Blog Ending, Blog Beginning

Well, time has come for me to move away from this blog. It started as a collaborative effort, but in the end that didn’t really pan out, and I (m741) ended up writing the bulk of the posts. It’s felt a bit awkward writing under a collaborative headline when it’s mostly been one person involved.

Furthermore, I’ve felt a bit constrained writing purely about skills (well, mostly about skills). When I was writing about work, or numerous other things, I felt like I was betraying the premise of the blog. Other times, I didn’t write about a topic at all, because it didn’t fit in to the ‘skills’ shoebox. And also, I have to admit that SkillsFIRE is a bit of a goofy name for a blog.

So, I’m stopping this blog, and moving to a new one. The new blog is Rob Evolves (yes, my name is Rob, and yes, I hope to evolve!).

The topic there will be growth generally. That will include financial growth, developing skills, growing spiritually, having adventures, more esoteric philosophical musings. In other words, the same sort of stuff I was writing about here, but with a broader, and more personal, focus. I’d like to do some shorter posts with just a link or a brief thought – most of the posts here were 500 to 1000 words. The overarching subject will still be growth, but of course that can mean an awful lot :). If you enjoyed this blog I think you’ll enjoy that blog as well. If you didn’t enjoy this blog… why are you still reading?

I’ve transferred over the bulk of the posts I wrote here on SkillsFIRE and eliminated a few that didn’t fit in.

(Again, the new blog is Rob Evolves).

Skill a Week: Baking Bread

First off, sorry for the lack of updates recently. Had some family stuff going on and updating the blog here was not my highest priority.

What have I learned this week? I made bread! This was one of the things I had on my list of aspirations for 2013 – to start baking my own bread. This for a number of reasons:

  • Baking is useful for making a lot of foods, and bread is a simple baked product
  • I can make healthier, cheaper bread
  • It seems like a nifty skill
  • It opens the doorway (through yeast) to other micro-organism ventures, such as brewing, wine-making, yogurts, fermentation, pickling, etc, which are intriguing to me

I saw a few recipes that looked dead simple – and they are. The most basic bread is just flour, water, salt, yeast. Four ingredients, and about 10-15 minutes of time.

I followed the steps described by the gentleman who put together how to make perfect French bread in 10 minutes. There are similar batch recipes.

Another useful resource (for this, but also cooking generally) is this Bulk Foods website. I haven’t ordered anything yet, but the prices are great.

Anyway, I made two loaves, no problems, with this method. But eating them knocked me out. I’ve been tired generally recently but the bread was a bit exhausting (though delicious when hot). It’s so much flour. So I’m looking at a few possibilities. I’m going to try putting some wheat flour in the bread (to replace part of the white flour), as well as some oats and other grains. Just dump it in and see what happens. I’ve also got a book of bread-making recipes that looks interesting – one bread is a tofu bread, which I think will cut the carb content somewhat and add protein. Also I might add milk to the bread, or eggs. More ambitiously, I might try substituting in a bit of protein powder, for maybe 1/4 of the flour. This has worked fine for pancakes and crepes. Lots of different things to test!

An Addiction To Books

Hello, I’m m741, and I used to be addicted to books. Well, to admit the truth… I still am. I have a problem. But I’m working on it.

I don’t own very much, but I do have a lot of books. Three years ago, I had 8 bookcases of books. 25 books/shelf * 6 shelves/case * 8 cases = 1200 books. Maybe 1250. And they’re fucking heavy! Jesus, moving was a pain.

Why do I love books so much? I had a lot of them, after all, so there must be some reason. I’ll tell you why: I loved books because they represented a better me. Books I’d read that changed me, or books I wanted to read that would make me more informed. A huge library of personal entertainment available right in front of me. But the hard truth is that I don’t do so much reading: roughly a book each week. At that rate, it would have taken me 24 years to read all the books I owned. What’s the point in that?

Two years ago, I eliminated a bookcase – down to 7. I’d gotten a crappy e-reader and threw out all the classics I owned but would probably never read. Pygmalion, Dante’s Inferno, The Good Earth — so long, goodbye. I could buy them for cheap of get them free.

