Archive for November, 2007

I did it! I wrote a novel in a month

Friday, November 30th, 2007

NaNoWriMo 2007 winner
What a crazy month it’s been. Computer gaming has fallen by the wayside as the largest chunk of my free time has been poured into the novel I’ve been working on for National Novel Writing Month. But I did it! I just finished, and a day early to boot! Check out my erratic rate of progress in this graph. Notice all the catching up I had to do in the end.

NaNoWriMo graph over time

My novel isn’t actually done though. It’s probably going to end up being at least 60,000 words long when all is said and done. But no matter. I’ve won NaNoWriMo by writing 50,000 words in under a month. Now I can finish the rest of it off (including that desperately needed editing) at a more leisurely pace.

So what have I learned? That I can do it. That’s really the biggest reward. Once you’ve written a novel in a month, well, suddenly there are lots of other things you realize are within your grasp. Like writing a good novel. I’m not going to pretend that the novel I’ve written is good. It was written in a month, at breakneck speed. There are large plot holes and inconsistencies owing to me making things up as I went along. But I finished, dammit, and that’s worth something. Writing a novel period is the hardest step. Going from that to writing a novel is a much easier step.

I’ll write some more about my novel in the coming days, what it’s about and all that good stuff. Maybe, if I’m feeling especially brave, I’ll post it for all the world to see when I’m done writing it. But for now, just allow me to bask in the glory of having completed it. I definitely need a bit of time to decompress. I’m very glad I did it, but it does take a good bit out of you.

Closing in on completing NaNoWriMo

Tuesday, November 27th, 2007

National Novel Writing Month, which I am competing in, ends on Friday, November 30th. Unfortunately, I’m only at 38,000 words. I need to reach 50,000 words to win. So I have three days left in which to write 12,000 words. Needless to say, I’m not going to have any free time for anything else. No computer games, no mindless web surfing, even no leisurely meals. I have to write, write, write.

And writing this blog entry is time taken away from writing, so I should probably stop.

/me goes off to work on his novel.

The key to blogging: filter your ideas

Sunday, November 25th, 2007

I’m looking in dismay at my 29 saved WordPress drafts right now. Some of them have been sitting around for months. I’m too fond of them to delete them outright, but I know, deep down, that they’re simply not good enough to become a post on this blog, so I’ve abandoned them. But what makes an idea suitable for evolving into a fully-fledged blog post?

I’ve stumbled across one of the largely unwritten rules about blogging: filter your ideas. You’re able to easily come up with all sorts of ideas that are interesting to you, but most of them wouldn’t make for a good blog post. In the interests of approaching this topic a rigorously, here is a useful checklist you can use to determine if an idea is worth blogging about:

  1. Is your idea interesting? This isn’t to say you shouldn’t write about niche subjects, especially if your blog covers niche subjects (for example, I write GNU/Linux tutorials here on this blog from time to time). An idea is interesting independently of how large its addressable audience is. For instance, a lot more people have cats as pets than run GNU/Linux, but a post about this cute thing my cat did the other day is a lot less interesting and useful than a comprehensive tutorial on, say, installing WordPress on Ubuntu Linux. Put yourself in your readers’ shoes and honestly ask yourself if anyone would be interested in spending their valuable time to read about it. As a corollary to this rule, make sure that your idea is insightful as well as interesting (this is related to numbers 4 and 5 below).
  2. Is your idea time-sensitive? If your idea consists of a response to a current event, you better get that written up and out the door immediately. Otherwise, the idea will quickly become useless. My drafts folder is full of half-written responses to current events from months ago, events that are now, on web time scales, ancient history. I ran into the same problem when I was an opinion columnist for my university’s newspaper. My column came out every other week, so during the off week, there would often be news I was interested in but wouldn’t be able to write a column about because the news would be stale by then.
  3. Is your idea specific enough? You need to actually have something to say. If you start off with a vague idea, the post just isn’t going to go anywhere. Vague ideas work for writing books (e.g. my idea is Cryptography, so I’m going to go write a History of Cryptography book), but not for blog posts. Blog posts are short in comparison to novels, so you only have the space to talk about one small thing in depth. Don’t try to talk about everything there is to say about a subject; blogging simply isn’t the format for that.
  4. Does your idea have depth? Your idea must have some depth to it. Along with the prior rule, this translates into “Depth, not breadth”. Lacking depth is fatal for an idea, because short blog posts are generally worthless. If you don’t have anything to say about a subject, don’t bring it up at all. Writing lots of little short posts each day on disparate subjects isn’t blogging, it’s twittering.
  5. Can you do your idea justice? I have lots of things I’d love to talk about — how to bring about world peace, for instance — but I simply couldn’t do that idea any justice. It’s beyond me. Focus on the things you know about. Blog posts are at their best when they’re written by an expert on the subject. That way, the majority of the readers will actually be learning something. No one wants to read the uniformed opinions of amateurs. If you’re totally out of your depth and you can’t contribute in any meaningful way to the discourse, then pick something else to write about. A possible exception would be writing about the experience of learning how to do something (for example, amateur telescope making). Fellow amateurs will enjoy reading about a subject from the viewpoint of someone who knows little more than they do, while experts may enjoy seeing their field from the perspective of new eyes. If you’re writing in this manner, be sure to never write in an authoritative manner.

