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18 Month Reading List

January 17th, 2013 No comments

Beth, Mikayla and I are approaching the 18 month mark of our time in Swaziland and that means it is time to do another update of what I have been reading.

Before I get into my reviews, a couple things I noticed about my list:

  • I read less books in this period than the prior two periods, but this is probably due to the fact that I read next to nothing for the month and a half we were in the states.
  • I have to thank David Altmaier for shaping my reading list the last six months. He turned me on to Bill Bryson (through A Walk in the Woods) and also recommended How I Killed Pluto and Why.
  • Speaking of Bill Bryson, as you can see, I really got into his writings. I would have probably read even more, but I wanted a bit of variety (you can expect more in my next posting).
  • Looking at what I have read in the past 12 months I realized everything was on the Kindle. I haven’t read a hardcopy of a book in over a year. Doesn’t really surprise me because I actual prefer the kindle, but I found it noteworthy.
  • I also noticed that I everything I read in this period has been non-fiction. Obviously this is what I am drawn to.

Okay… on to my reviews of the books I have read in the last six months.

  1. A Short History of Nearly Everything – This was probably my favorite of the Bryson books that I read. It is what it says it is… a sprint through the history of science and what we have learned about where the world has come from. It was like 400 pages of clicking through Wikipedia articles without ever finding a bad one.
  2. A Universe from Nothing – I started this 6 months ago and set it down. I picked it up again two weeks ago and forced my way through it. The book focuses on super-interesting topics like particle physics and quantum mechanics, but the author is exceedingly arrogant and instead of sharing fascinating discoveries, he prefers to bash religion. It ends up being an unfortunate diversion (regardless of what your theological beliefs are).
  3. A Walk in the Woods – The first Bryson book I read and I loved it. It is a great mix of candid revelation and literary brilliance. The fact that I have walked parts of the Appalachian trail (and am now ridiculously out of shape) really made the book resonate with me.
  4. Ada BlackJack – I read this book because it was cheap and a bestseller on Amazon. It was a good read, (especially if you like polar exploration books) and covered some history I was unaware of (an Eskimo woman who survived an exploration trip no one else did).
  5. At Home – Another one of Bryson’s wandering inquiries into the history of stuff. If you are a linear thinker, this book would drive you nuts, but it was a great book to pick up and read for 10 minutes or two hours.
  6. Bill Bryson’s African Diary – Super quick read about Bryson’s trip to Kenya. The writing was great as I have come to expect, but it was short and lacked a unifying direction.
  7. How I killed Pluto and Why – This book is the polar opposite of A Universe from Nothing that I mentioned above. It is another “science” book, but the author is incredibly humble and prefers to explain topics rather than talk down to his audience. It is a great walk through of his career in planetary astronomy and the massive changes that occurred during the time period. Well written and fascinating.
  8. How to get away with Murder in America – This was one of several short non-fiction read after finding it on the Amazon best seller list. A bit of conspiracy theory mixed with mob sensationalism, but the result was not great.
  9. John McAfees Last Stand – This was an interesting read and I found it to be a foray into a new style of literature: long-style current event reporting. It covered the unfolding events around the curious life of a tech giant turned nuts. You can read my full review here.
  10. Journey to Ki – a short book about a journey to a Tibetan temple. Simply put, this was not worth the time. Free on Amazon, but it was more of a college personal narrative assignment than a real read.
  11. Lost at Sea – ughh… it took everything I had to finish this book. I found the author recommended amongst several of my favorite authors, but the book ended up being a rambling collection of short articles that had nothing in common.
  12. The Devil in the White City – This book has been on my “to-read” list for quite a while and I am very glad I finally got to it. It is a great blend of excellent writing with an interesting subject matter (Chicago world’s fair and a crazy serial killer). The conclusion was a bit short, but the overall quality of the writing easily made up for it.
  13. The Last Explorer – I think this was a free (or cheap) book I found on Amazon and it was actually very interesting. It was about an Australian adventurer / explorer who despite amazing contributions ended up on the sidelines. Very interesting.
  14. The Violinist’s Thumb – I love Sam Keane’s writing style. The Disappearing Spoon was one of my favorite books for last year and I was excited to read his newest work on DNA and heredity. I didn’t think it was as good as his first book, but he still presents a top-notch blend of interesting science and crazy back-story.

So what books ended up on top? Well to be honest, I had a harder time deciding than usual. The books spanned a pretty broad range of subjects and writing styles and they tended to fall into two categories. Those I was glad I read and those I wish I hadn’t wasted my time on. Here is how those designations flesh out:

Worth Reading: A Short History Of Nearly Everything, A Walk In The Woods, Ada Blackjack, At Home, How I Killed Pluto And Why, The Devil in the White City, The Last Explorer, The Violist’s Thumb

Not Worth Reading: A Universe From Nothing, African Diaries, How To Get Away With Murder In America, John Mcafee’s Last Stand, Journey To Ki, Lost At Sea.

So there you go. You can look forward to the year-end summary of Ben Kickert’s reading in July.

