Sunday, June 14, 2020

Sprummer (Virtual) Vacacay: New Zealand!

!Original:Albert Hastings MarkhamVector: Zscout370, Hugh Jass, s. File history / Public domain. We decided that we'd abused enough of the flags of the nations we visited.
The final stop on our virtual vacacay was New Zealand. This is a place that's been in our top three areas for a long time, and as it turns out, for very good reasons. As per our normal routine at this point, we split the time between watching stuff about the area and enjoying some representative cuisine, although as it turns out, our cuisine choice might've been... questionable. :)

Viewing

Given the challenges I'd had with the start of Japan's viewing, we decided to watch New Zealand's entries on the non-large screen. It's a good thing too, since we decided to watch New Zealand Road Trip, which was produced by the same person that produced our original choice for Japan. Luckily, the smaller screen, slightly better production quality, and a little less lightheadedness on my part made for a very enjoyable and informative session.

The road trip explored both the North and South islands, and there are some (actually, a LOT) of magnificent places on both. In the end, I think if we had to choose one, we would opt for the South island. There is SO much to see and do, and while a lot of it would be a challenge for Tanya and I right now, there are also a TON of day hikes to places that are just this side of unbelievable. All of those places in Lord of the Rings -- they're actual places, and most of them are easily visited.

The most notable exception is Mt. Doom (Mount Ngauruhoe in real life). From the documentary, it seemed like the hike was at least 19km, and that did NOT include an unassisted ascent to the peak. It's completely optional, of course, but when you see Frodo and Sam slipping and sliding and struggling up the face of the mountain, that wasn't dramatic effect. It's *just like that*, so approach with caution.

One of the most astounding things that was pointed out about New Zealand is that it's larger than the UK. In fact, the host suggests that the South island is about the size of Britain itself, but only has a population of about 1 million people. That means that not only are you surrounded by rugged and refined wilderness of all sorts, you're unlikely to run into very many people. Take that as you will, but given we don't like tons of crowds, this is even more appealing to us.

A few other things that were mentioned or seen in the documentary that piqued our interest:

  • Weta Workshop: For those of you that are interested in movie making magic, and LotR in particular, you should make time to visit this place. They're a special effects and props company, and were responsible for quite a bit of the exotic panoply featured in the films.
  • Black Water Rafting: I didn't have any idea of what this was until he described it. You take a boat (or tube!) ride through a cave whose ceiling is covered in glowworms. The host described it as being like floating through space. That's something I'd definitely like to do.
  • Mount Cook: Mount Cook is the tallest mountain in New Zealand, and the national park around it is astounding. Everywhere you look is idyllic, and it seemed very accessible.
  • Driving around: no link here, but New Zealand looks like a place where you would benefit from being shown around (via something like the Kiwi Experience). Eventually, however, you'll want to just go exploring, and you should. Be sure to get a four-wheel drive vehicle, however, as unexpected weather tends to cause unexpected road outages, and there will be places you want to visit otherwise that would benefit from a more rugged/able vehicle.
After seeing so much of the setting, I, of course, wanted to have a Lord of the Rings marathon and have that count as being representative of New Zealand. I was outvoted. In the end, even *I* voted against myself. The truth is that the scenery features immensely in the movies, but is representative of Middle Earth, not New Zealand in and of itself.

Tasting

We decided to go light on food, given how heavy we've been all week. As such, the featured delectable from New Zealand is the unusually named Afghan Biscuit.

A little bit of sugar, a little bit of... corn flakes?
Afghan biscuits are chocolate cookies with a chocolate frosting and walnut decoration. The secret ingredient is actually corn flakes. Trust me on this -- it's a genius ingredient, and whoever thought of it was a cooking savant.

Rounded scoops slightly flattened.

So, SO tasty!
I'm a person for which chocolate CAN be overused, but these came out perfectly. The corn flakes offer very satisfying crunch that you just don't expect in a cookie like this. There's not much sugar in the cookie itself, but the icing has a LOT, which balances out the sweetness pretty well. NOTE THAT the recipe called for 1.5 cups of powdered sugar. We used about a cup, and that was plenty.

We also picked up a nice bottle of Sauvignon Blanc from a New Zealand winery. If you didn't already know, New Zealand has a large wine industry. In fact, you can go on an extensive, all day wine tour on the North island at least (if that's the kind of thing you like).

