Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Use del.icio.us to make link-blogs for your friends

We all send interesting links to our friends. My wife and my college roommate used to get deluged with links whenever I caught up with sites like BoingBoing and Gizmodo. But a few months ago I decided to stop sending them a link every time I read something interesting.

Instead, I started tagging links in del.icio.us with their names.

Del.icio.us is a site that stores links in an online database for you. More than that, you can install a browser plugin with a button that instantly displays the link dialog for the current page, so it's quick and convenient to link a site. And you can make up new tags on the spot. Tags are ad-hoc keywords you assign to sites, and once you've assigned one, you can, at any time, display a list of all the sites in your list with the same tags.

So, to store a link for my wife, I just use her name when I bookmark the site using del.icio.us. If I also want my old roomie to read the site, I add his name too. I don't have to go through a separate process to create a tag; I just start using it.

And because del.icio.us' default sort order for links is last-linked-first....it's like a reverse chronology of your browsing...a blog about your reading. You can see the stream of things I've been linking here.

And you can store comments about each link. So saving links to del.icio.us can be very much like blogging about the sites you read.

It's not the same as e-mailing them a site. They're only just getting used to going to the web site to look at this stream of links. But I like to think it's a lot nicer than drowning them with whatever has hit my fancy of a coffee-drenched morning. I know, in my more lucid moments, that my caffeinated enthusiasm isn't always discerning.

Saturday, December 15, 2007

Stories are just about never as done as I think

The main story I'm struggling with right now is called "The Wonder Kid". I finally found a title I like, after having the working title "Elf and Troll" for the longest time.

I have been slowly getting near done with all the scenes I thought I'd need, for about a month now, and then on reading Swain recently I feel like I need to replan the whole drive towards the end, because things don't revolve around my focal character the way it seems they should.

I'm not sure about this yet. What I have is a story told by a teacher, about a kid who is in jeopoardy. Swain's ideas don't seem to take a distinction between a narrator and a focal character into account. However, I think it is true that my narrator character doesn't have enough at stake in the story, and the story would probably be better if he had more at stake.

Well, I have some ideas about how to fix that, but they feel like pretty huge changes. What happened in this case is that I had one story, I went for the ending, and then I decided I didn't like that and added a bunch of material after...but the second plan never accounted for the motivation or risks of the main character enough.

Well, this is all nicely vague. But I wanted to put down some of my ideas and feelings, without getting into the details of the story. It's kind of like being knocked back about a month....I was starting to feel like I was about a week away from a good solid draft I could send around for people to review, and now it feels like there's a lot more to do.

Sunday, December 02, 2007

That Dwight V. Swain Sure Talks Sense

I'm still working my way through Dwight V. Swain's Techniques of the Selling Writer, which I started reading based on seeing it recommended in several places...the most prominent one, i think, being Randy Ingermanson's Snowflake method web pages, which are popular amongst NaNoWriMo aficionados, among others. Here's one page where Ingermanson mentions Swain.

Swain's book talks about story construction at the sentence, scene, and...what to call it? the part level, I suppose. The highest level of story structure, the beginning-middle-end level...the first division you'd make when you start to slice a story.

I kind of wish the book didn't have such a commercial-sounding title, though perhaps that's just a good idea for selling the book. I find the advice in it to just make sense when what you want is to write a story people will want to read. And I think if you can't do that, any other pretensions you have don't matter at all.

Swain's book isn't one I can just read and put aside. I'm having to go through it slowly and try things out. Much of his advice is difficult to follow. Not difficult to understand -- difficult to practice.

For example, he's got a theory Motivation-Reaction Units that addresses how you put sentences together. And it makes a lot of sense. He talks about how we imagine someone reacting and responding to events in the world, and how to put that down on paper in an intelligible fashion. But doing it requires practice and careful review; it's certainly more work than just tossing words down on a page.

The main thing I've tried to apply so far from this book is the concept of Scenes and Sequels. Swain talks about structuring a story in terms of chains of these, with a Sequel to follow each scene. A Scene has a goal, conflict, and disaster, and a Sequel follows it with a reaction, dilemma, and decision. They naturally build on each other.

Swain explains this in more detail, but doesn't overly belabor his points. His style is that of straight talk from someone who's been around the block. I like it a lot.

A great computer-buying experience..at Goodwill

We have badly needed a replacement for our home desktop, which got fried by power outages. We have talked about all sorts of plans, but we finally settled on getting an inexpensive desktop now, and probably getting Tanya a laptop later as well. So we started looking at desktops in the super-cheap $300 range.

Our spending was further complicated by the fact that we were talking about wanting to buy locally and not from a big-box chain...if it didn't mean too much much of a spending sacrifice.

We happened to be near the Goodwill computer store at I-35 and 183 yesterday, and decided to see what deals they had. And they had good ones. The systems were older, but cheaper than retail bundles, and comparable in performance:

The systems came with monitors.
They're all clearly labeled with what they contain.
They've got lots of open source software preinstalled. Firefox. OpenOffice. Thunderbird. I could do all that myself, but it's awful nice to have it predone.
They let you pick any mouse, keyboard, monitor you want, within certain limits.
We were buying a printer too, and they threw in the interface cable for free.
We got excellent consultation from the two different people who helped us, and everyone was cheerful, even though the store was pretty busy.
We went next door to the Wal-Mart, and the Goodwill prices were still better. Not many folks can beat Wal-Mart.

All in all, it was an excellent buying experience.

They have motherboards with CPUs for $30, too. Not the most modern of machines. But by adding RAM and peripherals that I have lying around the house, I can gin up a computer for the kids for very little money. It's a great option. I might actually try a casemod project...I've been wanting to do that, but all that pesky writing sure does get in the way of my crafting time.

Only Trees Want That

My 10-year-old son holds out a balloon to my 8 year-old daughter in the car, and says, "I have a delicacy for you here. It's full of air."

"No it's not, it's full of carbon dioxide," says Chloe. "Only trees want that."

That's my budding scientist.

Friday, November 30, 2007

Two months of writing every day

Now November is done, and I've been writing every day, without a miss, for two months. And I've made a lot of progress. But not as much as I like. There've been too many days when I did only a little bit of writing, so clearly I need some kind of amount goal. Still, I knew November was going to be a busy month when I went into it, and like I said, I'm making progress. Yeah me!

