Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Ten Common Traps for Writers

Beginners making their first stab at a serious project like a short story or novel succumb to a variety of traps, ten of which are enumerated here.

  1. Exclamation points. Avoid. Your reader is calm, whether you are or not. Stir their pulse with words, not punctuation.

  2. The idea that grammar, capitalization, or punctuation does not matter. These building blocks matter even more than your content. When I encounter a story where the writer has neglected these attributes, I skip the story, even if it was written by one of my favorite writers, such as Paul Bowles, who was unduly influenced by the Beat Poets.

  3. Hubris. Writers slip into this fault unawares for the most part. Sometimes I will sculpt what seems the perfect image, only to realize it smacks of hubris and must be discarded. A recent example: "I have many more ideas waiting to be born like Athena from the skull of Zeus. You see the exposed spear-tip only." At first blush, this imagery pleased me, because I love mythology and will go to some length in order to make a mythological reference, but it is far too egotistical. Any comparison of a mere mortal with a god, whether mythological or not, is inappropriate, unless that mortal has accomplished a truly Herculean task, and even then, the comparison must never be made in the first person. In a similar vein, refrain from self-praise or self-congratulatory statements that are too obvious. Everyone likes to pat themselves on the back and it is natural to do so, but try to be subtle about it.

  4. By the same token, avoid excessive self-deprecatory humor or criticism. Don't run yourself down too much or people will take your negative self-appraisal at face value and wonder why the hell they are reading you.

  5. Stating the obvious. If a sentence is unnecessary, omit. If a word is unnecessary, omit. This policy will dispense with most adverbs, as well. If you waste your reader's time with fluff, you will lose your reader.

  6. Strive for decorum. This is difficult when discussing politics and other controversial issues. But if you can manage it, try to discuss issues from a higher, intellectual level than the lowbrows on FOX news. This means making an attempt to be articulate and trying to avoid ad hominem attacks. However, when it comes to a central leader, such as George W. Bush, I have abandoned this stricture, because the man is relevant to the discussion.

  7. Avoid gobbledygook. College students and other learned souls succumb to the temptation to use big words. If you can at any time replace a big word with a smaller word, without losing meaning, do so. I hate writers that use "utilize" instead of "use." "Utilize" is a word that should be shot at dawn. Also, avoid jargon unless it is necessary.

  8. Profanity is not a forbidden zone anymore, but use it in a calculated manner, mindful of how it may affect your readers.

  9. When writing fiction, it must at all times be clear who is acting or speaking. Be careful with your use of pronouns. Do not use creative tags for indicating speech, such as "interjected," "exclaimed," or "added." Just say, "So-and-so said." The numerous repetitions of the word "said" are all right, because the reader's mind will interpret "said" as a tag for speech, rendering the actual word invisible. By getting creative with the tag, you render it visible and annoying. If the tag can be omitted without obscuring the speaker, do so.

  10. Avoid excessive use of the word "very." Everything is "very," isn't it? Avoid the word "somewhat". If you feel the need to use "somewhat," it is because you chose the wrong adjective. Choose an adjective indicating a milder intensity. In the game Dungeon Crawl, the program tells a player that invokes a power, "You feel somewhat more hungry." A suggested replacement for this is, "You feel hungrier."

Auto-Install for Dungeon Crawl

I like to live on the edge and play the latest and greatest and buggiest version of Dungeon Crawl, the beta, which can be obtained here. Updates happen as quickly as once a week. That represents a minor chore for the player. Not much, I know--just deleting the old files, unpacking the new, and moving those files into the right directory. In my opinion, if there's any time to be wasted, it should be wasted playing Dungeon Crawl. With that in mind, I took time out of my busy day to construct yet another handy-dandy batch file to fully automate the installation process. This utility installs Dungeon Crawl Stone Soup in less than five seconds and removes all temporary files as well as the Crawl archive itself.

Like all batch files found here, this one requires modification to reflect the proper pathnames on your PC. This batch file assumes that you are downloading the beta to a directory called "c:\pelf". If that isn't true, then correct the batch. It also assumes that your game is installed at \games\crawl, which seems logical. It does all the work - deleting the old game, installing the new one, and then cleaning up afterwards. A batch file should clean up after itself, by Cracky! So says Igor.

Requirements: WinRAR. I know, I know. Costs money. I tried using Unrar, the command line version of WinRAR, but it will not work with ZIP archives for some unknown reason. You could replace WinRAR with some kind of unzipping utility, but I am not familiar with ZIP utilities. You're on your own if you go that route.