Keep these guidelines in mind and you’ll find yourself on your way to a better blog in no time. In case you doubt these guidelines, to verify their validity, just go take a careful look at some popular blogs that you frequently read. You’ll notice a curious absence of posts violating these guidelines.

Slow and steady wins the telescope-making race

Saturday, November 24th, 2007

A Ronchi test on my mirror as of 2007-11-16
The amateur telescope making (ATM) workshop wasn’t open yesterday on account of Thanksgiving, but I still haven’t written up a progress report yet on last week’s workshop, so I’ll go ahead and do that now. But first, allow me to talk about the others in the workshop, because there are some fascinating people there without whose help I would not be able to go on.

The workshop has been getting really busy lately. Guy, the guy who runs the workshop, says this always happens around autumn. I believe it. Last week I counted a record sixteen people at the workshop (it had been as low as four a month prior). Many people there are just starting on their projects, while others are returning from long absences to finish theirs up. A father is making a 8″ scope with his young son. A young man in the Armed Forces is making an 8″ scope, and last week his high school aged (?) friend joined him, making his own 6″ scope. There are also several older people making scopes, one of whom is quickly catching up with me.

Then there are the veterans, the people who’ve done it all before, multiple times, and just show up to hang out with friends or make steady progress on their projects in the company of others. One man has at least ten different mirrors and lenses under various stages of construction. He’s also built a mirror-matic at home that he uses for rapidly hogging out and polishing mirrors (it can be done faster than a human with a lot less effort).

Another man, an electrical engineer, is currently working on the automatic grinder in the workshop, which was built and then donated by a previous person at the workshop who gave up on their mirror. The automatic grinder needs a lot of work, but it is salvageable. He also likes singing and playing piano, and he’ll occasionally entertain the rest of us by playing on the piano in the workshop (it doubles as a music instruction room; the piano sits right next to the vaccum chamber).

And then there’s Bill, who seems to find a sense of zen in telescope-making. He polishes really slowly, trying to create the perfect mirror with no imperfections at all. But he doesn’t even keep the end products of his work. He donates them to Guy, who either sells them to raise funds for the workshop or uses them in telescopes for a weekend program he teaches at for inner-city DC youth. Guy recently built three brightly-colored telescopes that he uses to get the kids interested in science. As far as I know, the mirrors were all donated by Bill. Bill has been trading blanks with Guy to build more mirrors out of, and he’s also taken on a few mirror projects abandoned by people who stopped showing up at the workshop long ago, leaving their projects unfinished.

So that’s the story of who shows up to the workshop. It’s a really great group of people, with a nice mixture of ages. Everyone is there because they want to be, not because they have to be. It’s thus a much different atmosphere than, say, school or work.

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Why I quit Facebook and you should too

Wednesday, November 21st, 2007

These recent revelations about Facebook’s increasing violations of privacy were the last straw for me. I no longer want to be any part of it, so I’ve deactivated my account and I’m not going back. I was never a big Facebook user to begin with. I logged in very seldomly, mostly just to find contact details for others from my school. I never bothered uploading any pictures, and the ones that my friends tagged me in frequently proved to be more of a liability than an asset. Basically, I was a member of Facebook not because I enjoyed it, but because I begrudgingly saw the benefits of allowing easy contact with my fellow students. But I’m finished with school now, and the risks far outweigh the benefits.

I don’t want Facebook tracking everything I do and making some of it available without my knowledge. It makes me uncomfortable. I want to be the only one deciding what is put out there about me. I simply don’t trust Facebook to protect my personal information when they actively profit off of sharing that information. This latest news about using personal information in advertising was the last straw for me. I simply don’t want anything more to do with Facebook. I’m taking my ball and going home.

