Recommendations from 2016

It’s hard for me to match the unfolding disaster that 2016 turned out to be, politically and environmentally, with the intense but beautiful ride it has been at home, trying to raise a child and a baby and somehow remain sane and on top of things. However, despite the sleepless nights and play dates and overall running-around, there was time for books, movies, and podcasts. Here are some of the things I loved this year:

The best book I read in 2016 has to be Eliot’s “Middlemarch”. It is wise and funny, relevant despite its age, and intimate. Like with other great books, I simultaneously wish I had found it much earlier, to profit from it when I was younger, and that I had not found it yet, so that the discovery still laid ahead. It’s not short, but I will most likely read it again.

Among the easier and lighter reads, my favourite was “The Dead Mountaineer’s Inn”, from the Strugatsky brothers. It’s a strange mash of science fiction and mystery, with a bit of the weirdness that I loved last year in “Annihilation”. Carey’s “The Girl with All the Gifts” is not a great book—many characters are cardboard cut-outs, and you could trim about a hundred pages in the middle and end with a better story—but it’s got an excellent premise and a very good ending, and all in all I was very glad to read it.

Regarding non-fiction, Sharp’s trilogy on “The Politics of Nonviolent Action” is precise, careful, practical, and astoundingly useful. If I could convince everyone to read a single book as soon as possible, it would be the first volume, and especially the first half of it, on the sources of power and how to fight them without violence. We will need to internalize this very soon. Also on non-fiction, and mentioned recently already, Singer’s “The Life You Can Save” presents a compelling utilitarian argument for donating to fight extreme poverty and, quite literally, save lives, restore sight, and reduce suffering in the world. He made me realize you and I have far more power to do these things than I imagined.

I have been reading lots of children’s books, predictably. My kid and I both loved Hatke’s “Zita the Spacegirl” series: good story, nice art, kickass heroine. We also both liked Roald Dahl’s prose quite a bit, and probably read “Fantastic Mr Fox” in full a dozen times.

A subdued movie that I nevertheless really enjoyed was Chandor’s “A Most Violent Year”. I loved his earlier “Margin Call” as well; both movies are intelligent, well acted, and unconventional. The remake of “Ghostbusters” was everything I could hope for, and I’m happy they chose such a talented cast. Finally, “Arrival” was an emotionally satisfying sci-fi film, which is something quite rare.

I’ve been running a lot, and I like listening to podcasts while I run. The one I like the most is Mike Duncan’s “Revolutions”: his ongoing project is to go through key revolutions in modern history and to narrate them entertainingly but without dumbing them down. So far he’s gone through the English, American, French, Haitian, and Bolivarian revolutions, and the whole series is excellent. Last year I recommended his “History of Rome”, which I binged on obsessively; I might go back and listen to it all over again next year. I also enjoyed “Good Job, Brain” quite a bit: a very entertaining trivia podcast that makes long runs much lighter. Speaking of running, this year I discovered CityStrides, a one-person labour-of-love website that pulls your run data and tells you what percentage of a city you’ve run, and which streets you still need to get to. It has prodded me to explore lots more of Victoria, and to find interesting areas, houses, gardens, parks, and shortcuts previously hidden all around me.

Finally, I mentioned these in my previous post, but I should repeat them in case you missed them: three resources that helped me enormously with my finances were the Mr Money Mustache blog, Bogle’s “Little Book of Common Sense Investing”, and Swensen’s “Unconventional Success”. The first two are easy reads, the last one less so, though it’s quite informative. They were all incredibly valuable to me.

I feel like I’m bracing for 2017, with a sense of dread and angst, and unsure on whether next December there will be room for lightness to recommend trivia podcasts or children’s books. And yet we must still try to make the new year a happy one. May we succeed!

Resources on frugality

I was certainly far from frugal during the past several years of my life, but that changed early in 2016: thriftiness became one of my values. In the interest of helping others down this path, here is an assortment of resources I pored over last year and that I wish had been collected in a single place when I got started.

