05/2019

Wednesday, May 01, 2019

Time-lapsed Blogography Day: 19 Years Ago Today

Nineteen years ago today, on May 1, 2000, I performed my final project in Conducting class: a live performance of a piece of my choosing. My orchestra consisted of the other students in the class, a horrible permutation of 1 flute, 1 clarinet, 1 violin, 2 alto saxophones, 4 trumpets, 1 horn, 1 trombone, 1 tuba, 1 piano, and 2 percussionists. Because I couldn't possibly do anything the easy way, I chose to treat my final project as both a conducting and a composing assignment. I arranged one of my 1997 concert band pieces, The King's Entourage, for this cancerous orchestration.

Unlike some conductors who scribble all over their scores as if to fix the composition's intrinsic flaws, my conducting scores were always very sparse. All notes were relegated to the top line of the score and consisted mostly of cue reminders so I knew who to look at. As I practiced and became more comfortable, I would erase notes and rely more on memory.

I got an A on the final project. Afterwards, Professor Glazebrook pulled me aside and said it was the best project he'd ever seen done, exactly the way he wanted. Of my unique pairing of alto saxophone and violin for the melody, he said "it was not as awful a sound as I would have expected". (Based on this high praise, I would go on to compose my Master's thesis using alto saxophone and violin more than allowed by Geneva Conventions).

I still have my conducting textbook, notated examples, and conducting baton on my shelf, although I have not conducted an ensemble since undergrad. I had to confiscate the baton once Maia started chewing on it.

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Friday, May 03, 2019

Staycation Day

Rebecca and Maia got on a plane to Oklahoma City last night to visit the Brian and Emily Gillis family for an extended weekend, leaving me and Amber behind for a nice, quiet staycation. Things I did on my first solo night:

  • Grilled a rare 1 pound steak on my new grill and ate it while having an Alexandria beer.
  • Took a bath and started rereading Wool by Hugh Howey.
  • Got to level 49 on my Purifier (a 2-handed ranged character that can both tank and drop bombs) in Grim Dawn.
  • Watched 2 episodes of the third season of Colony.

tagged as day-to-day | permalink | 1 comment

Monday, May 06, 2019

Maia Month #22 Battle Report

Maia is 1 year and 10 months old today. The picture above was actually taken 3 days ago -- she's still visiting the Gillis family in Oklahoma City and between Daylight Savings Time and time zones, Rebecca apparently flew into the future on her jet plane.

This past month has been great from a child-care perspective. Although Maia is much less likely to play on her own these days, she's very amenable to whatever sort of activity we think up as long as we're nearby. Activities have included "playing with measuring cups and water in the sink", "filling a bucket with dirt", and "acting as a Chaos Monkey while we work on 1000 piece puzzles". Puzzles, the Berenstain Bears, and baths are her recent favourite activities -- she will immediately drop whatever she's doing to engage in either.

Maia is saying a lot of things now, not all intelligible. Her default setting is two-word phrases that she says over and over until we finally understand them and recite them back. She is adept at making unexpected connections between things in her books and things she did several days ago. With the weather so nice, she gets outside at least twice a day. I regularly take her to Claude Moore Park or Lake Anne in the evenings while Rebecca is at work and Rebecca takes her to "forest school" on Fridays at Algonkian Park, where she can hang out with other toddlers splashing in mud puddles.

The cutest thing she does at the moment is her approach for showing excitement. When she sees something amazing like a new playground or a flock of geese, she'll hold her fists up near her mouth and point with both hands.

P.S. Maia gained two new friends last month: Welcome Gideon (child #6 of the Ahlbin clan) and Tobias (child #1 of the Jackson family)!

tagged as offspring, day-to-day | permalink | 2 comments

Wednesday, May 08, 2019

List Day: 10 Things I Appreciated On My Solo Staycation

  1. I took four days off of work and only used 24 hours of leave.

  2. I put everything away and it was still tidy 24, 48, and even 96 hours later.

  3. I didn't use the dishwasher all weekend and the drying rack only contained 1 plate (for bagels / sandwiches), 1 knife (for cream cheese / mayo), and 1 goblet (for Magic Hat #9 / Old Bust Head English Pale Ale / Water).

  4. I kept the A/C up at 78 F all day and night long and my feet were finally warm.

  5. I watched TV at 9 PM with the volume up and subtitles off.

  6. I turned off a video game because I felt like I had played enough and it was time to do something else.

  7. I went out to a restaurant four nights in a row and just read a book in silence.

  8. I had a video chat with Rebecca and Maia about halfway through, and Maia showed me a toy plane like the one she flew on.

