Archive for the 'writing' Category

Wednesday, March 18th, 2015

Fiction update

Quick update here: if you are reading this, you’d probably like this short story, named in honor of Dennis Ritchie, FREE and currently burning up the charts for 30 minute reads in Mystery, Thriller, & Suspense. Doing pretty well in Science Fiction and Cyberpunk as well. (link fixed)

Do a solid for readers everywhere and leave a review.

Coming soon is the prequel to this story. It will be free only to folks who jump on the author mailing list.

We now return to your regularly-scheduled nonfictional geekery.


Saturday, January 14th, 2012

Call a Spade a Spade

A cautionary tale of language from Ted Nelson:

We might call a common or garden spade–

  • A personalized earth-moving equipment module
  • A mineralogical mini-transport
  • A personalized strategic tellurian command and control module
  • An air-to-ground interface contour adjustment probe
  • A leveraged tactile-feedback geomass delivery system
  • A man-machine energy-to-structure converter
  • A one-to-one individualized geophysical restructurizer
  • A portable unitized earth-work synthesis system
  • An entrenching tool
  • A zero-sum dirt level adjuster
  • A feedback-oriented contour management probe and digging system
  • A gradient disequilibrator
  • A mass distribution negentroprizer
  • (hey!) a dig-it-all system
  • An extra terrestrial transport mechanism

Spades, not words, should be used for shoveling. But words should help us unearth the truth.

–Computer Lib (1974), Theodor Nelson, p44

Thursday, June 9th, 2011

SkunkLink in Belorussian

The awesome thing about the internet is that you never know who’s reading your stuff. Case in point: during the depths of the hypertext linking standards discussions, after folks realized that XLink wasn’t going to work with HTML (not even with XML-flavored XHTML), all kinds of proposals flew around about what to do about it. One was my own SkunkLink, a “skunkworks” attempt to get people thinking in a certain direction.

An enthusiastic follower, Bohdan Zograf, has translated SkunkLink into Belorussian, available here. He’s also mentioned translating all of XForms Essentials, which I completely support, and is just the kind of thing I hoped would happen when I put the text under a liberal content license.

Awesome. -m

Thursday, July 15th, 2010

VP XIV bound

Thrilled, THRILLED to announce that I’ve been accepted to the 2010 Viable Paradise workshop. I sent in the first 8000 words of a manuscript that about half of the 7 readers of this blog have looked at. You know, the one that is Science Fiction–literally, fiction about science. So I’ll be spending some time in early October at Martha’s Vineyard studying at the feet of published authors and honing my craft.

Class size is limited, so I’ve been actively psyching myself down for the last month, not getting my hopes up too high. Then when the acceptance came, I had computer down time, and nearly exploded from holding the news in for 3 days. :-)

Ahhhh. I should say more, but I believe I may still be in shock. -m

P. S. OK, how about 25 great opening lines.

Thursday, June 3rd, 2010

Reverse Engineering Corexit 9500

If you dig a bit, there’s all kinds of interesting background material about the terrible disaster ongoing in the Gulf of Mexico. For example, a map of the thousands of rigs and tens-of-thousands of miles of pipelines. Some of the best infographics are from BP itself. And for when you can no longer stand the overwhelming sense of disaster, a fake twitter feed.

But this really caught my eye, from Nalco, the manufacturer of the oil dispersant Corexit 9500 which is being used both in unprecedented quantities and depths in the Gulf. Here’s how they cleverly describe the ingredients of their product, an ingredient list they protect as a trade-secret:

  1. One ingredient is used as a wetting agent in dry gelatin, beverage mixtures, and fruit juice drinks.
  2. A second ingredient is used in a brand-name dry skin cream and also in a body shampoo.
  3. A third ingredient is found in a popular brand of baby bath liquid.
  4. A fourth ingredient is found extensively in cosmetics and is also used as a surface-active agent and emulsifier for agents used in food contact.
  5. A fifth ingredient is used by a major supplier of brand name household cleaning products for “soap scum” removal.
  6. A sixth ingredient is used in hand creams and lotions, odorless paints and stain blockers.

That is one impressive bit of verbal agility, my complements to their staff writer(s). It would be a fun exercise some day to see what kinds of toxic sludge could be described in similar terms. But let’s see if we can figure out the exact ingredient list: here’s the MSDS for the substance. According to it Propylene Glycol is clearly one of the ingredients, as are “Distillates, petroleum, hydrotreated light” and “Organic sulfonic acid salt”. “Wetting agent” and “surface-acting” are both code words for a surfactant. A little knowledge of chemistry along with household product label reading might go a long way… Got insight? Add a comment here to describe what you find.


