Amy Winehouse

Aside

Out of nowhere, I got into the mood to listen some Amy Winehouse this afternoon. It struck me as a real shame she never got to record a Bond theme, among the many disappointments of losing her. Winehouse just had the perfect sultry, throwback voice for a Bond film intro. I realize that it was ‘attempted’ and, honestly, having a duet by Alishia Keys & Jack White is a pretty good consolation. “Another Way to Die” is a great song, but I can’t help but wonder what could have been…

Great Year for My Reading Habit

Twenty Fourteen is shaping up to be a terrific year for my favorite authors and book series. Here are some of the books I can’t wait to read (in order of release date):

  • 2/20: Influx by Daniel Suarez – I’ve not read the most recent books by Suarez, but I loved the Daemon series and plan to read these Gibson-esque near-future novels.
  • 3/3: Words of Radiance by Brandon Sanderson – I just finished the first Stormlight Archive novel (and it’s massive) and it is already one of my favorite fantasy series, with a very unique world and terrific characters.
  • 3/11: Mentats of Dune by Brian Herbert & Kevin J. Anderson – Okay, I’ll be the first to admit that the sequels/prequals/expanded universe novels haven’t been as good as the Frank Herbert novels. To be fair, not all of the Frank Herbert novels were on the same level, either. However, I’m such a Dune junkie, I eat these up with glee.
  • 6/17: Cibola Burn by James S.A. Corey – A new Expanse book is also getting to be nearly an annual event, thankfully (of course, with two authors under one pen name, one would expect some turn around!). I started the series last year right on time for the third book, and I’ve been waiting for the fourth ever since about a day afterwards.
  • 7/15: Half a King by Joe Abercrombie – Okay, I’ve got a few books to read in this fantasy series to catch up to this one, but I really liked Abercrombie’s first books.
  • 8/5: The Magician’s Land by Lev Grossman – The Magician’s series has been one of the most refreshing things in all of fantasy in a very long time. I’ve eagerly awaiting the final(?) book in the series to see what ending befalls Quentin and crew.
  • 8/12: The Fool’s Assassin by Robin Hobb – Another series I’ve got to play catch-up on, but I really liked the first two novel of Fitz and the Fool.
  • 8/26: Lock In by John Scalzi – Though it’s a new storyline (and possibly a series; at least there’s a novella to precede it), but Scalzi’s wit is always welcome in science fiction. He’s already released a novella in the same world as this novel.
  • 10/7: Ancillary Sword by Ann Leckie – Ancillary Justice was one of my favorite books of last year and I’m very happy that Leckie had the second novel in the series in the chamber (or she is an incredibly fast writer, which is rare but would be welcome). Her first book was nominated for almost every award imaginable and I sincerely hope she wins them all!
  • 10/7: Armada by Ernest Cline – I loved Cline’s first novel and can’t wait to see what he’s got next.
  • 10/21: The Abyss Beyond Dreams: Chronicle of the Fallers by Peter F. Hamilton – A new Commonwealth universe book!
  • 10/28: The Peripheral by William Gibson – He’s back into the dystopian, distant future. Not that I haven’t enjoyed the future-of-10-minutes-from-now novels, either.
  • 11/18: Clakkers by Ian Tregellis – A new series starting in Tregellis’ coldest war universe.
  • 11ish? The Thorn of Emberlain by Scott Lynch – A new Gentleman Bastards book is getting to be like clockwork from Lynch. So far, he’s kept the characters rich and slowly pulling the curtain back on a much larger fantasy world. This one doesn’t yet have a firm release date, but I’m holding out hope.

Of course, it’s highly possible (actually, almost certain) I’ll not get all of these books read by the end of 2014, but I welcome the challenge gladly!

It’s tough to pick just one that I’m most anxious about, but it would probably have to be Ancillary Sword.

I was going to end this post with a pithy remark how if only Patrick Rothfuss and GRRM would release some new novels this year, it would be complete. Well, no new novels, but Rothfuss is releasing a novella in the Kingkiller Chronicles in October and GRRM is also contributing a Game of Thrones (actually, Song of Fire & Ice) short story to a fantasy collection (Rogues) out next month he is co-editing (which also contains other stories from many of these authors along with others I enjoy reading).

So, yeah, 2014 is pretty much shaping up to be a near perfect year for genre fiction!

That being said, Patrick Rothfuss and GRRM having until about midnight, December 31st, 2015 to get out The Doors of Stone and The Winds of Winter until I start pestering them.

Signed Scotty Card

Aside

When I Met Scotty

The Time I Met Scotty

Over Memorial Day weekend in 1999, Angela, her cousin, Jonathan, and I went to the Star Trek Convention at the Cumberland Science Museum to see James Doohan, who played engineer Montgomery Scott on Star Trek. Jonathan brought along cards for us all to get signed. Almost 15 years later, I managed to find mine.