However, I do worry that, by deactivating my account, I’m cutting myself off from some of my friends from UMD. I suppose that’s also part of the insidious nature of Facebook: you become dependent on its proprietary platform for basic things like contacting your friends or sharing photographs, and thus there is significant pressure on not leaving Facebook, even if you are concerned about privacy implications. But I won’t hold myself hostage to that. If anyone from UMD really needs to contact me, they should be able to find me through a simple Google search. Maybe they’ll even find this post.

If you’re one of my friends from UMD trying to contact me, Ben McIlwain, do so either by sending me an instant message on AIM at screen name Cyde2 or sending an email to cydeweys AT gmail DOT com.

Gentoo Linux tutorial: Playing m4a song files in Amarok

Wednesday, November 21st, 2007

Several years ago, I bought many albums from the iTunes Music Store. I know, it was a stupid thing to do, and I regret it. But back then, I had a PowerBook (which has since broken), so everything “just worked”. Well, I have a new laptop now that I’m running GNU/Linux on, so it no longer “just works”. Luckily, I’ve found a solution that does work.

The first step is stripping the abysmal “FairPlay” DRM (that’s Digital Restrictions Management to those in the know) off of the encrypted m4p song files that I purchased. This was fairly easy using a program called QTFairUse — unfortunately, it only runs on Windows. You won’t find anything to do it under GNU/Linux because it needs to use iTunes to work.

So once I stripped the encryption off the .m4p files, I was left with these .m4a song files. They’re not encrypted, but they’re also not a very widely used format, and aren’t supported by most audio player software. The simplest solution would just be to transcode them to ogg or mp3, but that’s a bad idea. You shouldn’t ever convert from one lossy format to another. It’s like making a xerox copy of a xerox copy; the quality loss accumulates. Now if you have a non-iPod portable digital music player, you don’t really have many choices, because none of them support m4a. Personally, I don’t see anything ethically wrong with downloading nice quality mp3s of songs you’ve already purchased just to avoid the transcoding quality loss, but I’m sure the law disagrees with me there.

Anyway, I digress. This tutorial is about playing m4a files natively under Gentoo GNU/Linux, without having to transcode them and suffer a loss of quality. It works perfectly for me, since I don’t even use my portable digital music player anymore. I just play everything on my computers. I’ll be using my favorite Free Software audio player program in this tutorial, Amarok. Luckily, everything necessary for the playback of m4a files is already in the source code — it just isn’t compiled in by default. So we’ll have to modify the USE flags to get it to work. But don’t fret; this is a very common procedure in Gentoo GNU/Linux.

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Now this is how to oppress women

Tuesday, November 20th, 2007

Three cheers to Saudi Arabia, our supposed ally in the Middle East, for showing us their mastery of the art form of the oppression of women.

A 19-year-old woman was meeting a man to retrieve a photograph when the two were abducted and gang-raped by a group of seven men. The two victims were each sentenced to 200 lashes and 6 months in jail while the attackers were each sentenced with 2-9 years in jail.

Now you may be wondering why a rape victim and the victim of an abduction would be punished along with the actual rapists and abductors. Well, it turns out, they weren’t so innocent after all! They had the gall of meeting with each other without being married!

Al-Lahim said the man tried to blame his client for insisting on meeting him that day. It is illegal for a woman to meet with an unrelated male under Saudi’s Islamic law.

Saudi Arabia is the kind of company we keep simply because we are so addicted to oil that we need friends in the region, no matter how sick and twisted they are. Need I remind you, 15 of the 19 September 11 hijackers came from Saudi Arabia. Yet here we are, propping up this disgusting country, when we really should be giving them the kind of scorn that we’re wasting on the likes of Iran and Venezuala.

If we redirected just 10% of the amount we spend on oil from the Middle East to R&D on solar and wind power technologies, we’d be completely independent from the Middle East for energy within a decade. Yet it’s not going to happen because the oil companies are powerful, and Republicans, the ostensible “national security” party, are firmly in their pockets.

Besides all of the advantages of not being dependent on the Middle East for energy, and all of the effects on the environment, I’d like to see us independent from foreign oil for another reason: so we could tell Saudi Arabia to go fuck themselves.

As expected, caffeine was the culprit

Monday, November 19th, 2007

Last week, I blogged about experiencing lethargy on the weekends, suspecting that caffeine was the culprit. It turns out I was right. Since then, I’ve limited myself to one caffeinated beverage per day, no later than 13:00, and I haven’t been experiencing any of the problems that I reported then.

