Archive for April, 2008

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Best Post for Week of 4/26/2008

April 30, 2008

There are many TLAs (Three Letter Acronyms) and ETLAs (Extended Three Letter Acronyms, for those TLAs that just won’t fit into 3 letters) out there, and some of them take on pronunciations of their own.  For example, you don’t say “en-ey-ess-ey”, you say “NASA”.

It seems like the earliest acronyms would always take on the letters of the original title.  For example, the title “Federal Bureau of Investigation” came first and was quickly shortened to “FBI”.  There is a very clear workflow here:

  1. Create title
  2. Shorten to acronym
  3. Bonus points if Step 2 results in something pronounceable

I’ve been suspicious as of late that the acronyms were coming first, and the people behind them were making up names to fit the letters.  For example, the “patriot” in “PATRIOT Act of 2001” is actually an acronym for “Provide Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism”.  Then there’s the US SAFE WEB Act of 2005, which stands for – you guessed it (or maybe you didn’t) – “Undertaking Spam, Spyware, And Fraud Enforcement With Enforcers across Borders”.

This past week I came across one clinched the deal.  You know people are starting with the sound-bite-worthy acronym and making the title fit the letters when you see a weapon system called “MAHEM”, which stands for “Magneto Hydrodynamic Explosive Munition”:

http://www.darpa.mil/TTO/programs/mahem.htm

 

Full Disclosure: I originally found this on Slashdot, but the link doesn’t appear to be working any longer: http://tech.slashdot.org/article.pl?sid=08/04/23/1714254&from=rss.

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First Readers vs. Software Testing

April 21, 2008

At my wife’s suggestion, I read “On Writing” (2000) by Stephen King this past week.  King makes several interesting points and observations about his writing career and the craft in general, but there was one in particular that really caught my attention – the use of “first readers”, a person or persons who are willing to read your early manuscripts and provide feedback on how the story is coming together.

King writes about soliciting feedback from first readers,

Plenty of writers resist this idea.  They feel that revising a story according to the likes and dislikes of an audience is somehow akin to prostitution. (p218 )

What struck me here is how showing your work to another person (or a group of people) ahead of when you formally release it is universally considered a GOOD thing in software development, but apparently not when writing fiction.

Now, I assume that what alienates most writers from using first readers is not grammatical or spelling errors (such as using “they’re” when you mean “their”), but rather stylistic and thematic errors (“Tom shouldn’t have said that” or “I don’t understand Sally, her motives don’t make sense”).  To translate that to software, the former category would be considered bugs – you click the Save button, and the application generates a wonderfully insightful message such as “An error has occurred”.  The latter category might be things like “I don’t think it makes sense to put the Save button there; it should go here”.  The latter type of feedback is commonly generated in a formal testing phase or what is a called a “usability” phase.

In a usability phase (or a usability study), the software developers put real users (those people who will be ultimately using the software day to day) and let them try the software out.  The general goal of this phase is to see to what extent real users can use the software to get their jobs done.  In other words it tries to answer the question “does the intended audience ‘get’ it?”

With writing, putting your manuscript in front of real readers would seem to serve the same general purpose.  As King points out, having several people give input can sometimes lead to conflicting points of view, but “…if everyone who reads your book says you have a problem … you’ve got a problem…” (p217).  The goal here is not to revise the book so suit the whim of everyone who reads it, but to see if the readers “get” the story you’re trying to tell. 

I view the craft of writing as the art of telling a good story.  For me to be a good storyteller, I need to connect with you in some way.  I want you (my audience) to laugh at the jokes my characters tell; I want you to cry when they get hurt; I want you to say “whoo-hoo!” when they overcome enormous odds to save the day.  I don’t think it’s fair for me to expect you to do all the work to “get” my story.

I may have a good piece of software in my head, but if it’s throwing errors at the wrong points, uses color schemes that can only be described as “screaming”, or the screen flow causes you to beat your fists against the desk in frustration, then I have some work to do.  Likewise I may have a good story to tell, but if my characters are stilted, my dialog is atrocious, or my themes are trite, then I have some work to do.

