Last Year Counted: 2014 In Review

year-in-review-2

“I have a simple rule: whenever it comes to a birthday or a December 31st just ensure that the last year counted.” Dave Cornthwaite.

Today, in a way marks both anniversaries. While it’s a month into the new year as I write this, most of the thinking behind it was done around the end of December. Tomorrow is also my 25th birthday. When I was looking back on 2014 I stumbled across Dave’s quote and it resonated with me. Dave is an adventurer who’s on a crazy quest to do 25 thousand-mile journeys using different forms of non-motorised transport. He’s built the life he wants for himself and it’s massively inspiring.

Last year was the best year of my life. Was it perfect? No, and I failed on many of the things I set out to do, but where I succeeded I fucking succeeded.

At the start of last year, I reflected on 2013 and set myself goals in a few areas for 2014: fitness, knowledge, finance, and adventure. I also set myself monthly challenges. So let’s take them one by one.

Fitness

Fitness was a totally mixed bag. The first half of the year was fantastic. The second half, however, was awful. Once I returned from sailing (more on that in a minute) I failed to get back into the swing of things. Injury, illness, work, personal stuff and anything else that could get in the way, did. My gym moved from 15 minutes from my house to 45.

There were some interesting highlights. While my BJJ suffered, I took up Olympic Weightlifting and after 4 weeks training, entered a competition which was a blast. I also got to train in Marcello Garcia’s in New York and another gym in Copenhagen.

Knowledge

At the start of the year I set out to read 52 books; I read 67. Unfortunately I didn’t read all the books I originally planned to. I’m going to tackle this particular subject in another blog post.

Photography ended up taking up a lot of my learning focus. I’m now significantly more competent with Photoshop than before and have completely outgrown my current camera. An upgrade is on the horizon.

I didn’t, however, dedicate any real time to design or coding. I’m not sure I’ll get to them in much depth this year either.

Finance

Financially things blew up. I had 52 tutorials published on the Tuts+ network and also produced a course on Setting Up Your Mac For Photo and Video Editing that should be out in the next month or two.

As well as writing for Tuts+, I branched out to other sites. The major one was MakeUseOf who I wrote about 25 articles for in the three months of the year.

I also wrote for a couple of new sites where the articles haven’t been published yet.

It was an odd twist. The projects I thought would pay off in 2014 didn’t and the ones I hadn’t thought much about have turned into a serious source of revenue.

Adventure

Adventure was another area where things went way better than expected. I’d originally not planned to do too much travelling. Instead I ended up sailing between Denmark and Spain, stopping at Germany, Belgium and France along the way. I also spent some time in England, elsewhere in Ireland and. for New Year went to Puerto Rico with a two day stop over in New York on the way home.

Monthly Challenges

Every month I set myself a challenge. Generally it was to a specific thing every day or X times a week, though sometimes it was broader. These challenges were a great success. Some of them I failed to reach but still got lots done anyway. The goals were:

  • January: Stretch every day
  • February: 30 mins resting squat every day
  • March: Hill sprints every day
  • April: 7 hours sleep a night
  • May: Meditate every day
  • June: 8 gym sessions a week
  • July: 8 books
  • August: Cook 3 new things a week
  • September: Write for new sites
  • October: Do things
  • November: Write 1000 words per day
  • December: Meditate every day (again)

The hardest one far and away was trying to meditate. It’s something I really want to do but struggle to have the patience to. I’ll have to tackle it again next year.

So that’s my year. It counted. In the next post I’ll look at what I’m going to be doing in 2015.

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas Review (3/52)

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas by Hunter S. Thompson is ridiculous, insane, and hilariously funny. Although a novel, it is based on the (hopefully exaggerated) events of Thompson and the attorney, Oscar Zeta Acosta. In short, Hunter and Acosta’s pseudonymous characters, Raoul Duke and Dr. Gonzo, go to Vegas with more drugs than a mid-sized pharmacy. Duke is there to report on two events, a motor race and a police conference; Dr. Gonzo is along for the ride. Drugs are consumed, repeatedly; hilarity ensues.

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is one of the best books I’ve read. In between detailing chemically induced hallucinations and the fallout from said hallucinations, Thompson takes cutting shots at everything from Vegas itself (“The Circus-Circus is what the whole hep world would be doing Saturday night if the Nazis had won the war.”) to his profession (“Journalism is not a profession or a trade. It is a cheap catch-all for fuckoffs and misfits — a false doorway to the backside of life, a filthy piss-ridden little hole nailed off by the building inspector, but just deep enough for a wino to curl up from the sidewalk and masturbate like a chimp in a zoo-cage.”) It is these interludes that make the book. While Thompson describing what it is like to stand in a hotel lobby hallucinating that everyone else is a lizard had me in stitches, it was the cutting interjections that made the book.

