Archive for the 'writing' Category

Wednesday, May 28th, 2008

OK already, XQuery has FLWORs, I get it

A very short rant on the state of XQuery tutorial materials on the web (not naming any names or linking any links).

I get it. Thank you for your fanatical emphasis on FLWOR constructs, but there is much more to it than that.

A few introductory sources don’t fall in to this trap, though. Mike Kay’s stuff. Priscilla Walmsley’s O’Reilly book for another. I’m pretty much finishing up reading it so I’ll review it here soon. -m

Tuesday, May 20th, 2008

The two-line CV

In my about page, I’ve written my CV in two lines. Why don’t you try it, then link back to here?

I’ve been known to use this as an interview question, and it’s quite a bit harder than it looks. A clever candidate will turn the paper sideways giving themselves more room to write “two lines”, but that’s not the point. This exercise forces one to really think about their qualifications, skills, and experience; one’s “unique selling proposition”.

Writing short, as opposed to rambling on, is notoriously difficult. Someone who can do that with their own CV is off to a good start in my book. -m

P. S. Mark Logic is looking for some high-caliber XML and web folks. Contact me offline if you know anyone looking…

Tuesday, May 13th, 2008

Little Brother is out

Cory Doctorow’s Little Brother is now shipping from Amazon and other stores. I reviewed a pre-release copy of it and liked it. But the best part is–like Cory’s other books–it’s downloadable right now, for free, under an open content license. I can attest that this is an effective strategy for getting your name and your work out into the wild. If you really like it, then please purchase it in a convenient portable package, also known as a printed book. :-) -m

Thursday, May 8th, 2008

14 ways…

When making hash browns xkcd style, there are at least 14 ways it could go badly.

  1. That’s not a potato, it’s a misshapen rock.
  2. Unexpectedly flammable tennis racket.
  3. Sparks landing on gas can.
  4. Food poisoning via undercooked hash browns due to limited flame contact time.
  5. Broken plate fragments.
  6. Dripping, flaming gasoline.
  7. Swing and a miss; balance lost.
  8. Flaming potato fragments in the eye socket.
  9. Diving catch ends badly.
  10. Spontaneous combustion.
  11. Tennis elbow.
  12. Repetitive stress injury.
  13. Fork misfire.
  14. Heat death of the universe.

(17 if that fork is a dangerous crossbreed) -m

Tuesday, May 6th, 2008

What I’m Reading

The Minority Report and Other Classic Stories by Philip K. Dick. This volume has all of Dick’s earliest short and medium-length fiction. It’s PKD so you know it’s good, but this one really gives insight into how he developed some of the themes that came to dominate his later work.

Even these early stories are filled with mind-blowing premises, which are only just the beginning before things get really weird. Highly recommended. -m

Tuesday, April 22nd, 2008

Shame on you, J.K. Rowling

Harry Potter author J.K. Rowling, herself rowling in gazillions of dollars, is along with her publisher suing Steven Vander Ark, a poor librarian who produced a lexicon of the Harry Potter universe.

Rowling says it’s not about the money, it’s about control. Poppycock. If that was the case, she would have objected to the web site. Instead, Rowling is quoted as saying:

This is such a great site that I have been known to sneak into an Internet cafe while out writing and check a fact rather than go into a bookshop and buy a copy of Harry Potter (which is embarrassing).

A lexicon is a collection of existing (fictional) facts, not something that is going to wrest creative control of the franchise away from the author. This work makes the Harry Potter universe more valuable, not less. Even if legally this is a gray area, it’s a boneheaded move to sue one of your greatest fans for providing a valuable and useful reference.