Stop Digging

The first thing to realize is that, unless you’re paying some mind to these issues, you may be unwittingly digging yourself into a hole. The following would be useful:

  • The concept of Lifestyle Inflation. If you didn’t know it existed and haven’t been actively fighting it you probably suffer from it.
  • The New Yorker profile of Pete Adeney, Mr. Money Mustache. I understand he did not like this profile very much (it was too focused on his eccentricities), but for me it was the right thing at the right time. If it clicks for you too, you’ll want to read…
  • The hundreds of posts at the Mr. Money Mustache blog. From Zero to Hero is a good one to get started, as it gives links to a bunch of other key posts. Your Debt is an Emergency is also great. You may not like his style, but I adored it: it was the kind of tough love I needed to prod myself into action, to shame myself out of dumb decisions, and to realize that caring about money is not necessarily a self-centered or egotistical pursuit, but can be a tool to reduce consumerism and to find contentment in simple pleasures.

Miscellaneous Tips to Change Habits

Some frugal changes are obvious, some not so much. The blog above goes in detail into a lot of them; here are a few specific things that helped me along the way:

  • A simple tool to estimate the true cost of things: cutting a weekly expense of x dollars results in savings of 800x after ten years if that money is invested instead. Similarly, cutting a monthly expense of x dollars results in savings of 200x after ten years. So if you stop eating out for lunch at work (~$50 week) you’ll have $40,000 more in your account after ten years, approximately, and cutting your monthly cellphone bill from $80 to $20 (which, yes, can be done in Canada, see below) will increase the value of your savings account by about $12,000. Changing a few of these recurring costs is the difference between barely breaking even and saving enough for retirement. (Edit: but note Neil’s comment below and my response to it).
  • Buying secondhand through VarageSale: I used to eschew Craigslist because of a couple of bad experiences, but VarageSale has a good community and for some types of products (such as baby stuff) it’s fantastic. I haven’t bought pretty much anything new for our baby, yet pretty much everything he has is still as good as new—and will be resold when he no longer needs it.
  • The Public Library has amazing resources that I tended to overlook, or simply did not know existed: you can get free audiobook rentals with Hoopla, free digital magazine issues, free desks and wifi if you want to work away from home and the office. And of course free books. This is the case in Victoria and quite likely in your city too.
  • In general, to change habits, Duhigg’s The Power Of Habit is a good read, especially the first section on individual habits.
  • The cheapest way I’ve found to have cellphone service in Canada that doesn’t involve burners from the 7-Eleven is to get a tablet data plan from your provider and do calls and texts through a VoIP service such as Fongo. Jamie Starke gets into some details on how to do this. Depending on your data usage this setup can be as cheap as about $10 per month. It is, however, admittedly clunky. If you want pretty much seamless but cheap mobile service, Public Mobile has very good prices: a decent plan costs about $40 per month.

Investing

If you’re following along and you’ve settled any debts you had, you’ll start to accumulate some surplus. How should you invest it? This was an intimidating topic for me: when I got started I barely knew what stocks and bonds were—and I knew the field is full of people waiting to profit from my ignorance. The following helped me quite a bit:

  • The book route: I strongly recommend Bogle’s “Little Book of Common Sense Investing”, followed by Swensen’s “Unconventional Success”. They are clear and honest, and after reading them you’ll have the basics to invest on your own, as well as a healthy dislike for your bank’s financial advisors.
  • The blog posts route: There are many blogs with similar kinds of investing advice (that is, espousing the passive investing approach); some of the best ones are JL Collins (specifically his stocks series) and the Canadian Couch Potato.
  • This is covered in the above, but you need to understand index funds and exchange-traded funds (ETFs). In general, Investopedia has decent summaries on many investing topics.
  • In Canada, it turns out RRSPs and TFSAs (edit: and RESPs) are actually quite important, and it pays a lot to familiarize yourself with them.
  • Also in Canada, we are not yet lucky enough to have extremely low-cost index funds. However, we do have extremely low-cost ETFs from Vanguard (and others). The downside is you need to perform your own trades, which is scary the first couple of times. I recommend Questrade as a platform to manage your accounts. It is practically free for passive investing using ETFs, it works well, and you can go through the experience with a free trial with pretend money.

