Television in 2013

2013 was the second year in a row for us without cable. Although we decided to take it again in December (a combination of faster Internet, a desire for sports channels, and U-verse being offered at a comparable price to what we were paying for Internet and phone service through our service provider), I still do not expect our television consumption to change very much. We have gotten in the habit of only watching television when there is something that we really want to watch instead of just having it on for noise. That said, I have watched some good television this year.

  1. Babylon 5 — This was definitely not my first time to watch Babylon 5, nor was it my second. But, it was Emily's first time to go through it and she loved it. I think some of the themes were a little hard for her to understand, but I bought it on DVD so we will likely watch it again when she is older. I think Babylon 5 is one of the best Sci-Fi stories to ever come to television.
  2. Supernatural — Supernatural is one if those shows that had a distinct story it wanted to tell and it did so over five seasons. Unfortunately, it kept going. Seasons six and seven were really rough, but eight is a bit better. There are only eight seasons on Netflix, so we will see if I keep watching this train wreck when I run out of show. The show is funny, but the relationship drama between the two brothers gets tiresome after eight seasons of it.
  3. The Tudors — A historic drama about Henry VIII, The Tudors is a fun period show. I have only made it through the first season, but I am looking forward to continuing it this year.
  4. Orange is the New Black — A Netflix Original show that I thought was pretty good. I read the book that it was very loosely based on after watching the show and felt that the book was better. However, I understand why they had to change things for the show if they wanted to go beyond a single season.
  5. House of Cards — Another Netflix Original, this time starring Kevin Spacey as the Majority Whip in the House. This was based on a BBC miniseries that was also based on a book, which I just finished reading. I am looking forward to the second season which starts in February.
  6. Doctor Who — Doctor Who has a long, long history. Emily and I have been watching the new series of Doctor Who this year, but I really did not care much for this Series (think: season in the U. S.). But, to give us more of the Doctor while we begin the long wait until Series 8 starts, Emily and I started watching Classic Doctor Who. We have made it through season 1 and are on the second story of season 2. At the rate we are watching them, we have enough Classic Who to last two or three years. Hopefully, Emily will still enjoy watching it after all of that time.
  7. Sherlock — I am completely addicted to the BBC's Sherlock series. I purposefully put off watching the last episode of Series 2 because of a two-year hiatus for the show. Ashley and I finally watched it this week just in time for it to start back up on PBS this weekend.
  8. Downton Abbey — I love me some Downton Abbey. The setting and costumes are superb and I like all of the characters. Ashley swore off of the show at the end of Series 3, but she has decided to watch it again with me this year. However, I am already behind by three hours, so I need to catch up before too long. Luckily, the DVR records it all for me.
  9. Weeds — I gave this a shot a couple of months back. I have had multiple people tell me that Weeds is a very funny show but, after watching a season, I just cannot get into it. I don't really care about the characters and the story is not strong enough to keep my interest. I am giving this one a pass.
  10. Arrested Development — I have to say, I don't really get the appeal of Arrested Development either. I thought I would give this a shot once Netflix picked it up for another season, but I just didn't find it very funny. Oh well, that just reinforces my belief that comedies are not my thing.

 

Books Read in 2013

2013 was a milestone year; 23 years after it started and 6 years after his death, Robert Jordan's 14-tome epic, Wheel of Time, was complete. I did not start reading the books until around 1998, but I was quite satisfied by the way Brandon Sanderson ended the series. Beyond A Memory of Light, I also wanted to read more of the great, well-known books. I really enjoyed The Godfather, arguably more than I liked the first two movies. I decided to read Snow Crash since people keep saying how good Neal Stephenson is. I was left un-wowed and, when I checked my list later, found out I had read it years before and just did not remember it. It may be that cyberpunk is just not for me. I attempted a reread of The Sword of Truth, but got bogged down in Goodkind's writing style in the middle of the fifth book; I think I may have outgrown that series since I tried reading his new book this year as well and quit within the first 50 pages.