Conclusion

The cookies and wine were a very nice end to our day in New Zealand. It was a lot more relaxed that the others, which was exactly what we wanted (and needed -- SO MUCH COOKING AND CLEANING involved for the other places). And the documentary was such that our desire to go to New Zealand remained the same. With luck and determination, we'll get there someday!

And this was the end of our virtual vacacay experiment. I'm very glad we did it. Despite not being able to travel, everyone needs to make sure you take time away from work to unplug/decompress. Given our experiences with this experiment, I highly recommend it. Think about places you want to go or things you want to see, and why they appeal to you. Do a little research, and bring as much of that place to you as you can. It's certainly not the same as the real experience, but it's a pretty fantastic way to spend a week not working! :-)




Saturday, June 13, 2020

Sprummer (Virtual) Vacacay: Japan!

Tanya really likes fancy lettering
So. Many. Things. To. Learn. And. Sample. About. Japan.

Alright, now that that's out of the way, know that this entry will only begin to scratch the surface of all of the things into which you can delve when investigating Japan. I know this because when I was researching things for us to watch, all five of the top hits were great candidates. And that was with a simple search like "best documentary japan" or somesuch. Imagine if I'd done a targeted search of some kind.

The truth is that there are LOTS of great resources with which to learn about Japan because a) Japan is EXTREMELY interesting given practically ANY aspect of life on which you'd like to focus, and b) people are becoming more and more aware of this. In the same way that Japanese culture has been strongly influenced by outsiders since the mid-19th century, Japan has influenced those intersecting cultures in return.

Luckily for us, we learned quite a bit about Japan from both the videos we watched at the food we prepared and ate. We'll start with the videos.

Viewing

This... didn't go as planned. Our goal in these viewings is to get something informative, but also something from a layperson's perspective. I didn't mention it in the Ireland entry, but we actually watched two shows there: the one mentioned (Ireland with Simon Reeve), and another called My First Trip to Ireland, which followed a couple on their honeymoon as they traveled around southern Ireland. The second video was good; the production quality is quite high, with some really terrific shots from a fantastically-controlled drone. It was also more tourist-y, which is what you would expect given the title.

We intended to start our Japanese excursion with something in a similarly informal vein: A Journey In Japan, which would follow a backpacking trip through four weeks between Tokyo and Kyoto, then Osaka to Mt. Fuji. Unfortunately, I'm fighting through a bout of lightheaded dizziness, the after-effects of a severe vertigo episode I "enjoyed" a month ago. The camera work in the above series was just too unsteady for me, so we punted on that one, switching to another BBC production: The Art of Japanese Life.

That... was a good move.

Once again, BBC comes through with a fantastic series. This one is done in three parts: Nature, Cities, and Home. They are all led by Dr. James Fox, and while there's a slight emphasis on art in and of itself, quite a lot of the series is designed to inform the viewer about Japan in general -- its geography, geology, flora, history, and overall way of life as it progressed from one epoch to another.

The "Nature" episode was probably the most moving for me, unsurprisingly. If you've only got an hour, I strongly suggest you watch that one. However, I don't want to sell the others short: THEY ARE ALL WORTH WATCHING AND YOU SHOULD WATCH THEM ALL. They touch on *so* many of the things that make Japan intriguing to me, but probably nothing as much as the overall attitude toward and embracing of transience. Japanese people know that nothing is permanent and build that sentiment into every part of their existence. Their uncanny ability to be in a moment, to focus on what they're doing, paying attention to each and every detail, no matter how small, is a result of their reverence for the fragility of the the state of everything around them, and their own state within those contexts. Cherry blossoms are celebrated not only for their beauty, but their blooming brevity. In fact, it is that brevity that makes them all the more beautiful and precious. This seems like a fact that we should all embrace, yet so few people realize, much less acknowledge, that we and everyone we have ever known will only be here for a relatively short time.

Whew, that was heavy. Luckily for you, we *also* watched some Miyazaki (of course). Ponyo won out over Spirited Away, although it was a close vote. In the end, we wanted something that appealed to the basic goodness in all of us, and although there is an indictment of humanity in general in Ponyo, every individual character turns out to be a good person. I needed that. :)

Tasting

So. Much. Food.

This was entirely our own fault, of course. Tanya likened it to needing to replace a single piece of flooring in one room and building an entire house around it instead. We had originally planned to do traditional ramen, and that's what we wound up doing. However, the way we eventually did it was... involved.

