rating systems and January books

In keeping with staying off the computer in my free time, I finished three books this month. I'm going to try to keep a monthly log of the books I read here, but no promises. My rating system will be as follows: three stars for books I love, two stars for books I like, and one star for books that were okay. I've worked far too much with user data on a five star scale, and so I know that the five star system is hopelessly skewed--see the plot for an example of some data I use.

People like to spend their time reading good books, though, so it would make sense if good books get more ratings.  Well, let's take a look.  Here's a scatter plot with a smoothed mean.

So popular books do tend to get higher ratings, which makes sense, but we still see a bias, since the least popular books still have an average rating of around 3.  With my rating system, I'm going to try for more of a bell-curve, giving mostly two stars, and about equal number one-star and three-star ratings.  One star books I probably won't recommend to folks, two star books are definitely worth the read, and three star books I might like to read again and will probably push randomly on friends.

Anyway, on to the books!  For January, there was an accidental theme of poverty in all of them that made me want to tighten my belt and always be grateful.

Behind the Beautiful Forevers ★★
A Christmas gift that had been on my to-read list for a while, this nonfiction about a Mumbai slum made me want to donate more.  While there was somewhat of a story arc, it was more about seeing a slice of reality in abundant detail.

Freddy and Fredericka ★★★

A $1 purchase at the library's used book store, this has been one of my favorite reads in a long while. (Mark Helprin is one of my favorite authors, despite my critique of Digital Barbarism that I'll probably never finish.) This book involves a royal couple needing to struggle for survival in America, and it's a staggering trip to go from champagne to homelessness.  There's fantastic distortion of reality, beautiful language, and a tenderness that simply made my soul feel full.

This classic book sat squarely between the two others in both realism and degree of poverty.  There's a Cinderella-like quality to the book, and I'm always a sucker for both reader-girl protagonists and Cinderella stories.


Project Euler

I learned about Project Euler this weekend, and it's been addictive.  I binged at first, but it's a little unhealthy to do such similar things for fun and work; I need to stay balanced and keep off the computer in my down time.  I'm trying to only do one per day now, and go back to knitting and reading.  It's deepening my understanding of both math and programming, but I don't want to burn out too quickly.


ice skating

There are some feats of coordination at which I am horrible.  Tennis is one of them.  So, to match our mildly pretentious summer sport, we've taken up an equally swanky winter sport: ice skating.  At least with tennis, I'm able to stay upright.

For the past few days, we've been ice skating every day, if only for short stints.  About every 5 years the local lake freezes over enough to skate on it, and yesterday it opened. The lake is HUGE. Our outing consisted of meandering across it and getting back to where we started.  NWC could have skated more--in fact, he literally skated circles around me as I worked my way across.

Skating on natural (or semi-natural, since the lake is man-made) bodies of water is really interesting. The ice is much rougher, which I actually like because it gives me greater stability. I also like exploring outdoors, and this is just a new venue for that. You can investigate interesting shapes that the ice makes and things that get stuck in it.  Skating indoors is more about the skating itself, rather than being outside.


growing leaves cowl

When I was at NIPS in December, I knitted this cowl start to finish--conferences involve a lot of sitting a listening, which is prime knitting time. (For those of you who don't know what a cowl is, it's tube-like neck warmer.)  I found it harder to pay attention after I was done with it since I'm not very good at sitting and listening for hours on end, no matter how interesting the topic.

When I started this project, I realized that I knit in a funny way.  The way I learned to knit was as follows: I learned just the knit stitch as a teenager (but not the purl) and made a scarf with just the one stitch.  Then, I decided to relearn for a shawl two summers ago.  That involved purling, and when I was taught how at the yarn store, I didn't like it.  So I spent fifteen minutes at home trying to figure out a smoother way to purl, and went with that.  Since then, I've realized that what I worked out is called combination knitting.  There are a few oddities, but it's much faster and smoother for the stitches you use most frequently.