What troubles the bean counters so much is that the printed lexicon costs, well, actual money, $24.95 to be exact. As an author it troubles me to see how out of touch copyright law is, and how badly the scent of a few dollars can make an otherwise reasonable person behave. -m

Monday, April 14th, 2008

5 modern books that changed my life

Some books you forget immediately, but some stick with you. Some affect you so profoundly that years later you still think about them. They get under your skin and shape your future. Here’s my list:

  1. How to Win Friends and Influence People This got me through years of W3C work, and still affects every human interaction I have.
  2. Gödel, Escher, Bach This book is impossible to describe in one line, but it will make you think. And re-read it. This book directly inspired my Hyperlink Offering article riffing on XLink and my fondness for predicates.
  3. Three Men in a Boat The funniest book I have read. Ever. But I actually read Connie Willis’s To Say Nothing of the Dog first…
  4. Kicking the Sacred Cow Sometimes you need to think about the impermissible. Or understand why others do. This book inspired my XML Annoyances column.
  5. On Writing Stephen King’s “CV” (aka life history), writing tips, and harrowing description of his real-life near-death experience. This book influenced my choice of house to by–get one with an office…
  6. Calculus Made Easy I was originally given this book by my mentor, Virgil Matheson, when I was probably in the 6th grade. “What one fool can do, so can another,” the author opines. An utterly remarkable book that deflates the aura of complexity normally around higher maths.

OK, I guess that’s 6. Also, I would have to mention another that caused significant changes: XForms Essentials ;)

What’s on your list? -m

P.S. These links are Amazon affiliate links. If you buy some of them you will be helping support my terrible Amazon habit, now at around 50 pages a day.

Sunday, March 23rd, 2008

Review: Little Brother

(sick again…at least I get to catch up on my reading)

Something has always puzzled me: I’ve never solidly connected with a Cory Doctorow story. It’s baffling; we’re practically brothers-in-geekdom. Most every nonfiction thing I read from Cory leaves me nodding in agreement. If we met, we’d have no trouble talking for hours about metacrap, free content licenses, and crypto. But for some reason, Cory’s fiction–short story or freely-downloadable-novel–hasn’t clicked with my peculiar mind.

Until now, that is. I emailed Cory asking him for a prerelease copy of Little Brother, in return for an honest review here. He was happy to oblige. The story pulled me in fast and hard, and by the time it was over, I wished there was more to the tale. I’d call that “solidly connecting”. :-)

The story is aimed at high-school-aged kids, and naturally features a cast of high-school-aged protagonists. This means that I’m quite outside the target audience, so your opinions might vary. Too many reviews fall into plot synopsis mode here, so I’ll try to avoid it. Suffice it to say that the story revolves around a close group of teens who get accused of involvement in a bigger-than-911 plot, and quietly fight back against the resulting oppression.

The tale has a lot of (and AFAIK this is a freshly minted word) techsposition. Like any exposition, it is a risky thing to do as a writer, since it halts the forward momentum of your story. It’s doubly hard to stop to explain technical details. Blocks of techsposition were heavy enough to throw me out of the story a few times. There were cases where the plot wouldn’t have suffered by glossing over some details. On the other hand, these not-quite-asides are about real-world (as opposed to fictional) technology, so definitely have some benefit for readers.

The story has a strong message, but it gets spread a little thick toward the middle. All the clever things the kids think to do happen fairly early in the story, but the plot keeps rolling along. There’s also a few too many instances of the really-smart teen who has outwitted or escaped from the clutches of The Man, just in time to appear in the action.

There’s a number of characters in the story, with complex interactions among them.  The main characters are solid, believable, and fully-realized. In fact, I’d point to the characterization as the main that kept me up late reading.

Little Brother comes out the end of April, both in print and freely downloadable. If you’re allowed to choose your own reading material, you might decide it’s worth a look. -m

Friday, November 30th, 2007

4 things I’ve learned writing (mostly) 4 novels

If you want to get anything done, give it to a busy person…

In my life, I’ve started four novels, completed my goals on three, gotten to “The End” on two, and completely flamed out on one.

The first was in 2001. I hadn’t written much since high school. Something clicked in my head that made me realize that writing wasn’t some kind of black art (as one particular teacher had drilled into his credulous students). It was doable. You take pencil and paper and write one word after another. Voilà. I was so taken with this simple idea that every single thing I ever learned about writing went out the window. I had Swifties, danglers, tell-vs-show, you name it. There’s enough material in there for several Bulwer-Lytton contests. By the time I had 70 hand-written pages, the thing collapsed under it’s own weight and the story reached an abrupt, borderline-surrealistic “ending” to abuse the term. I have evidence that I even typed it all in and pressed on for a 2nd draft.

