Monday, December 26, 2011

It's just too much science fiction

A wowser of a quote ends this Paris Review interview of William Gibson ....

If you’d gone to a publisher in 1981 with a proposal for a science-fiction novel that consisted of a really clear and simple description of the world today, they’d have read your proposal and said, Well, it’s impossible. This is ridiculous. This doesn’t even make any sense. Granted, you have half a dozen powerful and really excellent plot drivers for that many science-fiction n­ovels, but you can’t have them all in one novel.
What are those major plot drivers?
Fossil fuels have been discovered to be destabilizing the planet’s climate, with possibly drastic consequences. There’s an epidemic, highly contagious, lethal sexual disease that destroys the human immune system, raging virtually uncontrolled throughout much of Africa. New York has been attacked by Islamist fundamentalists, who have destroyed the two tallest buildings in the city, and the United States in response has invaded Afghanistan and Iraq.
And you haven’t even gotten to the technology.
You haven’t even gotten to the Internet. By the time you were telling about the Internet, they’d be showing you the door. It’s just too much science fiction.

Tuesday, November 08, 2011

Gotham City Sirens: Strange Fruit

On the face of it, the purpose of Gotham City Sirens seems to draw a book full of hot women. Catwoman, Harley Quinn, and Poison Ivy band together: what's not to like? But I found this volume to have some pretty good stories in it. Not a lot of criminality actually happens, really. It's more like these characters get in trouble a lot, because of their history. 

The stories mostly stood on their own okay, but the Poison Ivy story, the first story, made me feel a bit like I was missing some history.

Sunday, November 06, 2011

Science Dog #2

I didn't know anything about this comic before picking it up. I actually got it off a clearance pile. It was the only one I got out of that pile that was worthy of note.

I liked this one because it was a complete story in one issue, and because it was kind of reflective, and it seemed to counterpoint what I assume is the usual Science Dog story, where he handily defeats his nemesis Walter. It had wacky aliens and time travel and pathos and I liked it.

But I picked it up because it was called Science Dog and it had a picture of a humanoid dog with a jetpack and gadgets on the cover.

Bonus: his teammates call him Science like it's his first name.

Monday, October 31, 2011

The New Yorker has a great little epistolary fiction story, relevant to Halloween, here on their site:

What I like about this is a) how things slowly go awry and b) how e-mail has created a world in which most of us have had experiences somewhat like the ones described in this story.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Keeping your D&D game fantastical

Since one of my favorite pasttimes is daydreaming about playing D&D, I'm frequently reading about how to run a good game. Here's a neat post from the guy who does the 'Playing D&D with Porn Stars' blog/video/whatever stuff. Yes, his blog has a NSFW warning, but I looked and looked and couldn't find anything at all salacious on it. And I love his attitude.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

How to tell The Boring Story

My youngest was asking me for a story as we wandered through Austin yesterday, spending eight long hours scouring the city for wedding clothes. I shouldn't complain too much: I had my first Orange Julius in years. And the pretzel was nice. But it was also my first mall visit in a long time, and I try to avoid those.

So she wanted a story, and I set about telling her The Boring Story.

My Boring Story was about a girl who lived in a Boring house where nothing much happened, where she was left all alone all day by her parents, except that she had a nanny who was a very tall fellow with long limbs. It wasn't long, despite how Boring the town was, before she was swept up in an adventure, her nanny showing up one morning in full chain armor, with a huge club, and carrying her off to visit a wizard.

At six years old, my youngest was able to figure out that the more I said things were boring, the more crazy they were likely to get. But she wasn't old enough to get tired of that joke. She'd keep asking me for more and I'd keep saying "Why? It's such a boring story, I don't know why you'd want to hear more. But it's true that while they were visiting the wizard, he twiddled his fingers and a cloud flew out of a hole near the ceiling and floated down to her, and it was carrying a bowl of pink stuff, and the pink stuff turned out to be ice cream."

