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9.12.14
That. Was. Awesome.

After a lackluster season-opening loss just four days ago and the distraction of the Ray Rice situation to deal with in the meantime, the Ravens rebounded in a dominating game against their fiercest rival. It was a little too early to say that their season depended on this win, but losing would have put them at 0-2 and the Steelers at 2-0 and would have made the possibility of winning the division much more remote.

Instead, the offense got off to a hot start and just kept pushing, eventually ending up with 26 points. The defense was also commanding, forcing three turnovers (two forced fumbles and subsequent recoveries and one interception), holding Pittsburgh to just 6 points, and keeping the Steelers out of the red zone for the first time since 2011 (not just agains the Ravens—prior to this game, Pittsburgh had 30 consecutive games with at least one touchdown).

And now they have a long ten day break before they go on the road to face Cleveland. If they can come out of this stretch 2-1 and play another strong game against the Browns, they'll be in prime position to make a run at the division, especially if the Bengals suffer at least one loss over the same stretch. This is the team that I was hoping to see coming out of an offseason that saw them install a new offense, add a lot of new offensive weapons, and transform their defense into a younger, faster unit than they've been in years.


9.11.14
...


9.10.14
Cross posting to Brain Coral and Notes since it's relevant to both sites:

So in case you weren't on planet Earth yesterday when Apple announced its new products, the iPhone 6 and the Apple Watch (and despite what they say, Apple haters are as obsessed with these product launch media events as the members of the cult are), the event concluded not only with U2 performing a new song, "The Miracle (of Joey Ramone)", but with the announcement of a new album, Songs of Innocence. The kicker: the album was immediately made available worldwide for free to anyone with an active iTunes account.

What's more, it will remain free to anyone who sets up a new iTunes account between now and October 13, after which the album will get a traditional physical release and presumably be available for a price digitally from all digital retailers. And it's not like either of these entities needed the publicity from a stunt like this, but it still made for one of the most compelling product launch shows since the original iPhone was unveiled.

Apple paid a price for this exclusivity and for the ability to give the record away, but almost no matter what they paid (I'm assuming it's in the tens of millions of dollars), it could end up being cheap compared to the cost of getting new users into their ecosystem through other ways. Here's why this is important: in order to download the album, you have to have an iTunes account, and in order to set up an iTunes account, you have to add at least one credit card to that account. And Apple really, really wants you to have a credit card linked to their services.

This is because not only will getting people who have so far resisted any entry into the iTunes ecosystem now be more likely to buy other music, movies, etc., from the service, which may in turn make them more open to the possibility of purchasing Apple hardware, but because of another new initiative that Apple announced yesterday: Apple Pay, a payment system that will let you pay for goods and services in brick and mortar vendors from your iPhone or Apple Watch without you having to share your credit card number directly with the vendor (there are also ways of getting your credit cards linked to your device without sharing that info with Apple directly, but I'm guessing most people will end up using the credit card linked to their iTunes account, which is more easily added to the payment service).

Like many of the services and devices that Apple is the standard bearer for, many companies, including some of their biggest competitors (like Google and their Google Wallet service), have already rolled out something similar that has yet to gain widespread mass acceptance. But as with the iPod and iTunes (these are the best examples of Apple's ability to create a better user experience for a category that already existed in the marketplace and dominate that category for years to come), if Apple can refine this experience and integrate it with its ecosystem of hardware products, they could end up once again becoming the flag bearers for this technology.

It's unclear to me at this point if they get any profit from this (the credit card companies will still take their percentage, but it's hard for me to believe that either those companies or the vendors selling you stuff will be willing to give up a percentage to Apple) or if this is just another value-add for their ecosystem to keep current customers locked in and entice new customers to join, but as one of those already heavily invested in that ecosystem, I don't much care——I benefit from this functionality without having to do anything more than install iOS 8 when it is released later this month and wait for the official launch of the service in October.


9.9.14
Okay. So obviously I'm a huge Ravens fan, and up until now I have declined to comment on the Ray Rice situation. In light of the release of the video showing him striking his wife and knocking her out and his subsequent termination by the Ravens and indefinite suspension by the NFL, I'd like to share my thoughts on the events of the last few months, which I'm guessing are how many Ravens fans feel.

First off, let me state unequivocally that there is no excuse for a man assaulting an unarmed woman, no matter what the context, but especially in the context of a heavily muscled professional athlete lashing out in anger at his domestic partner. Regardless of his past or his future, regardless of whether this is a one-time incident or a pattern of behavior, regardless of whether this is a true reflection of who he is and how he normally behaves, Ray Rice deserves all the negative press he's gotten, and he deserves to lose his job (and honestly he deserves a criminal prosecution). It's all on him, even if there are some who interpret the video as him being provoked by and/or attacked by his then-fiancee.