Alas, I wanted to be farther along in my planning for finishing my NaNoWriMo novel from way back in 2004, and to be able to really dig into its text on December 1. Perhaps I can use that feeling to motivate me this weekend.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

Counting the days

Recently we were digging through some old boxes and I found a couple of posters from the 1984 Dune (imdb) movie, the David Lynch one. I took them to work and put them on my office wall. This morning when I came in to work I was reminded of that fall when I was waiting for the movie to open.

I was in 7th grade, and in Mrs. Yvonne Davis's English class when I remember talking about "Dunesday." I was counting off the days until the movie arrived.

I haven't anticipated any movie since quite so much. For one thing, there were many disappointments about the movie as a rendition of Herbert's novel. At the time, I was too young to know anything about David Lynch (I'm kind of glad I hadn't seen Blue Velvet by that time), so the movie seemed much stranger than it does when viewed as a Lynch movie.

I've learned to lower my expectations about movies-from-books since. I liked the Sci-Fi Channel's Dune (imdb) much better.

Mostly what I'm thinking about this morning, though, as I look at these posters from 1984, is that delicious sense of anticipation.

I'm partly put in mind of this, I suppose, because I've been thinking about the upcoming December movie, The Golden Compass (imdb) (trailer here), which I expect to see a lot of protest about, given the way a few people reacted to the Harry Potter books and movies.

It's hilarious to me that people got upset about Harry Potter just because it has magic in it. I mean, those are the people who think magic is real, and who somehow believe that fictional magic leads to real magic leads to...Satan? I dunno.

People will get much more angry about The Golden Compass. I'm still organizing my thoughts on that one. I know some religious groups have already started warning people about it. Which is a shame; it's a great book and I hope it'll be a fun movie. But definitely one people should read before having their kids read it. If they'd do that much, and leave out the hysteria, then there won't be any issue.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

50th time to bike to work

I've been biking to work this year. I decided my goal would be to bike to work 69 times, using a complex formula based on 3 times per week 50% of the time and allowing for vacations and the phase of the moon.

Somehow I got off track this summer, what with all the rain we had, so here I am near the end of the year with 19 trips to go. That's not a lot given that there's only about 27 work days left. But today I hit 50, which is a nice milestone.

My trip to work is about 4 miles. I can do it in about 25 or 30 minutes, and I can get home in about 17 minutes because it's downhill. So this isn't about athletic ability. This is really not a big distance. It's much more about arranging my life to allow for this. And about having nice showers at work to use. :)

Actually enjoying the editing stage

The main task I'm working on right now is editing my story "Elf and Troll."
I've been surprised by how much I'm enjoying editing this story.
I'm astounded by how I can improve a sucky scene on 2nd reading. It really makes me want to push to get text down fast, and then go back over it later. I mean, the idea that you should write a bad first draft and then revise it is completely trite, but it's really another thing to experience it.

When it's really bad to start with, it's easy to make it better, and doing that feels really good.

There's a simple pattern here: I find that I often SAY what I want the scene to show, then write details that show it, in the very next sentence. I can go back later and delete the TELL part, and improve the SHOW part. Often, the SHOW part is just fine. It's a funny thing to do -- you'd think I'd see myself doing it, and stop, but it's actually useful, like a miniature writing plan within the sentence. Maybe it comes from being a parent and having very little uninterruptible time, but I'm paranoid about losing my train of thought. So these sentences are like a note to myself about what I intended. Writing the TELL part lets me then focus on writing some action or details that show the scene.

Friday, November 09, 2007

Filtering headings by regexes: the next feature I want from all word processors

I was messing with my Blood of Heroes scenes the other day, and I wanted to make a printout of just one character's scenes. In general I use Word for fiction writing, and the main feature that brings me back to it again and again is its Outline View feature. So long as you use Word's heading styles, you can expand and contract topics by their headings, and that gives a document the equivalent of automatic hyperlinks. It's a great way to see the structure of a document.

Since I had labelled all the scenes with heading names that included the name of the viewpoint character, it wasn't too hard to contract the outline to show just the headings, then delete all the headings I didn't need, leaving a document that just contained the desired scenes.

But I had also recently done an XSL project where I was able to filter out sections of a document based on applying a regular expression to the titles. This kind of thing is super easy to do with XML and XSL. I suppose I should see what Word is supporting in terms of XML these days. If Word XML wraps the text under a heading with a wrapper element of some kind, the way DocBook has [section][title] [/title][para] etc... .... then it would be easy to do.

Anyway, all this led to my brainstorm: there ought to be a way to display and print only those chunks of a document whose headings match a regular expression. This would be a pretty easy thing to implement...a variation on outline view.

I use Excel's built-in filtering all the time. There's nothing more handy than making an ad-hoc list and being able to filter it to show only items that match certain criteria. It's so useful I'd almost like to write a novel in Excel. In fact, it would probably be possible to take a DocBook xml document and convert it to Excel-compatible XML, load that into Excel, and there take advantage of Excel's filtering.

I don't really want to do all that, though. I want someone to add this to a word processor for me.

Knock wood: still writing every day

Okay, we can add nine days to my November writing tally. What's more important is that I'm making real progress on several projects. Heh. I had so many unfinished projects that there were several I could get to review stage with fairly quickly. And that's a fun stage to be at...to finally get some feedback.

Since I'm choosing a prior unfinished novel as my next major project, I'm hoping to be able to get that to the first draft stage fairly quickly as well. And that would be a lot of fun. My Modern Heroes story, which I'm tentatively renaming Blood of Heroes, has sat in my head for a long time, but I've shown it to no one because I don't have a complete story yet. I suppose for a novel I oughta get over that. I don't know. I mean, my good friend Doug Sims is working on a novel, and has sent out the first chunk of it, and it's outstanding...but I think I'm more likely to finish a sloppy whole first draft and then polish the pieces up.

Well, he's strongly committed to finishing his bit. Until recently, I wasn't sure I was going to finish Blood of Heroes, so giving a chunk of it to anyone to read....would have been wrong. Well, that's going to change. Now I want to get to the end of that one as soon as possible.