Chashu

I hinted in the last blog post that it took us three full days to prepare the ramen. That is true, mainly because we also prepared chashu (braised pork).

Ingredients for chashu.
Preparing chashu also required viewing videos. The one that was most beneficial, and that Tanya mostly followed, is here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HNX3WVTseSE

For those that would like to see it in print, a written recipe is here: https://recipes.anovaculinary.com/recipe/sous-vide-japanese-ramen-chashu-pork-belly

However, if you know Tanya, you know that the recipe had some customization and substitution. :-)

Into the sous vide!

The chashu went into the sous vide, which ran for 24 hours at ~158F. I know that's pretty short for a lot of folks that regularly sous vide, but it was a very long session for us.

Eggs

Eggs are a traditional part of ramen, and their preparation is slightly involved. The first attempt we made was using the sous vide. This turned out to be our first out-and-out failure. The eggs are supposed to be soft boiled, almost poached, but these were only slightly gelled. We reverted to a normal boiling for 7 minutes, and that worked out magnificently.

The eggs then needed to marinate in the chashu sauce for a while, so into the sauce they went, and the whole batch into the refrigerator.

Ramen

With the chashu and eggs done (and note there was a two day lag in between), it was time to actually prepare the ramen. The recipe/guideline Tanya followed is here: https://damndelicious.net/2019/01/18/mushroom-ramen/

That... is a lot of mushrooms.
As it turns out, we didn't have bowls large enough to properly hold traditional ramen. A trip to Bed Bath & Beyond fixed that, though, and now we have bowls fit for a proper serving of ice cream as well!

The ramen was finally ready. Have a look at the finished product!

So, SO TASTY! And yes, three types of sake, with a fourth not shown.
If you want a fantastic series on ramen, check this one out! https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nscTA7QxryM&list=PLm6gLR_sRM4xiAZXa3X71b4H4Dda1VMKg

Sake

Although you CAN eat ramen without sake, why would you? :-)

The sakes we included were:
  • Sho Chiku Bai Organic Sake: we used this one mainly for cooking, although there was enough left over to sip. Pretty tasty! 
  • Hakushika Junmai Daiginjo: a sweet sake, but something about it was off-putting for us. Maybe too abruptly bitter? It has a very strong flavor, in any case, which when compared to the others wasn't quite what we desired.
  • Shimizu No Mai Pure Dusk: another sweet one. Very light and tasty!
  • Shirakabe Gura Mio Sparkling Sake: by far, our favorite. It's pretty common as well, probably available in all of your local Japanese restaurants (not that you should be dining out yet).

Everything listed above was all consumed on the first day of our virtual Japan visit. We had so much food left over that we were able to make a proper chashu fried rice the next day, although we neglected to take a picture of it. You'll have to assume we're telling the truth here, but I can have Garrett vouch for us. He said it was probably the best fried rice he'd ever had.

Mochi

One thing we definitely did NOT neglect: the necessity of mochi for dessert.

Roasting the mochi over a campfire is NOT traditional.
Central Market actually has a pretty wide selection of good mochi. The ones pictured above are Apple Pie and Passion Fruit. Both were delicious; the Apple Pie was quite sweet, and the Passion Fruit tangy, but each was individually perfect and worked very well as counterbalances when consumed in a single sitting.

Tea!

I almost forgot to include green tea! In between sessions of The Art of Japanese Life, we took breaks to sip green tea.

Green tea, gray tea towel, green table cloth, white serving set... wait, we're not just listing the colors of everything?
Note that we did NOT conduct a formal tea ceremony. We did, however, contemplate many things as we drank the tea. I should probably make a habit of having tea and contemplating things. It's very zen, and I definitely need more of that in my life.

To Sum Up:

I don't think I can sum up Japan, honestly. Given the little bit of exposure we've had, our best estimate is that you'd need at least a month to get a good trip through the country. And even though quite a lot of the country is urban, you should try to get out into the country itself, as some of the most beautiful experiences are there. We spent two virtual days traveling through Japan, and, like with Ireland, are left wanted much, much more. It is definitely in our top three list of places to travel in real life when we can do so again.

