june 2022

I lost both my acoustic and electric guitars in the fire (both were cheap beginner models worth about $200 each), and while my acoustic was replaced thanks to a lovely gesture from my boss (who gave me his Martin acoustic that was worth about $1800—he has expensive tastes, and he got it when he was thinking about taking guitar lessons, but he never did), I had never gotten around to replacing my electric.

I decided to start taking lessons again at my son's music school so that my lesson would be at the same time as his, and the instructor that was available then specialized in electric guitar, so I that prompted me to finally purchase a replacement. My new instructor convinced me to spend a little more on the new model ($450 compared to $200) to get an instrument that would hold up longer and have a build quality that would make it easier to play, and I ended up getting a Squier Classic Vibe '60s Stratocaster (my previous electric was also a Squier Strat, but that one was from the Affinity line that typically comes as part of an all-in-one beginner's bundle).

The new guitar definitely has a better feel to it, and I'm glad I spent a little more on it. I also appreciate my new instructor's style in contrast to my previous teacher. My first guitar teacher focused a lot on music theory and following the exercises in a learn-to-play-guitar book, and while I learned a lot from him from a theory perspective, I didn't feel like he wanted to spend a lot of time exploring how to play songs I was interested in—he saw that as something that we could do once I had achieved a certain level of mastery.

My new instructor, by contrast, isn't even interested in the exercise book as part of his lesson plan (although he encourages me to continue to work through it on my own and bring any questions or roadblocks to him). He wants to work on songs that I want to learn how to play, and is also interested in helping me explore improvisation and finding different ways to play different chords. I've learned a lot from him already, and I really enjoy his style—one of my favorite lessons so far was when we spent about half an hour with him playing a basic blues chord progression while I improvised a lead guitar melody using the notes in the pentatonic scale.

I don't know how long I'll continue to take lessons, but I'm excited about getting a jump start back into practicing and learning from a new person who has very different ideas about the instrument from my previous instructor (to be fair, he was insanely talented, but his main instrument was the piano).

I went to see the Hold Steady on Saturday night, my third time seeing the band but my first time since moving to Atlanta. This show had been originally scheduled for June 2020, before being rescheduled for June 2021, before finally taking place in June 2022.

A Nashville band called the Country Westerns opened, and they were great. I've owned there debut (and so far only) album for a little bit, and I thought it was fine, but they really brought the songs to another level playing live. They play small clubs in Atlanta with some frequency, so I'm going to make a point to see them as headliners in a smaller venue.

I hadn't seen the Hold Steady since 2008, so it was nice to see them again too. They had a couple of middling albums starting with 2010's Heaven Is Whenever, but I've quite liked their last two, 2019's Thrashing Through the Passion and 2021's Open Door Policy. Not quite on par with their early career classics, but still a nice return to form.

The show was pretty good, but as usual, frontman Craig Finn toed the line between captivating and cringeworthy. His talk-singing style can easily get out of hand if he gets a little too hyper, which he did on a few songs (I remember "Chicago Seemed Tired Last Night" being a little hard to watch), but the band always grounds him, and the setlist was a good mixture of classic cuts from their older material and material from the two most recent records.

I recently finished When the Sparrow Falls by Neil Sharpson, a near-future sci-fi book that imagines a world where AI has been globally incorporated into all the systems underpinning modern society in every country except for one: the Caspian Republic, where the use of AI is banned and the authoritarian government has a tight grip on all aspects of everyday life.

It was a nice read. Sharpson established the premise of the world very quickly and is able to quickly pull you into the murder mystery that fuels the plot. And this world isn't at all implausible: AI is still nascent in the world, but it's growth and the complexity of its models are growing every day, and we're likely going to see some very big, very public leaps forward in this space in the next few years that will transform the world in the same way that the internet and smartphones did—after a few years, we won't really be able to imagine life without the technology.

And there will certainly be holdouts, and tension between those who embrace complex autonomous algorithms as part of the fabric of our society and government, and those who reject it. It likely won't be as stark as entire present in some countries and entirely absent in others, but the tension will still be there, and even if the technology is rapidly adopted, there will still be existential conflicts over its continued use and evolution for many decades to come. So I enjoyed reading a book that explored one version of how this tension might play out.

We spent most of last week in Nashville. I had a conference that went from Wednesday through Friday, but I noticed that one of our favorite bands, Belle and Sebastian, were playing the Ryman on Monday night. They also weren't coming through Atlanta this tour, so I figured that was a perfect opportunity to add a family vacation on to the conference and do some sightseeing in Nashville (which we've never really visited before) before I spent a couple of days at the conference.

We drove up on Monday morning, arriving mid-afternoon when our room was supposed to be ready. But there were clearly some issues at the hotel, because the front desk was in chaos, our room wasn't ready for over an hour after the supposed check-in time, and it looked like there were lots of other frustrated travelers in the lobby.

