February & March Book Reviews

These are some books I’ve been reading or listening to in the months of February and March. Hope you enjoy them too.

Paddle Your Own Canoe

Paddle Your Own Canoe – Nick Offerman (audiobook)

Nick Offerman gives a glimpse into his Ron Swanson-like life. He starts in his childhood where he grew up on a farm, transitions to acting school in Chicago, works on several plays then finally ends up as Ron Swanson on the ever-popular Parks and Rec.

This book is not only a history of Offerman’s life, but also shares his personal philosophy, ideas about life, and even a song. Because of the song, I would definitely recommend the audiobook (or just watch it on YouTube). His dry sardonic humor is seen throughout the book and I was laughing all the way through. Offerman has an immense vocabulary and cleverly inspires you to be a better person.
A great theme from his book is his adamant plea to get the reader to craft something with his or her hands. He shows how this lost art has improved his life and can easily improve the lives of others. One chapter discusses the value of hand-written cards and how a little creativity can show more love and care than just buying something expensive. He talks about how he has made cards from a board, paper products, and even a pair of panties.
Offerman’s book is intelligent, interesting, and should be on a must-read list. Paddle Your Own Canoe: One Man’s Fundamentals for Delicious Living

Countdown to Zero DayCountdown to Zero Day – Kim Zetter

This book discloses the story of Stuxnet – a virus famous for inhibiting nuclear production of the Natanz facility in Iran. The ingenious virus infected the Simmons PLCs – computers that control industrial equipment – and changed the frequency of the spinning centrifuges to physically damage them and slow down production. Zetter does a great job of weaving a mysterious story in between technical descriptions of the virus code and political conflict.
The story is told in a deductive way revealing three main characters that deciphered the virus and never gave up. Chien, Fallier, and O’Murchu solve various parts of the code. There are, not one, but four zero-day exploits used in the virus. The source of the virus is not surprisingly the United States and Israeli governments.
As an IT person, I found the story and the virus details to be interesting, however the political parts of the book seemed dry to me. I would recommend this book to anyone who is interested in technology, politics, or learning more about Stuxnet. It can be a little boring at times, but I think Zetter did the best anyone could have with the story that existed. Countdown to Zero Day: Stuxnet and the Launch of the World’s First Digital Weapon

Choose Your Own AutobiographyChoose Your Own Autobiography – Neil Patrick Harris

Most would agree that Neil Patrick Harris is a funny guy – there is no exception when it comes to his autobiography. It is written in the style of a Choose Your Own Adventure book, and is probably one of the only autobiographies written mainly in second person.
Not only is the format of the book clever and hilarious, but the content is great too. Learning about NPH, his love for magic, his career in two long-running TV shows as Doogie Howser and Barney Stinson. His book does not seem conceited, but is a genuine look into his life. I would recommend the hard copy of this book over the Kindle edition or the audiobook, because you’ll be flipping through the pages and reading out of order. Neil Patrick Harris: Choose Your Own Autobiography

The Three Body ProblemThe Three Body Problem – Cixin Liu translated by Ken Liu

This science fiction adventure involves video games, aliens, China, politics, and scientific advancements. The story follows Wang Miao, an applied-research scientist who is working on creating a nano-material called flying blade gets caught between a rough-edged cop, the military, and a secret society of scientists that plots for the destruction of the human race.
The book gives a peek into the Chinese Cultural Revolution, which is something I was unfamiliar with. The Cultural Revolution began in the 1960s and led to the formation of the People’s Republic of China under the Communist government system. As a Westerner, this was a topic of interest to me. Learning about different ways of life and understanding them from a native’s perspective is always interesting to me.
The rich description of the video game in the book is astounding. Describing a video game would generally seem boring to me, but the author grants the reader access to a virtual world that seems almost real.
This book was hugely popular in China and I can see why. It is well thought out. I don’t normally read science fiction, but I would recommend this book. I loved the voices on the audiobook. Shi Qiang’s – the gruff police officer’s – voice is my favorite. The author did not try to add Chinese accents to the translated book, which I appreciate, as the book characters in the book were originally speaking the same language as the narrator. I can’t wait until the two other books in the trilogy are translated. The Three-Body Problem

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January Book Review

I know that we are well into February, but here are some books that I read in January and what I thought about them.