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It’s all becoming clear

April 21, 2008

In software development – my current profession – the term “meta data” refers to data about data.  For instance, if you have an record in a database for a product that you sell, you might have fields like “product name”, “category”, “list price”, and so on.  That is the “data”.  You might also have fields attached to this record for “last updated by” and “last updated on”.  This is the “meta data” since it’s really data about the product data.

When I started this blog, my goal was to write about my experiences writing TheNovel, hence the title “Meta Writing” – it’s writing about writing.  I’m coming up on the 1-year mark for the “writing blog” (I originally started writing at http://allmarkmoment.blogspot.com/ on June 1, 2007, but switched over to WordPress in July so I could consolidate my technical and writing blogs in one spot).  As I look back, I’ve noticed an interesting series forming.  I’ve written several posts now that compare some aspect of software development to writing fiction.  Posts such as “Regrouping“, “Left Brain, Right Brain, and Music“, and “Priority Management” all draw on my experiences as a software developer and my observations of writing.  This is an interesting enough niche that I think I will be changing the blog’s focus to that.

The “Best Posts” series will continue and I will still post regular updates on TheNovel, but I will now be looking harder for material that can cross over from software development to fiction (and perhaps vice versa).

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Best Post for Week of 4/19/2008

April 19, 2008

You know, between this knife set, and the Blendtec “Will it blend?” commercials, I could actually get into cooking!

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Word for the day

April 17, 2008

I was writing up a requirements document today and tried to insert the word “modifications”.  Instead, I accidentally dropped the “a” and was left with “modifictions”.  I think “ModiFictions” falls into the same category as these gems:

  • Weather “pre-fictions” (instead of predictions)
  • “Ginormous” (when something is just too large for “gigantic” or “enormous”)
  • “Automagic” (when a piece of software does something automatically, but it still looks like magic)
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Priority Management

April 15, 2008

I tried working three jobs at the same time for a brief period in college.  They were all part-time jobs, and even though I was pulling a full class load, the overall time commitment wasn’t unbearable for a kid in his late teens/early twenties.  What did wear me down, though, was how fragmented my focus was.  Switching gears several times, especially when I was only able to devote 30 or fewer minutes on a given gear/project, really made for some hectic and emotionally exhausting weeks, not to mention less-then-stellar quality.  It was only a “brief period” for me because I chose my mental sanity over the extra spending cash and dropped one of the jobs.

These days, I again find my focus becoming increasingly fragmented.  Besides work, family, and church, I have a couple of major projects brewing.  One of these is TheNovel.  Another is a side-programming project that I’m working on for “the family biz” as I like to call it.  My brother, my dad, and I have a venture together where I’m the CTO, and at the moment that involves writing the software tools that they use on the business side.

At the moment, these two projects are at a head.  Both need active involvement from me to move them along.  I’m not waiting on anyone or anything to be able to work on them.  There’s no one I can delegate to.  How do I decide which to work on?

Perhaps I can work on one for an hour each night, and then switch to the other.  I’ve tried that in the past, and one of a few things tended to happen:  I didn’t really get going on either project, and so didn’t really get a whole lot done on either; I really get going on one, and feel guilty when I didn’t want to stop to work on the other; I get depressed thinking about the quantity of work involved with BOTH projects combined, and didn’t start on either.

Since both projects still interest me greatly and are both still valuable to complete, I don’t want to let one die.  That leaves me with deciding which one I should postpone so I can focus on the other.

At a point like this, where all other factors are equal, I always choose the one where my lack of progress is holding up someone else.  In this case my dad and brother are waiting the newest incarnation of the software to be done so they can start using it.  No one is clamoring for new pages on TheNovel yet, so that will need to take a back seat for a couple of days.  Once the software project is out the door, I can focus on TheNovel again.

How do you decide when you have too many things lobbying for your precious time?

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Best Post for Week of 4/12/2008

April 15, 2008

All right, I admit it.  The weekend totally got away from me, and before I knew it the subsequent week had started.  Rest assured that the digital slap on the wrist has been delivered.

Last week, I found a post on TechEBlog.com for Super Talent USB Drives that in my opinion are fast approaching ridiculously small.  The product page for these on the Super Talent site describes them as the “perfect accessory to adorn keychains, mobile phones, or wearing as a necklace.”

Necklace?  More like earrings.  Nicely modest formal earrings.