Thursday, February 1

Book reviews

The Girl in the Spiders Web by David Lagercrantz
This is the 4th book in the The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo series. The first three were written by Stieg Larsson (who passed away) and is now being continued by David Lagercrantz. This one was good, but not to the level of the original three. As the books go on, there seems to be nothing that Lisbeth Salander can't do (except ask for help, of course) which weakens the book. I won't bother typing much more about the 4th book in a series – if you've read the first three you shouldn't really need my help deciding if you want to read the next one – but I will remind everyone that these are excellent action filled books which, in my opinion, are not for everyone; they have some language, some sex, plenty of violence and specifically terrible violence against women.

The Girl Who Takes an Eye for an Eye by David Lagercrantz
So what do you say about the 5th book in a series then? Book 5 was better than book 4 and I powered through it in about 3 or 4 days. This book created less suspense about what was going on than the rest of the series, so the intrigue was more about just seeing how the heroes would get to the end. It seems very clear that there are more books still to come.

New York 2140 by Kim Stanley Robinson
At it's start, New York 2140 is an interesting book set, shockingly, a New York City in the year 2140 where sea levels have risen 50 feet, placing half of Manhattan underwater. Of course, with the marvel of modern (post-modern?) technology, the city is transformed into a new Venice – the old sky scrapers are still inhabited and everyone gets around in boats. There isn't really a single main character, but there are two computer programming friends, two orphan boys, a building super, a police inspector, a hedge fund manager, a Youtube wildlife videographer who lives in a blimp, and a few others. As the plot develops it isn't shy about turning the book into a discussion of financial capital and risk, and public policy. How many science fiction books have you ever read where the Chairman of the Federal Reserve is one of the characters. Between the ice caps melting and the fiscal policy, this is very much a left leaning book. I'd argue that anyone ought to be able to accept the sea level rise premise of the book in the same way they accept warp drive, the Force, sand worms or giant monoliths orbiting Saturn. But if Atlas Shrugged in on your top ten list, this may not be the book for you.

The Devil and Miss Prym by Paulo Coelho
Paulo Coelho is most well known for writing The Alchemist and this book is quite similar. I picked it up at the library solely because of the author, and it turns out he is still a great writer. The story is of a small village where everyone knows everyone in a time and place that don't really matter. A stranger comes in to town (the devil) and offers a hefty sum of money to the town if only they will commit a terrible crime. This is an introspective book where the characters (including the strangers) must debate between good and evil, and the natural state of man. At 240 pages it was an interesting read and I think Coelho understands the merits of quality over quantity in his writing. 

The Eyre Affair by Jasper Fforde
What kind of name is Fforde? (Welsh, actually.) Anyway, the real point is, that the authors last name is the least weird thing about this book. It takes place in an alternate 1985 reality where Biff has taken over Hill Valley and where the Crimean War is in its 131st year, blimps are used for travel because airplanes don't really seem to have been invented (what is it with me and blimp books all of the sudden), and where the English people are very, very serious about their literature. The protagonist, Thursday Next, is essentially a literature cop, part of a whole branch of English law enforcement tasked with tracking down people forging original manuscripts of famous works and whatnot. A super-villain steals an original Dickens manuscript, and that gets the whole story going, which of course takes a few detours with her father, a time-traveler on the lam, a vampire hunter and her crazy inventor uncle who has invented a way for people to enter books. Which, of course, gets us to Jane Eyre, because of course if you're looking for someone to kidnap, Jane Eyre is an obvious choice.

This book was a Christmas present from Shannon, mostly because of the title. I've long had a dislike for Jane Eyre, and it was one of the first things we ever talked about, long before we ever started dating. (I was ever so happy to give away my copy of the book, and I maintain that marrying back in to that exact same copy remains, to this day, the most disappointing thing about my marriage.) All told, this book is much, much, much better than Jane Eyre. (But then again, what isn't? Amen; even so come, Lord Jesus!)

Tuesday, January 23

2017 Review: Running

More facts and figures from 2017, this time all about running.

2017 was a record setting year, though just barely, with 1284.1 miles (up a whopping 2.9 from the year before). I went running 189 times (6 times fewer than last year) but on average went nearly a quarter mile further. [In my defense, the year was two days shorter. How so? you ask. Well, 2016 was a leap year, so that's one day, but also with the quirks of the calendar, 2017 had 1 more Sunday than 2016, and I never run on Sunday, so effectively I had one fewer day where I could run.] I also averaged a pace that was 1 second per mile slower.