Altruism

After you started saving enough money and you see financial independence in the path ahead, you should consider what else to do with the extra money. You could save it as well of course, but it definitely could be better used elsewhere: there are millions of people in dire need today, and straightforward mechanisms in place for you to help them with donations. The following resources helped me understand this issue, and where to donate:

  • Singer’s “The Life You Can Save” was an eye-opening book. It is humane and intelligent, and it lays out the case for effective altruism clearly. You can also check out some of his talks on the topic, and the website that spun off of his book.
  • GiveWell is a great organization that evaluates charities in depth to figure out where your donations are most likely to do best, focusing on alleviating extreme poverty and its consequences. They are extremely transparent, thorough, and analytical. On a smaller scale, Animal Charity Evaluators performs the same work on organizations fighting for animal rights.
  • If you want your donations to be tax-deductible in Canada and you want to donate to charities endorsed by GiveWell, then your best alternative is to donate to Charity Science and ask them to pass on your money to the charities of your choice.

I’m still very far from being a frugal saint, and though I know I could be doing a much better job at it, as I look back over the past year I am still impressed at how efficient I’ve become in this sense, comparatively, and at how at peace and free this all makes me feel. I need less than I thought, and not only do I not miss any luxuries, but I’m glad I do not depend on them to be happy anymore. I hope these resources are useful to you too.

Recommendations from 2015

Well! 2015, the hottest year yet in recorded history is wrapping up, and it’s time for one more installment of my “things you might like because I did” series.

The most impressive, necessary, beautifully written, and haunting book I read this year was Alexievich’s “Voices from Chernobyl”. Really, it doesn’t actually feel like homework, but I came out of it thinking that every technologist and every advocate of nuclear power has the moral duty to read it, and if I can convince you of doing so through a flippant analogy, I’ll do it: this book is like “World War Z” for a catastrophe that actually occurred, and that will occur again. As Alexievich says: “These people had already seen what for everyone else is still unknown. I felt like I was recording the future.”

Zambra’s “Formas de Volver a Casa” is a simple account of growing up under a dictatorship, but under this simplicity there is a struggle to come to terms with the authoritarianism lurking in everyday society. I found it relevant for our political moment, as I did two of the plays in Camus’s “Caligula and 3 other plays”: the titular play, and “The Just Assassins”.

I really enjoyed Perec’s experimental “The Art of Asking your Boss for a Raise”, which is the most fun you will ever experience executing a flowchart. Also, I believe I’ve recommended everything that Patrick DeWitt has ever written, and he has a new novel out, “Undermajordomo Minor”, that is also a delicious read.

Richardson’s “Vectors” has some excellent aphorisms; McDougall’s “Born to Run” did more to change my life than most of the books I read this year (more about that in a later post), and Harvey’s “Dear Thief” is contained, melancholic, and heartfelt.

Faber’s “The Book of Strange New Things” has a great premise (space explorers send a Christian missionary to evangelize an alien race) and develops it brilliantly and with empathy—don’t let the apparent religious tones deter you. On a darker direction, Vandermeer’s “Annihilation” revisits Lovecraft and makes it better: a very weird but enjoyable nightmare. However, if I were you I would avoid the two latter installments of his trilogy.

As for movies, “What We Do in the Shadows” is comedy very well done, “Mad Max: Fury Road” is apocalyptic action very well done, and “The Big Short” is a semi-documentary (?) very well done. Of course, “The Grand Budapest Hotel” is simply very well done; I am glad Wes Anderson exists and does these precious films. On TV, the one series I watched that you may have missed is “Halt and Catch Fire”—give it at least a couple of episodes though.

I’ve been listening to a lot of podcasts. The one that I binge-listened the most was Mike Duncan’s “The History of Rome”—like hearing a very knowledgeable, very patient, rather funny and dorky friend go on and on about one of the best real stories we’ve got. “The Truth”, in turn, is a collection of radio dramas, and it’s all about the production: great voice acting, great effects, lots of genre and narrative variety. Finally, “Criminal” has well researched and surprising short stories revolving around crime as its focal point.

Four good boardgames with very different mechanics: first, “Tajemnicze Domostwo”, also named “Mysterium” in the American edition, is just excellent. A cooperative mix of Dixit and Clue, and a great exploration of the difficulty of communication—more than just a boardgame, I would say, but great as a boardgame too. Get the original version, as they unforgivably screwed up the art in the American one. “Escape from the Aliens in Outer Space” is simple and tense; like the sci-fi horror “Alien” made into a game. “Skull” is a short and sweet bluffing game, and though the edition I linked to has beautiful art, you can play it with coasters on a pinch. Finally, “Spyfall” is wonderful as a party game: one person is the spy and tries to remain undercover; everyone else is out to get them. Like “Werewolf” but shorter, sillier, and without player elimination.