But to me the real turning point was when I first downloaded a collection of books. In 20 minutes it’s trivial to download many times more books than I had accumulated in 20 years. Books have entered a post-scarcity world. We’re just flooded with the things. It’s not like I would enjoy reading any faster. I could have 100,000 digital books, and wouldn’t matter to me at all. It might even make me less happy since I could still only read 50 books per year.

This past year, I’ve eliminated another bookcase – down to 6. Each weekend I take a load of books – 10-15 books each week – to a book sale in a local church. I’d like to eliminate another case or two this year. Progress, right?

Here’s a few tips I’ve uncovered:

  • When choosing books to eliminate, ask why you are holding onto them. Some books I’ve read, and they’re meaningful to me: I get pleasure seeing them on my shelf. A close friend or relative ahs given me other books, and they’re a memento of that person. I see no reason to eliminate these books.. Some books, I have because I thought they’d be interesting, but they weren’t interesting enough to read for 4+ years! Some books, I got because I’d heard they were good, but I really have no interest in reading at all.
  • Libraries are great, but they don’t always work. I can’t go to the library on a weekday, because I work too late. And on a weekend, I don’t want to walk half an hour to the library and half an hour back. So I was constantly having overdue books, and that gets expensive quick. The booksale is much better – not as good a selection, but I’d rather buy a book for 50 cents (or free!) and be able to hold onto it for two months, and maybe even keep it if I really like it. I’ve probably spent about $15 on 20-30 books this past year, and returned 10-15 of them after reading (or deciding not to read them).
  • Read your books! The biggest reason I held onto books was because I thought they looked interesting and couldn’t bear to discard them unread. After I’ve read them, I have no such compunction donating them.
  • Record your readings. Another sticking point was that I wanted to remember everything I’d read by pointing to it on the shelf. But it’s actually a lot easier to point to it on a website. You can use something like GoodReads to record everything you read. Or just a spreadsheet or text file.
  • There’s little to no reason to hold onto any public domain books, or books which you can find cheap online. They take up no space on your hard drive… and one hard drive is physically smaller than a single book.

Smoothie Foods

Last week, I was wandering around my local grocer, where I get most of my fruits and vegetables. I usually make a few rounds as there’s a lot of different foods to admire (most of which I have no idea how to prepare). I noticed they had cantaloupes for $1 each. While I enjoy the flavor of cantaloupe, I’ve always found it so difficult to select that I basically ignore it. After dicing, many cantaloupes are too soft — plus the center, with the seeds, is slimy, and it’s not always fully removed. Needless to say, I don’t eat much cantaloupe. But for $1 each? They’re healthy, and one melon can lighten and sweeten 4 smoothies. I’m not about to turn down that deal. Furthermore, after dicing it’s easy to freeze a large batch for use whenever you want.

Generally speaking, I don’t enjoy eating  fruits with mushy or pulpy textures. However, those textures disappear in the blender, so it’s possible to eat a more diverse group of foods than you otherwise would. There are other foods besides melons that fall into this category. Old bananas, blueberries and other fruits can be finicky to get right, but in a blender, their worst properties are neutralized.

Blending foods that are physically tiring to eat is another option. It’s difficult to consume leafy greens, carrots, and cucumbers in volume, but these, too, benefit from blending. The texture isn’t fully eliminated, but it’s easy to eat a lot of carrots if you don’t have to chew.

The moral? Think about ways to eat cheap and healthy foods that put them in a more favorable context than usual.

Skill a Week: Cooking with Cast Iron

Time has led to some serious attrition in my kitchen wares. I started out four years ago with some space plates/utensils my parents didn’t need, plus a nice set of glasses given as a graduation present. Over time, I’ve dropped things, lost them, snapped them, etc… now I’m down to 4 plates, for instance, and 3-4 bowls, 4-5 forks, you get the picture. That’s still probably too many, because it just allows too much to build up in the sink… The latest casualty was a large teflon pan I had, maybe 10 years old, and pretty scarred. It wasn’t non-stick anymore, and I don’t want to get cancer in my twenties.

As a replacement, I bought an $18, American-made 12-inch cast iron skillet. Probably the most fetishized piece of kitchen equipment, and also the most durable. I like the thick, heavy metal, the black color, the slightly greasy feel. I like heating it over a gas flame. It reminds me of cooking breakfast at Boy Scout camp, cast iron pan on a Coleman propane stove. Tucked in an old wood cabin in the snowy Adirondacks, playing cards, fighting the wood stove, building insane sled jumps… but that’s another story.

