Back to Writing

It has been a long time since I have written anything on the Muelnet . Org website. I get in this rut where I haven’t written anything in a while and I get self conscious about my writing, I get nervous, and then I get scared of writing. I’m trying to work on that. I’d like to try to move to posting some form of writing on here on a regular basis.

Looking back at everything I have on here I can honestly say I’m not super proud of my old writing styles. They seem simplistic, the topics boring and generally just poorly written. All of this had helped me learn something, in five years I’ll probably look back at this and cringe.

I’ve heard teachers and writers talk about this in the past. They go back and look at their old posts and find them lacking. This isn’t the first time I’ve looked back and with time and experience learned my old writing was pretty poor, but this time the reality of my own ever changing experience sunk in.

As I get older and grow, my ability to reason and think critically expands. The hope is that this will continue until you die. Seen from this perspective what I write today will always seem poor in comparison to tomorrow’s standards. The key is not letting that stop you from writing what you have to say today.

Just remember, tomorrow you’ll probably say it better.

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Site Moved and Temporary Theme

I’ve moved my site off of Posterous as the April 30th closure was fast approaching. Muelnet . Org is now hosted on Tumblr, and will be so for the foreseeable future. The RSS feed should be transferred over as well as the DNS settings. So any RSS subscribers should continue getting my feed in their reader as usual.

As with the Posterous version of the site, this version of the site will eventually have a custom theme. I have some plans I would like to try out. The theme will probably end up looking pretty different from the old one, as Tumblr allows for the use of JavaScript, where as Posterous did not. I’m going to test out some widescreen layout ideas I’d been thinking about and see how they work.

That’s all for now folks. Hopefully once I’ve got this theme stuff worked out I will be back to posting more regularly. There are a lot of topics I have been wanting to post about, but I justn’t haven’t had the time to sit down and write lately. Anyways, that’s all for now folks.

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Losing the Magic

Call it what you want, immersion, suspension of disbelief, etc., as for me, I prefer ‘the magic.’ All of it means the same thing: the willingness to forget the bonds of reality and go forth on new adventures. Lately I’ve been watching all the Star Trek series in the order they would appear in the Star Trek timeline. Today Star Trek: Voyager just lost the magic. I was watching S5E25 followed immediately by S6E1, Equinox parts 1 and 2 respectively when my ability to see past the unreality was broken.

I could go on to list the ways in which the episodes were broken, (and believe me it would be quite a list), but this post really isn’t about Star Trek. It’s about the magic. When writing, in any genre of fiction, the writer must pose themselves on the narrow road of believability. If they avoid the fantastical, the extraordinary, they risk losing their readers. Stray too far in the other direction and you become Dan Brown.

The Part in Which I Talk About Dan Brown (But Really It’s About the magic)

Look at me being a Literature Snob. But in all seriousness, Dan Brown’s writing only works because he doesn’t give you time to stop and think about what you just read. He’s the Michael Bay of books. Let down that pace for even a second and people will see through it.

I remember the first time something really lost the magic for me. It was when I was reading Deception Point by Dan Brown. Having read three of his books already, I started on a fourth. I started reading the book then left it at my Dad’s house. Being me, when I finally got around to reading it again I started from the beginning. Dan Brown has a very specific formula:

  • the hook
  • the setup
  • the action

always in that order. In my first attempt at reading the book I had made it to the beginning of the action. Then, when starting over, I read through the setup again. Which gave me that time to stop and think. And when you do you start to think how crazy it is. How poorly written the characters are. How ridiculous the scenario is and *poof* the magic disappears.

It kicks you in your gut, a sneaker of disappointment. All the excitement falls apart. All your appreciation of related works disappears as you are sucked into the realization that none of it is any good. Up to this point you’ve been able to defend the fiction and then suddenly the other side rushes upon you. All those little problems you’ve let go by suddenly become the heads of the hydra, multiplying as you try to suppress them. And then I stop my hyperbole. You just feel bad.

And Then The Good

All this pessimism has made me want to talk about people doing it right. So now I go to my two favorite examples of the magic done right. These two works are some of my favorite works of fiction of all time. Joss Whedon’s Firefly and Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman. What makes these two works so extraordinary is how they manage to make ordinary people fascinating.

Many works, whether they be sci-fi, historical fiction, or something in between have what I call ‘The Magic.’ If we are talking about the narrow road of believability many shows, Star Trek included, like to keep one wheel just over the shoulder, just a touch outside the path towards the fantastical (Michael Bay on the other hand goes for THE MAGIC!!! which would be offroading in dreamland).

Firefly and Death of a Salesman forego the need to tell the story of the hero, the guy who beats the odds, the most important people in the universe. Instead, they focus on the guy getting the shit kicked out of him. And their narrative is stronger for it.

Now I’m running out of things to say. I’ve let my creativity atrophy, I guess I just needed a good kick in the gut.

