Saturday, December 03, 2005

Get Fuzzy books: A Reading Guide

This Amazon reading guide is essential for the Get Fuzzy fan. It helpfully notes that
Get Fuzzy books are divided into "collections" and "treasuries". There are two collections in each treasury.

Nice to refer to when building one's Christmas list.

Wednesday, November 23, 2005

Yet a further reason to join the ACLU

This has convinced me it's time to join the ACLU. The security paranoia has to stop.


Update 2005-01-06

Some good news, according to the site:
Not only will Deborah Davis not be prosecuted on charges related to her refusal to show ID on a public bus, but she is now able to travel on the route 100 RTD bus without showing her 'papers.'

Deb's lawyer, ACLU volunteer attorney Gail Johnson, was informed shortly before noon on December 7th by the office of the US attorney in Denver of their decision not to prosecute.

Score one for the good guys and against the security state.

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Back in the Nanowrimo game

Well, sort of. I wrote earlier about retiring from the field when I found the story I was working on uncongenial. But I couldn't get some of the images out of my mind, and I had certain key moments in the long life of the main character appear in front of me as I went about my other chores.

I had also promised myself the New Yorker DVD set if I successfully completed nanowrimo. While I always intended to buy the set anyway, I can't forget that carrot I dangled in front of myself. I felt I needed to put in at least a good-faith effort in order to justify buying the DVDs.

So I went back to my file and basically started the story over again for at least the third time. It's interesting to me how the story started as a sprawling, dozens-of-characters murder mystery, to a more constrained, cozier setting, starting with two characters but in the last few writing sessions, settling on the main character, a 96-year-old woman on her deathbed remembering key events of her life.

I don't believe I'll make the 50K word count by Nov. 30, though. I'm at about 23,700 right now and can't do much more than 2000 words in a sitting. The week I took off left me way behind, and I went to bed early last night. So I'd need to push out about 3000+ words a day to make the goal. Hm. Well, maybe if I intersperse writing sessions with leaf-raking on my days off Friday and Saturday, maybe I'll get up to the mid-30s by the 28th.

My Nanowrimo profile page:

I hate when that happens

Just got a call from a job recruiter for a position that has my name all over it, at the last place I worked as a contractor. It's only an 18-month contract, but it would be more money, fewer hours, and closer to home than the full-time job I have now. God, but it's knotted my gut.

Saturday, November 19, 2005

New PC: First Steps

First, clean off the old PC and prep it for its new owner. I'm giving it to my friend Scott, which makes me de facto tech support. Therefore, I want to include some tools and tricks that may make recovery and troubleshooting easier.

Also, there are a few interesting little bits of software and other techniques that I've been wanting to try. No better time like now, when I won't damage anything--I'm reformatting the hard drive and re-installing the OS. So there's nothing to lose. I probably take more time than I should getting things ready, but it's a good learning investment.

LESSON LEARNED: In retrospect, I should have also used a special data-wiping program to overwrite any old data on the disk before going through with the formatting or even after the formatting.

Buy and install UPS replacement battery
I finally bought the replacement backup battery for the APC BackUPS 280 unit and installed it. The battery type I want to search on in Froogle is RBC10, and replacement batteries average about $28. The install instructions are in the "APC" folder in the filing cabinet.

I'd noticed the replace-battery light buzzing red for weeks but shrugged it off. Then we had a brownout. The computer and router--everything--cut out immediately. No time to save any files for a graceful shutdown. After the power came back on, we noticed the network acting flakey--file and printer sharing, which had worked flawlessly before, didn't work at all now. I kicked myself for not replacing the battery sooner.

LESSON LEARNED: For the lack of a battery, a network was lost...

Buy an external USB hard disk and USB hub
I finally bought an external USB hard disk, a 160GB Seagate. I installed and then uninstalled the backup software, BounceBack; it was too insistent on its own settings and intrusive in other ways. Instead, I just copied all the files from C: to E: and listened to it chatter away. I'd been debating with myself to buy an external disk because I knew I'd also need to buy a USB hub, and I've been putting off spending money for most of the last year. Well, it was time to spend. Let's do this right.

Circuit City had a neat USB hub that offered two easy-access ports on the top of the device, making it convenient to plug in a flash drive or my Digisette on the fly. (The Digisette required Windows to register a new driver, though the driver already existed on the hard drive.) Plus, the hub is stackable in case you need to add more. Into the hub I plugged the printer, my Clie stand, and the Seagate. Plus, the new PC will have USB 2.0, whereas the old PC had USB 1.1, so I'm looking forward to faster transfers.

For backing up files, I use Karen's Replicator, a very nice free tool that lets you set up and schedule individual file-replication jobs. I just set Replicator to update any changed file on the disk to the external drive. Simplicity itself and it never ran for long. Every couple of days, I ran the job to make sure all my latest files were up there. I don't really bother with incremental backups or any of that. Just copy them all. I don't have synchronization turned on, so files I delete on C: will remain in place on the external drive. That's fine.

LESSON LEARNED: No lesson, just putting the pieces in place that will support good habits.

Sure you've backed up all the files you'll need later?
Big lesson learned: scan the help files of the programs you use regularly; heck, just go down each program in the Program Files folder. Is it one you use often? How often? Often enough that you'll want to use the data later? Is it as easy as copying the files over to the new PC?

In most cases, yes, it is. AI Roboform, for example, lets you import its data files with no problem. Firefox lets you import all of your bookmarks from another location. The Manager program doesn't export categories you create. It's easy enough to copy the files over from the external drive later, but I'll have to spend an hour or so re-categorizing every bloody file.

Quicken 2003 was also a bugger. I should have read the help and exported the data files to a QIF that I could import into a new install later. I didn't, and there seems to be no way to get all those years of data into the new install. Yeesh. I'll talk about this in a later post. It may be a blessing in disguise.

Create a fresh XP install disk
The HP Pavilion came with a set of Windows ME recovery discs. Great. However, at the HP web site I read that once you upgrade the PC to XP, the recovery discs don't work no more. Great.

At this point, I remember Fred Langa and others talking about creating your own XP recovery disks by taking the original XP disc, slipstreaming the Service Pack 2 release into it, and then burning a new XP install CD that has all the up-to-date security patches. Fred's article focused on a snazzy new flavor, called Bart's PE disk.

I thought it would be good for Scott to have this just in case, and it would be a good exercise for me.
Here's the Langa article, but you can also find lots of links via Google or

Of course, nothing works that easy. All told, I burned away most of a Saturday trying to create Bart's PE disk. What helped was using Autostreamer and reading up on the Bart's PE disk forums; the final disk I wound up creating was by Autostreamer, which worked like a dream. Bart's PE is a good idea but I'll have to revisit it later; I see its value, but its value to me is low right now.

I notated all this fruitless activity, what helped and what didn't, in the big-ass text file I maintain in Notetab Pro.

On Sunday, I reformatted the disk and installed XP with SP2 on the disk. Since I'm on DSL (Scott's still on dial-up), I also downloaded and installed the post-SP2 security patches. I also installed AVF anti-virus software.

Partitioning and imaging
I've been infected by Fred Langa's repeated writings of his backup method. First, partition your disk by the type of files that need to be backed up; there's usually only a small set of files that really need to be backed up regularly. Other types of files only need to be backed up occasionally.

So, he recommends a small partition for the Windows system files that also holds My Documents; these files are the ones you want to replace in a hurry. Then divvy up the drive as you see fit.

Regularly image the C:\ drive, but back up the partitions as often as you think necessary. Now, if you have a system crash, you can use the imaging software to restore the last good working configuration of your system and your files. It shouldn't take long to recover from something disastrous.

Fred recommended BootItNG (BING) as an all-in-one partitioning and imaging. I downloaded it, wrestled with the cold and rather geeky interface over several evenings, setting small goals to be achieved each night. But in the end, it worked great the first time. I partitioned the disk on the fly so that C: was about 8GB, and the rest of the drive remained open. I thought it was best to keep it simple.

If only BING had worked so smoothly for me on the new PC. But that will come in a later post.

Buy those neat power-strip liberator plugs
For myself, I also bought these neat plug extensions that let me use every outlet on my UPS.

Don't throw out those old CDs
I want to find a way to recycle all my old CDs I burned or CDs of old programs I don't want to keep around anymore. There's Greendisk, but I discovered our local hazardous waste recycling facility, in addition to handling batteries (like old dead UPS batteries), monitors, and old PCs, also advertises itself as taking CDs. So I put all the old CDs I didn't need anymore on a spindle and will take them the next time we do a recycling run.

Sunday, November 13, 2005

Blog diet

Up till the middle of last week, I had about 80 blogs on my Bloglines list. Many of them were divided up into Monday, Tuesday, etc. categories, as they didn't update often but I didn't want to miss them. So I'd be able to check them at least once a week.