It’s funny that it took me so long in life to consciously decide to limit my caffeine intake, though perhaps not surprising. My major in university was Computer Science, and as you know, caffeine is the lifeblood of geeks. On days when I had to get some serious programming done, drinking two energy drinks and soda was not uncommon. Yet my intake back then was still pretty irregular; I never went for ten days straight, drinking a lot each day, then ceasing intake abruptly. Thus I never really experienced the withdrawals.

On the other hand, in hindsight, I’m very sure that I experienced a disruption of my sleep cycle as a result of all of that caffeine intake. Thanks to Wikipedia, I know that the half-life of caffeine in a healthy person’s bloodstream is six hours. For example, drink four cans of caffeinated soda at noon and you still have a whole can’s worth of caffeine in your bloodstream at midnight — more than enough to disrupt your ability to get to sleep. I can definitely remember nights in which I drank an energy drink at around 18:00 and was unable to get to bed until the wee hours of the morning.

The lucky thing about caffeine is that it isn’t nearly addictive as most other drugs (such as alcohol, nicotine, or FSM forbid, crack cocaine). It’s very easy to break a caffeine addiction. Just go cold turkey starting around Friday after noon. You will have a miserable, lethargic weekend, but by Monday, you will mostly be back to normal. If only it were so easy for smokers or alcoholics. I suppose this is why the FDA tolerates caffeine in our sodas and coffee but not, say, nicotine.

I just hope I don’t have to turn in my nerd card now that I don’t have a three sigma caffeine intake.

Culture jamming Christmas lights

Monday, November 19th, 2007

I grew up in an interesting household. We had all the cultural trappings of two religions, Judaism and Christianity, even though nobody seriously believed in the stuff. We had Christmas trees, menorahs, Easter egg hunts, matzoh, prayers in Hebrew, and Christmas lights. It was a big, fun, mishmash, and I’m glad for the experiences because I have lots of fond memories to reminisce upon. But, now that I’m older, I want to do something that expresses my own beliefs, not something that expresses beliefs I do not share.

Judging by retail outlets, Christmas is right around the corner, so I’ve started thinking about what I could do with Christmas lights that wouldn’t be mistakable. I’ve seen some Jews in my area string up blue lights in combination with a large mock menorah, thus proving it’s possible to use strings of little lights in a way that is unambiguously not Christian (and really, Christians cannot claim to have a monopoly on lights). So what works well as an atheist holiday light display?

I’m having trouble coming up with something. My best idea so far is a red A made by cutting a large letter A out of plywood, painting it white, and covering it with strings of red lights. It’d basically be a lighted version of this design:


The problem is that most people won’t know what it means. Even some fellow atheists I’ve talked to weren’t aware of this symbolism. I suppose atheism just doesn’t have good symbols like religions — but c’mon, we should! If anyone can come up with a good idea for my holiday lights display, please let me know in the comments. Otherwise, I guess I’ll just go with the A.

NaNoWriMo is half over and I am half done

Friday, November 16th, 2007

National Novel Writing Month, which I am competing in this year, is now officially half over, fittingly enough seeing as how half of November is gone. Not so coincidentally, I just wrote word 25,000 of my 50,000 word novel. That means I’m on track to successfully complete NaNoWriMo on time! Amazingly, my pace is not slowing down.

I’m not going to say a lot about my novel just yet (more will be revealed in a future post), but part of the trick of successfully completing NaNoWriMo is having the action unfold at a glacial pace. Let’s just say I have lots of conversation and description. Hopefully, that means the book has more of a literary quality to it (and not just a boring quality). I say the plot is moving glacially because, half-way through the novel, I finally introduced two of my three main characters together. Before that, they had never even met. In 25,000 words. Yeah, I’m thinking I could easily go way past 50,000.

Most of my writing energies are going into my novel, yet curiously, I’m still able to update this blog regularly. Want to know where I’m finding the free time? I’m not spending nearly as much time playing games. And the thing is, I’m not missing them either. Maybe I should make more of a habit of this in the future. Doing NaNoWriMo is helping me to realize that I play games for idle amusement and simply to pass the time. But I feel a lot more of a sense of accomplishment when I use that time for something I can actually have an accomplishment to show for it, like a novel I’ve written. So, once November finishes up and I finish up my novel, I’ll have to figure out something else worthwhile to distract me from games. Wonder what that could be?