And so on. So far the nanny, whose name is Cranston, has run off with the wizard to fight a dragon and some warriors in black armor, while the girl stayed back at the wizard's tower and watched the action in a crystal ball. The Boring story helped my girl cope with trying on clothes and waiting for her mom and sister rather well.

Sunday, September 04, 2011

Madame Lumiere

I rather enjoyed this story on the Beneath Ceaseless Skies magazine/site: The Six Skills of Madame Lumiere. The story succeeds in both being interesting for itself and hinting at a great larger setting and plot. I love the way it shows a Faerie that impinges on the real world ... as well as humans who impinge upon Faerie.

UPDATED 5/16/14... I see that I had two posts about this same story. I'm consolidating them here. Here's what I said in the other post, in an attempt to say what I like about this story:

I love the main character's voice. I love the vision of a world infested with fairies, a world where fairies move alongside humans, and humans sometimes visit fairyland. I love the twined obligations, and I love the hints of the larger world beyond this story.

Saturday, September 03, 2011

Scrivener first look

 I've heard good things about the Scrivener fiction writing tool. It's one of these tools that tries to encapsulate everything you need for a complex writing project into one tool. I'm suspicious of that approach, but it has interesting features and there is a free beta right now, so I'm trying it.

Here's a link to the Windows beta page, which is what is new now. The Mac version has been out for a while. 

I installed it this morning and had a look. It has a lot of nice features, I have to say.
- Built in templates for short stories and novels. It also has screenwriting and nonfiction; I'm just not interested in it for those as I have lots of tools for that stuff and that's my day job anyway.
- You basically write stuff as chunks of text...but every chunk has an attached index card of comments/metadata that won't show up in print, and you can view and manipulate the cards separately.
In general it seems a great tool for any project where you want to have a lot of notes and associate them with your final text.
- You have a treeview  of all the stuff in your writing project.
- It supports PDF, RTF, XHTML, DOC, DOCX and LibreOffice/OpenOffice ODT outputs. Note that DOCX and ODT are XML outputs.

It works a lot like an xml toolchain, in that you are producing source files that get compiled into final output. But it hides the implementation and has a good GUI for it.

So the only complaint I could possibly make about it is that it's not open source so I can't (presumably) hack at the guts of it. I think the price when it is out is gonna be $40, too, which seems super reasonable.

The other thing I'd want is an XML output that semantically marks all the notes and metadata in a simple and easy to understand way. An output like that would allow you to post-process it with XML tools, so you could completely customize it. I wonder if they use XML under the covers or if everything is just in a database.

Not sure if I'll get around to trying an actual project in it before the 9/30 end of the beta. That would be the best test. I don't feel a strong NEED for this thing though...but I would seriously consider it for a novel. That, to me, is where it would shine: it would really help you manage multiple layers of story structure.

As several tools have offered recently, it has a full-screen editing mode too, for when you want to focus on churning out some prose.

It would be hard to lose: even if you decided later that you didn't like it, it would be easy to get your data back out of it and into some other format. 

Interesting things about Arabic

The language has some really interesting features that I didn't know about till I read this article:

Two of my favorites: letters change shape depending on neighbor letters, and the language has a template structure that works like a root: words that share the same template have some common meaning, but the word sound and shape changes more than if you just had a common root.

Friday, September 02, 2011

The fellow running the Ars Ludi blog seems to have some good things to say regarding RPGs. Here's an article about using Backdrop Plots in your role-playing game. And here's a series about a sandbox campaign, where, interestingly, the players were required to do all the scheduling:

What I like about  that idea is that the fellow describes how to set up a gaming campaign that is just full of stuff to do, but leave what to do and when to do it entirely up to the that instead of a group of people gathering regulalry to play whatever the GM has planned, the players must garner interest in exploring, say, "the ruined abbey on the west hills" and get enough people to show up for that.