Categories: Reviews Tags: , , ,

6 more months of reading

July 18th, 2012 3 comments

A year ago we started our move to Swaziland (it is tough to say what day we actually moved because it took us 72 hours to get from BG to St. Philips).  It has been a great year and the adjustments have been exceptionally smooth.  Some adjustments have been difficult (the heat, loss of electricity, poor internet access, being away from friends and family) while other have been incredible (touring Africa, working for a great organization, meeting wonderful people).  One of the adjustments I have absolutely loved is that I have been able to read much much more.

At the six month mark I had read 23 books (and posted my thoughts here).  Now that the year is over, my grand total is 41.  Here is what I read most recently and a few quick notes on them.

Auschwitz – This is a true account of a Jewish doctor who was employed at Auschwitz and the horrors he experienced.  Excellent reading but a very difficult subject matter.

Beneath the Neon – I heard the author of this book on NPR many years ago and had always wanted to read it and finally did.  It is the story of a journalist exploring the storm tunnels underneath Las Vegas.  It wasn’t as exciting as I had hoped.

Death by Meeting – A practical book about how to hold better meetings.  It was used when I was at Broadway and there are several concepts we can use at Cabrini.

Desert Solitaire – Just finished this book up tonight.  My father always held it high regard and I have enjoyed reading some of Edward Abbey’s other stuff.  It was a bit ironic to read it on an ipod since it is all about connecting with the earth, but that did not diminish the excellent writing.

Desperate Passage – A book about the Donner party.  It was a top seller on Amazon and a pretty good read.

Diamonds Gold and War – technically this one should not be on the list since I haven’t finished it yet, but it is a good historic account of how the British and Afrikaans established themselves in South Africa.  Pretty dense with a lot of names to keep up, but a good read.

Finding Amelia – I watched a show on history channel about Amelia Earnhardt and wanted to know more so I read the book.

Germs Genes and Civilization – Fascinating book on how disease has shaped civilization.  The author outlines some pretty significant ideas that are quite relevant since I literally live in culture that has been shaped by a disease.

Love and Death in the Kingdom of Swaziland – a story about the sisters who run Cabrini that primarily takes place during the first months we were in country.  You can find more information here.

Marine Sniper – An odd book for a pacifist to read, but it is an account of the sniper with the highest kill rate in Vietnam.

Particles and the Universe – Nerdy science book about sub atomic particles.  What can I say… I really dig that kind of stuff.

Physics of the Impossible – Similar to above in its subject matter but deals with quantum physics.  Both books filled my need to geek out on science

Rats – Dad read this book about rat colonies in NYC several years ago and we gave him a hard time, but I finally gave in and read it myself.  It was very enjoyable and well written.

Speaking in Tongues – I needed to read some fiction so I picked up this book by Jeffery Deaver.  Nothing special, but was an easy read.

Spook – This was the only Mary Roach book that I hadn’t read yet.  I love her writting, and while it was not my favorite of her books, it was still very good.

The case of the missing moon rocks – Free book on Kindle that I read quickly while flying all over the place in the states in March.

The Disappearing Spoon – A captivating book about the periodic table of the elements, its history and how the different elements have shaped the world.  Rather long, but I loved every page of it.  I just bought a book by the same author about how DNA and genes affect a variety of things.

Tipping Point – Interesting read about cultural trends, especially after reading Freakonomics.  Fun concepts to think about, but both books paint with too broad of a brush.

Triangle – Short story by Jeffery Deaver.  It was a great read before bed.

Looking back over the last 6 months of reading, I would give the title of "Best Read" to The Disappearing Spoon although Desert Solitaire comes in a close second.  And then, if I rank my top 5 books from the last year, I would put them in this order:

Categories: Reviews Tags: , ,

3 Generations of Chacos

May 10th, 2011 No comments

I got my first pair of Chacos 7 years ago right before my wife and I got married.  A friend’s dog chewed up the cheap pair of Tevas I had and I saw it as a great excuse to invest in some good "hiking sandals."  For most of those 7 years I wore my chacos 200+ days a year.  After about 3 years I had worn the heel almost all the way down and my straps were beginning to fray.  For the next 3 years I kept telling myself I need to get the resoled, but I kept forgetting until Spring rolled around and by that point I couldn’t bear the thought of being without them.  After 6 years they were looking so rough, yet still felt so comfortable; they had molded to my feet and the straps were stuck in the optimal position.  Yet, I knew I had to start looking for a replacement.

I found a new pair of chacos in my size priced half off for a winter sale, so I picked them up  and set them aside for when the inevitable came.  Eventually my lack of self-control got the best of me and I broke them out and started breaking them in.  That was about a year ago.

Then, this past spring while traveling in Africa, I tweeted about wearing my chacos everyday.  Because of that, I was contacted by ChacoUSA.  I told them we would be heading to Africa for 5-10 years and only had limited space, but would love to take an extra pair of sandals.  They graciously sent a gift certificate for Beth and I.  Incredible!

