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.