Tomorrow's excursion will be our final one for this expedition, and we expect it will also be quite a bit more laid back. I'm struggling to give a hint as to the destination that wouldn't immediately give it away to my fantasy nerd friends. In fact, maybe that's all I need to say: fantasy nerd friends, prepare yourself for tomorrow. :)

Wednesday, June 10, 2020

Sprummer (Virtual) Vacacay: Ireland!

Asymmetric flag by me, fancy letters by Tanya
If you read "coddle" yesterday and immediately thought "They must be going to Ireland next!", then you must be Irish. I had no idea what coddle was until Tanya started researching Irish foods. When we read about coddle, we realized this would a) be doable by us, and b) be something we would almost certainly have to try if we ever actually went to Ireland.

Tasting

In case you were wondering what coddle actually is... imagine you've been preparing meals all week, but you haven't eaten all of the leftovers, or you haven't quite used up all of your ingredients. What if you were to, say, put all of the leftovers and extra ingredients into a stew pot and cook it for three or four hours? Conceptually, that's what coddle is.


Time to make the coddle!

In actuality, it turned out to be a really tasty, slow-cooked stew based on potatoes, onions, and pork. The coddle recipe we (mostly) followed was: http://europeancuisines.com/Irish-Dublin-Coddle-March-6-2007. This page also describes a bit of the origin and history of coddle, so it's worth reading even if you decide not to make it.

Preparation was pretty simple: brown the bacon and sausages a bit, cut up the vegetables, dump it all in a pot with the water and stock, and stick it in the oven for four hours. Most of the liquid was absorbed or cooked off, and the potatoes and sausage held their shape and texture without being tough or mushy. The bacon flavor was the most prominent for me, but every now and then I got a large enough bite of mushrooms to say "Hey! This tastes like Trout Al Asador!" Tanya really did put the leftover mushroom cream sauce from the Patagonia production into the coddle, and it was ABSOLUTELY MARVELOUS!

Coddle for DAYZ!

We paired the coddle with Smithwick's Irish Ale. I can hear you silently screaming "WHY NO GUINNESS?! WHY NO WHISKEY?!" There are at least a couple of reasons:
  1. Tanya doesn't like stout beer. And of the stouts I've tried, Guinness is the OKest. I suspect there are better Irish stouts to be had, but not very many popular enough to make it to the US common market.
  2. Neither of us like whiskey very much, nor is whiskey something I would consider drinking with a stew.
  3. The stew is quite heavy. A nice ale was the perfect compliment to it.
We'd also considered Killian's Irish Red, but decided on Smithwick's, mainly because we'd had Killian's before but couldn't remember having Smithwick's. I like Killian's, and am happy to discover the same with Smithwick's. Now I know that when we finally make it to Ireland, I'll be OK on beer. :-)

You should try this. All of it. Even the drawing.

Viewing

There are lots and lots of options to choose from when trying to virtually explore Ireland. After researching several of them, it became apparent that none were better than Ireland with Simon Reeve, a BBC travel documentary made in 2015.

I'm still processing quite a bit of what we watched and learned, actually. I'm almost certainly going to do it a disservice here, so I strongly recommend you watch the documentary yourself if you have any interest in Ireland at all.

The documentary is broken into two parts, where Simon Reeve starts at the southern end of the Republic of Ireland, drives up the west coast, crosses into Northern Ireland, and then drives down the east coast back to where he started. The entire coastline is spectacular, some parts of it breathtakingly so. The history of the Irish people and their relationship with Britain specifically, is interesting in some of the most complicated ways. Here are a few things that were surprising/news to me:

  • The current population of Ireland is still less than its population before the Irish Potato Famine (1845). About one million people died during the famine, which probably represented between 20 and 25 percent of the entire population.
  • Lots of Irish folks are still suffering from the effects of the Great Recession.
  • A highway was diverted in order to preserve a large bush that an expert in such matters declared as sacred to the fairy folk and dire consequences would be suffered if it were disturbed. Nothing bad has happened since they dodged it, so he must've been right!
  • There are some good places to surf in Ireland! Also, Ireland has had professional surfers, at least one of which has returned to Ireland to run a surf school.
  • The people are still pretty deeply spiritual, but they aren't actively attending church. At the turn of the century, about 4 in 5 Irishfolk professed to attend church regularly. Now, that number is more like 1 in 5.
  • Despite the above fact, deep division still exists between members of Catholicism and Protestantism. Schools, for example, are segregated along those lines, as they are primarily run via the church, not the state.
  • Also despite the above, LOTS of people climb St. Patrick's sacred mountain, especially on special days. One guy was doing it barefoot despite the rainy weather and slippery slope.
  • The Troubles might have officially ended, but the fundamental issues still haven't been dealt with, especially in Belfast. Loyalists (people that embrace the United Kingdom and its heritage) and Nationalists (people that think there should be a unified Ireland) are still building large physical walls between their communities, and feel threatened by each other.
  • There is an animal sanctuary hidden in Ireland, and as of 2015 they were in care of at least 25 former test subject monkeys.
These are the things that I remember off the top of my head. The documentary is actually worth watching again, and has actually increased my desire to visit Ireland in real life. If you ever have a chance to go, I suggest you take it! Travel in general is a great way to grow as a person, and Ireland specifically has lots of compelling things to entice you!

