April 30, 2006

Wordsmithing tools of the trade

I am in the process of setting up a new notebook computer and so have had to re-install all of the software tools that I use on a day to day basis. In hte process, I came to realize just how many tools that I use quite frequently for writing 🙂

If we take things sequentially, I started the morning yesterday by using Blog, one of my own apps, to write this blog. Then, I received a rejection for a query that I’d sent out via e-mail (let’s not even get into e-mail and web browsers in the writing process :p) and so had to fire up another one of my apps, WriteTrack, to enter the rejection into my tracking database. I then installed MindManager since all of my story ideas are mind mapped so that I can keep track of the connections between different stories and also keep different sections of a single story – such as characters, locations, history etc. – connected.

Towards mid-day, I started installing Office 2003 since I needed to start working on again on my latest short story and all my works in progress are in Word format. There was a time I used my own editor (which saved everything in RTF format) for my writing but overall, I prefer Word since it has all the features I want and it gives me more time to write since I don’t have to spend my time coding a new feature in to my editor :p

After work, I did some editing and realized that some of my other writing tools were missing 🙂 So I installed WordWeb and Visual Thesaurus. I’ve been using both of these tools for a long time now. They are great for looking up words and for making associations between different words. I have WordWeb running from my system tray and since it will give you the definition for any word highlighted in the current windows with a simple hotkey combination, I use it to check my spelling (or to see which variation of spelling is correct if I’m confused as to if I’m using American or British spelling) and to play all those scrambled word games 🙂 Visual Thesaurus comes out when I need to do $more heavy duty work – such as find a non-adverb replacement for a word or find a suitable alternative for an oft used word.

The above are just the day to day tools that I use all the time. There are others which are not so often used (and which I have not yet installed on my computer). There’s PlotCraft, another one of my own creations, which I use to keep track of story ideas and quotations. Then there’s TheSage – another interesting dictionary and thesaurus which is absolutely free! Sequence Publishing, the people who developed TheSage, also have a couple of other writing tools which are worth taking a look at too!

This is just the tip of the ice berg. There are a lot more tools out there (both free and for a fee) which can help you write better or to organize your writing process. Sometimes, I feel that I spend more time looking at tools than actually writing :p However, it is undeniable that the correct combination of tools does help you, if writing is your craft 🙂

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Posted by Fahim at 6:32 am  |  2 Comments

April 29, 2006

The return of purchase pains :p

If I thought that my notebook purchase problems were after day-before-yesterday’s trials, I was sorely mistaken – as I found out yesterday :p Of course, this being Sri Lanka and my fellow Sri Lankan’s being notorious for this kind of thing, I did expect this new turn of events …

I called the notebook place again to see what was happening with the RAM situation since they’d told me the day before that I would have my 2GB of RAM yesterday. Of course, when I call them, they say that I will have my RAM on Monday! So I casually ask, "I’ll be getting my USB thumb-drive then as well?" and the guy (this is the sales guy that I had originally dealt with) says, "No. I told you last night over the phone that you can’t have that and drop the 2.6% on the card as well …."

I tell him that that was before they bungled up my RAM and that the guys who were in the store at the time I was there the night before agreed to drop the 2.6% and to give me the USB thumb-drive and what is more, that they wrote all this down on the invoice. But this guy is adamant – I can’t have the USB thumb-drive! I tell him that I’d been patient with them up to that point and that they had been constantly delaying stuff and that they’d better be nice and meet me halfway or that I was going to cancel the order :p The guy says that he’s got to talk to his boss and get back to me. I give him half an hour and of course, I get no call back after 40 minutes had elapsed. I call him back and he says that his boss said to give me the USB thumb-drive and that he’d get me everything on Monday. So that’s where we stand now.