6/10 Update: Nalco released the full ingredient list and cheat sheet:

CAS # Name Common Day-to-Day Use Examples
1338-43-8 Sorbitan, mono-(9Z)-9-octadecenoate Skin cream, body shampoo, emulsifier in juice
9005-65-6 Sorbitan, mono-(9Z)-9-octadecenoate, poly(oxy-1,2-ethanediyl) derivs. Baby bath, mouth wash, face lotion, emulsifier in food
9005-70-3 Sorbitan, tri-(9Z)-9-octadecenoate, poly(oxy-1,2-ethanediyl) derivs Body/Face lotion, tanning lotions
577-11-7 * Butanedioic acid, 2-sulfo-, 1,4-bis(2-ethylhexyl) ester, sodium salt (1:1) Wetting agent in cosmetic products, gelatin, beverages
29911-28-2 Propanol, 1-(2-butoxy-1-methylethoxy) Household cleaning products
64742-47-8 Distillates (petroleum), hydrotreated light Air freshener, cleaner
111-76-2 ** Ethanol, 2-butoxy Cleaners

The * footnote indicates, essentially, “contains propylene glycol”.

The ** footnote indicates that this chemical is found only in Corexit 9527, not the one most commonly used in the Deepwater Horizon cleanup.

Sunday, May 30th, 2010

Balisage contest: solving the wikiml problem

I wish I could say I had something to do with the planning of this: part of Balisage 2010 is a contest to “encourage markup experts to review and to research the current state of wiki markup languages and to generate a proposal that serves to de-babelize the current state of affairs for the long haul.”  To enter, you must propose a set of concrete steps (organizational, social, and/or technological) that will enable wiki content interchange, a real WYSIWYG editor, and/or wiki syntax standardization.

This pushes all of my buttons. It’s got structured documents, Web, parser geekery, writing, engineering, and standards. There’s a bunch of open source prior art, including PyXMLWiki, which I adapted from some fantastic earlier work from Rick Jelliffe.

Sadly, MarkLogic employees aren’t eligible to enter. Get your write-up done by July 15 and sent to balisage-2010-contest at marklogic dot com. The winner will be announced at Balisage and will take home some serious prize winnings, and also will be strongly encouraged (but not required) to give a brief summary (~10 minutes) of their winning entry.

Can’t wait to see what comes out of this. -m

Sunday, January 31st, 2010

Writing tools to avoid: WhiteSmoke

I was lured in by a slick promotion, and decided to give a new writing tool a try. WhiteSmoke seems like it’s primarily aimed at folks for whom English is not a first language, but quotes likeInnovative technology for native and nonnative English speakersmake it seem like it could help. When I wrote an article for that summarized recent mailing list activity, I liked to compile readability statistics on the messages. Maybe this would be similar.

I had some question of whether this would work on a Mac or not, but the FAQ assures one thatMac users are able to use WhiteSmoke’s online interface (also known as the Online Editor), which contains all grammar, enrichment and spelling featuresand (in curiously clumsy language) “Should you be running Safari MacOS x10.3 and encounter any problems, please use FireFox.”

Sounds good.

The spell checker is decent, probably about as good as the one in WordPress.

The thesaurus is pretty good. Clicking on almost any word will prompt a dropdown list of synonyms. This sometimes makes selecting text troublesome. The list itself is often too small, and entries toward the bottom are obscured.

The grammar checker is OK, but I couldn’t point to anything it does that Word couldn’t have handled (though it has been a long time since I have run Word).

The user interface is terrible. Any errors are shown in slightly bolder text either red or green with nothing distinguishing in the background. I’m not too good with colors, so it’s hard for me to say. The text is very difficult to scan. It has an AutoCorrect mode, which can fix some mistakes without interaction, but just as often breaks your text. For example, it changed the previous paragraph fromSounds good.” toremark: Incomplete Sentence good.” The changed text is bold, but only until the next scan, when it becomes indistinguishable from actual text.

At the XML level, it produces horrible output, with stacks upon stacks of nested spans, with duplicate IDs. Some of this may be from the necessary back-and-forth between the web interface and whatever your actual editor is. View source on this posting to see what I mean.

It gets worse. The online interface is limited to 10,000 characters-at-a-timenot wordscharacters. To compare, this short posting contains slightly more than 3,000 characters. I did some experimentation and found the actual limit is somewhat less than the stated 10K; somewhere north of 7K characters, it will show a spinner forever and never finish checking. Clicking the browser “back” button from the forever-spinner screen takes you back to a blank page–all your text is gone. For someone working on, say, a 60,000 word (360,000+ character) project, it would have to be diced up into maybe 50 small pieces, each individually checked, each introducing the prospect of adding rather than fixing problems. Making even a single pass through all the text would require a senseless amount of tedious cutandpaste work. It’s essentially unusable.