But I found myself obsessing over checking them like I obsess over checking my email. I feel it was severely impairing my workday, my time at home, and, really, who needs that much information every day? Every week? So I pruned them down to the core, about 8 blogs that I really don't want to miss, and they're all pretty reasonable with updates: maybe once a day, some 2-3 times/day, but quickly read and digested. When I now obsessively click onto Bloglines, I see a mostly empty page. I feel a slight disappointment, then see it as a reminder that it's time to move on to better things, and close down the window wth a self-satisfied air.

This rather strict rationing came about from my periodic reading of this Jeanette Winterson column, where she rails about people consuming more than they process, and what that excess leads to: fat, restlessness, malaise. (Note that the quote is sandwiched between the positive benefits of sex, so it may not be a work-friendly link.) Blogs certainly deliver excess. It's fun, I enjoy it, but I wind up being a consumer, not a creator.

The other was reading an article about an entrepreneur who favors physical solutions over mental solutions, as a way to guide the behaviors he wants to encourage in himself. (Like, absolutely no work on the weekends or talk about work after hours, punching the clock, etc.) I exported my blog list to an XML file that I can re-import into Bloglines later, if I want. And then I deleted most every folder there and settled on my core blogs (like, 43 Folders, and The Comics Curmudgeon). A physical solution to the problem. The kid-in-the-candy-store is crying because the misses the candy, but the adult who's watching his weight is rather glad that the shop has closed.

Saturday, November 12, 2005

Retiring from the Nanowrimo field

I was looking forward to it this year, but hit the sand early and never recovered. I started out as I had done last year, with an image, a situation, and then started to run with it. But the material didn't form under my fingers as naturally as last year. I finally switched from a male, first-person narrator to a female, third-person narrator, and that helped a bit. I got several days of writing out of that.

I also adopted the Jeanette Winterson/Diana Gabaldon method of composing scenes out of sequence, thinking that if I could get the juicy scenes out first, then that would give my mind time to generate the connective tissue.

Well, it's a good idea, and I should try it sometime. But tonight I sat at the keyboard and the ideas just didn't come. I think the past that one of the main characters, a 96-year-old rural woman, on her deathbed, has lots of sadness and compromise in store for her, and I plain don't want to go there. I don't want to put her through it. There's also the niggling feeling that I've read this kind of story before, that I'm just going through the plotting motions, and the sense of discovery I had last year isn't there.

There have been pleasant surprises along the way, and I've rediscovered the truth that 50% of the material I generate will come out of the writing and I don't need to do much in the way of planning. I did hit on some interesting connections in some of my daily writing, and some haunting (I think) images that I will want to come back to.

But as for making the 50,000-word count by Nov. 30 -- nope. I'm bowing out. Nanowrimo should be fun, for me, and I don't need the extra pressure of generating plot and words for a story that I am resisting. I reserve the right to continue to play with the story through the rest of the month (and beyond), however, and may break through whatever I'm resisting. But not today.

Wednesday, November 09, 2005

The Revenge of the Novelist

From the NY Times obit of John Fowles.

As much as it frustrated some of his readers, Mr. Fowles always believed he had done the right thing by leaving the endings of his most celebrated novels open-ended. But he was not above bending his own rules when the occasion called for it.

He once told an interviewer that he had received a sweet letter from a cancer patient in New York who wanted very much to believe that Nicholas, the protagonist of "The Magus," was reunited with his girlfriend at the end of the book - a point Mr. Fowles had deliberately left ambiguous. "Yes, of course they were," Mr. Fowles replied.

By chance, he had received a letter the same day from an irate reader taking issue with the ending of "The Magus." "Why can't you say what you mean, and for God's sake, what happened in the end?" the reader asked. Mr. Fowles said he found the letter "horrid" but had the last laugh, supplying an alternative ending to punish the correspondent: "They never saw each other again."

Thursday, November 03, 2005

"Due to..."

From Melvyn Bragg's latest In Our Time newsletter:

Monica Grady's other mission seems to be to stop her students saying "due to" when they ought to say "owing to" or "because of". She pointed out that in the case of libraries, babies and rent you can use "due to", everything else is "owing to" or "because of".

Tuesday, November 01, 2005

NaNoWriMo: The Adventure Begins

Yes, I'm one of the hairpins doing the NaNoWriMo challenge, though I will only use lowercase letters from here on out because those intercapitalizations drive me nuts.

Last year, I signed up on October 31st, just for a lark. I wasn't working, nothing was going on, and I thought it would help me pass the time. I emailed my friend Sue in California, also a writer, and said this looked like fun, I may try out. Well, she signed up too. I got the No Plot, No Problem book, read through it, and plucked out a situation I'd written down in my notebook years ago but had never done anything with. I didn't know where it might go, but thought I'd give it a try.

It had a magical, fantasy type atmosphere, and I read a couple of Lon Milo DuQuette's books that helped feed my imagination during the process.

I wound up creating enough situations and piling up enough detail that I eventually "won" with about 51,000 words. Sue actually crossed the finish line first and called to tell me. This inspired me to sit down, finish mine, and upload it to the site (which I did before her). We were both abuzz for the rest of the year, comparing notes on the experience, and patting each other (and ourselves) on the book for taking on a crazy project (crazier in her case, as she's a freelancer and mother of two little firls) and actually succeeding at it.

The lessons I learned and things I noticed:
  • I'd been rather glum and mopey for most of the year, with good reason. I didn't feel that way during Nanowrimo month. (Sue noticed the same thing.)

  • I started out with only a situation--no plot, no characters, no themes. As I wrote, plots, characters, and themes emerged.

  • When I had a strong situation, the scene almost wrote itself.

  • When I could see the images in my head very strongly, the scene worked out pretty well.

  • When I had nothing, it was work to squeeze out the word quota.

This year, I also pulled a situation out of my notebook, what I had long thought of as a murder-mystery idea, even though I have no idea how to write a mystery story. The situation stands on its own as very melodramatic and maybe ludicrous, but it's stayed with me for some reason, so I'm using it as my prompt to get the story started.

As it happens, tonight's writing went OK (but I found myself checking the word count every 5 minutes towards the end--was it this hard last year?). I'm already finding that it's going to contain lots of personal history and thoughts about my family, and the place of the outsider in the family. I didn't actually get to the prompt scene. I started the novel after the funeral service; the narrator will be flashbacking to the prompt scene, and I'll see then how plausible it feels.

But even if it doesn't, who cares. It's Nanowrimo month! I have license to be creative! I can splat things down just to see what happens! I don't have to go back and edit or delete! God Bless Us Every One!!

Saturday, October 29, 2005

Online holiday games to play

For those of us who just don't get out enough into the real world...

Note that some of these require Shockwave or other plugins to work, and probably a fast connection as well.

Links courtesy of News from ME and Lifehacker (more links to other games included in the comments to the Lifehacker post)

10+ year old files

During the New PC Blues upgrade process, I ran across a 5.25" floppy disk Liz had used to store files related to a musicology paper she wrote back in 1989 -- well before I came on the scene.

Why we hadn't done anything with this diskette before, I don't know. But what to do with it now? Our last two PCs had only 3.5" drives, and the current one has no floppy drives at all. Who needs the things, with USB flash drives?

Unfortunately, Liz didn't have any other copies of this paper and wanted to keep them. What to do?

Few friends or co-workers had a 5.25" drive, even in a closet, let alone installed in a working system. Fortunately, Michelle's boyfriend was visiting his father in Fayetteville who, amazingly enough, had a 5.25" drive on one of his computers. Michelle assured me that 5.25" diskettes were tougher than the 3.5" disks and that the files were probably still readable.

Her boyfriend copied off the files, zipped them, and emailed them to me. Easy as pie.

Next: Let's try opening them in Word, surely there's a converter ... Ah, but no. Most of the text comes in, but the formatting codes interfere with too much of it to make the file easily readable. Then Liz remembered that maybe it was Wordstar for DOS instead of WordPerfect that she'd used for the paper.

I fiddled with downloading Word 2000 converters but instead invoked the Google oracle. Up popped several Wordstar sites, including several utilities to convert old WS files. The one I picked converts Wordstar files to formatted HTML. It runs from a DOS window and uses the command-line to specify the source and destination filenames.

Voila -- it worked. The HTML files come up with the original formatting preserved and all the text in place. The text can now be easily copied into Word files or wherever they will sit for the next 10+ years.

Friday, October 28, 2005

Storing Nuggets of Information

Over at the PigPog site, Michael muses on how to store and retrieve nuggets of information, particularly as it relates to non-fiction writing. I respond in the comments with two tediously long missives that constitute a skimming-off of the shmarty-cream afloat in my brain. (Sorry, been reading too much of the Wikipedia entry on Simpsons neologisms.)

Thursday, October 27, 2005

RSS Feeds - one day at a time

This item from Merlin's 43Folders blog knocked me for a loop and I took a few examples from the Probations idea and from others in the comments to adjust how my Bloglines feeds are displayed.

