March 31, 2006

Blog, why do I do it?

Should I scream out "for absolutely no reason!"? :p Actually, sometimes I do wonder why I continue to blog. In the old days, before blogging was a buzz-word and you didn’t have all the blogging sites and blogging tools, I remember that I hand coded my blog in DreamWeaver. I was hosted on Tripod at that time and that first Paleolithic blog actually served a purpose. I was doing LiteStep development at that point and since I was the sole developer on the project at that point, I used my blog (it wasn’t called a blog then – I don’t know if the term had been coined by then :p) to keep LiteStep users informed as to what was going on with development.

Then I left the LiteStep project and started my own break-away project, DarkStep. And the blog continued so that people can see what was going on with DarkStep, download new builds and so on. I believe these development blogs continued from 1999 till about 2000 – though I can’t be totally certain of the time frames now 🙂 In March of 2001, I think I first became aware of the actual concept of blogging and wanted to give it a go since it was suddenly the rage :p I think I set up a Blogger account as the first step and used it for about a week. I became tired of the constant service outages and the fact that sometimes I’d post an entry but it would not get published due to date/time inconsistencies or some other junk like that.

I believe I wanted to try GreyMatter at this point but Tripod would not let me run perl scripts at that point (not sure if does now). So I looked around a little bit longer for a good blogging alternative but didn’t find anything which did everything that I wanted. So, I decided to write my own and so, Blog was born :p So what with my development work on Blog and other software I was developing and all the users who were interested to know what was going on, there was actually a need for a blog and I kept the blog going. In fact, by this time the original blog on Tripod had developed two other mirrors courtesy of a couple of kind people who liked my development work 🙂

Eventually, the blog became such a tightly integrated part of my schedule and I was blogging about so many things both about day-to-day life stuff and coding related stuff, that I decided to create another blog for the personal stuff and keep the main blog limited to coding related issues. So, I created Solipsistic Meanderings – the main blog was called The Developer’s Corner at that time. The first instance of SM ran on Movable Type but I was writing my entries in an alternate version of Blog that I called BlogMan and was publishing via XMLRPC. After a while, I switched to WordPress when MovableType went commercial and BlogMan became integrated into Blog itself. Then life got really busy and my freeware coding slowed down and even SM went into a sort of hibernation for a while.

When SM finally did come out of its hibernation, I realized that maintaining two blogs was just too much hassle and so I combined The Developer’s Corner and Solipsistic Meandering back into one blog :p Yes, it’s been quite a long journey and in many forms. There were needs for this blog at certain points because it served a purpose. Now, I simply write because I want to. I don’t really know how many people read it any longer. I know some of the old readers from the days gone by still hang out here but most of my traffic seems to come from Google hits :p I sometimes wonder if there is a need for a blog any longer but since I enjoy writing it, I keep going 🙂

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Posted by Fahim at 7:26 am  |  1 Comment

March 30, 2006

Blogging, traffic and reasons

One of the writing forums I frequent also has a forum on blogging. Somebody mentioned BlogExplosion and BlogMad there recently as a means of increasing your blog traffic. Now I don’t particularly care about traffic to my blogs but I do like technology and so I decided to sign up for both and see how they work 🙂

They both work pretty much about the same. You sign up for free, create a profile, add your blog(s) to your profile and then you start earning credits by browsing the blogs of other members of the service. For each credit you earn, you get a visit sent your way by BlogMad or BlogExplosion. The differences between the two services are minimal. In fact, the only real difference that I see is that BlogExplosion gives you half a credit for visiting a member site but takes away a credit when a member visits your site. BlogMad on the other hand keeps it at a 1:1 ratio.

So how do they ensure that a member actually visits your site and stays long enough to read anything? :p That’s the tricky part. What both services do is to have little navigation bar at the bottom or top of the browser window while you visit member sites. Each time you go to a new member site, the navigation bar starts a little counter. You have to wait till the counter goes down to zero and then select a displayed number from a list of numbers to signify that you are actually doing the browsing instead of having a robot (or a macro) do it for you :p Of course, this still does not mean that the person actually reads the site.

