january 2017

Our Christmas break was busy but pretty good. My mom stayed with us starting around December 20 and then went to my sister's house (about 45 minutes away) on the 23rd. She came back the next day to see Will in a Christmas pageant at our church on Christmas Eve, and then we headed out to my sister's on Christmas Day afternoon to have dinner with everyone (including my cousin and his new fiancee).

I didn't really have anything in mind for Christmas this year, but Will and Julie wanted very specific things (a first time for Will, and pretty unusual for Julie). Will wanted a robot named Cozmo from Anki, and Julie wanted an Apple Watch, which I was pretty happy about—for the past year and a half she's been using an ugly FitBit Charge HR that's way too big and clunky for her, even when the wristband is set to the tigtest setting.

We got lucky with Will's gift—he got obsessed with it pretty early in the holiday shopping season (he saw an article about it in Boy's Life in October), so Julie ordered it a few weeks later and we had it well in hand by the time it was sold out everywhere a few weeks before Christmas. Will was so anxious about it, rationalizing how he'd get it once he knew it was sold out—either Santa would bring it for free or we'd be able to pay the 100% markup and get one off eBay.

Julie, on the other hand, didn't make up her mind about whether she really wanted an Apple Watch and specifically which one she wanted until a couple of weeks before Christmas when the model she wanted was already sold out in all the Atlanta Apple Stores and the online orders wouldn't be delivered until after the new year.

She sort of resigned herself to not getting one until a week or two after Christmas, but I was undeterred—I was seriously thinking about driving all the way to Augusta or Birmingham to get her one (where they still had them in stock), but then I got a fortuitous text from my friend Doug asking for our address for his Christmas card list. He lives in DC, so while I was texting with him, I checked the availability of the model she wanted in the DC stores, and they had one in stock at a store 20 minutes from his house. So he graciously went and got one a couple of days later and had his wife FedEx it to me later that week.

To surprise Will, I convinced her to let me do a Christmas Story kind of thing where we hid Cozmo's box and saved it until he had opened all of his other presents. Instead of hiding behind a desk, however, I wrapped it in black wrapping paper and hid it behind a rack of LED candles we keep in the fireplace. Unbeknowst to Julie, however, I also wrapped and hid her Apple Watch back there, so when we directed Will to use a flashlight to search the fireplace for any additional gifts, he found two presents—one for him and one for mom. Julie was probably more surprised than Will was—Will was still optimistic that Cozmo would turn up somehow even when he wasn't delivered by Santa or in any of the other small gifts we got him, but Julie had long-since resigned herself to the fact that we would be getting her present a week or two after Christmas.

It was a fun morning—this is the first present that Will has really been obsessed with, and I think we surprised him as much as it was possible to, and Julie was genuinely surprised, which is pretty hard to pull off—usually if she wants anything specific, it's so specific that she knows exactly what I'm going to get her before she opens it (which would have been exactly the case here had what she wanted not been sold out locally and online).

After our nuclear family unit celebrated Christmas together in the morning, we headed out to my sister's house in the afternoon to have an early dinner and exchange presents with my sister, her husband, my mom, and one of our cousins and his fiancee. This has become a semi-tradition since my sister moved to Georgia about a year after we did—I thnk this is our third time doing this, and it reminds me of our childhood Christmases where we would always have the morning for immediate family Christmas and then we'd get in the car and head over to my grandfather's for the afternoon (although he lived a bit farther away from us then than my sister does from us now).

We've taken to not traveling much for Christmas since Will was born, but two days after Christmas we headed to my father's house in North Carolina for a few days, mostly because 1) we rarely get to see my brother who lives in Toledo, Ohio, and he and his crew were visiting my dad and 2) my sister who lives in Wilmington near my dad never, ever comes to visit Will, so the only time he can get to know his second aunt is when we go there.