Computer games: three I liked were “80 Days”, an upscale interactive fiction production; “Don’t Starve”, a survivalist game that doesn’t take itself too seriously except in its production values; and “Subterfuge”, which you could see as a better “Diplomacy”, or as the slowest real-time strategy game out there: launch an attack on an enemy and it will arrive in perhaps 24 hours, which gives you and the defendant plenty of time to recruit allies and escalate, or maybe iron differences out and turn the attack into a gift instead. A warning that despite there being a very prominent Code of Conduct on that game forbidding jerks, jerks can rather easily be found.

If you are in Victoria, you should check out the kite festival when it comes again; it is meditatively beautiful. Year-round, the coffee roasted by the Coffee Lab (at the Second Crack coffee shop in Rock Bay) and by Bows & Arrows (available at Habit and others) is delicious. Heist, the best coffee shop in Victoria, suffered the curse of all misunderstood geniuses, and closed down, but Graham, its artful barista is now at Hey Happy, so it is not a total loss. And finally, for your sweet tooth, Empire Donuts are outstanding, as are the white chocolate brioches prepared Saturday and Sunday mornings at Fry’s Bakery, but the very best sweetness I’ve found is the selection of ice cream concoctions of Cold Comfort.

As usual, I would love to hear about what you found and liked this year, and I hope the recommendations above are useful for you. Happy New Year!

(Previously: 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009)

Recommendations from 2014

One more year behind us! Here are some of the things that I loved in 2014 and that you may enjoy, too:

Books! The oddest, most strangely beautiful one I found this year was Haskell’s “The Forest Unseen“. Part meditation, part scientific explanation of all that happens in a tiny section of a forest in the course of a year, it is intelligent without being patronizing, compassionate without being mushy, and constantly full of surprises.

Offill’s “Dept. of Speculation“, on the difficulty and beauty of marriage and parenthood, and on trying to achieve greatness (or, at least, to control the apartment’s pests) while being a parent, is a bit of a Trojan horse: it seems unassuming, but it unfolds in the mind after reading. Ferrante’s “The Days of Abandonment” is about abandonment of the marital kind, and it is angry, desperate, hyperventilating, funny, perfect. McBride’s “A Girl Is a Half Formed Thing“, in contrast to Offill’s and Ferrante’s books, may be the hardest: hard to parse, but also to digest. McBride’s dark, pulsating, synaptic prose is often grammatically nonsensical, but it conveys fear, loss lust, and love beautifully.

Sjón’s “The Whispering Muse” overlays some of the greatest Western myths with modern, ordinary bigotry and pettiness; the result is exceptional. On the most page-turning end of the spectrum, Theroux’s post-apocalyptic “Far North” is both very smart and very enjoyable.

Fénéon’s “Novels in Three Lines” is a collection of very short news items that ran in a Paris newspaper about a hundred years ago. They are not all interesting or relevant, but they are expertly crafted, and the accumulated effect or reading so many snapshots of old violence, suffering, random chaos, and happiness is poetically complex. Parra’s “Poemas para Combatir la Calvicie” (in Spanish), an anthology of his “antipoetry”, is beautiful for its plainspokenness.

As for movies, I loved the calm aesthetic of “Le Quattro Volte” and the hallucinogenic rush of “Vanishing Point“. “Act of Killing” is bizarre, horrifying; “The Loneliest Planet” shows a small hint of that horror to a Western backpacking couple and they find it perhaps too much to handle. “Computer Chess” is a masterpiece of awkward nerd-dom. You probably watched as much TV as I did, but if for any reason you missed “Black Mirror” or “True Detective“, they are both brilliant. One musical recommendation: the R&B covers from the Detroit Cobras are excellent.

My biggest boardgaming surprise this year was the complexity of the cooperative game “Freedom“, about emancipation and the Railroad Underground. It is not necessarily a fun experience—in fact, it is the most gut-wrenching game I’ve ever played, more art than game; educational gaming done right. On the actually fun side, “Sheriff of Nottingham“, a bluffing, smuggling, and bribing game, is great fun, and “Tzolk’in” and “Last Will” are both elegant and well-balanced; after several replays I don’t feel like I have a good grip on strategy on either of them, which is a good sign.