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When a Good Trek Goes Bad

Picard Double Face Palm
Image Credit Memory Alpha

Editors Note: I wrote this a little while ago at work one day and meant to post it after I got home. Unfortunately I forgot. I’ve debated since then about whether I should post it or not. I’ve decided the content is worth posting. Hope you enjoy.

I guess I was foolish to expect better from Star Trek: The Next Generation. Watching it you get the overwhelming sense that it is nothing more than a product of its era. In the first season alone there was the episode about the planet that was dying because of holes in the Ozone layer, then the episode about people from the 80’s waking up from a Cryogenic Freeze. But unlike the time specific nature of those episodes this one was almost the opposite.

It dealt with an issue that humanity has been dealing with for awhile, and one that we still struggle with. Unlike those episodes, this one managed to do so many things wrong. The episode in question is called A Matter of Perspective and deals with a murder trial involving Commander William Riker. The problem I had didn’t deal so much with Commander Riker being accused of murder, there was good reason to accuse him of murder (even if he was innocent). It instead dealt with the witness testimonies looking at intent.

Before I can get to exactly what happened I first need to talk about the nature of this murder case. First of all the proceedings that are being shown are to decide whether Captain Picard should send Riker to the planet for trial. Secondly, it is important to note that Riker’s supposed motive for murder was being caught in improper conduct with another man’s wife. While we are never told exactly what happened we are given three different view points on what happened. Riker says the wife was tired of her scientist husband not giving her enough attention, the scientist’s assistant says they were both in on it, but, the real problem is the wife’s account. Her claim is that her husband foiled a rape attempt.

The problem is the message these depictions of women crying rape send. Everyone watching Star Trek knows Riker wouldn’t rape anyone. Sure there are several instances of him having sex with women (alien and human) throughout the series, but always with the woman’s consent (often with the woman initiating the advances). And this is exactly the type of meme that is so damaging to stopping the rape culture in much of the modern Western World. It portrays the woman as lying in so they don’t have to take responsibility for their actions. It gives an example of women coming forward with rape allegations as people who were caught or regretted their decision to have sex.

While I realize Star Trek is a work of fiction and not real life, these things affect people in more ways than I think we realize. I’m not going to say that violence in TV, movies, and video games causes real life violence, however, denying the effect of television, movies, and video games on our cultural understanding of issues is short-sighted at best. While I realize this episode is over 20 years old now, that doesn’t save it from my ire. I feel it necessary when coming across these things to point them out, because when people stop doing that, the cause becomes lost.

So here’s to not forgetting to be decent human beings!

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Not a Chair to Sit In

Lately I’ve been trying to improve my ergonomics. Being a computer engineer means spending a good portion of the day sitting in a chair. It turns out, how you sit in a chair, and what chair you’re sitting in make a big difference. The posture I’ve gotten down, but I’m still having trouble getting the chair right.

The chair allotted for dorm use has a proper ergonomic back, but the height was wrong. I’m 6’3”, which makes me a fairly big guy. The chair didn’t allow me to have my knees at a good angle and I was too low compared to the desk. Since this was all started by me trying to fix my shoulder, the right relative chair/desk height is rently extremely helpful for recovery.

So I brought my computer chair from home. Unfortunately, I bought this chair for comfort, not ergonomics. The height is perfect now, all my joints are aligned just about right. But, now the back is much too leaned back.

While this is not my normal fair for my blog, I felt it important thing to write about. Bad ergonomics, bad posture, and bad chairs have contributed to an injury which has been with me for over six months. I’m working on mine, maybe this post will help you start thinking about your own.

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Big Brother has Only Your Best Interests at Heart

No he doesn’t. Once again the U.S. Government is showing where its true loyalties lie, and it’s not with Americans. It’s with big business and entrenched interests. They are proving
it this time with another round of copyright “enhancements” (my word not theirs).

If you are perceptive you will have noticed the stop censorship flag at the top of my site. Clicking that link will take you to the biased viewpoint on this topic. For the straight from the source information see http://www.opencongress.org/bill/112-h3261/show. If you can’t understand all the legal ramifications of the proposal, take a second and look at the entities who are backing it and those oppose it. Backers: entrenched media interests who have a habit of sueing children and abusing the legal system, and Opposers: educators, technologists, and consumer advocates.

I know which side I’m on. Which are you?

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Changeloggerizer

Today I wrote my first piece of software that other people will actually use. I have contributed to projects that other people have created, and I’ve also written some automation scripts that we use at work to speed up certain things, but never before I have I found something that needed to be fixed and worked out a solution from scratch. Unable to come up with a clever name I called it “Changeloggerizer.”

For software people the idea of a changelog is pretty common place, but of those who don’t know a changelog is a way of keeping track of changes to files and projects that are worked on by large groups of people. They are also used to just keep track of what state things are in, what bugs have been fixed on big projects no matter how many people are writing them.