Tomorrow is a travel break, so no new stuff until the following day. Any guesses as to where we'll end up next? Two hints:
  1. Food preparation for this stop is, by far, the most involved. By the end, we will have been preparing for *3* days, with ingredients that include pork, soy sauce, eggs, ginger, and many other things!
  2. We'll be the first people to see the sun rise that day. :-D

Tuesday, June 9, 2020

Sprummer (Virtual) Vacacay: Patagonia!

Art courtesy of the ninjinsky!
The first stop on our virtual vacation was Patagonia! Patagonia is a large, rugged, wild region of South America, split between Chile and Argentina. We're particularly fond of such places, full of mountains and rivers and lakes and forests. It's unlikely that we'll get down there anytime soon, so this was an easy selection for our first destination.

Viewing

We watched several things to get some exposure to Patagonia. All of them were available in a streaming format, either Amazon, Youtube, or Netflix. I encourage you to check a few of them out if you're interested in the area.

Planet Patagonia - Beauty of Nature with Relaxing Music (Time Lapse): Available on Amazon Prime Video, this is a 10-minute video that is, as it states in the title, a series of time lapse photography of various scenes around Patagonia. If you are only in it for the majesty and don't have a lot of time, this is the video for you. We used it to prime our nature-loving senses in case the next video turned out to be a failure.

Unbounded: Also available on Amazon Prime Video, this documentary only has 23 reviews and a 3.5 star rating. It also rates 6.9 on IMDB. As such, I was skeptical as to the quality, but on watching it, found that I could overlook the sins of the filmmakers in favor of admiring their adventurous (although naive, to say the least) spirit. The film was made by a group of four 20-somethings (actually, they were 22, 22, 23, and 23, I think). Almost completely lacking in experience and woefully unprepared, they recklessly embark on a four-month-long trek down the Greater Patagonian Trail. If you're an experienced outdoors-y type, you might find yourself cringing quite a bit. I don't claim to be very experienced, and even *I* knew they were being needlessly foolish at times. Still, they wanted to do something, and they figured out how to do it. They managed to get some pretty interesting stories about people that they met along the way, and the footage was worth looking at. So... I enjoyed this documentary and recommend watching it, but admit that not everyone will like it.

On Route 7 Into the Heart of Patagonia: Available on Youtube, this documentary takes a road trip down the Carretera Austral. There's still plenty of scenery in this one, but it's not the main focus. With several stops along the way to visit with people involved in the original construction of the road to people whose lives are changing because of it, the documentary is very well done and extremely informative. Check this one out if you're interested in taking a journey through Chilean Patagonia via the only thoroughfare available. This one also has some spectacular footage of a glacier and an erupting volcano!

Chef's Table: Francis Mallmann: After dinner, we decided to end the day by re-watching Episode 3 from the first season of Chef's Table, on Netflix. Francis Mallmann is a wonderfully talented chef living on a tiny island in the middle of a lake in Argentinian Patagonia. He cooks outside quite a lot, using open flames, spits, and traditional pits to prepare his cuisine, despite being classically trained by some of the finest chefs in Europe. This episode, and the entirety of season one at least, are well worth watching.

At one point, I paused and backed the video up a moment so that I could point out the obvious. It is DARK and QUIET in Patagonia -- noise and light pollution around his house/island are nonexistent, leaving you in the glorious peace and quiet of a lake surrounded by mountains just after sunset, the only light coming from the small open fire being built at the edge of the screen. It wasn't the point of the episode by any means, but it certainly spoke to me about a person that purposefully lives his life in his own way, not asking for or caring about anyone's approval. Passionate and principled in his way. I'm not sure if that's a good or bad thing honestly.

