Books of 2015

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I enjoyed doing a post about all of the games I played last year, so I thought one on the books I’ve read would be equally fun. Here goes!

Best New Comic Series: Ms. Marvel

I don’t normally read long standing Marvel series (I’m much more of a self-contained 10 book series kind of person), but something about this comic called to me. Ms. Marvel is about a Muslim girl growing up and realizing that she has super powers. She fights the assortment of bad guys you’d expect, but it’s all new because of the different perspective it has. It’s definitely on the lighter side of comic books, so pick it up if you want typical super hero fare with a slightly different perspective.

Book that I enjoyed even though it made me feel dumb: A Brief History of Time

I’ve taken a number of physics classes over the year, but nothing in those classes prepared me for this deep dive of physics knowledge. It was a bit hard to follow when he was talking about quarks and their weird electrical charge and spin, but it still gave me a good basis for better understanding the theory of relativity and other physics peculiarities. It was also fascinating to see the history of physics research and how wrong (and right!) people were in the past.

Most enjoyable science book: What If?: Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions

This book is a series of silly questions like “How many AK-47s would it take to lift a person off the ground with the recoil caused by firing” and equally silly, but true answers. Both Ashley and I tore through this book because it was thoroughly entertaining and insightful. I can’t wait to pick up Munroe’s next book because this was one of my favorites this year. Highly recommended.

Most overrated book: The Road

Everyone I’ve talked to about this book has told me how much it would wreck me and make me sad. I don’t know if it’s because I’ve played so many survival horror games or watched a bunch of sad movies, but it didn’t do that to me. Sure, there was some sad stuff that happened in The Road, but it wasn’t anything I haven’t seen before. Maybe it’s one of those things similar to Citizen Kane where it was original and groundbreaking in its time, but if you experience it now, it doesn’t feel as impressive. Good book, but didn’t live up to the hype.

Most important book I read: Becoming Nicole: The Transformation of an American Family

Becoming Nicole is a great book to read to start to understand the struggle for transgender rights. Nicole and Jonas are identical twins, but Nicole is transgender while Jonas is not. This book is the story of their family, their community, and how learn what being transgender is all about. It’s also a study in how people tend to be scared of things they don’t understand. Becoming Nicole is an easy, if frustrating read and I suggest everyone read it as soon as possible.

Favorite book of the last ten years: The Martian

If you haven’t read this book, click this link and buy this fucking book, NOW. The Martian is easily my favorite book that I’ve read in the past ten years and it’s not hard to understand why. Science. Explosions. MacGyvering things. Science. Space. Exploration. Did I mention Science? XKCD explains it perfectly in this comic. It’s a book about overcoming an environment that wants to kill you while being scientifically accurate and funnier than I ever expected. So fucking good.

Here’s all the books I read this year:

A Brief History of Time – Stephen Hawking
Alone on the Wall – Alex Honnold and David Roberts
Becoming Nicole: The Transformation of an American Family – Amy Ellis Nutt
Delusions of Gender: How Our Minds, Society, and Neurosexism Create Difference – Cordelia Fine
East of West, Volume 1: The Promise – Jonathan Kichman and Nick Dragotta
Flash Boys: A Wall Street Revolt – Michael Lewis
Flying the SR-71 Blackbird: In the Cockpit on a Secret Operational Mission – Richard H. Graham
Footnotes in Gaza – Joe Sacco
iZombie: Dead to the World – Chris Roberson
Lumberjanes Vol. 1 – Noelle Stevenson, Grace Ellis, Brooke Allen, Shannon Watters
Ms. Marvel Vol. 3: Crushed – G. Willow Wilson
My Beloved World – Sonia Sotomayor
Stringer: A Reporter’s Journey in the Congo – Anjan Sundaram
The Hero of Ages: Book Three of Mistborn – Brandon Sanderson
The Martian – Andy Weir
The Mindfulness Survival Kit: Five Essential Practices – Thich Nhat Hanh
The Road – Cormac McCarthy
Top 10 – Alan Moore, Gene Ha, Zander Cannon
What If?: Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions – Randall Munroe

God, Religion, and Science

I don’t much talk about my religious beliefs to my friends much and especially not on this website, but I just finished a book which has made me think a lot about them and felt I should write a post about it. The Varieties of Scientific Experience: A Personal View of the Search for God, written by none other than Carl Sagan, is a book that I can’t recommend highly enough. It has cemented my beliefs as an atheist and a staunch believer in the scientific method and process. If I had any doubts left before I read this book, they were pretty much eradicated by Sagan’s ability to list all of the reasons why he believes (and in concert why I believe) there is no proof there is a God and how science and religion have intertwined and fought over the years.

I grew up having been baptized in my Grandparents’ church and going regularly to a Methodist church fairly regularly until my parents’ divorce. I never much though about church much as anything other than something we did on Sundays until I was a teenager and hadn’t been going regularly. I briefly dated someone whose father was as close to a pastor as you can be without actually being one and it really showed me a different side of what church could be like. The older I got, and the more I researched things I’d been taught in church, the more and more I began to doubt what I had been told over the years. I think one of the funniest things I’ve been told about my young self was when I found out Santa Claus wasn’t real, I then asked “Does that mean that God isn’t real either?”.