By 2003 my non-fiction book was published–my writing career was under way! Part of the elaborate book proposal dance involved me writing some online articles, including one piece of fiction that was well-received in the tiny circle that was its intended audience. At this stage I adopted electronic writing, and ditched my crashy Windows laptop for a Mac, a vast improvement.

In 2005 I discovered NaNoWriMo, and though I thought it would be a lost cause, I signed up. No way it could be as bad as the previous attempt. I had a new job, and was able to skip a few lunches to write, not to mention intense evenings and weekends. The end goal is 50,000 words during the 30 days of November, that’s 1,666 and two-thirds words per day. All of the prior month I spent outlining, making maps, creating my universe. I used the simplest of tools, my text editor and one file per chapter. I learned that the command wc *.txt could easily give me a combined word count. To my surprise, it worked. I reemerged into daylight with a completed a full story arc loosely based on the earlier story, and ended up with just over 50,000 words. The text itself was very rough, but I read the whole thing out loud in a podcast to edit it. In terms of improvement, it was huge, but still far from publishable.

2006 and another NaNoWriMo rolled around, and I took off on a more ambitious storyline with far fewer notes going into it. The story itself involved the same general characters of the previous two episodes, but with a deeper, more mature feeling to it. In short, I finally wrote a piece of fiction to be proud about afterwards, though when I hit 50,000 words I felt really burned out; hit “save” and left the story arc unfinished.

The pull to dig in to an intensive 2nd draft of the story was immense, but just too many things were going on, including a new arrival in the family and a new set of job responsibilities. I never got more than a few dozen pages into the rewrite. When NaNoWriMo 2007 came upon me, I had a tough choice…do I write something fresh, or try to rework the previous novel? Fresh. A completely new story line, new characters, new setting, new everything. As of a few days ago, I finished the draft, compressing parts of the story as needed to meet both the 50 kiloword goal and the complete story arc. In preparation, I read a number of books, but as far as written outlines, maps, etc. go, almost nothing happened before November 1. I saved enough of the “fun stuff” that a second revision of this story will be a joy. Overall, another improvement year-over-year.

There’s only one kink to the “if you want to get something done…” idea: my slides for the XML Conference talk I have in a few days are still unfinished… -m

Sunday, November 18th, 2007

Gettysburg Address PowerPoint

As one who, in the all-too-near future, will be hammering out the visuals to go with my talk at XML 2007, this made my day. (be sure to check out the deeper pages too) -m

Friday, November 2nd, 2007

NaNoWriMo

Game On. Expect light posting this month. -m

Saturday, October 20th, 2007

Building a tokenizer for XPath or XQuery

In researching for an XPath 2.0 implementation, I ran across this curious document from the W3C. Despite being labeled a Working Draft (as opposed to a Note), it appears to be a one-shot document with no future hope for updates or enhancements.

In short, it outlines several options for the first stage or two of an XPath 2.0 or XQuery implementation. (Despite the title, it talks about more than just a tokenizer; additionally a parser and a possible intermediate stage). Tokenizing and parsing XPath are significantly more difficult than other languages, because things like this are perfectly legitimate (if useless):

if(if) then then else else- +-++-**-* instance
of element(*)* * * **---++div- div -div

The document tries to standardize on some terminology for various approaches toward dealing with XPath. The remaining bulk of the document sketches out some lexical states that would be useful for one particular implementation approach. I guess the vibrant, thriving throngs of XPath 2.0 developers didn’t see the need for this kind of assistance.