And that’s the problem with both the services. I signed up yesterday and had 80 visitors from BlogMad (they give you some credits to start off with :p) and about 20 visitors from BlogExplosion but I’m not sure that any of them actually read my site. Or maybe I was just too boring for them to comment on :p Either way, I guess the issue is that there a lot of people out there who just want the traffic and aren’t interested in doing any real work to get it. So not sure that BlogMad or BlogExplosion works in the spirit they are intended to be used in …. Of course, that’s just my opinion 🙂

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Posted by Fahim at 8:46 am  |  1 Comment

March 29, 2006

Reel romantic relationships

We watched "Taxi 3" yesterday. This is the third instalment in the French "Taxi" movies – the same one which inspired the so much less funny "Taxi" starring Jimmy Fallon and Queen Latifah. Of course, the third part of the series wasn’t as funny as the first two or as exciting but that’s a different story. What did strike me while watching the movie was the fact that this is the third part in a series of movies and all the main characters were still with the same partners they started off on the first movie! And they say that Europeans are loose :p

What did strike me was the fact that not many Hollywood movie series actually keeps the same love interest in all the movies. About the only notable exceptions that I can think of are "Lethal Weapon" and "Die Hard" but then again in both those movies, the relationship angle actually took a backseat to the rest of the story line. If I recall correctly, Riggs does not fall in love till "Lethal Weapon 2" and in "Die Hard", McClane divorces his wife by the "Die Hard 2". However, in movies where the love story (sic) does play a part, they have the guy changing girls faster than he changes shirts :p Two classic examples would be "American Ninja" and "The Karate Kid".

Why exactly is that? Is that simply Hollywood saying that you have to have a new girl in each movie to keep the audience interested? Or is it a more subtle message which says that it is OK to not be faithful to your partner? Or that things change and that love is only an illusion? I am not so sure and am also not so certain that Hollywood actually understands the message that they send when they do stuff like that. On the other hand, if you listen to the conspiracy theorists, Hollywood knows exactly what it is doing :p

March 28, 2006

The weather-vane of life

We watched "The Weather Man" yesterday and if I was asked to describe the movie in one word, it would be "disappointing" :p The previews looked kind of good, it had Nicolas Cage and Michael Caine and so, I was like "what’s there not to like?" But as the movie progressed, I realized that there was a lot not to like …

The biggest problem for me was the fact that David Spritz, Cage’s character, was really anaemic. He just had nothing going for him that made him interesting. He was just a boring, bumbler who just seemed to have no clue about what was going on around him. I believe they were trying to do a "realistic" movie about a "real" guy. But the thing is, I watch movies to be entertained. Not to watch some idiot make a fool of himself over and over again and then be told that this is life, accept it.

I like Michael Caine as an actor. I love watching some of the characters he plays. Here, I liked his Robert Spritzel but not entirely. There seemed to be cracks in the character, things slightly out of synch. For instance, when he says "this shit life, we have to chuck some things" I’m not sure if it’s the character Robert who has trouble saying words like "shit" or if it is Caine himself. But then again, that part might be just my own perceptions rather than anything else.

Overall, the movie seemed like an apology for the current path that the world in general and America in particular, seemed to be taking. It seemed to say that it was OK not to be a good family man, that things would work out as long as you had money, that you didn’t have to try to change yourself because after a while you became who you were destined to be. It was full of a lot of concepts which were just apathetic and self-satisfied. When I watch a movie, I like people to beat the odds, put one over the system, to survive all that’s thrown at him/her or at the least, come out of things with a new understanding of themselves or the world. This movie had none of it and the only entertainment I found was when Shelly said "camel toes are tough" :p

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Posted by Fahim at 7:26 am  |  No Comments

March 27, 2006

Styling suggestions

After I wrote the post for yesterday, I realized that that particular post wasn’t going to help anybody except for those who are already familiar with Word. Since the whole point was about using Word effectively as a writer, I wrote another entry about how to use styles in Word to make your life easier for a writers’ forum that I’m involved in. I’m having a bit of a lazy day by posting that entry back here :p (Just remember that I was working with Word 2003 when I wrote the following and the same features/menu options might not be there in your version of Word)

