Cuevano ~ Jorge Aranda

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.


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.


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.

Property-based testing with Hypothesis

Over at the Limbic Hack blog, I’ve posted a new article on how to do property-based testing with Hypothesis. Hope you like it!

Programming Robot Turtles genetically

A heads-up that we have a fairly new blog for tinkering stuff where I work at Limbic Media, and I just posted a little article on an attempt to do genetic programming in Python—go read it!

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)