Velvet Elvis, Rob Bell

Velvet Elvis

I had previously read Rob Bell’s Love Wins and enjoyed it so much I decided to get this book. It seems to be in a similar vein to Love Wins. Rob Bell talks about his journey with Mars Hill church, how quickly it grew and overwhelmed him. He seems real and vulnerable in this book and gives some great idea for the church.

He talks about the church and his ideas about where it’s at and hints at where it should go. One idea that he provides that is particularly powerful to me is the idea of redefining God. He talks about how the church has put God into a box and how we should still be trying to figure out who He is.

Yes Please, Amy Poehler

Yes Please

I listened to this book on audiobook, and it was hugely enjoyable. Amy Poehler brings her life to light in the most hilarious way. I know Amy Poehler from Parks and Rec as the hilarious Leslie Knope.

After listening to this book, I feel like many of the things in Poehler’s life are mirrored in her characterization of Leslie Knope. Throughout the book she speaks of how hard she worked to get to the top. She expresses how it was not about her having connections or money, but rather about all the groundwork she put in to get better and better comedy jobs. In Parks and Rec, Leslie Knope works her ass off even when she knows nobody’s watching, because she knows what’s best for the community. I feel like Amy knows what’s best for herself and works hard to get it.

She has a chapter about sleep and how it escapes her constantly. She is so busy working, and raising her kids, and writing the book, and doing everything else. Leslie Knope never seems to sleep. She is always working to make things better. Amy works so hard and this book shows it.

The book is rife with poetry, letters, and prose that she has written about things in her life as well as her narrative. The poems and letters are hilarious, and reading just one of them will lure you into the book.

Amy Poehler is an inspirational person and I would definitely recommend this book. If you pick up the audiobook copy, it even has guest stars.

Does Jesus Really Love Me?, Jeff Chu

Does Jesus Really Love MeWhat a touching book: Jeff Chu, a Chinese-American gay Christian journalist, takes a journey across America interviewing various people about the stat of Christianity and the LGBT community. In a true journalistic fashion, he includes many perspectives from varying sides of the argument.

Near the beginning of the book, he interviews members of Westboro Baptist Church. He makes a bold statement by interviewing these people who are clearly opposed to his worldview and including the results of the interview in his book. I applaud his boldness.

He interviews various people who have been involved in Exodus groups. Exodus groups are Christian groups who claim they can pray the gay away. It seems from the interviews that these groups have unsurprisingly low success rates.

Throughout his interviews he intersperses his own story as well as some emails from a touching story of a Christian person who is struggling with coming out.

This is a rough issue to cover, and I feel that Jeff does a great job covering all sides. He covers everything from gay atheists and Westboro Baptist Church to gay non-celibate pastors. I would recommend it to anyone who is interested in learning more about how Christianity can work with the LGBT community, as the church has a long road to acceptance.

I’m F*cking Sorry

In December of 2014 I started a new job. I have encountered the most bizarre phenomenon people apologize to me for swearing as if I were a priest. I’m not quite sure the reason of this. I’m not sure whether they are embarrassed, uncertain if I will be offended, or if I unconsciously give them some sort of look that says that I don’t like what they are saying. I try to keep my word-based antics to a minimum at work to be “professional,” however I don’t feel offended when other people speak as they would like to.

I’ve been saying a few swear words than I normally would at a place-of-work to see if I can get out the idea that I don’t care, but it hasn’t seemed to work yet.

Dear co-workers,

You can say what you like without apologizing. It’s ok. I’m cool with you talking how you feel. Anyway, I know that you are still getting used to me as I am getting used to you. But fucking seriously, I’m okay with your shit. ;)

With love,

–Matt Farah

Why I’m leaving Xbox Music for Spotify

Spotify > XBM

 

 

 

 

I’ve been with Xbox Music since the original Zune, and this month I decided to cancel Xbox Music subscription in favor of Spotify Premium. I’ve had good and bad times with Xbox Music/Zune, but Spotify suits my purposes better, so therefore I am pledging my $9.99 a month to Spotify.

Why Spotify?