One of the most important things to keep in mind in working with a Word document is to use custom formatting sparsely. What do I mean by custom formatting? I mean taking a line and increasing the font size and making it bold when you want a title or a heading. Instead, use the built-in styles in Word. How do you do this? Simply select the style you want from the Style Selector on your toolbar. What’s the advantage in doing it this way? If you want to change how your document headings or chapter headings look later, you only have one change to make instead of hunting for each chapter or section heading and modifying it individually – seriously 🙂

So how do you change a document heading later if you have used styles? Easy. Use the Styles and Formatting Pane. If you don’t have the Styles Pane open, you can show it by clicking Styles and Formatting … under the Format menu in Word. Once you have the pane open, select the style you want and you will note a little downward arrow next to the style name, click on it and you’ll get a menu. On that menu, you’ll see an item named "Modify …" – that’s the one you want. Simply modify the style and it will be automatically applied to all instances on the current document. Easy or what? 🙂

One particular use for this feature that I can think of is for italicised text. Some manuscript guidelines say that you should underline text in italics because italics don’t show up well. All you have to do is select "Italic" from the Style Pane, Modify it and add underlining. Have another agent/publisher who wants no underlines for italics? No problem, go there again, modify, remove underline! All it takes is a few seconds 🙂

That’s not all. You can see how many places you use a specific style. Yes, that doesn’t sound very useful but there will be times when you’ll actually want to know :p If you select a style and drop down the menu again, you’ll see that at the top of the menu it says Select All: Not Currently Used or Select All x instance(s). This basically lets you figure out how many times a certain style is used and also to select all instances of the style used on your document for further modifications.

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Posted by Fahim at 8:19 am  |  No Comments

March 26, 2006

The writer’s tools

They say that a good craftsman does not blame his tools. I would think it would be just as important for a good craftsman to know his/her tools 🙂 The sad thing is, that most writers don’t seem to think this is important. Take for instance your humble Word, the word processor of choice (or necessity) for most writers. Everybody and their grandmother seems to use Word, but how many use it effectively?

There are many resources online (free ones at that) which help you learn more about Word. But people either don’t know about them or think that they don’t need to know how to effectively use the program. Or, they are not aware that they are not effectively using Word. Take for instance this tip – it was displayed on the Word page I linked to above. It gives a lot of valuable information on formatting sections. But how many people take the time to read it? Then there’s the Crabby Office Lady, Office Tips & Tricks and the Microsoft Office Training site all of which have a lot of free information and advice that would be useful to Word users.

It was at one of these sites (I forget which) where I learnt about the top ten tips for working with Word documents. It was a live video training session and I would just like to list the top 10 tips just in case they are of any help to somebody else.

  1. Macros are a great time saver. You can easily record a macro to repeat a common task. Simply start the macro recorder and do what you need to do in Word. If you take some time to edit the recorded macro, you can take the power of the macros to a whole new level.
  2. Create and edit field codes directly – you can type in a field code and then select it and press CTRL+F9 to create a field and then F9 to update it. You can use ALT+F9 to show field codes.
  3. Use Open & Repair. If your Word document becomes corrupted, you can use the Open & Repair option to correct the document. The Word Open dialog has a drop down arrow next to the Open button – this allows you to select other Open options such as Open & Repair.
  4. Find & Replace is not just for words. You can use Find & Replace to find (and replace) special characters like a paragraph markers, formatting, styles or for specific text patterns.
  5. Sections. Word stores all of the formatting for your current section in the next section break except for the type of the section break – that is saved in the next section break. If you are aware of this, it helps you to understand a lot of the quirks of Word.
  6. Use tables to simplify complex documents since they allow you to layout your document just the way you want using tables.
  7. The styles and formatting pane – this pane allows you to select all instances using a specific style and to modify them all in one go. It also lets you see which styles are used and which aren’t in the current document.
  8. Use the ALT key when dragging anything on the ruler – this allows much better control and shows on-screen guides.
  9. Keyboard shortcuts – they make your life so much easier. CTRL+SHIFT+C and CTRL+SHIFT+V are much more powerful format painters than the toolbar button; F4 repeats the last action; CTRL+Q clears paragraph formatting; CTRL+SPACE clears character formatting.
  10. Take advantage of what the Word environment offers – use zoom, compare, revision tracking, the different view options, reveal formatting, the object browser etc. to make your life easier. Learn about each of these features.
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Posted by Fahim at 7:55 am  |  No Comments