Well today, my new chacos arrived.  In true nerd fashion, I lined up all three generations for a "family portrait:"

Chacos 005

 Black and Blue and New.

Chacos 006

From the worn down "Colorado" soles of my first pair, to the still fresh year-old pair, to the brand new ones.

Chacos 007

Chacos 008

Chacos 009

7 years of wear

When I first took the pictures, I expected there to be a dramatic difference between the old pair and the brand-spanking-new pair… but looking at them, it is pretty obvious they have held up well.  With the Chacos I currently have, I fully expect to get at least another 15 years out of them.  That is a testament to quality workmanship and excellent customer service.

Sure chacos are expensive compared to other brands, but this is a case where I am too poor to buy cheap stuff.  These sandals can go the distance (and even if they can’t, you can always get them resoled / restrapped).

Thank you Chacos for making great shoes!  Here’s to you!

Kindle 3 Pseudo-Review

December 30th, 2010 No comments

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A few months ago Beth and I got the newest model of the Amazon Kindle.  We decided to go ahead with our purchase right when the model was coming out, so I had to wait a couple weeks for delivery.  That wait gave me plenty of time to read the reviews and write-ups on the internet about this newest e-reader.  Since there really is a plethora of full reviews out there on the interwebs, I decided to forgo a true assessment and list a few reasons why the Kindle is right for me.

  1. Portability – With our upcoming overseas move, we simply couldn’t take our whole book collection with us; with the Kindle, we can.  It is also awesome for long plane flights.
  2. Free 3G – Sure, we paid an extra $50 for 3G, but we have no ongoing fees with that.  Since we don’t have smart phones, it is awesome to have access to free portable internet where ever we are.  Granted the Kindle web browser is a bit slow and clunky, it is perfect for looking something up on Wikipedia on the fly, or for checking email when away from a computer.
  3. Extra-long battery life – The Kindle is advertised as having up to a month of battery life (assuming you leave the wireless off).  For my typical usage I am getting closer to 2 weeks.  It is great to be able to have an electronic device at hand that I don’t have to worry about recharging every other day.  An iPad wouldn’t even make it through half of a trans-Atlantic flight, but my Kindle will last my whole trip to Swaziland this March.
  4. Cheaper books – Of course I did spend roughly $200 on the device to start with, but now that I have it, most books are 30-50% cheaper than the printed version. 
  5. Book Samples – 5 years ago most of the books I read were either on recommendation of friends, or required reading for class.  Now I find a good portion of the books I buy are because I am looking for a book on a specific topic; often I don’t know which books are considered well written and which are not.  With Kindle samples, you can download the first chapter or so and get a feel for yourself.
  6. Free Classic (and other) Books – There are lots of book that I know I should read.  Many of these I have purchased, but never gotten around to reading.  Now I can have access to them, but not feel as bad if I don’t get to them immediately.  Amazon has a great collection of our public domains book and many others as well.
  7. Search books – Sure print books have indices, but that pales in comparison to the ability to search for a specific phrase.  This is very helpful for the Kindle Bible and for trying to find a particular section of a book I have previously read.  Along the same lines, I love having interactive tables of contents.
  8. Highlights and notes – This is a blessing and a curse.  I love to mark up my books when I read them – it helps me comprehend and makes it easier when I go back and skim.  While it is very handy to be able to highlight on the fly without needing to carry a pen, it is just not the same writing a note on the Kindle as it is marking up the margins of a book.  That being said, there are two "Killer Features" related to highlighting and notes.  First, you can view all your highlights in one spot, which makes skimming super easy.  Second, you can view the passages most highlighted by other users.  This is a great way to get a feel for a book and to draw your attention to key sections.
  9. Reading Experience – I know many people are hesitant about reading on an e-reader, thinking they will always prefer a good ole paper copy.  But, I absolutely love reading on my kindle.  I love the light weight and easy to hold design.  The e-ink is easy to read and the adjustable fonts are great.  I actually find myself getting less distracted while reading the kindle.
  10. Games – This is a minor highlight, but hey, I needed another to make it a round number.  The games are nothing special, but they are great for passing the time while on the road or looking to kill a few minutes of time.  Many of the word based games are free and slightly educational.

Mixed feelings on my Tomtom GPS

June 21st, 2010 1 comment

The other day I took most of my birthday money and bought a new GPS (I say new, because I already have a 10 year old hand held backpacking model).  I have been researching then for a while and was looking for something I could use here and in Swaziland.  I ended up getting a great deal at Best Buy on a Tomtom XL 340 and so far have been pretty happy with my purchase.

It does some pretty snazzy stuff.  It has lane guidance so you know how to navigate interstate transitions.  It has a huge number of pre programmed points of interest.  It calculates trip time on the fly based on actually average speeds for each road.  It has audible turn by turn directions.  It was great this week for our trip down to Tallahassee.  You could take backroads without having to worry about watch road signs.  It was easy to find out what sort of amenities were at each stop.  It allowed us to take a few shortcuts on our way down.