I think one of the things that has really taught me a lot about religion and beliefs is the internet. I’ve been able to do research on topics and find articles and information and, most importantly, see videos of incredibly smart people talk about these topics. Neil deGrass Tyson, Carl Sagan, Richard Feyman, and many of the people I’ve watched in TED talks over the years have taught me so much about the world as it is, has been, and has been perceived to be over the years. That last part is a big one. Over the years we humans have learned an incredible amount; our knowledge pool is ever increasing and our ability to make accurate statements has grown tremendously. Unfortunately, there is still a large amount we don’t know, but that will slowly decrease over time.

So how does all of this relate to religion and god? One of the core tenets in science is the ability for anyone, anywhere to be able to reproduce results garnered by someone else. Studies are submitted to public journals, equations are able to be re-derived, and work is shown as how you get to a conclusion. Religions tend to rely on word of mouth, old books (that may or may not be historically accurate), and social structures to convince people of their beliefs. There is no way, many times, to prove or disprove statements made by religious people about their faith or beliefs. This is the basis of faith and why some people (like me) have a hard time having discourse with people who ardently believe things that are scientifically unprovable.

So back to the book. Carl Sagan gave a Gifford Lecture in which he talked about God (in all its possible forms), religion, alien civilizations, ufos, miracles, the origin of life, the universe, and our knowledge to date of most of those things. The book is a transcription of those lectures and is absolutely fascinating to read. I’m not sure I can adequately summarize everything he talked about, but if I were to try, it would come to this: belief without proof is wrong. Not wrong in the sense of murder is wrong, but in the sense that if you can’t prove anything, then having actions based off of those beliefs could have harmful consequences. For instance (and this is an extreme example), the Heaven’s Gate group ended up killing themselves because they believed something that wasn’t provable at all. There are many instances of groups of people believing the end of the world is coming. My point in all of this is that action based on unprovable belief may cause you to put wasted effort into activities that may completely hinder things that would help otherwise. In current day terms, embryonic stem cell use, gay marriage, and anti-global warming beliefs are just a few of the things that hurt peoples’ lives because of beliefs in things that aren’t accurate.

So then is all religion bad? No, of course not. Religions have grouped people together and spurred them to make changes to the world for the betterment many times. Slavery is one very well known case in which Quakers fought for the freeing of the slaves. On an individual level, many people like the community and the belief structure and believe it makes them a better person. These things don’t bother me in the slightest. Some of my best friends are ardently religious. I do believe, however, that if religion and unfounded beliefs weren’t prevalent, the world would be a better place and we’d be a happier populace.

I can’t recommend The Varieties of Scientific Experience enough. I wish everyone would read it as Carl Sagan has a way with words and how he describes things that is so much better than what I’m able to on this blog.

A Long Update

In less than 24 hours, I’ll be back home in California for a little over a week on vacation. It’s my longest vacation in over a year and I’m looking forward to it. All the kids are coming back to town and we’re going with my mom and step-dad to a beach house type place. We used to do it every summer back when we were kids but haven’t in about eight years or so. Typically we never use computers, watch tv, or talk on the phone. It’s a place of isolation which I always liked. I think we’re changing it up slightly this year by going out once or twice and watching the world cup live, but aside from that I don’t plan on using any technology other than my mp3 player.

I’ll also be bringing two books: Vagabonding: An Uncommon Guide to the Art of Long-Term World Travel and Coders at Work, both of which I’m excited to read. I finally finished The People’s History of the United States of America, which was fucking amazing. I highly, highly recommend it to everyone that wishes to learn about the United States and how it treated the everyday people throughout the years (hint: not very well).

For my year of something I picked to meditate and stretch every day (at least when it’s possible). It’s been pretty nice so far and I really like taking the time out to do it. I should make a longer post about it, but this will do for now.

I’ve started programming at home again on a side project with a couple of friends. It’s pretty damn fun and has gotten me into some aspects of programming I don’t get to do at my job. Learning about mercurial, boost, SDL, configuration libraries, openGL/AL, EASTL, Lua vs Javascript vs Python, and tons of other stuff is quite fun. It’s expanded my knowledge a lot already and I expect it to continue to do so.

It’s fucking hot in Seattle these days (in the mid 90s), which is very welcome compared to how it’s been in the past month or so. Summer is finally here! I went rope climbing out at Exit 38 yesterday and had a blast. I haven’t done that in a couple of years and it scared the shit out of me even though I was climbing a 5.9/10a. Easy, easy routes and yet I was shaking because I was so nervous. Kind of a funny feeling, but I’m sure I’ll get over it once I do it more and/or fall a couple of times. Also, apparently chalk helps, but I also forgot to bring that. Next time for sure.