This again is typical behaviour for Sri Lanka and not something that I’m proud of about my countrymen (and women) 🙁 An agreement means nothing to them and they’d rather say "yes" because they hate to say "no" (because they think it somehow is bad to say "no") and so they’d rather give you a promise that they can’t keep than tell you outright that they can’t deliver something on a given date. I asked the sales guy specifically before I placed the order whether he could deliver everything on the date he specified and he promised that he’d do so. Now he tells all sorts of stories ranging from "it’s my boss’s fault" to "you have the notebook and 1GB of RAM and that’s enough for you to work with". Ah, Sri Lanka! I hope the people change sooner rather than later …

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Posted by Fahim at 9:49 am  |  No Comments

April 28, 2006

Purchase pains strike back!

Yesterday, I mentioned all the stuff that had transpired up to the event of getting a new notebook computer for me. If you thought that was bad, that’s nothing compared to the events of yesterday :p

I call the sales guy at the computer shop around noon to find out what is going on since his boss had said that the computer should be there by about noon (but he did ask till 5 o’clock to deliver the unit in case there were unforeseen delays). The guy says that he has no idea – all he knows is that I’m supposed to get the notebook by 5 o’clock. I ask him to call his boss to find out what is going on and he promises to call me back. As usual, no call. So I call him again and we go through a weird phone-warp because they seem to be having phone trouble – I get connected to (seemingly) hundreds of other conversations. There are all these people going "hello" and trying to say stuff over each other’s voices – truly surreal. Anyway, he says that his boss had said that I’ll get the computer on time and that’s it. So I wait.

I get a call around 3:30pm saying that they’ve finally got the machine and to come pick it up. I can barely contain my excitement (yeah, right :p) and we leave after work to go get the computer. We get there, take a look at the machine and it looks fine. So I say fine, I’ll take it. Then starts the trouble :p

First, I had to pay the rest of the money. The last time we paid, they made a song and dance about paying by credit card. Apparently, their bank charges them 2.6% on credit card transactions and so they wanted to pass that on to me. I said, no. I had bought another notebook from them about a year ago and I didn’t have to pay 2.6% extra then. So how come I have to pay the 2.6% now? The guy had backed down and agreed to not charge me 2.6% and I told him that if it was easier for them, I’ll try to bring cash for the rest of the payment. Given all the back and forth we had about getting the computer, I never did get cash out and so when we wanted to pay the other half, I proffered my card again. And again, the whole drama about 2.6%. The sales guy wasn’t there this time – the one I’d dealt with before. So they call him and he’s like "we have to charge you interest". I’m like, you guys were supposed to get me the computer days ago, what about that? He’s like, "well, our boss is giving you a thumb-drive and so we can’t do that and deduct the 2.6% as well." So I said, "Fine, drop the thumb-drive and drop the 2.6%" and the guy finally agreed.

Then, they try to upgrade the notebook to 2GB RAM. I had asked for the notebook with 2GB RAM instead of the standard 1GB it came with and I had hoped that they’d get it as 2GB from the dealer. Oh no, they were going to bring the notebook down and do the RAM swap in the showroom. Guess what? The notebook had two RAM slots and they were taken up by two 512MB DDR2 sticks and they’d gotten one 1GB stick to upgrade the machine :p This despite the fact that the sales guy himself had told me that the machine had two 512MB sticks and that they’d have to put in two 1GB sticks – so it wasn’t as if they (or at least somebody there) didn’t know about this. And they say that they can’t find another 1GB stick in a hurry. I throw a fit – mostly for effect since they gave me all that hassle about the 2.6% – and tell them that I want to speak to their boss. The poor guys in the store (I feel sorry for them – I really do …. it wasn’t actually their fault – it was more of an organizational thing) are sweating by this time. They really didn’t want me speaking to their boss but I spoke to him anyway just so that he’d know how incompetent he and his whole team were – they were only interested in flinging blame elsewhere and not in getting the issue resolved. The boss assures me that the issue will be resolved soon.