This WORKS under Windows XP. If Microsoft suckered you into going with Vista, you're on your own. I believe a few minor mods to the pathnames would get this working with later versions of Windows. Why Microsoft wants to change pathnames all the time, I don't know, but there is little about Microsoft that can be understood without a spycam in their marketing department.

Update 3/25/2010

I added a few lines to append my preferences to tiles_options.txt so that I don't have to keep modifying the file every time I install a new version of Crawl. The same technique could be used to make mods to any of the other settings. Just remember that >> signifies "append."
Update 5/26/2010

Designated variables for the directories. A few mods added as well.
Update 7/25/2010

There is now an Installation version available for download as well as the Windows Tiles version. This batch eliminates the need for the Installation version. It is faster than the Installer.
Update 6/04/2011

Updated to handle either the dev Tiles or stable Tiles. I still use this, because it is ten times faster and does not use Windows's complicated pathnames, but instead the simple pathname of c:\games\crawl, which my regen.bat uses by default.
Update 8/23/2012

Updated zip filename to work with .11.
Update 10/05/2012


Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Be Gentle to Animals

As a young boy, I read "Slaughter of the Innocent," which made my blood boil over with tales of cruel animal experimentation. I wanted to know why scientists were so evil and regardless of pain and suffering. My father had never heard of the book, which was a bestseller to my recollection, although I cannot verify it today, because the book doesn't have a Wikipedia entry. It is an old book, and people who disagree may feel that the less that is said about it, the better. They may have gotten away with destroying the wikipedia entry for this book, but they cannot destroy my memory or the Amazon listing, from which I obtained the cover art:

Later, I read that the book was discredited as being filled with exaggerations and lies. Perhaps that is so. Many of the anecdotes in the book seem fantastic and are not backed up by credible sources. Therefore the book can be dismissed as propaganda for the antivivisectionist movement. However, I still want to see a wikipedia article for it! I just don't feel qualified to write one, because all I have to go on is memory alone, and wikipedia looks for tighter standards than mere opinion and human memory. On wikipedia, you must cite sources already established in the media.

The verdict on this particular book aside, I still find credence in the antivivisectionist movement and its modern incarnation, PETA, the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, the favorite butt of jokes on television. I don't approve of some of the stunts by PETA activists, such as when celebrity actor Edward Furlong, drunk or high at the time, liberated lobsters from a grocery store tank and was arrested for the crime. Such celebrities try to draw attention to their cause and are succeeding, although little of the attention is favorable.

It would be a fine thing if humans resolved to treat animals better. If we ever encounter an advanced extraterrestrial species, the criteria by which we will be judged is how we treat other sentient beings. If our race is marked by cruelty to animals, then we will be judged as unworthy.

Meeting with intelligent extraterrestrial life seems far-fetched, but it could happen, which is why the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) was in Obama's federal budget. It was mocked by the Republicans and FOX news, who prefer to believe we are alone in the universe. The allocation for SETI, incidentally, is miniscule, a proverbial drop in the bucket, but has been included in all budgets, even under Republican administrations.

Whether we meet ET or not, we should want to deport ourselves in an ethical fashion. By breaking down the threads of compassion in society, cruelty to animals anticipates cruelty to humans. If it is acceptable to beat a dog or cat, then it is acceptable to beat another person. I am sure many of my readers know of cats or dogs more worthy of protection and affection than certain people. We will be a more war-like race if we abuse animals.

Many people agree that animals should be treated well, but then counter that there is nothing they can do about the laboratories where animals are being abused. However, many people have pets and abuse them in a myriad of ways that are quite common today:

  • If you declaw your cat, that is abuse, because you are rendering it defenseless against children, who tend to be cruel, and against other animals. Try going through life without your fingers, and you will know what it is like to be a cat without claws.

  • If you punish your pets with physical blows on a regular basis, that is abuse, and your strategy is not even working like it should. After a certain period of ownership, pets respond to the merest intonation of their master's voice. It is unnecessary and counterproductive to strike a pet. Instead of teaching the pet anything, you are teaching it to fear and hate you. One who strikes a pet is a villain who deserves to be struck himself.

  • Keeping a dog chained up or in a fenced-in pen no larger than 10' x 10' is abuse. What crime did the dog commit to be imprisoned for life? It would be kinder to shoot the dog in the brain, rather than sentence it to life imprisonment beside its own excrement and urine.

  • Cockfights and dogfights are relics from our ancestors, who were often at war. These traditions herald back to a past that is not quite erased. Fights between animals awaken the blood-lust in humans. Not much is required to reduce modern people into their ancestral equivalents. Do you want to live in a world where raiders might attack your village, kill you, rape your women, and plunder your treasure? If it is all right to mutilate, torture and slay dogs for sport, it is all right to slay humans for sport, as well. This is why dogfights have been made illegal.