I bought a new computer a month or so ago. I’m loving it more than the 6 year old one I had previously that didn’t work and even more than the several month old hand me down I got from Shea that smelled of cat piss every time I turned it on which didn’t work either. I’ve been playing a bit of Heroes of Newerth lately, which is a DOTA clone. I’m not addicted to it (like I was before), but it’s kind of nice to be playing something like this again. I missed it!

I finished playing Heavy Rain a couple of weeks ago and was supremely impressed with it. Talking with Dan Miya and Dalin about it last week cemented the fact that I think it’s an incredibly well made game. I’ll probably never go back to play it to see all the alternate endings and stories I could see, but I appreciate the fact that they’re there.

The world cup has been pretty awesome to watch and although I haven’t watched every single game, I’ve probably watched about 75% of them. I’ve really enjoyed all of the recent games as well. Some of them were some serious nail biters that were incredibly awesome to watch. I can’t wait to see Spain play the Netherlands for the final as neither country has ever won a world cup before. Should be good!

That’s it for now. As always seems to happen when I need to pack, I’m procrastinating. I’ll probably do it last minute, as always, and just go to sleep now after meditating/stretching. Good old hatred of packing.

The Wheel of Time: The Gathering Storm

I’ve been a huge fan of The Wheel of Time series ever since Alan Gasperini introduced me to it in 7th grade. I’ve read the first seven books 3 times each, the 8th book twice, and the other books only but once. When Robert Jordan died a couple of years ago without finishing his epic story, I got worried that I’d never see the end of it, similar to what happened with the Dune series.

Aside from Book 11, none of the recent books had been much good. They were still in the world that Jordan created, and stuff still occasionally happened, but they didn’t have the pizazz that the first seven or so books had. In fact, one of the books started before the other book ended and didn’t catch up until 250 pages later. It always seemed like the story was heading towards the end, but at such a leisurely pace that it was almost painful.

Brandon Sanderson’s writing for The Wheel of Time is not 100% like Jordan’s, but he said that was going to be the case. It is, however, amazing. I haven’t been enthralled with a book like this since forever. Jordan built up the world and the story, and now Sanderson is going to finish it. He got a long way there, tying up many, many storylines and even creating some more of his own.

I don’t want to put any spoilers in this review, but suffice it to say the book is fantastic. There are, of course, several things I didn’t care for, but that’s going to be true of every series that is taken over by anyone else other than the principal author. At least he didn’t fuck up the series like the Dune son did (man were those terrible books even if they were prequels).

If you’re a fan of the series at all, I highly, highly suggest getting back into it and picking this book up. Good stuff. I can’t wait for the next two books, which look to be slated for November of this year and November of next year. That’s an outrageous pace, but it looks like he’s going to be able to stick to it.

Every Hand Revealed – Gus Hansen

every_hand_revealed

I finished reading this book quite a while ago, but felt like writing a review for it now, so here it is! First off, if you have to compile a bunch, it’s the perfect book. It’s broken down into every important hand he played at the Aussie Millions event. He managed to walk away from the table and talk into a little recorder about his state of mind, the play that just happened, the stack sizes, etc. It’s very interesting reading his account of his play because somewhat often, he doesn’t agree with the play that he took while he was at the event.

Poker books are interesting to me because a lot of what you learn is that logic and steady play, more often than not, will make you end up positive at the end of the night. What’s just so hard to convey, however, is how exactly to do that. There’s essentially two sides: the theory and the practice of playing poker. Theory is all well and fine until you start holding the cards, fiddling with the chips, watching and conversing with the other players, and playing the game of poker. One of the hardest things I have problems with when I play poker is staying alert at all times. Make sure that every single thing you do makes logical sense and that it isn’t an Orange Belt move (something we coined at our games). It’s very, very mentally taxing and I’ll notice myself slipping away from that logic if I’m not feeling well, am tired, hungry, pissed, etc.

So taking that aside, the reason I liked this book so much was that you could see how Hansen’s logic worked. It was cold, calculated logic that won him the tournament. That, and a bit of luck. Doing the math on the amount of all-ins that he did to win the tournament is a bit frightening. I don’t have the book in front of me, but if I remember correctly, he had something like 12 all ins or so that were for his entire stack. If someone had sucked out on him (a very real statistical possibility), that would have ended his tournament play regardless of whether it was the right play in the grand scheme of things or not. In almost all of his plays, I readily agreed with his assessment of what he did in the tournament. He, of course, had some crazy hands (going all in with A high on the turn or river), but overall it was played incredibly well.

It’s made me think a lot about how I approach poker and play it. There are essentially two modes that I can play it: socially for fun ($5 buyin or something I really don’t care about) and more strategically for the game and for real money (anything else). For fun is whatever, but if I really want to get good at my game, I have to think logically about every single hand, pay attention to what everyone is doing even when I’m not in the hand, and flex those poker mental muscles. It takes a lot of practice, but I really do believe that this book has helped me push myself towards the end goal of being a better poker player.