The guy at the store is supposed to find out about replacement RAM but he takes his sweet time on the phone talking to another customer while we sit there cooling our heels and this doesn’t improve my mood :p The guy says that he can’t get another 1GB in a hurry and after some talking, threatening to cancel the order and so on, I finally agree that we will take the machine with the 1GB stick and that they can get us another 1GB later. Then comes the next shocker – the 1GB stick they have is DDR RAM and not DDR2! I have another fit (again for effect) and then they tell me that they will bring the 2GB over personally and replace the RAM at our house instead of us having to make the trip again. I say that I’ll agree to that as long as they throw the thumb-drive in as well :p By this time, I think they are ready to give me anything – even the whole store – just to get me out of there 🙂 So they unobtrusively wipe the sweat off their brows and agree. We take the notebook with the existing two sticks of 512MB RAM, tell them that we’ll see them tomorrow and leave. But will they have the replacement RAM? Will they actually give us the thumb-drive? Tune in tomorrow for the exciting conclusion of … purchase pains 🙂

Posted by Fahim at 7:43 am  |  No Comments

April 27, 2006

Purchase pains

We are currently trying to get a new notebook computer for me since my current one is showing signs of age and we don’t want it to suddenly go on strike and leave me without a machine. Since this is Sri Lanka, it is not as simple as walking into the computer store, picking the model you want, paying for it and walking out. Oh, no :p

Here, most of the display models are low-end machines 🙂 If you want a high-end machine, you have to pick the model you want, talk to the store, let them know what you want, wait for them to get the pricing from Singapore or somewhere, place the order and then wait a week or two (or three) till the computer actually arrives. Yes, a lot of work to get a new machine :p All this extra waiting is compounded by the fact that my fellow Sri Lankans seem to have no grasp of delivery dates or customer service. As somebody (who is himself a Sri Lankan) put it, when they say tomorrow, you have got to ask them "which tomorrow"? For most of them, tomorrow is simply a an indefinite day in the future which is "not today" 🙂

Well, we picked the model I wanted and we placed the order last Monday (the 17th) and that brought up the another little Sri Lankan business practice – the advance :p You have to pay an advance on an order (it might be as little as a few hundred – or thousand – rupees or it might be half the value of the order) as a sign of good faith. It is also insurance against the customer saying that they don’t want the ordered item after they’ve got it down from Singapore or wherever 🙂 So, these guys wanted an advance but we couldn’t get there immediately since I had work. I said that I’d come by Saturday and pay the advance but for them to go ahead with the order since I wanted the computer fast. They said OK and that I’d have the notebook by Monday (the 24th).

We go there on Saturday (the 22nd) to give them the advance and I get the distinct feeling that while the order has indeed been placed, that I won’t get the computer by Monday. So I tell the guy that if I don’t get the computer by Monday, I’m going to cancel the order. He calls his boss and the boss says that I’ll get the computer by Wednesday "for sure".

Wednesday was yesterday. I call the salesman in the morning and he says that he can’t reach his boss. To give him 10 minutes and he’ll call back. Half an hour goes, nothing from him. I call him back and he says his boss still hasn’t called back. I give him an hour. I call back after an hour and a half. He says, still nothing from his boss and that he’ll call me back in 10 minutes. 10 minutes goes by. Nothing. I call him back and say that if I don’t hear from him by 2:30 (which was about 20 minutes away) that they can cancel the order. I call him at 2:30 and he says he’s got his boss on the other line and a few minutes later says that they’ll have the computer by 6:00pm for sure. I say "OK but if it doesn’t arrive today, I’m cancelling the order" and hang up.

About an hour or two later, I get another phone call – this time from the boss. He says that he’s very sorry but that he got delayed due to a meeting and couldn’t get all the necessary documents to the clearing agent to clear the computer from customs – could I give him till tomorrow evening to get me the computer? I tell him that I was fine with that but for every day he delays, I’m going to deduct Rs. 500 from the price. He seems to be fine with that and says that he’ll even throw in a USB thumb-drive to make up for the delay. That is where we are now 🙂

For the longest time, Sri Lankan businesses have not had any sense of customer service. I personally believe that this is because in the old days, you had one shop to an area and you had to deal with them or do without. So, the whole attitude of "it’s my shop and you can buy from me at my terms or walk out" was born and it has become so inculcated into society that people are finding it difficult to wean themselves away from that mentality. However, things are changing, albeit a bit slowly, here in Sri Lanka. I am not, overall, displeased with my dealings with the computer vendor so far – they do seem to have managed to get the notebook into the country within 10 days of the order being placed and are trying to make amends for the delay. That is a major improvement for Sri Lanka 🙂 The only thing I have a problem is that I have to keep at them to get them to actually deliver on time :p