Thompson shares a lot in common with Martin Amis (Money was one of my favourite books of last year). Both chronicle the chemically induced idiocy of questionable characters. Both use their novels, and wit, to comment on society as they see it. Both include themselves in the novel even! I’m really enjoying these darker books and will have to add more as some of the as-yet-undecided-novels I suspect. I have several more on the list including some Brett Easton Ellis. It will be interesting to see how I feel about them.

If you haven’t read Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, do yourself a favour. Go. Read it. Now.

The Sarantine Mosaic Review (1/52 and 2/52)

Sarantine Mosaic Covers

The Sarantine Mosaic is a duology, consisting of Sailing to Sarantium and Lord of Emperors, by Guy Gavriel Kay. Kay’s The Lions of Al-Rassan was one of the best books I read last year, so, when I embarked on my plan to read at least 52 books this year, I was keen to include some more of his work. It was hardly a surprise to me then, when I loved both books.

The Sarantine Mosaic covers a few months of the life of a mosaicist. These particular months are during a period of tension (religious, cultural, personal, and miscellaneous) in an analogue of Justinian I’s rule of Constantinople. The titles, and settings, are allusions to W. B. Yeat’s poem, Sailing to Byzantium.

It seems to have become normal for authors to drag their characters’ stories out over eight, ten, or more books, milking the literary creativity (and cash) cow for every drop. While there is undeniably pleasure in returning to the same characters you know and love, it is very refreshing that Kay seems to regard them as something to be played with once (or in this case, twice). Authors like George R. R. Martin, Robert Jordan, and J.R.R. Tolkien may argue that the “tale grew in the telling”, but for Kay, the tale is set from the get go. His books cover the critical incidents in his characters lives and no more. In fact, after finishing two of Kay’s works, I am left wanting more from all the characters. Hardly a bad thing.

Kay’s settings are where he leaves lesser authors in the dirt. Rather than retread the same ground that has been stomped on by every other since Tolkien, Kay mines the depths of history. The Lions of Al-Rassan is set in an analogue of medieval Spain, and the Sarantine Mosaic an analogue of Constantinople. His other work features analogues of China and England. But rather than just take a historical location, Kay fully adapts the setting; many of the characters in his books are adaptations of historical figures. This leads Kay to create incredibly human characters. By working with real tensions and conflicts, and recasting them in a fantastical setting, Kay creates engrossing tales that positively ring with authenticity.

Kay also has a gift for words. While many authors get by with workmanlike prose that gets the story told, you get the sense with Kay that every word has been carefully chosen for fit and context. He is a mosaicist, while some authors are “brickys”. Kay alludes to poetry, history, and carefully chooses his words because he has a deep appreciation of language and culture. It is this appreciation that shines through in his books, and it is this appreciation that makes them spectacular.

Go, read some Guy Gavriel Kay. The reason The Sarantine Mosaic is excellent is the same reason The Lions of Al-Rassan is excellent; Kay is an excellent writer. There is no point critiquing his books on character or plot or setting, I don’t think Kay is capable of fucking these things up. Instead, Kay moves far beyond the bare building blocks of a book. The joy of his work is in the details, the tesserae even.

A few of my favourite audiobooks

I have a serious love affair with audiobooks. I could never easily do a short list of my favourite audiobooks. For one thing, too many of them are part of long series and I love all the books in it! Instead this post will talk about a few audiobooks that I have particularly enjoyed for one reason or another.


Guards! Guards!

Written by Terry Pratchett; Read by Nigel Planer

Terry Pratchett is one of my all time favourite authors. He’s published close on 50 books in his Discworld series and all of them are wonderful. The books are all loosely tied together, though there are a series of arcs each focused on a different group of characters. My favourite arc is the one focussed on Commander Vimes and the City Watch. Guards! Guards! is the first book in that arc and if it doesn’t hook you, you have no soul! It’s 10 hours, 10 minutes long, so perfect for a week worth of commutes.


One Summer: America 1927

Written and read by Bill Bryson

One Summer is the most recently published book on this list and it is a stand in for anything Bill Bryson has written. All of his books are somewhat similar, they take a time period or a theme and use that as a jumping off point to tell wonderful stories about how the world changed, and the people involved in changing it. One Summer is focussed on, what Bryson argues, is the critical moment in America’s ascendancy in the 20th century. This is not a short book, clocking in at a hair over 17 hours, but it is well worth listening to.


Outliers: The Story of Success

Written and read by Malcolm Gladwell

Like Bryson, Gladwell’s whole back catalogue is excellent and Outliers is merely a stand in for anything he’s written. It is however, Gladwell’s largest contribution to pop culture. In it, he popularised the 10000 Hour Rule, the idea that it takes 10000 hours of deliberate practice to become an expert in anything. Again, in a similar manner to Bryson, Gladwell uses this as a hook to discuss a wide variety of people and situations, all of which are fascinating. It’s nice and short, just under 7 and a half hours, and poppy enough that you will breeze through it and come away feeling slightly cleverer (which I think is Gladwell’s aim).


