februrary 2021

2.1.21
Since switching to practicing primarily on an electric guitar earlier this year, I've gone down a bit of gear rabbit hole, adding several new pieces of secondary equipment to supplement my setup. The first of these was pretty basic: a capo, which I would have needed for my acoustic as well as I'm starting to learn some songs that require this (for those of you who don't know, this is basically a clamp you put across a fret on the neck to change the pitch of all the strings at once). The next was also pretty straightforward: a cheap wireless transmitter/receiver pair that lets me connect to my tiny amp without a physical wire, making it easier for me to get set up on an amp when I want to practice with that. I also added a second guitar stand so both the acoustic and the electric would have their own.

The next two pieces of gear seem simple but turned out to be pretty complicated for me as a guitar novice. The first of these were new strings for my guitar: as I was practicing one day, the high E string (the thinnest one) broke, and since all the strings were from my original purchase of the guitar almost ten years ago, I decided to replace all of them (some of the others were showing signs of rust, etc.).

So I bought a basic set of strings from the same manufacturer that made the guitar and watched a bunch of YouTube videos on how to replace them, but I still botched it and ended up with two strings wound around the wrong tuning pegs and another string missing altogether—I cut it too short and it couldn't reach a tuning peg. Ironically, the missing string was the same one that broke, so I was in the same position I had been in before: a guitar missing the high E string. But strings are pretty cheap, so I ordered another set and did a much better job the second time around.

The final piece was finding a good pick. I have some that came with the all-in-one bundle that came with my electric guitar purchase (it also included a bag for the guitar, a strap, and a small amplifier), but I never did like playing with them—I had a hard time keeping them in a good playing position, especially when I'm rapidly playing chords and my fingers are sweaty. So I did some research online, and ended up ordering a sampler pack from a company called Bog Street who, by their own admission, have way overthought the guitar pick.

There are several enhancements compared to the basic flat plastic guitar pick that made them ideal for solving my issues. They are made from a proprietary resin that in and of itself offers a better grip than the plastic typically used for picks. They also have a hole in the middle so your finger and thumb can directly touch, which not only strengthens your grip but also gives you finer control when picking. To further increase grip, the area surrounding the hole also has a raised pattern that gives more texture for your fingers to grip. And finally, the different sides of the pick have different thicknesses, so you can use the thinnest edge for strumming chords and a slightly thicker edge for picking or playing a melody.

I didn't know enough about what my final preference for thickness and size might be, but the sampler pack included one of every pick that they make, and tried them all. I think I've settled on the one that's best for me and my current skill level/playstyle; once I'm sure, I'll order a pack of just that type so I have some backups.

I think these pieces of gear will keep me set for a while. I'm still learning how to use the basic settings of my guitar and amp to achieve different tones, and I don't play with the amp very often at this point, so I don't think I'll need to add any effects pedals anytime soon. In fact, the next piece of equipment I might buy would be a better guitar, since the instrument itself is my lowest quality piece of gear: it's a cheap $150 guitar that uses the Fender Strat design but which is made with cheaper components and mass manufactured in China. It's perfectly fine for where I am as a player right now, but if I ever become a competent player, it will likely start to show its limitations in ways that would hinder my further progress.


2.2.21
I've finally made my first purchase of new music for 2021: an album called Cheater by a Norwegian band named Pom Poko (named after a Studio Ghibli film). I've never heard of them before, but I try to give at least a cursory listen to everything that Pitchfork rates above a 7, and as soon as I started listening to this it clicked. They've definitely got the pop punk sensibilities that tend to appeal to me—the sound is very much rooted in guitar hooks, and no track reaches the four minute mark (the average is probably close to three)—but they're a lot more complex than many of the female-fronted indie groups that have gotten on my radar in recent years (Remember Sports, Beach Bunny, Diet Cig, Ratboys, etc.).

There's definitely a strong math rock element, with angular chord progressions and sudden time signature changes—the closest analogy I have is Deerhoof if they made an album without any of their more abstract pieces and with grittier production values. If that sounds at all appealing to you, give this one a listen—it's instantly listenable but has enough depth so that you discover more nuance the longer you spend with it.