I thought The Difference Engine and The Algebraist were quite good; both were new authors for me. Confessions of Nat Turner was another Pulitzer winner and definitely deserved it; there was one scene towards the end of the book where Turner is wandering around an empty plantation and the descriptions are so powerful I could almost see, hear, and smell the setting — simply amazing. After rewatching Doctor Who's The Unicorn and the Wasp, I decided that I needed to give Agatha Christie a shot, so I read Murder on the Orient Express; I am sad to say that I did not really enjoy it. I felt like the scenario was too contrived and was a bit irritated that there was no way to figure out who dun it; too many of the clues revealed in the end came from current events in Poirot's head that were not explicitly mentioned during the story before the reveal. Maybe I would enjoy another book more; I will have to try another Christie mystery in the future.

I could keep going about the rest of the books on the list, but I really only have a couple more that I want to point out. First, if you read one book this year, make it All Quiet on the Western Front. I read it as part of my “learn about World War I” education this year and it was fantastic. I have never seen the movie, but the book gives you a raw, first-person experience that “War is Hell”1. I highly recommend it and I believe that I will nominate it as my Book of the Year.

Finally, I want to mention Peter F. Hamilton's Commonwealth Saga. I was very conflicted over this story. On the one hand, there was a decent plot squirreled away there inside of thousands of pages. On the other hand, Hamilton's way of writing women bothered me greatly. The women were all written as overly-sexualized, shallow creatures that, on multiple occasions, were used by the men in the story as playthings and then discarded; they seemed to be written more as Hamilton's fantasy than as real characters. If the men had been written that way as well, I would have written it off as the way the society is his universe was built, but that was not the case. Honestly, that characterization ruined what was otherwise a decent story. I cannot recommend the Commonwealth Saga to anyone.

  1. Beyond Fear: Thinking Sensibly About Security in an Uncertain World. by Bruce Schneier
  2. A Memory of Light (Wheel of Time, #14) by Robert Jordan and Brandon Sanderson
  3. Astray by Emma Donoghue
  4. The Godfather by Mario Puzo
  5. The Honor of the Queen (Honor Harrington, #2) by David Weber
  6. Fermat's Enigma: The Epic Quest to Solve the World's Greatest Mathematical Problem by Simon Singh
  7. Cracking the Coding Interview: 150 Programming Questions and Solutions by Gayle Laakmann McDowell
  8. The Short Victorious War (Honor Harrington, #3) by David Weber
  9. Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson
  10. Frost Burned (Mercy Thompson, #7) by Patricia Briggs
  11. Software Estimation: Demystifying the Black Art by Steve McConnell
  12. Wizard's First Rule (Sword of Truth, #1) by Terry Goodkind
  13. Stone of Tears (Sword of Truth, #2) by Terry Goodkind
  14. Blood of the Fold (Sword of Truth, #3) by Terry Goodkind
  15. Temple of the Winds (Sword of Truth, #4) by Terry Goodkind
  16. Dead Ever After (Sookie Stackhouse, #13) by Charlaine Harris
  17. The First 90 Days, Updated and Expanded: Critical Success Strategies for New Leaders at All Levels by Michael Watkins
  18. Mindstorms: Children, Computers, And Powerful Ideas by Seymour Papert
  19. Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity by David Allen
  20. The Difference Engine by William Gibson
  21. The Algebraist by Iain M. Banks
  22. The Art of the Metaobject Protocol by Gregor Kiczales
  23. The Android's Dream by John Scalzi
  24. The Idea Factory: Bell Labs and the Great Age of American Innovation by Jon Gertner
  25. Never Eat Alone: And Other Secrets to Success, One Relationship at a Time by Keith Ferrazzi
  26. Principles of Statistics (Dover Books on Mathematics) by M.G. Bulmer
  27. The Lean Startup: How Today's Entrepreneurs Use Continuous Innovation to Create Radically Successful Businesses by Eric Ries
  28. Sisterhood of Dune (Schools of Dune, #1) by Brian Herbert
  29. The Confessions of Nat Turner by William Styron
  30. Pandora's Star (Commonwealth Saga, #1) by Peter F. Hamilton
  31. Murder on the Orient Express (Hercule Poirot, #10) by Agatha Christie
  32. The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman
  33. My Life with the Chimpanzees by Jane Goodall
  34. Judas Unchained (Commonwealth Saga, #2) by Peter F. Hamilton
  35. Foundation (Foundation, #1) by Isaac Asimov
  36. Empire: A Very Short Introduction by Stephen Howe
  37. Foundation and Empire (Foundation, #2) by Isaac Asimov
  38. Second Foundation (Foundation, #3) by Isaac Asimov
  39. The Shining (The Shining, #1) by Stephen King
  40. Orange is the New Black: My Year in a Women's Prison by Piper Kerman
  41. Doctor Sleep (The Shining, #2) by Stephen King
  42. Joyland by Stephen King
  43. Brave New World by Aldous Huxley
  44. The Magicians (The Magicians, #1) by Lev Grossman
  45. The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie
  46. The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins
  47. All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque
  48. The Left Hand of Darkness (Hainish Cycle #4) by Ursula K. Le Guin
  49. Bambi by Felix Salten
  50. Surreal Numbers by Donald E. Knuth
  51. Geolocation Techniques: Principles and Applications by Camillo Gentile
  52. Learning From Data: A Short Course by Yaser S. Abu-Mostafa
  53. Hyperbole and a Half: Unfortunate Situations, Flawed Coping Mechanisms, Mayhem, and Other Things That Happened by Allie Brosh