  • Spraying poisonous chemicals all over a lawn for no other reason than to prettify the grass, is negligence that harms wildlife and neighbor's pets. You are killing and hurting unknown quantities of birds, scurrying four-legged beasts, cats and dogs. In addition to this, the poisons you spray will enter the water you drink. There are better ways to control pests than through the use of poisons. Learn to adapt to nature rather than wasting money on poisons sold at the store that promise a quick fix.

Monday, April 6, 2009

Plumbing 201, installing an outdoor faucet

My previous class, Plumbing 101, is not a prerequisite for this course, but is recommended for aspiring students of Igor's Do-It-Yourself University.

This course explains how to install a new faucet in your yard for an outdoor hose. I taught myself this bit of lore last year. All that you need in material costs no more than thirty dollars. With a bit of luck, you should have a Home Depot nearby that offers plumbing equipment. I love that store. It is the friend of the do-it-yourselfer. The basic tools you need are:
  • a hacksaw to cut through PVC pipe. I prefer a convertible saw whose blade can be replaced with either a wide-toothed blade for cutting wood or a fine-toothed blade for cutting metal or PVC.

  • PVC pipe, including any joints and connectors you require.

  • primer and glue. The new types of formulas that combine both seem to work fine, from my experience, and do save a bit of time, but are slightly more expensive.

  • an outdoor faucet. I prefer one that is metal and capable of withstanding abuse.

  • tape measure.

  • a masonry drill if drilling through concrete, or a regular drill, if wood. You may be able to rent a masonry drill from the store, but ask your older and better established local friends if you can borrow one instead.

  • If you are working underneath the house in a dimly lit crawlspace, be sure to get yourself a bright light bulb (CFL works fine, but incandescent bulbs may be cheaper and more durable) attached to a long cord.
With planning, you should only have to make one visit to the store. Measure how long your new pipe needs to be and buy extra length just in case you need more. You can always cut away unneeded length, but adding length takes more time, requiring a connector, new pipe, and sealing.

I had to visit the store about three times. In one case, I discovered that the diameter of the pipe I had purchased did not match the diameter of the existing pipe. The measurements written on the pipes matched, but the actual diameter varied from the stated diameter. For this reason, I advise that you measure the diameter rather than trusting what is printed on the pipe. One trick is to wrap a strip of paper around the pipe, cut the strip until it is an exact measurement, and then measure the strip.

The employee serving in the Home Depot plumbing section proved knowledgeable and gave me an impromptu lesson on plumbing techniques. I recommend listening to these guys. In many cases, they can save you time shopping and prevent you from making costly mistakes. However, the good guy was only there in the evenings. During the day, he was gone, and know-nothings were there in his place. Know-nothings are hired because they are cheaper. Visit in the busy evenings, and you are more likely to get a good guy with valuable contents between his ears.

There is no harm in buying extra parts just in case you need them. The cost of extra parts is just a few dollars at most, but the savings from avoiding another trip to the store are considerable in terms of gas, time and most of all, frustration. I was fortunate that Home Depot was willing to let me in after their official closing time of 10:00 PM. I knocked on the glass door and in polite terms, explained that I was in the middle of a plumbing project and faced an emergency, and if it wasn't fixed, I'd be without water the entire night. Since Home Depot was nothing but nice to me, they receive a free mention in my blog. Notice, business owners, that this is one of the many benefits of treating customers well. Imagine, if Home Depot had been not so nice, what I would be writing now. I have nothing but good things to say about Home Depot, though, unionized or not. For years, they have offered domestic partner benefits to their gay employees.

Believe me, when it comes to plumbing, planning is the most important thing you will do. You face a critical decision. Which pipe do you intend to cut and join to your new pipe? In my case, I chose the pipe leading to the bedroom bathroom cold water. I verified it was the right pipe by having my boyfriend turn on the cold water while I was in the crawlspace under the house, feeling the pipes until I felt vibration. Obviously, you do not want anything to do with the drain pipes or hot water pipes!

Before you make any cuts to existing pipes, you should have in your mind all of the pipes, joints, and connectors you will need. You should measure the precise lengths and diameters required. If you are the forgetful type, write all this down.

Once you have all your materials assembled, drill a hole through the wall of your house, or the foundation, where the desired faucet will be. Drill the minimum diameter required to push a pipe through the hole. The hole can later be sealed with a variety of materials, although concrete will complicate making any adjustments in the future.