2.3.21
Over the weekend I had another weird side effect from my first vaccine dose: as I was brushing my teeth after getting out of the shower, I noticed that my left arm (the arm where I got the shot) had a huge red rash stretching all the way from my shoulder to my elbow.

I had noticed that the injection site had been itchy a couple of days before, but I didn't think much of it—I didn't even really connect it to the injection site until after the rash appeared, thinking that I just had a bug bite or something. When I saw the rash, I had a moment of panic until I looked up this symptom on the internet, when I discovered that, while not common, this reaction wasn't uncommon, and seemed to be associated almost exclusively with the Moderna vaccine.

My reaction matched almost perfectly the descriptions I found documented online: itching at the injection site 10-12 days after the shot, followed by a big, painless rash that typically lasted for a couple of days and then vanished. And that's exactly what mine did: it was still present (and completely painless, not itchy or anything) for a couple of days, and then I woke up one morning and it was gone.

They still don't exactly understand the mechanism/immune system reaction that causes it, but it seems to be completely harmless even though it doesn't happen to everyone. There's still so much we have to learn about this disease and how different bodies respond to both it and our attempts to defeat it, and in that context there are definitely going to be some surprises along the way that affect a small number of subjects. I'm just glad that this one, even though it's not that common, was well-documented and apparently harmless.


2.4.21
In the past year I've subscribed to two different paywall-protected sites about sports: The Athletic and Defector. The Athletic was first, and I subscribed after getting a three month free trial and getting hooked on the writing of Jeff Zrebiec, who is their staff writer who covers the Baltimore Ravens. He's one of the best writers who covers the team, and even during the offseason he writes three or more in-depth articles about the Ravens, and he really helped me get my fix of Ravens news. I read about the other teams I follow as well—UGA football, the Braves, Atlanta United, and UNC basketball—but the Ravens are the team I care about the most, and without the great coverage on that team, I don't know if I would have subscribed.

The second site, Defector, rose from the ashes of the once-beloved Deadspin, which is/was part of the Gawker Media network of sites (The Onion, The A.V. Club, Gizmodo, etc.), but when that network was bought out by a private equity firm in 2019 who attempted to exert editorial control over the irreverent writers and editorial board (primarily the edict to "stick to sports", which ran counter to the site's long history of commenting on politics and bringing a progressive political slant to sports coverage), the entire team quit en masse. The site lay fallow and unchanged for several months before articles suddenly started appearing again, but none of the former team was involved—instead the new owners hired a crop of unknowns who attempted to mimic the style of the old site while also following the direction of their owners (I believe the site is still active, but I wouldn't know because I haven't visited it since the old staff quit).

The biggest writers for the site got new gigs writing one-off articles or weekly columns for other online publications, but they were secretly plotting with all their former comrades to bring Deadspin back to life in a new form, and last August they all launched Defector together, with everyone involved having an ownership stake in the new site. My biggest draw for Defector, as it was for Deadspin, is Drew Magary, whose humor and style really set the standard for all the other writers, and whose tone dominates the overall site (he was so popular on Deadspin that he had his own subheader on the navigation, the only writer to achieve that honor).

The Athletic costs $60 a year and is by far the better bargain: it takes a team-based approach to its coverage (although there are always some nice articles about larger trends happening in each league), and they seem to have a pretty regular publishing schedule for the primary leagues, even in the offseason, so it's a nice way to keep up with the goings-on of all the teams I follow. I might pay $60 just for Zrebiec's coverage, though—his stuff is really good, as are the comments in his articles (which he often responds to directly).

Defector, on the other hand, costs $120 per year (although I got my first year for $99), and it covers whatever's going on in sports at the moment. So that means there's essentially nothing for me between the end of football season and the beginning of baseball season, and even during baseball season there's not a ton that's of interest to. Magary does have a weekly column that's worth reading, and I do like supporting the site as a way to continue to stick it to the private equity assholes who ruined the original Deadspin, but aside from those two factors, I'm really not getting as much for my money with this site.