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

"Souvenir" by Genevieve Valentine is another great story posted on the Strange Horizons website, and I wanted to share it. This one  is about psychics working for the police force...psychics who are able to read places for the residues of experiences there.

I suppose the trope of 'psychic who is tortured by the emotions of others' trope isn't all that new, but darn if it isn't well done here.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Thursday, August 11, 2011

How to win at Drop7

Drop7 (web, iTunes) is my favorite iPhone game. It's got a Tetrissy-feel to it that I like. This page has some tips for getting higher scores that made sense to me.

At the moment, however, it is not on my phone, because I've deleted it for the second time after my children started to forget my name.

So I'm starting to think that maybe the best way to win is not to play.

Tuesday, August 09, 2011

The bomb ain't the bomb?

In this article, the Boston Globe explores a historian's theory that the atomic bomb was NOT the decisive reason for Japan's surrender in WWII.

The article suggests that the historian's contention that the real cause was the Soviet declaration of war against Japan days later is more than the evidence supports....but more striking is the claim that many historians agree that the bomb can't be called the main reason either. Further, that the atomic bomb was not a big striking difference in war, but just an incremental change to a country that had already seen many cities firebombed.

Sunday, August 07, 2011

The web is a customer service medium

 Man, it's been a long time since I've read any Paul Ford. But this is good stuff....trying to identify the thing that the web is best at, and along the way explain why some sites succeed and others fail:

Saturday, August 06, 2011

America's wealthiest people vs. the economy

As analyzed by an investment banking guy. Short and to the point: the folks in finance have every incentive to mess up the wider economy for their own profit, and everyone else suffers. And it's no accident: the system has been made that way through legal action.

Wednesday, August 03, 2011

Heat death of the highschoolers

Every year, kids in the south who are training for football die...from the combination of heat and exertion. And yet it happens again every year.

Tuesday, August 02, 2011

Metropolis II

A ginormous kinetic sculpture of die-cast metal cars moving roller-coaster style coupled with toy trains and buildings. Gorgeous.

How Google Dominates Us

This is a must-read, a review of how Google came to and continues to dominate advertising revenue globally, with some interesting discussion of the "Don't be evil" motto.  By James Gleick, author of Chaos.

Initiative in D&D

I'm liking the Ars Ludi blog more and more. It turns out it's by the guy who came up with the weird new RPG 'Microscope' which I've thought about getting.

In this post, about initiative, he talks about the difference between 4th Ed D&D initiative and older versions and how it changes how people play the game. A subtle point that can make a big difference in whether people approach the game cooperatively or not.

Friday, July 29, 2011

My painting sploded

I like this piece by Gregory Euclide, which uses two things I like -- miniature scenery and sort of negative-space-pieced-together-flimsy-surfaces...I don't have a word for the second thing.

In other news, I'll be reposting things from This Is Colossal until I get tired of it.

Dice people

I'm getting a kick out of browsing the archives of the blog This is Colossal. Here's some neat human figure art I found, people made of dice:

Thursday, July 28, 2011

New Bad Machinery: Lonely

Bad Machinery has a new story going on: The Case of the Lonely One.

I really like Bad Machinery. I like it so much that it's painful to wait for the next episode. I like to wait a few weeks instead and then catch up.

There's something about the way the characters quip at each other; the way their art shows their character. And the counterpoint of the adult teachers vs. the schoolkids is always fun.

I was rereading Giant Days, another spinoff of Scary Go Round, too, and remembering how much I liked it. With that one, I enjoy the college setting and the idea of new friends banding together against bad guys.

I guess I should try to join a forum or something. I feel like these are tremendous comics that you don't hear enough about.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Boardgames as free PDFs, from Cheapass Games

Cheapass Games, who I admire for Kill Doctor Lucky, have put several of their older games online as free PDFs. Have a look.