When we finally got to our room, the problems continued. When one of us went in to use the bathroom, there was no water pressure, so the toilet wouldn't flush nor was there water coming out of the tap so we could wash our hands. So we trekked all the way back down to the front desk and waited in line again only to be told that the entire hotel (actually a multi-block area surrounding the hotel) was affected with low water pressure because of a water main break at a nearby construction site. Which I knew they couldn't do anything about, but which is also information they could have shared with us when they gave us our room key.

So we decided to walk down to the main tourist area on Broadway and explore some early dinner options, hoping we they water pressure would be back on when we got back. We ended up eating at the Assembly Food Hall (where we would eat a lot of our meals over the rest of the week). The water pressure still wasn't strong when we got back, but it was okay at the lobby level, so we used the bathroom there before we headed over to the Ryman for the concert.

The show was great as usual from this band, and it was cool to see a show at the Ryman with as much history as it has (it was a long-running home for the Grand Ole Opry). And thankfully, when we got back to our hotel, all the water issues were resolved and would be fine for the rest of the week.

Tuesday was a full vacation day for me, as was most of Wednesday, since the opening session for the conference wasn't until later that afternoon. I was also able to take some time late Thursday after the main sessions were over for a little more time with Julie and Will.

We saw a lot over the course of the week. We walked across the pedestrian bridge that takes you across the river to the site of the football stadium a couple of times and explored the little riverwalk area on the other side.

We also took a day trip out to Cheekwood, which contain the mansion and grounds of the Cheek family that has now been transformed into a botanical garden. That was a great visit, and I'd love to go back there someday, especially if we could visit when it wasn't quite so hot.

We also had lunch at a couple of non-Assembly Hall locations, including an outdoor porch on top of an old feed store building that overlooked the river, and made a visit to the Parthenon, a full-scale replica of the famous Athens landmark that the city built to celebrate its centennial in 1897. It was meant to be a temporary structure, but citizens loved it so much that they refused to let it be torn down, and rebuilt it with long-lasting materials from 1920-1925. I've never been to the original in Greece, so the scale was a bit of a surprise to me. They even had a full-sized sculpture of Athena (42 feet high) in the main gallery area, which was something to see.

I was excited to visit the Frist Art Museum, which was a few blocks from our hotel, but that turned out to be a bit of a disappointment. It didn't have a lot of gallery space nor a significant permanent collection, but it was a nice building. It just didn't have enough in it to make it worth spending more than an hour there.

We drove home on Friday, which was also the first day of the annual Bonnaroo music festival, the location of which is right off the interstate on the quickest route back to Atlanta. So to avoid the traffic on I-24, we instead drove down I-65 to Birmingham and then took I-20 back to Atlanta from there.

I was looking forward to finally visiting Nashville, but I was a little bit disappointed. I feel like we saw most of everything there was to see, and none of it impressed me enough to make me want to visit as a tourist again. If there was a band I really wanted to see at the Ryman who wasn't coming down to Atlanta, Birmingham, or Asheville, then I might go for that purpose, and I'd likely revisit Cheekwood. But given all the hype its gotten over the past decade or so, I really thought there would be more to see there.

After When the Sparrow Falls, I read Termination Shock, the latest novel from Neal Stephenson, who is among my favorite contemporary sci-fi writers. This book was about a near future (potentially VERY near future) scenario where climate change is playing out in catastrophic fashion, and an eccentric billionaire decides to tackle it himself by secretly building a giant facility in Texas that is designed to shoot massive amounts of sulfur particles into the air, mimicking a volcanic eruption that clouds the skies and cools the planet.

As is typical for Stephenson, it is grounded in real science, and explores the societal changes wrought by rising temperatures and rising seas through the eyes of a robust cast of carefully drawn characters. The writing itself is as sharp as it always is with Stephenson, and the story was an interesting set of thought experiments (many of which may soon be real experiments) about the near-term future of the planet. But it just didn't have the same spark as his best works, and in terms of the structure and action, I feel like I've read other, better versions of this story in some of Stephenson's earlier works.

In fact, Stephenson hasn't made a book that I would recommend unreservedly since 2011's Reamde (not a typo), and hasn't written one that blew my mind since 2008's Anathem (also not a typo). His novels since then—Seveneves, The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O. (a collaborative novel with a fantasy author), and Fall (a sort-of sequel to Reamde)—have all had their charms and been perfectly decent reads. But they haven't thrilled through and through like virtually everything in the first two-thirds of his career, from the seminal Snowcrash through the three-volume masterwork of the Baroque Cycle.

It's okay if we've reached the part of his career where he doesn't have any more brilliant, incomparable works left in him—he still creates compelling worlds and narratives, and his prose is enjoyable to read—but I would love to read another book by him that resets my way of looking at the world. But if books like Termination Shock are what we can expect from him now, I'd still much rather have these stories to explore than no more Stephenson works at all.

The house is coming along, but it's going much slower than any of us hoped, even with our very tempered expectations. Even at this relatively early date, I don't see how there's any way everything is going to be done before Thanksgiving, which means we're looking at January at the earliest.

But progress is progress I guess, and we're farther along than we were three months ago.

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