It was a crowded house for about twenty four hours—in addition to the three of us, my dad, and my stepmother, my sister and her husband were there (they went up the day before us), and my brother was there with his fiancee and her two grandchildren, both of whom (for reasons that I won't get into here) are in the custody of my brother and his fiancee. We had a big Christmas dinner the night we go there that also included my sister who lives in town and her husband, and then did yet another present exchange afterwards.

The crowd started to thin out the next day when my sister and her husband went back home to Georgia, followed the day after that by my brother and his clan. We stayed for one additional day and then headed home on Friday so we would be back in Atlanta the day before New Year's Eve.

With the way the holidays fell this year, we ended up having Monday off for New Year's, which was nice. When we got back from our trip, we took some time to unpack and relax, and then had sushi for dinner after Will went to bed. For the first time, he asked us to get him up at midnight, so we woke him up to see the ball drop.

The next day was more relaxing around the house before we headed over to a friend's house late in the afternoon. This family, whose daughter went to preschool with Will, has hosted a New Year's Day get-together with chili every year for the past few years, so this has become another mini-tradition. Will had a ball playing with his friends—there were two other families that joined us as well—and it was good to catch up with the host dad, who I used to hang out with a couple of times a month, but who I haven't seen except at kid functions since August or so because we've both been so busy.

Monday was still technically a day off, but I'd been very good about staying away from work email over the break, so I did need to take a few hours to clear out my inbox before Tuesday, because on Tuesday I was scheduled to be in a reading committee all day. It was nice to have a respite from work, but the chaos there continues to increase, and based on what I already know is on my calendar for January, it could be one of the most unpleasant in what is turning into a years-long leadership transition process.

So...it MIGHT snow 1-3 inches sometime tonight long after people would normally be home from work and school, but the governor has pre-emptively declared a state of emergency, so my institution is closed all day today. A snow day for what might be, best case scenario, a couple of inches of snow that likely won't even start to fall until after midnight—which is technically tomorrow.

Whatever. I'll take it.

The Ravens finished with another terrible but technically non-losing season. They lost their final two games on the road against Pittsburgh and Cincinnati, but they came achingly close to winning the Pittsburgh game, which would have put them in first place in the AFC North and likely would have had a big impact on their motivation to win the game against the Bengals (with the Pittsburgh loss, they were knocked completely out of playoff contention).

I've been fooling myself into thinking that they're a team right on the edge of being playoff contenders, but after three non-winning seasons out of four since winning the Super Bowl, it's time to admit that they need to make some big changes in their approach to be competitive again. I know that fans of this franchise have been spoiled by mostly having winning seasons (and often going to the playoff) since they found their stride after their first Super Bowl win, but the illusion that they are still highly competitive comes from the fact that so many of their losses are close losses.

The fact is, truly competitive teams in the NFL don't have so many close games (a lot of their wins were decided by a single score as well), so chance doesn't play such a big role in their record. I can only remember two games in the last two seasons where they seriously dominated their opponents, and that's just not enough for a team that wants to roll into January with home field advantage against the best teams in the league.

I don't know what it will take to fix things—the issues that a fan like me can identify are longstanding and don't seem to be high priorities for the team to adjust, either in terms of personnel or coaching style (no pass rush, a secondary that collapses in the fourth quarter, and no running game)—and ownership seems content to stand pat with the current leadership in management and coaching. I can't really disagree with that decision, but I do think the owner needs to light a fire underneath them to get more aggressive and not so comfortable in their roles, hiring more people who will challenge them and getting better at identifying, refining, and retaining talent.

Still, like any hardcore fan, I can't wait for next season, and I believe that we're not too far from being competitive if management can honestly acknowledge the team's issues and take aggressive action to solve them. But it kills me that, once again, I'll be spending January thinking about the draft and the offseason while the Steelers and the Patriots continue to play.

My institution closed on Friday and Saturday for what turned out to be...well, nothing really. There was a dusting—more like a light frost that happened to fall as snow than a dusting—on Saturday morning, but it was gone well before noon and certainty didn't cause any travel issues.