As nice as it has been, I have some misgivings about the thing.  You see, I am generally pretty good with directions.  I can glance at a map and be able to get around a city with relative ease.  I am good at being able to keep my bearings and guess which road to take if our trip takes an unexpected route.  I am great at reading a map and being able to plan a trip.  The problem is, when you have a GPS that does it all, those skills are not only unnecessary, they are actually diminished.

On this most recent trip, despite knowing my latitude and longitude down to a few feet, there were many times when I did not know where I was.  Because I no longer needed to plan my route or keep up with roads I was passing, I found I was not as well acquainted with the city or how road systems ran together.  It was easy for me to the closest Zaxby’s, but if someone asked me how to get there later, there is no way I could have told them without relying on th GPS.

Perhaps I am just being sensitive because previously my map and directions skills were valued and recognized and now anyone with $100 can look like Magellan; but, I think there is something more to it.  Simply put, I think a GPS like my Tomtom is great for getting around, but is horrible for knowing where you are.

Then again, maybe I am just a luddite.  I am sure I would probably decry the advent of the calculator as being the end of our math skills.  At the end of the day, while I appreciate its convenience, I would never trade my skills and experience.

We can’t take it all: Books

May 4th, 2010 No comments

We are two and half months away from our summer trip to Swaziland and just a little over a year away from when we actually plan on moving.  That has Beth and I looking at things in new ways.  We are asking questions like “What are we going to do with our dishes?” and “Who is going to keep Shiloh?” We have spent close to two years trying to accumulate less and downsize where we can.  In my mind I have already begun making a list of what things we will want to take with us and what needs to be given away, sold, loaned out or put in storage.

I knew early on the hardest thing for me to part with would be my collection of books.  Not because they are so valuable (although I do have several thousand dollars wrapped up in them), but because in many ways they define me.  To help the transition, I moved most of my academic collection out of my house and to the church.  That way other people could use them and if I left them there I wouldn’t feel like they were lost.

Now, as we are beginning to investigate actually job opportunities, and we realize there is a decent chance I will be able to teach at either a school or the University, I have begun thinking about what resources I would need.  That, along with our overall planning for the future, has prompted me to start a list of books I already own that I want to take with me.  Since my training is mostly in Biblical Studies (especially the Hebrew Scriptures) a majority of the books are from this field .  I have also included books from fields like Christian History and Theology to have as a reference, but I must admit I do not feel qualified to teach anything but basic topics in these areas.  Finally, there are a few books that have been so influencial for me that they had to be included.  You will note I have not included any fiction or pleasure reading — I figure I can pick that up while I am there.

Stack of books from my first semester at Asbury. Only one of these made the list.

Here is my list of “Keepers” (shoot me a comment if you think of any good ones I am leaving out):

  • The New Interpreter’s Study Bible, NRSV -This was my seminary bible and still my favorite for reading through (I figure I can leave my leather-bound Thompson Chain here in the states.
  • BHS and NA27 – You have to start with the original texts.
  • Basics of Biblical Hebrew Grammar, Pratico and VanPelt – This is not the Hebrew grammar I learned on, but I have found it is the best for catching me back up when I find I have let my language skills slack.
  • A Guide to Biblical Hebrew Syntax, Arnold and Choi – A concise reference that is phenomenal for making a budding scholar look like they know more than they really do.
  • Basics of Biblical Greek Grammar, Mounce – The Greek counterpart to Pratico and VanPelt.  My Greek is much rougher than my Hebrew, but this is a good grammar to get back up to speed.
  • Life in Biblical Israel, King and Stanger – An excellent reference and even better bathroom reading.  This book is the gooey center of the cinnamon roll – it really helps the text come alive through detailed contextual insights.
  • A Biblical History of Israel, Provan, Long and Longman – More of a reference than anything else.  Well documented and easy to use as a gateway for deeper studies.
  • Harper Collins Concise Atlas of the Bible – Another great reference.  Not especially thorough, but very helpful.
  • Epic of Eden, Richter – If I ever have the opportunity to teach an introduction to Old Testament, I would want to teach it like Dr. Richter.
  • An Introduction to the Old Testament, Brueggemann – While I don’t agree with him on all fronts, my theology and understanding of the Old Testament is most shaped by Walter Brueggemann and this is a great primer/survey.
  • Introducing the New Testament, Achtemeier, Green and Thompson – Not my favorite New Testament Survey, but the only one I own.
  • Christian Origins and the Question of God Trilogy, NT Wright – These have long been my go to reference for all things related to New Testament concepts.
    • The New Testament and the People of God – This is the best book I have found for laying out the setting of the New Testament and its implications
    • Jesus and The Victory of God – My Christology is largely shaped by Wright’s thoughts in this book.
    • The Resurrection of the Son of God – I don’t have this one yet, and in practice, I use it the least so if space is tight, I may only take the first two.
  • Eerdmans Dictionary of the Bible – By no means my favorite source for Biblical information, but handy to have around when you need to look up things you have forgotten (like which ecumenical council discussed the Arian controversy?)
  • History of the World Christian Movement, Irvin and Sunquist – In my undergrad and seminary career I have read quite a few Church History books and this one is by far the best.  I am anxiously awaiting Volume II.
  • The Story of Christian Theology, Olson – I am very weak in my knowledge of the history of theology and this is the only book I have to reference.
  • Challenge of Jesus, N.T. Wright – While Wright does discuss Christology in this book and it does have academic merit, for me, it is a defining book in how I understand the nature of Christianity.
  • Prophetic Imagination, Walter Brueggemann – I know I sound like a broken record when I mention this book, but one of the most important concepts in my life that I live by is Brueggemann’s idea of the prophetic imagination and criticizing/energizing culture and community.
  • The Politics of Jesus, John Howard Yoder – I may never have the opporutnity to teach from Yoder’s book, but I will certainly be able to live by it.
  • Walden, Henry David Thoreau – One of my sources of rejuvenation.
  • Where do we go from here: Chaos or Community, Martin Luther King Jr – We named our daughter after King; surely I must take his most seminal work.