Defensive Running

Today I joined people from all over the world in going out for a run in dedication to Meg Menzies, the woman in Hanover County, VA who was tradgically struck and killed by a drunk driver on Monday while out for a morning run with her husband. My heartfelt symphathies to her husband, three children, her family, and all her friends.

As I went out on my run, I started thinking about some of the ways runners can try be more defensive in avoiding traffic incidents. Sometimes, caution is just not enough. By all accounts, Menzies was an experienced runner and doing everything ‘right’ in order to try to minimize her chances of being in an accident. Certainly, encouranging everyone to have the decency to not drive while intoxicated and to not text while driving helps us all. But there are some defensive steps runners can take to be safer. Most of these are pretty obvious, but if you’re new to running or have just always done your own thing (as I did for years), then maybe you might get something out of these.

  • When possible, keep to the sidewalks. I know a lot of runners who complain that concrete gives them worse pain (often shin splints) than running on more flexible asphalt. However, I strongly believe that discomfort from running on concrete can be largely offset by properly fit shoes and adopting good form running techniques.

    If you must run on the road, be sure to keep aware of the traffic. Sounds simple, but it’s easy to get lost in a song or a conversation and not hear a car until it’s too late.

    Incidentally, during my run earlier today, I had to go off the sidewalk an onto the road (in the direction of traffic, even) as there was a small flock of turkey vultures devouring a opossum in my way and I deemed it best to not try to hurdle them. However, after about 50 yards and as I heard a car approaching from behind, I jumped back in the grass.

  • I’ve been part of running clubs in the past, but the large majority of my runs are alone. However, running in groups has its own kind of safety. The more ears and eyes, the more likely to notice a car.

    Just try to avoid running down a road two- or three- (or, in the case of Grove Avenue in Richmond, VA, up to four-) abreast. Leaving a runner out in the middle of a lane leaves them —as well as a vehicle— no where to go.

  • As I run by myself a lot and as I’ve started running with a smartphone, I tend to listen to music or audiobooks while on a run. However, it’s important to not listen to music too loudly or use headphones that restrict your ability to hear your environment. Consider listening to audiobooks or podcasts instead of loud music, as these tend to present less of a wall of sound and you can often make out sounds around you much easier.

  • Consider getting a RoadID or at least keeping your driver’s license with you while you run. In the event of an accident, you want people to know who you are and who to contact someone on your behalf if necessary.

    I mentioned running with my smartphone, on which I use a GPS app to track my runs. However, that GPS can also be used to help locate me and make sure I’m safe. My wife can user our shared iTunes account and a Find My iPhone app to make sure I’m still up & moving at any time. In other words, it’s like I’m LoJacked on my runs (and that’s a good thing).

  • Be aware of your own self, as well. As you run, you get tired and/or get into the zone. Both can tend to put blinders on you, restricting your awareness to the path immediately ahead of you. This is also where having others can be of help, but it’s still important to acknowledge that just because you’re deep into the zen of your run, the world around you hasn’t really stopped.

  • Lastly, but sure most importantly, please obey all laws and regulations regarding traffic and pedestrians. As frustrating as waiting on a light to change can be, traffic laws are there to keep you safe. Let’s face it, running out in a urban area isn’t the best place to set a PR. Save that for a race, where the course is closed to traffic and you can really focus on your run and only your run.

    If it helps you, a lot of current running apps have an auto pause feature which pauses recording if you stand (relatively) still for more than 30 seconds or so. I use this feature on the Nike Plus app on my iPhone and it alleviates that sense of urgency I might otherwise feel to dash out in between cars at a red light.

If you want to read even more about staying safe while running, Runner’s World has a great long-form article titled Collision Course.

And, please, whether your out for a run, on your bike, or behind the wheel, please be safe and aware.

Star Ratings

After doing the Jawgrind podcast with some friends for the past couple of years, I’ve realized just how much a five star rating system can vary among different people &emdash; and even myself at different times. As I’ve been rating entertainment (and even goods, as in the case of Amazon) for years, I’ve always had something of a descriptions for setting star ratings. I think it might be worth putting those down, for my own sake, as well as anyone who might be interested in reading them.

  • ★★★★★ – This is a work I feel I could watch, read, or listen to at any almost any time. It holds cultural significance (to me) and I feel may help you to better understand me as a person1.
  • ★★★★☆ – This was an excellent piece of work. Though it might have had some flaws, I would enjoy revisiting it again in the future. I would recommend this to most anyone, particularly if this seems in line with their interest.
  • ★★★☆☆ – This as a solid piece. I would recommend it with some reservations, but I might not have much cause to revisit in the future.
  • ★★☆☆☆ – This piece suffered from severe flaws. Though I may have enjoyed parts of it, I almost certainly wouldn’t recommend it to anyone nor would I want to revisit it.
  • ★☆☆☆☆ – This piece had very few, if any, redeeming qualities. I may not have even finished it2. I would actively encourage others to avoid this. Knowing that someone did enjoy it might make me question their taste or, at least, question if I really understand them.