If I don't get to keep my original discount with Defector when it's time to renew, I might go month-to-month and only subscribe from August to January, when there's constant coverage of the NFL and when Magary publishes two columns a week instead of one (one of which is entirely devoted to the NFL). But I feel like I've gotten my money's worth with The Athletic, so I'm planning to keep that one active as long as it stays at its current price.


2.5.21
We've only got three weeks left to finish our first reads on our files, and I have no idea how I'm going to finish. I can't just put in extra time to get it done, because our process currently has us review all files with another reader, so not only are you confined to reading files during normal work hours (no evenings or weekends), but you also have to spend some of your time helping the other reader get through some of their files.

And that's where I'm really having a problem: we sign up for reading slots in half-day increments, meaning there are a total of 10 reading slots each week that are theoretically available. With the increase in my files this year, due to me taking on a new territory and phenomenal growth in our overall pool, I probably need 5-6 slots a week, at least a couple of which are solely for my files, to keep up with my volume. But not only have I not been getting that despite typically signing up for 6-7 slots a week (I'm usually getting 3-4 instead), but I've been paired with people whose reading volume is as intense as mine, so I'm getting at best half the time for reading in each slot.

I've been reviewing files for nearly 20 years now, and so if push comes to shove and I don't get more slots, I'm just going to start reading my files solo, being very careful to save any files that might need additional review for when I'm paired with another reader. We've had to do that before under this system, and we have a very strong post-first read process in place to make sure files get additional review after the first pass, whether that first pass with done by a pair or by a single individual. I'd love to stick to the preferred process, but I don't have any control over the scheduling, and I'm certainly not going to let my territories fall behind in the larger process. Either way, it's going to be a long month where I don't get much else done.


2.8.21
Someday I hope to live to see a world where there is zero chance that Tom Brady will be hoisting the Lombardi trophy at the end of the Super Bowl. After Brady's mediocre season last year and his separation from Belichick and the Patriots before this season, I thought we were already living in that world. But I was wrong. So, so wrong...


2.9.21
After finishing Ken Liu's first book of short stories, I switched back to nonfiction with The Undercover Economist by Tim Harford. The marketing around this book makes it look like a Freakonomics knockoff, but it's much richer than that. It's still made for the layperson, and it does have some quirky examples to illustrate its points, but it's actually a primer for economic theory that, while maybe not appropriate for a college-level textbook, would be a great way to introduce these concepts to non-economics majors or to curious, intelligent adults who have never studied economics in an academic setting.

He starts off explaining how coffee shops decide how to price their coffee before revealing that many of the principles he's been outlining were actually first described by a British economist named David Ricardo in 1817 (that's right—more than two centuries ago). Harford then explains a core concept called scarcity power that Ricardo developed while trying to figure out why the price of rents on agricultural plots in Britain (and subsequently the price of the grain they produced) had risen sharply in a relatively short period of time.

In the chapters that follow, he builds on scarcity power concept to introduce more complex economic modeling methods and concepts (like price sensitivity and price targeting, and how information imbalance leads to inefficiency in the market), and then describes how those can help people understand everything from the impact of immigration on the job market to why we eat turkeys instead of geese for holiday celebrations to how different auction systems can lead to vastly different outcomes in selling off the same commodities.

It's a fascinating book that taught me more about the core concepts of economics than all the other Freakonomics and Freakonomics spin-offs I've read, and it was just as entertaining while doing so. As much as I liked the first Freakonomics book, it was more about leading you into surprising gotcha moments than educating you about the core concepts of the field, but this book demonstrates that you can be entertaining and use a wide-ranging series of real-world situations but still lead the reader down a conceptual path that's similar to what you would learn if you were taking an intro econ class.


2.10.21
It's Julie's birthday today, and like all celebrations/special occasions over the past year, it was somewhat muted compared to normal. But we still found ways to celebrate and make it a good day for her.

It started the night before with a special dinner of sushi at home. We don't get to enjoy this treat very often, so even though we usually eat out 3-4 times a week nowadays, we opt for less expensive options than sushi—even five or six rolls adds up to a pretty hefty bill, especially if we use a delivery service.

