A notch above a monkey

40

Pole dancing room in Ice Hotel 2014

I became 40 while I was sleeping on a slab of ice, which could be seen as a reminder of things to come when I am hopefully at least twice as old. I used to think 40 is the age where you finally need to give up on the idea of being young and that this would make it an important milestone for me. It didn’t.

My birthday trip is coming to an end and with it my conscious effort of figuring out what it means to be 40. So far it looks exactly like late thirties. Of course I am growing older. My health is still fine and I can do what I did at 20, except I now know some of the problems I will have if I live long enough. Wounds heal more slowly and muscles hurt a day later than before.

To actually see and feel the changes I need to compare myself with me at a platypus age of 30. 20 year olds are getting younger and finally look as young to me as I do old to them. I am not confused anymore about how my age is perceived. Greyer head and deeper lines on my face took care of that, but physical changes are not yet important.

The biggest difference for me was changing my priorities. My work is still important to me, but not as important as people I love. I will never be my father, but I am finally becoming more like my memory of him.

I have heard it many times, but rarely observed, that getting a child betters a man by giving him something more important than himself. My wife has done that for me and latching on to her was the best thing I have ever done for myself. I can’t think of a positive change in me or my life that happened without her help.

Changed focus does not mean that my ambitions have become smaller, but I am fine with not achieving most of them. Wanting approval, let alone seeking recognition beyond my intimate circle now also seems silly.

There’s a direct parallel between my development as a developer and as a person. I don’t feel inept anymore, but the more I learn, the less important most issues and technologies become. However remaining important ones I likely see even as more important than before. Everyone should feel strongly about something.

By this age most of us will discover that a lot of the stuff we didn’t want to believe when we were younger is nevertheless true and that we are not as special as we hoped or even thought. There’s a new found freedom when you stop beating yourself for things you won’t be or do and that freedom can then be used to do the things, that you can do, better. Which is what I am doing now.

The books I read in 2013

My plan for 2013 was to read more foreign literature which I guess I did since I read no Slovenian author. However that was not what I meant. I meant more books from authors translated into English (so not “Anglo-saxon”). I did a few, but not as many as I thought. Still, it was a very gratifying reading year with no real misses and only few less satisfying picks.

I read fewer than I hoped and more than I expected even few months ago when I noticed how poorly does my reading mix with my programming. Nexus 7 tablet I bought in the beginning of the year certainly helped with reading electronic books, but I still enjoy it less than paper. The upside is the ease of finding notes which would be even better if they were easily exportable and creating them wasn’t such a hassle.

As always unaffiliated links point to Amazon and are there only for those that are at least fine. Bold is reserved for those I found best: This House, The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces, Embers, River Town: Two Years on Yangtze, Chimerica, Decline and Fall and The Fall of the Stone City.

