Book Review: Pride and Prejudice

It’s been a very long time since I’ve read a fiction book. It’s not that I don’t read; I spend the majority of my evenings poring over non-fiction of some kind or another (business, history and engineering being my favourite subjects). I just never really saw the point of fiction.

That was, until I read Why Every Man Should Read Jane Austen, by one of my favourite bloggers, Brett McKay of The Art of Manliness. The Art of Manliness is one of my favourite blogs on the Internet (and you should definitely subscribe if you enjoy long-form blogging about philosophy and practical skills, regardless of gender). As such, I was intrigued.

Particularly fascinating to me was the discussion of ‘theory of mind’, the ability for us to understand each other and attribute emotions to other people. Honestly, it’s something I’ve never been particularly good at. Other people’s emotions are guesswork to most people most of the time, and to me (and combined with a healthy dose of impostor syndrome in my work) it is mostly cause for panic.

Initially I read the article and then almost dismissed it; I put it at the bottom of a very long to-do list (which will never be complete, my grandchildren will be splitting it up between them when I die). But it kept coming back to me, gnawing at me almost. I don’t read much fiction. I could be better at understanding others. My writing skills have deteriorated.

A week ago I couldn’t bear it any more and downloaded the book on Google Play (substitute Kindle, Project Gutenberg or a physical book store as you like). I thought it might be nice to read a couple of chapters each night to wind down before sleep. Oh how wrong I was. I was hooked.

Three days later, I’d read the entire book (including staying up to 3am two nights in a row), as well as watched the entire BBC mini-series of 6 hours (which I did in one sitting).

This book is incredible.

There’s intrigue, there’s romance, there’s comedy, there’s so much metaphorical bitch-slapping you wouldn’t believe.

Due to the age of the book (it’s written and set in Regency England) the language can be hard to read at times, especially the dialogue. People spoke to each other much differently then, and it took reading passages three or four times before I could sometimes understand them. There were also some passages I didn’t understand the significance of, because I couldn’t read the sarcasm or other inflections properly – it took watching the mini-series to sort that out.

But the difference in language is also one of the strongest points. It gives you an insight into how formal the language was then, and how formally they treated others as a general rule. To not be polite to somebody then was the worst thing that could possibly happen. And the ramifications would be severe: Mrs. Bennett’s loud-mouthedness almost cost her the potential marriages of two of her daughters.

There are other insights too. To do something dishonourable (such as live with a somebody out of wedlock, a big deal for fair reasons back then – there was no contraception) had an impact not only on other’s opinions of you, but also on your family and your friends, and for a very long time. This is something still true today, but it’s far less obvious and the reminder of it’s presence is welcome (even if the presence itself is not).

I also now understand a lot more pop culture references. So many TV shows make references to Pride and Prejudice. I always used to giggle when I saw a reference to some classic that I had read, and now I see them far more often. Even Top Gear made them. Almost for this reason alone I’ve committed to reading more fiction in the future. It makes everything more fun.

Renting Advice

Here is a random list of advice for one of my friends who is looking for a house.

  • If you can find yourself a house that includes white goods, you will save yourself a lot of bother moving them. In Hobart you won’t find a house without a stove, and the majority will have a fridge and washing machine. You may get a dryer or dishwasher if you’re lucky. Somebody else also takes care of repairs and collects the depreciation on the assets, which is nice too.
  • If you’re a couple, and you can afford a two-bedroom place (even if the second bedroom is tiny), go for it. Having places where you can be separate from each other (one of you in the spare room, one of you in the living room) will preserve your sanity.
  • Make sure you get a place that gets some sunlight in winter. It will vastly reduce your heating bill, and keep you sane if you’re at home during the day. Hobart-specific advice: be careful with being on the southern side of the hills in South Hobart and Lenah Valley.
  • Places with built-in heating will save you money. A reverse-cycle air conditioner (heat pump) runs at a lower price per joule of electricity than a plug-in electric heater, and is more efficient to boot. You’re unlikely to get gas heating or a wood fire (which is expensive but very very pleasant) unless you’re looking at more expensive places.
  • Be realistic about your travel and commute. Carefully consider whether you will save money by living within walking distance of work (expensive house, cheap transportation) or by living further out (cheap house, expensive transportation). Keep in mind it’s hard to change habits – if you already drive everywhere, you’ll keep on driving everywhere unless you make conscious changes.
  • Make a list of things you absolutely won’t put up with before going to look at places, and dismiss them immediately if they don’t meet with your requirements. It’s better to miss out on a place than to be stuck somewhere you can’t stand.
  • You will also have a list of nice-to-haves (for me: fan-forced oven, view of the river). These are not the same as your deal-breakers.
  • Also set a hard limit (or hard limits) on the amount you can afford before you start looking. When I last moved, I set a limit of $125/week for a room with a car or bus commute to the city, a limit of $150/week for a room with a cycle or walk commute to the city, and $200/week if I could rent two bedrooms, one to use as an office (and thus no need to commute). Bonus points if you create a full budget beforehand and can be confident in your numbers.
  • Real estate rental agents will almost always be ‘meh’ to deal with. They will (generally) be unresponsive and unhelpful. Private landlords will either be great, or even worse.
  • In Tasmania, make sure you check out the Consumer Affairs’ site on renting.