If you live in or visit Victoria, you should get truly wonderful coffee at Hey Happy! We’ve been going quite a bit to La Taquisa for tortilla soups and tacos. David Mincey’s “Chocolate Project”, usually at the Hudson Public Market, is on hiatus, but when it returns you should check it out, as it features outstanding chocolate from around the world. Finally, one of my regrets when we moved to Victoria from Toronto was missing out on Snakes and Lattes, but now, luckily, Victoria has an excellent substitute: Interactivity, a board game café, has a very good library and yummy milkshakes to drink while you play those games with your friends.

I hope your 2014 was also full of love and good finds—feel free to let me know of stuff you liked in the comments. Happy New Year!

(Previously: 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009)

Recommendations from 2013

Keeping up with my little tradition of sharing stuff I liked at the end of the year, here are some recommendations from 2013.

Perhaps the book I enjoyed the most was Saunders’ “Tenth of December”. Its short stories have the kind of warmth that comes from compassion in the face of (as opposed to in ignorance of) cruelty. Catton’s “The Luminaries”, set in the New Zealand gold rush, is great, too: thematic, thrilling, brainy yet mystical. Pullman’s retelling of the Brother Grimm’s tales is fresh and snappy, and Hamid’s “How To Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia” is a good antidote to world-lit fluff.

I loved the poetry collection “Place”, by Jorie Graham. Its poems are strange miracles: systemic, yet focused on instants; comprehensive, yet intimate. Villalobos’ “Fiesta en la madriguera” (in Spanish) is a fun, surreal take on excess told from the perspective of the pampered scion of a drug lord. And while Daylight’s interview with Peter Naur, “Pluralism in Software Engineering”, is quite uneven, it has important insights into software development and academia that continue to be forgotten or put aside, to everyone’s detriment.

A couple of good movies: “No”, on the Pinochet referendum campaign, with its ambivalent, subtle take on social and political change, and “The Queen of Versailles”, a documentary on a ridiculous and ridiculously wealthy American family going through hard times. I’d recommend “Gravity”, but I doubt it needs recommendation. I also enjoyed the genre mix of the British TV version of “Life on Mars”, and the silliness of “Archer”. As for music, I liked the bassy intensity of Savages’ “Silence Yourself”, and Chris Thile’s album of Bach’s sonatas and partitas played on the mandolin.

I was able to run again, injury-free, throughout the year, largely thanks to daily (and initially painful) stretches on a foam roller. It’s such an unassuming, cheap, yet useful accessory. I must have tasted every olive oil and balsamic vinegar at Olive the Senses half a dozen times (and if you are in Victoria you should, too). Finally, while I’ve been intimidated by electronic tinkering almost all my life, the Arduino Experimenter Kit was a very straightforward way to get me started on designing circuits and devices (and check out node-ardx, a great resource to go through the experimenter kit exercises using Node).

That’s it. Happy New Year!

(Previously: 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009)

Recommendations from 2012

The year wraps up, and I’d like to share a batch of recommendations for stuff I enjoyed in 2012.

First, books. I simply loved Semple’s “Where’d You Go, Bernadette?”. I was expecting it to be funny, but I was surprised to discover it was also clever and humane. Though I usually dislike books about drunkards or addicts, deWitt’s “Ablutions” was fresh and very, very good—after this and “The Sisters Brothers” I’m platonically in love with him. Ford’s “Canada”, a novel about a kind young soul growing among adults that can’t help but bring destruction on themselves, is written with wisdom and skill. Spufford’s “Red Plenty”, an extremely multithreaded novel about communist Russia’s central planning, was not great, but I still appreciated its ambition and originality.

As for non-fiction, I found Lucretius’ “On the Nature of Things” to be awe-inspiring: at times it would seem as if all of modern science had only worked on relatively minor corrections of his understanding of the world, while ignoring his impassioned claim that the whole point of these endeavours is to bring inner peace to humankind. Berger and Luckmann’s “The Social Construction of Reality” was wonderfully compelling, lucid, and witty. It is the book I wish I’d read at the start of my doctoral work. For something lighter, Glouberman and Heti’s “The Chairs Are Where the People Go” is an endearing and frank collection of micro-essays.

