august 2011

Double post today on my main blog and on my music blog, because the topic is a book about music, so it applies to both. The book is Kristin Hersh's Rat Girl, which is the one book that I read while on vacation in July that I haven't written about yet.

I should have actually written about it sooner, because while I was in the midst of reading it and immediately afterward, I had a nice entry mostly written in my head, but between getting back to work from vacation land and the subsequent passage of time, that's mostly gone and I'm left to reconstruct it from a few scant pieces that have stuck with me.

It's hard to really even describe this book, but following adjectives all apply: insightful, hilarious, serious, and quirky. And so many more, I'm not going to be able to do it any kind of justice. It's simultaneously the work of a professional artist (offically written by Hersh in her mid-40s) and a teen who was still figuring out her place in the world (because it's based on the diary that Hersh kept for a year in 1985, when she was only 19).

The main story elements are 1) Hersh's band, Throwing Muses, gaining enough critical praise and followers that they become the first non-British band signed to the legendary 4AD label, under whom they record their first album; 2) Hersh being diagnosed with bipolar disorder, which may or may not have been triggered by a hit and run accident where a car hit her while she was on her bike; and 3) Hersh getting pregnant and having her first child, which may or may not have helped her body chemistry get her biploar disorder back under control. And all of this happened in a single year, alongside her sort of going to college and befriending another student who happened to be a former major movie star who was several decades older than her.

I'm sure that when you read the phrases "memoir", "teen pregnancy", and "bipolar disorder" in the description of a book, it's very tempting to paint it as "a powerful story of coping and redemption" and blah blah blah. It's not that at all, not by a long shot. Hersh deals with these issues matter-of-factly and humorously; even though they are major story elements, she doesn't linger on them and ponder their meaning looking back two decades later. They are things that happened when they happened, and she dealt with them as best she could at the time. She spends far more time talking about her relationships with her bandmates and her friends and her family; she makes a bigger fuss about turning into a "coat slave" than she does about an unplanned pregnancy that has the potential to derail her budding music career.

All of this might sound highly improbable, and if you weren't already familiar with Hersh, you might be forgiven for thinking that many elements were embellished, or that the timeframe was compressed in a way that doesn't reflect reality. I don't believe either of these things are true, but if it makes you feel any better, read it as a work of fiction based on her life—it won't make the book any less great or her voice any less vital. It's a stunning work of art whether you read it as truth or fiction or some hybrid.

I was a fan of Kristin Hersh anyway—I've been a Throwing Muses fan since 1987 and have felt a renewed to connection to her over the last few years as she has crowdsourced her music career through CASH Music, posted frequent to her Twitter feed (she's still the most engaging person I follow), and explored other ways to share her art with her fans in an age where traditional platforms for distributing books and music are being destroyed and replaced by much less tangible things. But I still didn't expect this book to be this good; it's the best thing I've read in years, and I look forward to returning to it in a year and being surprised at its grace and honesty and wisdom and humor all over again.

I have to send one of my employees to Rochester on his birthday for a business trip. I am now officially a terrible boss.

Good god, just how many hours of primetime programming can Fox use up with Gordon Ramsey shows?

Big Brother is always pretty stupid, but man, this season it's ultra stupid. If it weren't for our habit of watching something on the TiVo and having absolutely nothing else that we're recording this summer, I don't think I could stand to watch much more of it. Luckily, there's so much filler that, if you know the rhythm of the show well enough, you can watch the whole hour in about 20 minutes.

One of the things that I've enjoyed about Blizzard's MMO, World of Warcraft, is that it doesn't matter who you are and how much money you have in real life, in the game, everyone is equal. There is no way to use any real life wealth you might have to make the game any easier or make gear any more readily available. Sure, there are goldselling services out there, and theoretically you can use those to purchase in-game gold with real dollars, but if you get caught, it's not a slap on the wrist—they ban your account, destroying all of your characters and all of their gold and items, and if you want to keep playing the game, you essentially have to start over with a whole new account.