So I was able to whittle my collection of several hundred down to 22. Even then there are so many that I am leaving out that I would love to include.  In reality, this list is probably too large when you consider how much we can actually take with us; but…. at least it is a start.

Trail Review: Mammoth Cave – First Creek Lake

April 12th, 2010 No comments

Sunday was the perfect day to be outside.  The sky was deep blue, the temperature was just right and the trees and wildflowers were in bloom.  We decided to take advantage of it by hiking in Mammoth Cave with the whole family (dog included).

2010-04-10 Mammoth Cave 028 2010-04-10 Mammoth Cave 039

We wanted to stay away from the touristy areas since it was such a beautiful spring weekend so we decided to hike in the west side of the park to Mammoth Cave’s largest above ground body of water: First Creek Lake.    The route we chose began at the Temple Hill trailhead and then included the loop around the lake before heading out the way we came.  Since we were hiking with our 1 year old, we thought it would be a bit much to attempt the longer route coming in from from the First Creek trailhead, plus this gave us a few options if we needed an even shorter trip.

We came in through the Brownsville entrance and took the Houchins Ferry across the Green River (Check here for ferry hours).  The road is gravel and well maintained.  There is parking at the trailhead, but it is not well laid out

2010-04-10 Mammoth Cave 022Beth and Mikayla at the Trail Head

The hike begins with a 1.9 mile segment that follows the ridge heading down to the Nolin River [NOTE: This trail has been recently rerouted.  Old topo maps do not reflect the change.  See links below.] The trail is well maintained, and even though horses are allowed on this section, degradation is minimal.  Overall the slope is moderate, but there are two sections that are relatively steep as you drop down off the ridge and then down onto the flood plain.  The trail provides good views of the river valley.

2010-04-10 Mammoth Cave 052Beth looking across the valley before dropping down the ridge

2010-04-10 Mammoth Cave 050Looking down towards the Nolin River

Once you reach the base of the lake, you can choose which route to take.  The left (west) option is shorter (for through hikers) and flatter.  It passes campsite #1 and a spur trail down to Nolin Lake.  The right option follows the base of the ridge, passes campsite #2 and crosses the two creeks which feed the lake.  If you do the entire loop it is 1.3 miles.  The longer option (ridge route) is 1.0 miles to the junction while the shorter option is 0.3 miles.  We took the left (west) segment first so if we needed to double back to shorten things we could.

Overall we were a bit disappointed with the destination.  Despite spring rains, the lake was quite low and marshy.  Even then, it was only visible for about 10% of the loop.  The spur trail to the river was narrow as it followed a deep muddy trench where the lake drains.  Once at the river, the options were minimal.  There is little shade and even less flat ground.  There is a fire pit near the river, but when we got there it was filled with trash.

2010-04-10 Mammoth Cave 046View of First Creek “Lake” from campsite #2

We continued on the short leg of the loop hoping to find another option for eating lunch along the river, but didn’t find anything.  Compared with the trail down, the loop is in much worse condition showing many muddy sections which have been chewed up by horse tracks.  The longer segment of the loop is much worse with several extended sections of muddy pot holes.  In relation to the whole trail, 90% was in great condition; but, the remaining 10% could be very unpleasant.

2010-04-10 Mammoth Cave 045One of the not-so-good sections

Despite the mud on the trail, the creek beds along the longer segment were quite dry.  Although, based on the debris, it was apparent there could be significant flow at times,

We ended up stopping for lunch just off the trail.  We found a shady spot on the dried northeast section of the lake bed.  At the time it was very pleasant, but I could imagine the bugs would be quite annoying later in the season.

2010-04-10 Mammoth Cave 024Lunch along the trail

Campsite #2 is just a few hundred feet from the south trail junction.  It my opinion, it is the better of the two sites.  It does not have the easy access to the river, but it does have a better view of the lake and seems to be more secluded.

On the way back out we noticed the blooming wildflowers much more (that is probably because we were going much slower as we hiked up instead of down).  There were plenty of may apples already sprouting up and several other flowers poking through last year’s leaves.