  9. I slept 9 uninterrupted hours each night (although Amber the cat still woke me up to bitch about breakfast).

  10. My mind had the chance to get bored -- a critical catalyst for new projects and creativity.

tagged as lists, day-to-day | permalink | 2 comments

Friday, May 10, 2019

Review Day

There are no major spoilers in these reviews.

Bosch, Season Five:
The latest season of Bosch is fairly mediocre. It starts with a tense situation immediately followed by "THREE WEEKS EARLIER...", a device that J.J. Abrams believe adds suspense, but really just serves to annoy the viewers. The various plots don't really work in isolation, and the "main" plot is fairly mundane. I think the biggest problem of this season was that the main characters spent too much time isolated into their own stories without the great interplay that shows how strong the relationships are. The "satisfying high point" of the season occurs in the penultimate episode (in a court case, of course), leaving one more episode of meandering and unbelievable action scenes before it's all over.

Final Grade: B-

Catastrophe, Season Four:
The final season of Catastrophe is of middling quality -- lots of great insults that tiptoe the meanness line and a plot that doesn't go in any particular direction. It ends on an upbeat note, and is over quickly. Free on Amazon Prime.

Final Grade: B-

Santa Clarita Diet, Season Three:
The most recent season of this show about suburban undead is not quite as good as previous seasons but still worth a watch. By the end, I was a little tired of Drew Barrymore and the constant jokes about gender equality, but still enjoyed the ride. Netflix cancelled the show after this season (on a minor cliffhanger), which is only slightly disappointing to me. Free on Netflix.

Final Grade: B

Healers and Thieves by Susan Quilty:
Susan Quilty, a local writer from Rebecca's yoga studio who also wrote The Insistence of Memory, delivers a solid Young Adult novel with fantasy elements. The YA Fantasy genre has a reputation for being overcrowded with mediocre mashups of Harry Potter and Twilight, so it's refreshing that Healers and Thieves is built from a palette of concepts and plot devices that don't already feel overused. This story does a good job of capturing and conveying the main character's wonder and sense of discovery as she leaves her comfort zone. It sometimes reminded me of Elizabeth Winthrop's classic, The Castle in the Attic, but with much more robust world-building.

Quilty does a good job of incorporating the modern world YA elements without bogging down the momentum of the main plot. When it comes to the first book in a trilogy, there are usually two ways to go -- either tell a small, complete story with hints at a broader universe that are unfolded in subsequent books, or start progressing towards the final book without delay, treating each conclusion as a pause point in the action. Healers and Thieves falls squarely in the latter category. While I wish that the book had more self-contained finality in its ending, I thoroughly enjoyed the ride and look forward to Book Two.

Final Grade: B+

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Monday, May 13, 2019

Chad Darnell's 12 of 12

12 pictures of your day on the 12th of every month

6:56 AM: Bagel for breakfast.
7:32 AM: Early morning Grim Dawn before the house awakens.
8:58 AM: Showered and ready for the day.
9:32 AM: Good morning!
10:41 AM: A soggy day at the lake, made exciting by holding the umbrella (and a wooden pig).
11:19 AM: Helping me mix'n'match a six-pack. "Daddy drinks burr!"
12:42 PM: Learning about the Solar System while helping us with a planets puzzle (cross-functional training).
1:18 PM: Helping Maia build towers.
2:33 PM: Running on the treadmill while starting the TV version of 12 Monkeys.
6:44 PM: Enjoyed the rocks outside of Mellow Mushroom more than the food.
7:16 PM: Bathtime!
7:35 PM: Ready for PJs.

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Wednesday, May 15, 2019

15th Work Anniversary Swag Day

I reached 15 years at my company last month (adjusted slightly for the 11 months I spent in the zany world of software startups) and was awarded with several thousand "points" to spend on an online Awards website. The website was clearly from the Web 2.0 years since its primary interface was Flash-based and the "mobile" version consisted of HTML tables showing 6 pieces of swag at a time. This was actually a huge limitation since there were multiple categories of prizes and way too many pieces of diamond jewelry to wade through.