We followed this with cupcakes from a local shop that we've been buying from for several years but which we hadn't visited in a while; Will and I went out yesterday afternoon after his school was over and picked them up before they closed. We got a half dozen assorted flavors so we could have them last night and again tonight for dessert; I figure having cupcakes twice is somewhat equivalent to having a small cake that you'd get a couple of servings per person out of.


2.11.21
The reason we did a special dinner of sushi the night before Julie's birthday instead of the night of is because I had another surprise planned for the night of: a trip back to Phipps Plaza to watch a movie in a private theater that we had rented out for just the three of us. This time it was Raiders of the Lost Ark, and we also got dinner instead of just popcorn (the movie was at 7:15, which is right about when we usually eat). And then we each had another cupcake once we got home.

Will also had a nice little surprise for Julie: he had looked up online how to make several little origami animals (he did this completely on his own—I didn't know he was doing this either), and he presented them to her throughout the day in between his online classes and her virtual meetings. We're also going away this weekend for a little trip—it doesn't look like the weather's going to be that nice, but we found a lakeside cabin in a nice secluded area that should be fun to visit even if we can't do many activities.


2.12.21
Usually for Julie's birthday I either get cupcakes or I go out early in the morning to get donuts from Krispy Kreme for her to have for breakfast that day. It's been a while since I chose cupcakes, but I'm pretty glad I did this year: the Krispy Kreme that we usually go to on Ponce de Leon burned down in the early morning hours of Julie's birthday, so if I had shown up to get her donuts that morning, all I would have found was smoking rubble surrounded by fire trucks.

That place burning down is a real bummer: it's one of the first fun places to get a treat that we discovered as a family after moving to Atlanta, and our outings to various events downtown are often capped off by a stop to get a fresh hot donut right off the line. Those donuts are absolutely amazing—if you've ever had one that's only 60 seconds old by the time it gets to your mouth, you know there's nothing that can replicate the almost cloud-like texture of the dough and the perfectly sweet, perfectly coated glaze that envelops it—but it's really the experience of the visit that stays in your memory: watching the donuts as they make their way through the automated machine that proofs them, fries one side, flips them to fry the other side, and then sends them through a waterfall of glaze just before they are plucked of the roller belt and put in your hands.

One thing we discovered in the wake of the fire is that former NBA superstar Shaquille O'Neal is current owner of that location—he apparently purchased it under the radar in 2016 (he also supposedly owns lots of other food franchises, including Auntie Annie's Pretzels, Papa John's Pizza, Five Guys Burgers, and dozens of car washes and fitness centers). He has pledged to rebuild the historic location (before Krispy Kreme moved in in 1965–only the eighth Krispy Kreme store in the world at that time—the building had housed a famous barbecue drive-in restaurant since 1928), and honestly, he can't do it fast enough. There are other locations in the Atlanta area, but none as central, geographically or culturally, to the city of Atlanta as that one.


2.16.21
Partly to take advantage of Will having a day off from school for Presidents' Day but mostly to continue to celebrate Julie's birthday, we rented a lake cabin near Talladega, Alabama, planning to use its proximity to Birmingham as a home base for trips to some attractions near that city. We got to the cabin pretty late in the afternoon, so after we put our stuff away and picked out the rooms we wanted to stay in, we decided to order pizza and calzones from a local place that had pretty good reviews. The calzones were more like pizza burritos in yeasty soft bread, but they were pretty tasty, and the pizza was pretty good too.

On Saturday we had a reservation to visit Sloss Furnaces, which I have visited on my two previous trips to Birmingham (in 2000 and 2004, both to visit my friend Regan when she lived there—a lot of the things we did in Birmingham were things that I first experienced with Regan on one of those visits). It's a self-guided tour that's almost entirely outdoors, but they were still severely limiting capacity (no more than 10 people at a time in three two-hour blocks each day) and requiring mask wearing and social distancing (which was fine with us). The only slot left when I wrote to make a reservation was 12-2, and we ended up being on the property with two other groups: a couple and a family of four (the family of four was hilarious—the dad would stop at every tour marker and read the complete text of the guide aloud to his sons and wife).