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Posted by Fahim at 6:26 am  |  1 Comment

April 26, 2006

Hit and Myth

We watched "The Myth" (or "San wa" which is the Chinese/Hong Kong title I believe) yesterday and it was an interesting experience. It was a Jackie Chan movie but a completely different JC movie than I’d seen before – there was the usual JC style physical comedy stuff, but there was also a bit of science fiction, a historical story, fantasy elements and even a love story. The problem was that it tried to be way too many things in one movie :p

In fact, it played out a lot like two separate stories – one set in the time of the Qin dynasty, two hundred years or so before Christ and the other set in the modern day in what looks like Hong Kong. The historical story is about Meng-Yi, a general in Emperor Shi Huang-ti‘s army, who finds himself in love with the emperor’s concubine. The modern day story is about an archaeologist named Jack Chan (I bet you won’t be able to guess who plays him :p) who remembers bits and pieces of Meng-Yi’s life as the story progresses.

Jackie Chan drops the usual cop role that he plays all the time and assumes the guise of an archaeologist with gusto reminding one of a modern day Indiana Jones with those fluttering fists and flying kicks in place of the whip :p The frequent references to tomb raiders makes one think that Lara Croft is right around the bend somewhere but Jackie never comes close to looking as good as Lara :p The fight in the glue factory with Mallika Sherawat gradually losing her clothing probably would keep some entertained while the sheer comedy of the fight in the glue factory will keep others in stitches.

The transitions between the modern story and the historical story were jerky and not very well done. The way the story unfolded, you only got glimpses of the historical story and you never are sure if they are in chronological order or not and if there was a relevance to some of the flashbacks (like the fight with the Indian prince) except to move the story forward. The fantasy bits with the immortality pill and the hidden underground city were a bit too much and stretched the suspension of belief to it’s utmost limits. And the ending was rather flat.

It’s an enjoyable movie and an interesting experience because of the multi-national, multi-lingual (you get Cantonese, Korean, English and probably Malayalam) aspect of the movie. The fights were interesting and the humour pretty good at times but the story seems a little bit too thin overall. But still, you might enjoy it for the sheer novelty factor 🙂

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Posted by Fahim at 6:44 am  |  No Comments

April 25, 2006

Round and round it goes …

The whole thread of searches and information found in the process from that original reference to Asoka in my blog has been somewhat fascinating 🙂 First, it led to the Nine Unknown Men and now it’s led me by way of yesterday’s entry (which referenced Philip Jose Farmer) to the Wold Newton family :p

Yes, I know, you’re probably bursting with curiosity by this time to learn what the Wold Newton family is (yeah, right :p) but let me sidetrack for a moment (and if you’re really impatient, you can go follow the link above and come back here later :p). I have read Farmer’s "The Other Log of Phileas Fogg" a long time ago and was fascinated by it. I liked the alternate story behind Verne‘s "Around the World in 80 Days" and how deftly Farmer wove in and out of the story written by Verne. I’ve also read quite a bit of other stuff by Farmer and have been fascinated by his alternate takes on fictional characters. However, I had not been aware of his theory/history about the Wold Newton family and how they encompass a lot of different fictional heroes from all areas of fiction.

I’ve always been fascinated by family trees and grand sweeping sagas which span decades (if not centuries or millennia) and paint a majestic mural of dashing individuals on the canvas of time 🙂 (Woah, talk about wordy sentences :p) I’ve only attempted one such story myself and that was a long time ago. It could almost be called my first "real" story. It was about a family named Forman who left Earth to colonize a planet circling a star in the Sagittarius system. It had the grand sounding title of "The Sagittarian Saga". Initially, the story was just about the Forman family on the new planet after centuries of being there but later, I began adding more family members and more history. There was the story of Professor William Forman, the founder of the Forman clan and then Jano Forman, who actually discovered the means to leave Earth and so on.