To make sure I know what I’m talking about, I composed this posting in WhiteSmoke, which very well may be the last time I use it. -m

Friday, December 11th, 2009

Tinderbox 5 is out

At first glance, this seems to be the Snow Leopard of Tinderbox releases–lots of behind-the-scenes technology updates and largely the same core features. If you’re looking for a way to get more organized, it’s worth a look. Link. -m

Thursday, December 10th, 2009

500th Post

Celebrating 500 posts since I went to WordPress in May 2006. Prior to that, an additional 730 posts as I floated through a typical evolution of blogging platforms:

  • Easy start: blogger (299 posts in 24 months)
  • Succumbing to the desire to roll your own (259 posts in 12 months)
  • Realizing that rolling your own is too difficult: Pyblosxom (172 posts in 12 months)
  • Moving to a mature platform you don’t need to worry about much: WordPress (500 posts in 42+ months)


Sunday, September 27th, 2009

View on Publishing

An editor’s view on the modern publishing market, how it’s changing, and challenges any book faces in running the gauntlet of publication. Worth a read. -m

Monday, May 18th, 2009

Geek Thoughts: writing tip

Take something that’s done, no matter how crappy, and submit it. Right now, I’ll wait…

Next time you have something ready, by comparison it will be ever so much better, and you’ll have no excuse to avoid submitting that as well.

More collected Geek Thoughts at

Friday, May 15th, 2009

A nugget from _A Canticle for Leibowitz_

This brilliant bit is almost a throwaway paragraph on page 304, near the end.

[Two men in a satirical dialog] managed only to demonstrate that the mathematical limit of an infinite sequence of “doubting the certainty with which something doubted is known to be unknowable  when the ‘something doubted’ is still a preceding statement ‘unknowability’ of something doubted,” that the limit of this process at infinity can only be equivalent to a statement of absolute certainty, even though phrased ans an infinite series of negations of certainty.

It’s not like the whole book is like this…far from it. But it is chock full of little gems.


Monday, May 4th, 2009

When the experimenter wants to believe

The universe is deeply, fundamentally weird. At the quantum level, all kinds of non-intuitive effects are the building blocks of, well everything. So what if not just observing, but believing in a particular outcome could influence the actual outcome of an experiment?

Something like that could explain a lot: many of the claims of perpetual motion machines, cold fusion a la Stanley and Pons, the placebo effect, Steorn Orbo technology (previous discussion), and numerous similar endeavors. Who’s to say that some aspect of what we call consciousness doesn’t involve some kind of probability manipulation?

The conventional scientific method would be at a loss to deal with such a situation. True Believers would proclaim miraculous results from their experiments, but Skeptics would be unable to reproduce the results. Strong skeptics would set up million dollar rewards to prove crackpottish claims under “controlled conditions”, and nobody would ever collect.

Such a conceit is the basis for a story I’m working on. The first drafts were written 18 months ago, as part of NaNoWriMo 2007. I may be ready for some early reviewers by the summer. Interested? -m

Wednesday, April 22nd, 2009

TextWrangler and special characters

Hey readers, all seven of you, can you help me out?

I’m perhaps finally switching to a Mac-native text editor, TextWrangler, or if I really like it, BBEdit. Within that app, what’s the easiest way to enter unusual characters not found on a keyboard, say š (Latin s with háček) or ḫ (h-breve below)? In jEdit, one can set up longer strings that get automatically converted into harder-to-type ones. What’s the equivalent in TextWrangler or BBEdit? -m

Saturday, April 11th, 2009

Strunk and White considered harmful?

Whoa. Check out this brutal takedown of the beloved The Elements of Style. Even though I generally have little patience for grammar nazis, I couldn’t stop reading things like

The Elements of Style does not deserve the enormous esteem in which it is held by American college graduates. Its advice ranges from limp platitudes to inconsistent nonsense.

and on the popularity of the book

This was most unfortunate for the field of English grammar, because both authors were grammatical incompetents. Strunk had very little analytical understanding of syntax, White even less. Certainly White was a fine writer, but he was not qualified as a grammarian.

The article goes on to cite numerous examples at various levels of pedantry.