The reason I withheld judgment prior to seeing the videotape that was released today (and was even willing to forgive him at some point) was based on the evidence that I had prior to today. Yes, the video showing him dragging his unconsicous wife from the elevator was damning, but we never (until today) saw what actually happened in that elevator. What we did know, however, was that the police, who had access to the video at the time of the incident, initially arrested both of them on assault charges, and that the judge hearing the case, who also had access to this video, decided to let Rice take a plea bargain and enter a pretrial diversion program where he wouldn't even end up with any charges on his record.

Based on this, and the narrative that Rice put forth, it wasn't hard to create a scenario where they were both at fault and she just got the worst of a mutual combat situation. His behavior is still reprehensible even in that context, and a two game suspension by the NFL still was not a harsh enough penalty (even though it was comparable for previous disciplinary actions of a similar nature). But all the circumstantial evidence pointed to a very different story than the one that emerged once we actually got to see the altercation, in which there is no doubt that Rice is both the initial aggressor and used way more force than necessary even if you think the second blow was delivered in a self-defense context (which I do not believe, but some will likely argue).

Compare Rice's behavior to Jay-Z's equally infamous elevator video of him being attacked by his sister-in-law Solange. Solange repeatedly lashes out at Jay-Z, hitting him in the face, kicking him in the stomach, etc., and all Jay-Z does is use his arms to try to keep her at a distance. He doesn't take a swing at her, he doesn't move aggressively towards her, and he doesn't do anything to escalate the conflict. Rice, on the other hand, not only takes the first (seemingly unprovoked) swing at his fiancee, but when she lashes out in retaliation, he cold cocks her, knocking her out instantly. The physical part of this incident is all Ray Rice's fault, and even if the knockout had never happened, the initial hit which led to his fiancee's retaliation still should have been enough for both criminal charges and discipline by the league.

In terms of the reaction by the league and by the team, if all they had access to was the footage of what happened in the aftermath that we all saw earlier this year, the decisions made by the police and the judge in the case, and the story that Rice and his now-wife gave them, I can buy why they didn't take harsher action like releasing him from the team and removing him from the league earlier (although Goodell's two game suspension was still way too light). But there are many who believe that at least the NFL (there is more doubt about the team personnel) had access to the video earlier than today, and if that's the case, it's unconscionable that Rice wasn't immediately kicked out of the league—I don't think anyone could see that video and remain in any sort of apologetic/explanatory stance on Rice's behalf.

What Rice did was ugly and wrong no matter who he is, and now that we all have proof of what happened, him losing his job is a no-brainer decision. If the league had access to this video when they made the decision to only suspend him for two games, you have to start to question whether Goodell should keep his job himself. But the real headscratcher for me is the police and the judicial system, both of whom absolutely had access to the video when they made their decisions (and which decisions certainly influenced the responses from the league and the team): after seeing that video, how could you initially charge the woman with the same crime as Rice? And as a judge, how could you plea bargain this down to nothing?

The league and the team still deserve criticism for their handling of the situation, especially if they saw the video, but if they didn't have access to that evidence, the indifferent response by the criminal justice system would certainly lead an outsider to believe that this incident was perhaps not as serious and one-sided as it initially appeared from the video that showed the aftermath.

Anyway. I'm glad the truth has come out, and I'm glad that the team can start to learn lessons from this incident and move on. I'm sure it will still be a distraction throughout the season, and unfortunately for many football fans this is going to be one of the main signifiers of the team's reputation for years to come. If the team executives really only saw this video for the first time today, just like the rest of us, then their previous response was in line with the story being crafted by the police and the courts, and they took swift and appropriate action once they knew the truth.

I don't even want to think about the alternative—that the coach, GM, and owner saw this video and were complicit in covering up the brutality of this altercation—but I have a feeling that, just like with the video of this incident, the truth will out, and will do so very quickly.


9.8.14
After an offseason where we brought in a highly respected offensive coordinator who revamped our entire system, upgraded our wide receiving corps, and solidified the o-line, Sunday's first half performance was a disappointing return to the same dreadful offense that fans were subjected to for most of last season: lots of three-and-outs, low time of possession, and way too much time on the field for the defense.

To be fair, there were lots of drops that would have turned into points or at least first downs, and there's not a whole lot that Joe Flacco or Gary Kubiak can do about that—the receivers have to do their job and actually catch the ball. But still, there was the same overreliance on the passing game, which was especially strange given that 1) Kubiak spent most of the offseason talking up his run-first approach and 2) the running game actually seemed to be working pretty well, especially once they took Pierce out of the game and put in veteran Forsett.

