This is the place for my rants, raves, reviews and just general "stuff". May you be amused, enlightened, and perhaps even a little pissed off.


Wrimo Gets Cloudy

For the last two years I have participated in National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo), which entails writing atleast 50,000 words in the 30 days of November. Given that I am not a professional writer, like most of the other participants, this is quite a challenge. There are times when this could be best described less of a “challenge” and more of an “ordeal”, but this is precisely my reason for doing it. It’s like a marathon for the brain. Our 16 year old son Nick has participated (and won!) the last three years and was the impetus for me starting the challenge and now we provide mutual support in getting going and finishing.

For the numerically challenged, that works out to 1,6667 words per day, which doesn’t seem like much, until you are struck with the realization that the words don’t always come out of your head fit for typing, or necessarily in order. One important thing about NaNoWriMo is that you lock up your internal editor for the month of November and just get the words out, leaving editing for December and beyond. With a real job, family, and other obligations, the 1,667 becomes a painful goal on many days, and even more painful to catch up on, once you miss a day or two.

When I started, I didn’t think much about the tools that I would be using and how they would affect my ability to keep up with that pace. First year I used Microsoft Word (from Office 2004) on my Mac laptop, which worked adequately, but the pain and agony of slow startup time, and periods where I was waiting for it to catch up with my typing, made it seem like I was running a race with ankle weights on. It worked, but not well and I knew there had to be something better suited. That better thing came in the form of Scrivener, who was announced as a sponsor of NaNoWriMo. I try to be a minimalist with my tools and was skeptical at first, as it seemed to have a lot of extraneous bits that might get annoying. Given my annoyance with MS-Word, I decided to give it a try with some preliminary writing and it worked out very nicely. It was like a breath of fresh air, in terms of speed and functionality. Those bits that I expected to annoy me turned out to be highly useful and I soon incorporated them into my bag of tricks. By the time last year competition started, I hit the ground typing my brains out and I figure that Scrivener gave me roughly a 30% jump in productivity, subjectively. Scrivener was waiting on me, rather than the other way around.

That bring me up to 2010 and preparations to hit it hard. To up the ante a bit, Scrivener is updating their app to the 2.0 and providing a beta for wrimos. Additionally they are releasing a Windows version, which will work nicely for Nick, who has switched from a Mac to a Windows laptop for this years competition, saving him from either having to use MS-Word, or OpenOffice. I had in the back of my mind to try some new things this year, such as spending a lot of time writing on my iPad, using a bluetooth keyboard, while being out and about for write-ins at restaurants and coffee shops. Using the external keyboard with the iPad, I would be able to type at full speed and basically I had the equivalent of a netbook without buying a new toy.

In watching the introductory videos for the new release, it demonstrated the sync’ing with various cloud-based writing tools, such as SimpleNote. This was exactly what I needed! The SimpleNote app would provide the word processor on my iPad and I could simply save the results to the cloud and it would get auto-magically sync’d to my Scrivener document back on my laptop. Moreover, I could do writing where ever I could get access to a web browser. The same could be done with the Windows version of Scrivener and thus Nick could work on his novel, if he had extra time at school and access to a computer. Even if it was just a great way to keep research notes, it was a big win. Similarly, I could use the bluetooth keyboard with my iPhone, if I didn’t want to take the bigger and heavier iPad. As someone who has schlepped laptops all over the globe, the idea that an iPad being “heavy” makes me chuckle, but I guess everything is relative.

To fully embrace the wrimo life in the cloud, I am using Mozy as a cloud-based backup solution. Mind you I also have local backups going on, such Time Machine and manual USB backups, but the cloud gives me the piece of mind of offsite backups.

This year will be quite interesting and it will be very interesting to see if the new flexibility and new tools will help or hinder the process of banging out 50k words in 30 days! Here we go!


The Death of Cursive, Thank God!

When I was growing up, oh so many years ago, we had to learn the alternative penmanship form of writing called "cursive". Even back then it seemed like busy work, but I went along because; A) I had to, B) I slightly bought into efficiency argument, and C) it's what adults did. I was never very good at it and thus argument B never really materialized. Argument C became much less important when I became an adult, although some would argue that they are still waiting for that to occur. So flash forward nearly 40 years. Apparently in the intervening years, it seems to have been de-emphasized, atleast in our school district. Our son never seemed to deal with it much and he was pretty much inclined to type anyways, something that I would have done had it been more of an option for me when I was young.