In December – around the holidays – I received a friendly email from Paypal. The email enticed me with an offer I couldn’t resist. Three months of Spotify Premium for the low, low price of $3. Paypal/Spotify’s advertising gurus carefully crafted a deal too sweet for me to pass on. I said, “What the Hell? Spotify has a Windows Phone app. Let’s see what all the buzz is about.”

I’ve heard friends praise Spotify over and over, but had no idea that it was any different than Xbox Music. As a Microsoft loyalist, I had probably downloaded Spotify once, but never really used it.

The Zune Days

zune-1-1024x549

 

 

 

 

 

I remember Zune. I loved my Zune and most of all the Zune software. For $15 a month, one could procure unlimited DRMed music plus 10 songs DRM free a month — this is how I got most of the music I own. The Zune (like an iPod) was great and the software was even better. It featured album and playlist management, looked fresh, and had it’s own built-in social network for sharing favorite songs and playlists.

Switching to Xbox Music

Switching from Zune to Xbox Music was a natural choice when the Zune brand died in 2011. I continued to use Zune until Xbox Music launched in late 2012. After a few months of using both the Xbox Music software and the Zune software, I decided to cancel my grandfathered $15 a month plan so that I could delete the Zune software and only run the Xbox Music software. This seemed like a simple process, but I ended up spending about 2 hours on the phone with Microsoft and went a few days without access to either.

I have always had issues with Xbox Music on both PCs and the Windows Phone. The Windows Phone app has improved tremendously, but at times it was completely unusable. Many of the issues I have stem from my library. It seems that Xbox Music gets rid of albums and puts different versions of the albums on their servers all the time. Because of this, many of my songs and playlists have been screwed up or gone missing. One album I had deleted all the explicit versions of songs and replaced them with the censored versions, which pissed me off. Many times Xbox Music has doubled albums and songs in my collection.

On top of all this, Xbox Music will not run on all of the hardware that I have. It will run on my Windows 8 PC, Windows Phone, iPhone, Xbox, and my Surface 2, but will not run on my Mac nor my work computer — Windows 7. I could run the web version, but would like to download songs onto these devices.

Spotify Features

Spotify will work on all of the devices I need it on — it will not work on my Xbox nor my Surface 2, but I almost never use it on my Xbox and the Surface ARM line was just discontinued, so I’m not too concerned with this. I love love love the social playlists. They remind me somewhat of Zune’s features. Beyond this, there are so many features of Spotify that I just find better than Xbox Music.

You can reorder your playlists on Spotify! On Xbox Music, your playlists are trapped in whatever order Xbox decides will be best and this irks me. I would like to reorder my playlists on a whim. This feature is so basic, and yet was overlooked.

Library management is better.  I tried to export all my playlists from Xbox Music, however Xbox Music has neglected to add this feature. Instead, I was stuck re-creating all my playlists manually. Frustrated, I did it, because I know you can export the playlists from Spotify.

Social features exist. This makes me giddy inside. I love websites like Songza with curated playlists, and Spotify does this well. Xbox Music also lacks this feature.

A fully-featured mobile app. Xbox Music’s app, even for Windows Phone, was lackluster at best. I love Spotify on Windows Phone. To be fair, the Xbox Music team has made huge leaps in the last few months, but Spotify is still a few steps ahead.

Desktop apps for all platforms. Spotify runs on Windows XP and later and OSX 10.6 and later. Xbox Music runs on Windows 8 and Windows 8.1, and that’s it. I’m not a huge fan of Windows-8-style full-screen apps (Windows 10 will fix this); Spotify is a normal-looking desktop app.

Explicit songs. I feel like artists should be able to express themselves with whatever words they want to use. When I listen to an artist’s music, I would like to hear the song the way the artist intended it to be heard rather than the version that adheres to radio standards. Xbox Music does a poor job at marking which versions of albums are explicit and most of the time I would have to listen to the album to figure it out. Spotify has explicit tags clearly listed next to song and album titles.

Spotify Negatives

Every gem has it’s flaws, and Spotify has a few problems that I must address to be fair.

No local-music-sync for Windows Phone. On Android and iPhone, one can sync their local tracks to Spotify over wifi, but this feature has not been added to Windows Phone yet. I have a few songs that Spotify does not have in their library that I would like to sync to my phone but can’t. I’m hoping they will add this in a future update.