This skillet was supposedly pre-seasoned, but that didn’t work out so well. So I’m seasoning it myself right now. I can tell I’m making progress, although there’s a lot of work to go. I try to improve myself, and it’s nice to own something which will likewise improve with each use.

Here’s what I’ve done so far:

  1. Lots of Pam and butter before eggs. Clean the pan right after eating, when it’s still warm, by pouring some salt in it and wiping with a paper towel.
  2. Wipe the pan down after cleaning with a thin coat of vegetable oil.
  3. Put more oil in the pan and toss it in the oven whenever baking something.

I’ve got two weeks of use in and I’m expecting a fully non-stick pan in a month or two. I’ve been cooking eggs, which are the worst, anyway.

 

Being a Badass Programmer

Is Badass Programmer an oxymoron? I don’t think so. There are badasses in every profession. Sometimes it’s very clear that you’re talking to a blackbelt, a guru – and the whole time, wishing we had those enviable skills. You don’t usually break down what exactly are the badass skills in these situations, but rather form an impression of gestalt badassity. But if we want to emulate a guru, we need to collate and organize these into a sort of “curriculum of badassity.” I’ve tried to do that for programming. What skills define a badass programmer? Each skill below can probably be studied for a lifetime. Of course, you have to pick just a few to specialize in – but they form a web: you can learn unix while programming embedded devices, and develop good user interfaces while contributing to open source. At heart, this is a list of skills that I want to have at least summary knowledge of, before I can consider myself an expert programmer.

  • Able to program embedded devices. This is one of those thing… it looks daunting, but I actually suspect it’s simple to get started (I’m hoping). It opens up new worlds for using programming in the real world – programming beyond the monitor. Skills: loading programs into unconventional devices. Writing C. Processing analog input. Programs outputting to mechanical devices. Writing in resource-constrained environments. Uses: all sorts of lifestyle automation, cool artistic applications, bioinformatics, scientific (eg oceanographic) monitoring, ROBOTS.
  • Comfortable writing programs to render and display 3D. Probably the most intensive from a trig/calculus/linear algebra perspective, but 3-D is required for many types of games. Programming a 3-D engine feels like something every programmer should do. Skills: deep knowledge of trigonometry. Understanding of OpenGL/DirectX. Lots of CS-stuff. Uses: 3-D modeling, modern video games, health (eg MRI) applications.
  • Serious unix knowledge. Unix is the programmer’s operating system (family). You can usually do what you want with a few keystrokes. Any self-respecting programmer should have some unix knowledge. But blackbelt knowledge is badass. Skills: comfortable with most standard unix applications (such as netstat, top, ps). Knows the most useful (and some less useful) arguments and flags for these programs. Knowledge of how to run programs in a pipeline, and how to configure them. Can use more advanced command-line file parsing (sed/awk). Knows either vim or emacs in depth. Knows shell scripting and perl. Uses: general efficiency, street cred.
  • Machine learning/AI. Just cool, also puts a lot of CS-theoretical stuff to use. Can be applied to do virtually any automated task in a smarter way. Skills: good algorithmic/data structure knowledge. Knowledge of: Monte Carlo simulations, evolutionary programming, neural networks. Uses: video games, image processing, data mining, robots, uses in most programs.
  • User-Interface Savvy. To bring a program to a broader audience, it has to have a usable interface, programmers make notoriously bad interfaces. Skills: understanding of good design. The visual display of quantitative information. Presentation. Basic knowledge of arts. Uses: Making each program a pleasure to use.
  • Open-Source Contributor. Giving back to the community is important; it also increases name recognition. Probably the most badass known programmers are the serious open source gurus: Linus Torvalds, Richard Stallman.
  • Multi-paradigm thinking. There are a lot of different ways to program, most notably imperative and functional. Strong knowledge of both is useful, as they each provide benefits. Skills: knowledge of diverse languages (one good set would be C++,Python,Common Lisp,OCaml; I’m shooting for Scala/C++,Python,Clojure,OCaml/Haskell). Uses: write better, more maintainable code. More elegant solutions.
  • Can rapidly prototype. Developing is fun, but developing rapidly is funner! Skills: strong knowledge of a scripting language (Python, Ruby, Javascript). Good math background, ability to visualize shortcuts. Uses: quick fun projects, evaluate many solutions in a short time, rapidly build experience in new problem domain.
  • Builds Enterprise-Scalable. Building a basic Facebook or Wikipedia is extremely simple (Wikipedia in particular has trivial features). But scaling them is hard – in many cases, the entire challenge is making an application capable of handling hundreds of thousands of users. Skills: databases, multithreading, server architecture, load-balancing frameworks, data structures, hot failover. Uses: Employment, ensuring your applications can reach a large number of users.
  • Can deconstruct code. It’s one thing to be able to read code – but then being able to look under the hood and see what happens when that code is compiled – that’s very different. Skills: understanding assembly, java bytecode, hex editing, generating assembly/bytecode, writing assembly. Uses: JVM language design, optimization, analyzing hacks, reverse engineering.