But here's the rub. These days, two uses dominate the cursive landscape, signatures and writing amounts on checks. I'll take the latter first. That's the way I was taught to do it and thats how everybody else did it. The reason, as stated, was that it makes it much harder to alter the amount and thus affords your checking account a modicum of safety from unethical check recipients. I didn't think about it much and most certainly didn't challenge the notion, until I really started using checks. As it turns out, my aforementioned deficits in cursive writing skills became a big pain in the butt. I often made cursive mistakes in writing the amounts, which lead to wasted checks and wasted time. Quickly realizing that it wasn't some sort of law, I went to "printing" and the errors didn't occur and I never looked back. Problem solved.

The primary usage of cursive is now signatures. When you stop and think about it, nearly all signatures are a visible statement of individuality and bear little resemblance to the cursive that we learned in primary school. It's now a service mark for people. My signature can barely be distinguished as a form of writing, let alone anything Mrs Fleming would have taught me. I have quite a bit of signed sports memorabilia and I am really happy that nearly all of it has the player's name elsewhere, as I wouldn't be able to divine even 5% of the signatures by themselves. It's actually the signature that causes us problems right now. In the past, any "document" that our son had to sign wasn't terribly important in the long term and pretty much any scribbling, or printed name in his case, would do. Things like signing syllabus sheets that indicated that he had read them are plentiful. But now it becomes serious. He just got his new passport and it requires a signature. Suddenly the printed name doesn't seem adequate and his cursive skills aren't such that he can "just do it". It's gonna require the development of a real signature. Thankfully we have plenty of time to do that, so its not a problem.

So, in the end, cursive isn't really used in any manner that it terribly important or required, so they should pretty much dispense with it all together. Rather than waste that critical time in the classroom giving the impression of providing them with a valuable skill, why don't they do something else, like teach them the rudimentary bits of some relevant foreign language. In absence of any other better guidance, most any qualified elementary school teacher should be able to grasp the fundamentals of say Spanish and teach it to little kids. Written and audio materials are plentiful to teach the teachers the basics. You're not going to make them fluent and ready for a job in a foreign country, but you will help prepare the eager little sponges that are their brains for the future. Ours is an intertwined and interdependent culture that would be well served by learning an alternate language, rather than an alternative script.


My best case for an iPad

After reading a blog entry, I have found the thing that seals the deal for me getting an iPad. Of course, being gadget-ophile that I am, I still require atleast a modicum of rationality for getting a new gadget. For instance, my getting an iPhone was green-lighted because it allowed me to go on vacation without a laptop and still keep in touch with the world, as seen through the internet and email. The iPhone is a great platform that is useful yet not overwhelmingly seductive like a laptop in terms of time spent.

Anyways... the aforementioned blog post gave me the killer app for an iPad. Essentially I will use it as essentially a third monitor for my macbook-based development environment on which I would put things like email and facebook and the like. In my home office, the primary monitor is a 24" LG LCD and the secondary is the laptop screen. In my work office, the primary is a 19" LCD. I have already started down this path, using my iPhone as a Biff will running without an email client (thunderbird) on the desktop machine. Most of the time, the email client is just an "attractive hazard" and make me prone to distraction, rather than aiding productivity. On the iPhone its easy to oversee or ignore incoming email without spending too much time on it. When something important comes in, I fire up thunderbird ands its business as usual, except that I close it when finished. The iPad will be a better platform for doing this, as compared to the iPhone, mostly due to the larger screen. As Lucy from "Peanuts" clearly recognizes, its all about real estate.


What is Google Wave? SOLVED!

Sometimes I am kinda slow and it takes me a while to catch on, and sometimes others don't make it any easier in their effort to help me understand. Google Wave is one of those things that was the moral equivalent of a flash-bang grenade when it comes to grokking its very essence. Given the grandiose pronouncements by its proponents, like "its gonna replace email", I thought it important to cut through the fog and figure out just what it was and why it was allegedly important. As I researched it, I found pretty much nothing but regurgitated text from the initial info that caused the fog in the first place. I kind of nibbled around the edge of understanding until I stumbled upon a great use case for Wave. Suddenly the mental tetris game of understanding accelerated until I was able to synthesize a simple explanation that others might understand. Here goes...