Now that I think about it, perhaps Farmer (and a few other writers who liked to link things together) influenced me unconsciously when I wrote these stories (never mind the fact that I hadn’t read Farmer when I originally started the stories :p But the history is a bit vague in my mind and I might have gotten to Farmer by the time I started adding to the history of the Forman family …) I know for a fact that my later reading of the greatest linker of totally-unrelated-and-disparate facts, Terry Pratchett, has certainly influenced my style of writing these days. So perhaps, Farmer did too. And perhaps, I owe him a debt of gratitude 🙂

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Posted by Fahim at 7:00 am  |  No Comments

April 24, 2006

Grab bag

Sometimes, when you go hunting for something, (not snipe :p) you find something much more interesting 🙂 For instance, a few days ago, I was talking about King Asoka of India and in the process of browsing through his Wikipedia entry I happened to stumble upon a reference to the Nine Unknown Men.

Now I’m a conspiracy theory nut (OK, maybe nut is too strong a term – I don’t live and breath conspiracy theories but I do enjoy hearing them and coming up with ones of my own :p) and so I immediately pricked up my ears and went over to the new Wikipedia entry. I must say that the entry kept me enthralled (and immersed) for quite a while – much like the reference to snipe hunting that I linked above. (Incidentally, I don’t know if I’ve heard the term snipe hunt before a couple of days ago but since then I’ve come across it a couple of times and wanted to see what it was all about – good stuff :p)

But back to the Nine Unknown Men. Apparently, the story goes that India actually presents a facade of being a technologically backward/developing country whereas it actually is far more advanced than the other countries in the world. The story continues on to say that this is due to the efforts of King Asoka, who realized that there was a certain kind of knowledge that would always be used for evil in the hands of humanity and so set up the group of Nine Unknown Men to guard this knowledge so as to ensure that it didn’t fall into the wrong hands.

From all I can gather, this story/theory was not started by Indians themselves but rather by a few Europeans who visited India and later wrote about this mysterious cabal. Of course, later, the theory seems to have been picked up by Indians as well and it is said that some prominent Indian scientists are believed to be either part of the Nine or in communication with the Nine regarding various subjects such as microbiology, alchemy, communication and gravitation. In fact, there are quite a few corollary stories such as the one about a secret temple under the Ganges River which cleanses the water of the rive using radiation (or microbes according to another account).

It’s an interesting theory and if you want to write a story, there’s enough material for several books. In fact, the whole story for some reason reminds me of a Philip Jose Farmer novel (or rather, an amalgamation of several). Now that I’ve read about them, the Nine Unknown Men are probably going to turn up in my own writing at one point or another – just not in the same way that they’ve been portrayed before :p

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Posted by Fahim at 7:09 am  |  No Comments

April 23, 2006

Whine, dinner and song

I’m tired today. I’m soooo tired today 🙂 And it’s all because of lack of sleep. I am one of those people who need at least eight hours of sleep a day and I didn’t get more than six hours today. So what caused this break in regular sleeping patterns? It was a party at my brother’s in-laws :p

We were invited to dinner yesterday and I figured that it was going to be a normal family dinner which would be over in a couple of hours and accepted. Only after getting there did I realize that it was not to be that kind of dinner 🙂 It was not just a family dinner but an evening of music, dinner and company. My brother’s in-laws had invited over a bunch of friends and family and had also gotten a bunch of musician to play live music!

The musician’s played old Hindi and Tamil movie songs. Songs from the 30’s, 40’s and 50’s without any vocals. It was a good trip down memory lane for some of the guests since they’d actually seen the movies when they were young 🙂 I loved most of the songs myself though I had not seen the movies when they were originally shown in theaters here. Instead, I’d heard some of the songs on radio or TV and had seen the song clips but I had not seen most of the movies myself.

The thing is, these songs are so very soothing and melodious that you can listen to them for hours. Maybe it’s just nostalgia but these songs have a quality that songs today just don’t have. In fact, my brother’s father-in-law said that a doctor known to him recommended listening to old Hindi music before going to sleep or something. Sort of a transcendental meditation thing 🙂 Whatever the case, the music kept us there till late at night and I’m still sleepy due to the late night. But I sure did enjoy the music!

