Goodness, has another year gone by already? I've written a couple of these retrospectives, including last year's effort. I was feeling pretty good after finishing my first half marathon. I had logged 313 miles on roads and trails, the best running total I've ever had. I swam 243,000 yards - subpar compared to my average 346,000 per year, but I was happy about learning how to run again. I had every intention of running another half marathon in 2013 and perhaps trying my hand at a full marathon. I had my training plans all set. I signed up for a half in Simsbury in June and planned to re-enter the Hartford Marathon again in October.
Unfortunately, I hit a couple of snags.
I was swimming an IM set during the second week of January when my left shoulder started hurting me. I'm not sure, but I think I was splitting a lane with another swimmer. I remember ticking the lane marker with my left hand when my left arm recovered over the water. Is that when it happened? I tried again the next day and found that it was still sore. I stopped swimming butterfly for 4-6 weeks before trying it again in Mar. I couldn't even complete a length: my shoulder was hurt. I went to see my general practitioner about it. When I told him I did it swimming butterfly he said "Are you crazy? A guy your age shouldn't be swimming that stroke!" He suggested that I had a partial tear in my rotator cuff. He said he could spare me a bunch of co-pays at the physical therapist by recommending rubber band exercises to build up my shoulder.
I was doing fine until I went out into the yard in April to clear some brush. I started experiencing pain in my neck and numbness in my left thumb. I've had cervical spine issues before: C6-C7 disk bulging caused incessant pain in my right shoulder, down to my elbow. This time the symptoms suggested C5-C6 disk problems. I resigned myself to a visit with an orthopedic surgeon. An MRI confirmed the initial diagnosis. It's not uncommon. It's likely that a random sampling of men my age would turn up several torn rotator cuffs.
I've never had surgery before. I wanted to do all I could to avoid it this time, too. I went to physical therapy with the goal of managing it as a chronic condition. I gave them a tough task: they had to sort out my neck issues before tackling my shoulder, but I made enough progress to make it back into the pool in August. I decided that I wanted a second opinion, so off I went to another surgeon and physical therapy team. I heard something there that changed my view. The surgeon was an accomplished swimmer (far better than me) who understood my love of the water. At the first session the physical therapist said "If I had a condition that I knew could be sorted out, I'd want to take care of it." That flipped the switch for me. I did all the exercises and planned to add my name to the surgical calendar in 2014.
So my totals weren't so impressive this year: 220 miles running, none longer than 8 miles; 131,000 yards swimming, my worst total by far since I started keeping track in 1996. I'd like to improve on both next year. It'll start by getting my shoulder sorted out. If it's a simple cleanup operation, I'll be immobile for a week or less. I'll be able to start on regaining full range of motion right away. If things are unstable, and stitches are required to make the shoulder stable again, I will be immobile for a longer period and the therapy will be more difficult. I'm optimistic for a good result. I feel good in the water now. I don't do butterfly anymore, but I can still do a modified version using the dolphin kick and alternating each arm. I don't know if I'll ever have that wonderful feeling again where I'm flying over the water. We'll see!
One goal for the year was to dive into on-line courses and deepen my knowledge of statistics. I hit a home run there. I completed an intro statistics course at Udacity early in the year. I wanted to learn something and see if online courses suited me, so I didn't commit to a certificate. The next three courses at Coursera.org were a great success. I earned two certificates with distinction and have hopes of meriting a third. I loved the courses and learned a ton. I plan to add more in 2014.
I had a great year reading, both technical and non-technical. It's not often that you can say you've discovered a favorite poet, but I did this year. Read Billy Collins' Aristole for one reason why.
I signed up for Twitter. I'm not sure that's a positive. It's a time sink, one that I cannot afford. I've spent too much time reading stuff that makes me laugh, think, and fume. I micro-blog and argue with trolls far more than I should. I rise to the bait easily. This is one habit that I hope I won't embellish in 2014.
I'm grateful to still be working. It's a year-to-year thing nowadays. We're all temporary employees, all at the pleasure of our employers. The world seems less stable than it was when I was younger.
I'm still married to the same wonderful woman. We're outliers by a long way.
My children are both out on their own, laying the foundations for their adult lives. They're still within a car and train ride, which is a great thing. I love seeing them.
My mother is still with us and doing well.
I still have plenty of technical goals. I need to write more applications and dive deeper into data analysis. Bayesian analysis and multi-chain Monte Carlo are at the top of my book pile this year.
I'm glad to still have that sense of optimism and anticipation at the turn of the calendar.
I love to read, but poetry has never been my favorite. I've dipped my toe in the water, but I've never dived in with gusto.
I had a great AP English teacher in high school who fanned the embers of my love of reading into a roaring blaze. He seemed to have read everything. Whenever he'd recommend something I'd run to the library and devour it. More often than not he was right. Why else would I have read the Studs Lonigan trilogy? (Go get it - it's great.)