* First, I always have the option checked that only updated feeds be displayed. When I began editing my list, I was shocked at how many feeds I've subscribed to that haven't updated in months. Out they went. Others went into the probation folder.

* I like sorting my blog folders in alphabetical order. It's natural yet arbitrary. Sue me. So, I have "z_Probation" to hold the feeds I'm on the fence about.

* I also had subject-level folder categories, the largest being "Blogs," which usually always had something for me to look at and/or clear out. So that needed trimming down. I picked out a few blogs I love checking on a daily basis--Catarina, Cool Tools, Core Dump, and a few others--but that don't update constantly. These are the "desert-island blogs" that I let myself check anytime I want.

* I also created a Comics folder for the few comics blogs I read and a folder to hold various feeds from I let myself check these daily because they don't update often.

* But I also enjoy the novelty and freshness of something new coming into Bloglines on a regular basis because, you know, my bored brain needs stimulation all the time. And there were plenty of blogs I like but that didn't need to be checked daily.

So, I created a set of day-based folders--_1_Monday, _2_Tuesday, up to _6_Sat/Sun. I then arbitrarily split up my huge Blogs folder amongst this group.

So now, the simple rule is: On Wednesday, for example, I allow myself to read the blogs in _3_Wednesday and in any non-dated folder (Blogs, Comics, Audible). I cannot read Monday's blogs till Monday, Tuesday's blogs till Tuesday, and so on. I can tell at a glance if my Blogs and Wednesday folder are empty, and if they are, this is the signal for me to move on to real work. I know that tomorrow's blogs await and that they will have something new to delight me. It keeps me from overdosing on them all today.

A final refinement: high-update blogs like Mark Evanier's and Quick Online Tips go into the Sat/Sun folder because they generate lots of items daily. While I enjoy them, I simply don't have time to process them. I have a little more time on the weekend, so the high-impact blogs go here.

I'm toying with the idea of letting myself view any blog on the weekends or after work-hours, but for now, I'm sticking with this system.

Monday, October 24, 2005

New PC Blues: The Beginning

The time had come. My last computer had been an HP Pavilion, bought at Circuit City, when Windows Me was the OS of choice. It had 256MB RAM, a 20GB hard drive, and a CD burner, but I'd not upgraded it much beyond adding more RAM. Along the way, we got DSL, a wireless router, file and printer sharing between my desktop and Liz's laptop, an HP all-in-one printer/scanner/copier/fax, several plug-in USB readers for various media formats, I'd compiled a large list of "essential software" for the PC, and I installed and uninstalled shareware like it was nobody's business.

But little things began piling up -- Windows began running arthritically slow (could it have been all the programs loaded at startup?), the "replace battery" light glowed red on the UPS unit, the network was acting flakey and I did not have the tools or methodology to deal with that particular problem.

And--embarrassing though it may be to say--when I saw the New Yorker was issuing all its back issues on DVD, I knew I didn't want to have to trick out the old PC anymore. [Aside -- I think the DVD set will sit nicely beside my previous magazine collection on CD. Lovely little bookends, what?]

It was time to upgrade--get a new PC, with a bigger hard drive, enough RAM, DVD burner and reader, built-in media readers, and maybe a few other goodies. Also, maybe, just maybe, please God -- the network would again work as flawlessly as it had been working for the previous year or so.

Around this time, I had to sell a mutual fund to pay off some debts and thought I had enough left over to buy a new PC. After looking around, I decided to buy from a local computer store instead of the big-box stores and to bequeath my old computer to a friend who would appreciate it.

So this series of posts will catalog for future generations (or just me) what I did, why I did it that way, and lessons learned as I went along. I also always like seeing those wonderful checklists people make when they reinstall Windows, because it can be an elaborate operation and you always forget what you did from the last time you did it. Until I make such a checklist, I'll let these posts take their place.

Saturday, October 08, 2005

Links: Writing tips for academic papers

I compiled the following quickie list of paper-writing tips for a co-worker who is taking online classes and has been away from paper-writing for a while. The whole process seemed difficult for her, so these links cover a broad range of items. Some of the links to academic papers at the end of this list may have good clues, especially with selecting thesis statements. I've not vetted all these, but they're a start. The little comments for each are reproduced from my original email to her that contained these links.

A good book I recommend is this: Books: Thinking on Paper

--Just read the first half (the second half is all about the Latin names for types of logical arguments). it sets forth a very good simple process for building a piece of writing from the ground up so that it isn't as painful as you think.

Writing tips compiled by Mike Shea
--Here's the PDF version

Poynter Online - The Writing Tools
--Just scan the list and read whatever article is of interest. His focus is on journalism so his approach might conflict with academic writing. but the writing tips are good and solid. You'll be able to devise some simple rules to help you in your actual writing.

43 Folders: Hack your way out of writer's block
--Entertaining list of bullet points and good comments. but lookit the next link too.

Google Groups : 43 Folders
--Advice on paper writing from a grad student

TOC About Writing
--I'm also interested in fiction writing and this page has mainly tips for that side of the house.

50 Strategies for Making Yourself Work
--A great page of tips to bust procrastination.

Study Guides and Strategies
--Scroll down to the writing sections, but good general advice to students.

Google Search: tips academic writing papers
--The search i used to dig up some of the links in this mail.

Timed Essays: Planning and Organizing in a Crunch
--This is for when you're writing for an in-class test, but some good advice.

Thesis Statements: What are They?
-This might be more practical for your needs right now. BE SURE to click on the Related Links in the right sidebar. You might get good ideas there.

Academic Writing Handouts -- Dennis G. Jerz
--The top page from which the previous two links were drawn.

Sally Slacker Writes a Paper (Dennis G. Jerz, Seton Hill University)
--I haven't read all this but I like the title!

Tips for Writing Academic Essays and Term Papers in Philosophy at Erratic Impact
--Good numbered tips after the intro.

Writing Help
--Ton o' links. Don't know how many of them are still good.

Academic Center :: Writing Tips
--More basic tips on academic writing. After you've read about 10 of these kinds of pages, you'll notice they start repeating themselves.

--A pretty good checklist to use after you've written a draft.

Thursday, September 29, 2005

True Work

I had this on my office wall many many years ago, and can't find the source again. But I think I remember it word-for-word:
True Work is that which occupies the mind and the heart, as well as the hands. It has a beginning and an ending. It is the overcoming of difficulties one thinks important for the sake of results one thinks valuable.

Jacques Barzun

Sunday, September 18, 2005

Phrases and misspellings to expunge forever

Mike Shea has a nice list of phrases to be avoided (as well as writing rules from Orwell and Struck & White) here. Among my pet peeves on his list are "on steriods," "think outside the box," and "talk offline." (But I have no idea what "goat rope" refers to.)

Herewith, a few of my additions, culled from everyday readings of stuff on the Web:
  • (anything) from hell Even Matt Groening is tired of this one

  • may or may not Just say may!

  • impact as a verb

  • loose for lose Why is this the most common misspelling I see nowadays? Lazy typing?

  • alot for a lot But this lamentable misspelling has been around for years

  • peak or peek when the writer means pique

  • pour when the writer means pore As in "I poured over the pages" -- what did you pour -- milk?

  • "ping so-and-so," when the speaker means "contact" or "call"

  • "Well,..." at the beginning of a sentence Way overused by journalists and columnists for the last several years

Nice phrases

These are some phrases that have passed my way that have struck me, for whatever reason.

  • constructive novelty

  • serious fun (a phrase used by one of Liz's professors)

  • productively idle/idly productive (haven't decided which I like better)

  • effortless effort

I have a mild idea what some of them mean. "Serious fun" is my favorite.

Monday, September 12, 2005

A new Blogger template

I've been using Blogger's Scribe template since I started this thing last year. While I liked the parchmenty feel of the colors, I had two bones to pick with it: ordered lists were always displayed as unordered, and the horizontal rule didn't work, which led me to do stuff like centering three asterisks to set off quotes.

So I've been messing about with other templates. Simple II was too simple--I like having the recent posts and archived months displayed. I'm really liking Mr. Moto, by the esteemed Zeldman. I'm liking it a lot so far--and I see that my numbered lists are now numbered and my horizontal lines appear. Thank you, Zeldman.

The Quick Online Tips site (powered by Blogger) has a good post on free Blogger tools. And he's pointed to other Blogger templates here.

Monday, September 05, 2005

Using Total Recorder to record songs from cassette

I've sung the praises of Total Recorder (I'm using it now to record more episodes of In Our Time, and other BBC4 radio shows.)

I noticed this procedure I'd put into my old infoindex.doc (I may blog about that file one day), and thought I'd post it here so I'd have it again if I need it in future.

I did this last Christmas when porting a local group's Christmas cassette to CD. (You can buy a CD yourself here from the source.)