My first reaction to all those numbers is that they are a little bit sad, considering I was unemployed for half the year and should have had a lot of free time to go running. From this we can glean a few things. First, free time is apparently not a huge limiter on my running. Second, being unemployed is depressing and demotivating at times which does not encourage running. Third, there is a limit to how much I want to run at all. But a very real factor lurking in the back ground is that I had a pretty slow start to the year. I think it's time for a chart, don't you? Here is where I was at mileage wise at the end of each month of the year:
In each of the first 8 months of 2017 (blue line) I was behind 2016 (red line) (except for a virtual tie in February). That gap (yellow line) grew to over 230 miles by August when I finally manged to catch up.

There is always lots of interest about my shoes, so yes, I'm still wearing the shoes with fingers. I mostly retired my pair of KSO EVOs after 640 miles, and then put over 800 miles on a not-new-anymore pair of V-Runs which will need to be replaced soon. (Currently at 897 miles!)

2017 was supposed to be the year that I would focus on the 10k distance, because marathons are stupid. I successfully avoided any marathons, but only managed to run a single race, the Sly Fox 10k. I was slightly sick for the race, but still set a "PR" at 42:58 (6:56/mile). The PR is in quotes there, because I ran a half marathon the year before at a 41:52 10k pace, but don't have an official time for that. The plan to run more races got interrupted by not having any income, so my official PR remains soft. Oh well.

Trail Running
Moving to Utah put us much closer to my brother in-law who has dragged me out trail running, or as I call it, "complaining in the mountains". Its a nice system we have, where he picks where we go, and that gives me the freedom to complain about it as much as I want. Mostly, I wish the mountains just weren't so steep. He has ideas about doing ridiculous trail runs in the future, but I'd just be happy to have less than 300 feet of climbing per mile. Our longest venture was a 22.3 mile jaunt with 6000 feet of climbing, or something like that. By baby toe on each foot is still black from that little adventure. I put in 96 miles on trail runs for the year, but it felt like double that at least. I have a pair of old road running shoes that I've been using, since my "normal" running shoes are definitely not up to the task, but they aren't quite ideal for the mountains for a variety of reasons. Maybe when I'm rich I'll get a bunch of new shoes.

Nerd Analysis
I did a lot less nerd analysis of my running this year, as evidenced by only having two posts from 2017 under the running tag. The only interesting investigation I did is to whether wearing running tights makes me slower. By comparing over one hundred 4 to 7 mile runs when temperatures were in the 30s and 40s (the low 40s is roughly where I switch from shorts to tights) there isn't much evidence to support my initial suspicion. The data shows that I run 3 seconds per mile faster in shorts than in tights in comparable temperatures, which is pretty insignificant.

I remain committed to running minimalism – not so much in what I put on my feet, but as a general concept. I spent money on one race last year. I think I bought one pair of running shorts for the year, which were on sale at Old Navy for 8 bucks. I won a $10 gift card to a running store in the 10k this year, so I spent an extra 7 bucks or whatever it was to get a new headlamp (currently misplaced) that I have used all of once. So that comes out to $60 that I spent running. There's no way I'll match that number this year, because I am very due for shoes, which are sadly expensive. I did, however, get a low end GPS watch for Christmas, which I've really been enjoying. I no longer have to map every run by hand on the computer when I get home and have a little more freedom to take as many turns as I want when running without worrying about needing to reconstruct the whole route from my head afterwards. (Living here long enough to not get lost in my own neighborhood helps with this, too.)

Looking Ahead
The only immediate plan for this year is to keep running, hope for a warm winter (seems likely) and a windless winter (not so likely in South Jordan), and not get injured. Now that we're back in Utah, we'll be able to run the Rex Lee Run again, and I can start adding to my t-shirt collection.

Thursday, January 18

2017 Review: Books

18 days into the new year seems like a good time to finally get around to wrapping up the year. As usual, I'll have lots of numbers and lots of words, because I like to use both of those things a lot.

I read 35 books totaling 14,856 pages last year, and I wrote up a few thoughts on all but one of them here on my blog, so my devoted reader will already be familiar with them. The many reviews can be found here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here and here. Those totals are slightly higher than last year and are both records over the last 5 years that our family has been tracking every single book we read.