So, if you search for about a minute, you’d surely find something I’ve rated that doesn’t seen to fit into this scale. I don’t claim to apply any rigor to this at all (as I indicated by the need to document them here).

Jawgrind ratings, for example, are done in the vacuum that is Star Trek: The Original Series (for me, at least; I can’t speak for others on the show). I’m not saying a five-star rating I gave to an episode of that show would compare to a five-star rating of a novel, film, or album3. Those episodes are rating on a microcosm version of this scale, and should only be compared to themselves. Had I tried to use this universal scale on those episodes, I wouldn’t have had the granularity to usefully describe each one 4.

I do try to apply this scale to books on Goodreads, films or shows on Netflix, or albums in iTunes5. In the case of Netflix or iTunes (and Amazon, even), this has a positive feedback of helping recommendations (though Netflix seems to have given up actually trying to recommend anything despite that whole million-dollar prize thing). Even there, I’m sure I’m not as consistent as I like.

  1. I cannot, though, say I universally recommend my five star ratings, though. Why? Because something so well loved by someone may require some very specific tastes. That level of enjoyment isn’t necessarily going to be felt by all, but this is why I indicate you might understand me better as a result.
  2. Though, out of fairness, I try to never rate something I didn’t complete (or, in the case of foods, at least thoroughly try). I don’t see how someone can give a valuable rating to something they never finished watching or reading, for example.
  3. However, I’ve considered that a overall series rating (or at least by season) would would be useful in this scale, though.
  4. They’d pretty much all be 2 or 3, to be frankly honest about it.
  5. If you didn’t already know this, you can rate entire albums independently of songs in iTunes, which can be very helpful in constructing genre favorite playlists (genre + album with 3+ rating).

India Declared Polio-free

Aside

After three years without a single reported case of polio, India was declared free of polio. It’s been so long since polio was a epidemic in the United States &emdash;which goes a long to way to explaining our current anti-vaccination and anti-science culture&emdash; that is hard to grasp how monumental this news is for so many people. The BBC reports that there are only three countries left where polio is endemic: Pakistan, Afghanistan and Nigeria. Wired recently had an excellent long-form piece on the effort to eradicate polio from the planet.

Starting Out 2014 Right

My goals from year-to-year don’t change that much. However, that’s not entirely a bad thing. Some have set goal lines but most of them are open ended. Strive-to-do-more-of-this or less-of-that sort of things.

However, this year, I’ve decided to narrow some of my goals to the daily level. More accurately, at the end of each day I hope to answer the following questions to myself:

Today, what did I…

  • …eat?
  • …do for exercise?
  • …work on?
  • …create?
  • …learn?
  • …read?
  • …help my children do?
  • …do to let my family know I love them?

I won’t have a (good) answer for each question every day and that’s ok. Some days, the answer may be the same thing for more than one question (actually those may be the best answers). But hopefully, I’ll have a positive answer for most questions on most days.

2013 in Review

I didn’t post a set or goals for 2013, but I did review my goals for 2012 and I feel pretty good about working on some of those goals in 2013, as well.

In fact, I think with regard to my personal health, this past year was a very good year for me. Tracking my activities and food made a big difference. Also, I attended a good form running clinic and began working on my running technique to prevent injuries. Possibly as a result, I set a PR this year in the Turkey Trot 5k &emdash; running it in nearly 25 minutes (I’m number 61 overall). Lastly, I recently completed an Ironman Challenge1 at our gym: swimming 2.4 miles, biking 112 miles, and running 26.2 miles over the course of the month (I finished it in 22 days). I’ve also managed to eat (a little) better and have even recently cut soda out of my regular diet.

I certainly go a lot more experience this year with XML programming (and programming in general, also learning some JavaScript along the way). I’m not expert, but I’ve learned enough to comfortably be able to manipulate HTML and XSL:FO output at work.

Unfortunately, I can’t say that I made much of a great effort into visiting friends & family, nor in creating more2. I certainly failed to blog regularly here or post updates on the kids. Those are all things I’ll have to work on in 2014.

  1. Angela signed us both up, without me knowing. Which was sort of payback for signing her up for a marathon all those years ago.
  2. Unless you count building LEGO kits with my kids because I think I must have done a hundred of those.