2010-04-10 Mammoth Cave 047 2010-04-10 Mammoth Cave 043 2010-04-10 Mammoth Cave 044
Plants and flowers along the way

Overall we had a great time and enjoyed the hike but I would not consider the lake to be a destination in and of itself.  It was not a difficult hike, but it was not super easy either.  You don’t have to be in great shape to do it, but you wouldn’t want to take a small child and expect them to walk it all on their own.  It took us about 3 hours to complete the trip at a leisurely pace.  While I have not hiked it, I have heard the north section of the First Creek trail is pretty tore up from the horse traffic.  Something to consider if you are planning a trip of your own.

At a Glance:

Mammoth Cave – First Creek Lake
Type: Point-to-point with loop
Length: 5.1 miles
Rating: Enjoyable
Difficulty: Moderate

Date: April 10, 2010
Weather: 77 and sunny
Duration: 3 hours

Helpful Links:

Do It Yourself Diaper Sprayer

March 16th, 2010 14 comments

Beth and I have been very pleased with our decision to use cloth diapers.  Besides the washing every couple days, the only thing that really requires more effort than disposables is the need to clean the #2 off of diapers.  You can splash them around in the toilet, but most people prefer to use a diaper sprayer.

You can purchase these from a variety of places (see here, here and here).  These generally run about $40.  However, if you are up for it, you can build your own homemade diaper sprayer for $25-30 in less than 30 minutes. Below you will find instructions and a parts list for the method I have used for two installs.

Before you begin, you need to know a bit about basic plumbing and various fittings.  There are several thread patterns used in household settings, a few of which come into play for this project.  Most toilet water lines have 3/8″ OD (outside diameter) compression fittings.  Your standard kitchen sprayer connects with 1/4″ FIP (Female Iron Pipe Thread).  Most toilet connections are either 1/2″ or 7/8″ MIP (Male Iron Pipe Thread).  The tricky part to hooking up a diaper sprayer is trying to get these thread patterns to work together with the fewest adaptors. [NOTE: You don’t need to remember all of this, but it is helpful to know when talking to an associate at a hardware store.]

Parts

Here is a list of parts I used to complete the project along with their approximate prices:

  • Standard Kitchen Sprayer with 1/4″ FIP connection – $7
  • 1/4″ MIP Closed Adaptor (converts FIP to MIP) – $2
  • 1/4″ FIP > 1/2″ MIP reducer (also called a bushing) – $2
  • Standard water supply line – 3/8″ OD Compression > 1/2″ FIP (easiest and cheapest way I have found to convert standard thread to compression connections) – $4
  • Add-A-Tee 3/8″ OD Compression (Allows you to add a second supply line to your existing toilet valve without having to shut off the water main) – $6
  • Water Supply Valve (3/8″ OD Compression input and outlet.  This may be omitted) – $8
  • Replacement Water Supply Line (match to your current toilet configuration.  May be omitted if old supply line works with new setup) – $4
  • Teflon Tape (for non-compression fittings) – $1

Parts

Parts for the most basic set up should cost just a bit over $20.  I was able to pick up all these parts at my local Lowes (I generally prefer Home Depot, but found for plumbing accessories Lowes has a better selection). The final bill for the setup described here was roughly $32.

NOTE: If these parts are not available, you may have to improvise.  If that’s the case it very helpful to know the specific thread conversions you are trying to achieve (see details above).

Installation

  1. Begin by shutting off the toilet water valve, draining the toilet, and removing the old water supply line (keep this handy in case you can reuse it or for reference if you replace it).  You may want a bucket to catch any water draining from the tank.
  2. Connect the adaptor and reducer (bushing) to the kitchen sprayer.  You will want to put Teflon tape around the threads to prevent leaks.
    2010-03-16 Tally 005
  3. Next connect the water supply line to the 1/2″ reducer you just installed.  Again, you will want to use Teflon tape for this one.
  4. Attach the 3/8″ compression valve to the Add-a-Tee adaptor as well as the water supply line you will be using for your toilet to the  (you shouldn’t need to use Teflon tape for this).
    2010-03-16 Tally 008
  5. At this point you should be able to connect everything else up.  Connect the sprayer assembly to the valve and then connect the whole apparatus to your toilet water valve and the toilet.

Your final setup should look something like this:

2010-03-16 Tally 009

Options

Depending on your setup, your access to plumbing supplies and your skill level, there are a few modifications you could try:

  • Omit the extra valve and simply use the main water supply valve to moderate pressure.  This is how we did the first set up.  It works well and saves quite a bit of money since the valve is by far the most expensive part.  Your options then are either a slow filling toilet or a super powerful sprayer.
  • Instead of messing with the closed adaptor, bushing & water supply line, you could cut off the old 1/4″ FIP connector and affix a compression fitting.
  • If you have easy access to the main water line, it may be easier to swap the valve out for one with two connectors.  Some valves have both compression and standard MIP connections.
  • You can use different fitting combinations to achieve the same result.  For instance, it may be cheaper to use a 1/2″ valve instead of a 3/8″ compression valve to moderate your water flow.  Likewise, you may be able to go straight from 1/4″ FIP to 3/8″ compression without using the extra fittings.

