Reading & Writing Updates13 min read

During this calm before our family Christmas storm, I thought I’d drop a fresh State of the Nerd report. This one was going to be all over the map, as I’ve been very busy with a lot of things. But it became clear as I was writing it that it would be too long even if I just narrowed the scope to what I was reading and writing.

Reading Stuff

I’m back to my old habit of parallelized reading, so I’ve got a number of in-progress books right now that I’m jumping back and forth between.

  • The King in Yellow by Robert W. Chambers – In Progress – This has been on my to-read list for awhile. This was a physical artifact of one of those ephemeral friendships. “Read this. You strike me as the kind of person who would appreciate it,” she said as she pressed the bright yellow hardcover book into my hands. I didn’t see where she pulled the book from, and didn’t know why she’d have had it on her. But The King in Yellow is insidious that way.The short story anthology format makes this great for getting gratification in half an hour to an hour of reading per day. But the stories therein admittedly run the gamut between “brilliant” and “meh”.
  • The Book of Disquiet by Fernando Passoa – In Progress – I suspect some passages of this collection may become mandatory reading in public education as this collection sends its tendrils in to fill the fissures of slightly damaged minds across the English speaking world. Originally written in Portuguese, Passoa’s work has been made more widely available in English now. It’s a rare and beautiful glimpse into the lifelong private writings of a tortured genius.Yes, I’ve said it. Many are dismissive of the tortured genius archetype. They should shut up and read some Passoa.

    This is not light reading. Passoa was a fractured man. He wrote as if he was looking at himself in a shattered funhouse mirror, with each malformed shard showing a different self complete with its own name, personality, and life history. But Passoa wears his pain like a black wool cloak, beautiful and comforting, and flattering its own wearer’s imperfections. It’s subtle beauties are revealed only when it moves under the light.

    This, too, is a great daily reader. Most of the entries are much shorter, so this is a fantastic one to keep around for ten minute reading breaks.

  • Learning Python by Mark Lutz – In Progress – My career is at a strange crossroads right now. I’ve been a sysadmin most of my career, but my actual day to day responsibilities have been very varied over the last three or four years. In fact, for almost the last year I haven’t had sysadmin duties at all. Most recently I’ve been in charge of developer productivity tools and finding ways for the teams and the business to pull valuable data from the tools that they use to inform better decision making. I’ve spent some time as an Agile coach, as a ScrumMaster, Product Owner, Engineering Manager… but I’ve bounced around so much between those very different disciplines that it’s no longer easy to tell people what I do with a short answer.The one thing that really stands out to me that I haven’t been is “Software Developer”. My current role has gotten me to a place where I can say to myself “this solution is good, but it would be so much better if I had _____ to go with it”. And that blank would be filled by some custom software that was more sophisticated than your average sysadmin could bang out.

    So I dabbled in some different languages. Ruby was mostly easy to learn, but annoying to me in its flexibility. It reminded me of what I didn’t like about Perl back in the 1990’s. Capable? Yes. But I don’t want to look at other peoples’ bad Ruby hacks. Maybe some other time.

    I spent a week this month learning about Go. The books I have were not helpful. I don’t feel like I have much to show for that time spent. I want to come back to Go, but I really need a book that’s written for people who are technical but not from a software development background.

    And we come back to Python. When I worked at Red Hat a couple of years ago, I was very very fortunate to be surrounded by people who love Python. I’d started learning it and getting advice from co-workers as I developed. But there was a wrinkle; I was also, at the time, dealing with the fallout from a toxic boss. I’m not going to resurrect that story here, but it suffices to say that I was deprived of every opportunity to put my Python skills to productive use there. The company was fantastic, and I could see myself being very happy there someday in the future, just not under that manager.

    When I left Red Hat, I ended up somewhere else and Python projects weren’t going to happen for me there. I’d almost forgotten everything I’d learned. Until now.

    I had a check-in with my manager and I told him that I’d like to spend more time creating in-house tools to help augment and automate the tools we were already using. Also, I’d like to leverage Python to do that. Since I’d started working there, another engineer had successfully introduced Python to the engineering ecosystem so there was precedent for the language and I got my blessing to proceed.

    We come back to Learning Python. Wow, what a huge book. And each concept that it introduces leads down a rabbit hole of what you can and cannot do with it. While a lot of programming books don’t go deep enough, this one might go too deep. But it does so in a way that is approachable for a noob like me. I’d tell you that I’m crushing it, but you can’t really crush a thousand page book that is filled with page after page of new learning material. Crushing it? No. But I’m moving through it at a good pace and feeling pretty good about it. My main misgiving is that I have other responsibilities that often distract me from making forward progress here.

  • Absolute OpenBSD by Michael W. Lucas – In Limbo – I’ve had a love/hate relationship with OpenBSD for twenty years now. Back when I started with it, my feelings were more decidedly of love. What an elegant operating system. The project had core values, and all forward progress exuded those values. It was secure. It was free of frivolous cruft. The documentation was deep and complete. This was, for me, the pinnacle of UNIX perfection in the late 1990’s.Fast forward to today. OpenBSD is still around. The project is still going strong, still sticking to the same values, and still cranking out a solid release every six months. But in contrast to all of the big changes in the industry over the last twenty years, it’s something of an anachronism now. Oh sure, it’s still a solid UNIX operating system. It’s still secure and it still has fantastic documentation. But so many of the other things that a modern technology professional would come to expect just aren’t there.