Required tools: Total Recorder, WinWord, ClipMate

Recording the tracks in Total Recorder
  1. In the Options>Save tab, set the folder to the working folder where the raw files will go.

  2. In the options>Split tab, split the incoming sound into separate files when there's 2 seconds of silence

  3. Set a file-name generation rule. I found this dialog box difficult to understand and the help file didn't help much. But I set the files to generate sequential numbers.

  4. In the TR interface, click the Use Save As dialog option

Now, when playing the cassette back, TR will save a new file after 2 seconds of silence. This worked like a charm. I'm always delighted when a process works the first time.

The first side that I did, I recorded the whole cassette in a giant file and then used TR to scan and split each file at the breaks. The more automatic way detailed above is the way to go.

Generating the track names
  1. In WinWord, open a new document.

  2. Type in all the song names, then set up some seq fields so that I had a template of:

  3. 01-{seq side1}, that would translate to 01-03, for example, for Side 1, Track 3.
    Side two was 02-{seq side2}.
  4. Typed in all the song titles, and added .wav to the end.

  5. Replaced spaces in the track name with underscores.

  6. Copied the track listing seq template to each line.

  7. Highlight the lines and press F9 to updated the seq fields. They should be correctly numbered.

  8. Copy each line to ClipMate.
  9. In File Manager, go to the working folder where the raw files are.

  10. In ClipMate, set the Paste Down or Up option in Clipmate.

  11. Highlight each filename in FIle Mangler, and press F2 to enter rename mode.

  12. Start pasting in the names. WIth Paste Up or Paste Down selected, you don't need to keep flipping back to ClipMate. ClipMate will automatically paste in the next line.

Them, I used Roxio CD Creator to burn the files to CD. I didn't have to clean up the sound, as it all sounded OK.

Maybe next time I'll just buy the CD.

Wednesday, August 24, 2005

Personal Inventories and Piggy Banks

Whilst reading through some collections of old David Allen essays I've culled from his newsletter, I ran across one intriguing nugget that went something like this: Every now and then, take a top-to-bottom inventory of your assets, your processes, your systems. Everything from the shirts in your drawer to the way you pay your bills and so on.

As I moved through my routines, I evaluated what traveled through my hands. I got rid of some old clothes, piled up all the magazines in my closets into one big pile (I remember that big pile when I'm tempted to buy a new magazine).

And of all things, I re-evaluated my need for my battery-powered automatically sorting loose-change bank. I've had banks like this in one form or another for nearly 10 years; it made it awfully fun to save my spare change. I got the coin wrappers from the bank and happily rolled my pennies, dime, nickels, and quarters until I had about $20 or so. Then I'd put them in a little ziploc, take them to bank, and exchange them for folding money.

That's usually when the process got troubled: if I didn't make it to the bank that day, I was left hauling around a little bag of heavy change everywhere. Then, when I joined the credit union, I discovered that they wanted my account number written on every roll before they'd cash them. And sometimes going by the bank (a bank different from my credit union) that would cash them without any quibbles meant disrupting my workday schedule so I could get to the bank before it closed. (And bring them inside please! No coin rolls allowed in the drive-through lanes.)

But what else to do?

Well, after several years of walking past that green Coinstar machine at the Harris Teeter, I decided to try it. It wasn't without its problems: so many people have used it that the buttons don't respond so niftily and so I kept trying different ways of pressing them to get them to take, and Coinstar takes about 8 cents on the dollar or something like that for its trouble.

But you know what? It works. Since I go to HT every Sunday morning to do the weekly grocery shopping, I wasn't travelling out of my way. The receipt that's dispensed can be exchanged for cash at the register or (what I discovered on my last trip) I can put it toward my grocery bill. Talk about convenience--no more wrestling coins into wrappers, driving to the bank, waiting in line. It's worth whatever minimal charge Coinstar takes to make that little nothing routine run much more smoothly.

The coin bank was donated last week along with the clothes. Now I have a nice-sized jelly jar that holds my loose change and I'm enjoying a lot more space on the top of my bureau. Such a tiny thing, but it feels good to get something right.

Monday, August 15, 2005

In case you needed another reason to join the ACLU

The Transportation Security Administration maintains "no-fly lists" of people whose names match those of suspected terrorists. As this article reports, the now officially brain-dead TSA maintains lists that include babies under 2 years old.

As someone with a very common name, I'm sensitive to these issues. Especially since I recently had to fight a stubborn and stupid background check company that got my records mixed up with those of a convicted criminal.
Well-known people like Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., and David Nelson, who starred in the sitcom "The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet," also have been stopped at airports because their names match those on the lists.

The insidious thing about the TSA is that it's a black box: what's the criteria for putting names on the list? It's important to know that your name never comes off that list; more information is added that supposedly lets you board a plane, but to the best of my knowledge, your name is never taken off the list.

I remember reading recently about a critic of this government's also-brain-dead executive branch who found his name on a no-fly list, which effectively grounded him. Retaliation? Who can say? The TSA is not telling how it compiles or maintains its lists.

This safety paranoia has got to go. Gore Vidal has often said that governments need enemies to keep them in power and to keep the military-industrial complex well-funded--what better enemy for this modern age than one you can't see? During the Watergate hearings, Sam Ervin said, with disbelief, about Richard Nixon, "He's afraid of freedom." I would say, this country's administration (and its loyal, unquestioning bureaucratic drones) is also afraid of freedom.

Here's a quote from Stephen Fry's novel Making History, one of the few passages that struck me as admirable in that lamentably bad book.

If there is a word to describe our age, it must be Security, or to put it another way, Insecurity. From the neurotic insecurity of Freud, by the way of the insecurities of the Kaiser, the Fuhrer, Eisenhower, and Stalin, right up to the terrors of the citizens of the modern world --

The enemy. They will break into your car, burgle your house, molest your children, consign you to hellfire, murder you for drug money, force you to face Mecca, infect your blood, outlaw your sexual preferences, erode your pension, pollute your beaches, censor your thoughts, steal your ideas, poison your air, threaten your values, use foul language on your television, destroy your security. Keep them away! Lock them out! Hide them from sight! Bury them!

And no, the irony is not lost on me that I do not fear "them," as much as I fear my government's actions toward innocent people. As the saying goes, who watches the watchmen?

(Link to the article courtesy of Core Dump.)

Sunday, August 14, 2005

The Dalai Lama Shower

I saw this originally in Thirty Thousand Days, the newsletter for the ToDo Institute. Given that we're in one of our periodic droughts (down 5.5. inches from normal), it seemed a good time to post this. I don't have the original article (which I think appeared in one of the Dalai Lama's books), but I've adapted it for my ablutions.
  1. Turn on the shower and rinse. Turn off water.

  2. Soap your body.

  3. Turn on water to rinse. Turn off water.

  4. Shampoo.

  5. Turn on water to rinse. Turn off water.

  6. Shave. Quickly rinse the razor as needed under the faucet.

  7. Turn on water to rinse. Turn off water.

Water is precious and non-renewable. Use it and lose it. Please conserve.

ToDo Institute:
His Holiness the Dalai Lama:

    Wednesday, August 10, 2005

    Knock Knock


    Who's there?
    Under the Patriot Act I don't have to tell you.

    Tuesday, July 19, 2005


    Inspired by a friend's admonition to get off the Internet if I want to feel better, I'm attempting to NOT get on the Web or the PC this week when I get home from work. I will do my finances tomorrow night (that's when I've scheduled to do them), but no free-surfing. Only the task at hand.

    Along with that, I've decided to try NOT bookmarking stuff this week, either at home or at work, unless it's something I need today, right now. I've accumulated so many "to read" or "to look at later" bookmarks that it's suffocating; like piling magazines in the closet knowing that you'll read them "some day." I just spent the weekend clearing out my magazine closet and don't want to have to do the same to my bookmarks. What with Google and delicious and Bloglines, I see little need to bookmark much of anything nowadays.

    My bookmarking problem is irritated by my having so many bookmark tools: PowerMarks (my preferred tool, Windows-only), Furl, delicious, Yahoo's My Web, and Yahoo's Bookmarks tool (a close second to PowerMarks). Time to evaluate what I really need and what I want to spend time maintaining.

    Saturday, July 16, 2005

    There's something wonderfully creepy and other about circus and magic show posters. The color, the stiff poses, the sometimes fantastical and downright bizarre tableaus. The circusmuseum site, in the Netherlands, isn't in English but you can still sample an excellent presentation of historic circus and sideshow posters from all over the world.

    I like the keen-o spotlight you use to select the genre of poster you want to see. All posters available for purchase but not sure I'd actually want any in a room where I need to relax.

    Thursday, July 14, 2005

    Doomsday Algorithm

    I've loved this little trick for years: the Doomsday Algorithm, a creation of Dr. John Conway, he who gave us the game of Life.

    The Doomsday algorithm gives you the day of the week for any date, based on the last day of February.

    Lots of great links at the bottom of the page, too.