Several thousand points was actually very generous of my company -- even after signing up for the big ticket items, I still had over half of my points left over. It got to the point where I was just buying extra things to use up points:

  • A Weber Genesis II E310 LP Gas Grill ($800)
  • Another Oculus Rift + Touch VR System for regifting ($400)
  • Samsung Galaxy S8 64 GB ($390)
  • Canon PowerShot SX620 HS ($230)
  • Samsung Soundbar+ ($170)
  • Traveler's Club 3 Piece Luggage Set ($35)
  • Black and Decker 16" Electric Hedge Trimmer ($30)

Packages arrived like clockwork for the next several days. Other than the built-in annoyances of transitioning from old technologies to new ones (assembling the grill took equally as long as transferring my phone number to a new unlocked phone), it's nice to be a little more modernized without spending any of my own money!

tagged as lists, day-to-day | permalink | 0 comments

Friday, May 17, 2019

Review Day: Grim Dawn (PC)

Built by some of the team that made 2006's Titan Quest (and with the same engine), Grim Dawn is one of the best Diablo II spiritual successors you've never heard of. It's not perfect, but it effectively scratches the action-RPG itch and I've already sunk almost 100 hours into it.

Grim Dawn is closer in style and pacing to Diablo II rather than Diablo III or Path of Exile. There's much less emphasis on movement skills and enemies feel more dangerous and harder to kill. Gear upgrades are less frequent but, as a result, feel more satisfying and well-earned.

The key discriminator of the game is its dual mastery system. Instead of selecting a single class with a skill tree (like a sorcerer or barbarian) upfront, you combine 2 classes to build a hybrid character. With 8 possible classes, this results in 28 possible archetypes. There's also a bonus point system (Devotions) that takes the worst UI traits of Skyrim's constellations and Path of Exile's skill tree and offers an obtuse layer of additional customization that you probably won't fully understand until your third or fourth character. I'm currently playing a Level 70 Purifier that plays like a WoW Retribution Paladin with bombs and a rifle, and having a great time.

The area where small studio budget limitations are clearest is clicking and pathing. Picking up loot by clicking on its graphic versus its name sometimes feels off. Your character will not always pick the best path to reach where you click, or make the best decision on whether to attack or move when you click beyond a monster. Thankfully, the usual hotkeys for "Force Move" and "Force Stand Still and Attack" are bindable. There is also a hotkey for "Move", which is a revelation for someone like me who has destroyed their right index finger by left-clicking to move across hundreds of hours of similar games.

If you try this game out and choose to stick with it, the Grim Internals mod is a must-have. Among its quality-of-life enhancements are: auto-pickup of the game's billion different crafting components, a health bar that floats over your character, and floating names for major monsters so they're easier to see on the screen.

Graphically, the game has a pretty grim colour palette (think of it as the anti-Torchlight) and the sprites and animation are nowhere near as polished as a big studio might be able to produce. Most of the monsters look like cheaper knock-offs of monsters from other games. However, the graphics effectively get the point across and are good enough to support the addictive kill-loot-sell cycle. The perspective is freely rotatable at any time and has a wide zoom range. The game map has a nice feature that uses color to show where you've been in a particular session, which is very helpful to confirm that you've cleared an area after the map has been fully explored.

The music is fine. There's one awful track that grates on the ears like an undergraduate composer version of Matt Uelmen that only knows one chord. It's so long and irritating to listen to that I teleport back to town to reset the music every time it comes on. Otherwise, there's a good mix of melodic tunes and the ambient nonsense that Trent Reznor unfortunately popularized with the Quake soundtrack.

At $25 for the base game, Grim Dawn is definitely a cost-effective purchase. I've enjoyed it enough to purchase the first of two expansion packs and would recommend it for anyone that needs a new action-RPG fix.

Final Grade: B+

tagged as reviews, games | permalink | 0 comments

Monday, May 20, 2019

Weekend Wrap-up

On Friday afternoon, we had the entire Ahlbin family over (Ben, Anna, Ella, Rosie, Kathryn, Isaac, Felicity, and now, Gideon) for a pizza lunch and toddler dance party. They can no longer fit into normal cars and now drive a vehicle that holds 11 and looks like a cross between a SWAT team truck and a hearse.

On Friday evening, we had a family dinner at The V and then started a new puzzle (canals in Amsterdam).

On Saturday, Rebecca had to work, so Maia and I went to a nearby playground in the near-90 degree weather. I tried to teach her to express her displeasure with climate change by saying, "Boy, it's hot!" but she could only say, "Oh boy! It's hot!" We're still working on it. In the evening, we had our first barbeque of the season, featuring old work friends, our neighbours across the street, and their dog. As you can see from the photo below, our grilling experience is much brighter now that the neighbour's long-dead trees have been chopped down. Looks like it's time for a screen porch!

On Sunday, Rebecca finally got a chance to transfer her life into my old Samsung S5 phone (after having lost her iPhone in the pool last week). In the evening, Maia cooled off by playing in buckets of water and we had a dinner of pork tenderloin, weird mushrooms from the farmer's market, and kale.