Many people including myself appreciate straightforward guidelines, a framework in which to think about good and bad ways to put prose together. Strunk and White does this better than anything else I’ve seen. Effective writing leaps off the page–picky rules can go leap elsewhere. As for me, I’ll stick with Strunk, though not as a religion. Sin and Syntax is another great roadmap to the wonderful wacky English language. -m

Saturday, March 21st, 2009

Netflix watch: Taming of the Shrew available instantly

The 1980 BBC version with John Cleese. Available for instant watching, but will go away on April 01. Apparently lots of BBC stuff is supposedly going away soon. (I’ve never linked to a Netflix title before, let me know if it doesn’t work) -m

Wednesday, February 25th, 2009

Brian May explains relativity

This is fantastic. Brian May (yes THAT Brian May) not only blogs, but talks about all kinds of challenging subjects. Like how and why space and time are linked. Worth a read. -m

Monday, December 8th, 2008

XML 2008 non-liveblog: Content Authoring Schemas

I was on the panel with Bob DuCharme, Frank Miller, and Evan Lenz discussing content authoring, from DITA to DocBook with some WordML sprinkled in for good measure. It was a good discussion, nothing earth-shaking. This session was laptopless, so I don’t have any significant notes. -m

Wednesday, November 19th, 2008

Geek Thoughts: writing contest

To celebrate the unlamented demise of Valleywag, use as many of the ten insulting words you should know (along with any other appropriate words) as you can in a single short paragraph. Post in the comments below. This site is for geeks of all ages, so keep things PG. All right, PG-13. My favorite will be announced later.

More collected Geek Thoughts at

Tuesday, November 11th, 2008

No NaNoWriMo for me this year

I’ve successfully completed the National Novel Writing Month challenge–to write 50,000 words during the month of November–for three years running, and now I have three draft novels sitting around. At some point, racking up mere drafts gets to be pathetic, so this November I’m picking one to dig into with a heavy editing pass. I’m stocked up on red pens and ready to go, and maybe a third of the way through at this moment. Other writing efforts, like say this blog, get back-burnered for a few weeks.

The key to editing long works, by the way, is momentum. If you get stuck in one place, you quickly get burned out on it, like melting celluloid in an old-skool movie projector. Onward. -m

Monday, October 13th, 2008

Software narratives: write better software by watching movies

Without any exception I can think of: every top-notch software developer I know is also a skilled technical writer. Technical writing requires skill in choosing words, constructing sentences and paragraphs, and putting together the pieces in the right order to most effectively present the material.

In contrast, narrative writing requires an eye towards the bigger picture, an overall story arc. To put it another way, beginnings, middles, and ends. Hollywood screenwriters have got this down to a science, dividing screenplays into three acts. Next time you visit the movies, look for the parts and how the connect.

Act I, comprising about 1/4 of the whole work, introduces the characters and situation. Between Act I and Act II a key even happens to propel the story forward. Neo swallows the pill. Luke Skywalker finds his Aunt and Uncle killed. In Act II, comprising about 1/2 of the story, the “real story” begins. Another key moment happens to introduce the final Act III, which culminates during the final 1/4 of the story. Three acts: beginning, middle, and end. Other aspects of fiction writing, say characterization, are relatively less important in technical narratives.

A great introduction to these concepts is Syd Field’s Screenplay, to give one a broader view on what story is really all about, and why some stories move people more than others. Many of the concepts apply equally to software narratives. And like I wrote about earlier, such narratives are a powerful (if underused) tool in software development. -m

Thursday, September 25th, 2008

The power of narrative in software development

I’m working on a piece of software that, while not the answer to world peace, is still pretty neat and approaches a specific problem in a fresh way. The project is at the stage where it needs to get unveiled to early adopters in the target audience. So how does one introduce possibly unfamiliar concepts in the form of a new API?

The approach we ended up using for the initial documentation is essentially a narrative–telling a story. Narrative fills the gap between use case and solution in an engaging way. People are naturally inclined to listen to stories, and to expect certain story structures, such as having a beginning, middle, and end with suitable transitions. Thus, if the listener senses a gap in the story, it’s easy for them to speak up. When the story works, people find it easier to map their personal story on to the narrative, leading to better absorption of new concepts, and a more positive impression of the software.

And it’s working. So far we’ve gotten far more useful feedback than we would have otherwise. Even before showing others, the exercise of writing the narrative has exposed gaps and flaws in our thinking, leading to a better, more cohesive design.

If you think back about how you learned about, say, object oriented programming, or event-driven programming, likely there was a story or detailed use case involved that helped you get on board with a new way of thinking. Software + story: It’s a powerful combination, I recommend it.

BTW, my team is hiring full-time positions. Especially if you’ve got XML skills, you could be part of this team. Send me email if interested. -m

Thursday, September 11th, 2008

What I’m Reading

Going away for a week (so possibly minimal posting here). What am I bringing to read?