Over time, Blizzard has added some vanity items that you can purchase with real dollars from their web site—things like companion pets and mounts, things that don't help your character's combat abilities in the slightest—and while I'm not wild about that (even though I've purchased a few myself), it doesn't affect the actual gameplay, so it's not really that big a deal. The integrity of the game is still mostly intact.

Diablo is another big Blizzard property, and the long-announced Diablo III should be released sometime this year. Like World of Warcraft, Diablo III will include an auction house where you can buy and sell items for in-game gold, but it's also going to add functionality that will let players use real money to buy in-game items off the auction house. And if that's not bad enough, it's also going to allow players to sell in-game items and convert their in-game gold to real world cash.

This will have a negative impact in both directions: because players who happen to have a lot of money outside of the game won't ever feel the need to farm for in-game gold or items, and will instead just buy whatever they want at whatever price with their real world cash, inflation will be massive, and players who don't want to spend real money on virtual items will never be able to afford highly desired items, meaning the only way they will get them is to spend tons of time in-game trying to farm them. And the fact that it will be so easy to convert game currency to real currency will drastically increase the number of players who only play to make money (illegally in Warcraft, but apparently legally in Diablo III), many of whom do this as a job (typically in the gaming equivalents of call centers in China, where the labor costs make it profitable).

The argument that Blizzard is trying to make is that because real players will be able to buy and sell with real money directly off the auction house, it will put the professional gold and item sellers out of business, but I don't really understand that logic. By sanctioning the selling of in-game items for real money, they're essentially telling people that time in the game will literally translate into money, and since someone's time in China is worth much less than it is to the typical player in the west, the Chinese gold farmers will still be able to make their profits, they'll just be able to do it legally and without fear of being banned.

In addition, now every time a player gets a rare drop, instead of equipping it if it's something he can use, his immediate thought will be: how much real cash could I get for this? Right now, that's a question that players ask in relation to in-game gold, but if the item an upgrade that your character really needs, there's almost no doubt that a player will choose to equip it instead of sell it, because in-game gold is relatively easy to come by and there are limited ways to improve your character's gear. So suddenly the entire game turns into a question of whether a particular item is more valuable to you in-game or in real life, so that even if you do choose to equip an item rather than sell it, you might suddenly think, "I just gave up $20 so my character could have a better piece of armor." And those aren't the kinds of thoughts I want to be thinking when I'm playing a game for fun.

Diablo II was one of my favorite games ever, and before this announcement, I was really excited for the impending release of Diablo III. I'm sure I'll still buy a copy to play it through, but whether I'll play it as long term as I did its predecessor will likely depend heavily on how this whole auction house situation plays out.

Julie's mom is in town to visit Will this weekend (she hasn't been up here since March), and so Julie and I decided to go see the final Harry Potter movie while we had a babysitter. Her mom had shoulder surgery back in April or May, and while it's mostly healed now, she still doesn't feel completely comfortable being left alone with Will, so instead of going to a morning or midday matinee like we had orginally planned, we went to a later showing on Saturday night and hoped he would just stay asleep the whole time we were gone (which he did).

I've only read the book once, and that was within hours of it being released, so I don't remember a ton from the last half of the book because I was incredibly sleep deprived and I was rushing to get to the end. Not a lot of what I remember syncs up with what happened in the movie, but since I don't remember much, I have no way of knowing if the movie diverges significantly from the book or if I just can't remember it. The point of this is that for whatever reason, a lot of the stuff in the movie was a surprise to me.

The book series was pretty close to perfect, and except for the long meandering camping section of the final book, it was amazing. The movies have been up and down, but they've definitely gained steam as they've approached the end, and David Yates, who directed the final four movies (covering the final three books, as the last book was split into two movies) strikes that perfect balanced between quiet, nuanced scenes between his actors and big action set pieces with lots of special effects. Deathly Hallows Part 2 might be his finest entry in the series yet, and it even rivals Alfonso Cuaron's magical Prisoner of Azkaban, which was the first Harry Potter film that had any true artistry.

