2010 wrapup, 2011 goals

Time for a terse 2010 update, roughly two weeks later than just about anyone else would do it :p.

Charity: 2010: 2% target, met. 2011 target: 2.5%.
Size: 2010 peak: 372. 2011 goal: stabilize at 340.
Exercise: 2010 goals: abject failure. 2011 goals: just make a dent.
Medical 2010: abject failure. 2011 goal: not that.
Romance 2010: First dates = 2. Second dates = 0. Second dates declined by me: 2. 2011: no goals, I’m not digging myself enough to dig the ladies who dig me.
Job 2010: great. 2011: dark scary things coming, gonna do my best to keep it good though.
Education 2010: nil. 2011: take something! Anything!
Work Travel 2010: Minneapolis in February (solo, which was new). Louisville in the springtime. 2011: no plans.
Vacation travel 2010: Gettysburg, PA. Luray VA, Shenandoah National Park/Skyline Drive. 2011: take a week for myself, go somewhere!
Finance 2010: Student Loans gone (!). Car loan down to ~12k. Positive net worth (w/ retirement included). 2011: car loan sub-4k, positive net worth (w/o retirement/investments), big start on savings for a house.
Forums 2010: bought vb license, upgraded 3.5->3.8. 2011: upgrade to 4.x w/integrated cms for front page. Stretch: update tracker interfaces.
Property 2010: major purchases: PC upgrade, office furniture. 2011 goal: living room furniture that doesn’t suck.
Wines in 2010: lots of reds. Ravenswood Shiraz 2007 was the go-to. Who knows what 2011 will hold?

on 30

So I’m 30 now. Been here for a couple weeks. Meant to write one of those “big-zero year” updates, and procrastinated until my brother’s birthday …. kinda odd coincidence.

Anyway, so I’m 30 now. As of turning 30, I hit pretty much the low point in my fitness level, which is fairly scary. I got to the point that walking a mere 2 mile moderately-hilly walk was hard work. My 27-year-old self would be ashamed.

I started exploration of wines in earnest on my 29th birthday, so this seems to be a pretty good point to look back on it and reflect on a year as a wine-drinker. I’m no afficionado yet, but I’ve probably averaged a bottle a week, give or take. I’ve tried various vintages of pinot noir, pinot grigio, merlot, cabernet sauvignon, burgundy, shiraz, chardonnay, champagnes of various styles, port, sherry. I’ve had wine that’s come from Italy and France and Australia, and a lot that’s come from Napa and Sonoma, and some from Virginia. My palate is a bit unrefined, so on some of the more delicate wines (pinot noir, I’m looking at you…) I think I probably miss the point a bit, but I love me a good bold peppery olive-and-berry shiraz, and have found a couple of go-to wines that usually make me pretty happy to be drinking them. I’ve also figured out my hangover threshold and ways to consistently avoid hangovers, which helps a lot. The most expensive bottle I’ve drunk in the last year was in the mid-$20 range, while the cheapest was probably about $6 on a very good sale.

In other fronts, I got the promotion I was hoping for at work. I’m now at the highest level that I can be at without managing other people. I am honestly stretched a little thin, but not being hit with anything I feel like I can’t handle, just maybe more of it than I can do in any given day. My oddball work schedule seems to both help and hurt that … I tend to wake up in the 8:30-9:30 range, take a shower and make it to work around 11, work until sometime between 6 and 9 depending on the day and my state of restfulness, and head home. That means I get about 5 to 6 hours of time when other people are around, and generally between 2 and 5 hours of time in any given day that I’m there solo. Sometimes my job requires interaction with people who’re on normal schedules, and other times the job requires that people stop pestering me, so when I can make it work it’s great, but sometimes I don’t end up getting to the “pick up the phone” part until after 5 when everyone else is gone, so I end up pushing stuff off a day or two (or indefinitely) due to the limited afternoon hours.

So one other problem with the oddball schedule is that it’s a bit self-perpetuating. Like an engine with warped crankshaft, or a washing machine with a brick tossed into it, my sleep and waking schedules are all over the place in unpredictable directions. Some nights I go to sleep at perfectly reasonable times and wake up at similarly reasonable times. Most nights I go to sleep 4 hours after a perfectly reasonable time for when I have to wake up, and end up running in 3 or 4 hours of sleep per night for several consecutive nights. It’s a bad pattern that I need to get in check, and I’m not so good at that.