I underestimate how much I love superheroes

The work I've done recently has really made me think about superheroes. I'm using that word extremely loosely. What I mean is characters with super powers. They don't have to be vigilantes or act particularly heroic.

I think the word typically evokes costumed heroes with super powers, but I'm mostly interested in the problems and issues of made-up powers.

Apparently I'm not the only one, because the extremely well done show Heroes has a bunch of powered individuals, none of whom is a traditional superhero. I guess they can get away with that since they have folks trying to save the world...it's not about vigilantism but about conflicts between various people with genetically-derived powers.

But they first thing they dropped were costumes, possibly the least sensible part of the traditional hero idea.

I've been wondering what it would be like to receive powers in a world that lacked the fictional universe of superheroes that American comic books provide. Even with that fictional model, I think anyone who received a sudden infusion of superness would think twice before acting as a vigilante. I expect folks would commonly use their powers for gain or to rescue people, but I can't see many folks skipping sleep like Spiderman habitually does to stop a jewel thief or whatnot.

On to a novel: Blood of Heroes

I had a goal this year of restarting work on a novel. I've decided that the project I'm going to do is a completion of my NaNoWriMo piece from a few years ago. Three years ago, actually. Time flies when you get old. It was 2004 that I wrote this.

The piece I wrote was called Modern Heroes. It was the required 50k words but I didn't finish all the scenes required for the outline I wrote. And I didn't really have a strong sense of how the ending was going to work. I felt like it was about 3/4 of a story. Not having a finished story from it has never set well with me. So I reviewed it about a week ago and decided that I would really enjoy finishing it.

But I felt like there have been a number of very visible superhero stories in recent years -- The Incredibles and Heroes, for example -- and so I wanted to come up with a mashup or a premise to add to it. What I had was a story that depended on the idea of superheroes as weirdness magnets: where one hero goes, others appear. So I have a powered guy who decides to flee the superperson-filled city for his small hometown...but by going there, he brings the weirdness with him.

I've complicated and added to that idea a lot in the past few days, and now I'm really excited about the project. Apparently I have a limitless capacity to enjoy super heroes. I was worried that it would feel like too much grunt work to go into this big mess that I wrote three years ago and try to finish it, but I don't feel that way at all.

Thursday, November 01, 2007

I declare victory over October!

I'm declaring victory over October, as I wrote every day of that glorious month. To show for it, I have two very nearly finished drafts. Okay, that doesn't sound like much, but I've got two stories that are just about at the point where I'll ask others to read them. I still have some cleanup to do on one of them. Anyway, the point is that now they are real stories, as opposed to cryptic snatches of text and a gleam in my eye.

Halloween 2007

Lots of fun with costumes this year.

I was Dr. McNinja. (See other Dr. McNinjas in the Flickr Pool.

Lily was a princess, in a borrowed dress. How frugal!

Chloe was a Mutant Hermit Crab (created by Dr. McNinja, she says). Her costume involved the most work. I took some cloth, made a cone, stuffed it, rolled it up, then sewed it to a backback she had. Then I did soft-sculpture stitches to shape it a bit. It looks a bit more like a bread roll than anything else, but we had fun. Then we made sheet-foam claws. She had a pink outfit on at one point, and antenna eyes, but they wouldn't stay on.

Ethan did something neat: he decided to have a different costume as of Halloween afternoon, and made one from cardboard, to become Lincoln Man, who has Penny Powers and shoots pennies at people. This is a character he made up this week.

Monday, October 29, 2007

Troll story first draft nearing completion

It's 10/29/07, and so far I've worked on my stories every day this month. As a consequence, I get more done every time I sit down. At least, as long as I avoid the internet. ;)

I'm writing a few key glue scenes now for my "Elf and Troll" story. I used to laugh at the idea that titles would be difficult. Now it seems I can never come up with titles that I'm happy with for my stories. I'm having great fun with this one.

This one got started one morning at our church, when I had some time while the kids were in Sunday school. I had a notebook and I started jotting down a story. I finished most of the first half of this story that day, I think, in very early draft form anyway. But like a lot of stories, it didn't feel finished, and I ended up reworking and complicating it for a long time.

I think it's in pretty good shape now. But there's still work to be done. The stage I'm nearing is one where I'll have all the bits in pretty good order, but it will still need a lot of polishing. But that point where I feel like I have all the key story points told, and in the proper order, so that it's a full and complete story with no gaping holes....that's a key point. After a little polish, I can then start sending it out for review and get some feedback.

Meanwhile, I'm delaying reviewing my draft of "The Elf on Cotton Street" until I finish this "Elf and Troll" work. That's what makes sense to me.

Monday, October 22, 2007

Finished first typed draft, restarted work on "Elf and Troll"

So I finished the first typed draft of "Elf on Cotton Street" this weekend, which was a nice milestone. And I had to find something else to work on, because I want to let the draft sit for a while. So I went back to the story I'd dropped to work on this one. :)

I had an enjoyable session rereading what I'd written of "Elf and Troll", which will almost certainly have some other title before I'm done. Why are titles so hard for me? I look at Cory Doctorow's stories, and they often seem like they could have no other title. A story like his "I, Rowboat" seems like it could have been generated from that pun alone.

Anyway, I had become vague about what was left to do on "Elf and Troll" in the interim. Basically, it needs a few scenes in the middle. I wrote the beginning and the ending. :) Not sure that that's necessarily a good idea, given that the middle's often the hardest part, but it could be a way to combat the malaise of the complicated middle of a story. I mean, I'm probably more likely to come back and finish this one because there's just a little middle left to do.

I had a blast re-reading it, so that was a really good thing. I've seldom enjoyed reading my own writing quite so much as that. I realized later that I had a cup of coffee before I read it, so that has to factor into things. :)

Maker Faire Austin 2007...a few notes

We went to the Maker Faire yesterday. It was great -- one of the most enjoyable festival experiences I've had.

My favorite display was one involving magnetic fish in water. I can't remember the name of the device, and a quick web search isn't locating it. The fellow had created several gadgets, each of which involved a plexiglass cube filled with water, with a magnet floating in it; the magnet was nestled inside a sheet foam shape. The cube had coils of wire on every face, so that every vertex had wires on it. Each device had controls -- in two cases, the controls were game controllers with dual joysticks. By manipulating the joysticks, you could make the magnet quickly move to any point within the cube. This was done by energizing the coils with magnetic fields. It was marvelous. You could move the magnet around in 3d space effortlessly.