    The Game of Life - in Java, with a link to the Wikipedia entry on the Game of Life

    Monday, July 04, 2005

    Being jealous of myself

    I was listening to The Splendid Table show on the drive home from the grocery store yesterday. Lynne Rosetto Kasper was introducing a guest who splits her time between her farm in Provence and writing and teaching in Paris. Lynne closed with, "And yes, we're jealous."

    And I thought, "Well, gosh Lynne, people might be jealous of the life you lead."

    And I thought, "What makes me envious of my friends who live in other places that seem to me exotic: Seattle, Toronto, Vancouver, Vienna. Or even those who live in my own town yet who lead such a seductively energetic life?"

    And then I thought: "What could I do that would make someone want to live my life?"

    And then I hit on the big thought: "What could I do that would make me envious of my life? Were I to take a look at my life from the outside, what would make me go, 'Gosh, I'd love to be able to do that'?" The trick being, though, that I'd be doing it.

    This is related somewhat to my working through Mark Forster's book How to Make Your Dreams Come True, in which he suggests an exercise in which your future self, who has attained all that you want to attain, counsels your present self. The dialogues you write between these two personas help you over time to build a bridge betwewn now and the future.

    Related to that: Liz and I compared notes last night at supper that, here we are in culturally rich Durham, and we've never been to the documentary film festival, haven't been to the ADF in years, haven't been to the Blues Festival ever, and haven't been to the Eno Festival in years. Thinks: could there be clues to my dilemma here?

    So a thought experiment is in order. I'll be interested to see what comes out of it.

    Sunday, July 03, 2005

    Quicken-Killing, or Money Meditations

    I expect it was this post on the 43Folders Google Group that got me to thinking about Quicken, money management (surely one of my lifelong meditations), and folding all that into my daily life. The original poster was asking if there was a GTD-like approach to money management that would enable you to get money stuff "off your mind" yet still provide enough cohesion via a simple set of processes or habits.

    The answers tended to software or to setting up multiple checking accounts. Some people seem to naturally get money management, but the vast majority of us don't.

    As in so many cases, Liz leads the way. Her years in New York made frugality second-nature and in the last 10 years she had jobs that consistently paid very good wages. So she was able to sock a lot of that away.

    My jobs have tended to the interesting but low-paying. For whatever reason--laziness, "I wanna," not enough money--I've never been able to save money consistently unless it's taken out of my paycheck automatically. And even then, I find my disposable cash has frittered away through too much eating out, too many books or CDs, and so on.

    Liz uses a tape calculator and her checkbook to manage her finances. I was using the late, lamented Managing Your Money (with a great software manual written by Andrew Tobias) back in the late 1990s and when I moved to Windows, eventually clambered onto the Quicken bandwagon (I had a friend who worked at Intuit).

    With Quicken, I found I could buy the previous version rather cheaply via Yahoo Shopping or Ebay, so I've consistently stayed several years behind the upgrade curve. Typically, I only upgrade in odd-numbered years (I'm using Quicken 2003 now) and only when forced.

    I've bought and skimmed a few copies of Stephen Nelson's Quicken for Dummies series, and one of the most striking bits of advice he offers regarding Quicken's various features is to ask yourself: Do I really need it?

    Do I really need to break out my paycheck deductions using Quicken's paycheck feature? After all, your stub breaks it out for you and keeps a running total as well. Why not just enter the net figure into Quicken and be done with it?

    Do I really need to track my mutual funds in Quicken (or even subscribe to Quicken's various online services to do this)? After all, I get quarterly statements from them which have all the totals and enough history for me to gauge how they're doing. And besides--attempting to stay on top of how your investments are doing day-by-day, week-by-week, is crazy-making.

    Now, Nelson dutifully tells you how to do all that if you want to do it, but I was grateful to him for that bit of wisdom. It simplified my money-tracking in Quicken enormously. (It reminded me, in fact, of David Allen's advice in his booklet on using Outlook to implement GTD. Allen's point there is to "dumb down" the busy Outlook interface so you can get useful work done.)

    My use of Quicken became so simplified that I found myself using Quicken only for downloading my transactions from the bank, categorizing them, running the occasional report, and that was about it. I tried using the Savings Goals to approximate the "envelope system" of budgeting (more on that later), but it seemed too clumsy and I eventually deleted them. In fact, whenever I tried to get clever with Quicken, I always found Quicken to be cleverer--so clever that I decided it was best to give up before going any further. I reconciled myself to using maybe 10% of Quicken's firepower, but didn't feel too guilty about that. Still, that's an awful lot of program to be taking up space on my hard drive when I only use it for checkbook stuff.

    A few years ago, with my beloved Psion 3mx's Sheet application, I devised my own variant of the envelope system, based on a book I was reading at the time, True Prosperity. Most people are familiar with the envelope system. It's explained very well here, though you may find the Christian wife deferring to "the wisdom of (her) husband" amusing. I certainly laughed; I'm the last person I'd ask for financial advice. (And I'm appalled by the site's name, but that's another topic.)

    The envelope system is simple enough that a spreadsheet app is all you need to track and plan your spending. I filled all my envelopes with cash, and was impressed that it seemed to do what it promised. But of course, I had no hesitation to rob from an envelope if I really wanted to spend the money on something. After a while, going to the bank to retrieve the currency in all the specific denominations (mainly ones, fives, and tens) just struck me as too much trouble. There had to be a simpler way. In the meantime--back to Quicken.

    So earlier this year I looked into other programs, saved into a bookmarks folder I called "Quicken Killers." I found myself intrigued by Mvelopes, which attempts to meld bookkeeping with the envelope system. I tried it and didn't like it. It's written in Java and ran horribly slow. I also disliked that you had to provide a credit card and sign up for 3 months service in order to simply try it out; and the ongoing monthly charges did not endear me to them.

    In searching the Google groups, I also found some heated opinions against the envelope system: here (an especially good thread), here, here, and here. They boil down to the hassle of keeping money in envelopes or Quicken's Savings Goals, tying up your money when it could be used for some purpose, and the pointlessness of diddling with many separate goals instead of considering a single overall plan.

    Their arguments are compelling and sensible. For them, the envelope system is a crutch that you really don't need and that is hazardous to people who are short of cash.

    And yet...I needed something to help me think through how to manage my cash flow. As intelligent as I am, I'm not always smart enough to see what I have to do.

    During my searches, I saw a Google ad for The B Word (the "B" word of course being "budgeting"). Although a lot of his system is described on his, um, rather loud, web pages, his actual implementation is described in a PDF that is included with the software. The software looks and behaves like a two-tabbed spreadsheet and is remarkably simple.

    What he advocates pretty much resembles the envelope system. You average out what you pay to various line items over the year, and save enough per pay period to cover the monthly average. Using my Quicken reports, I did this pretty easily. It was disquieting to see that, at my current spending rate, I was going into the hole every month (thanks to our $800/mo. Cobra payments).

    Yes, yes, I could have figured this out on my own. But the B Word gave me a simple set of tools and ideas that made it simple and obvious. Yes, all I needed was a spreadsheet that could quickly recalculate numbers and help me run planning models. But this was the sort of thinking I hoped Quicken could support with some simple tools in its arsenal. Unfortunately, it really can't. It's good at what it does (and I still use it to categorize transactions and run reports), but it couldn't help me plan.

    While I'm sure I'm tying up extra money in my accounts, I really don't care. My goal is to save money and to have enough to cover both the expenses I'm expecting and the expenses that fly at my head from out of nowhere (like my car's water pump that died on my way in to work). For the first time in my life, I feel I can handle both types of expenses. And it rather painlessly enforces some much-needed discipline on my spending.

    I also loved B Word's idea that you reserve your financial work for only 2 days of the month--updating my checking account, paying the bills, planning for the next budgeting period, etc. That simple idea (akin to the GTD Weekly Review, except this is the B Word Bimonthly Review) means I'm actually spending less time per month working on my accounts. My sessions are scheduled and focused.

    Before, I was futzing with Quicken every weekend and spending an hour or two looking at reports that couldn't help me see what was happening to my money.

    Now, twice a month, I work my plan, update my accounts in Quicken, adjust my B Word totals as needed, write the checks I need to write, and forget about the finances until the next B Word session. Any bills that come in get put in my tickler file for the next session.

    I also am maintaining my discipline much better this time around than I did with the envelopes; I'm not shimmying money around from account to account to make up for shortfalls. Although the idea is the same, the implementation is different. And, to be fair, I'm 7 years older and have gone through a year when money was tight. I can look at my B Word sheets and see the implication of spending too much money on books or software or the latest shiny object from the Levenger catalog.

    So far, so good. We'll see how it goes. I have hopes that I can now meditate on things other
    than money.