On the family level, we also had a record year as Team Blockburger (I'd call us Team Bookburger, but apparently but that name is already taken) combined for 606 books and 130,331 pages. Julia was actually down slightly from last year (though still topping 70,000 pages), but Ella doubled her output (after quadrupling it the year before) to top 32,000 pages read.

Next, a pie chart:

I don't generally like to distinguish between science fiction and fantasy. They're both stories that couldn't happen in the world as we know it, but for some reason swords and magic means fantasy, while space ships and warp drives means science fiction. But isn't the Force magic? So Star Wars is fantasy, right? Same for Star Trek and it's mind reading (those crazy Betazoids) and the godlike Q. And since any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic ... well, there we are. But for the sake of having a pie chart with more than 3 categories, I split them up. I also take issue with the classification of any book as "Non-Fiction". Let's describe things for what they are, and not for what they are not.

Now let's hand out some fictional awards that I'm thinking up right on the spot.

Shortest book: The Pig Did It by Joseph Caldwell, 195 pages. (close second, Fletch by Gregory Mcdonald, 197 pages)

Longest book: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows by JK Rowling, 759 pages, First Lord's Fury by Jim Butcher, 759 pages (tie). (close third, The Aeronaut's Windlass by Jim Butcher, 751 pages)

Longest review: Earth Unaware by Orson Scott Card and Aaron Johnston, 2008 words. Yes, I got too worked up over that one.

Shortest review: Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince by JK Rowling, 79 words. Probably 79 words more than were needed.

[aside: My review of Fletch was 82 words, I really wanted Things to Make and Do in the 4th Dimension: A Mathematician's Journey Through Narcissistic Numbers, Optimal Dating Algorithms, at Least Two Kinds of Infinity and More by Matt Parker to win, simply because the title of the book is 26 words itself, but even without counting the title, I managed to write 105 words about it.]

Most Read Authors
1. Jim Butcher, 7 books, 4346 pages. (Codex Alera, one Harry Dresden, and that Aeronaut book)
2. Orson Scott Card, 3 books, 1006 pages. (Apparently he still gets #2 on my list after all these years. he had a co-author on one of those books though.)
3. John Scalzi, 3 books, 943 pages. (Old Man's War trilogy)
4. JK Rowling, 2 books, 1411 pages. (I guess we're going by number of books, not pages?)
5. Brandon Sanderson, 2 books, 678 pages. (I request that he write faster.)

Now for what you're really excited for, the best and worst books of the year. For my initial sorting of the books, I just divided them into thirds – I'm not interested in ranking all them, just finding the best and the worst. So, I attempted 3 groups of roughly 12. Instead, I ended up with 4 in the lowest category, 11 in the middle and 20 in the top group. (The top group comes down to a more manageable 13 if I collapse each series into a single entry.) So, let's start with the bad:

Worst Books of the Year
4. The Pig Did It by Joseph Caldwell – Young man "finding himself" in Ireland. Yawn.
3. The Color of Magic by Terry Pratchett – A very silly fantasy book. Maybe if I was in the right mood ....
2. Children of the Fleet by Orson Scott Card – Orson mails another one in.
1. In the Garden of Beasts by Erik Larsen – The rise of the Nazis through the lens of a boring diplomat.

Best Books of the Year
5. The Girl in the Spiders Web by David Lagercrantz. Book 4 in the "Girl with the Dragon Tattoo" series (officially called the Millennium books) which was started by Stieg Larsson who died after completing the first 3 books. This is the only book from 2017 that I haven't reviewed, because apparently I forgot. The weakest of the 4 books thus far, but still good.
4. The Autobiography of Martin Luther King, Jr. As a collection of his writings and not an intentionally written cohesive book there are some weaknesses to this book jumping from section to section. It also doesn't cover many aspects of his life at all. However, the importance and power in his writings about equality and non-violence cannot be understated.
3. Grandma Gatewood's Walk by Ben Montgomery. Old lady goes on a walk – a long walk. But this was one of those books that made me want to go out and do it. And if a grandma can do it in a pair of Keds and a homemade canvas bag over her shoulder, why can't I?
2. How Not to be Wrong by Jordan Ellenberg. An excellent example of the importance of mathematical thinking in nearly every aspect of our lives.
1. The Codex Alera Series by Jim Butcher. The Fury series, starting with Furies of Calderon. This is 6 books which sucked me in pretty good. It's a relatively typical fantasy series, but well written. This made it to the number one spot primarily because of how much I wanted to keep reading while I was in the middle of the series.