Will was pretty disappointed, but we went on the back porch (which is in shadow in the morning) and scooped up enough snow to make a little snowball, which we then put in a cup and took to the downstairs freezer for long term storage. We later added an icicle we broke off the mailbox, and that was the extent of frozen precipitation that Will got to interact with.

So, both of the presents that we went to such great lengths to get for Christmas—Cozmo the robot for Will and an Apple Watch for Julie—had issues that are hopefully almost resolved.

Cozmo appeared to be functioning normally until we realized that there were certain games the he would quit in the middle of and could never seem to complete that seeemd to be related to his camera's ability to focus on close objects. The company was very responsive—I did an online chat with a rep on Christmas day, and we had our unit headed back to the factory before we left to visit our families in NC. The replacement unit arrived before Will had to go back to school, and so far he seems to be working fine—Will plays with him for at least half an hour every day and hasn't reported any issues.

Julie's Watch, on the other hand, has been a bit more problematic. It worked fine for about a week, but then it started to warm up on her wrist before shutting itself off. We tried to restart it several times, but every time it would shut down again, and eventually it wouldn't start up at all.

A new unit is supposed to arrive sometime this week, and hopefully we won't have any problems with this one. It's a real shame that we didn't get working units for both of these gifts that we went to such great pains to get by Christmas—but I guess the good news is that they are both well-loved, becuase they were definitely missed when they were in the process of being replaced.

I resisted watching Bob's Burgers for a long time even though I missed having a half hour adult-targeted cartoon to watch, and even though I like the voice actor who plays Bob (Jon Benjamin), because there was just something about the animation style that I didn't like. I also felt like the characters had a little too much forced quirkiness. And I didn't like Bob's moustache.

But then I stumbled on an episode called "The Kids Rob a Train" that I fell in love with (still one of my favorites), and it snowballed from there. I've been watching an episode a night before I go to bed for about three months now, and I've seen all the episodes in syndication at least three times. At first Louise (the youngest girl, voiced by Kristin Schaal, who always wears a pink hat with bunny ears on it) was the character I liked the most, but I quickly came to love all the main characters, and eventually the minor characters as well (Kevin Kline voices Bob's landlord and the town's richest man, and he kills it every episode he's featured in).

It's one of those shows that's hard for me to recommend, because some of the things I reacted negatively to are definitely true, but there's a real heart to this show that I haven't seen in an animated show since the early Simpsons or the best Futurama or King of the Hill episodes. It's definitely a quirky acquired taste, but if you've tried to watch it before and didn't like it, I'd encourage you to give it another try or two (Cartoon Network, Netflix, and TBS all have the syndicated episodes available, and Cartoon Network also airs new episodes of the show).

After a really successful two year run of losing weight and exercising regularly, culminating with starting to run several times a week in preparation for running about one 5K race per month, last winter I started to put on weight and get out of the habit of regularly exercise, especially regular running. I got back on track towards the end of last summer, but then as we entered the holiday season and i also did more travel for work than ever, I started to let bad habits creep back in and again started gaining weight.

Now that things are pretty much back to normal in terms of my travel and there's a lack of constant holiday celebrations that prominently feature food, I'm doing pretty well with the diet part, but as I thought about how I got off track with exercise, I realized that the biggest reason I got off track it's exercise is because my preferred exercise is running outside in the late afternoon or early evening, which is inconvenient, uncomfortable (due to the cold, which I really hate nowadays), and dangerous to do in the Atlanta (a couple of the streets on my regular running routes do not have many streetlights for some reason).

But my workplace lets me join the on-campus gym for only $18 a month, and they have both a quarter mile outdoor track that stays lit until around 10 and an eighth of a mile indoor track that's also open until late in the evening. So I decided to join that in my quest to make sure that I don't repeat the same mistakes of last year and head into the April 5K season out of shape and overweight.