    Update 18-May-2006
    • I'm still using BWord, though I need to re-read the PDF; I find myself spending too much time on the financial stuff and I think it could go quicker.
    • I dumped Quicken and am using Moneydance, which is not without its quirks but is, to me, cleaner and more straightforward. It meets my needs very well. And it has a very active user base and mailing list.
    • Overall, I'm still doing very well managing my money using the BWord principles. I'll be taking on a car loan in the next few months, and BWord makes the shifting of priorities (as represented by my spending plan) easy and effortless.

    Thursday, June 30, 2005

    Checklist for fiction writing

    Back in the days of iron men and wooden computers, I was a denizen of Compuserve. I loved the OzWin software that let me download tons of forum threads quickly via my dial-up connection, I loved downloading all the software, I carefully tended my forum messages -- all long gone now. The Web, Compuserve's abysmal software upgrades and the general unusability of its forums, and less desire to want to read and keep tons of forum messages related to now-defunct software all contributed to my dropping Compuserve and moving my online life to the Web.

    (I'm still trying to control my blog reading and random surfing ... New times, new conditions, same old problems.)

    Anyway - I remember in the Compuserve Writers Forum a gadfly named Alex Keegan who ran a private writers group. They had developed something called The Grid that they used to critique against every story the members submitted. I found a copy of it here. The goal is to score over 130+; a description of the grid system is here.

    As part of my Moleskine harvest, I wrote down the following list of things I'd like to remind myself of or check myself against when critiquing my stories:

    advancement of plot
    sensual hooks

    Friday, June 24, 2005

    World music from cdRoots

    Had I money enough and time to listen to them all, I'd probably have about 20 or so CDs from cdRoots in constant rotation. This kind of music I just find more friendly, more real, more listenable to me.

    I snagged this from the equally essential Cool Tools website. In his review, Kevin Kelly said, "This is the far end of the 'long tail' music scene." How up to the digital minute can you be?

    Saturday, May 28, 2005

    Quote - Barbara Holland

    I read to Liz before she goes to bed, and lately, we've settled on memoirs. The first was a joyous treat, Milking the Moon. Tonight, we just finished Barbara Holland's When All The World Was Young.

    These quotes are from the end of the book, where at 18, after being turned out of her family's house and dwelling in deep depression, she gets a job at Hecht's department store in Washington, DC, and her life takes a sharp turn to happiness. The time is the early 1950s.


    It was an era of lavish employment. Since then, the Personnel Department, with its echo of "personal," has been replaced by Human Resources, with its echo of iron ore, petroleum, and other profit potentials, but those were softer days...

    [She describes how companies in that era kept on incompetent employees, provided free access to a doctor, and other perks.] Cynics might say that this corporate kindliness was designed to forestall the unions--which it did--but kindness is kindness and I lapped it up like a stray cat. Starting out in this generous atmosphere shaped my whole working life as a lark: jobs should be fun and bosses gentle, if not this one, then the next; plenty more where this one came from. Nobody nowadays expects to have fun at work. They want to get rich instead, but I could see from the start that the two were probably incompatible; too much pay would mean taking the work seriously. Believing it was important. The less money I needed to make, the more elbow room I'd have for fun. I held firm to this resolve through good times and bum times...

    ...Virginia Woolf, speaking from a different world, said what we needed, what women needed, was "a room of one's own" and a modest allowance so we wouldn't be distracted by money wories. But under what guarantee? What happens when our benefactor whimsically cancels the lease on our room and cuts off our funds? No, Mrs. Woolf. A job, Mrs. Woolf.

    Sunday, May 22, 2005

    Quote - Alain de Botton

    From Essays in Love

    It is hard to imagine Christianity having acheived such success without a martyr at its head. If Jesus had simply led a quiet life in Galilee, making commodes and dining tables and at the end of his life published a slim volume titled My Philosophy of Life before dying of a heart attack, he would not have acquired the status he did.

    Quote - Karen Joy Fowler

    From her story "Private Grave 9":

    The moon had risen, round as an opened rose.

    Arnold Bennett quotes

    (from the Moleskine harvest)

    Quotes from Journal Of Things New and Old, by Arnold Bennett (about 1923)

    All political parties in all countries disappear sooner or later, except the Conservative, and the Conservative is immortal because it is never for long divided against itself. How many times in Britain has the Liberal Party split? The first and most powerful instinct of Tories is self-preservation. They do not really want anything but the status quo.

    The best part of a holiday is that daily habits and rituals are broken.

    When a good novel falls away at the end or near the end, it's because the writer simply ran out of power. He miscalculated his creative strength. Nobody can pour a quart out of a pint pot.

    [Man, was that ever true in the case of Stephen King's Wizard and Glass. The middle part of the book was strong and powerful. The coda in the Emerald City was anti-climactic and sodden by comparison. And I could tell King was trying to goose it along, trying to make the characters frightened and anxious. But it only made me annoyed. The book's real story had been told and this last bit was simply the connective tissue to get them moving back along the Path of the Beam.]

    [Attending the performance of Rimsky-Korsakov's Sadko lifted his spirits regarding his in-progress novel.]
    A novel in process of creation has to be lifted up ... [maybe] again and again. The large mood for it has to be recaptured again and again, to work its miracle there is nothing so efficacious as the sight or hearing of a great work of art -- any art. Many times have I gone into the National Gallery, or to a fine concert ... to recover the right mood.

    An artist engaged in a work ought never to read or see or hear second-class stuff. If he does, he realizes the resemblances between his work and the second-class; and is discouraged. Whereas if he sticks to first-class stuff, he realizes the resemblances between his work and it, and is enheartened thereby.

    It is well not to chatter too much about what one is doing, and not to betray a too-pained sadness at the spectacle of a whole world deliberately wasting so many hours out of every day, and therefore not really living. It will be found, ultimately, that in taking care of one's self, one has quite all one can do.

    Can you deny that when you have something definite to look forward to at eventide, something that is to employ all your energy, the thought of that something gives a glow and a more intense vitality to the whole day?

    Moleskine harvesting

    I recently finished off one of my little squared Moleskine buddies. I don't number the pages, but I do date every entry. This book was with me from about 30-Mar-04 to 21-April-05. Plenty of pauses for no-entries, but it was with me during significant times.

    There are entries on the letter Cara sent me that knocked me off-kilter, our trip to Toronto, drawings, details on job interviews, quotes, notes on my NaNoWriMo novel, my mother-in-law's final illness and death, various journal entries, booknotes, Liz's health crisis from earlier this year, my ongoing job-search efforts, and various lists, plans, and muslings (a new word I just invented blending "musings" and "noodling," with elements of "doodling" not to be denied).

    After I'm done with a journal, I write up a date-based index on the last few blank pages, with brief indications of what I wrote about that day. Post-Its hold the overflow when I run out of pages. It's a terribly linear way of recording my life and thoughts, I suppose, but I like the juxtaposition of a visual journal entry next to my wailing about "will I ever find a job?" next to my mini-comic ideas.

    So the next few blog entries will be me dumping various entries I deem blogworthy from my recently retired Moleskine.

    Saturday, May 21, 2005

    The Joys of Total Recorder

    Without a doubt, one of the most-used programs on my PC is Total Recorder (I have the Professional Edition), which I use to record RealAudio feeds, most notably the BBC4's In Our Time series, NPR programs, Edison's Attic, interviews, All Songs Considered, and whatever else catches my magpie attention.

    I use MediaPlayerClassic as part of the RealAlternative package, in my quest to rid all computers of RealPlayer. I'm still a happy member of Rhapsody, which no doubt has Real software entwined about its innards, but that I can live with.

    I recently figured out how to use the TR Scheduler, so now I can record the entire In Our Time archives and listen to them on my commute, when I do the dishes, etc. I stack up about 5 programs at a time and set them to record when I'm in bed or at work. And the little MP3s are waiting for me when I get back.

    (For the GTD geeks who care, I have the following folder structure: C:\Music\@Inbox\InPlay. The new MP3s go into the inbox, and when I load them on the Digisette, I also move them to the InPlay folder. After I've listened to them, I either delete or archive them.)

    It doesn't quite replace Audible--there's room at the table for both. But I'm interested next in digitizing some of our old albums, and Total Recorder includes a plug-in to help clean up those scratchy audio captures. The only thing TR doesn't have is a CD-burning mechanism, but that's pretty ubiquitous. I still use Roxio CD Creator 5 for that (one of the few things I still use Roxio for).

    TR is a great program at a very nice price and one of my pieces of Essential Software.


    I was just listening to a BBC Radio4 discussion
    on Stoicism and thinking how that and the Tao te Ching seem to be my natural philosophies. I don't know if you've ever heard of Constructive Living, but that's also close to my heart. (Here's another good place to learn about CL.) I wish I could remember their precepts in the heat of the moment, but it's when you're under the gun that you become teachable, or that seems to be my case anyway.

    Does Stoicism mean you become a passionless robot? I don't know enough to say. But I think it is useful to channel those passions, to turn that random energy into more useful paths so that you're not damaged by it. And that probably standing a bit back from yourself, and seeing yourself as others see you, may be a very useful self-management strategy.

