The Year in Review And Beyond

Inspired by David Collum’s epic Year in Review post (and it is epic in both senses of the word and I highly recommend you read it), here is my year in review that once upon a time was a semi-regular occurrence around The Experiment but like The Experiment itself has fallen on hard times lately. Perhaps a mini epic post (like Lonesome Dove, Abridged) could reawaken the slumbering literary dwarf within me.

Events
Picasso came into our lives this year after we lost Rocky last December. We got him from SPCA Dallas and he has been a happy addition to the family. He has a personality that is a cross between Garfield and Bucky. Vincent and Scooter put up with him as well as they can.

Learning
My main learning goal last year was Spanish. I definitely did not spend 180 hours on Spanish. I don’t have a set routine at home for studying Spanish so the main way I get in time is on the train. Unfortunately, there were two large projects at work this year that involved lots of working late and taking the train home late is right below “Prostate exam” on my list of favorite things to do. So for two months in the summer and six weeks in the fall, train riding, and thus Spanish lessons, ground to a halt. This is a lame excuse but the only one I have. On the upside, I actually learned a lot of Spanish in the time I did spend. Duolingo currently says I’m 2% fluent which is probably about right. That sounds pathetic after a full year but I can read at a higher rate than that for sure. Listening is still a problem but I’m starting to pick up words from random conversations (especially if they revolve around cerveza or carne or tacos de lengua). Assuming work life returns to something resembling normality, I think my fluency rate will start to ramp up as I get enough foundation laid.

Travel
The big trip for the year was my company trip to Beaches Turks and Caicos. This was an incredible vacation to a destination we wouldn’t likely have visited or been able to afford on our own. We went in September which is the lowest of the low season and that certainly helped. We had the resort to ourselves and in talking to several staff members, the difference in number of visitors in September compared to the high season of April-June was extreme. The diving was excellent, on par with the reefs of Belize without having to go far off shore. If we were to ever visit again, I would definitely want to dive during the week because they go farther offshore and to different locations. There were 19 restaurants on premises and never any shortage of new food to try. Favorites were the French restaurant Le Petit Chateau and the Japanese restaurant Kimono’s. We didn’t do any off premise excursions because the resort was so large. I think we definitely could have spent a week there with no problems.

Probably an equally fun trip was a week long excursion to Gulf Shores, Alabama with friends. We stayed in a 5 bedroom house on the bay with beautiful sunsets and access to a pier right behind the house. The beach was an easy walk from there and we spent large amounts of time in the surf. We ate and drank like gluttons but it was vacation and thus perfectly expected.

We camped in two new locations. The first was over Labor Day in Caprock Canyons State Park. We went that way in an attempt to escape the heat but largely failed as it was 95+ during the day all weekend. The park was beautiful and it looked like the hiking was really good but we didn’t get to do nearly as much as we would have liked because of the heat. In the future, we’ll want to book earlier to get an electric campsite as all the tent camp sites are a decent walk from the parking area and not particularly secluded from each other.

In November, we camped at Caddo Lake State Park with friends. It was pretty rainy but we still managed to have quite a bit of fun. The canoeing was the best part as we went quite aways down the new paddling trail there. It’s very serene and peaceful back in the swamp. I’d like to do another trip there and take the gear out to the WMA via canoes or kayaks for more primitive camping.

Books
Skink – No Surrender – I love Carl Hiassen and his crusade through fiction to increase the public’s appreciation for Florida’s disappearing natural beauty. This is actually a young adult book that I must have accidentally requested from the library but it’s a fun and easy read, good for the beach or the train. His characters are a wacky group of oddballs and misfits who thrive in the craziness of South Florida. Probably not too exciting for narco fascist real estate developer types but everyone else should find his books fun to read.

To Rise Again At A Decent Hour – This book popped up in my consciousness randomly when I saw a review for it in the Dallas Morning News. Ferris’ voice isn’t mainstream and it takes a little while to decide if the book is good. But there are some good characters here and there is definitely a theme of community and its meaning that I found inspiring. I was reminded of The Broom of the System as I read it as both books switch between reality and fantasy regularly.

Shop Class as Soulcraft – More fully reviewed here but this book had a profound effect on my thinking about our throwaway society and our inability to treasure what we have.

