december 2020

We had a fun little outing on Sunday, one of the rare times we've done something in a public space during the pandemic: we went to a movie. But it wasn't a normal movie experience where we had to worry about who might be sitting near us and breathing their air for two hours in an indoor space: we rented out an entire theater at Phipps Plaza so it was just the three of us and no one else.

It actually wasn't that expensive, either: AMC introduced this program in many of their theaters a few weeks ago, and you can choose a recently released movie for $299 or an older movie for just $99. We chose Elf, which was only $99, and also preordered some snacks that were waiting for pickup when we got there. We were pretty impressed with their safety protocols: everyone (staff and other customers) was wearing masks, the food pickup was no-contact, and there were hand-sanitizing stations and disinfectant wipe dispensers everywhere (and that's in addition to the other cleaning/safety protocols, like only using each theater once a day at most and doing the hydrostatic disinfecting spray in theaters after each use). We're pretty cautious about stuff like this, and we were prepared to walk away if it didn't feel safe, but we would definitely do this again.

Will LOVED it. The theaters at Phipps are already pretty cushy—each seat is a giant leather recliner—but he felt like a real VIP having the whole theater just for us. He spread out across a couple of recliners to start, but he moved around the theater, trying out different spots and runninaround and yelling to us because there was no one else there to bother. He likes that movie, and it was a cool surprise to see it on the big screen, but honestly he would have been happy if he just had an hour to run around the theater while ads were playing.

This week at work we've been focused on committee review, where we take the files (mostly the admits) that have already been reviewed and decisioned by a two-person team and look at them in a larger group of reviewers from bigger-picture perspective. I haven't been able to participate in this part of the process too much before because there's usually too much else on my calendar, but because we're in a holding pattern for many initiatives this year (due to both the Covid situation and a recently installed president who's still deciding on our institutional priorities), I've been able to be in most of the sessions for my regional committee.

It's been interesting to get more insight into this part of the process. I've been reading files for nearly 15 years, so that aspect of the work is very familiar to me, but in this phase of the review, we're not typically delving deep into the files, but instead relying on our colleagues' write-ups and the dashboard that compiles a lot of the significant info on the student. I've been a little surprised that there's not a more defined process for who we approach this task—each committee figures out its own daily process, and my regional committee even changed its process from one day to the next—but since the average tenure of our reading staff is more than five years, that's less problematic than if we had a lot of newer people who didn't have the expertise and intuition that comes with years of experience.

I hope I can find a way to do this again next year—while it's brutal to be on a call (or hopefully next year in a conference room) for 6+ hours a day for a few consecutive days—this is where most of the final decisions are made, and I feel like there were times when I was able to advocate for some of my students in a difference-making way that wouldn't have happened if I wasn't in the committee conversation.

The Ravens were originally scheduled to play the Steelers on Thanksgiving night, but after a Covid outbreak on the team sidelined several key players (started, apparently, by an as-yet-unnamed strength and conditioning coach), the NFL delayed the game until Sunday. But more positive tests came in on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday, so the game got pushed to Monday. Then Tuesday. And finally Wednesday, six days after the originally scheduled meeting.

The Steelers experienced their own outbreak over the weekend, leaving both teams at less-than-full strength, but the Ravens were in far worse shape, missing several key pieces on offense and defense. The most notable absence, of course, was last year's league MVP, quarterback Lamar Jackson, who was initially replaced by backup Robert Griffin III and then by third string QB Trace McSorley after Griffin suffered a hamstring injury. The Ravens still put up a decent fight, but this game didn't have either team playing their best players or playing their best football, and although it would have been nice to eke out a win, I was with most fans in quickly moving past this game and looking for a strong final five games to get a shot at the playoffs.

That will start next Monday with a game against the faltering Dallas Cowboys (who still unbelievably have a shot at the NFC East title despite a losing record), but Baltimore will face their biggest challenge the following Monday against the Browns, who are playing for their first playoff berth since WHEN and who still have an outside shot at the division title (which would require a massive collapse from Pittsburgh, which is still definitely possible despite their 11-0 record).