    I was beside myself yesterday at work, pushing to get a project out the door and realizing that there simply wasn't enough time, that you can't pour a quart into a pint pot. I left to get something to eat, came back to the office, sat, and cleaned up what I could. I sent out emails that I think were measured and judicious. And I was counting on the rest I'd get this weekend to give me perspective and new ideas by Monday morning.

    My main source for Stoic resources is/was the Ptypes web log (P for Personality Types) (maybe, P for Pita? I didn't know people still used that service.). He seems to try all the new blogging technologies: his Blogger log doesn't seem to work anymore, but he has links to an RSS feed and a Yahoo My Web page.

    Friday, May 20, 2005

    The Trials of Joblessness

    I was laid off from my contracting gig in January 2004. That's OK; I was on disability leave from September 2003 with a detached retina that took a long time to get better. My company kept me on for 2 extra months (Nov-Dec '03), in the hopes they could find me another gig. But it didn't happen, and I joined the jobless rolls.

    I was hired by a local tech-writing company recently, so that period of wandering in the valley of the shadow of don't-call-us is over for now. But it's made me think about what I would do differently the next time I find myself without a job, and, just as important, what I should do now to ensure my next jobless stint doesn't last so long.

    So herewith: a personal checklist.

    What to do immediately after

    • Cancel subscription services you don't need. I kept Audible and Rhapsody. I should have cut off Netflix.
    • Scale down the budget. Create a new spending plan.
    • Upload your resume to Monster. It won't do any good, but it forces you to update the resume. Make one copy in WinWord, and another in text format.
    • When my brother got laid off, he immediately made a plan, figured out the budget, made a list of places to call, etc. Don't let the grass grow under your feet.
    • Apply for unemployment. In North Carolina, it's all online, with only a token first visit to the unemployment office. (Where I found one in three to be interested and helpful and offering advice that was useful. Counselors are assigned at random.)
    • Create an HTML page or set of Firefox tabs that holds all your job-search sites: Monster, companies you want to work for, etc.
    • Start networking if you've stopped.
    • Read Ask the Headhunter and Diary of a Job Search. Their message: Network, network, network.

    What to do during

    • Read Ask the Headhunter again and again. Realize that there are not hundreds of jobs out there for you, only 2 or 3 at the most, and it's up to you to ferret them out.
    • Go to professional association meetings, participate, network. It's still the #1 way you find out about jobs. Try new professional groups that are on the fringes of your industry.
    • Do something that distracts you or occupies you. My friend Lew worked on his drawing and salsa dancing. I took the BioWork class at Durham Tech. That class was a life-saver, in a way, because it was 3 meetings/wk, for 4 hrs at a time. I was kept so busy it served as a very useful distraction.
    • Get down a routine for creating new resumes in Word and text formats.
    • Exercise. You have the time. It helps me regulate my moods and even out my sleep cycles.
    • Go out for coffee or a lunch with your spouse or spousal equivalent. The people in your life who love you feel your disappointments as keenly as you, and you need to acknowledge their support. Use this time to get to know them again.
    • Don't spend hours online looking for jobs: stay until you start getting down and depressed, then quit. For me, that's about 90 minutes.
    • Network.
    • File your ESC claims every week.
    • Exploit all those O'Reilly books the local B&N has. I should have spent my time learning DocBook and XML and SQL.
    • Read. Fiction, memoirs, biography--whatever. You've been given a gift of time--use it.
    • Learn something. Pick a "fun" project that you do simply because now you have the time to do it. Like learning Spanish or XML (or however you define "fun"). I was t-h-i-s close to taking banjo lessons. You really do need to do something to blow off the steam.
    • Spend time away from the computer. Take a walk.
    • Leverage the local community/technical college system. I recently discovered that Durham Tech offers the Ed2Go online learning program for popular mainstream apps, as well as SQL, XML, and other stuff. And for pretty cheap. This stuff looks good on a resume.
    • Leverage the library. We just visited today and I was amazed that I'd forgotten, yet again, how many computer books our local branch has. Yes, there are some outdated items (Quicken 99 for Dummies), but they had at least 12-15 books on XML, more than that on Linux, Java, Javascript, PERL, Python, and the like. (Their employment/job/resume books are pretty outdated too, but still, some good ideas here and there, and it doesn't cost anything.)
    • Go to museums and places that are free for the wandering. Enlarge the soul whenever possible.
    • Don't feel you have to be at the beck and call of contract agency reps. I eventually found 2 or 3 reps at different companies who were polite, efficient, used my time well, and offered pretty good advice. There were many other reps who set off my alarum bells and I should have told them I was busy or unavailable. These people wasted my time, held me to standards they didn't hold themselves to, and in general put me through more anxiety than the experience was worth. Adopt a zero-grief policy regarding these losers.
    • Also recognize that some days you'll get 4 calls from 4 different recruiters for 4 different jobs (and 2 others called you too late about the same jobs to get in your queue). You'll mail out the resumes to satisfy their requirements. And after that flurry of activity and excitement and hopefulness ... you'll never hear from them again. Learn to deal with the disappointment.
    • Get a part-time job. In NC, you can earn a certain amount of money without lowering your unemployment check. Also, since your part-time employer is also paying back into the unemployment program when he pays you, it extends your time on unemployment.

    What to do when you get a job

    • I always deactivate my active resumes on Monster and other places.
    • Figure out your own "lessons learned." You've just been through a massive project. What went well? What didn't? What could make it go better next time?

    How to prepare for the next time

    • Network.
    • Keep your skills up. Leverage Ed2Go, the library, etc.
    • Stay tuned with what the market is looking for. Scan the Monster boards for what companies are looking for.
    • Use MemoToMe to remind yourself to update your resume every 3 or 4 months.
    • Help out others. I pass people my personal Job Search page as a starting point for their own pages. I've also shared my reading notes on Ask the Headhunter.
    • Go to professional association meetings and participate this time. In the STC, I've heard the really good information is passed around at the board level.

    Ask the Headhunter book | website

    Diary of a Job Search

    I'm a technical writer, so I also turned to the Intercom, the STC's professional magazine. Here are some good articles (if you're an STC member, you can access these articles from the web site):

    • Job Hunting in an Economic Downturn, 6 April 2002 BY JOHN H.THOMSTATTER
    • Fire up Your Frozen Job Search, July/August 2002
    • The Ten Commandments of Job Hunting, April 2004 BY PAULA BANNISTER GREY
    • Viral Networking: Tactics in Today's Job Market, Sept/Oct 2003 BY CAROLINE A. DRAKELEY
    • Job-Hunting after Thirty-Five, Jul/Aug 2002
    • Minding Your Business: No Work? Strategies for Surviving a Dry Spell, May 2003
    • Selling to the Hidden Job Market, June 2004 BY PAT O’DONNELL
    • Adjusting to Changing Times in Technical Communication, Apr 2003 BY CEIL HALL
    • (And dang it, there was another strong article from which I borrowed many of the above bullet points, but I couldn't find it using my search terms. I'll post it here if I come across it again.)

    Saturday, May 07, 2005


    I applied for a state government job a few months ago that required a security background check. The contracting company I was working through used Choicepoint, which of course fills one with confidence. The report came back with three outstanding warrants against my first and last names in Arizona and Virginia. I called Choicepoint to dispute the report and gave them more information (middle name, height, SS#, race, weight, etc.), and they ran this extra information past the outstanding warrants. Of course, that cleared me. I have to admit they attacked the problem and cleared up the report within 48 hours.

    It made me think it was time to get a credit report as well, to see what might be lurking in the background there. Back in the late '80s, I applied for a loan at a computer store to buy a Mac and was refused. When I got the credit report, it was clear my name had gotten mixed with the name of someone who shouldn't have been allowed in the parking lot of a bank. I got that cleared up (and wound up not buying the Mac, after all). We had no problems later when it came time to apply for mortgage loans or when we refinanced.

    Still, it's something that needs to be checked from time to time. I wish my credit union offered a service through which I could get a copy of my report. I saw that the FTC's credit website had a link to something called AnnualCreditReport. It looks pretty good: look up your state and see when you're entitled to request a free copy of your credit report from each of the big three (Experian, Equifax, Transunion).

    From the home page: "This central site allows you to request a free credit file disclosure, commonly called a credit report, once every 12 months from each of the nationwide consumer credit reporting companies: Equifax, Experian and TransUnion." Note that the site is co-sponsored by the Big 3.

    You can request three reports at one time (one report from each of the three, which means you can't request again for another 12 months), or request a single report every four months and rotate through the three that way. See the FAQ more info.

    From the site, you can check to see when you can request your free copy. (I can't request a free one till September 2005.) According to federal law, you can only be charged $9.50 for a credit report, so it's not expensive in any case. But since the credit-reporting companies don't make much money on them, they do offer extra add-on packages to the standard report that strike me of dubious value.