——

I am by no means a plumber, but I found the following procedure relatively simple and only needed an adjustable wrench to complete the project.  The hardest part was figuring out which thread patterns I had and which parts I would need.

After I had wrapped up the install and was writing this blog entry I came across a post which outlines a similar procedure.  Perhaps it will be helpful for you.  Doing this project yourself will not save you a whole lot of money (probably $10-15) but you will have the satisfaction knowing you can make your own diaper sprayer.

The Trap

November 12th, 2009 No comments
Title Screen from The Trap

Title Screen from "The Trap"

Go ahead… carve out 3 hours from your day.  You are going to want to watch this.  The following is a three part documentary produced by Adam Curtis and originally aired on the BBC.  It follows the philosophical underpinnings that have guided the way we understand the world for the past century and how that has affected everything from foreign policy to personal health to our notion of productivity.  The whole series hinges on how we understand the concepts of freedom and liberty.  This is quite timely given the political climate of the day and the obvious disconnect between various wings of society.  I have embedded a YouTube playlist for each episode so you can watch it through.  I have also included notes on each episode… but trust me, you want to watch the whole thing.

Episode 1 – Fuck You Buddy

I am sorry if the title offends you (if it makes things better… I was introduced to this documentary through a seminary class that required we watch it).  The title comes from an experiment developed by John Nash (the lead character in A Beautiful Mind) which supposed that the world operated best when people were selfish.  This segment details how game theory and other mathematical formulas convinced the world that the best way to view humanity was through a lens of suspicion where all people were obviously in it for themselves and every decision was motivated by self-interest and preservation.  This was the dominate mindset in the Cold War Era.  When we approach the whole world through a lens of distrust, it is amazing (and unfortunate) how we view society.

[Watch on YouTube]

Episode 2 – The Lonely Robot

In this episode Curtis continues to explore our desire for society and people to be predictable.  Perhaps it is a desire to understand, or perhaps it is a desire to control.  He looks at the development of the mental health field and our own understanding of what it means to be “normal.”  From here he explores the consequences of a world where everyone strives for an ideal that is, at best, arbitrary.  Curtis follows how this emphasis on standards spiraled out of control in a vain attempt to maximize productivity in all sectors… even if the measurements were pure conjecture.  These ideas (however flawed) were monumental in ushering in a new understanding of the free market.

[Watch on YouTube]

Episode 3 – We will Force you to be Free

After exploring the way we view ourselves and human nature, Curtis begins in earnest to explore our ideas of freedom.  Specifically he examines the concepts of Negative Liberty and Positive Liberty as made popular by Isaiah Berlin.  Negative Liberty is a freedom from coercion while Positive Liberty is the freedom to achieve one’s true potential.  The prior has been deemed the “safest” because the later has historically required force and oppression to bring about.  However,  following the path of negative liberty to its logical conclusions, as governments have done in the West for the past 50 years, results in a society without meaning populated only by selfish automatons.  The answer then must be a peaceful pursuance of Positive Liberty.

[Watch on YouTube]

Adam Curtis has always been known for producing provocative documentaries.  I am sure he overstates some items in this program and under reports others.  However, this program forces the viewer to examine the way in which they view the world and requires them to acknowledge how their understanding of society affects their interactions with it.

siSwati Language Resources

November 1st, 2009 9 comments
siSwati Prayer

siSwati Prayer

[UPDATED: 21 June 2013]

SiSwati is one of two official languages in the Kingdom of Swaziland (English being the other).  It is a Bantu language and of the Nguni sub-group.  It shares significant similarities to Zulu, and native speakers find the languages mutually intelligible.

Swaziland uses English in business and governmental settings, but siSwati is considered the native tongue.  For perspective, if you are in a meeting in Swaziland people will usually speak English, but when you go lunch the discussion will usually be in siSwati.

In our own quest to learn siSwati we have found that since only one million people speak it as a first language (3 Million overall), it has been a bit difficult to find helpful resources.  It is hard enough (impossible) to find a local speaker in the US, let alone a teacher or lessons.  Thus, I have tried to pull together a list of online and print resources.  I hope this list is helpful for other people who may be in a similar situation trying to learn siSwati.

Peace Corp Material:

By far the most current and widely available material comes from the Peace Corp.  They provide a pre-departure pack that includes a study manual and accompanying MP3s.  It is far from comprehensive, but it does a great job of getting you used to the language and introducing you to basic phrases.  You won’t be able to communicate with just this material, but you will be able to be polite. Here are the links to the pre-departure materials:

The above material is the most current, but it is not the most comprehensive.  You may also benefit from their older publications.