Pros of the fair:
  • Most of the booths had an interactive component
  • There wasn't a ton of stuff for sale
  • The Maker schtick incorporates art and engineering and craft in a really empowering way.
  • Kids were mostly kept entertained
  • Fire displays at the Ring of Fire
  • We actually modified some clothes to take home at the Swap-o-rama-rama.
  • Lots of computer-manufacturing gizmos and rapid-prototyping gadgets. I love that stuff.
  • Saw several people I knew while I was there.
  • Art cars!

  • Tickets were $25. That's a lot of money to drop up front. With the kids, we paid $70 to get in the door. Now, once inside, we only spent money on food.
  • Food was insanely expensive. Well, I guess no more expensive than ballpark food usually is. But I'm becoming curmudgeonly about this stuff. $5 for a taco, $3.50 for a drink is an expensive way to feed a family.

Friday, October 19, 2007

Order of the Stick knocks one out of the park

I have to say that The Order of the Stick has really grown far beyond its genre position as a role-playing-game webcomic. This episode proves it. I think you don't need to know much about the comic's backstory to get this one, and I hope that if you read it, it'll motivate you to go back to the beginning and read this one from the get-go.

Using D&D conventions, the author is able to riff on the afterlife -- an afterlife where one might be called back to regular corporeality by a resurrection spell at any time. So he's able to have a character converse with his dead parents. He's been doing that for several episodes. It's good stuff.

The two-minute version of The Order of the Stick? It's about a group of sword- and spell-wielding adventurers in a four-color version of a Dungeons and Dragons world...people for whom the rules of spell-casting and game combat are the physics of life. Its characters mock stereotypes while trying to save the world and cope with the widely varying personalities of their team. It's damn funny in each instance, but it also builds up over time.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Not breaking the chain yet

Still writing every day. Now it looks like I'll be finished with the first typed draft of "Elf on Cotton Street" within a couple of days. Apparently my longhand got bigger and looser as the draft got longer...and there was more stuff that now seems worth cutting. ;) Anyway, that means I can get to the next editing stage sooner.

I refer to "not breaking the chain" from an article about a tip from Jerry Seinfeld, about marking your calendar for every day that you stick with your goal, and thinking about it as a chain of days. I read it here, on LifeHacker, but I think this has been written about in a lot of different places.

Friday, October 12, 2007

Finished first draft!

It's amazing what writing every day will do for you. Yestereve I realized I was getting darn close to the end of a first draft of my current project, "The Elf of Cotton Street", and that inspired me to spend more time than usual. Today at lunch I reached the last scene.

I feel good. It's a pretty rough draft, with lots of telling and meandering, but it's good work. It's a complete rewrite of the original, and a lot more happens. I feel like I know the characters and the setting very well and I did a ton of work on the background that is bearing fruit now.

I did most of this in a notebook in longhand. The majority of this draft is about 50 pages of handwritten text, double-spaced. Usually I'll take that and type it up mostly as is, then edit that. But I'm thinking that I'll try to only type up the good stuff, because I'm so conscious of the fact that lots of this needs to be edited away, and the pure typing takes forever and seems like a giant waste of time.

Monday, October 08, 2007

They're not trying to be subtle anymore

Please don't accuse Mattel of subtlety in encouraging girls to take the roles of prime consumer in the American family. I laughed out loud when I first saw a commercial for this new product, the Polly Pocket "Pollywheels Race to the Mall" set. At first glance, it just looks like a girl-themed car-and-track toy. But this race has a purpose.

Wanna go to the mall? I’ll race ya! If anyone understands a girl’s passion for needing to shop immediately, it’s Polly Pocket and her friend Lila. And this racetrack set is just the thing to get them to the mall in record time. -- from the Amazon.com product description
If it weren't for this ugly consumerist theme, I think I'd like this toy. Any kid should enjoy the race track, which is set up somewhat like a roller-coaster and has a loop. The addition of tiny doll drivers to the cars, which you don't usually see in this scale, seems like fun. And I can imagine that this would be a toy dads and daughters could see eye-to-eye on. But what a name! What a theme! I'd love to know if there was any consciousness of irony in the team that designed it. And if I ran a mall, I'd have stands selling these at every entry. It's pure genius, and aimed at pre-irony-age kids.

Made it through the first weekend, still writing daily

Weekends are the worst for daily writing attempts for me.
  • On Fridays we usually relax with TV after putting the kids to bed, and my will to stick with self-discipline-related goals is at a low ebb.
  • On Saturdays we're often running around town shopping, running errands, or going to kid events/people's houses.
  • Sundays have church obligations and often grocery shopping.
Wow, those all sound like terrible excuses. So why am I so pleased with myself? Well, one way or another, weekends are full of temptations to skip the writing just this once...but I got through this weekend just fine.

Heh. The reason for my success is basically avoiding people. I had the kids all to myself all Saturday until 6pm. I took the kids for a bike ride in the morning, with 2-year-old Lily in a cart behind my bike, and we ended up stopping at a couple of friends' houses. The second friend invited us to go to a Texas maze at Sweet Berry Farm. I didn't want to go, but Ethan and Chloe did...and the family took them, so that I was able to put Lily down for a nap and then had lots of time to write. And I actually used some of it to write! Fate smiles on me.

Friday, October 05, 2007

If you haven't read Erfworld, it's time

Erfworld is hard to describe. It's a webcomic, I'm sure of that. It's even a gaming webcomic, the height of geekiness. It also has
  • fun characters
  • unique art
  • a fictional world with unique rules, slowly revealed
  • a main character who has to learn those rules
  • lots of great pop-culture references
  • a lot of heart
So I recommend you check it out.

Writing every day this month

There are a lot of writing goals I can choose from in any given month. I tend to think of my writing goals in month-terms...although I'd hate to trot them out and compare the goals with what I've actually accomplished. I've been working on a project to complete 5 stories for a long long time now....and there's been a lot of NOT-working on it along the way to make it take twice as long.

But an old favorite is to try to go a whole month and write every day. Recently I've been writing more often and enjoying my work on my current story, "The Elf on Cotton Street." So I'm going to try to write every single day this month.