Even though they are now 6-5, a 10-6 finish seems probably, and an 11-5 record is definitely attainable. Normally a 10-6 record would be good enough for a wild card spot in the playoffs, but the AFC is running strong this year, and it's entirely possible that, even with the expansion of playoff teams from 6 to 7 this year, one team with an 11-5 record will be left out of the postseason. But the Ravens have to focus on getting to 11-5 first, and then hope that the other contenders will falter down the stretch.

We've all made a lot more use of our home office equipment this year, and it's likely no part of our setups have received more use than our chairs. Mine is one that I bought in a surplus sale from the company I was working for in 1996 for $20; they probably paid less than $100 when it was new, and it was about 2 years old when they replaced that furniture and I bought it to use at home.

So it was a cheap chair in the first place, and it's now pushing 25 years old. Last year I added a Purple seat cushion for a little more comfort, but that can only do so much, so I made the decision to buy a new chair since it looks like we're going to be working at home for at least another six months, and I could really use a new one even if I wasn't going to be sitting at my home desk for 50+ hours a week for the foreseeable future.

Once I decided to buy a chair, the problem then became which one and how much to spend. There are tons of recommended options in price brackets ranging from $100 to $1,000, and pretty much every value in between. I asked friends what they used, especially if they have bought one during the pandemic remote work era. I looked at tech sites for their recommendations, checked Amazon reviews, and looked for high end chairs (like Herman Miller Aerons) in surplus office equipment sales on Craigslist (those chairs retail for $1,000+, but even as surplus they were typically close to $500). There were so many choices, and no ability to test any of them directly, that I spent weeks going back and forth on price range and specific chairs, revising and modifying my list of possible purchases almost daily.

I finally made my decision earlier today—a Secretlab Titan in fabric that was on sale for about $450—but now the ship date has moved far beyond this month, and their current estimate has it getting to me at the end of January. Given that this chair has pretty consistently on my list and was right at the median for cost, that delay of several weeks while I agonized over other options means that not only will this not get here for Christmas (this is my main gift this year), but I may not have it until nearly two months from now.

Which means two more months of suffering with my current chair, and two more months of wondering if I made the right decision. I need it here now so that 1) I can actually have a better, more comfortable chair and 2) so cognitive dissonance can kick in and make me stop thinking about the other options that might have been. This is all especially stupid considering that even a baseline $100 chair from something like Amazon Basics would still be a massive upgrade over a 25 year old chair that has seen daily use during those 2+ decades and wasn't that great to begin with.

I liked season 1 of The Mandalorian when I finally started watching it late last year (I waited until all the episodes were released in case I ended up wanting to binge it), but for some reason I stopped watching after episode 5 and didn't pick it back up again. But after season 2 started airing at the end of October, I finished off season 1 and am now pretty much caught up with season 2 (I haven't watched episode 6, the one that aired last Friday, but I've watched all the ones before that).

There are a couple of big differences between season 1 and season 2, both of which have the possibility of pushing the show to even greater heights or, on the downside, limiting its potential. The first of these is more insight into Mandalorian culture and history, which seems appropriate for a show that's using a single character to embody an entire race/culture/planet (especially when its one who, as we learn, was not born into the culture but was adopted into it). This is a direction that could allow them to swap to a new main character once the storyline for the Child has played out without needing to change the name of the show.

The second, and more concerning, development is the increasing ties to the Skywalker saga. That was one of the selling points of the show when it first aired—not only was it in a more episodic format reminiscent of Western shows from mid 20th century American television, but it took place in the years between Return of the Jedi and The Force Awakens when the Empire had fallen, the New Republic was still exerting its influence over the outer reaches of the galaxy, and the First Order had not yet coalesced. So even though the timeframe was still inside of the larger Skywalker saga span, it takes place during an interstitial period not covered by any of the films.

But without giving away any spoilers, that seems to be changing. We've so far met a major character from the Clone Wars animated series (which itself took place in the period between Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith), and we're on the trail of another major character from the original trilogy who served as our introduction to Mandalorians. And although the episodes are still somewhat standalone, the series is trending toward larger multi-episode or season-long story arcs (a trend that began at the end of season 1, when the final two episodes essentially served as a single mega-episode to bring all the major characters back together and give us a hint at the direction of season 2).