But he couldn't duplicate the trick for poetry. He taught us about different meters. I remember iambic pentameter and Robert Frost snippets, but little else. I confuse the names with guitar scales: "Did Shakespeare use mixolydian, or was that Stevie Ray Vaughn?"
My indifference to poetry persisted until one Saturday morning when I was out and about with the dog, listening to "Wait Wait, Don't Tell Me!" on NPR. The guest was Billy Collins. He was so entertaining to listen to that I resolved to give his stuff a try. My local library had a copy of his "Sailing Alone Around The Room". It's the best poetry I've ever read: beautiful, not dry or boring, modern and fresh. I can't stop reading the guy. I take a few in every day, re-reading the ones that I like. I've read them aloud to my wife, because they demand to be given voice the way great songs have to be sung. Poems that I like! I'm astonished at the thought.
I finished my third Coursera course tonight: Data Analysis, eight weeks of learning R and its application to statistics problems. I've enjoyed all three, but this one topped them all. It was a difficult eight weeks. I spent a lot of hours at night after work and weekend time poring over assignments. It's been tiring but worth it. I've remembered the statistics I'd forgotten, learned a lot of new things like generalized linear models, and deepened my knowledge of R. It's exactly what I set out to accomplish when I started taking on-line classes a year ago at this time. I wanted to see if I could adapt to a new style of learning and self-education. I wanted to prove that I could still absorb challenging material. I'm at an age when it's easy to sit back and tell yourself that you already know it all, that you're too old a dog to learn new tricks. Did I still have it in me? I think I succeeded on all counts.
The professor was Jeff Leek, who's on the faculty of the Johns Hopkins biostatistics department. They claim to be pre-eminent in the world, and after sitting through this course I believe them. His graduate students are fortunate.
I've earned certificates with distinction for the two other classes I've taken. I calculated my point totals for quizzes and assignments for 'Data Analysis'. I think I squeezed out another distinguished certificate. I'll have to wait a week or two to see if my numbers match those from Coursera, but I'm confident that it'll turn out well.
I've got a lot of other tasks lined up. I want to take more of these classes next year, but I'm uncertain about what to take. I want to go further with R and statistics, but there's no clear choice listed in the catalog. I might start haunting Kaggle.com and applying these new skills to problems. I've got some development tasks to get back to.
I found out that I'm two speeches away from achieving the Toastmasters Advanced Leadership Bronze designation. I'll fulfill those easily in the next few weeks. That would be three awards in one fiscal year. I'll only have ten speeches to achieve Advanced Communicator Gold and the Advanced Leadership Silver to become a Distinguished Toastmaster. Who would have thought it'd culminate in this when I started in 2008? Maybe I can do it by mid 2015.
I plan to relax a bit over the holidays. It's been a nice way to end the year.
I received the certificate with distinction for Coursera Data Analysis Using R tonight. I know it shouldn't matter, but it does to me. I want to hold myself accountable and keep pressing with these courses.
Data Analysis has completed its second week. I'm in the midst of the first data analysis assignment. I have more work to do on it, but I think it's going well. I have a plan of attack that I'm following. I think the writeup portion plays to my strength. I'm slowly becoming more comfortable with R. I need to be reading more statistics books to figure out how to attack problems better.
Toastmasters is moving along, too. I finally completed the Competent Leader designation. I also finished the requirements for Advanced Communicator Silver designation. Just Gold to go, then two more leadership tracks to become a Distinguished Toastmaster. I don't know if I'll manage the leadership portion, but the speaking track is well within reach.
But wait - there's more.
And now there's vert.x, the non-blocking IO framework for Java.
I just finished my second Coursera course. It's hard to believe that "Data Analysis Using R" started just four weeks ago.
This wasn't a terribly difficult course, but lecture time added up. The assignments weren't hard conceptually, but I found myself struggling with the API and the docs. "How do I do that?" was a common question. It was easy to think how I'd do something in a language that I knew better, like Java or Python, but I wasn't always able to conjure up the R equivalent at will. I had to do small experiments on the fly to figure out how to make the language do my bidding.
The third programming assignment set was time-consuming. I was behind the eight ball because I was out of town at a family wedding the weekend before it was due. Thankfully we were given an allotment of late days that we could apply as needed. I used up three of them after returning from MN so I could get the assignment in late without penalty.
Debugging in the R environment is crude, reminiscent of the gbd command line debugger that comes with Java. It's a comedown for a person who's used to using the best IDEs in the world to work with Java and Python. I started using the R plugin for IntelliJ for the fourth assignment. I hope they keep expanding and improving it.