My hope is to run three times a week, and then supplement that with either strength training or walks on the treadmill at home the other days. I prefer to run outdoors, so as long as the weather isn't too cold, I'll use the bigger track outside, but the indoor track means I won't have any excuses for not getting in my running time except laziness. I usually run a four mile route when I run in the neighborhood, but I might stick to a 5K length to start with, at least until I get back in the habit and my times for that distance start to approach my best race times.

I'm excited that I'm not going to be able to use the cold and darkness as an excuse to get out of practice running—last year it felt like it just sort of happened without me realizing it and I suddenly found myself in April with a whole lot of work to do to get back to where I had been the previous fall. I still have to go and do the work, and i know there are going to be nights when I don't feel like going, but I know myself well enough that I can overcome being tired and feeling lazy a lot easier if I don't also have the excuses that it's too cold and too dark.

I realize I spent a good amount of time last month going over all the books I'd read over the previous several months, but I don't feel like I did many of the books justice compared to what I might have written had I addressed each of them with their own entry. Since then I've read a few more, and in the spirit of trying to recap/review a book as soon as I've finished reading it, I'm going to spend the next few days writing about books that I've read in the past few weeks.

First up: The Code Book: The Science of Secrecy from Ancient Egypt to Quantum Cryptography by Simon Singh. This is a history of code writing and code breaking—cryptography and cryptanalysis, and is similar to the classic The Codebreakers but which I think it probably more suited for the layperson (which I consider myself to be in this area).

If you're at all interested in this topic (and you really should be if you use computers and the internet to transmit or receive sensitive personal information, including your credit card numbers), this book gives a great overview of the main crytographic systems used throughout history, as well as how and when those systems were broken, necessitating the invention of a new cryptographic system (including specific examples where a successful cipher or the successful cracking of a cipher changed history).

A lot of time is spent on WWII, specifically the German Enigma machine and the Bletchley Park codebreaking group in Britain (which included Alan Turing) that spent their days breaking the Enigma codes. And that's still pretty intriguing—there's still a strong human element to the story, and even though the codes generated by Enigma are the most complex in history, the way it generates those codes )and the way that the codebreakers solve them) are just more complicated combinations of the basic concepts of code writing and code breaking introduced earlier in the book.

The last third of the book covers the brief history, current state, and likely future of computer-assisted codes, which is fascinating but which gets more and more abstract and theoretical (prepare to spend a lot of time with Alice, Bob, and Eve, two people who want to send secure messages to one another and a third who wants to intercept and read those messages). It's great to know these concepts, but I wish there had been more real-life examples of when the cryptographers and cryptanalysts who created and broke these systems impacted the events of the world.

Overall a great book on this topic, and one I would recommend without reservation to anyone with a decent understanding of science and math who wants to learn more about the subject. Very readable, and very good at introducing some pretty complex topics in easy to understand ways (and then gradually layering more complexity on top of the basic concepts to explain the increasingly complexity of code writing and code breaking).

I went back to a lighter topic after The Code Book, choosing next to read Never Say No To A Rock Star: In the Studio with Dylan, Sinatra, Jagger and More by Glenn Berger.

Berger started working in the legendary A&R studios in New York City while he was still a teenager, starting off as a glorified gofer before becoming a full fledged engineer by the time he was in his early 20s. When I started reading, I was mainly interested in the behind the scenes stories about some of the more famous artists he worked with (James Brown, Frank Sinatra, Bob Dylan, Mick Jagger, and Paul Simon are the most famous examples), but it was as interesting learning about the technical side of the recording process and the personalities of the producers and engineers who worked with the artists.

I was less interested in the narrative when Berger spent too much time on his life outside of the studio (problems with his girlfriend, etc.), or, even worse, when he brought us into his present, where he is no longer in the music industry and instead does one on one counseling as a psychotherapist.

Still, his writing is pretty strong—he definitely knows how to tell a good story—I mostly enjoyed this book. If you're interested in some behind the scenes stories of rock and roll, particularly during the chaotic and transitional 70s.