Thinking about patterns, over the course of me being 29, I went on precisely one date. Part of that may be the scheduling, partly the fitness slide and associated reduced self-esteem. But then, I also realized, from that one date, that there’s such a thing as better off alone, and that it’s probably better to be single and career-focused than dating and focused on personal-life drama. Besides, I’m a guy, my biological clock is basically giving me another 15-20 years to reasonably start a family with the right girl, so I’m probably better getting my own house in order.

Still, it’d be good to have a drinking-buddy, right now the drinking is pretty much a solo affair, which limits my willingness to go too far with it. It perpetually rings in my mind…. drinking alone as the first sign of alcoholism… but as a bachelor with few drinking friends, I tend to find myself in the “go solo or abstain entirely” mode a lot.

I’ve been listening to a lot of audiobooks lately, as my last couple posts indicated. Got the whole audible “platinum” membership …. $23/mo for two download tokens, which are generally good for a book each. Some cheaper books (the sub-$11.50 ones), if I’m really interested, I just drop cash for, but with a recent “want to buy 3 more credits?” promo I’ve just gotten myself a nice backlog to listen through. I’ve gone through something like 22 full-length books in the 8 months or so I’ve been at it, with and I think the 3 book a month pace is probably going to hold out through the rest of the year and into next. With my lack of a good place to go and nest and read comfortably for hours, the audiobook thing has really picked up my consumption of intellectual material in general — I think in the 10 months before that, I made it through maybe three books, and a decent chunk of that progress was due to the work travel putting me on planes and in hotel rooms. So that’s a fairly positive change. I think this actually puts me at a higher consumption rate than I was at when I was working for CACI and spent 2 hours a day on the metro.

And now that audible’s released their android app (which does dramatically better than the pc version), my new phone has become my primary audio-listening station… meaning I can listen when I’m doing more repetitive/mindless stuff at work or when I’m out walking, which is helpful for both the listening and the walking.

Lots of other free time has been filled with supcom 2, then starcraft 2, then civ5, now back to starcraft 2. I’ve found that I’m an antisocial gamer … the hyper-competitive games in the rts world and the griefers in non-rts games pretty much kill their appeal to me entirely. I played some online Red Dead Redemption, and the only times I had any fun at all involved me playing at unusual times and finding the server I was on somewhere close to deserted. Even a while back when I played rockband and rockband 2 online a bit, it wasn’t really a good time.

On the political front, I think I’ve been slowly evolving further and further away from my parents for a while. My parents are both pretty conservative, and I guess I grew up in a pro-Bush(1), anti-Clinton, Christian-chauvinist household. In high school I read Atlas Shrugged, in early college I read The Fountainhead … I really bought into the libertarian romanticized capitalism ideal for a long time, but I’ve since kind of come to regard Rand’s work as beautiful romantic tableaux of precisely the way the world isn’t. Having watched the hypocrisy of conservatives, seen the true results of free markets run amok, and generally become more aware of the world around me, I’ve gone from a hereditary Christian center-right subscriber to a full-blooded center-left atheist. Which is probably convenient, given that I’m living in a very blue district of a very blue county of a pretty solidly blue state, and really really don’t like the sort of bullshit I’ve seen coming from the republican party as a whole these last couple of years.

Moving back to other less-internal topics, I’ve no longer got student loan debts. As of the 15th, I’ve paid off the student loans in full. I’m paid up on my car through January, which puts me at something like 3 months ahead. No credit card debt, and with the promotion came a comfortable raise that accelerated a lot of my financial goals a bit. At the same time, I’m thinking about pushing back against that by spending some of the newfound income on upgrades to my life as a whole … like new furniture, maybe a treadmill to keep the exercise up through the winter. Still, it’s a damned big milestone having college paid off, and I’m pretty happy to have met that one.