Next, turn off the city water or the well water, if you are using a well. City dwellers should find the water main in the front yard under a rusty plate. You may find nothing but mud in there. Use a trowel to excavate the lever that turns the water off. I used a vice-grip to turn the water off. At this point, if anyone is taking a shower in your house, you may hear a scream.

With the water main switched off, go inside and turn on the cold water faucet connected to the pipe that you intend to cut. This is to drain the existing water from the system. You won't get all of it, but the idea is to get as much as you can before making the cut. The less mess, the better.

Go under the house again and use the hacksaw to cut the pipe. You need to make two cuts, taking away a measured length of pipe. This permits the addition of a three-way joint, reconnecting the existing pipe and adding a third outlet for the purpose of your garden hose.

Your next instructions vary according to the schematics to reach the outlet. You should connect everything first in order to verify your measurements. Then you can go back and begin using the primer and glue to seal the various connections between pipe, joint and connector. Plumbing is a forgiving business, and if you make a mistake, you can always take away by sawing and reattach by gluing. Remember, you bought extra parts at the store just in case you needed them, as you may indeed discover now.

After all the pipe parts are glued together, wait the recommended length of time for the glue to cure. This should be about an hour or less. The next job, checking for leaks, requires two people communicating via phones, one inside and one outside examining the pipes. Turn on the water main, and run both faucets, the one indoors and the one outdoors, full blast, to determine whether a leak exists. With a bright light, inspect for leaks at every juncture between pipes. Look all around the circumference of the connections for the slightest trace of water.

If any amount of water is detected, that means the seal was imperfect or else you did not give it enough time to cure. If you're not sure whether there is a leak, wipe the water away with a cloth and wait to see whether another bead of water appears. If you detect a leak, you must replace the affected parts in order to use parts that haven't had primer or glue applied.

Since you are the plumber and have the luxury of time, you might want to check under the house a day later and maybe even a week later, just to make absolutely certain of no leak. For my part, I have checked several times over the course of a year and found everything satisfactory.

That's really all there is to it. A job like this would cost you two hundred dollars or more if you hired a plumber, due to the amount of time involved. The satisfaction you gain from doing it yourself is worth just as much as the savings. In this wealthy country, we hire professionals to do work like this that we could probably do ourselves. Your achievement is worthy of sharing with your friends at your next dinner party--a better item of conversation than your usual self-deprecatory jokes about middle-aged decay.

Sunday, April 5, 2009

When money's being made, everyone wants to call, visit and stay, as though some of the money might rub off on them, but making money necessarily takes up the bulk of one's day, which limits the amount of time and energy one can devote to socializing. When money's not being made, there is all the time in the world for callers and visitors, yet the calls and the visitors decline, as though poverty and failure might be contagious.
by igor 04:20 4 replies by igor 09:32 0 comments

Friday, April 3, 2009

Plumbing 101

Your drain is stuck, but you don't want to call a plumber. I've been there many a time and have learned on my own how to clear drains. Here is Igor's List of Basic Plumbing Tips.

  1. Engage in preventative measures. Many plumbers recommend for a kitchen sink installing a garbage disposal ($200 or less if you do it yourself) to avoid a stuck drain resulting from chunks of food. I never installed one myself. Even a garbage disposal will not protect against oil and fat. Unless heated to a high temperature, oil will adhere to pipes. Capture and dispose of grease in the back yard rather than through the drain pipe. You can apply liquid grease to weeds in your back yard. It acts like an herbicide, but without the poison or the expense.
  2. In most cases, drain-clearing chemicals like Drano and Liquid Plumber will not help you. They may be acceptable for fixing slow drains, such as shower drains that may have build-ups of hair. However, a slow shower drain is not always a bad thing. Warm water lingering in the tub helps to warm the bathroom in the winter.
  3. For slow or stuck toilets and drains, the traditional plunger works best.
  4. Clogged sink? For about twenty dollars, Home Depot sells a device known as a plumber's snake, a long, segmented steel coil that can stab through a clog and has claws to actually extract a clog. This is sometimes all you need. Every home should have one.
  5. For a badly clogged kitchen sink, run a garden hose inside the house, attach it directly to the drain, and seal with a towel or other cloth. Apply water pressure to push the clog into the sewer. This works, but is messy, because water tends to leak no matter how well you cover the drain. But it beats calling a plumber.

These measures will save you $100 - $250 on a plumber's bill. Good luck.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

How to Make the Perfect Breakfast

For most of my life, I ate store-bought cereal for breakfast. As I got older, I chose healthier brands. Muselix was my favorite, followed by shredded wheat. Even so, I wondered if there was a still better alternative.