This one was a sprint. The next one, "Data Analysis", will emphasize problems that R is used for, diving deeper into regression and analysis. I'm looking forward to getting back in touch with my mathematics roots. It begins next Monday.
I start the next step with Coursera tonight: It's opening night for "Computing For Data Analysis" from Roger Peng at Johns Hopkins University. It's a four week introduction to using R that should be good. He blogs at Simply Statistics, which looks like it'll be a good resource for stretching my brain.
I'm running on my Windows 7 desktop. I've downloaded the latest version of R 3.0.1. There's an IDE called Tinn-R that might be okay. I'm sure it won't replace IntelliJ from JetBrains as the world's greatest IDE. Until those brilliant Russians come up with an R environment for me I'll make do.
My friend Steve Roach pointed out a port of R that runs on the JVM called Renjin. I think this statement is surprising:
We built Renjin, a new interpreter for the JVM because we wanted the beauty, the flexibility, and power of R with the performance of the Java Virtual Machine.
My first thought was that it'll be hard to beat LAPACK in C or Fortran. But perhaps a version that leverages parallelism could tip the balance.
So this will be sucking up some of my time and energy for the next four weeks. I hope the lessons diffuse into my brain quickly.
This has been a difficult year for me physically (more about that another time), but I'm having a great year reading. I've been on a tear lately, thanks to my local library and my oldest daughter.
My dog is pretty smart. He knows Saturdays are different from any other day of the week. He follows me around the house, tail wagging, from the moment we get up. He comes running if I make a move towards my car keys on the table in the mud room: "Are you going out? In the car? Will you take me with you?" I leave him behind if conditions are too hot or cold to leave him unattended in the car, but on mild days I'm happy to take him with me. We go to the bank, the post office, the barber shop, Dunkin Donuts, or the town library. It amazes me to see how often I'll find something good.
I started this recent tear with "Going Clear" by Lawrence Wright. It's the history of Scientology, from L. Ron Hubbard's World War II record through to the present day. I didn't know the details before. I found them educational and amusing.
I enjoyed it so much that I picked up Lawrence Wright's "The Looming Towers". It's the riveting story of al Qaeda from Sayyid Qutb in the prisons of Egypt to the crashing of planes into the World Trade Center on 2001-Sep-11. The references to Ali Soufan, the FBI agent who investigated the bombing of the U.S.S. Cole and interrogated captured al Qaeda, led me to "The Black Banners". This is a wonderfully written, but ultimately sad and frustrating book. You know how it ends. You can see how it might have been possible to connect the dots beforehand if the right people had been privy to certain facts, perhaps preventing disaster. Ali Soufan presents evidence for something that I suspected was true: harsh interrogation methods don't work. Zero Dark Thirty would lead us to believe that waterboarding turned up the information that led to Osama bin Laden's compound in Pakistan, but all the actionable intelligence the U.S. got from captured al Qaeda came from Ali and traditional interrogation methods.
After all this serious stuff I was ready for some fun. I heard Gillian Flynn on NPR's "Wait Wait, Don't Tell Me" on the way to the library one day. She was so smart and funny when talking about her book "Gone Girl" that I had to read it. One of the panelists said "After reading this book, I think you're one of those people who could murder someone and get away with it."
The writing device was unusual. The book opens with a young husband and wife on the morning of their fifth wedding anniversary. They argue before the man leaves for work. When he comes home, he finds the front door open, the cat sitting on stoop, the house torn up, and his wife gone. What happened to her? Chapters alternate from the husband's point of view in the present to the wife's voice in flashback. Things get nuttier with each turn of the page. It was most entertaining!
My oldest daughter recommended Ellen Ullman's "By Blood". It's set in San Francisco in the 1970s. An academic who's struggling to finish a project decides to rent an office in a seedy part of town. He finds out that it's next door to a psychiatrist's office. He starts listening in on a young woman's weekly session and finds himself identifying closely with her. He becomes secretly involved in her thread. Terrific writing!
Wait, there's more. My oldest daughter also suggested that I take a look at a piece of non-fiction by Cheryl Strayed: "Wild". It's the true story of a 22-year-old woman who loses her not-even-fifty single mother to cancer in 1995. Her family and marriage fall apart over the next four years. When she hits rock bottom she decides to hike the Pacific Crest Trail from Mexico to Canada. Think Appalachian Trail on the West Coast, except at 10,000 feet along the peaks of the Sierra Nevada mountains. It made me wish I was a hiker. I thought the author was incredibly brave to be so forthright and honest.
Amazon should just garnish my wages. I love the instant gratification of Kindle. When I finished "Wild" I couldn't wait to get back to the library. I downloaded Colum McCann's "Transatlantic". I'm only a little way into it, but it's a series of stories that all center on Ireland. The writing is wonderful.