this effort considerably easier by emailing me the section Will's cutout had been placed in and a picture of the section with all the cutouts in it so we could find out exactly what seat he was in. I then correlated this with a Braves seating chart so I could have some idea when the camera might be on that section.

It turns out we go really, really lucky: not only is Will in section that comes into view at least once during nearly every left-handed batter, but the row in front of his row is also empty, making it a lot easier to see all the cutouts in his row. Additionally, he's right next to a cutout where the person is wearing dark and light blue (Braves colors from the 80s road uniforms), which is very easy to spot amongst the modern-day Braves jerseys that most of the cutouts are wearing (we've nicknamed this cutout Big Blue Baby).

Armed with this information, Will and I watching a game and were able to spot him during the at bat of the first left-handed batter that we saw. He was so excited to see himself that it was easily worth the $50 we paid for the cutout.

I wasn't sure what to read after finishing Utopia Avenue, so I decided to re-read both of Ted Chiang's short story collections, Stories of Your Life and Others, and Exhalation, which I read back-to-back last year. It was nice to revisit these—I had forgotten the plot points of many of them, and the intricacy and precision of their construction was still dazzling. But this time they felt a little more technical than I remember—I didn't connect with the human parts of the stories as strongly this time. But these are pretty amazing books, and I still wouldn't hesitate to say these are the best collections of sci fi short stories so far this century.

After that, I randomly stumbled on to Drive-Thru Dreams: A Journey Through the Heart of America's Fast-Food Kingdom by Adam Chandler. I thought this was going to be a history of how major fast food chains in American came to be, and there were definitely elements of this in the early parts of the book. But later on it turns into a series of sociological essays that I didn't necessarily agree with or enjoy reading, and seemed to get away from the tone and framework established by the initial chapters.

The book was also very short, which on the one hand annoyed me because it was priced the same as a longer book, but which I was also somewhat grateful for because about halfway through all I was doing was trying to get to the end. I wouldn't recommend this one, even if you're a fan of fast food culture; it had the potential to be enjoyable, but he gave up on the first premise too quickly and much of the last half of the book feels like padding to get it to book length.

Musically, this year started out strong, with great new releases in the first half of the year from Grimes, Jeff Rosenstock, Waxahatchee, Run the Jewels, Fiona Apple, and a surprisingly engaging album from the Strokes. But the second half has been a real drought so far—I haven't purchased any new music since early July, and the few albums I purchased at the end of June and beginning of July haven't grown on me much, so it's been since late May/early June (when Rosenstock's No Dream and Run the Jewels' RTJ4 were released) since I've had any new music that I've really been into.

This second half slump is compounded by the fact that several bands I've been a fan of for years released records this year that are mediocre at best, including Deerhoof, No Age, Wolf Parade, Thao, and Car Seat Headrest. That last one is especially concerning/disappointing—after two back to back great albums, Teens of Style and Teens of Denial that were released barely six months apart, Will Toledo took another two years to release his next record, which was a re-recording of an album he self-recorded and self-released seven years previous. Then it was another two years until we got Making a Door Less Open, the first genuinely new music he'd released in four years, and it was nowhere near as good as his best work despite the long gestation period.

There's also only been one record that I love from a band who wasn't already in my collection: 2nd Grade, with their stunning Hit to Hit that churns out pop gems descended from Big Star at breakneck speed. Other than that record, there's not a single other thing I've bought this year that wasn't from an artist who I already owned at least one release from.

The fall music previews are coming out, and they don't give me a lot of hope that things will improve. There are a couple of things I might be interested in (Phoenix, Throwing Muses, the Flaming Lips), but nothing that I am so excited about it that I'm willing to purchase it unheard (like the Rosenstock, Apple, and RTJ releases). Maybe there will be some hidden gems from acts I have yet to discover like 2nd Grade, but traditionally those releases happen in the early part of the year so the holiday season can be loaded up with big name artists.

After reading Ted Chiang's books again, I decided to give another collection of sci fi short stories a try, this one called Tomorrow Factory by a young writer named Rich Larson. It got really good reviews, but for me, it was only okay—too many of the stories focused on near-future societies where bioenhancement makes going out and partying more fun.

Many of the stories seemed to take place in the same universe (some technologies, slang, and even a couple of characters showed up across many stories), but it was the ones that didn't take place explicitly in that party/social setting that I felt were the best. Part of the problem with the near future stuff was that there wasn't really anything that was described that I haven't seen used in many other sci fi contexts; it wasn't like reading Neal Stephenson's Snow Crash in 1991 where all of that stuff was mindblowingly novel (although since much of what he predicted has already come to fruition, it feels dated and limited now).

Larson has definitely read the elder statesmen of near-future sci fi—the influences ofStephenson, Phillip K. Dick, and William Gibson are pretty apparent—but the problem is that he hasn't created his own world/philosophy that transcends anything that we've already gotten from those writers. He's still very young—he's not quite 28, and he was 26 when this collection was published, so many of these stories are from his early 20s and even late teens—so I'm definitely curious to see what he does as he grows more confident in his storytelling. But this is very much the work of a young writer who is still finding his voice and hasn't reached his full potential yet.

Today Blizzard announced that the next expansion for World of Warcraft, Shadowlands, will be released in two months on October 27. I got an invite to participate in the beta a few weeks ago, and while I don't normally play the Warcraft betas (I've been invited to several) because I like to experience the story for the first time when it launches for real, this time I've played several hours because the content in the current game is beyond exhausted (this is the longest gap between the end of one xpac, when most players have completed all their goals, and the release of the next one).

So far, I'm troubled by what I've experienced. There are still lots and lots of broken quests; the story is confusing and not that engaging; the art assets are echoes of things we've seen before with nothing truly original; and many of the quests are ones where you follow someone around and listen to them talk, which are both slow and boring. Honestly, it's not a good sign when I'm choosing to go back and play content that I feel like I exhausted several months ago (our guild downed the final raid boss on heroic back in April) rather than play through completely new content that's supposed to serve as the game's foundation for the next 2-3 years.

Endgame content could still be decent—I'm still leveling my test character, so I haven't tested any dungeons or the first raid yet—but leveling is usually my favorite part of a new xpac, and it doesn't bode well that I'm not enjoying the experience at all on the test realm.

I've been taking music lessons (guitar) since February, which has been a nice diversion during the pandemic. But I am a little frustrated with my instructor; he's younger and the guitar is not his primary instrument, and many times I feel like he wants to focus on his preferred style of play and the type of music he likes (finger picking with multiple digits and acoustic, Spanish-influenced songs) instead of listening to what I want out of the experience: playing rhythm guitar in a rock context.

He's very knowledgeable about music theory, and I enjoy those parts of our conversations. But aside from the issues above, he also seems only tangentially invested in my progress—he often forgets what we covered in the last lesson, and I don't have a sense of whether I'm progressing as quickly as I should be or whether we're lingering too long before moving on to new skills and chords. We also almost never focus on what I really want to learn: chord changes and strumming patterns.

I'll give him at least a year, but if I still feel this way early next year after discussing these issues with him several times, then it might be time to look for another instructor. I definitely want to continue learning, and I know there are things I should learn if I'm going to fully understand the instrument, but I'm never going to master multiple styles of playing, so I want to spend the time I'm able to commit to learning the stuff that made me want to take lessons in the first place.

I can't believe it's already the end of summer. We've lost half a year to this pandemic, and based on how poorly many Americans are doing things like social distancing and mask wearing, I have a feeling that we will have to have a safe and effective vaccine that is widely available before we'll be able to get back to normal. And best case scenario, that seems likely to be in the second half of 2021.

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