"Google Wave is IRC, with server side logs, as if it was invented now by Web 2.0 people with modern technology."

Server side logs are important, versus old school IRC, in that you can catch up on threads, even if you don't have the client running.

Hopefully this explains Google Wave a bit for people as bewildered as I was.


Please develop my idea!

While in a hurry to get some place today, I was struck with what I think to be a fabulous idea. The saying "necessity is the mother of invention" is just not a trite phrase, as it turns out. Apart from telling you that I was driving, I will spare you the whole back story about how my idea came about, as I suspect you will figure it out yourself. If you can't figure it out by yourself, you probably don't have the brain pan to develop the idea anyways.

My great idea is to develop a dash-mounted device that would activate an inert femto-cell cellular station every time the left turn signal is engaged. The one problem with this device is that the biggest tools of the driving world don't use turn signals, so it would be ineffective where it is needed the most. In any case, let me say that I would be perfectly happy if it was standard equipment on cars.


Death Panels? Already Here!

I watch the political fencing contest that is happening between the Democrats and the Republicans on health care and one of the dominant attack methods of the Republicans is to bring up the looming spectre of "Death Panels". As I understand it, those alleged "death panels" would convene to determine quite literally who would live and die based upon the treatments they allow. It seems to be getting some traction as an attack method, as its making the Democrats respond to it, however haphazardly.

The truly humorous thing is that the Democrats are letting the attacks work and not pointing out the simple fact that death panels already exist. After all, who determines who gets organ transplants. Who figures out which candidates are unworthy of a transplant due to factors that would affect the outcome of the transplant. For instance, chronic alcoholics will often find themselves on the bad side of a death panel when it comes to getting a new liver. I am fairly certain that its a group of health care workers that evaluate the issues against a relatively objective set of criteria, but ultimately there are subjective aspects for each of the participants.

Furthermore, the so-called death panels are entirely appropriate whether its for private or public insurance programs. Let's say, for instance, that a cancer patient faces certain death in the short term if they don't get a bone marrow transplant that optimistically gives them a 1/10% chance of survival. There are always more experimental treatments that give the faint glimmer of hope for tragically sick people, but often at extreme costs. For that 0.1% chance of survival the cost to the insurance company (public or private) is >$100,000 and that cost is borne by either taxpayers or other insurance policy holders, thus increasing the cost for all health care, all for a long shot at survival. Ironically, if that same person had the assets to pay cash for the transplant, they likely wouldn't do so to avoid bankrupting their family's future. The natural human inclination is usually to "go for it", if it's on someone else's tab. Perhaps it should be stated in a fashion more like "if you get the bone marrow transplant, $100k gets taken out of your grandson's school budget".

I seriously wish that the people making these decisions would use a little common sense and critical thinking skills. They are too busy thrusting and parrying to actually pay attention to what they are doing.


Red Herring Market

In watching the annoying hand-wringing of the current health care debate, I've noticed one thing. While watching
Senator Al Franken talk down an angry crowd, I noticed a strange uptick in the Red Herring market. I had seen it happen with other opponents and proponents speaking on the same topic, but it really didn't register. Each of the speakers brings up quite logical and intuitive things that are an utter load of crap. In Franken's case, he said that he had people come up to him and say that they would create start a small business, if not for some aspect of their health care setup that would not allow them to get insured, such as a pre-existing condition. Sounds sensible right? The problem is that most people dream of starting a small business but very few do a single damn thing towards that end. Not so much as setting aside a dollar for start, not read a brochure, and haven't even considered doing a business plan. So why is this red herring even introduced into the theoretically logical discourse. I can say that I am fully covered for lightening strikes, but lets not quibble over whether I am more likely to get hit, versus someone actually making a tangible move towards starting a small business.

I also noticed his mentioning of the old "I can't leave my job because of insurance" thing. Oh what a pity! It's just so horrible that they have to remain employed in perhaps a dead end job to stay nominally responsible for their families health care. In years past, men (and women) gladly stayed employed in jobs that were dangerous, and often deadly, (think miners and fishermen) to feed their families. I'm sure they would have loved to have more cushy jobs than the ones they have. Perhaps the whiners should take their pleas to the tons of unemployed people that would love to be employed. People need to do what they need to do to take care of their families. If it isn't what you want to be doing, figure out a way to do something that is more palatable. And stop whining!