Skill a Week: Kale Chips

I was poking around online for information on kale (for my green smoothies), and I found a recipe for kale chips. It’s dead simple and tastes good. The only downside – it requires turning on the oven. But I don’t mind that so much in winter – the oven doubles as a heater.

Kale Chips

Ingredients:

  • Kale
  • Oil Spray (Pam)
  • Salt
  • Garlic Powder
  • Cayenne Pepper

Preparation:

  1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees
  2. Tear or cut kale leaves off the central stem into potato chip-sized pieces
  3. Place kale rounded side down onto baking sheet
  4. Give a quick spray of pam across the leaves (I used butter flavor, but olive oil flavor would work as well)
  5. Cover leaves first with garlic powder, then a few shakes of salt, and finally a dusting of cayenne pepper
  6. Bake for 10 minutes
  7. Eat.

First off, keep a close eye on these – the cooking time is a bit sensitive and you don’t want them to char. The chips are intense. The garlic, salt and pepper really pack a punch. The texture isn’t really similar to potato chips – it’s closer to dried seaweed you might find in sheets at an asian grocery store.

I’ve heard of other variations with, among other things: soy sauce, black pepper, onion powder, etc. Try and see what you get.

Fruit Shopping

For the past two weeks, I’ve been making smoothies on average, twice a day. That’s probably 4x more frequently than I previously was. The best part, I’ve found, is shopping!

That’s remarkable for me, because I hate shopping, and I hate spending money on things. Occasionally I get an urge to buy some books on Amazon or to get some computer parts. But I feel guilty about it; I furtively sneak a few items into my wishlist. When I buy food, I feel guilty, too. It’s usually cheap stuff like ramen or eggs, but sometimes I’d indulge in ice cream or candy or diet soda. Sure eggs are healthy, but I don’t really feel great buying them. Most of the food I end up getting is stuff that’s bad for me, and bad for the wallet.

Since I started eating smoothies I’ve looked forward to grocery shopping. I enjoy thinking about all the fresh fruit and vegetables I’m going to pick up. Maybe I’ll find some deals, or maybe I’ll try a new fruit. Today I bought for smoothies: 2 cucumbers, a bunch of bananas, 4 pears, a container of yogurt, two containers of cottage cheese, 6 bags of frozen blueberries (33% off), 4 bags of frozen peaches (33% off), a cantaloupe. For consumption outside of smoothies, I picked up pomegranates, onions and green onions (with root). I had kale, carrots, ginger, already. This food can be a little pricey (berries in particular), but I know it’s great for me, and also that it’ll taste great. I spend 15 minutes walking home thinking about what smoothie I’ll try first.

It’s strange to me to feel so good about shopping. But I love unpacking all this healthy fruit and vegetables, thinking about how good it’ll taste, thinking about what combination I’ll try in a smoothie. I enjoy dicing it up and filling up the freezer. And of course I enjoy preparing and drinking smoothies.

Skill a Week: Three Smoothies

I’ve made smoothies for years, but they were always very similar: banana, strawberries/raspberries, milk. Here’s three rather divergent smoothies that shake (ahem) things up. You can swap out almost any of the ingredients unless they’re in the name of the smoothie. the number one most important ingredient in these is banana. It will add natural sweetness and bind together the ingredients without being unhealthy. It also doesn’t have a strong taste.

I use a vitamix to make these: 30-60 seconds and everything is smooth. But I think with some coaxing and judicious ordering of ingredients, a regular blender could handle most of these.