  1. Mindstorms: Children, Computers, And Powerful Ideas by Seymour Papert. A book on constructivist approach to learning written for educators which for me was sometimes a bit of a challenge. Makes a persuasive case for at least a modified approach to learning (wasn’t won over completely) and did provide some intriguing possibilities for my work.
  2. Midnight in Peking by Paul French. Similar to The Suspicions of Mr. Whitcher. A gripping, well researched story about an “unsolved” horrendous murder that vividly brings to life Peking long gone.
  3. This House by James Graham. Great and very funny drama about 1974 UK hung parliament that I wish I could see in theater.
  4. The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces by William H. Whyte. I bought this book because I wanted to understand why some places in my neighborhood work so much better than others. The book is easy to read, short, but packed with useful information and I can’t recommend it enough.
  5. Django 1.1 Testing and Debugging by Karen M. Tracey. Book has some flaws: 50$ price on Amazon, sometimes too much details, obsolete Django 1.1. Nevertheless I would recommend it since it does provide a very good and mostly still relevant introduction to this topic.
  6. My Brother and His Brother by Hakan Lindquist. A warm and sad love story about a boy discovering life and personality of brother he never knew. Recommended.
  7. Two Scoops of Django: Best Practices for Django 1.5 by Daniel Greenfeld, Audrey Roy. I read this book in alpha and beta form, but can nevertheless heartily recommend it to every Django developer. It gives you something to think about even when you disagree, but you’ll learn plenty too.
  8. Embers by Sándor Márai. An engrossing book about passion and betrayal for those drawn more to meditations on nature of human life than surprising turn of events. A masterpiece even in double translation (from Hungarian via German).
  9. Software Estimation: Demystifying the Black Art by Steve McConnell. A must-read book on software estimation for every developer. I just wish it had more to say about challenges of estimation in agile environments.
  10. The Uncommon Reader by Alan Bennett. A witty book about pleasures and downsides of reading. Good fun for bookworms.
  11. Three Cups of Deceit by Jon Krakauer. Investigative journalism at its best. Look at (mal)practice of Central Asia Institute and its founder. Unlikely to be interesting to those who’ve never heard of it.
  12. The Accessibility Handbook by Katie Cunningham. This fairly short book has a few minor errors, but it is packed with information and should be required reading for every web developer.
  13. Bandit Algorithms for Website Optimization by John Myles White. If you do A/B testing, but don’t know what bandit algorithms are, then this short, practical and well-written book will noticeably improve your work.
  14. River Town: Two Years on Yangtze by Peter Hessler. A wonderfully alive and sensitive depiction of life in small China town that might change how you see China. Couldn’t put it down.
  15. The Misunderstanding by Irene Nemirovsky. I completely disagree with the review on Amazon. This would be a very good book even if its author wasn’t 21 when she wrote it. Certainly not sentimental, but also not a overly judgemental look at life of a doomed affair.
  16. PADI Open Water Diver Manual by . Lots of good information, but poorly organized with bunch of infomercial crap at the back. Still much better than cretinous videos and definitely helps to pass the exam.
  17. The Radiance of the King by Camara Laye. If you have a literal sort of mind, then don’t skip Toni Morisson’s introduction. Beautifully written, still relevant and not completely understood by me.
  18. What Happened to Art Criticism by James Elkins. Book that reads like listening to dinner polemic. Still insightful look into why modern art criticism satisfies few, but a bit evasive at times. Did not resolve my problems with modern art.
  19. Porting to Python 3: An in-depth guide by Lennart Regebro. An encouragingly short book on the topic that still feels complete. Made me want to make my code Python3 compatible.
  20. Life of Pi by Yann Martel. Read it after I accidentally saw the movie which I surprisingly (to me at least) liked a lot. The book and the movie are really two takes on the same story, both standing on their own, but I liked the movie a bit better. The book is much darker and not for the squeamish.
  21. Chimerica by Lucy Kirkwood. I bought this book after I’ve seen this remarkable play and it is equally impactful when “just” read. Can’t recommend strongly enough.
  22. Monsters by Niklas Radstrom. Short drama about unfathomable tragedy when children kill a child and the complicity of non-involvement we are guilty of.
  23. Decline and Fall by Evelyn Waugh. 85 years old satire of British society that is sadly relevant and very funny.
  24. Testable Javascript by Mark Ethan Trostler. A book with (I think) slightly incorrect title. I wish ratio between explaining how to test Javascript and how to set up environment was more in favor of the former, but still good book to read on the subject.
  25. The Fall of the Stone City by Ismail Kadare. Complex and rich tale of power, dictatorship and integrity. Just read it.
  26. Books by Charlie Hill. Satire on literary culture and modern art which would be better if characters were not simply 2D archetypes (as I am certain author intended). Often really funny if you share author’s view (which I do).
  27. Raising Steam by Terry Pratchett. Does not have subtlety and surprise of his best work, but still funny and enjoyable especially for long time fans with tons of references and favorite characters (not granny though).