Sloss Furnaces used to be a major ironworks that fell into disuse and disrepair by the early 1970s before being designated a national historic site in the early 80s and being transformed into the walkable memorial to industry that it is today. They had built a nice new visitors center since the last time I visited and changed the entrance so you could see more of the site, but otherwise it seemed pretty much the same as when I visited in 2004. It was cold and cloudy that day, but we still spent about 90 minutes wandering the site, including finding the location on one of the furnaces where I took a close-up photo on my 2004 trip and sold tons of copies during the years when I was doing art shows and fairs for my photography.

After we finished our self-guided tour, we chatted for a few minutes with the employee who had checked us into the site and bought a few things from the gift shop. We were looking for a place to eat, and he recommended a microbrewery across the street called Back Forty Beer Company, so we ordered takeout and then ate in our car in the parking lot (they had outdoor seating with heaters, but it was so cold that I didn't think the heaters would actually keep us warm. We were facing the train tracks that run next to Sloss and got to watch a couple of trains go by while we ate. The food was very good; when the world returns to normal, it would be fun to come back when the weather's warm and visit both Sloss and Back Forty in a more inviting context.

After lunch we headed to another Birmingham landmark (which Regan took me to during my 2004 visit): The giant statue of Vulcan (associated with the city's reputation as a producer of iron thanks to Sloss—the statue was actually cast out of iron produced at Sloss) that represented the city at the 1904 World's Fair in St. Louis. He sits high on a pedestal on top of Red Mountain and is visible from all over Birmingham; I didn't realize it until I read the history of his movements around Birmingham after returning from St. Louis, but when I visited him before, it was on his 100th anniversary, and the park and visitors center that now house him were not even six months old (at least in their most recently renovated form) during my previous visit.

There was almost no one else there, so we rode the elevator to the top two or three times, and once Will and I were up there all by ourselves (Julie took a picture of us from down below). It was starting to get dark by then (it had been grey all day), so we started the 45 minute drive back to the lake cabin. Since we ate lunch so late, we just had snacks and leftovers from the night before and watched a movie together.


2.17.21
The second full day of our Talladega/Birmingham trip was Valentine's Day. This is usually a pretty low-key day for us as a couple because it so closely follows Julie's birthday and neither of us like to fight the crowds of people heading out for a date night that evening, so spending the day doing fun stuff with Will instead of doing couples-only stuff wasn't a big deal for us. Julie did get some chocolates for Will and I, and Will made her a nice card. She also got a Smiths songbook for me, which was really cool although it's unlikely I'll have the skill to play much in it anytime soon.

That morning we drove up to Cullman, Alabama to visit the Ave Maria Grotto, another weird little attraction that Regan had taken me to see during my 2000 visit to Birmingham. It's a folk art installation that recreates in miniature famous historical (usually religious) buildings from around the world and throughout history, all of which were made by a monk at the nearby monastery in the first half of the 20th century. He used a lot of found debris—broken plates, shards of glass, marbles, etc.—mixed with concrete to make his earliest pieces, but you definitely get the feeling that as his work grew and the number of visitors increased, he was supplied with materials (although he apparently still only worked on the buildings during his free time after his daily responsibilities to the monastery were complete).

It was very cold—we actually had some snowflakes for a few minutes—but we did walk around the entire installation twice, and got to spend a few minutes with a cat who guards the place and is fed by one of the security officers. I enjoyed it just as much as I did the first time I saw it, when it was a complete surprise to me, and Will seemed to like it to. My favorite piece was still a chained-up dragon lurking underneath a fairyland installation, along with a lizard house and a chipmunk crossing that was painted across the path near the end.

After we finished there, we were all hungry for lunch, so we went to a nearby Zaxby's and then drove across the street to a public park. It was too cold to eat outside, so we ate in the car and enjoyed the scenery. We made one more trip to an old covered bridge, the Clarkson Covered Bridge, that was originally built in 1904, before heading back to the lake house. As we drove through Birmingham on the way back, we got one last look at both Vulcan and Sloss Furnaces, both of which are visible from the interstates that run through town.

We drove back home the next morning, and got to enjoy a nice quiet afternoon before we all returned to work and school the next day. The next two weeks are going to be brutal for me; I'm scheduled to read basically the entirety of this week, and I expect that I'll be fully scheduled next week as well, which means I'll be on Zoom for 8+ hours a day with various reading partners. And even with that, I'm not convinced I will finish all my files. But the only way out is through, so I just need to keep pushing as hard as I can.