One of the big problems with the post-Disney era of Star Wars IP is that it's all chained so tightly to the Skywalker saga, particularly the original trilogy, and it's a little worrying to see this series—previously the one least boxed in by canon—head in the direction. I have more confidence that writers/showrunners Jon Favreau and Dave Filoni to keep telling good stories even if they do start to have more concrete ties to the events of the Skywalker saga, but at some point Disney is going to have to start creating stories in this universe that are not so dependent on that part of the canon.

Last year, a friend of mine invited me to participate in a year-end music poll on Facebook that serves as a replacement for the now-defunct Village Voice's annual Pazz & Jop music poll (this new poll is titled, straightforwardly enough, Village Voice Pazz & Jop Rip-Off Poll). There are a lot of people who work in the music industry—artists, critics, and people who work at clubs and radio stations—but there are also a lot of ordinary people like me who listen to a lot of music every year. I got an invite from a high school friend whose wife worked for many years at the Chapel Hill club Cat's Cradle; the most famous name I've seen since I joined is Michael Azzerad, a music journalist who is best known for his book Our Band Could Be Your Life, which profiled several prominent indie/alternative bands from the 80s and 90s that helped develop and were also nurtured by the indie club circuit that came into existence then.

People started asking if the group was going to do the poll again this year, and at first it looked like the organizers weren't going to do it, which was a real bummer—it was a highlight of the end of 2019 for me, and not having it this year was just another in a seemingly endless series of rotten cherries to top off this putrid sundae of a year. But then they changed their mind and started accepting people's votes. These are the rules: no more than 10 albums, with an average of 10 points for every album you include (so if you only found 8 albums worthy of inclusion on your list, you would have 80 points to work with). In addition, no album can get less than 5 points, and no album can receive more than 30 points.

One of the things I loved about this list last year was discovering a lot of music that I had either overlooked or missed entirely, and so while I'm building out my final list, I spend a lot of time reviewing records on other people's lists. Some of them are ones I had heard of but hadn't heard, some I had listened to briefly but they hadn't taken me on that initial exploration, and some I hadn't heard of at all, but I've already found some great music that I may have otherwise missed from this year. I've probably listened to about 30 records total, and from those, these are the ones I ended up purchasing because I liked them so much:

Cornershop—England Is a Garden
Ratboys—Printer's Devil
Kiwi Jr.—Football Money
Princess Nokia—Everything is Beautiful
Beach Bunny—Honeymoon
Sweeping Promises—Hunger for a Way Out
Country Westerns—Country Westerns

There are a few others I'm still pondering, so that list could yet grow, but that's already a pretty good selection of new music to help round out my listening for this year. I wasn't even aware that Cornershop was still a functioning band, much less that they released a great album this year, and while I was aware of X, I never gave it a serious listen, but it's another record that is remarkable for a band this late in their career.

I don't think I'll let any of these have a place in my top 10—there are too many other good records I've lived with for longer that also won't make the top 10—but if one had a chance, it would be Beach Bunny, which is some incredibly solid punk pop that I have a particular weakness for.

I really enjoyed first season of The Boys on Amazon—it was the most innovative/twisted take on the super hero genre in film/television since Zack Snyder's The Watchmen (which I liked mostly because of how faithful it was to Alan Moore's and Dave Gibbons' source material). My biggest problems with it were that it could be overly gory for no real purpose other than being spectacularly gory, and that some of the protagonists were a little poorly sketched out. But the heroes-as-a-media-spectacle/corporation and also being the real bad guys take on the genre was well-done, and although neither of those are brand new to the comic book world, this is the first time it's been attempted in a film/television medium since the renaissance of comic book series/films that started with 2000's X-Men movie.

The second season started airing in September of this year, but I waited until all the episodes were available and didn't start watching it until early November. I've finished the second season now, and I have to say the characters and the overall premise held up pretty well in this second batch of episodes. It wasn't quite as good as the first season—the new villain was way too obvious even though the revelation that she was the season's main bad guy was supposed to be a big shock (the name was a little too on point if you know anything about the history of fascism), and some of the side plots with a super child and a Scientology-like church were a little weak—but it was an enjoyable watch that further expanded this universe.