The Wilderness Warrior – Reviewed here

Switch – An excellent book on why our efforts at self-change largely fail and ways to change that. A book length exposition on The Elephant and The Rider originally explained in The Happiness Hypothesis, this book explains why we struggle to lose weight, learn a language, make more friends or workout more. Finding ways to motivate the Elephant and ways to not overwhelm the Rider are key. Search YouTube for great videos from the authors if you want an introduction into how you can manage change in your life.

The 4 Hour Work Week – Tim Ferriss’ first book laying out the ideas behind the rest of his media empire. Thought provoking to say the least, I came away from this book with more understanding of passive income and the effects it can have on your life. While I don’t ascribe to his ideas of lots of mini-retirements instead of one long boring one at the end of life (mostly because I don’t want to live in Hong Kong or Australia or wherever), the idea of having a steady flow of passive income that frees you from the addiction of a steady paycheck is appealing. Appealing enough that one of my goals this year is to follow through on acquiring a modicum of passive income (see Goals).

Fear and Loathing In Las Vegas – Hunter S. Thompson’s epic tale of debauchery and gonzo journalism, I read this on the beach in Gulf Shores because it seemed slightly fitting. I wonder how much of our reliance on Reality TV for entertainment in today’s world has its roots in the work of Hunter S. Thompson. Fiction and non-fiction began to converge with his work (see also The Kentucky Derby Is Decadent and Depraved, a favorite of mine) and this was where it started.

The Long Narrow Road To The Deep North – An incredible book following the life of one man through his journeys in POW camps in the Pacific theater in World War II and the effects of a singular love of a woman throughout. I’m seeing many of the same themes in Charles Frazier’s Thirteen Moons that I’m reading now. The Long Narrow Road is depressing in its vivid descriptions of the lives of POWs under Japanese control. A strong sense of fatalism runs through the course of the novel and is epitomized by the Japanese officers in their brutal actions towards the prisoners. One of the best books I read in 2015.

That Old Ace In The Hole – I think my mom gave me this book a long time ago when she inherited it from someone. I had originally found it slow and uninteresting. Like the brussel sprouts of my youth, I guess I wasn’t ready for it yet. It had been sitting on my bookshelf unread for years patiently waiting and I pulled it down this summer. I’m not sure how it stayed there so long. As an Amarillo boy, this tale of a man working for Global Pork Rind Company as a scout for possible pig farms in the Texas and Oklahoma Panhandles struck home both because my grandparents’ farm in the Oklahoma Panhandle was sold as a potential pig farm and for the sweeping descriptions of the landscapes of those areas. Most people encounter the Panhandle and find it lacking of all interesting features but there is an aching beauty in the plains and grasslands that is sublime. This book captures much of that for me and I think I found it more interesting on second reading many years older as I realize things I miss about that area of Texas.

The Graveyard Book – Highly recommended to me by Mara, this was my first introduction to Neil Gaiman and a worthy one. The fantasy world Gaiman creates inhabited by all manners of good and evil and in-between characters is rich and engrossing. More and more my taste in fiction revolves around epic tales of a singular life and while this book is fantasy, it fits the bill. I need to put a few more Gaiman books on my list for 2016.

The World’s Largest Man – Easily the funniest book I have ever read. Mara would often mention to Scooter “He’s reading the book that makes him giggle cry again.” It’s a memoir of the author’s father and the experience of growing up in the rural South. Nothing I say about it can explain how funny it is so you should just read it. Read this as a precursor and try not to shoot milk out your nose (especially if you’re drinking coffee).

All The Pretty Horses – The first book in Cormac McCarthy’s border trilogy (The Crossing and Cities of the Plain being the other two), this book is representative of McCarthy’s incredible use of the English language to describe the old west in different terms that we used to see in the westerns of Louis L’Amour and others. McCarthy is one of the great novelists of this and the last century. I tried once to read The Road which is his latest but found it too depressing. However, all other books of his including Blood Meridian, The Orchard and Suttree have been outstanding.

Goals
In recent years, my goals have been very similar and they are unlikely to change much this year. I’d like to get to 10% fluency or so in Spanish according to Duolingo. Once again, it feels like the 2015 hunting season got away from me. I didn’t go bowhunting in October at all when the season first opened and just haven’t spent much time in the woods. I’m hoping to have a lease next year but we’ll see if that works out with everything else that is on the table. I’d like my exercise to be more consistent regardless of weather. I regularly use the heat of the summer as an excuse not to workout but I’m finding it harder and harder to come back from 2 months off. Probably the biggest goal for this year is to have some form of a passive income stream. I’m setting the bar pretty low I think in saying I’d like to be able to make one mortgage payment from passive income this year which would be $750. I feel like my best chance at that is to write books that people want to read so the main focus in the first part of 2016 will be on that. That will probably require an entire post in itself though.