2.18.21
I got my second dose of the Moderna vaccine this afternoon, and even though I feel fine right now (even the pain in my arm is significantly lower than the first shot), I'm still anticipating some side effects over the next couple of days. It's really bad timing with our reading cycle—I don't have the luxury of taking a couple of sick days this time of year, and I also won't really have the weekend to recover since there's work I'll need to do then as well.

But I'm very glad to have the shot, especially knowing that I'll have full immunity a week or so from now. This doesn't mean I'm suddenly going to stop wearing a mask and engage in riskier behavior, but I'm hoping some of the early evidence that the vaccines slow transmission of the virus turn out to be true, and that as the Biden administration helps states get mass vaccination sites online, we could realistically get to a point where the virus is at least latent in the US by the summer. That way even if Will hasn't had the vaccine yet, we could still have a fun summer and look forward to him returning to a real classroom in the fall.


2.19.21
I've now finished watching season 3 of The Expanse, and I'm still really enjoying it. I have no idea how closely the plot follows the books, and at what point in the books we might be if the story is following the arc of the books, but it doesn't really matter in the same way that, at a certain point, you learned to enjoy Game of Thrones as a show on its own without worrying too much about how faithfully it was replicating every detail and character from the books.

I do remember Fred Johnson being a bigger presence in the books, and there are several main characters I don't remember much or at all, so it will be interesting to see how many of them are present when I re-read the books (and read for the first time the ones that have been published since then) at some point. There are now five seasons of the show, with the fifth just released this year, with a final sixth season scheduled for sometime in the next year.

They clearly aren't doing a one-season-per-book approach, since there are supposed to be nine books in the series (with the final volume due this year), but presumably they will try to include all the major events and plot points in the six seasons and end the show in roughly the same place as the books.


2.22.21
My second vaccine shot wasn't quite as bad as the first one, but it was a negligible difference and it was still pretty brutal. I still had headaches, fever/chills, and severe body aches for two solid days, followed by a couple of days of fatigue, but once it was over I felt fine, and I'm very happy that in the next week or so I'll reach full effectiveness and should be more or less immune—all of the vaccines so far have prevented people from being hospitalized or dying from Covid once they're reached full effectiveness (two weeks after your final shot).

The two big questions remaining as vaccinations start to ramp up over the next few months are 1) does having the vaccine prevent you from spreading Covid if you do happen to get infected? and 2) how long do the immunity effects of the vaccine last? I'm sure there's tons of follow up being done to study these two issues, and I'm guessing by the time we get to the summer when we've hopefully beaten the virus back temporarily, we'll start to have a better understanding of what's truly safe among vaccinated people and whether/how often we'll need booster shots to maintain immunity.


2.23.21
I came late to the quarantine/pandemic American obsession with The Great British Baking Show, but when I finally gave it a try in July, I was all in. I was bingeing episodes, sometimes watching 2 or 3 a day—until I realized that there was actually a pretty limited supply of episodes, and that they wouldn't last me that long if I kept up at that pace.

I had gotten really used to watching an episode during my lunch break, so I started restricting myself to watching just that one episode and no more. But that was still eating them up too quickly, so I switched to watching half an episode per day (during the work week only), and soon after, a third of an episode (it was pretty easy to make that transition because the show has three distinct segments, so I would just watch one segment per day).

I had started watching what was then the most recent season, but once I got hooked, I went back to the beginning and watched the rest of the seasons in order. Luckily, they found a way to make a season during the pandemic lockdown in England by putting the entire cast and crew in a bubble in the English countryside, so by the time I caught up to the first season I had watched, the entirety of that season had aired.

I tried to delay starting the most recent season by watching some of the holiday specials of the show, but they didn't do it for me the way the show proper does. So in late December, I gave in and started on what is currently the last season (although they will certainly make more given its popularity both here and in Britain).