Solaris by Stanislaw Lem

I recently listened to the direct-to-English translation of Solaris commissioned by Audible.com. While I could appreciate much of the novel, I frankly didn’t find it all that enjoyable of a read/listen. I felt guilty about my 3-star review on Goodreads.com until I noticed that Patrick Rothfuss gave it 2 stars.
SolarisSolaris by Stanisław Lem

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I love science fiction with truly ‘alien’ aliens. That being said, perhaps Lem went a bit too far in creating something we literally cannot comprehent or communicate with.

After having recently watched the Soderbergh film from 2002, I decided I’d like to read the ‘original’ (well, the recent Amazon/Audible-directed translation into English; not the Polish). Having read the book, I can truly appreciate what a let-down the movie was. While it was great movie, to paraphrase Lem, it was “love in outer space”, not “Solaris.” The film doesn’t show a single wave or surface formation and I barely recall them mentioning an ‘ocean’. It’s pretty important to the book, which reminds me…

…this is a book review, so I’ll discuss the book and why I felt compelled to give a widely-regarded masterpiece only three stars. I can certainly appreciate that the book is about the inability for humans to effectively communicate with a truly ‘alien’ species. But the complete lack of any real interaction between humanity and the planet was frustrating. People go there and occasionally die, but their exploration with this largely inert thing consists of fly-bys. However, an entire branch of science has been dedicated to the planet/being. This results in lots of dry descriptions of explorations which sum to nill knowledge. Again, I concede it’s the philosophical point Lem is trying to make. I just argue it doesn’t make for the most engaging reading. It feels more like reading a National Weather Center’s description of the history of hurricanes in outer space (*makes note for idea of future scifi novel*).

Further, I felt the inability of the scientists to get over the shame, guilt, etc. they feel about their visitors hard to connect with. There’s been a shift in common attitudes between 1961 Poland and 2013 America which perhaps makes it hard for me to grasp the attitudes of dedicated scientists. Kelvin clearly recognizes this issue and hopes to address it, but I never felt any sense of getting anywhere this nudge in attitudes.

As I stated, I truly enjoy alienness in scifi, and I would recommend this book to anyone who does as well. I just wished I could have enjoyed it more.


View all my reviews

My FitBit and Me

In early January, Angela and I got matching his-and-hers FitBit One’s to start tracking our activity. Angela’s actually been wearing a pedometer for years now. But the FitBit does a lot more data tracking than a simple pedometer. I’ve been wearing it everyday since then.

There a few technologies I’ve adopted that I would consider life-changing. Maybe not the sort that change the entire course of my life, but certainly that have had a dramatic impact on my day-to-day behavior. DVR (TiVo), smartphone (iPhone), and a personal activity tracker (FitBit). As a professional, I’ve always been at a desk for a lot of my time. But when I practiced engineering, I was often going on site visits and moving around throughout the day. Now that I’ve been working remotely for a software company, that’s not the case. My activity level can vary dramatically from day-to-day. I had no idea just how much until I started wearing the FitBit.

Pocket Location

I keep my FitBit one clipped to the watch pocket in my Jeans.

One day I’d break 10,000 steps shortly before lunch (if I went running, typically). On another day, I might be lucky to approach 2,000 steps. What’s more, is my eating varied just as much. And my activity (i.e., caloric expense) had absolutely no correlation with my eating (i.e., caloric intake). So my body would one day get twice as many calories as it really needed and another not enough. I was essentially training my caveman-era/lizard-brained body to hold on to every scrap of calories it got because who knew what tomorrow would bring.

Daily Achievement Unlocked!

Meeting your daily goals comes with bonus endorphins!

Wearing the FitBit and carefully tracking my calories eaten has help to change that behavior. I now track my calorie intake using LoseIt1. Having a number of activity goals —steps, active minutes, stairs, and miles— all of which gamify my physical activity. Of course, I don’t meet the targets all (most?) of the time, but just having the goals points me in the right direction rather than stumbling around in the dark.

Of course, just tracking the data is one thing. It would be all too easy to just pile it all together in some useless place. FitBit’s web site and iPhone app are really exceptional. In fact, I sort of use my FitBit as just a recorder (and occasional timepiece) and rarely take it out of my pocket. I simply use the iPhone app. On an iPhone 4S or newer, the smartphone syncs directly to the FitBit via Bluetooth 4.

Power Walker

I must have gotten lost that day.

I also use the FitBit to track my sleep, although that’s more to make sure I’m getting enough rather than judging the quality of it. Apparently, I’m generally 98% efficient at sleeping, whatever that means. The velcro wrist strap is a pain and tends to come off my arm. I’m on my second wrist strap, as well as second silicone clip. As a result, I’m considering upgrading to a Force next year. The One has been great so far.

  1. LoseIt has a great iPhone app and syncs both ways with a FitBit account.