I guess what I’m saying is 29 was a somewhat off-balance year. I made big strides forward in my job, in my finances, in my situation as a whole, made some strides on my personal intellectual development, but pretty handily failed phys-ed and didn’t really join a whole lot of extra-curriculars or do much on the social front. I’m shooting for 30 being a fair amount more steady, with the goal of re-balancing the professional and the personal me. That’s it…. that’s my big-zero-year update.

Lately I’ve been thinking a bit about justice in a broad sense, especially criminal justice, law and law enforcement.

So my last batch of Audible books included one called American Furies by Sasha Abramsky.

Abramsky’s journey through the American prison system covers some of its history and theory, from the inception of penitentiaries to the concept of the panopticon, differentiating rehabilitative and reformative theory from punishment and vengeance. He talks a little about some of the founding theorists of correctional theory and explores a bit of Alexis de Tocqueville’s writings on what he saw touring prisons, and about Hobbes’s Leviathan and the works of Bentham, among others. But a lot of his focus is the here-and-now.

The author spends a fair large amount of the book exploring problems with old-school vengeance-based theories for prison, and the recent “tough on crime” and “zero tolerance” trends as they relate to the growth of prison populations and the systematic injustice they incite. With increasing numbers of “life without parole” sentencing, mandatory minimum sentences (in particular for non-violent crime), three-strikes laws and other inclement policies. The main thrust of the book explains how these trends ratchet up the badness of being incarcerated: with no hope of ever being free, the only reason to follow rules is the avoidance of further brutality and suffering. Further, people who walk into prison systems psychically fragile often walk out substantially psychologically worse off than when they went in. Guards institute a culture of brutality and violence, regularly abuse prisoners or at least turn frequent blind eyes to prisoners being abused by others, and people who are paroled are often less able to obtain gainful employment after their imprisonment.

The book is largely an indictment, then, of what the modern prison system has become, and of the theories driving recent changes to the system.

Probably one of the weaker parts of the book is its brief but poignant invective against what amounts to conservative and Southern understandings of justice and the role of prison. While the parts about what the prison system is were, I felt, well-grounded in statistical, philosophical and scientific rigor, I felt like that particular section … while not in any sense incorrect, was maybe a bit … unnecessarily caustic.

Despite its weaknesses, I felt like this book helped my thinking about criminal justice, and as such it was a worthwhile listen (and/or read).

American Furies at Amazon, Audible.

More on the topic is queued up, and consider this me soliciting suggestions.

ragged claws and traffic tradeoffs

just a random thing I was thinking about just now. Even though I’ve got a car I’m pretty happy with, that’s about 2 and a half years old with slightly more than 20,000 miles on it, every couple of months I find myself reading usnews car reviews for cars I could potentially buy, if I needed to buy a car right now.

I’m not totally sure why this is, but I find it fascinating entertaining the mental image of me in a Lexus ES or a Mercedes E-class. I even go so far as to go to relevant manufacturer websites and spec out the car I’d want to buy, if I wanted to buy one, and sometimes to search inventories and scope out the monthly payments.

But it got me thinking just now, as I found myself contemplating the monthly on a luxed-out Taurus SHO and comparing it to what I have available now and what I’m paying on my Altima, and I realized that the interest in cars is mostly an interest in commute comfort. Right now I’m doing pretty well … I’ve got good AC, good heating, comfy seats and good performance, pretty respectable audio system, satellite radio. That’s really all I’m asking for. But the entertaining other car ideas thing strikes me as a tradeoff.

See, I’m living in a situation where my rent and utilities are relatively low and the quality of the place I live is relatively high. If I stayed here indefinitely, I’d likely in the future want to scope out upgrades to my ride to and from work (and just in general), but if I only stay here a while longer and then move even closer to work, my driving would be a smaller part of my day, so I’d be less interested in trading up on it. But my living expenses would almost certainly be dramatically increased.

So there’s the question: does it make sense to sink your money into the present and near future, slowing your rate of savings in exchange for a solution to an immediate trouble, or are you better off putting your money in savings and buying the dream-house sooner?

I mean, obviously, should I survive to see that bright future, it’d be better to be prepared for it than not. But tomorrow is guaranteed to no man, so maybe it’d be better to be a little spoiled?