The defense was good but not great—Bengals QB Andy Dalton never really seemed pressured, and didn't get sacked once, but the defense at least was able to stiffen up in the red zone and prevent any touchdowns in the first half despite five scoring drives for Cincinnati. But five scoring drives and no three-and-outs were very disappointing—in fact, aside from the lack of success in producing touchdowns, the Bengals' offense looked exactly what I was hoping for from the Ravens under Kubiak's system.

Things did pick up in the second half, but it wasn't enough—even though the Ravens took the lead in the fourth quarter after scoring 16 unanswered points, the defense gave up a big play to A.J. Green immediately after that and the offense couldn't get back in the endzone even though they drove down to the red zone and had plenty of time left on the clock.

But that wouldn't have mattered if they had done a better job in the first half, and these two problems—an offense that is very slow to start and quickly gets behind, and a defense that tires out in the fourth quarter and gives up big plays—are exactly the same reasons that gave us an 8-8 record last season when Baltimore could have easily been 10-6 or even 12-4.

This week is going to be a real test for them, because after that loss they only have four days to prepare for the Steelers (who eeked out a victory over the Browns) on Thursday night. But at least the game will be in Baltimore, so they don't have to travel like the Steelers do, and then they'll have a nearly a week and a half to prepare for their third game.

I'm definitely more hopeful that the Ravens can end up with a good season here, and there were flashes of what this team can become if they put everything together, but we saw lots of those same flashes last year and it didn't ever amount to anything. We need to go from glimpses of greatness to greatness for 60 minutes every week—that's how this team gets back into the playoffs.


9.5.14
While we were at the beach, I got in the habit of going for a run on the beach at night after Will had gone to bed. It was a pretty nice experience—even though we were there as moon was coming out of its new moon phase (meaning I didn't see it except as a slight crescent early in the evening towards the end of the week), it was still pretty easy to see everything with the ambient light coming from Hilton Head and the other buildings that were right on the beach like our condo complex. But there was no so much light that it ruined the view of the stars and the Milky Way.

There was one stretch of beach where there was no development of any sort—no beachfront hotels or condos, no beach houses set back on the edge of the treeline—and it was always darkest and most isolated-feeling during that stretch of my run. It creeped me out a little on the first night, especially because I hadn't walked down that far during the day and didn't know the terrain, and because the high tide was unusually high that night (pushing all the way back to the dunes) due to a tropical storm off the coast, but on night two I really enjoyed the experience of being out there alone (it was the stretch of beach where I was least likely to encounter groups of people with flashlights out looking for ghost crabs).

On the third night, however, something very strange happened. I was running with the dunes on my right and the ocean on my left, and suddenly my eye caught a light that seemed to just appear in the sky. I slowed down to look at it, and just as my brain was trying to process what it was and the question "Is that a UFO?" popped into my brain, it vanished as suddenly as it had appeared.

Here is what I saw, what I can still clearly see in my mind's eye: it was hovering off the coast, not too far away, and it seemed to be at least the size of a medium-sized airplane at that distance. It was saucer-shaped, but there were no lights on the top half; rather there was a void in the sky that implied something blocking the stars. The bottom half, however, was extremely well-lit: there were three trapezoid shapes that looked like they were made of frosted, opaque glass that started at the equator of the saucer and tapered down to the near the center of the bottom of the saucer, leaving a small unlit circle at the very center where they all met. The lights were orange when I first saw the object, and then the pulsed to red and back to orange again, doing this 3-4 times before the object vanished. All told, I probably only saw it for 10-15 seconds.

I spent the rest of the run being kind of freaked out because I just could not figure out what I had seen. I was looking for anything that it could have been: a personal drone that someone was messing around with; a reflection of lights on the clouds coming from either a ship over the horizon on somewhere on land; cloud lightning; aircraft from the commercial airport just south of us in Savannah—anything that I could hang onto as a plausible explanation. And I looked for the rest of the week as well (three more night runs), and became an expert at picking out the airplane lights from among the stars, but none of them ever got as close as the object I saw and none of them had lights in the color and pattern like that thing did.

Many years ago I had an extreme fascination with UFOs and alien conspiracy theories, but now I view them more as interesting stories than something I actually believe in (the Drake equation has certainly influenced my thinking, but I also believe that, in the absence of proof that anything in our universe can move faster than the speed of light, it's extremely unlikely that a race of extraterrestrials that would spend so much time to reach us would spend their time making crop circles and entering into deals with the US government to help them develop better fighter jets). So I really don't know what to do with this experience: I don't believe in UFOs, but I don't have any explanation for what I saw, for how it looked and how it behaved.