So in short: it was pretty good, and shouldn't disappoint fans of the books, especially if you liked the last few films. I still think that the proper format for telling the story of Harry Potter as a theatrical piece is going to be television—a run of 10-13 hour long episodes for each book would allow us to see a lot more character development, not just from the principals but from the secondary characters, and also allow more of Rowling's subplots, which are often excised entirely from the movies, be explored.

I'm trying to get excited about the Ravens preseason, but they really botched their free agency plans, and we're relying on a lot of rookies or other young, untested players to fill key roles for the team this year. Our schedule doesn't seem too terrible, so we could still have a decent year, but it's hard to believe we'll match the quality of last year's team. Last year should have been our year—that was a Superbowl team, and I'm not convinced this year's squad has that same potential.

Yesterday the GrrChe food truck (which specializes in grilled cheese sandwiches) visited the usual food truck spot near campus, so I walked down with a coworker to try it out for lunch. There were some interesting selections on the menu, including a Lobster roll and a Caribbean-inspired grilled cheese sandwich featuring mango salsa, but in the end we both decided (without knowing what the other was ordering) on the BCT—the bacon, cheddar, and tomato, and we both ordered it with wheat bread.

The sandwich wasn't bad, but we both agreed on a couple of things. For one, it wasn't cheesy enough for a grilled cheese. Second, the bread was definitely not wheat—it seemed more like pumpernickel, and while I didn't mind it, my companion did, because she didn't care for the caraway seeds. But still, I wanted wheat.

Finally, the cost was a bit too high for what we got—at $7.50, it was one of the more expensive items on the menu, and I noticed that I could have ordered a plain cheddar grilled cheese ($4.50) and had them add bacon ($1) and tomato ($.50) and technically gotten the same sandwich for $6. If it had been a discount on the ad hoc version at $5.50 or something, it would have been a much better value—I'm guessing they give you a bad deal on it because it's one of their most popular sandwiches and most people haven't noticed that you could construct it a la carte cheaper than you could ordering it from the specialty menu.

Overall, we both gave the sandwich a B, but we'll probably give the truck another try when it comes back again. So far the Gypsy Queen remains my favorite Baltmore food truck. They've been down at City Hall all summer on the day when they normally come to campus, but they promised they'd be back in the fall, and I'm looking forward to their return.

Odd week. My meeting with my boss on Tuesday got canceled because I had an offsite meeting, and then he was unexpectedly out on Wedensday and today. And since I swapped my day at home with Will with Julie this week so she could stay home on Monday to see her mother off, I'm off tomorrow, and my boss is out next week for vacation

There are some pretty important issues we need to get resolved in the near term, but I won't see him until the week after next, and then the week after that I'm out at training and when I return, he'll be on travel, and then I'll be at a conference, etc., etc. So even though we really don't ramp up for the reading cycle until October, I feel like we only have one week left to get all the details hammered out because our schedules really don't align well for the next month or so.

Last year was the hardest year so far since I've been working here, and I expect this next one will be even worse because of the increased scrutiny our office is under (despite our great performance year after year) and because of the uncertainty surrounding my boss and my boss's boss (who was notified a couple of months ago that he will only be here through next May—they're replacing him with two new dean-level roles and he's not going to be moved into either of those positions). This will be my 10th year with the university, and I have a feeling that even if I work here another 20, I'll still look back at the upcoming cycle as the worst year during my career at this institution.

I'm staying home with Will today, which will be a nice break from the office. I still have to do some work and check in with a few people, but that shouldn't take more than a couple of hours, and I can do that during one of his naps. He's such a happy baby, he makes it a lot easier to deal with all the nonsense and stress that's going on right now.