I was still in a light/music sort of reading mood after finishing Never Say No to a Rock Star, so next I tackledAnatomy of a Song: The Oral History of 45 Iconic Hits That Changed Rock, R&B and Pop by Marc Myers. Most of this material was apparently taken from a column Myers writes for The Wall Street Journal, and although he claims that there is new material included, I can't speak to how much of this might be rehashed content if you've been a devoted reader of the column.

But it was all new to me, so I enjoyed it pretty well. He weaved a nice history of pop, rock, and R+B up through 1989, starting with one of the first hit songs to feature a rock and roll backbeat and ending with R.E.M.'s Losing My Religion. Even though the bulk of my musical knowlegde is focused on guitar-based rock and pop post 1980, most of the songs discussed here are so iconic that I knew them by heart, as I suspect most people who were born in the 60s, 70s, and 80s would.

The great thing about the book was the way Myers was able to, though his introduction to the songs which preceded interviews from the people who wrote, recorded, and sang/played on them, weave a narrative of the history of rock the remained fairly comprehensive and coherent despite the seemingly disjointed approach of focusing on individual songs, the sequence of which don't necessarily seem to have logical connections to one another.

The part of the book that I found most disappointing was the decision to stop at 1989 and the total exclusion of the emergence and eventual dominance of hip hop and rap. The decision to cut off the book before the 90s (and the choice to specifically reference pop, rock, and R+B in the title) isn't arbitrary at all—all three decisions seem designed to justify the choice not to give any analysis or history at all of what has become the most dominant and influential musical style of the past 30 years. He even gives a chapter to a Blondie song, Heart of Glass, and it would have been very easy to instead write about Rapture, widely acknowledged as the first mainstream hit song to feature rapping.

I'm not the biggest fan of the genre myself (although I do have a few favorite artists), but I do recognize that, financially and artistically, it has become an undeniably important part of the history of pop music, and it's odd and very telling that it's not covered here at all, because a definitive history of popular music can't be written without covering hip hop (especially when you're claiming with an apparently straight face that artists like Steely Dan, the Neville Brothers, and Merle Haggard are all iconic and influential enough to merit inclusion).

A more honest subtitle for this book might have included the words "white", "middle class", and "American"—even though some black artists are included, they are included in the context of what was popular among white audiences, and both British Invasions are given the short shrift (the Beatles, unconscionably, aren't covered at all, and none of the New Wave artists who brought synthesizers and drum machines into the mainstream are referenced).

But I liked this book, and generally found it very informative. I also recognize that the areas that got the weakest coverage (or no coverage at all) were the ones that are most important to me, so there's probably a companion volume out there waiting to be written that will fill in some of those gaps someday (although it seems unlikely to be written by Myers). If you want another way of viewing the development of popular music from the 50s through the end of the 80s, there's a lot of great stuff in here, and even though it has its faults, it's certainly a worthy addition to the library of someone interested in the history of rock and pop in America.

The most recent book I've finished is Proof: The Science of Booze by Adam Rogers. It's a history of how many learned how to ferment sugar-rich foods into alcohol, including a discussion of the different types of yeast and different distilling methodologies used to create the world's best known classes of spirits.

The first three quarters of the book is a pretty good combination of the history and science of creating distilled spirits along with commentary on the impact they had on our societal structures, and is very readable and well-informed despite some occasional gushing about the wonders of booze from the author. I learned more about some spirits whose histories I was already familiar with, and I learned a lot about some spirits (like sake) that I didn't have much background on before.

The book struggles a bit at the end when Rogers turns to the science of how our bodies process alcohol and how we experience the taste and the effects of liquor. To be fair, any writer would struggle with how to write well about something that is so abstract and subjective, and which is lacking the same scientific research and history as the other parts of the book, but that begs the question as to why it was included at all.