(Sidenote: I know the Drake equation isn't perfect—the Wikipedia article I linked to points out some suggested modifications that might make contact with an alien civilization more likely, and there are other issues I've thought of that aren't included in the discussion, such as the possibility that intelligent civilizations in our galaxy might have all developed around the same time, meaning we would overlap with each other for a much longer period than the Drake equation would predict. But the thing that gets me is the limitation on our speed—even if a civilization had developed travel at light speed, and if they had located us and developed a desire to visit us, it's highly likely that they'd have to build a spacecraft capable of hosting generations of their species, since it would take more than a lifetime to reach us. And the odds of that spacecraft and the community on it remaining intact long enough to get to Earth is so low that, if they did ever settle into orbit above our planet, they'd have bigger goals in mind than teasing us with the possibility of their existence, abducting us to give us anal probes, and eviscerating our cows in the dead of night.)

Anyway. I doubt that I'll ever know exactly what I saw, and I probably won't think about it very much in the future. But I did see something very unusual in the sky that night, and although I still believe that it must have been an optical illusion or some sort of manmade craft behaving strangely, I also know that I really don't have an explanation for it.


9.4.14
First night of the football season! I actually don't care that much about who wins tonight's game, but knowing that the Ravens first game is only three days away is a good enough reason to get excited about the Packers/Seahawks contest.


9.3.14
Our trip the beach last week was pretty fun. We started off most days by swimming in either the ocean or the pool (I preferred the ocean, but on the third day I got stung by a jellyfish twice, including once so bad that I've still got welts on my chest and stomach a week later, and then I got stung again on the fourth day, so after that we spent most of the time at the pool), then had lunch at the condo, took an afternoon nap, and did something fun in the evening.

There were two days when we took side trips to see lighthouses (Will has been obsessed with these since we saw Pete's Dragon, which prominently features a lighthouse), but when we went to see the second one (over an hour's drive away), they told us that he wasn't tall enough to climb to the top (they don't mention a height requirement anywhere on their web site), so I climbed to the top and took some pictures for him. He had a little bit of a meltdown, but recovered fairly quickly and still had a good time exploring the beach nearby.

We also went to three concerts featuring a musician we saw twice last year, Hannah Wicklund—twice with her band the Steppin Stones and once doing a solo acoustic performance. Will loves loves loves her, so we had to buy her new CD. She told us that she'll be touring this fall and making at least one stop in Atlanta, so we'll have to see if we can catch her there. She's a pretty amazing performer—she's only 17, but she is an incredible guitar player and she has a powerful voice, too. She draws a lot of inspiration from 60s and 70s classic rock (which is what she focuses on when she's performing covers), but I hear a lot of growth as a songwriter between the album we bought last year and the new one she recorded this year, so I'm hoping she'll continue to develop her own unique style.

We also took lots of walks on the beach, including a few "nighttime adventures" (as Will liked to call them) where we went down to the shore after dark to look for ghost crabs with flashlights. It felt like it went by faster than last year's trip, but it was still pretty relaxing overall. Plus, we got back on Saturday, which means that, with the holiday on Monday, we still had a full weekend's worth of time to get back into our home routines before we had to go back to work.


9.2.14
I'm still more psyched for the impending start of the NFL season than I am for college football, but man, Georgia looked good in their win over Clemson on Saturday.

The first half looked like one of those games that was all-too-common last year (especially against ranked opponents), where it became a basketball-like contest of trading touchdowns throughout the game and just hoping you ended up with the last one (the score was tied 21-12 after two quarters). But in the second half, both the offense (thanks in no small part to a much heavier use of star running back Todd Gurley) and the defense kicked it into another gear: the Bulldogs ended up scoring another 24 points while holding the Tigers scoreless.

When they exited the first half tied with Gurley only having four or five touches despite a strong showing every time he got his hands on the ball, I started to question the strategy, but it became all too clear in the second half that Mark Richt was playing the long game with a position where the team is very deep, and they were saving their biggest weapon for a time when the Clemson defense was exhausted and most vulnerable to his power.

Gurley scored two touchdowns in the fourth quarter on long runs (18 and 51 yards), and you got the sense that it only because of Richt's mercy towards an opponent that was already thoroughly beaten that Gurley didn't tack on another one at the very end of the game. He ended up with four touchdowns and 293 all-purpose yards when it was all said and done, and for most players that would be the game of their career. But I have a feeling we're going to see other performances this year from Gurley and this team that will outshine even this game.

It was a decisive, masterful victory over a tough opponent that was ranked only slightly lower than UGA, and it wasn't a surprise to me to see them move up in the Bleacher Report rankings (the only ones that have been released since the first week of games have been played) from 12th to 6th, which should be a harbinger of what to expect from the more established polls when they are released later this week.


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