And they did do a nice job setting up the third season with a minor plot that ended up being incredibly important, and they had pretty good growth in all the characters we're supposed to be rooting for. If they play this right, they could definitely string this out for four or five quality seasons, but I'm hoping by next season they'll start to introduce some idea of what the endgame for the series might be—otherwise it's going to start to feel like another one of those shows where we repeat the same plot elements over and over without really gaining any new ground in story progression or gain any new insights into who these characters are.

Today is the 16th anniversary of when I started playing World of Warcraft, the MMO desktop game that has taken up the vast majority of my gaming hours over the last decade and a half. I've made a lot of friends in the game, so of whom have also turned into friends in the real world, and it wouldn't surprise me if the game and my engagement with it lasted another 10 years.

It's still far and away the most-played MMO in a given year even though the subscriber numbers are probably half of what they were at their peak (they don't release the specific numbers directly any longer, but most people guess that there are at a minimum five million people who subscribe for at least a month every year). They just released a new expansion pack (on the 16th anniversary of the release of the first version of the game), and although it's the eighth xpac, the lore is so rich for this universe that you can see them easily releasing several more, especially if the game continues its record-breaking success.

For the first few years I played this game, I used to update a spreadsheet on this date that recorded how much time I had spent playing each of my many characters in the game. Doing this annually let me not only see how much total time I spent in the game, but also how much I played in the previous 12 months compared to all the other individual years I played the game. I don't do that anymore, partly because I don't want to know the number (I know it's a big number, but this form of entertainment likely replaces other less social activities like watching tv or movies) and partly because the exercise grew tedious as the number of characters I played grew to a couple of dozen over the years.

Last night we attended a virtual concert with Colin Meloy (which autocorrect just amusingly changed to "Melody"), the lead singer for the Decemberists. This is a band whose early albums I love, but who I mostly love now because of their live show—they are all true performers, especially Meloy as the frontman, and the live show makes even their recent mediocre material engaging and watchable/listenable. So this year, when they were supposed to embark on their 20th anniversary tour (which would have been Will's first experience seeing them live had we been able to make it to a show), was especially hard—there might be bands I have seen more frequently in my life, but there are none that Julie and I have seen together more often than them (and it's not even close).

Meloy did the concert from a barn on his farm outside of Portland, OR, which he has converted into a recording space, and it was a pretty decent show. Julie and I saw him play solo a couple of times early in the band's career, and this was very similar to that experience with some storytelling and odd tangents in between the songs. We weren't sure if Will was going to like it—he's very engaged with live music, but these virtual concerts can be hit or miss—but he stayed and watched the whole thing (it was more than 90 minutes long when all was said and done) even though he's not incredibly familiar with the band's music.

I really can't wait until enough people are vaccinated that we can go back to seeing bands perform live, and I really, really hope that happens sometime in 2021. There are so many shows that I would have seen this year if the world hadn't been turned upside down, and so many that Will would have been able to join me for as well (including Wilco, who Will and I saw together last year). I know that not being able to see bands perform live is insignificant compared to keeping my family safe and healthy through this crisis, but it's yet another thing that we've lost in this dreadful year, and it's important to acknowledge those losses even as we try to remember all the ways that we've been blessed.

The first half of this year started off with some really strong releases—new records from Fiona Apple, Run the Jewels, and Jeff Rosenstock all happened in the first half of the year—but then the quality (and to some degree the quantity) seemed to drop off drastically. Still, when it came time to make my top 10 list for they Pazz & Jop Rip-Off Poll, it ended up being pretty straightforward:

Run the Jewels—RTJ4
2nd Grade—Hit to Hit
Fiona Apple—Fetch the Bolt Cutters
Me Rex—Triceratops/Stegosaurus
Andy Shauf—Neon Skyline
Jeff Rosenstock—No Dream
Destroyer—Have We Met
Waxahatchee—Saint Cloud
Grimes—Miss Anthropocene
The Strokes—The New Abnormal

The only recent release on that list is Me Rex, who I started listening to in early December and who I've been completely obsessed with since the moment I heard them (I've listened to the two EPs that were later combined into the album Stegosaurus/Triceratops nearly three dozen times, so more than twice a day since I purchased them). Every other record in my top 10 was released in the first six months of 2020.