In short, I didn’t find it terribly useful. Maybe some readers have, though. Feel free to comment below. Subsequent articles here will describe how I approached the problem. Stay sharp! -m

Sunday, September 16th, 2007

Evaluating fiction vs. evaluating libation

My Copious Free Time(tm) has been filled lately by two different evaluation projects. One is the 2nd Annual Writing Show Best First Chapter of a Novel Contest, for which the first round of judging is just winding up. The main benefit for contest entrants is that every submission gets a professional critique of at least 750 words. But additionally, each submisison gets a score on a 50-point scale, based on:

  • 10 points for Story. Is it a compelling read with a great hook? Are we engaged?
  • 10 points for Style. Is the writing smooth and tight, without awkward constructions, extraneous verbiage, and redundancies?
  • 10 points for Dialog. Is the dialog natural and does it move the story along?
  • 10 points for Character. Are the characters interesting? Do we care about them?
  • 10 points for Mechanics. Are grammar, spelling, and punctuation correct?

I’m also attending some classes aiming toward becoming a Certified Beer Judge (details on Meadblog). This isn’t as fun as it sounds. (Well, OK, maybe it is…). The idea is to build up better sensory perception so that my personal brewing and cooking projects can benefit. But the upcoming test is 70% written essay questions like “Identify three distinctly different top-fermenting beer styles with a starting gravity of 1.070 or higher, and describe the similarities and differences between the styles”. 30% of the test is based on actual tasting and filling out a tasting sheet. Of interest, the scoring here is also based on a 50-point scale:

  • 12 points for Aroma.
  • 3 points for Appearance.
  • 20 points for Taste.
  • 5 points for Mouthfeel.
  • 10 points for Overall Impression.

The interesting part is that there’s similarities between the two tasks. For both, I need to work off of physical paper, not in my head on on a computer screen. For both, I first “skim”, building an overall impression, then dig down into individual categories to assign a score for each one. Then I step back and look at my numbers, and check whether everything makes sense and accurately records my impressions. When I’m satisfied, I add everything up and am done.

Most day-to-day problems aren’t so well structured or normalized, but nonetheless, I find myself tackling all kinds of problems with a similar approach. There you have it. Writing and drinking beer make you a better person. :) -m

Sunday, August 5th, 2007

The planetary air conditioner

If a free energy device (like this one) were really possible, simple economics would dictate that (as soon as patents expired, etc.) one or several would be found in every cell phone, iPod, notebook computer, desktop computer, appliance, automobile, airplane, house, building, and factory. That’s a lot of waste heat that would get dumped onto the planet’s surface, maybe even worse than burning-stuff-to-produce-greenhouse-gasses.

But if you have unlimited energy, it would be straightforward engineering to produce a large scale air cooling unit that would (beam|radiate|dissipate) heat into space. In effect, a planetary-scale air conditioner.

Remember when you were younger and you left a window open with the A/C on, and somebody said ‘what are you trying to do, cool off the whole outdoors?’ Finally an answer to that question. :)
November, National Novel Writing Month, is coming up. Could this be the kernel of a story? What other practical considerations would there be around free energy? Comment below.

-m

Sunday, June 24th, 2007

At that moment, I knew my business was Machine Ready

I fell asleep one night while reading Ray Kurzweil, and had this crazy dream where the internet called me up (over VOIP, naturally) to complain that none of my web pages made sense. Par for the course, I thought at first. But then I told the internet a few things, to let me worry about my own domain of concern; he/she/it grappled with a response when a loud noise awoke me–my chirping alarm clock. I reached over to pound the Snooze button, but I stopped when my eyes focused on the display, which read in segmented LED letters: I rtFm. -m

Tuesday, June 12th, 2007

The Writing Show: First-Chapter-of-a-Novel Contest

Once again, I am a judge for this year’s First-Chapter-of-a-Novel Contest hosted by The Writing Show. We’re looking for unpublished, less-than 4000 word entries.
Final deadline for submissions is June 15, so there’s just enough time left to put together your masterpiece and get it in. This year, there’s some serious prizes, and the top award will be chosen by popular crime fiction author C.J. Box. Go have a look at the rules for all the details.

There is a small entry fee, but every valid submission will get a 750+ word critique. For aspiring authors, you win either way. Now get to work! -m

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