The Name of the Wind

Written by Patrick Rothfuss; Read by Rupert Degas

I cannot stress how awesome this book is. I have recommended it to countless people, and countless keep have recommending it to me. I have not spoken to one person who has not adored The Name of the Wind. Think of this book as a far more adult, and far better, spiritual successor to Harry Potter and you won’t go far wrong. No mere plot summary can do it justice so I won’t even try. Just trust me. It is wonderfully long, Part One is over 16 hours, Part Two almost 12, and not one moment of that is a drag.


The Fry Chronicles: An Autobiography

Written and read by Stephen Fry

The Fry Chronicles picks up from where the previous volume in his autobiography, Moab is My Washpot, and Stephen Fry gives the perfect example of how good an autobiography read by the author can be. The emotion in Fry’s voice as he describes his bipolar disorder and depression even when he was at his most successful, is moving. Eloquent and engaging, The Fry Chronicles is definitely one to listen to. It won’t take too long either, at just under 12 and a half hours.


The Eye of the World

Written by Robert Jordan; Read by Kate Reading and Michael Kramer

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the book that got me started with audiobooks. The Eye of the World is the first book in Robert Jordan’s epic Wheel of Time series (and by epic, I mean epic, the entire fourteen book series runs to more than 460 hours). Written, in part, because Jordan didn’t think the Lord of the Rings was long enough, it is my all time favourite series and if you want to be entertained for months, listen to the whole thing through. Like with The Name of the Wind, a plot summary from me can’t do it justice. The series starts in a small village and ends up dealing with the political clashes of countries and cultures. The first book is just over 30 hours so you’re getting your moneys worth from the start!

So that is a small taste of some of my favourite audiobooks. Even if none of these books interest you, pick up a free audiobook from audible and try out something that does. You won’t regret it!

Instapaper Review

Every so often I’m going to post a quick review of some of my favourite apps – whether they are for OSX iOS or anything else. My previous review of Camera+ is here.

Instapaper

Instapaper LogoI use Instapaper more than I use almost any other app. Developed by Marco Arment, the original developer at Tumblr so that he would have great material to read on his way to work, Instapaper fills a need that you didn’t know you had: it gives you the ability to send interesting articles you find on the internet to your phone or tablet so you can read it later; even if ‘later’ has no internet connection.

By clicking on a little button in your browser, the content of whatever page you have open is stripped of ads, given basic formatting and sent to your phone or tablet. By opening the app on your device, you download the barebones article and can read it whenever you want. This even works with multi-page articles like some newspapers or magazine sites use. 90% of the time the formatting works perfectly, the other 10% of time it ranges from getting extraneous text, such as menus, at the top of the post (www.gizmodo.co.uk I’m looking at you) to being completely unreadable. However, Instapaper overcomes this by having a built in browser. The browser is also great for quickly following up on links in the articles.

Instapaper also integrates with other apps I use a lot like Twitter and Reeder, a RSS reader. The only app it does not integrate wish that I wish it did is facebook – but that is hardly Marco’s fault. In total, Instapaper integrates with almost 150 other apps!

One of my favourite features of Instapaper is the cross device syncing. If I start reading an article on my iPhone I can pick up at exactly the same spot on my iPad and vice versa. The iPad is a much more pleasant device to read on but I have it with me much less; it’s great to be able to start something on my iPhone when I’m out and then continue it once I’m at home with the iPad.

Instapaper has made me read a lot of long-form journalism. Articles that originally appear in Time or Esquire that you won’t, or can’t, read at your computer are perfect for reading over breakfast or on the bus. Instapaper has also made it really easy to find these articles with “The Feature” – a curated collection of the articles sent most to Instapaper. I have found some fantastic article through it.

Instapaper is available on the iPhone, iPad, Kindle Fire, Android and Kindle. The phone and table apps work as expected, click a button in your browser and the link is sent to your device. The kindle service works a little differently; a collection of up to ten unread articles are sent to your kindle either daily or weekly.

Instapaper is not free – it’s €2.99. It’s worth every cent. I have read more newspaper and magazine articles on Instapaper than in the paper equivalent in the last year. I’m happy to pay the price of one paper or magazine for such a fantastic tool. If you aren’t, then Instapaper isn’t for you – but you’re missing out.

There are free alternatives to it that I have checked out and they simply don’t stack up to Instapaper. The alternatives often bill themselves as having more features however, all the extra features are useless if the basic ones are poorly implemented. In particular, cross device syncing is a big test – and Instapaper is the only one that passed properly.