Friday, July 22, 2011

Arrested for crossing the street

It takes a jury of driving white people, I guess, to convict a black lady of a crime when a  driver who admits he'd been drinking hits her 4-year old. This article puts that case in the context of road design: when you lack a car, and your bus stop is across the street from your apartment complex, are you going to walk several blocks to get to a crossing?

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Hermione Granger

What if the Harry Potter books had focused on Hermione as the main character?

I've read cogent criticism of Harry Potter before, and this what-if article reflects my favorite argument against the series: that Harry is treated as amazing, but never actually does much to deserve what he gets. He's a Chosen One and that's all. I hadn't really thought about who actuallly saves the day, though....

Friday, June 24, 2011

On Picking your Battles

Loved it.

Friday, June 03, 2011

How fan fiction is good for us

This article about kids learning to write through fan fiction communities online has some interesting things to say. I'm particularly interested in groups that have editing processes, where folks get to really work on a piece until it is solid.

Wednesday, June 01, 2011

Pomplamoose....I'm kind of in love now

Just bumped into this band because they did a cover of "My Favorite Things" from The Sound of Music. And wow. Instant love.

You can find out more about them on Wikipedia.

Here's what seems to be an original piece, that I instantly liked...

and here's a cover of "Mr. Sandman..."

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Muppet Bohemian Rhapsody

I can think of no finer use for YouTube than to allow you to see this....

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Playing D&D with small kids

I played a little D&D with all three of my kids...ages 5, 11, and 13...this weekend. I hope to post about this in more detail at some point, but right now I want to link to this post where a fellow outlines a very simple RPG setup he did for his six-year-old; it contains lots of good idea as far as framing the game in terms a young child might grasp:

That guy thought about things more carefully than I have. We managed to get to a short actual play session after two short character-making sessions.

I'd like to make it very clear that though I think about games a lot and talk about them a lot, I almost never actually play. Somehow friends keep getting the impression that I've gotten actual play going. These sessions with my kids are the first in several years.

Ooh, hey, looks like Wizards of the Coast has a free game/adventure all-in-one thing, in downloadable PDF form. You can find that here:

Thursday, May 05, 2011

Central vacuum cleaners

Ever heard of these? I think I saw a house that had one of these once: vacuum hoses in the walls, like plumbing. Always seemed like a super strange concept. Here's more than you'll ever want to know about 'em:

Wednesday, May 04, 2011

Water, water, everywhere

You know how people say you should drink lots when you're sick? Yeah, there's actually no science to back that up. Everyone just thinks it makes sense.

Yeah, and that drink 8 glasses of water a day thing is way overstated, too.

Can you believe anything about water? Water's just full of lies, man.

Sunday, May 01, 2011

Did you know Google color codes its employees to assign priviliges?

Not only that..they have a yellow-badge class of workers who are denied basically all of the privileges Google is so famous for.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

XKCD tetris heaven

First XKCD proposed it, then someone built it: a game of Tetris that every now and then throws you a block constructed to exactly fit your board's needs.

When this was first linked on Metafilter, I couldn't get on the site -- I assume all the attention was more than their provider could keep up with. But it's up now.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

No-bullshit fables

These short comic strip versions of well-known fables gave me a chuckle. My favorite is the Ant and the Grasshopper, which postulates an ant who, 'not being a sociopath', works something out....

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Church Tank

I didn't know there was such a thing as that artwork known as the Church Tank, but now I do and so do you. It's by Kris Kuksi. Here's a gallery topped by another of his constructions, which also has lots of other interesting sculptures:

ADDENDUM: Oh,'s a walkthrough video of a complex piece. I like how he seems to be blending model-building and sculpture here:

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Physics game, cellular music

I've been obsessed with The Powder Toy all weekend. It's a simple 2d physics sim where you drop powder of different materials onto the screen, and stuff happens. Seeds, water, gunpowder, and acid all add to the fun. Here's a version you can play in a browser...and a more involved version you can download.