How was your weekend?

tagged as day-to-day | permalink | 1 comment

Wednesday, May 22, 2019

List Day: Influences Maia Gets From Her Parents

Dad Influences Mom Influences
  • Excellent clean-up skills

  • Love of mac and cheese

  • Constant reallocation of stuffed animals (one per gap in the crib slats) during naptime

  • Need to sort different types of toys into different containers

  • Obsession with Berenstain Bears books

  • Ability to count to 5 while only occasionally skipping 3
  • Strong preference for being outside

  • Tendency to break out into yoga in every situation

  • Belief that shoes should be taken off inside the house

  • Need to walk everywhere, even if only at 1 mile per hour or less

  • Love of quiche

  • Ability to make friends in sprawling, social settings like Library story time.

tagged as lists, offspring | permalink | 0 comments

Friday, May 24, 2019

Review Day

There are no major spoilers in these reviews.

Benfei USB-C to HDMI Adapter (Male-to-Female):
Streaming from a laptop is a regular part of our TV watching experience, but the ultrabook laptops I prefer have stopped having HDMI ports. This little adapter works fine for 6 months to a year before you have to unplug/replug it constantly to patch sound through it. 3 months later, it stops working all together. We went through 3 of them over 2 years before I finally gave up and bought a dedicated USB-C to HDMI cable (Male-to-Male). There's a sexuality joke buried in here somewhere.

Final Grade: C-

Colony, Season Three:
At the end of Season Two, I was worried that Colony (by LOST's Carlton Cuse) would devolve into a slow-paced slog without any answers. So, it was not reassuring to see that the first several episodes of this season take place in the wilderness and involve a brand new set of characters (one who looks like John Locke) with origin flashbacks. Luckily, the LOST clone part gets over quickly and the action returns to the parts that made the first season somewhat watchable.

There's a great story in here somewhere, but it's stretched to infinity and poorly executed onscreen. There are weird leaps in time and extended scenes with odd reaction shots that feel like huge chunks of the story were edited out. The show was cancelled after this season, and I'm perfectly fine with that. There are minor cliffhangers in the finale, but honestly, the show didn't make me care enough to be disappointed.

Final Grade: C

Samsung HW-MS550 Sound+ Soundbar:
This soundbar replaces my 15-year-old 5.1 surround sound system which we never fully exploited and just caused wiring headaches any time we rearranged the living room. I'm pretty sure I was never the person that was going to perfectly align all of the speakers and mathematically calculate the perfect cone of aural bliss, and that level of effort is even less likely now that we watch TV with subtitles after toddler lights out. The soundbar is easy to install, has sound quality good enough for the trashy TV and movies that we watch, and instantly reduces clutter in my entertainment nook by 500%.

Final Grade: B

Earth's Best Fish Nuggets for Kids:
I bought these fish sticks for Maia to mitigate any disappointment she might have from watching us eat our raw sushi. She popped one in her mouth and then immediately opened it to allow the nugget to fall back onto the plate. In my post-dinner dinner of fish nuggets that Maia had not finished (all of them), I found that they were 85% breading, 10% fish glue, and 5% actual fish. I chewed a nugget in search of real fish and experienced a powdery, formless texture that evoked a sense of "someone was talking about fish in the next room when they baked this bread nugget".

Final Grade: F

tagged as reviews | permalink | 2 comments

Monday, May 27, 2019

Weekend Wrap-up

It's Memorial Day!

We spent our holiday weekend at home in a low-key way. On Friday, Maia and I met Rebecca at the yoga studio and then headed over to Cascades Overlook for dinner at the new Marumen Ramen restaurant. I ordered the "Hot Stone Pot" dish, which, in retrospect, was perfectly honest advertising since the food inside stayed too hot to eat for the entire visit. I'm indifferent about trying the place again (I feel like noodles can be done just as well at home) but it was nice that Maia could roll around in the astroturf like a golden retriever while we ate nearby.

On Saturday, I wanted to try something new on the grill, so I bought swordfish steaks with an Italian-esque marinade (and salmon as a backup). We invited Tammy over for dinner and since she wasn't a fan of seafood, she contributed a bucketload of steaks as well. Rebecca and Tammy made chocolate mojitos from the chocolate mint plant we now cultivate, and they turned out deliciously. I also grilled the swordfish perfectly, thanks to the new grill.

On Sunday I took the morning off while Rebecca and Maia went to church. In the evening, we went to the poorly-named Clemyjontri Park for the 5th birthday party of Rebecca's boss' son. In spite of the name, the park was a playground paradise and Maia enjoyed visiting every single apparatus for the next two and a half hours.