I had a good year with books in Spanish, too. The slightly unhinged lovers of Pauls’ “El Pasado” spiral down to disaster with exquisite prose. Borges’ collection of lectures, “Siete Noches”, is a touching display of his brilliance and kindness, and “Los Conjurados”, his collection of late poems, is concerned with history, transcendence, insignificance, and lives lived nobly and simply. Krauze’s trilogy of Mexican history (“Siglo de Caudillos”, “Biografía del Poder”, and “La Presidencia Imperial”) is captivating and often lyrical, although his main thesis—that Mexican history to a large extent can be reduced to and explained by the biographies of its leaders—loses strength as Mexico approaches the present time.

I’m still playing catch-up with recent movies, and I doubt I could recommend anything you wouldn’t know of already (but watch “Moonrise Kindgom” if you haven’t). One exception might be “Small Town Murder Songs”, a low budget Canadian independent film that is subtle but powerful. It features music by Bruce Peninsula–another recommendation on its own right. Going much further into the past, I found Bergman’s “Wild Strawberries” to be almost perfect.

Online, I enjoyed Bret Victor’s essays. He’s clearly a genius—one I often don’t agree with, but this makes his writing all the more engaging. The New Yorker’s Fiction Podcast features authors reading other author’s works, as well as conversations with Deborah Treisman, and it is consistently superb.

Among my guilty pleasures, I loved being distracted by three sites whenever they had an update: What If, for silly questions explored seriously to everyone’s satisfaction; Horsey Surprise, for a satire of online comment trolls, and Textastrophe, for SMS pranks. I didn’t have much time for gaming, but most of what I had went to XCOM: Enemy Unknown, and, in the past few weeks, to Tropico 3, a sort of SimCity where you’re not a city mayor, but a tropical island dictator during the Cold War.

At work, we’re using Dropwizard to structure our web services, and I liked the way it puts all the relevant pieces together. For a personal project, I used and liked node.js and socket.io, and it was refreshingly easy to get my application running with them. I also toyed with D3.js, and I’m looking forward to a time when I can put it to good use—Mike Bostock’s site has fantastic examples of his library at work.

I believe that’s all. If you haven’t read them and are curious, I’ve written similar posts for 2011, 2010, and 2009. I hope you’ll find some of these recommendations useful, and I wish you a Happy New Year!

The Bluff Box

Victoria readers (and especially Fernwood neighbours): a friend of mine is collaborating with a Metchosin farmer to bring local, organic, delicious food weekly from Sea Bluff Farm to Fernwood, from June to November. They called it The Bluff Box. It’s similar to a CSA program, except you pay as you go: $25 for a small box, $40 for the family-size box. I hope you sign up—we need 20 committed customers to get this going!

Mexican House of Spice

Inside the Mexican House of SpiceA friend of us tipped us to a new business in town: the Mexican House of Spice, at 2220 Douglas St. As the name suggests, the store stocks Mexican spices, but it has a lot more stuff: tortilla flour, cheeses (fresco, panela, oaxaca…), tostadas, cactus, dried chiles, tomatillos, tamales, piñatas, and a long et cetera that includes goods from all over Latin America and Africa. It’s a bit like Perolas in Kensington Market, in Toronto. Spread the word and visit the store, to make sure it stays in business!

Circo

Still from "Circo"Val and I went to see “Circo” at the Victoria Film Festival last Saturday. It’s a documentary directed by Aaron Schock about a struggling circus touring rural Mexico, and about the family whose members own it, publicize it, set it up, perform in it, take it down after a day or two, and move on to the next town (tigers, camels, and llamas in tow), barely scraping enough to get by, torn between business and family obligations, dreaming of the days when their acts will be more solid and their crew larger so that they’ll be able to compete in the big cities, but seeing those dreams move farther and farther away with each stop on the road.

It’s a very good documentary, and one of those rare movies that portray Mexico as it really is. It is not afraid of exploring my country’s complexities in full, but it does so gently, sweetly, and lovingly. I hope it will get a wider distribution. Catch it if you can. Here’s an interview with Schock, if you’re interested in learning more.