  • siSwati Language Handbook – Download from ERIC, Published 1980, 116 pages.  This is primarily a collection of narratives in English and siSwati.  Helpful for an intermediate learner, but the language is a bit dated.
  • Understanding and Speaking siSwatiDownload from ERIC, Published 1969, 449 pages.  This is comprehensive manual, but unfortunately it is quite dated as many of the language conventions and phrases have changed.

The Peace Corp has also just released a new manual for its Swaziland Volunteers and it is very nice.  It is a great mix of useful information, important phrases and essential grammar.  It is the best resource I have found that pulls together what you need to begin learning siSwati.  Unfortunately it has not been publicly released, although if you send me an email, I will try to point you in the right direction.  If Peace Corp puts it out for general use, I will certainly link to it here.

Print Materials:

Unfortunately, I have not been able to come across a single print resource that effectively pulls together everything you need to learn the language (especially if you are trying to teach yourself.)  However, I have found the books listed below, when used together, provide a great base to build on.  I have provided links to the Amazon and Google Books pages so you can get the details on the books (ISBN, book cover, etc.)

  • Handbook of siSwatiPublished 1991, 175 pages.  This is a course book for classes at UNISA and thus takes a more academic approach.  This is where you are going to learn about grammatical structure and parsing. (Amazon | Google)
  • Essential siSwatiPublished 1981, revised 1990, 80 pages.  This is a basic phrasebook designed to be a quick reference.  It also includes stem charts.  It is a great companion to understand how actual siSwati phrases are formed.  I have found some of the phrases are a bit dated. (Amazon | Google)
  • Concise siSwati DictionaryPublished 1981, 187 pages.  Neither of the above books do a good job of teaching vocabulary, so you really need a dictionary.  Just know that because of the way siSwati works, you have to have a basic understanding of the language before you can even use this.  It too is an older resource and some of the words are “Deep siSwati” instead of daily use.   (Amazon | Google)
  • Silulu SesiSwatiPublished 2010, 452 pages.  This new dictionary was recently published as part of a large African Languages collaboration.  It boasts to have been the first dictionary compiled by native speakers.  It provides English > siSwati as well as siSwati > English translations, but is a better resource for those looking to learn English.  Much more up to date than the above dictionary, but is missing key works, and doesn’t do a great job of explaining the differences in various translations (i.e. which are transitive and intransitive forms).  However, if I was only getting one dictionary, I would choose this one for sure. It is often referred to as “The Red Dictionary” (as opposed to the Blue one above) for its plain red design.  (Google)

I have seen all of these books in Swaziland (Websters in Manzini has had all three, CNA in Mbabane and Manzini usually have least couple of them).  We were also able to find them online, but we had to search around for them.  Besides Amazon (US), here are a couple other places you can look:

Memorization:

Of course to learn siSwati (or any language) you first need to memorize vocab and prefixes/suffixes.  I have tried many different options in the past, but recently discovered Anki.  It is an easy-to-use flashcard program that works on computers and mobile devices.  If you use your computer or Android, it is free (iTunes charges a small fee).    It uses algorithms to focus your study time on new and difficult words while stilling keeping the words you know in your memory. You can find out more on the Anki Website.

The best way to learn is to create the “deck” of anki cards yourself, but if you want to go with a short cut, I have upload an excel sheet of 550 siSwati words and phrases from my anki deck.  It took me about two months to learn these at 30 minutes per day.

Everyone is going to learn their own way, but I found it helpful to prioritize these words into 3-4 groups based on importance  and frequency (and upload in appropriate batches).  Then I focused on seeing the siSwati and knowing the English.  As I got used to these words, I also included the English word and had to know the siSwati translation. (This is easily accomplished by simply typing selecting the “Show Reverse” option on appropriate cards.)

It took me about two months to learn these by using Anki 30 minutes per day.    That base allows me to pick up key words in conversation and also have the most basic of conversations (assuming you know some grammar rules to accompany it).

Grammar Notes:

Knowing vocabulary is useless if you can’t put it together into meaningful sentences (or be able to parse sentences given to you.)  Learning the grammar is way outside the scope of this post, but I can tell you that to have a basic understanding of siSwati, you have to understand noun prefixes, verbal extensions, morphemes, subject concords and object concords.  If that already makes sense to you (or you are willing to learn from the books listed above), then this siSwati Cheat Sheet might be helpful.

Other Resources:

Another resource to look into once you begin getting a basic understanding is YouTube.  There are several videos posted in siSwati (mostly religious) which will be helpful in practicing comprehension.  This one is particularly helpful because it includes English subtitles: Thandiwe

I had the opportunity to talk with a headmaster at a school in Swaziland.  I asked him which resources he would recommend and here is what he had to say:

The best book (if you can obtain it) is from the Sebenta National Institute called ‘siSwati Setfu’ translated ‘Our siSwati’ and was a joint venture publication between the Sebenta National Institute and the US Government, under contract no. 79-042-100.

I have not been able to track it down, but if you do, please let me know where.

Hopefully the above resources will be helpful if you are one of the very few who want to teach yourself siSwati.  I will continue to update this post as I find more.

Categories: Reviews, Swaziland Tags: , ,