With any long-running show like this, especially a reality show with somewhat ordinary people like a lot of the cooking-oriented competition shows, there are going to be good seasons and bad seasons. My favorites are collection 4 (using the Netflix terminology; it was the seventh season of the show in the UK) which features my dear, beloved Frances (still my favorite contestant of all time) and collection 7 (season 10 in the UK), the first season I ever watched. And while my hunger for this show is so great that I can tolerate a relatively down season every now and then, it was especially disappointing that perhaps the worst season since the series went to its current format was the most recent one and the last one I'll watch until a new season comes to the US later this year.

There wasn't any one thing or moment that made this season terrible, just a persistent, pervading sense of almost every aspect of the show being mediocre or poor compared to its best moments from previous years. There was no standout challenge (although many of them really seemed like they were straining too hard to be splashy and memorable), no real standout competitors, and new co-host Matt Lucas didn't compliment Noel Fielding the way Sandi did; Matt and Noel are too much alike, and they also move the overall hosts/judges balance firmly into the masculine category (the show started with a male judge, a female judge, and two female hosts, then moved to male/female splits among both the judges and hosts before this most recent configuration; primary judge Paul Hollywood is the only one who has been with the show since the beginning).

The dagger in the heart of this season was the weak finale, which viewers could see coming from about halfway through the show: some of the more intriguing contestants were wiped out relatively early due to one bad weekend in the tent, and when we got down to the final three, it was pretty clear who was the most talented and deserved to win—the other two would have been wiped out very early in many previous seasons—but even that baker wasn't good enough to have made it anywhere near the finale in earlier seasons (although he would likely have gone farther than the other two).

I haven't tried rewatching the show, which I might do if I get desperate enough before we get another season. It could work—aside from a couple of the most memorable seasons, I don't really remember the winners, much less the finalists or the winner or loser in a particular week. But this most recent season was so disappointing that I can almost guarantee that I'll never feel the urge to watch it ever again.


2.24.21
After The Undercover Economist, I went back to the sci-fi world with a book called The Last Human, the debut novel from Zack Jordan. It takes place in a  galaxy where many thousands of worlds are part of a spacefaring society where every member is connected to the Network, which allows them to trade, interact, and live together, with wormhole-based hubs connecting the all the various planets and species. Sarya, our protagonist, is a human who masquerades as a lower-intelligence member of another species under the care and protection of her adopted mother, a member of a species of hyper-intelligent and incredibly lethal spider-like creatures.

We quickly learn that humans have been outlawed by this interconnected galactic society and that Sarya is one of the last (if not the very last) of her species, and that's where the central mystery that drives the plot begins: why are humans on the extermination list for the Network, where did Sarya come from given the status of humans, and what is her destiny as possibly the sole surviving member of her species?

There are lot of great elements in this book: we slowly learn about the history and structure of the Network, and it seems like a very plausible way that tens of thousand of distinct planetary systems and cultures could be brought under a single cultural umbrella: when planets reach a certain level of intelligence/technology, they are given the opportunity to become a trial member, during which time they will have relatively free access to the technologies of the Network. If they refuse, they are cordoned off and not allowed to progress past a certain point technologically, and similarly, if they misbehave during their trial period, they are banned from membership (although not targeted for extermination). If they pass the test and still want to join, they become fully integrated into the Network.

The idea of levels of intelligence are also explored in compelling detail: the Network has developed a rating scale for intelligence, and any person or thing above a certain level is considered to be a full person with all the rights of an independent creature with free will (species have to pass that threshold before first contact with the Network). Therefore, AI-driven bots and networks are intentionally kept just below that threshold so they can remain enslaved and bound to the tasks they were designed to perform, although some of them are clearly exceeding their programming parameters. This also gives room to explore intelligences at a scale far beyond what an individual is capable of, the best examples of which are hive minds and the networks itself.

Despite some great pieces, the book fails for me overall, mostly due to its outsize ambition. We start with a human and a spider living and working on a relatively unimportant space station, but the scope quickly broadens, to the point where it seems like we're jumping into an exponentially larger and more complicated context each chapter after a big reveal/cliffhanger at the end of the previous chapter. The change is so rapid that it's easy to lose track of the core elements of the characters, and some of the supporting cast also isn't given the timer they need to develop and become real characters in their own right—they are clearly in a deus ex machina role meant to save/support/oppose the protagonist and/or propel them into the next setting.