A good friend of mine has recently dedicated himself to working on a novel (go Doug, I can't wait to read it!) and it made me realize that none of my projects are going to get finished unless I make a commitment to them. Of course this realization comes as we are in the middle of remodeling our kitchen. I always seem to think about personal accomplishments when I'm busiest...probably because that's when I feel like I have the least time for them.

Anyway....I just wanted to note this goal somewhere publicly. It's day 5 of October 2007, and I've already written every day so far...and my writing sessions are becoming longer and more fruitful, too.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Search for more than one kind of file at once

I had occasion the other day to try to locate some files on a damaged hard drive, and I discovered that Windows file manager windows support searching for several different file patterns at once. You separate the patterns with semicolons.

This means that you can be viewing a folder in Windows, hit Ctrl-F to bring up the find panel, and enter
to search for text and executable files as a set.

This is magically powerful. I shortly after verified that my favorite free Windows search utility, Agent Ransack, supports the same syntax. I'm sure it's been around forever, but I bet a lot of casual users don't know about it.

Do you have a temp folder?

Do you have a temp folder at the root of your hard drive? If not, why not?
I always create a folder c:\temp on any machine I use. I use it as a scratchpad workspace for creating collections of things to be zipped up to send to someone, or for temporarily storing a download, or whatever. Using tab-completion, c:\temp is a super-quick path to reach in any Windows dialog box or command line. And making a habit like this makes it even quicker.

The key fact about anything in \temp is that it can be deleted without heartache. I don't put anything there if I need to keep it. If I run low on space, I can always empty this folder (not that space issues comeup much on today's huge hard drives...).

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Combat spam by highlighting mail from known senders....in Thunderbird

Spammers seem to have been extra-industrious over the past six months. I'm using Thunderbird, whose built-in junk mail filters are catching maybe 70-80% of the spam I'm getting. The problem is that that still leaves me with as much as 30 to 50 spams in a morning's download.

If you use Thunderbird, there's an easy way to highlight the messages that are sent by people who are in your address book. I've posted instructions below. Many other e-mail applications have filters of one kind or another. Here I'm using them to mark matching messages with a color highlight, and taking advantage of the fact that one of the filter options is "in my address book."

Note that the first thing I learned from this was that many of the spam messages are spoofing their sent-from addresses as being MY address. So I had to take my own address out of my address book.

- Create a new filter Tools -> Message Filters
A dialog appears. Click New.

- Name the filter.

- The criteria box has 3 fields.
In the first one, select "From."
In the middle one, select "is in my address book"
In the 3rd one, select the name of your address book. You might have >1 address book.

- At the bottom, in the "Perform these actions" section, select
in the first field, "Tag"
in the second field, choose a tag, such as "Personal"

By default, Personal messages are colored in green. You can change tag color options by selecting

Tools->Options, click the Display button, select the Tags tab

Monday, August 27, 2007

The house of my childhood imagining

When I was a kid, maybe 8 or 12, I imagined what my house would be like when I grew up. And it was a lot like this conversion of a water tower into a house.

What I imagined was a tower filled with platforms that stuck out partway from the walls and overlapped, so that you could move from platform to platform and thus move up the tower, but there was also a lot of open space. So that babies could roll off the edges.

There were bars for climbing, too. It was kind of like an indoor jungle gym, with pillows added so you'd have somewhere to fall asleep after you got tired of playing video games. It was never stated, but I'm pretty sure an awsome game console was included. With a game where you catch falling babies.

See, the incredible unchildproofnessosity of the idea is what impresses me now. My youngest is two right now, and she falls over on improperly levelled floors, or when she steps on a feather.

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Note-taking methods

I've been interested in note-taking methods ever since I took a class about Mind Mapping a few years ago. Since that class, I've taken meeting notes and brainstorming notes as Mind Maps, often prompting people to ask about the strange web diagrams I draw.

But there are some interesting ideas I hadn't been exposed to, and LifeHacker describes them in an article here:


The one that interests me the most is the Cornell system, described here:


I like the Cornell idea because it includes several useful ideas that are similar to concepts Tony Buzan writes about when he writes about Mind Mapping:

- summarizing and distilling what you note
- reviewing your notes on a regular basis

What I liked about the Mind Mapping class, much more than the Mind Mapping technique itself, was the attempt to match note taking and info management to how our brains work. So you write something down, but you attempt to fit it into a framework or model in your brain. If you form a model of something as you note it, it becomes much more than rote learning and you are more likely to remember it. And then you can review it at steadily increasing intervals if you want to remember it.

If you want more about Mind Mapping, look up any of Tony Buzan's books. They're worth a look.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Reading _The Hobbit_ to my kids

This past Father's Day, I started reading _The Hobbit_ to my kids, at Tanya's suggestion. Tanya's dad read it to her when she was little, and we'd talked about it before, but I'd always sort of thought it would take too long to read it out loud.

But it's been a fantastic experience. The book reads well, and I've listened to the wonderful BBC version of it on tape many times, in addition to of course having read it many times, so I can put a little verve into it, and play with some voices. The kids ask for it (perhaps as much so that they can stay up a few minutes later as anything) and seem to enjoy it. It's been more than a month since we started, but we haven't managed to do it every day. We can usually manage to get through a chapter in one session.

Every darn chapter of this book is fun. I'd forgotten just how much fun it is. It's great to reread it with them, and see it through their eyes a little. We're getting near to the end now...we're probably three-quarters of the way through it, at least.

Monday, July 16, 2007

There's a hole in my story

So last night I was trying to tie up the narrative of "Elf and Troll" (stupid name, still need a better name for this story), when I realized that I had completely failed to write part of the middle of the story.

I'm trying to get this one finished so I can send the draft off to Tyson to review, as per our oft-amended agreement. :) We're doing a story challenge, to give each other a deadline.

At some point, while writing narrative merrily along in bits and pieces, I skipped ahead to the ending without providing the actual scenes that would introduce two key characters or explain how/why they would help the main character achieve the ending.

I think the strategy of skipping ahead is fine, but here it came back and bit me in the ass because of the way I've been working. I've simply done too little overall review of this story, and I thought it was more done than it is. The new scenes probably won't take all that long to write, but there are some possible plot problems in there, and I'm not really sure how to solve them. There doesn't seem to be enough time for the main character to go collect his helpers.

