Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Another Year Looking Back

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.

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Monday, December 23, 2013

Favorite Poet

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.

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Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Best Coursera Yet

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.

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