Some tracks missing Some of my tracks were missing when I was moving my playlists over from Xbox Music to Spotify, but I also noticed that they had some songs I was missing from my Xbox Music library, so I guess this is a wash. The tracks are listed below.

Tracks missing from Spotify:

Default — Atoms for Peace

Skyfall Theme — Adele

Tracks Spotify has that Xbox Music doesn’t:

The Hop — Radio Citizen

Conclusion

Overall, for my money, I’m switching to Spotify Premium. Last week’s Windows 10 announcements brought some exciting news for Xbox Music, but I’m waiting for the results. When I can see and touch the new Xbox Music software, I may go back, but Microsoft is currently miles behind Spotify.

What to do in 2015

I have two goals for 2015. Usually, I only stick with one goal, but I decided that it would be acceptable to have an abstract goal and a concrete goal. My goals this year are broader than last year’s.

2014 Goals Reviewed

I looked back on my goal for 2014, which was to go to the gym and learn to weight lift. I wanted to do weight lifting all year. I made it about three months in, and realized that I just don’t like weight lifting. In some senses this was a failure, but I learned something about myself and stuck with it long enough to prove to myself that I didn’t like it.

In 2014 mid-year, I decided to learn to like coffee. I now drink coffee every day and love it. So, that was a bonus success.

2015 Goals

Be the most honest and best person I can be. 

My abstract goal for 2014 is to be the most honest and best person I can in 2015. I would normally ban this kind of goal for being too lofty, immeasurable, and generally campy sounding. This year, I’ve decided that I can try this goal, because I want to and it’s ok to break my strict goal-setting rules.

I’ve listed the two adjectives in the order that I did for a reason. To me, it would flow better to say “best and most honest,” however, I think that putting the emphasis on honesty is more important than flow for this resolution. When I try to be the best version of myself, sometimes I end up being fake. I don’t want to be fake, but I also want to improve, so every day this year, I want to focus on this statement. The most honest and best person I can be.

Do something productive every day.

My more measurable goal for 2015 is to do something productive every day except Sunday. I’ve decided to be specific with this goal and measure “something productive” as doing something that I deem productive for one hour per day and logging it on an excel spreadsheet. I’ve come up with some examples for myself of things that I feel are productive and non-productive. This is a by-no-means complete list.

Productive things

  • Working out
  • Reading
  • Cleaning — Some days my apartment could really use it. ;)
  • Coding — I want to try to develop an app or game in 2015
  • Photography — I want to learn more about photography with a friend of mine who has a spectacular eye for photography.
  • Learning anything
  • Cooking new recipes

Non-productive things

  • Watching TV
  • Playing video games

This is my list of goals for 2015, and I hope to keep them. What are your goals for 2015?

50 Shades of Pepperoni

Little Caesars Pizza Truck

 

 

 

 

 

 

[Image via jeepersmedia]

The other day, I was a Little Caesars Pizza. For those of you who have not been to a Little Caesars, imagine a crappy pizza place that’s cheap; there you go. I walked into the store and retrieved my delicious pepperoni pizza with the Crazy Crust (TM). Always get the Crazy Crust(TM).

On my way out, I spotted a woman in an ancient gold Dodge Durango happily enjoying an audio book. I soon realized that the audio book which was loud enough for the whole neighborhood to hear was 50 Shades of Gray. Upon entering my car, I burst out laughing. I understand listening to this audiobook in the car, but with the windows down. REALLY?

The Pizza that Bit Back

digiorno pizza

I am making a frozen pizza in the oven. I place the pizza on the rack, as I normally do, and begin playing a League of Legends When it finishes cooking, I get up and tried to pull it out of the oven using a flexible plastic cutting board, as is my standard procedure. I hit my had on the top element of the stove and burnt it in two places. I then drop the pizza onto the bottom of the oven. I quickly regrouped and rescued the pizza.
I cut the pizza and put it on my plate.

I begin to eat the pizza while playing my game. The cheese is so hot, it burns a hole in my lip. It is just finally healing today from like 5 days ago.

[image via jjsala]