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.


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.


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...


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 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)!