    Friday, May 06, 2005

    The Lester Dent Pulp Paper Master Fiction Plot

    This one has been making the rounds of late, but it's especially interesting to me now as 1) I'm taking a writing class focused on plotting and 2) I read a *lot* of those Doc Savage pulps in junior high. (Anyone remember the movie with Ron Ely as Doc? Raise your hands.) (I saw it twice.)

    Saturday, April 23, 2005


    If you like ambient sounds, like waterfalls or crickets or a fan or the scratch of a pencil on paper, go to iSerenity and try out the sound and image environments they offer. The purring kitty and typewriter with return key bell are special favorites, for minutes at a time.

    Sunday, April 17, 2005

    BioWork-related Links

    During the winter of 2005, I took the BioWork program at Durham Technical Community College. It's a 128-hour course designed to re-tool students to work in biotechnology manufacturing. Given that this area is losing lots of unskilled and skilled manufacturing jobs, and since this area is also attracting biotech manufacturing facilities, BioWork is a good attempt to re-educate a workforce to take on these new manufacturing jobs. Also, for many biotech firms, a BioWork degree equates to 6 months of work experience.

    Following are locations related to the biotech industry in North Carolina. Some are to the companies, others to non-profits, associations, or other job-search sites. [If I have time, I'll eventually add live links, but right now, it's enough to list them.]

    Hatteras BioCapital
    NC Medical Device Organization (NCMD)
    NC Center for Entrepreneurial Development
    voyager pharmaceutical

    Staffing Services

    ADDENDUM: Durham Tech has since added many supporting chem courses to its biotech line-up.

    Sunday, April 10, 2005

    The Limits of Reading

    Anthony Lane, in an excellent appraisal of PG Wodehouse in The New Yorker (April 19 & 26, 2004 - not online), includes this quote from Marcel Proust:
    Reading becomes dangerous when instead of waking us to the personal life of the spirit, it tends to substitute itself for it, when truth no longer appears to us as an ideal we can realize only through the intimate progress of our thought and the effort of our heart, but as a material thing, deposited between the leaves of books like honey ready-made by others, and which we have only to take the trouble of reaching for on the shelves of the libraries and then savoring passively in perfect repose of body and mind.

    Lane, who loves Wodehouse in precisely measured doses, draws a good dividing line between artists of the first and second ranks (there are further ranks, of course). An artist of the first rank creates a world with clear and real correspondences to our world--"who returns us with a vengeance to our own travails." I think of Chekhov's stories of peasant and middle-class life, which, though they occur in a place and time so different from ours as to seem another world, resonate with the life I see around me every day.

    An artist of the second rank, such as Wodehouse, Doyle, Tolkien, instead create a "complete alternative world, fully furnished and ready for occupation." The worlds of Sherlock Holmes, Hobbits, and Bertram Wilberforce Wooster (and dare I say, "Star Trek"?) offer cozy cubbies to curl into, and there is real pleasure in that. I never want to give up those worlds.

    Without denying Wodehouse's mastery, Lane uses Proust's quote to turn his essay to what happens when we stay too long in those worlds, as Wodehouse did and as Lane's Uncle Eric did. Lane describes in his article how his Uncle Eric had two complete Wodehouse collections, one for upstairs, one for downstairs, all heavily annotated by himself in pencil. When he needed to look up a reference, I guess he needed to do it immediately. Uncle Eric never married and though he led a busy life, it ended rather narrowly, as a bit of a genteel hermit, without many friends apart from distant family.

    A few quotes from Lane's piece:

    ...When you fall afoul of the real world, your exploration of the unreal will grow ever more quizzical and devout. Comedy is still our least bestial way of admonishing the wreckage of our lives--no animal has ever laughed--but too much comedy, or nothing but comedy, has a subtle, feline habit of pushing our lives so far away from us that they cease, as if in a dream, to be our responsibility...The journey that is charted in Uncle Eric's Wodehouse collection, in the self-persuading chatter of his annotations, is a journey away from the great things--from the predations of love and war--into the wavelike soothings of the small.

    ...Like many of us, [Uncle Eric] wanted the good life, or, failing that, the quiet life, and he found tht it was most readily available between hard covers....There are times when the quest for good, or the belief that the good and quiet life are all that matters, can shrivel into a minor kind of evil--when the desire to be innocent, unfoxed by the dust and dirt of relationahips, and unscraped by the presence of people very different from ourselves, can dwindle into the loneliness of the bigot. We have to give a damn.

    Saturday, March 19, 2005

    Proofreading as a hobby

    I like checking up on every now and then to see the latest public domain e-books that have been posted. I read e-books on my Clie using the fabulous iSilo and Blackmask thoughtfully provides the books in various formats (text, HTML, iSilo, Mobipocket, etc.) for reading on digital devices.

    I think they've probably got the whole run of Doc Savage and most of The Shadow--pulp adventures seem to be their specialty--in addition to the run-of-the-mill stuff you see from Project Gutenberg: many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore: novels, poetry, antiquated reference books, old literary magazines, and other paper ephemera digitized for the new age.

    If you've got an interest in an old author, Blackmask is a great first source to check--even my local public library doesn't have all these Arnold Bennett books. If you can't find what you want there, try Gutenberg; I'm not sure how much overlap exists between the two.

    Whenever I visited Blackmask, I was always intrigued by the banner ads on their page that read "GO PROOF A PAGE, WE'LL WAIT RIGHT HERE FOR YOU". So a few weeks ago, I clicked on this link and was whisked to the Distributed Proofreaders site. The DP site is a volunteer-run group that proofs the OCR scans of old books and magazines that will eventually find their way to the Project Gutenberg site (and Blackmask).

    The idea is that you volunteer to be a proofreader, working at your computer, on your own time, and you can proof as many pages as you want (they hope you do at least one a day). The scans can range from messy to clean, and there's an extensive set of guidelines to adapt and interpret the scanned text so that it compiles nicely for electronic reading. (I printed out the one-page summary to keep in my "Fingertip" folder by my computer.)

    Beginners can try out the books ranked as EASY; friendly mentors let you know where you can improve your technique; and as your number of proofed pages increase, other bits of the site become accessible to you, such as a random proofing guideline on your login page.

    I very much like the new filtering option: when I log in, I now see only books in English of average difficulty. I didn't realize there were so many other languages that were involved in this effort: Dutch, Spanish, Tagalog, as well as blends of English and other languages.

    This proofing I'm doing is what's called the "first round"; the big problems are cleaned up here, obvious errors fixed, standard formatting entered. So far, I've proofed about 40 pages. After I've proofed 100 pages, I'm eligible to do second-round proofs, working as another pair of eyes to ensure the first-rounders didn't let certain niceties slip by them.

    As I should have expected, there is an active and lively sub-culture on display at the forums. I recently discovered there are "index junkies," who seek out the clean-up and codification of scanned indexes. These guys like a challenge. Another forum member likes to do the 2-column literary magazine scans (such as of the Civil War-era Atlantic magazines), because they require more hands-on work and are in need of closer proofing.

    So far, I've shied away from some of the really complicated pages that blend italicized Latin and Greek words along with footnotes, annotations, glosses, illustrations, lists, and the like. I prefer to do whatever can be done in 30 minutes or so. I feel a good satisfaction at taming a chaotic page and making it look and read sensibly. And for a bookworm, there's no better cause than to keep a book going.

    If you don't like reading on a computer screen, then this may not be something you want to do. But if you're spending a ton of time at the PC anyway, it's at least as interesting as reading RSS feeds, and I daresay a touch more useful.

    Update: I neglected to mention that I use Netcaptor for my proofreading. Netcaptor is a tabbed browser based on the IE engine. When I proofread, I have one tab holding the scanned page and the OCR text beneath; one tab dedicated to the forum post discussing the book; and one tab dedicated to the big Guidelines page. I can also open other tabs if I need to Google a spelling or odd word. I have a Netcaptor group, "Proofreading," that loads the basic tabs in an instant. You can use Mozilla as well, but I'm more comfortable with Netcaptor, as I've used it for years.

    For complicated scans, I open Notetab Pro (a tabbed Windows-based text editor), copy the scanned text there, and do my editing.

    DP also offers an especially ugly monospaced font that they encourage you to use when you proof. It's heinous, but it helps flag misspelled words that would look familiar if you scanned them too fast.

    Update, 17 May 2005 Since first writing this, I've not been back to Distributed Proofreading for a few months. At the time I started, I was unemployed and had the time to devote to it. But then I did get a job and then "life" happened, on several fronts, that took my time and energy away from recreational things.

    I listed out all the available activities I could do of a day or an evening, and I divided them into High Payoff and Low Payoff activities. Sadly, DProofreading fell into the Low Payoff category. After classifying proofreading as a low-payoff, I rarely returned. Too bad.