Remind me why we care about who Republicans in Iowa think they might eventually vote for for president should that person actually get the nomination? Oh, that's right—we don't. Given that the Ames Straw Poll has had predictive power about who gets the party's nomination only twice and who won the presidential race exactly once, it's better at predicting who doesn't have a shot in hell of becoming president in the next election. And if that's where its true value lies, then Michele Bachmann was a pretty good pick, because there is no way this woman is going to get the Republican nomination, much less winning the 2012 election.

Finally watched the season finale of Deadliest Catch, and although it was still reasonably engaging, this was easily the weakest season so far. There were too many new faces that I didn't care at all about, including a snotty little punk of a captain who wasn't likable in any way, shape, or form, and too little of the captains and crews that are the bedrock of the series.

This might have been because some of those crews were feuding with Discovery up until the start of the season, striking in solidarity with two brothers who were in a dispute with the channel over a non-fishing reality show that ended up being a bust, and certainly it would have been hard for this season's storylines to top the death of Phil Harris last year, but even still, this season felt like a stumble.

So looking at the divisional standings, it might be pretty depressing to see that, in mid-August, they are in second place, 8 1/2 games behind the first place Phillies. But then you look at the larger standings and realize that the Phillies have the best record in the National League, and the Braves have the second-best record, with a reasonably comfortable five game lead in the wild card race and a pretty good chance of making the playoffs if they keep playing at this level.

The Orioles, on the other hand, just plain suck no matter how you look at them. They are last place in their division, 27 1/2 games out of first, and have already locked in their 14th consecutive losing season. They are the worst team in the American League, and the second-worst team in all of baseball, ahead of only the pitiful Houston Astros (those are also the only two teams who have not yet reached the 50 win mark for the season).

It's nice to see the Braves continue to be competitive without Bobby Cox, and I'm hopeful we'll get another playoff appearance this year that the team will be better able to take advantage of now that the younger players have already been through some postseason games. But the, maybe it's time to just get a new owner or something. They've tried pretty much everything else with no success, and the only thing that has remained constant during this fairly epic losing streak is Peter Angelos.

Does every football fan believe that their team can make it to the Super Bowl this time of year? The Ravens blew it in the free agency market this year, and the offensive line was pathetic in their first preseason game, but when you get most of your information from fan sites, who tend to talk very positively about the rookies and newcomers, you think it's a given that the postseason is in the future.

But even with their relatively easy schedule this season (or at least easy-looking given that we don't know which teams are actually going to be good this year yet), I don't see how they're going to match last year's squad. Last year should have been our year; that team should have made it to the championship and won, and I really believe they would have if not for a terrible third quarter against the Steelers in the playoffs.

The past is the past, though, and we'll never get that game back. They're still going to be a tough team, and I won't be surprised to see them make a serious playoff push, but realistically I don't expect them to be as good as last year, even with all the glowing reviews of the new team members.

Last night I went to a talk at Atomic Books on the history of the graphic novel. The talk was hosted by the Society for History and Graphics, a local group of graphic designers, and it was given by Benn Ray, who owns Atomic Books. Overall it was a pretty good talk, even though I was sitting next to a guy who thought half my seat belonged to him and behind another guy who could easily be described as "mountainous"—he was very wide and very, very tall—which made viewing the slide show that went with the talk a bit more challenging.

The best parts of the talk were earlier on, when Benn discussed the history of comic books and then the history of the name "graphic novel", including other suggestions for what those kinds of books should be called and what exactly should be included in that category. The part that didn't work so well was the end, when Benn went through a catalog of what he considers to be essential graphic novels, and since there are about 40 books on that list, it was a rapid-fire slide show where we got a very quick overview of the artist and the work without really getting a good sense of why the book was important and where the book fit chronologically into the history of comics and graphic novels.

Some of these I had seen/heard of, some of them I have owned/read, but many of them were new to me and piqued my interest. Unfortunately, the ones I was intrigued by weren't on sale at the counter afterwards, and since I didn't bring a notepad (like so many of the other attendees), I didn't write them down so I could research and purchase them later. So I'll have to ask Benn about them next time I'm in the shop.