The ideas in this book would have been much better spooled out over a series of books, and given the propensity of sci-fi writers these days to envision everything they produce as a trilogy (at a minimum), it's kind of surprising that the author didn't go in that direction. He could have then structured the book so that we're slowly getting glimpses of the larger world into which the character will eventually be thrust, but also have more time to explore that new context (and the characters that come with it) while building momentum towards the next big context shift in the following novel.

Aside from the jarring too-rapid expansion of settings and characters, the other big problem with the book is the ending, which definitely fell flat for me given the buildup. Stretching this story across multiple novels may have helped with this as well: with more time to ponder the protagonist and her story, along with feedback from reviewers and readers, Jordan may have been able to craft a more compelling and less nonsensical ending and create a truly unique universe that would be a strong new entry in the space opera category of sci-fi books. I liked enough of it that I don't regret reading it, but overall it's a real missed opportunity. Hopefully there will be some lessons learned that will influence how he approaches his future work.


2.25.21
A couple of weeks ago, we watched Earwig and the Witch on HBO Max for our weekly movie night. Earwig is from the famous Japanese animated production company Studio Ghibli (which HBO has exclusive rights to stream in the US), and it's their first foray into CG animation instead of traditional hand-drawn animation.

The genius behind the best Studio Ghibli films is director Hayao Miyazaki, who made their best known and best reviewed films, including Spirited Away, Ponyo, Howl's Moving Castle, and their signature film, My Neighbor Totoro. Earwig is not by him, but rather his son, Goro Miyazaki, who has directed two other films for the studio since 2006, and it is based on a book by the same author who wrote Howl's Moving Castle.

I haven't read any of that writer's books, not have I seen either of the other movies that Goro has directed, but either the source material is much worse than Moving Castle or Goro is a worse director than his father, and based on the disjointed nature of the Earwig movie, I'd bet strongly on the latter. There were moments when the story seemed to be cohering and we could start to root for orphan girl Earwig and a feline familiar named Thomas, and start to understand her link to the strange couple who adopted her, but overall, it seemed like the movie was a series of only vaguely connected scenes that hint at a larger story and growing relationships between the characters without ever presenting a coherent, engaging narrative.

The animation style didn't help either—CG animation is entrenched as the preferred style for most animated films these days, but the characters styles and details look like what a B-list Pixar would have produced 20 years ago. It's so low quality compared to other mainstream CG movies that it's distracting, and becomes yet another element preventing us from connecting with the characters and the story.

We get HBO as part of our cable subscription, so we get HBO Max as part of that (we don't pay a separate fee for this, we just verify our account through our cable service). So far the two movies that would have been released in theaters if not for Covid but instead were released on HBO Max for all subscribers (no extra premium to view them) are Wonder Woman 1984 and Earwig and the Witch, both of which we would have been likely to see in the theaters in a non-Covid world, and both of which have been incredibly disappointments.

But even though neither of these movies were very good, I guess there's one positive way to look at this: since we didn't have to pay for them, it was less painful for them to be as bad as they were. However, I really hope that some of the other originally-planned-for-theaters releases they have planned for 2021 turn out to be more worth our time.


2.26.21
I had a crushing volume of application files to read over the past couple of weeks, but somehow I got it done by today's deadline. I took me up until pretty much the last minute—my final reading session was this morning from 9-12:30, and my partner and I both wrapped up the remainder of our files around 11:30.

There's still a lot of work to do to get the class in shape for decision release—now that we have a baseline for the admit pool, we slice it apart and examine it from a variety of angles while also seeing the impact that certain cuts and additions would have on the yield outcomes. And that's an especially big deal this year—there are lots of unknowns in student behavior and academic quality this year due to the pandemic, which means that our models, which lean strongly on trends that we've seen in the preceding 2-3 admission cycles, have the potential to be much less accurate than they typically are (and less accurate in either direction—they could be wildly off in terms of either over- or under-predicting yield).

This is a still a nice milestone to get to, however, because it means the light is at the end of the tunnel for this cycle and I can get back to my other responsibilities.

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