I’ve had a goal of writing letters for two years now and it’s never even sort of been achieved. Neither did last year’s “Write 52 things”. I might have written 10 things. I’d like to reattempt both of those again. The key to goals though is having set times and habits for achieving them and I worry that there are too many things I think I want to do. Spanish is easy enough with consistent train rides but writing letters and blog posts and exercising require set times in the schedule. Something as specific as “write a letter on the 1st and 15th of each month” would probably be sufficient. So I’ll try these goals that have ways to track them built in.

  • Become 10% fluent in Spanish by studying for 180 hours
  • Be more fit by averaging 300 a minutes of exercise a week
  • Write 26 letters by writing one on the first and third Saturday of every month
  • Read 18 books (this will be a 50% increase over last year but again should be easier with regular train ride
  • Have a passive income stream of at least $750 a year by writing a book 1000 people buy

Looking Forward with Trepidation
If you read Collum’s tome linked above (or have a lick of sense or follow Zerohedge on Twitter), you probably realize things aren’t so good out in the real world. According to Credit Suisse, 25% of all Americans have a negative net worth. Pensions across the country are horribly underfunded. The six biggest banks in the world are now 50% bigger than they were at the beginning of the financial crisis that nearly destroyed the world (or so we’re told). We are now in the 6th longest recovery since the Civil War (read: we are long overdue for a correction). The Fed has expanded their balance sheet to extremes we’ve never seen before. S&P 500 forward earnings are plummeting while the S&P continues to saunter northward. The dollar is getting stronger and stronger while other currencies are getting weaker and weaker. I have a tendency of reading sources that just strengthen my confirmation bias (don’t we all?) but it seems to me that the US economy is teetering on the brink. This “recovery” has been just about as weak as it could be while still being considered a recovery. Collum makes the analogy of walking into your kid’s room and pulling out some building blocks. Start stacking them up as high as you can. Eventually you reach a point where some seemingly unrelated random event causes the whole thing to come crashing down. A cat sneezes or a branch falls on the roof or a dust mite gets a wild hair and lands on top. When things are structurally unsound, it doesn’t take much to push them over. The US economy (and to an equal or even greater degree, the entire world) feels like it’s a big stack of children’s blocks.

What to do about that? It seems to me that being a contrarian is almost always the way to go as it relates to stocks, gambling or Settlers of Cataan. That is, do what other people aren’t. The American people have more debt that they know what to do with? You should do everything in your power to have zero debt. Stocks going up in spite of bad news and bad forward earnings? Sell. Gold and silver and oil at multi-year lows? Maybe time to buy some. Governments declaring war on cash? Make sure you have some around, preferably in harder assets than the paper they print.

I’m no economist though that should hardly disqualify me from writing about the economy given most economists dismal track records. But I do understand regression to the mean and law of averages and how evolution works to some degree. And so if we’re in one of the longest recoveries on record without a recession and none of the crap financial genetic material that caused the last disaster got cleaned out, I feel like we’re overdue for some pain. And that tends to worry me a little. But who knows? Let’s just go buy something at the after Christmas sale and we’ll all feel better.

Conclusion
I don’t have any. If you came here for conclusions, you’ve been horribly misled. Overall, we had a pretty good year here at the Experiment. Here’s to a successful and prepared 2016 as well.

Ruby Arrays of Objects and Unions

I’m working through the Advent of Code and needed to union two Ruby arrays of objects together based on some properties on said objects. I wasn’t having much luck getting it to work and my Google fu was failing but I finally figured out the issue and want to post it here in case someone else ever manages to search using the right terms.

The key here is that you can’t just override eql?. You have to also override the hash method. So for a Position class, it might look like this:

class Position
  attr_reader :x, :y

  def hash
    [@x, @y].hash
  end

  def initialize(coord=[])
    if coord==[]
      @x = 0
      @y = 0
    else
      @x = coord[0]
      @y = coord[1]
    end
  end

  def eql?(other_object)
    @x == other_object.x && @y == other_object.y
  end
end

This would allow the union of two arrays of Position objects to only include Positions that are unique by X and Y coordinates.