And that version includes cells from the Game of Life, which quickly take over....and that leads me to this music toy based on cellular automata. You place cells in a grid, they move around according to rules, and music happens.

All of this, as usual, thanks to

Kin-selection-evolution argument

Prediction: someone will use the fact that big name scientists can argue about specifics of evolutionary theory to say that evolution is false.

Metafilter pointed me at this interesting discussion of a kerfuffle over kin-selection. The linked blogger made a fun video explaining the arguments. With talking bears.

The root of the problem seems to be that some big name scientists got a paper highly critical of kin selection into Nature. But the paper seems to be based on a lack of knowledge of the published papers about kin selection. So the question becomes...why was the paper published at all?

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Scott Adams on getting a real education

Lots of good ideas in this Scott Adams (of Dilbert) article about what he learned in college. Lots of sneaky tricks too.

Here's just one tidbit I especially liked...

The Dale Carnegie method ignores speaking technique entirely and trains you instead to enjoy the experience of speaking to a crowd. Once you become relaxed in front of people, technique comes automatically. Over the years, I've given speeches to hundreds of audiences and enjoyed every minute on stage. But this isn't a plug for Dale Carnegie. The point is that people can be trained to replace fear and shyness with enthusiasm. Every entrepreneur can use that skill.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

How to answer folks who believe in astrology and the like

XKCD has the perfect answer. Short version: If it worked, lots of companies would be using it to make a lot of money for something besides selling it to other people who believe in it.

Friday, April 01, 2011

"The Last Sophia" by C. S. E. Cooney

Yesterday I took a break and read the short story "The Last Sophia" by C. S. E. Cooney. I found it on the Strange Horizons webzine, where I've been finding a lot of great fantasy. This one is a nice take on changelings that throws several new ideas into that old trope, starting by taking the point of view of the mother of more than one faerie child.

Thursday, March 31, 2011

_Irredeemable_ by Mark Waid

Just received Irredeemable Volume 1 in the mail today, and have already read it twice. Couldn't be more excited about it. This is one of the scariest stories I've read.

The premise is that The Plutonian, a Superman-analog hero (anything you can do, he can do better) has gone rogue for some reason and no one seems able to stop him. The story really drives home the fear involved: what do you do when someone super strong, super fast, and able to hear a pin drop from ten miles is out to get you? He doesn't really need the death ray eyes, but they don't subtract from the terror.

Add to that the fact that this version of Superman hasn't let anyone discover his Kryptonite, and the fear ramps up.

By the time the story starts, the Plutonian is already a mass murderer who has leveled a city. A few heroes are left scrambling to stay alive long enough to learn how to stop him.

I knew a lot of this already, from reading volumes 1 and 2 of Incorruptible...which I also greatly enjoyed. Reading those stories, I had trouble believing that Waid could make a character who committed Plutonian's crimes into a believable person. But he has.

I'm going to be collecting Irredeemable now. I can hardly wait to get volume 2.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Fresh Air interviews author of 'After Qaddafi'

I heard a bit of this interview with Dirk Vandewalle on the radio earlier this month. The full transcript is available online, which is darn cool....made it easy to find.

Some highlights:

  • Qadaffi systematically destroyed basically all organizations in Libya. They don't even have organizations of doctors, or stamp collectors. There's no way for people to group or congregate, because that might lead to dissent.
  • Qadaffi's got a serious yes-man problem. No one can speak against him, so he just hears his own words back alla time.
  • Qadaffi also ended most private business, including rental of apartments and houses, and restaurants. He created a membership-required system of supermarkets. If you displeased him, you could lose membership, and be unable to buy food.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

All energy disasters lead to coal, which is an energy disaster

Here's a thought-provoking piece on how nuclear power problems scare us more than they should. Maybe we just can't stand the idea of death via invisible radiation? But the point is, we need power, and if we swap nuclear for something else, that doesn't make us safer.