I would have been perfectly happy if the opening few chapters had focused on the general history of fermenting grains/fruits/etc. and then distilling them into alcohol followed by a chapter each on the specific history and current best practices of the major classes of spirits. We get a lot of that, but I could have used even more, especially as a replacement for detailed discussions about how our taste buds work and how our digestive organs process alcohol.

Overall a good read, however, good enough that I'm interested to read whatever Rogers focuses on next if he decides to write another pop science book. There might be a better book waiting out there on a popular history of alcohol and (probably one that includes a more extensive discussion of wine and beer, which get some peripheral coverage in this book), but it hasn't been written yet, so this is probably the layperson's best bet for now.

For a Ravens fan, there is no good outcome in a game between the Steelers and the Patriots (other than someone blowing up the field during the game a la The Dark Knight Rises), and this is especially true if it's a playoff game. The worst case scenario is what happened over the weekend: both teams playing in the AFC Championship game, the highest level game those two could possibly play against one another.

So before I even knew who would win that game or who would win the Atlanta-Green Bay game, I knew that I'd be rooting for whoever was representing the NFC in the Super Bowl. So it was a nice coincidence that the winner ended up being Atlanta, the town where i've been living for the past five years and one which I've grown to love dearly.

Although I've never been able to really bring myself to root for the Falcons (mostly because 1) they're generally terrible and 2) the fans are terrible—even the season ticket holders who go to every game don't seem to understand the nuances and protocols for how you root for you home team in the NFL), it will be a lot easier rooting for the hometown team than it would have been rooting for Green Bay, and it will make it that much more satisfying if they were to deny Tom Brady another championship ring.

I leave tomorrow for a business trip to North Carolina, so this will be the last entry for this week. I'm going to Chapel Hill, and while a few years ago I would have had some tough choices to make about who I wanted to visit while I was there, now there are not a whole lot of people in the area I'm still in touch with, due to people moving or, unfortunately, dying.

Still, I'm always excited to revisit that area, and I do have a close friend who I'm hoping to see on Wednesday night and probably Thursday as well—the conference isn't scheduled to get over with until late on Thursday afternoon, so instead of driving back to Atlanta I'll likely hang out with him and his fiancée and drive back on Friday morning.

I've read and enjoyed all the books in James S.A. Corey's The Expanse series (except the most recent one, which was just recently released), so I was excited when Syfy made it into a television series last year. Although I recorded all the episodes, for some reason I just never got around to watching them, so I decided it was time to dig in now given that the second season is going to premiere in February.

I'm about halfway through the first season now, and I actually think I'd like it better if I hadn't read the books. The casting seems a little off—main protagonist Holden just doesn't feel right to me, nor do other principals Naomi and Alex. UN leader Chrisjen is closer to the mark, as is Thomas Jane as Detective Miller (althogh that's partly because I dislike Jane as an actor in the same way that I disliked Miller as a character in the book), and secondary (but recurring) characters Fred Andersen and Julie Mao hit pretty close to the mark. The only role where the casting is dead on is for Amos, the final primary character—actor Wes Chatham looks very much like Amos looks like in my mind's eye from reading the books, and he plays the character with exactly the same kind of tough-but-dumb-but-not-really-all-that-dumb attitude that the written character has.

All that aside, the production values and special effects are pretty strong here, and even though it's hard to see how the two primary narratives (Miller on Ceres and Holden and his crew traipsing around space getting in various near-death scenarios) are eventually going to come together, I remember that being the case with the book as well. The series gets much stronger when the narratives converge and the focus is on Holden and his crew (which is what happens after book 1 of the series)—hopefully the show will build enough of an audience to make it to that point, where I think the story hitting its groove could sync nicely with the cast and the writers finding the sweet spots for these characters together. That could happen as soon as season 2, and it might be necessary in order to get to season 3, so I'm very curious to see how they end up the first season and kick off the second.

The temperature is in the 70s today. I know this is the south, but seriously people—this is the heart of winter. At least make it cold enough so I have to think for a couple of seconds about whether I need a jacket or not.

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