Check some of these out. What do you like to read when travelling? -m

Sunday, August 24th, 2008

Trying to read _Playing for Keeps_ on an iPhone

Mur Lafferty’s new superhero novel is making the rounds. She’s encouraging everyone to buy a printed copy on August 25 (buy it here) to make a nice impression in the bestseller lists. I’m a sucker for these kinds of promotions. The full text also recently appeared on the Escape Pod feed, under a Creative Commons license. It’s a whopping 35 megabytes, including illustrated comic book covers…a nice touch.

It would be really nice to have this with me to read during spare moments without the bulk of the printed book. Hmm.

My question is: how I can read it on an iPhone? Ebook support isn’t that great so far, especially for the PDF format. I know about the data:url trick, but it doesn’t work with 35 megs. Has anyone successfully set up an iPhone to read this book? What software and/or conversions did you use? Comment below. -m

Wednesday, August 20th, 2008

Rant: BN Publishing’s edition of _The Art of Dramatic Writing_

Lajos Egri’s book has some good content, but it’s hard to read. I mean, physically difficult. I don’t have the necessary copyright law ninja skills to be sure, but I think this 1946 book might be in the public domain, judging by the many editions available on Amazon. But stay away from this one, published in 2007 by BN Publishing.

The typesetting is so bad I think it must have been done in notepad.exe. The margins of the oversized pages are narrower than my pinky, and the text runs all the way across. No columns. No indentation on or space between paragraphs. No typographic quotes. No em-dashes. No special formatting for extended quotations–of which there are many–or any other way to tell them apart from the running text. Random line breaks. And a ridiculous number of glaring errors, misspellings, even a 1 instead of a !. What did they do, hand retype it?

The Search Inside link on Amazon takes you to a different edition from a different publisher, one which is much more readable. If you decide to pick it up, I’d suggest maybe this edition or this one. And for BN Publishing, I recommend this book.

The book focuses on playwriting, but it will be vaulable to anyone wanting to get a bigger-picture feel for why some stories resonate with people and some fall flat. -m

Thursday, July 31st, 2008

The rare benefit of easily-mockable names

From the observing-the-human-condition department.

Seems I have a hard to pronounce name. For the record my first name has a long I; it’s MY-ka, not MEE-ka. When someone gets it wrong, I don’t hold anything against them. Afterall, how to pronounce any given name is pretty arbitrary.

But there are a few names that are easily mockable. Either a letter of two off from a word with a less favorable meaning, or a shared name with an infamous person–a few notable examples being a popular figure in the XML world and one of the current U.S. presidential candidates. I find that in these infrequent cases, an easily-mockable name can be a useful thing, since it allows me to immediately flip the bozo bit on any commentator/blogger/reporter who chooses to engage with the mockery. Without such low-hanging invective, sometimes it’s harder to tell when somebody is an idiot.

If you want to constructively criticize someone, go for it. But make sure to use founded, fact-based arguments that can stand on their own without resorting to childish attacks. Go forth and na-na-na-boo-boo no more. -m

Thursday, July 17th, 2008

Website Optimization is on the shelves

Andy King’s Website Optimization is now in print from O’Reilly. This book covers it all: performance, SEO, conversion rates, analytics, you name it. If you run a web site, you’ll find this useful. I tech edited and contributed a small portion, about the growing trend of metadata as site advantage. Go check it out. -m

Wednesday, June 25th, 2008

Two kinds of tension

All writing depends on conflict (without which there is no story), but there’s more than one kind. The obvious kind is steadily building tension with unknown outcome. The battle between good and evil in most stories is like this, though admittedly the good guys usually win.

More subtle is “dramatic irony” where the reader knows what’s going on while the characters don’t. A really effective writer weaves these together for maximum effect, for example Stephen King’s _The Stand_. -m

Monday, June 23rd, 2008

Review: The Instant Productivity Toolkit

I hoped for something fresh, but this from Len Merson is only warmed-over GTD. Avoid–go for the original. -m

Friday, June 6th, 2008

Who this blog is for

I’m reading Web 2.0: A Strategy Guide. It’s a more business-ey kind of book than most Web 2.0 faire. So it jumped out at me the section “Who this book is for”. I hate these sections, even though they are quite common.

Why would I need a book to tell me who it’s for? Isn’t that kind of insulting?

Back when I was a product manager, I needed to coordinate an even, and I pushed back on the marketing folks who wanted a detailed list of who should attend. “It’s self-selecting,” I said. “Anyone who can look at the event description and determine that they should be there is in the target audience.” The suggestion didn’t go over well. -m

P.S. Yes, my book has a “who should read this” section too…