To surpass cereal, we have to travel back in time to Grandpa's day. What did Grandpa eat each morning? More than likely, oatmeal. Today, it can be cooked just as fast as you can pour milk into cereal. More than that, it's healthier, cheaper, and tastes better.

Let us examine the economics of oatmeal. Three pounds cost around three dollars. Contrast that with twelve ounces of cereal that costs the same price. What are you paying for when you buy cereal? Marketing and advertising. The colorful, enticing, wholesome image printed on the cereal box. The grain inside is worth very little.

Oatmeal's health benefits outweigh those of cereal for the most part, although some cereals are little more than toasted oatmeal themselves, just with a higher price tag. Oatmeal contains the carbohydrates and fiber your body needs. Cereals often lack sufficient fiber, although many manufacturers include sawdust in their product to increase the fiber rating. Look for cellulose in the ingredients. How do you feel about eating sawdust?

Most cereals contain too much sugar and dangerous levels of minerals like calcium, one of the cheapest supplements of all, nothing more than the shavings from rocks. Too much calcium causes hypercalcemia. If you find that you are suffering from unusual ailments, stop taking so many vitamin supplements. You may be poisoning yourself, particularly if you eat too much cereal with milk and pop multivitamins as well. Most brands of milk in the United States already have an added nutritional supplement, vitamin A, besides naturally occurring vitamin C and calcium.

Oatmeal is low in vitamins, but let us examine the so-called nutritional advantage of cereal. If the cereal is ground to a fine dust and subjected to laboratory analysis, it will show the specified levels of vitamins A, C, D, et cetera. This much is true. However, humans absorb vitamins not inside a laboratory, but in the digestive system. Unknown is how much of these vitamins and minerals are in a form accessible to the human body. The cereal manufacturer does not care, but you should. Why not just pop a multivitamin, if you're concerned about nutrition? Why trust a cereal manufacturer to include all of the nutrients you require in a form that can be easily absorbed?

In summary, cereal has far too much sugar, costs too much, and the nutritional supplements are questionable. They may bring a benefit, but they also may do harm through toxicity. A massive experiment has been performed upon a sedentary population glued to television screens.

What cereal does not have is any advantage in terms of convenience. Oatmeal is faster to prepare. In fact, your trips to the grocery store will be reduced, because you will not need to purchase milk.

Begin with a jar full of oatmeal.

This container is for aesthetics more than anything else. True, you could keep the oatmeal in the store's three pound cardboard container, but that doesn't look as nice. The wife or boyfriend may disapprove--and they're right. This simple glass container is not only better looking, but easier to use, because all you need to do is lift the lid, and the heavy jar remains stationary while you extract the oatmeal like so:

The cup provides a measured amount. If you require more for breakfast, put a bigger cup in the jar.

Add enough water from the tap to set your oatmeal floating. Microwave for sixty to eighty seconds and you're done! What could be simpler?

The following steps are optional. You may wish to add ingredients to your oatmeal, such as ground flaxseed, which contributes omega-3 fatty acids, protein and fiber. It is important to choose the brown variety of flaxseed, not the golden, and to grind it in order to expose the beneficial kernel that contains the nutrients. Flaxseed is cheap. A pound should not cost more than three dollars. You should only use two tablespoonfuls per meal. More is, uh, not recommended. Let's just leave it at that.

Many people like to add nuts to oatmeal. Any nut will do, or even a substance that contributes a nutty flavor, such as a seed. Experiment. Get creative. I tried dill weed as shown below:

I imagine some readers will scoff at the notion of dill weed, a term of derision in a non-culinary context. Some other recommended additives are cinnamon, chocolate, pecans, pistachios, and maple syrup.

Try to avoid adding sugary ingredients on a regular basis. Sugar acts like a drug on the brain, lifting the mood and interfering with your brain's internal monitoring of caloric consumption. You will think you're hungry when you're not. I'm not saying avoid sugar in all cases, but be aware of its treacherous nature. If you can have one meal without added sugar, breakfast represents the best candidate. Let lunch be the time of trespass.

If you make the switch from cereal to oatmeal, you will save on the order of ten to twenty dollars per week, and even more if you have a large family. Unknown are the savings in health costs from your improved diet and reduced sugar consumption. Best of all is the feeling you get from making your own breakfast without recourse to a mass-produced, mass-marketed product. I buy generic store-brand oatmeal, because there is no appreciable difference between that and Quaker's, besides price. Variety is obtained by adding different ingredients to the oatmeal, depending on what is available in your area. I have been preparing breakfast in this way for years. Enjoy!
techlorebyigor is my personal journal for ideas & opinions