1. William Tecumseh Sherman

What I Listened to in 2013

However, there are a lot of times that I am on my own and am not working, so I need something more than just music; I crave information. I fully subscribe to the idea that everyone should be lifelong learners, so I strive to emulate that ideal. Once I let Emily out of the car in the morning, or when I go to the gym, I switch the radio off and let the information fly through either podcasts or the “Great Courses” series. The best bit is that all of this information can be found for free. Yes, technically the “Great Courses” cost money; I have bought several. However, our public library has a huge collection of these that can be checked out and listened to.

The “Great Courses” series are a set of college lectures taught by top professors in the field on just about any topic imaginable. You can get them as video or audio courses; since I listen to them mostly in the car, I alway prefer the audio courses. My interests mostly lie in history, topics that lend themselves well to audio lectures. This year, I managed to work my way through the following lectures:
1. American Civil War — I love the American Civil War, probably because I have spent the vast majority of my life in the Deep South where so many of the battles took place. This course on the Civil War is in-depth and goes beyond just the battles to cover topics such as the technology of the times, women in the war, African-Americans in the war, and more. If you are a Civil War buff or want to learn more about it, you could do worse than this lecture series.
2. Great Debate: Advocates and Opponents of the American Constitution — I was not sure what to think about this course at first, but it grew on me. Basically, like all history, it taught me more about the world as it is today. The Great Debate was the root cause of the fracture that came to a head in the Civil War and, realistically, is the same debate that goes on today (small government versus big government). It is also interesting to hear how arguments that the Anti-Federalist made about the course the country would follow if the Constitution were adopted have come to pass, even though the Federalist argued that it would never happen.
3. World War I: The “Great War” — With 2014 being the 100 year anniversary of the start of “Great War”, I felt like I should probably learn something about it. The American educational system does an abysmal job teaching World War I, likely since the U. S. had a small part in it. Over the past few years of study, I have heard that World War I, more than any other event, shaped the outcome of the world in the 20th century. Based on what I have learned from this course, that definitely seems to be the case. I look forward to learning more about it as I am sure it will get a greater focus in the next several years.
4. Ancient Greek Civilization — Through podcasts and the like, I had learned a bit about the Romans. However, the Greeks were a bit of a mystery to me (Western Civ. was a long time ago in high school and, quite frankly, was poorly taught). This was a good overview course. The biggest outcome of listening to this course was wanting to learn more about the Greeks. It has spawned me working my way through the Story of Civilization and will likely cause me to go back and read several primary sources in the coming years.