Recommendations from 2010

We’re wrapping up another year, so I thought of sharing pointers to some of the things that got me excited throughout 2010 while I was not burying my head in my thesis or packing for our move to Victoria.

In terms of books, last year around this time I was very excited by Javier Marías’ trilogy, “Tu Rostro Mañana.” I still haven’t read it, unfortunately, but I did read the older “Corazón tan Blanco,” and I loved its flowing prose and its subtle plot. I was quite surprised with Roberto Bolaño’s “El Tercer Reich“—not by its quality (Bolaño is always fantastic), but by the discovery that he must have been, for a while at least, a boardgame geek: the novel narrates, with plenty of interest, a match of a game that seems to be “The Rise and Decline of the Third Reich” between a German nerd and a tortured South American. I know only two other novels that take a serious look at boardgaming (Kawabata’s “The Master of Go” and Nabokov’s “The Defense“); I love the former, and I have not read the latter.

I also plunged into Proust’s “In Search of Lost Time,” which has taken me a little more than I expected (I’ve only just finished Volume III), but I’m thoroughly enjoying every page. It’s not just the hypnotic prose (and I wish I could read it in the original French), but the blindingly bright cognitive, psychological, and sociological insights—a humbling masterpiece.

Probably the best non-fiction book I read this year was Paul Edwards’ history of the development of climate modeling, “A Vast Machine.” It’s engaging, timely, and fairly accessible, while exploring the difficult epistemological questions of climate simulation. On a different topic, Richard Evans’ historical trilogy of the Third Reich is engrossing and informative, and probably the best I could ask for to understand that brutal period of history.

To get a fascinating individual perspective of that time, you should read or subscribe to the “Orwell Diaries” blog, which posts entries from George Orwell’s journal seventy years to the day (so the most recent entry today is from December 29th, 1940, in the midst of Germany’s campaign of aerial bombings in the UK—thanks to Greg Wilson for the pointer). For more recent events, there are several blogs I came to love this year: George Monbiot‘s provides great commentary on ecological and social affairs (and he engaged in a wrenching debate with my PhD advisor, Steve Easterbrook, on the topic of the East Anglia emails). The New York Times’ “The Stone” blog demonstrates that philosophy is practical and relevant. Boston.com’s “The Big Picture” is a jaw-dropping photo blog (thanks to Michael Tobis for the tip). The New Yorker Fiction podcast features cool short story readings and discussions. And after the G20 meeting in Toronto, I discovered the Waging Nonviolence blog, which among many inspiring news and reflections on non-violence pointed to this essay on the futility of the Black Bloc that I wish was more widely read.

I’ve mentioned some of the great things we’ve discovered in Victoria in the few months we’ve been there (the delicious food from the Puerto Vallarta Amigos’ taco truck, Lifecycles’ fruit picking project), but there’s others I have not talked about: the Good Food Box (which is as great as Toronto’s, except for the fact that deliveries are monthly, not biweekly); the Springridge Commons permaculture garden and the Haultain Boulevard’s street garden, where anybody can come and pick any fruit, vegetable, or herb they like (just leave enough for the rest!); and Transition Victoria, the local Transition initiative, of which I should talk more in a later post.

It wasn’t a great year for new movies for me: we rented plenty of wonderful classics, but I was mostly disappointed at the movie theatre. Two notable exceptions: the mexploitation extravaganza of “Machete” and the Toronto-loving geeky fantasy of “Scott Pilgrim vs. the World.” It wasn’t a great year for boardgames either (though I’m holding out for “The Resistance“), except for the hours and hours I spent playing Go, a game of intimidating depth and beauty that I appreciate more with every match I play (I’m “yorchopolis” at the Dragon Go Server; feel free to invite me to a game!).

Some software tools and I’m done; these may be old news for you, depending on where you’re coming from: I discovered Mendeley for managing my library of academic papers and notes (after painfully parting without my annotated paper copies of hundreds of papers in Toronto), I started taking advantage of Instapaper to reduce the clutter of my browser tabs, and for task management I switched from Toodledo (which was alright) to Omnifocus (expensive, but it fits like a glove!).

That’s it, I think. I hope you enjoy these as much as I have, and I wish you a happy New Year!