Aside from all of the nature and food, he also reads poetry. Two snippets came up: one from The Call of the Wild by Robert Service, and I Have Dreamed of You So Much by Robert Desnos. I'll leave this section with a short quote from the former:

"There's a whisper on the night-wind, there's a star agleam to guide us,
And the Wild is calling, calling... let us go."

Tasting

Tanya selected Trout al Asador with Vistamar Sepia Reserva Sauvignon Blanc, a very fresh, citrusy and slightly spicy Chilean wine for our tasting adventure into Patagonia. Trout was actually mentioned as one of the best fish you can get in Chile, and particularly in Patagonia. Quite a lot of salmon farming has moved in relatively recently, so trout is a much better choice if you want a "good" fish.

Leeks are SUPER SMELLY!
Preparation was somewhat involved, but completely approachable as well. Tanya's pretty handy with a knife which made the dicing of all of the vegetables and bacon a snap. Slicing into the skin of the fish is a necessity as well. I think the only ingredients not pictured here are salt and pepper for the fish seasoning, butter that went into the sauce with the other diced ingredients, and lemon for finishing.

Normally, the dish is prepared with a butterflied filet, but the ones available at Central Market on shopping day weren't quite the size we wanted. We went for the larger fillets instead, which means we'll probably have leftovers. YAY!

And the result!
ZOMG, ALL THE TASTES!
Seriously y'all -- Tanya's a genius. I fully expected the dish and wine pairing to be tasty, but I was genuinely unprepared for the wave after wave of zesty goodness that accompanied every bite and sip. I STRONGLY RECOMMEND you give this dish a try.

The added benefit of a dish like this is, as was mentioned previously, leftovers. However, in her genius, Tanya had already planned a use for those leftovers, which leads us to the hint of our next destination. The leftovers will be used to make coddle. Guess where we're going next?


Monday, June 8, 2020

Sprummer (Virtual) Vacacay: Preamble

It's just like being there, except the only senses you're fooling are sight and balance!
Yes everyone, you heard that right -- BLOG POSTS ARE HERE AGAIN! Given everything that's been going on in the world since my last one, I'm actually pretty nervous about posting this. However, if I *don't* post it, then how will you, the reader, live vicariously through our virtual and vicarious vacacay? Also, I'm pretty sure most of the national- and planetary-level issues we're currently enduring are *not* a result of my silly short story from January. If you feel differently, let me know in the comments.

What is a virtual vacacay, anyway? As alluded to above, the world is quite a mess right now. Given the pandemic, our normal Spring Vacacay plans got cancelled before they were even finalized. However, it's important to take some time off, even when you're working from home but can't safely travel anywhere. So, we came up with the idea of taking a virtual vacation.

There's already a bit of an industry around this, and has been for a while. With the pandemic, even more entries into the field have emerged. There are a couple of issues for me, specifically and unfortunately.
  1. I don't own and VR headset.
  2. I don't want to rent anyone else's VR rig (pandemic, remember?)
  3. I get motion sick pretty easily with those kinds of things.
So we decided to do the next best thing. We chose a handful of destinations we're interested in, planned to learn about them (mainly via documentaries), and researched a menu that would allow us to sample some of their cuisine (eating and/or drinking).

I was tasked with the documentary research, and Tanya headed up the menu research. Together, we formed TEAM VIRTUAL VACACAY! We researched and listed and shopped and bookmarked, and began our trek today. Tune in tomorrow(?) for the highlights from the first stop on our list:

Patagonia!

Notes:

  • I'm releasing the copyright to "Sprummer." Feel free to use it as often as you like, royalty and permission free!
  • As it turns out, I never owned the copyright. The word "sprummer" has been in the Urban Dictionary since 2009, and is actually pretty well known and enjoyed(?) in Australia.




Monday, January 13, 2020

Everything's Under Control

“Shut up.”

I sealed my lips and held my breath, unaware that I’d been whistling. I often whistled when I was thinking of things that made me uncomfortable, especially… well, I’d rather not say. Just take it as read that I occasionally whistle and don’t realize I’m doing it because I’ve got other things on my mind.

“Why did you stop typing?”