March 25, 2006

That fiendish spam :p

First there were the blogs. Then came the comment systems. And then came blog spam. In the old days when Blogger was new and "blog" wasn’t a buzzword, we didn’t have to deal with stuff like comment spam. We could go online, post our thoughts and that would be that. Now, I spend most of my time weeding out comment spam on my blog than I do on actually writing an entry :p

Of course, comment spam mutated into trackback spam and then pingback spam. For the longest time, I would get up in the morning and would have hundreds of trackback spam entries to wade through and to delete. I then developed the WPBlacklist plugin for WordPress and that made things a bit easier – it would automatically delete all comments, trackbacks and pingbacks marked as spam. But as these things have a tendency to do, spammers got smarter. Simple blacklisting wasn’t enough after a while. They would consistently get around blacklisting, again and again. So I switched WordPress plugins to combat the problem.

I installed Bad Behaviour for WordPress and Spam Karma. For a few months, I had no trackback spam attacks and whatever comment spam that came my way was caught by Spam Karma most of the time. That was till a week or so ago. Instead of a couple of spam messages a night, I suddenly started getting ten or so a night. And then a couple of days ago, I started getting trackback spam again. Now I get about fifty spam messages a night. This is still a far cry from the hundreds that I used to get nightly but it looks as if that I might be back to that soon if this trend continues.

So I have to conclude one of two things – I have either become very popular amongst spammers or Bad Behaviour is not as effective as it used to be. Spam Karma still does tag all of this as spam and does not display it on my blog but the problem is that I have to wade through all this spam in the morning and delete it since Spam Karma simply holds the spam – it does not automatically delete it. The authors of both Spam Karma and Bad Behaviour have said that spammers are becoming smarter in how they write they spambots. Perhaps this is just an indication that this is true. If so, then it’s time for the next generation of weapons in the anti-spam arsenal. I just hope they get here soon :p

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Posted by Fahim at 7:58 am  |  No Comments

March 24, 2006

Holt comes to a halt

One of the biggest problems when you start writing yourself, at least for me, is that I can’t be as critical of other authors as I would be if I wasn’t writing :p Or maybe it’s just that I spend more time being critical because I write as well but don’t actually get anywhere 🙂 See, in the old days when I wasn’t watching what another writer wrote, I’d simply read a book, decide if I liked it or not and then move on to another book. If I liked the book I’d just read, then I’d read more by the same author, if not, then that is that. Now, there are so many shades of grey :p

I just finished Tom Holt’s "Here Comes the Sun" yesterday. I’d read his "Expecting Someone Taller" sometime before and I loved it. So, when I came across a bunch of Tom Holt’s a while back while book shopping, I had no hesitation in buying them. However, "Here Comes the Sun" kind of disappointed me. The thing is, it’s kind of difficult to put my finger upon it. Tom Holt writes well and there are many instances when I stop and say "Hey, I wish I could have come up with that" but the thing is that his way of being funny is kind of repetitive. The book is littered with funny sentences which go something along the lines of "he quivered like a bunny rabbit with a fever sitting on top of a running washing machine" (I made that up – that’s not from Holt … too lazy to get up and get the book :p). Individually, those statements are funny and I wish I could write half as well as that. But when you run into he did something like blah and she did something like blah and it was like blah over and over and over again, it becomes a bit monotonous. I still enjoy the individual sentences and the wit contained in them but overall, the book becomes a bit tedious. In fact, the book took me probably six months to finish :p

No, I’m not that slow a reader but I took a long break in between and then recently finished the last five chapters or so. IN doing so, I actually disocvered the best way to read the book – in small doses 🙂 I read a chapter each every day and finished it in five days! I will read the other Holt’s I’ve bought to see how his writing progresses since I believe "Expecting Someone Taller" was the earliest book and "Here Comes the Sun" comes next in order of publication. The other books I have from Holt are even newer. (Oh yeah, the title of the entry does not mean that my reading of Holt’s books have come to halt – just that my reading of "Here Comes the Sun" has come to a halt because I finished the book :p) But for the moment, I’m moving on to Pratchett again and am "Going Postal" :p

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Posted by Fahim at 8:04 am  |  No Comments

March 23, 2006

Maps and miscellanies

A couple of days ago, I came across Frappr while doing some web browsing and decided to join up myself 🙂 So I created a group for this site and put up up a map on the sidebar. Of course, it doesn’t seem to work too well since I can’t get the world beyond America to show up! Maybe there is no world beyond America? :p I honestly have no idea what is going on with Frappr but then again, my Net connection has been rather slow lately and so the map not showing correctly might be just a symptom of this overall issue.