I think the easiest way to imagine this is to think of a dam. If a tsunami or earthquake busts a dam, thousands are likely to be killed. Meanwhile, go coal and people die from it every day.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Highlight web pages, then send a short link

So I thought, 'hey somebody probably made a widget that lets you highlight stuff in a web page then send a link to the page with highlights.' And a nanosecond of searching produced this, the Awesome Highlighter.

Here, for example, is a short link to a wikipedia page that I highlighted.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Poi Dog Pondering - Living With the Dreaming Body

This video was filmed right here in Austin, on the main drag across from the UT campus. This is one of the most evocative Poi Dog songs for taps into joy.

Happy birthday to me!

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Why you're still single, ladies

Here's an article that takes an interesting tack with respect to the marriage ambitions of ladies.

I thought the points were generally very well taken, and enjoyed how charitable they are to the pool of men out there. That is, the article asserts that there are enough men with worth and integrity out there for the women who want marriage.

I think this should be balanced by Lore Sjoberg's piece about why guys who think nice guys finish last probably aren't as nice as they think they are...

Friday, February 18, 2011

Gamasutra says Minecraft is no fluke

Really interesting breakdown of why Minecraft is a success, and why the next Minecraft won't be a Minecraft. :)

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Playmobil Stop Motion - Joy Division - Transmission

Found this on BoingBoing.

_The Keep_ by Jennifer Egan

I can't remember why I put 'get a book by Jennifer Egan' on my list, but I'm really glad I did. This book is compelling from page one, based on its characters and their intertwined mysteries. It develops an interesting structure, too: just when you dig into the tight single point-of-view of the main character, you get pulled back out into a narrator's point of view... and the narrator has a mystery of his own.

I'd expect a device like that to create unwelcome distance. Nope. It just creates more tension.

The big hook for me was the anticipation around the main character arriving in Europe to meet an estranged cousin whom he'd betrayed as a child. He was in a tight spot, and a jaunt to Europe arrived just in time, but he doesn't know whether he'll be sincerely welcomed by the man he betrayed.

Anyway, read the thing, it's fantastic.

Tuesday, February 08, 2011

"Salsa Nocturna" by Daniel José Older

I'm really impressed with the voice in this short fantastical story. From Strange Horizons.

Friday, February 04, 2011

Snow in Austin

Definitely not something we see very often. Snow today, blanketing the area...not a lot of snow, but a lot of pure white, until we went outside and trampled it. Too cold to pack well, though...I don't think we'll be seeing a lot of snow sculpture. The prediction is that it'll be gone by afternoon, though that's hard to believe looking at the roads right now. I'm working at home because no one should be on these roads. I hope it does burn off because otherwise it's going to go to slushy ice and be worse.

Monday, January 31, 2011

Writing in plain text

So I've been working on shorter pieces lately, and using the simplest of tools: text files. And there are some advantages to that, especially when your process involves lots of rewrites, as mine currently does.

That is to say, right now I'm doing a lot of my editing by starting a new file and retyping the whole piece over again, making changes along the way.

And with plain text files, I can:

- Write on any machine. Everybody has a text editor. And since I use DropBox, my files are available anywhere too.
- I can use my pal Emacs.
- I can grep for things. I'll
- I can use a diff tool to compare two files...even more easily that when I'm using XML.

So I'm implementing some comments from some friends, and I find that several comments reveal that I dropped a detail or two in a later version, something that made a later thing make sense. I've got drafts with suffixes like _v01.txt, _v02.txt. So, I can grep for a string and find every version that contained it...and get some context around the string, too.

Thus I can not only see when I stopped having the main character consider hanging up the phone, but also HOW I phrased that in each version. I can do that across twelve versions and without opening any of the files.

Sure, for some markets I'll have to drop the thing into an RTF file and format it. But I'm completely sidestepping formatting during the writing phase, and that's a good thing.