I have also listened to a lot of podcasts over the past year. The following list are the ones that have stuck around:
1. A History of Alexander the Great — Remastered — After finishing up the course on Ancient Greek Civilization, I had to break into a podcast about Alexander, since that is where the course stopped. This podcast is remastered because the guy who puts it out already has a prior podcast on Alexander; this is the same one, re-recorded with better audio equipment. Due to that, I will only be listening to this one for a couple more weeks because it is complete; I just have not caught up yet.
2. The Arab Spring — A History — This podcast is produced by the same guy to does the Alexander podcast and is a natural carryover from listening to the World War I course. World War I was the event that fractured the Arab world and this podcast covers the time period between then and the Arab Spring revolts that have recently occurred. I am current with this podcast and he is somewhere in the 50's or 60's (it depends on what country he covers in each episode).
3. History Extra Podcast — This podcast is produced by the BBC History magazine staff and roughly follows topics in the current issue. Interesting digression into random topics in history. I have only been listening to this for a couple of months, but its random nature means I don't feel like I need to “catch up”.
4. Common Sense with Dan Carlin — I have been listening to Common Sense for years now. Dan Carlin has an interesting view on current political events; as best as I can tell, if you are hard-core conservative you will think him to be liberal and if you are a hard-core liberal you will think him to be conservative. I won't say that I always agree with him, but he always makes me think. His main thesis seems to be that corruption in our government is the root cause of most of our political problems. Definitely worth a listen.
5. Hardcore History — Once again, I have been listening to Hardcore History for years; this is the podcast I have been listening to the longest. I have listened to every episode and, while it has changed over the years, its quality is consistently high. Dan Carlin takes some topic in history and does a deep-dive into it very thoroughly. The past few years have been dominated with long, multi-episode, audio-books on topics such as the fall of the Roman republic, Genghis Khan, and his new one, World War I. Between these behemoths (that take most of a year to produce), he will pop in with smaller topics that cap at a couple of hours. Very well researched and very informative.

I am always looking for more to listen to (I have a few things in my queue for next year). If you have any good suggestions, I always look forward to hearing about them.

 

Books in 2012: Better late than never

As I sat down to go through my books for this year, I realized I never reviewed my books from last year. Oh well, better late than never.

Last year, several themes ran through my reading list. One of the themes came out of a desire to read highly renowned books. As such, you will see several Pulitzer Award winners on the list, as well as several books that were famous movies or miniseries, but are stories I had never read. I also read several kid's books this year and read the first Honor Harrington book, which is now one of my favorite series (I read more of them this year).