Monday, July 09, 2007

Got some writing done at my parents' house

I went to visit my parents this weekend. I like to complain about how early they go to bed, and how I end up with nothing to do after we put the kids in bed and then my parents go to bed and you can't really turn the TV on or anything. But they don't REALLY go to be all THAT early when my kids are there to play with: the grandparents and the kids both push the envelope a little. And I brought my laptop, and spent about an hour and a half...and got to the end of the climactic scene of my elf/troll story.

I still have to make the MIDDLE work out and support everything that's in the ending, but it's a big step forward, really.

Friday, July 06, 2007

Writing about elves and trolls

I worked on my elf/troll story last night. I actually got to the point where the troll attacks everybody, the final major confrontation of the story. I'm happy about that. Really, every time I seriously sit down to work on this thing I get good stuff done, which begs the question of why I don't spend more time on it and get the thing done.

Anyway, I wanted to mention here that I've noticed that I have several stories/story ideas that I work on that return to a concept of someone, especially a kid, meeting up with a large monster in the woods. It's a theme I have tried out in several different ways. And I see no problem with that...I'm kind of glad to have noticed it, actually. I have no idea where it comes from...probably a wish-fulfilment idea of wanting to be the special kid who has a dragon-friend-sort-of-thing.

In the current story, things turn out much darker. I hope I can pull it off. This month I thought I'd try to blog regularly about my progress on this story as I work toward the ending. I'm actually pretty far along in developing this story. It started out as an attempt to write a very short story, which I began at church one morning during the period when the kids are in Sunday school. In an hour I had hashed out the major components of the story.

The basic idea is that there's a troll attack and some kids are found, one of them killed, others scared or injured, and the adults have to try to figure out what happened. So it's initially structured as a mystery. The main character is a local teacher, whose star student is one of the survivors. It's not an accident these kids got attacked by a troll, and it's up to the teacher to figure things out.

Ah, but it's complicated by the fact that everything takes place in this elf/goblin world setting I've worked out, which doesn't really have a name yet other than "elf/goblin setting."

I've spent a fair amount of time talking about this story. :) I've laid out the whole plotline for some friends, and talked about all the various complications. Talking about it too much isn't necessarily good...it can eat up enthusiasm for writing it. Still, I'm having fun when I work on it. I've got a city filled with elves and goblines, living on the edge of a goblin revolt, sharing space with each other, and looking at each other with some suspicion, but needing to coexist all the same.

Monday, July 02, 2007

Software-company-like deadline slips...in writing

I've been engaging in a little writing challenge with my brother-in-law. We were trying to finish a story each in about two weeks...I think that's what it started with. Only we got to the first deadline and he asked for an extension...then we got to THAT deadline and I asked to extend it another two weeks. ;) Work has been busy and I haven't spent much time on the story. I'm hopeful that I'll be able to stick with it better in the near term, though.

The story I'm working on is called "Elf and Troll". It's a lousy title but it's my working title for a piece about a young elf kid who encounters a troll. Actually that's not much of what it's about, but I don't feel like getting into a long diatribe about what it's REALLY about right now...it would end up being half as long as the story.

I did want to record, though, that I had a nice little session today where I worked on a day in the life of one of my characters. I had a character whom I added to the story, who I didn't know much about yet, so I started working on her day from waking up. In the process I found I had to do a fair amount of worldbuilding...things like what kind of food she'd eat, some information on businesses in this world, and so on.

Another interesting (to me) thing about the world of this story is that I realized this weekend that it's probably the only major world-building exercise I've done that didn't get started from a map of the world. This story is set in my Elf/Goblin world setting, a world distinguished by having two major intelligent races who live in mixed communities...at least until the goblins rebel against elf oppression. (It sucks when The Man is an elf, doesn't it? :) )

Friday, June 08, 2007

Chloe and Ethan catch fish

Back in April, on a cub scout campout, Ethan and Chloe caught some fish...and here's some documentary evidence.

Monday, May 07, 2007

Ethan found a different closet to hide in

I thought about posting this to the weblog, and I find that my very last post was about this same problem, a month earlier. So here's what happened this morning: I get up, try to wake Ethan up, tell him he's got to take a shower because we've started doing that. He says he won't take
a shower. I tell him he can expect to lose Game Boy privileges if he doesn't, and go back to getting dressed. I don't hear any shower start up so I check on him. And I can't find him. He's not in his room. I finish getting dressed, go downstairs; no Ethan.

I make the circuit again, 'cause I really can't believe he's nowhere to be found, and because he's done this before. He's not in his room, not under his bed, not in his closet, not on the couch, not in the office on the computer...nowhere. I wake Tanya. In about 10 seconds, she finds him.

But the kicker is where he is: he's in the linen closet in the kids' bathroom, on the top shelf, wedged in with the blankets. Naked, with one foot sticking out. That's all you can see, the one foot.

We tell him to get down. He says he can't unless we close the door.

I leave Tanya to deal with it. She told me later he was scared getting down. I hope so. I got pretty scared when I realized I couldn't find him. I don't want to find his body somewhere because he holed up to avoid a shower. Think how THAT would smell.

Monday, April 09, 2007

Come out of the closet, children!

On Sunday I had the chance to make one of my favorite jokes, and on Monday morning I paid for it.

On Sunday I was in the kitchen and heard Ethan and Chloe rustling around in the hall, Ethan said something about Chloe refusing to leave the closet, so I hollered, "Come out of the closet, Chloe!" to make sure Tanya could hear. Yes, friends, that's the trouble with my kids, they won't come out of the closet.

So then this morning, I went to wake up the kids as usual...turned Ethan and Chloe's lights on and then went to get dressed. I went to check that they actually got up afterwards, and could not find Ethan. He wasn't in the pile of blankets on his bed, he wasn't responding to hails, he wasn't in the bathroom. The downstairs was dark. I went downstairs, checked the computer room, the living room...no sign of him starting breakfast in the kitchen. I was confused. I went back upstairs, checked his room again...under his bed, nothing. I toyed with checking the baby room. Checked Chloe's room. Nothing. I told Tanya I couldn't find him. Clearly, I was worried if I was willing to risk waking Tanya up.