Sunday, January 30, 2011

Getting real with the legos

Metafilter led me to this hyperreal model of a house, made entirely with legos.

TwoStory with Basement

For more from the same fellow, see his blog.

Saturday, January 29, 2011

UC Men's Octet - Bohemian Rhapsody

Since I mentioned Bohemian Rhapsody in my earlier post today, I'm obliged to mention THIS version, a really expressive a capella version. Watch it again and again.

Bohemian Rhapsody on ukulele

I'm thinking maybe I'll focus this blog narrowly on versions of Bohemian Rhapsody. Who's with me?

Friday, January 28, 2011

Sam Won, where are you?

Long shot e-mail address for Sam Won seems to be no good. Sam, if you find this, you can reach me at I know Sam from summer school at Harvard. This allows me to mention that I went to summer school at Harvard.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

_Proposition Player_ by Bill Willingham, Paul Guinan

Interesting graphic novel of the angels-and-devils-are-real variety. This one turns a small-time gambler into the biggest of bigshots. I thought it had some great ideas and held together pretty well, though it was never clear to me why the angels turned out to be jerks and the devils relative nice guys. Not that that's not a good idea for a story setup, but it seemed to be lacking some justification. A lot of fun visuals, and a lot of different mythological characters thrown into the mix.

Update 1/27/11: Looking at this, I realize I wasn't clear. This thing was worth a look, but it's not up to Willingham's usual standards. I guess I was hoping to damn it with faint praise. I couldn't put my finger on what I didn't like, but I think this review from IGN hit it...
"But the characters are generally unlikable, making it difficult to care what happens to Joey. The main character is an ass, remiss of any endearing or empathetic qualities. Only the strength of curiosity ("what happens next?") pulls the reader through to the clever finale."(IGN's Proposition Player Review)

Friday, January 21, 2011

Also we can't trust iPhone chargers

That's just the way it is, I'm afraid.

Never trust a robot

Truer words, my friends. Truer words.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Using Emacs to fix a column of text in Excel

I had occasion to rejoice at Emac's regular expression features yesterday. I was converting a Word table to an Excel sheet, and I had a column with numbered paragraphs. The numbering arrived in Excel as hardcoded text, and I wanted to get rid of it, since I didn't need the numbers in Exel.

The text in the cells was regular, but not amenable to a simple search, because it looked like this
1. Alpha
2. Bravo

The fix, in Emacs, was really quick.*

1. I copied the column and pasted it into Emacs, where it became a series of lines of plain text.
2. I copied the number-and spaces prefix on one line to get a string with the correct number of spaces.
3. I did a replace-regexp command, replacing ".. " (2 periods, 3 spaces) with nothing. Since the period is a single-character wildcard in a regular expression, that meant 'find strings consisting of any two characters followed by three spaces'.  This converted my lines to the following:


4. I copied the modified lines and pasted them over the column. All better.

Actually, I had to do a little more cleanup than this, because there were some two-digit numbers, but you get the idea.

There are several wins here. It's smart of Excel to so nicely accept pasted input in the form of lines. This comes in handy for me all the time. And Emacs' ability to do replaces on regular expressions is extremely powerful.

*Now that I think of it, it would probably have been even faster to fix this in Word before pasting the table into Excel. In Word, I could have changed the numbered paragraphs to non-numbered ones.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Axe Cop

Super-cute comic, made by a 29-year old artist from ideas by his 5-year-old brother. Here's episode 1.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Odd spam: we're cutting off your FDIC insurance!

My wife forwarded me some quite strange fraud-spam she received. It attempts to convince you that your bank account's FDIC insurance has been suspended. I've reproduced it below

From: "" <>
To: <omitted>
Cc: <omitted>
Sent: Sat, January 8, 2011 3:38:48 PM
Subject: FDIC Insurance

To whom it may concern,

In cooperation with the Department Of Homeland Security, Federal, State and Local Governments your account has been denied insurance from the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation due to suspected violations of the Patriot Act. While we have only a limited amount of evidence gathered on your account at this time it is enough to suspect that currency violations may have occurred in your account and due to this activity we have withdrawn Federal Deposit Insurance on your account until we verify that your account has not been used in a violation of the Patriot Act.