  1. On Basilisk Station (Honor Harrington, #1) by David Weber
  2. 11/22/63 by Stephen King
  3. Roots: The Saga of an American Family by Alex Haley
  4. The Neverending Story by Michael Ende
  5. Planet of the Apes by Pierre Boulle
  6. The Magic of Reality: How We Know What's Really True by Richard Dawkins
  7. Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry
  8. The Kitchen Table Investor: Low Risk, Low-Maintenance Wealth-Building Strategies For Working Families by John F. Wasik
  9. The Optimist's Daughter by Eudora Welty
  10. Thomas Jefferson: Author of America (Eminent Lives) by Christopher Hitchens
  11. Angle of Repose by Wallace Stegner
  12. Hondo by Louis L'Amour
  13. Flagrant Conduct: The Story of Lawrence v. Texas by Dale Carpenter
  14. The Hunger Games (The Hunger Games, #1) by Suzanne Collins
  15. Catching Fire (The Hunger Games, #2) by Suzanne Collins
  16. Mockingjay (The Hunger Games, #3) by Suzanne Collins
  17. Learn You a Haskell for Great Good! by Miran Lipova?a
  18. The Information: A History, a Theory, a Flood by James Gleick
  19. The Giver (The Giver Quartet, #1) by Lois Lowry
  20. Room by Emma Donoghue
  21. Let's Pretend This Never Happened: A Mostly True Memoir by Jenny Lawson
  22. Number the Stars by Lois Lowry
  23. Sarah, Plain and Tall (Sarah, Plain and Tall, #1) by Patricia MacLachlan
  24. Pro Git (Expert's Voice in Software Development) by Scott Chacon
  25. Working Stiff (Revivalist, #1) by Rachel Caine
  26. Poltergeist (Greywalker, #2) by Kat Richardson
  27. Underground (Greywalker, #3) by Kat Richardson
  28. Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking by Susan Cain
  29. Redshirts by John Scalzi
  30. The $100 Startup: Reinvent the Way You Make a Living, Do What You Love, and Create a New Future by Chris Guillebeau
  31. Full Dark, No Stars by Stephen King
  32. Deadlocked (Sookie Stackhouse, #12) by Charlaine Harris
  33. Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson
  34. American Gods (American Gods, #1) by Neil Gaiman
  35. A Winter Haunting by Dan Simmons
  36. Vanished (Greywalker, #4) by Kat Richardson
  37. Calculating God by Robert J. Sawyer
  38. The Soul of a New Machine by Tracy Kidder
  39. Cold Days (The Dresden Files, #14) by Jim Butcher
  40. The World Is Flat: A Brief History of the Twenty-first Century by Thomas L. Friedman
  41. Continuous Delivery: Reliable Software Releases through Build, Test, and Deployment Automation (Addison-Wesley Signature Series (Fowler)) by David Farley
  42. Space Chronicles: Facing the Ultimate Frontier by Neil deGrasse Tyson
  43. A river runs through it by Norman Maclean

To sum things up, I wanted to choose a book of the year. It was harder to choose than I thought it would be. Before I reveal my book of 2012, the first runner up is Alex Haley's Roots. This was an amazing story that was famously adapted into a pair of miniseries in the late '70s. I watched the miniseries before reading the book, but that did not take away from its sprawling, epic nature. However, as much as I liked it, Roots had a hard contender in Larry McMurtry's Lonesome Dove, my 2012 Book of the Year. It was the first even vaguely Western book I had ever read and will probably be one of those books that I read over and over again through the years. The best books are the ones where the characters come alive and I argued back at Gus just as much as Call did while I was reading it. I have since watched the miniseries that followed it and, while I enjoyed it, it did not hold a candle to the 1985 Pulitzer winner.

 

My Quantified Self

As part of a concerted effort to get back into some semblance of shape, I recently purchased a Withings Pulse. For those of you unfamiliar with Withings, they create wirelessly connected sensors for health monitoring. A couple of years ago I bought their WiFi-enabled scale and love it. When I weigh myself in the morning, the measurement is sent to their servers and I can analyze the data through a web app or a dedicated iPad app.

The Pulse is a bit different, though. Basically, the Pulse is a pedometer that wirelessly syncs with a companion app on your iPhone (and through that, back to the Withings servers). However, the Pulse can also measure your heart rate and can be put in a nifty wrist band to track your sleep habits. All of this data, plus my weigh-in data, feed into the iPhone app for analysis (they also have a blood pressure cuff, but I don’t have that). Further, the Withings app can take in data from other health services like Runkeeper. I use that for tracking the exercise that I am doing.

While all of this is great, the real power stems from the integrated app and the motivation it is giving me. If I am tired at night and don’t really want to walk, I usually still will because it will increase my step count for the day (plus, Runkeeper complains at me if I go too many days without exercising). Seeing the weight graph moving downwards keeps me motivated to eat right and keep exercising as well. If I weren’t traveling so much, I would do better updating MyFitnessPal, a calorie tracker that integrates with Withings as well. When I keep it updated, I can fairly well determine whether the scale will move up or down the following day.

Now, I could do all of this without the fancy equipment and integration. I would use a traditional scale and keep up with it in a spreadsheet (I did several years ago). I could keep track of exercise, steps, and calories the same way (although calorie tracking would be much more difficult without the database backing this app). But, the ease of use I have with this method is keeping me going for the moment.