To follow up last Friday's post: Benn posted his list of recommended graphic novels on the Atomic Books Blog a couple of days after the event. The ones I'm most interested in that I don't already own (The Watchmen, Maus, and Jimmy Corrigan) are Wilson by Dan Clowes, Paying For It by Chester Brown, and Sandman by Neil Gaiman (I know, I know—but I hadn't read The Watchmen until right before the Zach Snyder movie came out, either).

There were a couple of books from the 1920s or 1930s that I remember him talking about that were actually collections of woodcuts that I don't see in this list. The slides he showed were strikingly beautiful, but since they aren't on that blog post, maybe that was more about the history of the form than books that he recommended as the best of the breed. So I'll still have something to ask him about next time I visit Atomic.

Is anyone else getting a little sick of Anne Hathaway? I might like her more if everyone in the press didn't fawn over her so much, but from what I've seen, she's not nearly as talented/likable as they would have us believe. They seem desperate to force a younger, edgier Julia Roberts on us, and Hathaway is the closest they can get. I just hope she doesn't ruin Christopher Nolan's final Batman movie.

The earthquake yesterday was weird, but not too scary, because by the time I figured out that this was, in fact, an earthquake and not a bulldozer trying to knock over the house, it was pretty much over. It was an interesting little adventure, but even though it was relatively mild (nothing in our house fell over or got rattled off the shelves), it's not something I need to experience again anytime soon.

When I was at Benn Ray's talk about the history of the graphic novel last week, I bought my first work of fiction in a long time, Max Cooper's World War Z. Although it's actually written as if it were a work of nonfiction—the narrator is a government rep who interviewed survivors of the aforementioned war, where the Z stands for zombies—so it's a series of brief accounts from many different characters, whose stories together weave a disjointed narrative of the spread of the disease and how various world governments reacted to it. So I'm not really sure if it counts as me reading fiction, because one of the reasons it appealed to me was its emulation of nonfiction.

It's pretty good so far, though—hopefully it can keep this momentum through the conclusion.

Yesterday I tried my third Baltimore food truck, this time Kooper's Chowhound Burger Wagon (which is run by the folks who run Kooper's Tavern in Fell's Point). I've read tons of rave reviews about their burgers, and I went with a couple of coworkers, one of whom was also a big burger fan and had been wanting to sample this food truck for a while (she's the same one who went with me to the GrrChe food truck a couple of weeks ago).

You could order a custom burger, but I hadn't studied the menu before we went and I couldn't make up my mind before we got the window, so I ended up ordering The Otis, with sauteed mushrooms and onions. It was pretty good, but I'm not sure if I would call it the best burger in Baltimore, which is what it was voted by Baltimore Magazine for 2011. I'd probably go back to this truck before GrrChe—for the same $8 that most of their grilled cheese sandwiches cost I could get a burger here—but overall, the Gypsy Queen still rules the Baltimore food truck scene. I can't wait until they start coming back to campus, hopefully next week, after spending the summer at City Hall.

I knew this hurricane wasn't going to live up to the media hype days before it hit, and it really didn't, here or anywhere else. But it's also no surprise to me that BGE was woefully unprepared, which meant hundreds of thousands of their customers were without power for days, including us—our power went out at midnight on Saturday and we didn't get it back until Tuesday evening (compare that to my father, who lives in a small neighborhood on the North Carolina coast, directly in the path of the storm—yes, he lost power, but the utility company down there had it back on within 16 hours, while we were out for more than four times that long).

It was more than a little irritating, especially because I was supposed to be at home this week doing online training, and instead I had to trek into the office for the first two days just so I could shut my door and pretend I wasn't there. And in addition to losing all the food in the refrigerator, we lost a decent amount of meat from the big freezer downstairs (although we were able to salvage some of the more expensive stuff).

All in all, if people hadn't known a hurricane was coming, they wouldn't have known that that was what blew through the region on Saturday night. Lots of rain, yes, and some wind, but we've had thunderstorms that have lasted 20 minutes that have been far more violent and destructive.

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