As a result Department Of Homeland Security Director Tom Ridge has advised the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation to suspend all deposit insurance on your account until such time as we can verify your identity and your account information.

Please verify through our IDVerify below. This information will be checked against a federal government database for identity verification. This only takes up to a minute and when we have verified your identity you will be notified of said verification and all suspensions of insurance on your account will be lifted. (NOTE: Link URL has had the word 'DISABLED' added to prevent my post from including this likely dangerous link in it.)

Failure to use IDVerify below will cause all insurance for your account to be terminated and all records of your account history will be sent to the Federal Bureau of Investigation in Washington D.C. for analysis and verification. Failure to provide proper identity may also result in a visit from Local, State or Federal Government or Homeland Security Officials.

Thank you for your time and consideration in this matter.

Donald E. Powell
Chairman Emeritus FDIC

John D. Hawke, Jr.
Comptroller of the Currency

Michael E. Bartell
Chief Information Officer
This is such a strange bit of fearmongering. It's clever in a way, and yet...if the government suspected you of anything, they wouldn't take the incredibly mild action of suspending your FDIC insurance, they'd freeze your accounts immediately. 
I guess they say that about the insurance because it sounds scary, but it's not easy to check, whereas you'd know if your account was frozen. Weird wild stuff. 

Also, it's always good to know that the Chairman Emeritus of the FDIC spends time sending mails to people to let them know about problems. You know, he's retired, but he does some e-mail for them once a month just to keep his FDIC license or something. :)

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Highlights has a fiction contest ending Jan 31

As long as I'm mentioning contests....this one is for a piece 750 wds or less aimed at small kids, and containing an "embarrassing moment." So far I don't have any ideas on this score that excite me, but this one is
a) free to enter and b) pays $1000 to three winners. These items make it stand out among writing contests.

Monday, January 10, 2011

NPR Three-Minute Fiction contest --- new contest just started

600 words or less. Your story gets read on the air. That's your main prize, actually. Published on their site, too, though. They just released the theme for the new contest, due 1/23/11, this weekend! Information here.

I thought the winner from the contest that ended in December was pretty great. It was called Roosts.

I've been interested in flash fiction, stuff at the 1000-words-or-so length, lately. It's amazing what folks can sometimes do with very few words.

Chloe on bird walk

We went on pal Mikael Behrens' bird walk this weekend in the Parmer Village neighborhood (here's Mikael's report on the outing). Gracen Duffield took a nice shot of Chloe on the walk, so I'm linking to her Flickr page.

Friday, January 07, 2011

Highlight of our Christmas trip = St. Louis City Museum

I expect I'll have more to say about this, but the best place I've ever visited with my kids has to be the St. Louis City Museum, which we visited during the Christmas holidays. It's a strange duck, not like much else, but you won't go wrong by thinking of it as a big, mostly-indoor playground built from objects found throughout the city, but including lots of custom sculpture as well, to the point where it's as much a hands-on art museum as anything else. This is something you should not miss if you go through St. Louis at all.

Wednesday, January 05, 2011

Gold mine: Wikipedia's List of Common Misconceptions

Things that "everyone knows" but which turn out to be false are a favorite bugaboo of mine. The latest XKCD comic paints a picture of a world where these things are specifically addressed by schools. I love this idea. The comic mentions a Wikipedia article listing common misconceptions, which I found to be a great read.

Note that I'm not claiming to be less susceptible to these things than anyone else. There are lots of urban legends that I've believed in at one time or another, and when someone sends me a terrified e-mail mentioning the latest one, I try to remind myself that we all fall prey to them now and then -- especially when they push one of our emotional buttons.