Time Management 101: The Calendar

Time management is one of those areas in life where there are as many different answers as there are people asking the questions. Instead of telling you exactly how to manage your time, I’ll tell you how I manage my time. With any luck, you might find some hints useful to you. Following on from my introductory post, I want to demonstrate how I manage my time.

A sample day in my calendar.
A sample day in my calendar.

The most important tool I use is Google Calendar, although I could substitute most cloud-based calendars without issue (I used Exchange for years). The key feature is that it synchronises to my phone. It’s also important that I only have one calendar. If I had a separate calendar for work and home, things would get lost in the cracks. I also have a very important rule – as soon as I have an appointment, it goes in my phone and into the master calendar. Not even an hour must pass before I put it in. This reduces the chances of me being double booked. I never trust my mind.

I’ve divided my work-week into periods, like high school. Unlike high school, not all “classes” are the same length, because not all work takes the same time to do. I might spend two hours programming, then take a break and spend ninety minutes doing administration work and responding to emails. I also specialise my days: Tuesdays and Fridays are for meetings. Monday, Wednesday and Thursday are for sitting down and cracking on with things. Splitting my week up like this allows me to concentrate on something for an entire day if I need to, and also reduces my need for ironed shirts.

I also have a second calendar which does not hold any of my own events (they always go on the master calendar) but instead holds events that I hear about my friends doing – it contains notes like “Matt playing RPGs” or “Dad in Melbourne”. This ensures that I never forget about important events in my friends’ lives, and comes especially in handy for remembering where my house mate is, so I don’t have to worry when he’s not home in the morning.

Finally, I’m a big fan of weekly planning. At some point on the weekend (generally on Sunday afternoon) I’ll sit down for half an hour and plan out all my activities for the week – errands that need to be run, tasks that need specific times devoted to them (a big one for me is scheduling server upgrades and restarts), that sort of thing. I also schedule time to relax: every evening sometime between 5 and 6 I take the dog for a half-hour walk. This doesn’t mean I can’t change my plans on a whim (such as getting invited out to party on short notice) – just that I have some structure to fall back on.

There’s still a lot to discuss – my routines, task management, project management, automation, and more. But that’s for another day.

The Tastiest Hobby

When I lived with my parents years ago, I was blessed to have an oven with a stable temperature and a working fan. I didn’t realise it at the time, but moving out of home marked the start of more than five years of walking through a culinary desert. Cooking just wasn’t fun any more – and eating out was so much more adult and sophisticated!

Last August I moved into a house with an amazing kitchen, and slowly my desire to cook has come back. It’s not a desert I’m walking through any more, it’s a dessert. Here’s a selection of the things I’ve made, just in the last week:

Apple and Rhubarb Crumble
Apple and Rhubarb Crumble
Chocolate Fudge
Chocolate Fudge
Pumpkin Pie
Pumpkin Pie

Amazingly, despite the above evidence, I’m actually fitter and healthier than I was – I’m exercising more, and I’m eating out far less than in the past.

Win win! 2016 – Monday & Tuesday

So far this week I’ve been at, held in Geelong. As usual, it’s been the insane mix of seeing awesome talks by awesome people, hanging out with old friends, meeting new friends, and not getting quite enough sleep.

Of the awesome talks, a few stand out:

  • Bdale Garbee’s talk on whole-house audio, where instead of buying off the shelf hardware, he built his own USB to 30w stereo amplifier module and hooked nine of them up to an embedded PC. Mostly because he could.
  • Casey West’s two talks on cloud anti-patterns and twelve-factor apps, outlining a large number of good and bad practices in application development, containers, and clouds.
  • Steven Ellis’ talk on ManageIQ, which is a tool for managing cross-provider VMs. It looks like the perfect tool to manage my mix of Rackspace, Azure and AWS VMs and other tools, but I haven’t been able to check it out further yet (the downloadable image won’t work in VirtualBox, so I’ll have to wait until I get home).
  • Tammy Butow’s Site Reliability Engineering at Dropbox talk filled me with inspiration to work harder at getting better at systems administration. It was essentially a talk on Kaizen applied to engineering and how to achieve that.
The UnPDNS in progress...
The UnPDNS in progress…

Of course, LCA isn’t just about talks – if it was, I probably wouldn’t bother going. It’s about people. It’s been great to meet new people over dinner, and discuss talks with strangers after they end – it’s been fun to get some new views on what I thought were uncontroversial topics. I ended up playing Ingress late at night with a few people, and had great fun (and a lot of exercise, which I probably need). And there was of course the UnProfessional Delegates Networking Session, a barbecue organised by my friends Adam Harvey and Chris Neugebauer, which despite getting rained out was great fun – and then we all adjourned to the pub.

Geelong seems like a lovely city. I visited roughly fifteen years ago and I was fairly unimpressed at the time – it was dull and grey and seemed devoid of anything interesting. That can’t be said now. The waterfront is a lovely place to be, the weather is perfect (at least in summer), and there’s plenty of good food to be had (not on the level of Hobart or Melbourne, but that’s a tough standard to meet).

I’m looking forward to what the rest of the week brings!