There were still some solid records in the second half of the year though, some of which showed up in a previous entry about records that I discovered thanks to other people putting them in their top 10 on Pazz & Jop, and some of which ended up on my honorable mentions list:

Avalanches—We Will Always Love You
Diet Cig—Do You Wonder About Me?
Bob Mould—Blue Hearts
No Age—Goons Be Gone
Sad13—Haunted Painting
Soccer Mommy—Color Theory
Wire—Mind Hive
Cloud Nothings—The Black Hole Understands
Magnetic Fields—Quickies
Cornershop—England Is a Garden
Beach Bunny—Honeymoon

Overall, it wasn't a bad year for music, although there was a long stretch of months from August to November where I felt like I didn't really discover anything new (even though there were some good releases I picked up on later). Here's hoping 2021 will have at least as much good music to discover, and also that we'll be able to return in-person to music venues to see the artists perform live.

Holy cow. What a game. The Ravens desperately needed to win this one to stay in the playoff hunt, and the Browns needed to win it to keep their hopes of a division championship alive and make sure that they stayed firmly in the driver's seat of their overall playoff fate (in addition to making a statement about their ability to compete against the league's best teams in big games).

There were lots of big moments in this game (which you would expect with a final score of 47-42, and the game was actually much closer than that score would indicate), but there were none bigger than a 4th down play where the Ravens needed five yards to get another first down and have a chance of tying the game with less than two minutes left in the game. By early in the third quarter, the Ravens had a 28-14 lead and it looked like they would be able to cruise to a relatively easy victory after a hard fought first half. But then the defense for Baltimore started to break down at the same time as the Ravens offense started to sputter after MVP quarterback Lamar Jackson had to leave the field after suffering from cramps.

Jackson's replacement was actually Baltimore's third string quarterback, Trace McSorley, who was playing the backup role after our usual backup (former star Robert Griffin III) was hurt in the game against the Steelers a couple of weeks ago), and not only was he not able to get the offense moving, he also suffered an injury on a 3rd and 2 play that set up the 4th and 5 on which the game, if not Baltimore's entire season, hinged. The Ravens were out of quarterbacks and were using the two minute warning break to figure out what to do when Jackson, who was viewing all of this from the locker room, knew that he was needed, and raced back onto the field just in time to take the snap.

What happened next will end up as a defining moment in this season, especially if the Ravens can win out and make the playoffs: needing five yards to keep the ball and extend the drive with 1:51 left in the game, Jackson, who could have easily run for those five yards as a hole opened up in front of him, instead saw that receiver Marquis Brown had broken away from the Browns secondary and tossed the ball to him. This resulted in a 44 yard touchdown which, combined with a two point conversion, tied the game with less than two minutes left.

Then the defense did their part, making a stop and getting the ball back to Lamar and the offense with 1:02 left to play. Jackson drove downfield far enough to get in field goal range, and Justin Tucker gave us the lead on a 55 yard field goal that left only two seconds on the clock for the Browns to make a single desperation play.

The final two points for the Ravens came on that final play, as Cleveland kept tossing laterals and being gradually driven backwards by the Baltimore defense, who ended the play with a tackle in the end zone for a safety. That was one of the most thrilling (and cardiac arrest-inducing) games I've watched in a long, long time, and it was exhilarating to see us come out of it with a much needed win. If this team can make it to the postseason and make a push in the playoffs, there's no doubt that many of the players will point to how they fought back through adversity in this game as one of the driving and unifying forces behind their late-season surge.

Julie got a nice surprise this week: a notification that she could sign up to receive the Pfizer vaccine through her employer, Emory Healthcare. She's not a frontline worker, but all of the Emory frontline workers were also eligible to sign up for a dose of the vaccine, and it's not like she could direct the dose she got to be used somewhere else instead of on her. We don't know when any of us will be able to get the vaccine, but we've decided that as soon as we can get it, we will each get it until our family pod of three all have it and are protected.