Tanya suggested that maybe he was sitting somewhere playing with his Nintendo DS, as he often does...plants himself somewhere and turns off all senses outside the Sphere of Gaming. Nope. No sign of him. I went back to his room and saw that his closet door was ajar...it had not been, before. Went over there...find him waving at me from a quilt in the bottom of his closet. He'd climbed in their and gone back to sleep after I woke him. Or something. Maybe he was playing, I don't know. He accumulated 3 days of Nintendo privation for his troubles. It was a cold day out and I tried to make him walk to school as well -- but he couldn't find his jacket, which only infuriated me more, of course.

Oh, it's funny NOW.

Friday, March 09, 2007

The bananas are safe...or are they?

A year or two ago, I read an article that talked about how bananas are in danger of extinction from a fungus. That's because the bananas we eat so greedily here in the US are all of one variety, and so are vulnerable to being wiped out en masse. In fact, the bananas we eat are all clones of the same fruit; how weird is that?

I can't find the original article now, but here's one from Popular Science that takes a long look at the issue.

I post today, though, because I found a reference on the wonderful Ask a
site to some hope. In essence, it says that if bananas are wiped out, we'll find a new
variety that we can eat
, and cultivate it....we've done it before.

Now maybe I can stop bugging my wife about how we need to eat bananas while they're still around. But it's hard to be sure we can stop worrying. According to the Popular Science article, we may be able to make a new banana, but it won't likely taste just like Cavendish we're so fond of, and it might not taste much like it at all. Many banana varieties taste more like apples. The soft, creamy fruit we're used to is something of an oddity.

Friday, March 02, 2007

Carcasonne: It's new to me

I had a lovely evening on my birthday: Tanya took me to a casual nearby restaurant, where she unveiled the game Carcassonne, and we played a couple of games on the spot.

Carcassone is one of the set of German boardgames that you see in the comics shops in recent years. I didn't know that it's kind of the icon of these games. The games have beautiful materials and neat abstractions; Carcassone is one of the simpler ones.

You can learn the rules in minutes, and my 7 and 9 year old were able to play. You're building structures (illustrated as cities, roads, and fields), but you do this by pulling a random tile from the face-down set. You place your new tile somewhere so that its sides match existing tiles. Then you can choose to place a marker on the tile, or not. Those are your only choices.

Your tile can have a field, cloister, city, or road on it. If you place a marker, you're claiming the field/cloister/city/road. If the tile has more than one of those, you've got to pick one to claim. When a road or city is complete, you can collect your markers and get the points for the structure. If it's a cloister you've claimed, it has only one tile, but is complete when it is completely surrounded.

If you place a marker in a field, you're placing a farmer, who stays in place until the end of the game, when you claim points based on the cities your farmer's field is contiguous with.

Okay, the farmer thing is a little complicated, but it's the only thing that is, and it's elegant. You want to place farmers near the end game, so that you keep markers available, but you want to claim fields that are open and reach many cities. It's a big part of the strategy.

When you've played a game you end up with a pretty structure of cities and roads and fields. Note that no dice are used, and turns go fast. The game can be played by two or more. It's notable in being a good two-player game.

This game has been around a while, but I'd never played it before. I love it; any game I can play with my kids and all of us enjoy gets points from me.

There's a page about the game at BoardgameGeek, and even a strange site devoted to the wooden people used as markers in the game, called Meeples.

Thursday, March 01, 2007

NYC Mech

I read a review from Graphic Novel Review of a graphic novel called NYC Mech, which makes several interesting points:

  • It's easier to do unusual settings or premises in comic books. "Even non-fans expect a wild ride from a comic book or graphic novel."
  • This book is about a New York where all people/animals are robots...and it doesn't try to explain this weird fact. "In NYC Mech, the robots, like Barks’ ducks, serve as simple stand-ins for humanity (and for other animals - robotic dogs and sharks both make appearances). That said, the surface non-humanity of the characters does provide a bit of distance between the reader and the material - which, ironically, makes the work even more believable."
You can find the book on Amazon.

My son is starting to learn to juggle

Maybe a month or more ago I noticed that Ethan, who is nine now, has gotten a lot better at throwing and catching balls. He also started to say things that indicated he was more interested in juggling. He's always said he wanted to learn, but couldn't stick with it very long, or would lose interest as soon as we started to work on the steps. But this week I've spent just two days in a row where I just told him to get out there on the lawn and practice with me. He listens to my direction, and he does pretty well at the two-ball step. Yesterday I got him to try the
three-ball throw. He laughed when he started to get it. I recognize that laugh; the laugh when something you do surprises you.

I'm pretty excited about this; it's been a long time coming. I guess the next step is to get him started counting catches. I remember when I taught my friend Rich Landry to juggle, and he competed with his kids for numbers of catches. (When you count catches, you start juggling and
see how many consecutive catches you can get.) I can't do that of course, since I can juggle three balls infinitely. Maybe I should try five, which I've never gotten much beyond 25 catches. :) Wow, I bet he'll have 100 catches of 3 before I have 50 of five. :)

When I talk about "step two" or the "three-ball throw", I'm referring to juggling three balls using this method:


Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Cookies of peril

You know how sometimes you'll see a cookie sitting on the kitchen table? And you pick it up, and eat it, and it's kind of a manufactured peanut butter cookie, so it's not that great? But then you notice that it's a thin cookie, and it doesn't have strong peanut-butter flavor, and it's really flat on one side? And you remember that this kind of cookie usually comes as part of a peanut-butter sandwich? And the cookie was sitting at your seven-year-old daughter's spot at the table? So that
probably means that it's there because she licked the peanut-butter filling off of it and left it behind? I love that. That's a great feeling.

Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Heep, heep! I uck!

I have posted far too few items from the "kids say the darndest things" category, but here's a gem from this weekend: Lily was in her high chair at the table, and started hollering at us:
"Heep, heep! I uck!"
When we realized she was saying, "help, help! I'm stuck!" we couldn't stop laughing. Now that she knows it makes us laugh, of course, she uses this phrase a lot.