    My love for OpenBSD today is still there, but I’m no longer using it anywhere. I dip my toes in its waters from time to time, partly out of nostalgia, I think. I love it in the way I love my fountain pens, my old typewriter, my hundred year old Victrola (that I still use regularly). It may be quaint, but it works. And it will keep working. I love it because it hasn’t gone completely off the rails like I think the Linux community has done in some ways. I love it because they are doing a better job of managing their project than the modern OS’s that I do love (OmniOS, SmartOS, illumos). Is OpenBSD still a reference UNIX for the rest of the ecosystem? Maybe. Before you dismiss it… have you used ssh lately? Thank OpenBSD.

    So I picked up this book, mostly out of nostalgia, and partly to rebase against a reference UNIX platform as an escape from the lunacy of modern Linux. I’m about five chapters into it now, but then I put it down. I don’t know if I’ll pick it back up anytime soon.

  • The Little Go Book by Karl Seguin – Done – I mentioned earlier that I spent a little time dabbling in Go. Reading this book was part of it. This probably would have been of more value to me if I had a background in software development and some level of accomplishment in multiple languages. I don’t recommend this to someone like me, coming from Systems Administration with little in the way of real software development expertise. You’re not going to learn to program in Go from this book. That’s not what this is.
  • The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde – Done – I kept running into the (very) late Oscar Wilde on social media. These were mostly in the form of little quotes that I adored, or his nineteenth century views of society that are strangely appropriate in 2015. And there was, too, something in the way he weaved his words that appealed to me at an aesthetic level.While I’ve certainly been aware of Dorian and the premise of his story for quite some time, it was my love for the outstanding television series Penny Dreadful that put Dorian Gray in front of me week after week relentlessly.

    I won’t rehash the story for you, but it was time well spent. I really do quite enjoy diving into nineteenth century fiction from time to time. The writers of that era were something else.

  • Ham on Rye by Charles Bukowski – Done – Bukowski has been on my radar for some time, too. While I’m personally not much like Bukowski personally, there are some echoes of his story in my own. Those who are close to me, who know of my own creative works in the visual arts, have advised me that I will recognize some of myself in Bukowski’s pain.And they were right. Somewhat. Bukowski like to fight, drink, and sleep with prostitutes. Me? Not so much. But he had a level of comfort in society’s dark corners which I, too, have enjoyed. Like me, Bukowski had a long career in the mundane world before he had his creative awakening. And he wrote about things that those damned perpetually happy smiling people (don’t trust them) would tell you is too banal, too scatological, for their level of enlightenment. Bullshit.

    I’m not Bukowski. Nobody is. But my friends were right; learning more about him has given me a mirror by which to better understand those darker parts of myself.

    But I’m still not partying with hookers.

Writing Stuff

I finished my NaNoWriMo project last month in seventeen consecutive days, with two days off in between. When I’m writing, I bang this stuff out pretty well. This very blog is pushing 1,900 words as I write this sentence, and I wrote this whole thing while drinking my first of several coffees of the day. Writing isn’t a problem. Contiguous time for writing is a problem.

I’ve got a number of concepts in the bucket for writing future work. It suffices to say, if I quit my job right now and started working full time as a writer, I have enough of a backlog right now to keep me writing every day for the next three years or more. And that’s if I don’t come up with any new ideas between now and the time I’m done. I’d have more, but until recently I let them blow away in the same wind that carried them to me in the first place. Now I’m starting to get more disciplined around capturing good ideas when they hit me.

You may have known that I have a bit of a love for fountain pens, but I’m too cheap to go in for the expensive kinds of pens that most enthusiasts adore. The one time I tried buying an expensive pen (expensive by my reckoning is anything over like $50) it was a disaster. My Namiki Falcon pen never worked right, it still doesn’t work, and it sits in the desk drawer with nib issues beyond my ability to repair. Eventually, maybe, I’ll send it off and pay some talented nib genius to get it dialed in for me. But for the cost of that service, I can buy a number of pens that already work well.

Lately I’ve been a bit fascinated by these cheap fountain pens flooding out of China. They are all sold under the manufacturer name Jinhao, but I suspect the Chinese factories are cloning each other. Who knows where these things are really coming from. But check this out: if you’re willing to wait a month or so for them to come in the mail from China, you can buy a perfectly functional fountain pen for about three bucks. That’s including shipping. And these aren’t crappy disposable plastic fountain pens. Nope. These are quality pens of mostly metal construction, they look nice, and they write well enough (much better than a $3 fountain pen should).

But then that’s where it gets fun. You take that $3 fountain pen, replace the nib with a $15 Goulet #6 nib, and replace the crappy converter with a $5 Schmidt K5 converter from Germany (which fits fine, holds more ink, and is of better construction). Suddenly, you’ve got a pen worth about $25 in parts that writes like a $50+ pen. I’ve got three of these now, with some more on the way from China.

I like these Frankenpens more than I like my Lamy Safari and Lamy Al-star pens. Partly, I think, I realized I like a bigger nib (my Jinhao’s have 1.1mm and 1.5mm stub nibs, while the Lamy pens are Fine and Medium). In fact, I’ve been journaling almost every day. It’s just getting me back in the habit of hand writing a lot more. And, importantly, it’s helping me to bring to the surface threads that are more elusive to me in pure thought. Writing with a pen excites a different part of the brain than typing, I think, and it happens at a slower pace. Any tool that gives access to your own brain is worth considering.

So what am I writing right now? I’m working on a piece of science fiction that is very existential. It was meant to be a short story, but now it’s telling me it wants to be a novella. The Dude abides. I’m calling it “Two Seconds of Your Time” and I will publish it exclusively in the Kindle store under my pen name Magnus Kristiansen (Facebook, Twitter). I’m taking a little break from it for the holidays but I hope to have it in front of you soon!