Regardless, I’m in a holding pattern right now. I’m around 3 months ahead on my car payment, but that’s still less than 60% of the way there. I’m still at least a couple months away from being done with my student loan (hoping I can still meet the birthday no-student-loan target, but it’s iffy, I might opt to buy a couple things instead). I just signed another 1 year lease extension. That means I’m still at least two years (and more likely three) away from having anything remotely resembling a meaningful down payment on a house around here, so it’s not like I’ve got any great situation-change options waiting for me. But it’s still interesting to entertain the possibilities. Shall I shop for an Infiniti? Do I find a condo in reach? I shall wear white flannel trousers and walk upon the beach…

God is Not Great, The End of Faith

I recently gave Chris Hitchens’s “God Is Not Great” and Sam Harris’s “The End of Faith” some listening time, and thought I’d share some impressions.

My biggest impression is that these books are pretty much cut from the same cloth. Hitchens has, as his basic thesis, that the whole idea of religion poisons everything in the world. Harris has a pretty similar view, that the presence of faith is a corrupting influence in the world.

Both Hitchens and Harris are pretty hard on the Jews and on Muslims, too, and Harris especially beats up on Islam for its intrinsic and unmoderated violence. Neither of them loses any love in the direction of the Christian establishment either, and neither has any illusions about the violence inspired by dominant Buddhism and Hinduism, and they both spend a bit of time dispelling false beliefs about so-called “peaceful religions”….

Both books have another similarity too: they spend significant amounts of time in hamfisted brutalizing of their points. Like …. I think Harris spends like 30 minutes of the 9 hour book citing chapter and verse from the Bible, the Koran, and the Torah as examples of the violence inherent in those books. Hitchens spends probably the latter third of his book beating on various historical issues pointing out how the jews were nasty people before they were the displaced minority, about how the muslims have been getting progressively nastier, about how christianity marched boldly into some really dark times.

That’s really my biggest complaint about these books … they both make good cases for their points, but at some point you just kind of have to look at the flayed mound of horseflesh and realize that there’s not much point in continuing to beat on it. That’s it.

Harris spends some time exploring non-religious spirituality … meditation, the exploration of the concept of self as subject and illusion, the nature of mind…. stuff like that. So from a phenomenological perspective, his work is pretty interesting, and leaves the window open for spirituality while slamming shut the door of dogmatic faith. He also spends time exploring a scientific morality and some of the problems with figuring out where our moral sphere does and doesn’t extend given the absence of an imposed religious order. So even if you’re going to opt to skip over the half a chapter that’s built entirely of bloody verses from holy books, the philosophical subject matter is worth thinking about.

Hitchens spends more of his time on history, talking about how religions around the world were basically the source of all kinds of evil, and how even ostensibly atheistic movements that turned out pretty badly generally involved elevating a leader to the level of occult figurehead. Less of the Stephen Pinker philosophical rigor, more of the journalistic bent.

Still, if you’re interested in hearing about how religion is bad for things, both books are pretty good things to sink your time into.

The Checklist Manifesto

I recently finished the relatively small morsel that is Atul Gawabe’s The Checklist Manifesto. Audiobooks are fun!

The Checklist Manifesto is a doctor’s exploration of unexpected ways we can cope with complexity in an increasingly complex world. Gawabe leads in by talking about the challenges that keeping track of a large set of relatively mundane tasks when we’re beset by complexity, especially in the context of his home discipline: medicine. He talks about patients he and other experienced surgeons have nearly lost because of avoidable complications and screw-ups in mundane stuff. It’s … a bit scary, in that regard. That leads to his thesis: that in a complex world, a well-crafted checklist, well-implemented, can be a huge boon.

He talks about the aviation origins of the checklist, and how modern pre-flight procedures in commercial airlines evolved from those origins. Explores the use of checklists in other fairly mundane but inherently complex trades, particularly construction and civil engineering, and then talks about application of the theory to less mundane things, particularly investing.

As a result of reading this book, I’ve sort of integrated its ideas a bit into my own work. Not going to get into it too much here, but … there’s a lot of things in my own life that work out better if I at least stop and take inventory of what I need to do before I start.

Blaargh, there’s more to say about it, but I’m not going to. Just read (or listen to) it, it’s good!