I exhaled quietly and refocused on the task at hand: entering the codes required to arm the missiles. First the codes for arming and missile control, then the code for launching. The fact that I can tap 12,179 keys per hour without mistakes makes me ideal for this particular job. As I finished the arming sequence, I shivered visibly.

“I’ll crank up the heater.”

My jacket was hanging on the back of the chair, and I put it on. It was an old-style brown leather bomber jacket with fake patches from various Air Force groups. The chair, on the other hand, was made of folding metal, just a step above the kind you would sit on at a Deep South tent revival. At least it matched the rest of the shabby equipment and decor in this room — a flimsy desk with aspirations of supporting unknowably splendid architectural drawings, on top of which sat a blocky green screen monitor with equally blocky keyboard. The walls were made of cinder block painted a color that might once have been brighter than the yellow of old, unclean teeth. The humming fluorescent lights nestled in the mostly uniform grid of sound-absorbing ceiling tiles cast a bluish white light over everything. The air was stale, and I was almost certainly imagining the faint smell of ancient cigarette smoke.

“Check the readout.”

I looked at the computer monitor. It indicated that the arming sequence had been verified and that missile control had been enabled. All that was left to do was key in the launch code and I’d be able to go home. How long had I been here, anyway? I couldn’t clearly remember, but knew it had been at least a couple of long, sleepless days since I’d last seen the sun or breathed fresh air. I was certainly thirsty. And hungry. Why wasn’t there a mini fridge in here?

“Goddammit, SHUT UP! And quit delaying.”

Damn, was I really whistling again? And was I delaying? I suppose I was, on both accounts. I pulled the last clear plastic cartridge out of my jacket pocket and quickly snapped it open. The card inside was bright red as opposed to the banana yellow of the previous one. The printing on it was the same firm, bold, black that I remembered from training. I used to imagine that I would feel more hesitant, more nervous, more excited, more guilty, more something when it came time to do my duty. It turns out that something was just… uncomfortable.

“Ready?”

I keyed in the launch code. A small light on the wall above the computer monitor began blinking a dull but insistent red. I leaned forward and put my hand on the key sticking out of the mechanism beside the blinking light.

“On my mark.”

Pause. My hand did not twitch.

“Mark.”

I rotated the key clockwise. The light on the wall blinked more frequently now. I watched it as the rate of blinking increased, flashing faster and faster until it was a solid, steady, bright pink. Then, without warning, it turned off. The monitor, too, flickered a moment, then went dark. The hum from the lights above was the only sound left in the room. I waited for the inevitable berating for something I’d done wrong.

It didn’t come.

I turned slowly in my chair to look behind me. The other desk was empty. I got up and went to the other terminal. As I approached, I caught sight of something lying on the floor… a body. Blood pooled around the head of the person lying there. A gun was on the ground as well, near the person. The faint smell of smoke still lingered in the air around it. It reminded me of stale cigarettes.

I was whistling again when the MPs finally forced their way into the control room...

End.

This short story/scene brought to you by the following randomly generated writing prompt:

Goal word count: < 900
Genre: Military
Character: a programmer
Material: a jacket
Sentence: “Shut up.”
Bonus: Your character is dying.

I'll leave it to you to decide whether or not the story fits the bill.

Monday, January 6, 2020

My Year In Books (2019 edition)



Rusty Bentley is, indeed, one of those pictured
This year in books was... interesting. I purposefully set a low goal, because I didn't want the pressure of reading for anything other than enjoyment. I also sought out a little diversity, in genre and author, in order to broaden the horizons. Let's see how that all turned out, shall we?

In total, I read approximately 14,834 pages across 46 books. For reference, last year I read almost 20,000 pages across 52 books, but I didn't enjoy every book as much. And I didn't necessarily enjoy every book I read this year, but I certainly appreciated them more.

Longest, Shortest, and Average

I not only read fewer books this year, the books were on average shorter. This year, the book length average was 322 pages, compared to last year's average of 390 pages per book. There are actually a couple of pretty simple reasons for this. First of all, Audible started producing Original series, which are pretty short form in general, and credits for two of them per month are included in the membership. Given that there's typically no page length included, but I tend to include them in my book list (as they're either dramatizations or short story collections), I've estimated their lengths pretty conservatively. Secondly, as stated earlier, I wasn't reading as voraciously as last year, and wound up with six fewer books, including at least one fewer LONG books.