Green Machine

This smoothie isn’t that tasty (it has a semi-sweet gardeny taste with a pulpy texture). But it’s super-healthy. There’s a ton of greens that can be difficult to eat on their own and you can dump in a lot of vegetables, so long as they don’t have a strong taste.

Sweet ingredients:

  • One whole pear (you can core if you like)
  • One banana
  • Apple juice (just a half cup will sweeten the smoothie)

Vegetable ingredients:

Other:

  • Cup of water (or chilled green tea)
  • 1/4 cup Coconut milk (optional)
  • Ginger (Tbsp)

There are three parts of this: the sweet ingredients, the super-healthy green ingredients, and the creamy ingredients (banana, coconut milk). The sweet ingredients end up dominating the taste, which is good, but the sweetness is cut by all the green vegetables. You can substitute in a lot of other things: spinach, sprouts, cauliflower, grape juice for apple juice, etc.

Peaches & Cream

The goal here is a lightly sweet, smooth and creamy shake. Rather than going for fiber and vitamins, you can add a lot of protein to this one.

Sweet:

  • Frozen peaches (1 cup)
  • Fresh peaches (1 cup)
  • Banana (1 large or 2 small)

Cream:

  • Skim Milk (1 cup)
  • Fat Free Yogurt (1 cup)
  • 1/2 scoop Vanilla or Cookies & Cream Protein Powder

Peaches have a relatively mild flavor, so you can’t sneak in too many vegetables; the light orange color is also delicate so any greens will turn it murky (if you care about that). I can toss in a handful of carrots without changing the taste or color. Also worth considering: cottage cheese instead of yogurt, vanilla extract, coconut milk.

Blueberry Smoothie

As long as you add enough blueberries, this smoothie has a very strong taste and a texture that accommodates grittier ingredients.

Ingredients:

  • Frozen Blueberries (1-2 cups)
  • Small handful spinach
  • Half cucumber
  • 1 large banana
  • Flax seed
  • Water

You can substitute in tea or milk instead of water. A few carrots or heads of broccoli can be added as well.

Minimalist Goals for 2013

Last year, I really went overboard with goals: I had a lot of goals, in a lot of areas, and then I kinda just ignored them. That’s been an unfortunate trend for me. I like setting goals more than working to achieve them.

At the end of 2012, I’m pretty happy with the trajectory I’m on (I’ll probably write another post about this). I post regularly on this blog – not as much as I like, but every week or two. I’m learning new skills, becoming a better programmer, continuing to improve my finances – all things that are important to me.

The one area where I only managed to maintain status quo was my health. Sure, I lifted weights a bit, but the sad fact is that given the amount of free time I have each day, I can’t regularly work out. (I mean, I do literally have enough time to work out, but not enough slack that I can stick to the habit). Although I’ve sporadically started working out,every six months or so over the past few years, it’s just been too brittle a habit to stick with it. So, I’m changing tactics.

They say that most of being healthy is what you eat, and less about going to the gym. Eating better doesn’t really require that much more time than eating terrible food. And it can be combined with other interests I have – being more self-sufficient, and being more frugal. My weakness has always been sugar and starches, and not so much fats, so I’m going to focus on reducing intake of sweets.

I’m making a very simple resolution for 2013. The only processed sugar I want to eat is stuff I’ve made myself, or when I’m at a restaurant with friends and family. No buying candy or ice cream or soda. No going to the vending machine for snacks. No gorging on the seemingly endless cakes and cookies that people bring into work. But if I make a pie or a smoothie or cookies myself, that’s ok.

My goal initially is to re-adjust my taste buds. I’ve seen before that apples and bananas can actually taste really sweet – if my taste buds haven’t been sated with sugar. I have a super-powerful vitamix blender that I use regularly. Although I use it a few times each week, I can lean on it much harder and have a shake or two almost every day, and put a lot of healthy greens in those shakes as well.

After a month or two of that, I’ll also look to cut down on bagels, breads and pasta.

Finally, I’m going to be more active. That doesn’t mean working out all the time, but I will get out and do things more often… particularly hiking and camping… maybe some pickup games and biking. Again, I’m killing two birds with one stone: doing something enjoyable and enriching, while getting healthier.

The overall goal: have a more trim, fine-tuned body – which should make me happier, more energetic, and more outgoing.

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