For this (my third!) knitting project, I had to learn how to decrease stitches where orientation of the slant matters, which is the main peculiarity of the combination method.  That mastered, I feel like I can take anything!  Anyway, I love wearing my cowl and I've gotten a few compliments for it.  It's by no means perfect, but I think I'm ready to start knitting gifts for folks now.


spammer fail

NWC and I will often get research or student spam.  Today, he got one with a failure in the script, addressing him literally as "Dr {$name}."  Full message below the break.


chocolate hazelnut cookies

1¼ sticks butter
1 cups sugar
1 egg
½ tablespoon vanilla extract
1 cup flour
½ teaspoon baking soda
¼ teaspoon salt
½ cup cocoa powder
between ⅓ and ½ cup coarsely chopped hazelnuts

First, the somewhat standard cookie procedure:
  • cream butter and sugar together
  • mix in egg and vanilla, stirring until even
  • add dry ingredients, mixing until homogenous
  • fold in hazelnuts until evenly distributed
Then, roll dough out into 1½ inch diameter log, wrap in wax paper or plastic wrap, and freeze for an hour. Cut log into quarter-inch disks, arrange on a baking sheet, and bake for 10 minutes at 350.  Makes 3 dozen cookies.


music appreciation

I don't usually write about working with the young women at church, mostly because the best stuff is spontaneous and a little effervescent.  But tonight I planned a "music appreciation" night, which involved putting together a jeopardy-like arrangement of index cards in six categories: 20th century pop music (name the decade), classical composers, name the instrument, name the artist, hymn titles, and Disney (name the movie).

It was fun to prepare--all I had to do is go through my music library and pick 30 songs, as well as spend a few minutes writing up the categories and numbers on index cards. I enjoyed finding obscure but still recognizable segments for the Disney category; the hardest one was from Bambi, which many of the girls had never seen. Name-the-decade was probably the most fun to construct, though, as I got to dig through a huge spectrum of music.

The girls seemed to have fun, and everyone got at least one right. The best moment for me is when the visiting girl who only really speaks Portuguese correctly answered the hardest name-the-artist without any real hesitation (it was Avicii's Wake Me Up).

It was interesting to see who shone in which categories, and I learned that one girl plays the flute.  One girl got every single guess-the-decade, from a 1928 Luis Armstrong piece to a 1996 one by Jewel. Another got every single hymn title.  The flautist was a whiz with instrument names.

Everyone avoided the classical composers, but when we finally did them, many of them recognized the music and spent a while mulling them over.  Exposure is the key for this kind of stuff, and I was glad to make them think about it.  I was also happy to teach them what a harpsichord sounds like, and that no, those are bagpipes, not a piccolo.


Lily pads of ice

This morning nwc and I went to inspect the Delaware, since rumor had held that it has been so cold of late that it had frozen over in places and that chunks of ice were floating downstream.  While we did not witness any freezing over (except for bits around the edges, as expected), I can testify to seeing giant lily pad-like chunks of slushy ice floating down the river at a much higher velocity than I anticipated.  They made lovely sounds when they ran into each other, like two sandbags cuddling for a nap.  Still, I'm glad that it's warming up.


magnificent people

I don't often remember dreams, but when I do, they're either bizarre, or they're about random people I know or have known in real life.  The acquaintances that I remember from my dreams are usually people I think about in a certain way.

They are the people that I wish I had known better, the ones that stood out in some way.  Perhaps they were (and hopefully still are) particularly articulate, accomplished, or self-aware.  Often they seemed to possess some kind of wisdom.  They are magnificent specimens of the human race.

I don't usually like to talk about my admiration for these people because it could easily be taken the wrong way, but I'd be remiss if I didn't admit that I do love them in the agape sense of the word.  I've recently realized, however, that the problem isn't in feeling this divine-type love for people.  Rather, it's in not feeling it for everyone else.

It's easy to love beauty, be it physical or intellectual.  It is much harder to cultivate love for people that are boring in some sense.  It's also easy to love from afar; when you interact more closely with people, you see the dirt under their fingernails.  From there, it's easy to put them in a box with everyone else who has dirt under their fingernails.

I have no solution for now, but I think this realization it helpful in itself.  At the very least, this awareness can be used to help transfer some of my respect from the magnificent people to the mundane.