Friday, February 23, 2007

The universe loves me on my birthday

I'm going to interpret every good thing I notice today as the universe's tender affection. So far I have these examples:
  • Metafilter posted several links to information about a movie based on the Watchmen graphic novel by Alan Moore.
  • I was stopped by a train this morning at Duval road about 8 a.m. Now, that may not sound like a good thing, but I'm a train fan, and this train was led by a grey and yellow UP loco followed by no less than FOUR red CP Rail locomotives. I haven't seen their like in Austin before (which isn't saying much -- I could have been missing them for months, but I was excited).
  • I went to martial arts class, and everyone else was busy except for one advanced student, so it became a private lesson for me, which is good since I'm brand new at it and I could ask more questions and get some details on the moves.

Thursday, February 22, 2007

Ben Goldacre blasts nutritionists on badscience.net

I always enjoy Ben Goldacre's perspective, but this nutrition article deserves a mention:
Since Goldacre is British, I don't always follow all of his UK references, but I think he's making a telling point here, in part of his blasting away at non-doctor Gillian McKeith:

I rent a flat in London’s Kentish Town on my modest junior doctor’s salary (don’t believe what you read in the papers about doctors’ wages, either). This is a very poor working-class area, and the male life expectancy is about 70 years. Two miles away in Hampstead, meanwhile, where the millionaire Dr Gillian McKeith PhD owns a very large property, surrounded by other wealthy middle-class people, male life expectancy is almost 80 years. I know this because I have the Annual Public Health Report for Camden open on the table right now. This phenomenal disparity in life expectancy - the difference between a lengthy and rich retirement, and a very truncated one indeed - is not because the people in Hampstead are careful to eat a handful of Brazil nuts every day, to make sure they’re not deficient in selenium, as per nutritionists’ advice. And that’s the most sinister feature of the whole nutritionist project, graphically exemplified by McKeith: it’s a manifesto of rightwing individualism - you are what you eat, and people die young because they deserve it. They choose death, through ignorance and laziness, but you choose life, fresh fish, olive oil, anf that’s why you’re healthy. You’re going to see 78. You deserve it. Not like them.

Best present ever!

Tanya, the wife I hardly deserve, has surprised me with an amazing present for my upcoming birthday: a 5-day trip to see longtime pal and former roommate Doug in Boise, Idaho. And no surprise, Doug already has big plans for the 5 days.
Doug says:

"I would say more about how I'm looking forward to your coming but it would just come out sounding gay. Not that there's anything wrong with that."

Wow, this'll be my first solo trip anywhere in...years, I think. Should be fun. After all, the midwest can't all be like Aaron Sorkin's vision of it a la Studio 60, can it?

(I'm reacting to some of the Studio 60 criticism. Though I note that it's Sorkin's characters, not Sorkin, who are always rankin' on the midwest, and that John Goodman's hick judge character -- also written by Sorkin -- neatly turns the tables on LA snobbery. So there.)

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

An emptier inbox

The article at

describes a way to organize your e-mail very simply. It uses just three folders, which have action-oriented names: Action, Hold, and Archive.

Anything you would normally keep goes into Archive when it is done, and you rely on the searchability of the folder plus the fact that it is sorted by date to let you find what you need. This idea has a lot of merit. I'm wondering whether I can bear to dismantle my 20-odd folders and give it a try.

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

How will you protest Studio 60's cancellation?

I found out today that one of my favorite TV shows, Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, has been cancelled. Here's an article about the cancellation:


There are a number of episodes remaining which have already been made, but which might never be shown.

How will you protest this travesty? I'm planning to come to work naked all next week. But I'm hoping that sending an e-mail to NBC might have some small effect. You can do that here:


I love this show for its energetic characters and their intertwined sagas. Yeah, it may not be the best Sorkin production ever, but it's good stuff. Are we doomed to a Sports Night replay here? I was just thinking about how this show is one whose subject Sorkin knows really well.

As a result of this I got to read some interesting criticism of the show, and I may read more. But I remain captivated by the storytelling and the character's relentlessly witty dialogue.

Texas Juggling Society's 14th Juggling Festival: wow

In heavy rotation in my personal list of anecdotes right now is a description of Mark Faje's bowling ball trick which he performed at the public show on Saturday night during this past weekend's juggling festival.

Mark did a number of great tricks; I can't believe all the danger he packed into about 5 minutes. But the one I can't stop talking about is when he put a 13 pound bowling ball on a pedestal, stuck steak knives in the holes so that it looked like the head of a jungle savage with feathers sprouting from the top, and then threw it in the air and caught it on his face.

Somehow he managed to keep it from rotating in the air, and he matched speeds with it, and balanced it on the side of his face. This'd be an amazing trick with any solid ball, much less a skull crushing 13 pounder. The knives take it over the top into surreal.

I love the festival, I always have a great time. And I'm always amazed by how much fun it is to just hang out in a big gym with a bunch of other jugglers, in an unstructured fashion, and wander up to people and ask them how they do things. I only went to one formal workshop, and that was the only formal activity I participated in. Oh, one other thing I did this year that was new was go to the twilight fire juggling. We juggled fire in front of the UT Tower, which was pretty keen. I brought my fire devil stick as well as my torches. It turns out that all you have to do to do a show like this is pay a UT fire marshal to oversee things and make sure you aren't being a pyromaniac.

Friday, February 16, 2007

I'm actually excited about the Father-Daughter dance

Chloe is seven years old now. She's in Brownies. They're going to have a father-daughter dance in March and I'm actually excited about it. Although the flyer said there was going to be line dancing, and there's a country-western theme, so the actual dancing is suddenly a little daunting. Luckily she's not old enough to care how I dance. More importantly, she's small enough to want to go to something like this.

A nice take on the role of the super hero from Cory Doctorow

I've been reading a few of Cory Doctorow's short stories lately, since he's been so kind as to offer them for free download.

I'm feeling that familiar chagrin of an idea I wish I'd had first, when reading his story "The Super Man and the Bugout." He takes an interesting tack with the idea of Superman.

In his notes about the story he mentions that the idea came from supposing a more Jewish and more Canadian superman:

"a superhero story that asks what would have happened if Kal-el had landed in suburban Toronto and been raised by an old Jewish couple."

His superman wrestles with his social conscience and his role in the world. Neat stuff. Also notable because on top of this idea is the idea of a hero becoming irrelevant in a world where aliens show up with all the answers.

The story is available at