Speaking of long books, the longest three books I read this year were:

  1. Kushiel's Dart, by Jaqueline Carey: 1015 pages
  2. Necronomicon, The Best Weird Tales, by H.P. Lovecraft: 878 pages
  3. The Witchwood Crown, by Tad Williams: 733 pages
Those three books total 2626 pages. Last year's total was 3091 pages. Again, reading more (and at least one larger) books helped push last year's total to a ridiculous number.

And now, the shortest three:

  1. Whose Boat Is This Boat?, by Donald Trump (via Stephen Colbert), 24 pages
  2. Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats, by T.S. Eliot, 27 pages
  3. Blackened White, by Brian W. Foster, 80 pages
The three shortest books this year totaled a tiny 131 pages. That's down from 295 pages I read in short last year. Ironically (and sadly), the shortest book this year is, once again, politically themed. If you haven't read Whose Boat Is This Boat?, you should order a copy. Proceeds go to benefit the charities helping the victims of hurricanes.

One more stat here: the median book is Pro Git, and it was only 300 pages long. This year was definitely the year of the shorter book. Last year's median book length was 341 pages.

More Interesting Metrics!

Now, on to the fun stuff. I'll start with the breakdown by month, as usual.

Books By Month

Lots of reading, then not so much...

That distribution surprised me. Lots of books in the first half of the year, then relatively few in the second half. It finally dawned on me that I worked out more regularly during the first half of the year. I typically listen to audiobooks while I work out. When that falls off, my book completion rate drops.

Strangely enough, the drop in workouts didn't correspond with an increase in weight up until the holidays began. And yes, I gained 1.5 pounds this year, just like all normal human males my age. This blog entry isn't "My Year In Exercise;" stop judging. ;-)

Books By Medium

More reading than listening!
For the first time in a long time, I actually READ more books than I LISTENED TO. Again, this probably has to do with the fact that, in the past, I listened to books while commuting (I don't have a commute anymore) and while working out (my workouts dropped off the second half of the year).

Even more surprisingly, I read more PHYSICAL books (13) than EBOOKS (12) this year. And yes, there were two books that were actually leather bound, so neither hardcover nor paperback. If you're curious, they were both books of poetry, which I'll get to shortly.

For full disclosure, however, I should point out that the total pages of Audiobooks was 7677, while the page count for actual reading was only 7157. So, while it's true that I read more books than I listened to, I listened to more actual pages than I read.

Books By Genre

Maybe Technical and Comedy should be the same genre...?
I tried to break these out by where you would find them at a bookstore. I'm not positive I got them all right, but it should be close enough to be representative. 

It's no big surprise that Sci-Fi/Fantasy plus Fiction dominated my reading. I was pleased to get a few poetry books in there as well, including Devotions by Mary Oliver, which I HIGHLY recommend.

The most interesting thing to come out of this is just how much nonfiction I consumed this year. I typically don't read a lot of nonfiction, as my tendency is toward escapism when I read. But this year included three autobigraphicals (Becoming by Michelle Obama, Dreams From My Father by Barack Obama, and 10% Happier by Dan Harris) as well as a couple of biographicals (Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World by Jack Weatherford and Eistein: His Life and Universe by Walter Isaacson). I rated all of those as either 4 or 5 stars. Next year I'll probably continue to mix in a nonfiction every second or third book as well.

Other Tidbits

  • Every book was by a different author this year. Typically, I have at least a few duplicates, but this year -- 46 different authors!
  • I set out to read more books written by non-Caucasian males this year. I don't typically pay attention to the nationality or gender of the authors of the books I read, but given my interests and the industry, a lot of what I read is written by, well, old white guys. I did... alright, but it could be far better, and will be next year. This year, my reading list included:
    • 15 females
    • 7 non-Caucasians
  • I won 3 goodreads.com physical book giveaways, 2 of which I read: Inland by Téa Obreht, and The Sun On My Head by Geovani Martins. My strategy is pretty simple: 
    • look at giveaways for physical books that are ending soon (within the next day)
    • enter any that look interesting for any reason (author, genre, etc.) and give you at least a one-in-ten chance of winning. 
    • do this once a week or so, and you'll probably wind up with a free book or two!
And there you have it. My year in books was more fulfilling than I thought it was going to be, and I'm glad I gave a little more attention and deliberation to what I was reading.

If anyone reading this entry has similar metrics, I'd be really interested in seeing/reading them (wink-wink, nudge-nudge @Jake)!