She'll get the first dose this weekend, and then the follow up dose sometime in mid-January. I'm not expecting the outgoing Trump administration to be very organized about setting up a national plan for distributing and administering vaccines, but I do think our new president will make this a priority, and I'm hoping we'll be at a point by March where hundreds of thousands of people (at a minimum) are able to get vaccinated every day across the country.

We don't know when any vaccines will be approved for kids, but I do believe that the strong desire to have school commence on schedule and in person next fall means that we'll start to see kids be allowed to get vaccines by late spring/early summer. If that happens, we have at least some hope that we can do things like go on vacation and visit family again before Will has to start middle school.

HBO Max has finally launched for Roku, which those of us who use Roku and also pay for HBO as part of our cable package have been waiting for for months. HBO Max launched back in May, but due to disagreements over licensing fees and access to user data, HBO didn't make an app available for the Roku platform.

This was okay for the first couple months, but there was an existing HBO Go app for Roku that still let me have access to all the shows on the HBO cable offering that month. I still didn't get access to HBO Max exclusives (like the Ridley Scott produced sci fi show Raised By Wolves) or add on content from Warner (like Cartoon Network shows and the Studio Ghibli movie library), and since HBO cable subscribers get HBO Max for free as long as they have a compatible platform, it was annoying not to have access to content I was paying for, but at least I didn't have access to less content than before.

That changed in July, when HBO, tiring of the stalemate with Roku and trying to force the issue, removed the HBO Go app from Roku, meaning now there was no way to access ANY HBO content on that platform. So shows and movies that I could previously stream on my Roku devices were now in accessible, so if I wanted to watch them, I either had to DVR them or launch an HBO app on my iPad and cast it to a Chromecast connected to our tv.

There was a similar situation with Peacock in July—they also did not launch on Roku due to disputes over revenue splits and user data access, and they were another service that, as a Comcast cable subscriber, I was supposed to have free access to. But that standoff lasted a relatively short amount of time—NBC reached a deal with Roku in September and we've been able to use the Peacock app for free on all our devices since then.

There are many, many problems with the streaming universe that I'm guessing most people have experienced in some form or another—an increasing number of streaming platforms with a tiny sliver of highly desirable content packaged with tons of content that you'll never watch; price increases that can raise your monthly streaming bill to a higher total than your cable bill without a corresponding increase in quality content; and then situations like this where your choice of streaming hub hardware/software can lock you out of content.

None of this is good for consumers, and we all know it's going to collapse in on itself at some point—it's just not sustainable to have every cable channel with its own paid streaming service, and eventually almost every streaming service will end up getting less revenue by owning the platform and charging a separate fee for it than they would be licensing it behind the scenes to a bundling service or network. But we're still on the growth side of the curve, and it's likely to get a lot worse before it gets better.

At some point we'll likely pay for 2-3 bundles that include a couple dozen content channels that are now promoted as standalone streaming services, but that probably won't be for another five years or more. And then even the people who have completely cut ties with cable will still end up with an equivalent bill as cable with the same bundling issues that they complained about with cable. We're taking the long way round to end up exactly where we were 10 years ago, we're just have a slightly different delivery vehicle for the content with the same cost and choice concerns that started the cord cutting movement in the first place.

I'm ready for this holiday break. If I didn't have so much to do, I likely would have taken some days off this week as well, but I'm completely burnt out (as many of us are) after the past year. I'm going to miss seeing family and doing our holiday traditions this year, but it's also going to be nice not having to worry about travel and multiple family get togethers that sometimes make me feel more exhausted after the break is over than I was before.

Hang on, everyone. This terrible year is almost over, and there is hope on the horizon, both because of the end of the Trump era and with what looks like the broad distribution of vaccines happening in the next six months. Take care of yourselves and find a way to make it through, because even though there are days (and weeks and months) when it doesn't feel like it, the other side of this pandemic and this administration does exist, and we will make it there.

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