No big plans yet for Monday, although I will work as usual and Rebecca and Maia are headed to the pool. What are you up to wherever you are?

tagged as day-to-day | permalink | 2 comments

Wednesday, May 29, 2019

Review Day: An Illusion of Thieves by Cate Glass / Carol Berg

There are no major spoilers in this review.

An Illusion of Thieves is the first book in a new series by established author, Carol Berg, writing under the pen name, Cate Glass. Set against a pseudo-Italian backdrop of city-states and political factions, the story centers on a young woman, Romy, whose position near the rich and powerful of the city is suddenly cast into jeopardy by family ties.

The tropes of the book (from a distrust of magic to a benevolent ruler with conspiring enemies) are familiar fare, but they are expertly pieced together to support the story and accessible enough to draw the attention of new fantasy readers. The world-building is obviously well thought out and the author does a fine job of mixing flashback, world-building detail, and present day action to avoid exposition overload.

The book is well-paced and divided into two major parts. The first part details Romy's return to poverty and her attempts to make it on her own. This section does a great job of developing Romy, her brother, and the ragtag personalities they meet along the way. Infrequent, tantalizing glimpses of political undercurrents and unrest within the city provide a global backdrop for Romy's character development and also serve as a neat writing device to emphasize her loss of access -- where once she would have known or influenced the actions of the powerful, now she can only theorize or seek out rumors about machinations out of her control.

In the second part of the book, Romy's shaky new beginnings are threatened by the world she left behind. To save herself and her brother, she enlists the help of new friends in a madcap caper. This section is a page-turner, spanning three days of nonstop action and lots of moving parts. The plot concludes in a very satisfying way, tying up all of the local loose threads while leaving enough of the world open for more books.

What I appreciated most about this book is its collection of light-hearted, easy-to-root-for protagonists. The development of the siblings' relationship is believable and the secondary characters add the right amount of color. While the characters sometimes suffer from guilt, shortsightedness, or other flaws, the angst and self-flagellation of Berg's Rai Kirah trilogy are nowhere to be found. The plot is also much more straightforward than the interwoven plots of Berg's Sanctuary duet. (I did enjoy those other series, but neither one can honestly be described as a "joyful romp").

An Illusion of Thieves is a book full of icebergs. What can be seen is delightful and satisfying but it is painfully apparent that there is so much more just below the surface that hasn't even been touched. Key aspects of the society, geography, and mythology are sprinkled throughout the story ready to be mined in a way that upends our perspectives (as Carol Berg is wont to do). While I was definitely happy with the wrap-up of the plot as a "one and done", I felt like too much of the world-building was left unexploited and reserved for Book Two and beyond. That said, I would definitely recommend Book One as a fast-paced, light-hearted break from your more somber fantasy epics.

Final Grade: B

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Friday, May 31, 2019

End-of-the-Month Highlights Day

New photos have been added to the Life, 2019 album. Google Photos sucks.

  • Events
    • Rebecca and Maia went to visit the Gillis family in Oklahoma City, H 5/2 - T 5/7. I had a staycation, with dinners at Miller's, The V, and Burton's.

    • Visited my parents with Maia on H 5/9.

    • Family walk around the Pidgeon Hill pond on F 5/10.

    • Planted tomatoes and had Kathy over for dinner on S 5/11.

    • Family dinner at Mellow Mushroom on S 5/12.

    • Rebecca dropped her phone in the pool on H 5/16. Verizon briefly turned off mine somehow while trying to transfer her phone number to an old phone.

    • Impromptu Ahlbin visit on F 5/17.

    • First barbeque of the season on S 5/18 with Larry, Janice, Tammy, Zoe, Aaron, Vanessa, and assorted kids.

    • Took a trip to Miller's and the pet store with Maia on M 5/20.

    • Family dinner at the new ramen restaurant at Cascades Overlook on F 5/24.

    • Had Tammy over for a dinner of swordfish, salmon, and steaks on S 5/25.

    • Went to Elijah's 5th birthday party on S 5/26.

    • Family dinner at Beer-Bourbon-Burgers in One Loudoun followed by the splash pad for Maia on W 5/29.

  • Projects
    • Started studying for my next AWS certification.

    • Pushed out a new release of Sparkour on H 5/30.

  • Consumerism
    • Set up my new grill to replace the 8-year-old one on W 5/1. It only took 2 hours.

    • Got new kitchen chairs on T 5/14.

    • Enjoyed watching the first season of 12 Monkeys and playing Grim Dawn this month.

    • No new music this month.

May's Final Grade: B+, the staycation was amazing, but why is it already hot?

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