This year I expect to read fewer than 20 since I would really really like to build a couple of things I’ve been postponing for years now. Hopefully it will be a good mix of foreign literature and tech books and is also about time I read something substantial in Slovenian.

Related articles

2013 review

Happy and healthy new year! May it be better than the last one.

A year that started with Aaron Swartz’s death and ended with Nelson Mandela’s never had a chance of being a good one even without Snowden’s revelations and a never-ending supply of bleak news. Alas I promised last year to abstain from commenting on external events to keep annual review posts slashed-wrists risk free.

In some ways this year for me was a lot like the previous one. I worried about health of my family while continuing being lucky and otherwise happy. Today is two years since I started working at Aptivate and my enthusiasm hasn’t diminished one iota. So one thing I learned is that I am *not* an incorrigible curmudgeon that can’t stay put.

I learned a lot, especially from mentoring. It really is a blessing to have a wickedly smart and inquisitive mentee and I can’t recommend the experience enough.

I also learned to dive, which will not be a serious hobby but is a convenient skill to have. Visit to Socotra sadly won’t happen and neither will I dive in south France, but who knows what this year will bring.

What has worked and what not? Monthly reminders of my plans worked fine. I mostly ignored them (plans, not reminders), but at least I was doing this consciously and the frequency was right too so I’ll keep doing them this year. And it’s not like my plans changed only because of my fickleness. Mid-year killing of Google Reader unexpectedly made me busy with search for alternatives and writing exporter for my data in time. I didn’t have time to write a more suitable interface for querying and displaying said data and probably won’t this year either.

List of possible and unfinished projects is still liberating. With added dates of edits it also documents development of my priorities and I don’t mind that I don’t do most of it as long as I do some (which I did).

Digital sabbath also remains a good idea. I haven’t written the overview of books I read in 2013 yet, but I did compare dates on which I finished a book with my Github history and it is obvious that I can either read books or code in my free time, but not both unless I actually reserve time for it.

Another thing that proved itself is the importance of continuity of work. Small everyday steps have bigger effect than occasional sprints and they work better when I have a good to-do list which I didn’t always have.

I made an experiment this summer when I spent a day a week working on non-Aptivate project to learn and refresh my knowledge of Javascript tools and techniques and to see what to expect if I spent a day a week on personal projects. It didn’t work as well as I hoped. Day a week + a few hours on other days certainly moves things forward, but it is not a particularly satisfying experience for anyone involved and likely not sustainable either.

What I think would work better (for me) is to combine those off-days together into continuous chunks (say a week every 5 weeks or 2 every 10) for concentrated development of more complex parts of my projects and use those spare daily hours in-between for polishing and infrastructure. Painful side of this is that it reveals how little time I would actually have even if I had noticeably more of it. I am not sure yet what if anything to do with this.

This realisation also led to a painful acceptance of Sebastjan’s observation that being too busy is simply a function of not pruning ambitions enough. So in 2014 I plan to read less. Who knows how many but I expect noticeably fewer than 20 books.

I will also not work on open data projects except maybe participating on hack days (if there will be any). To be honest I haven’t done much anyway, but I still wasted time and energy worrying about it.

Instead of building tools like mjp or image-diet I intend to be more egoistical and work on projects I talked about for years, but never came around developing.  Current projects will likely receive only bug fixes.

Any personal Python software project that will start in 2014 will be written in Python3. Clearly there is no better way to become proficient in it. Actually I expect to start only one project after I finish my current one.

I’ve been writing development journal since October and it is a bit early to say how it is going. I think it is providing insight to what I actually do, but at the same time I am still learning what to record and how. Will see what this year brings.

I’ll be 40 this year which should happen soon enough to not be a challenge and also provides a great motivation to fix my utter failure of this year of getting myself more fit.

My expectations are not evolved enough to be plans, but I imagine 2014 to be even more development intensive than 2013 was. It seems I won’t be attending many conferences, but I don’t expect to be bored. More than anything I hope it will be great year for my family and friends.