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Posted by Fahim at 10:17 am  |  No Comments

April 22, 2006

The Farooks go to The Agency

Every once in a while, I do come out of my shell and the two of us manage to sneak out somewhere outside the confines of our castle …err … I mean our home :p Yesterday was one such day. Laurie and I were to go out for dinner at a new restaurant, The Agency.

Lest you fall into the misapprehension that I am in the habit of taking my wife out for dinner every once in a while, let me disabuse you immediately – this was a freebie :p Laurie does restaurant reviews for a Sri Lankan travel magazine and tonight was our night to review the cuisine at The Agency. We left home around 7 o’clock and go there just around opening time – we like to eat early 🙂 The place is situated in one of the busier parts of Colombo and usually in Colombo, restaurants tend to be tiny and crowded, even where space isn’t at a premium. This place as huge and it had a huge parking lot as well – an added advantage 🙂 I was really surprised to find such an abundance of space in an area which has so many businesses and offices and whatnot crammed together like a bunch of unruly kids at a lunch counter :p

But I won’t go into too many details since Laurie does have to write a review about this and I don’t want to come out with a long review of my own. Suffice it to say that I was really impressed. The food was fabulous! The decor was quite and unobtrusive. The food was great. The atmosphere was nice and they had a live band playing. Did I mention that the food was brilliant? :p

What was unusual about the food was the presentation. Here in Sri Lanka, people usually tend to just slap the food on the plate and serve it. There is no thought about the presentation. At The Agency, every dish was a work of art 🙂 Everything we ate was arranged to be eye pleasing as well as to be appetizing. Heck, as I told Laurie, the meal was worth it for the bread alone – it was so fresh, so fragrant, so yummy! Yes, I wax poetic :p I guess I could go on at length about the cuisine and how good it was and what a great chef they have but that would again be treading into review territory. So I guess I’ll simply say that if you are ever in Colombo, you’ve got to give The Agency a try 🙂

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Posted by Fahim at 7:31 am  |  No Comments

April 21, 2006

Where do they come from?

I guess one question that a writer gets asked often is "where do your ideas come from?". To be honest, I’ve never been asked this question though I’m told that other writers do get asked this question often. Of course, this might be just an indication that not many think that my ideas are that spectacular :p Or it might simply be that they can already see where my ideas came from 🙂 I have no idea.

Anyway, I’ve not been writing much lately. There have been way too many things to do that were not writing related. There’s family stuff going on post-wedding (I think I mentioned that my brother got married, right? :p), I’m having hardware trouble and a friend of mine is in the process of moving servers and I’m helping him out. What with all this going on, I haven’t had time to concentrate on the writing.

I did finish my last short story and it still needs editing but now it’s time to start work on something new – as soon as I get done with the editing on the short story. I know there are many writers who have hundreds (if not thousands) of story ideas crammed in their heads – or in their handy, dandy notebook :p I used to be like that. I would jot down ideas all over the place so that I could write a story about it someday. I stopped doing that years ago because the ideas keep coming and trying to write stories based on all of those ideas would be an impossible task. However, given that I’m obsessive-compulsive, I’d probably try to write a story for each and every idea and that would have been something to see – me trying to keep up with myself :p

Fortunately, you don’t have to worry about that 🙂 Now what I do is simply wait for something to come up when I want to write a new story. Sure, I do have a few ideas in back burner. Most of these however are the for the series of novels that I’m writing. Not short stories. So we were watching a collection of Hindi songs and I saw this one song from "Asoka" which affected me greatly at this particular moment. It wasn’t so much the song as the back story, which I was already aware of, and the location, which was isolated, beautiful and somehow heartbreaking in that particular context. That moment, believe it or not, gave me my next story idea 🙂 The story as it has evolved so far in my mind has nothing to do with Asoka directly, and once it is done, might not even have a link as to its origins. I don’t know how it will develop once I start writing it. But it all began with a song 🙂

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Posted by Fahim at 6:44 am  |  1 Comment

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