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!!