Moving on, I constantly run into an interesting phenomena – the paranoia of authors 🙂 Now, given how many scammers seem to be out there and the variety of ingenious ways they seem to find to part poor, naive would-be authors from their money, you can’t really blame the authors for being imbued with a healthy sense of suspicion. But on the other hand, there can be such a thing as too much of anything 🙂

The problem is when instead of being simply wary, people start going down the "guilty until proven innocent" track. There is at least one writers’ forum that I’m part of where a publisher only has to come in and post that they are looking for submissions before the inquisition starts (and it’s not Spanish :p) You’d get a bunch of posts about how the said publisher does not have any sales or that they haven’t published anything recently or what not. Again, I can understand caution but every business has to start somewhere, right? A start up business is not going to have any publications to its credit. Does that automatically make it suspect? I for one, do not think so.

However, this is not to say that you should not proceed with caution in any dealings. Of course, this doesn’t apply just to writers but if you’re a writer, I guess you should be especially careful. If it seems too good to be true, it usually is :p If they start asking you for money, do some checking – no matter how trivial the amount or how reasonable the request. But, do not go around in fear all your life and do not stop submitting just because there are a lot of crooks out there 🙂

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Posted by Fahim at 7:09 am  |  No Comments

March 21, 2006

Writing and rewards

I found myself wondering today if writing is as rewarding as coding is 🙂 I do both but the thing is that recently, I have not had enough time and so I have to split my time between the two. I would work on one app, then write a story and then go back to another app and so on. However, the two do not come with equal rewards.

I code for the challenge. I like solving a problem and finding a way to do something that I had to do manually or finding a way to do something that I couldn’t do before. Most of my software applications were developed out of personal need. Of course, once I released the application, others have found it useful and have suggested features that I have added. Blog is probably the best illustration of this behaviour. Over the years, it has grown to have so many features that I don’t even use. But I like knowing that other people find it useful. However, I guess in the long run, I still develop Blog because I personally find it useful.

There’s this other app of mine Amanuensis, a writer’s editor, that I developed sometime back. I found it extremely useful in writing my first novel. Once I completed my first novel, I put Amanuensis development aside because I took the whole novel into Word and have been using Word since then to edit the novel and to write the several short stories that I have written since then. However, suddenly I find myself wanting to go back to Amanuensis and to finish the app and to add a few new features that I want it to have. Of course, to do that, I’d have to take time off from writing.

Now writing, that’s a lot more personal. I don’t think I write for enjoyment. I come up with the stories because it amuses me, true. But actually putting the story down on paper, stringing the words together – that’s work. So I write mostly because I want to publish and so, unlike with coding, there is no sense of achievement once I complete a story. The sense of achievement will be there when I actually get a story published. But before that, I have to go through the agony of waiting for a story to actually get through the submission process, the dejection of having a story rejected, the innumerable days of writing a new story, the weeks of revising the story and then going through the submission process all over again. I still find myself wondering if it’s really worth it … And I guess I will never know since publication is sort of an elusive dream :p

Sure, I’ve been published hundreds of times here in Sri Lanka and based on my publication history, I could probably get published here again without too much trouble. But now I want to be published outside Sri Lanka but that’s like starting all over again since nobody outside Sri Lanka really cares about your publication history in Sri Lanka :p But what happens once I get published once outside of Sri Lanka? I’ll want to get published again. And I’ll probably want to be published in different countries. And then I’ll want novels as well as short stories published. So it’s a never ending process with ever changing goals. Is it worth all that mental anguish? I really don’t know …

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Posted by Fahim at 8:18 am  |  No Comments

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