The need to create changeloggerizer came about from work. I are increasingly working towards automation and working with lots of different executables that need to be installed on every computer we set up. I started noticing problems with keeping track of who updated what, and what versions of the software we had download etc., all of which stemmed from a lack of communication. We have a mailing list for our department that we could notify when we updated or changed things, but most of the people on that mailing list don’t actually care about the software sets. Of the twelve people in our department, only about 3-4 have direct involvement with these folders full of software. Because we are trying to script things, having version numbers isn’t usually a good idea, so it was getting quite annoying to try to figure out what version different pieces of software were in the folders.

In comes Changeloggerizer. The basic idea behind Changeloggerizer is making it extremely simple to write readable changelogs. The program is written in Java and I have a whole defense I could give about this, but I’ll save it for another time. The program basically consists of one window with two text entry boxes and a big button. One text box is labeled “Change” and the other is labeled “Name”, the big button says “Submit.” If this was just for me I would have used some other system for this sort of thing. But at work, if I wanted people to use this they needed something super simple like Changeloggerizer. I couldn’t count on people installing things, so it needed to be portable. It couldn’t be a commandline tool because people wouldn’t use it.

There are a few more things that need to be added to Changeloggerizer before I’m finished with it, but today marked what I’m going to call the 0.1 release. Once I get finished setting up http://muelnet.com I’ll have more about Changeloggerizer over there, including a link to a public git repo. Until then

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Open Standards vs. Open Source

This initially appeared on my blog on my VPS, since I’ve moved my personal blog back to Posterous I’m posting it here as well.

NOTE: In this context I am using Open Source and Free Software interchangeably

There has been debates in the free software community as to whether or not open standards count for anything. The argument is open standards are not a replacement for open source. This thinking is wrong. Open standards are several times more important than open source in the short term, because it allows for competition.

What are Open Standards?

Open standards are a way for data and messages to be passed around easily. That is it. An example of an open standard you might know is HTTP. HTTP of course, is the protocol that allows computers to send and receive web pages, mostly (it can be used for sending other information, but usually other protocols are used, i.e. FTP). Another open standard you may be familiar with is HTML. HTML is how websites are made. It is a way of storing data in a manner which can be interpreted by the computer. Some of the most important technologies around today are based on open standards.

Why are they Important?

Often times the importance of open standards are ignored by free software/open source people. Usually, they argue open standards are not equivalent to open source and we shouldn’t be worried about whether a product uses open standards. This kind of thinking is short-sighted and utterly ridiculous. If I was to make a transportation analogy it would be this: standards are roads, programs are cars. Closed standards would be like private roads that require you to pay and place a sticker in your window. Sure you can try to beat the system, but it may be illegal and you might only be able to drive on certain parts of the road. An open standard is like the highway system. Anyone can drive on it without having to pay. When we use open standards for storage and communication, anyone can write software for them. Yes this means people can write proprietary software, but it also means you can use a fully compatible free/open source program that can work just as well.

Before I mentioned HTML and HTTP as open standards. Now everyone can browse the web using free software. An opposite example, one where free software has never seen the same level of success is document editing. Here Microsoft Office is the dominant product and it uses its own closed standard (.doc,.ppt, etc., and later .docx, etc.,). Opening a Word document in any other program never works quite as well. Saving into Word’s format is even hairier (I’ve been bitten by this one personally). Because Word has a monopoly, people feel the need to use Microsoft products to make sure they can interoperate with other people.

Similar situations happen all the time. A proprietary system becomes dominant using a closed standard, forcing others to use the same software to ensure compatibility. Any time an open standard is used the door way for free and open source software is much larger, and often times it leads to greater success for open products. If the goal is open source domination, then the first step is open standards.

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Evolutionary Writing

I have been writing in a variety of blogs for some time now. The other day I read a blog post by someone else that mirrored a post I had written a couple of years before that. Theirs was better researched, and more in depth, but the basic idea was the same. So I went back and took a look at some of my old writing to see what I had said on the topic. To make a long story short, the way I wrote, the assumptions I made, my manner of writing, it was all crap. I’m not writing this to say “I too used to suck at writing, but now I’ve mastered the English language, and you can too.” By comparison to many people my writing is still poor. But one thing all this blogging has done for me is allowed me to evolve as a writer.

I may not be the next James Joyce. I don’t have to be either. I’m just a guy who enjoys writing. This isn’t something I would say a couple of years ago. Now to be honest, I don’t enjoy all forms of writing; but does anybody? I doubt there are very many people who enjoy writing random reports for work and other similar drudgery. But that’s fine too. I have taken to expressing myself through the English language, and like any task, practice will only make you better. My blog posts may not be changing the world, or revealing deep truths, but if nothing else they are allowing me to learn and grow. Studying something only gets you so far. At some point you have to dive in. There is a common saying that many groups of people have adapted for themselves, “Good decisions come from wisdom, wisdom comes from experience, and experience comes from making bad decisions.” Here we see a transitive relation relating good decisions. Bad decisions implies experience, experience implies wisdom, wisdom implies good decisions. When adapted to other fields the wisdom part is often left out. It would instead say something like “writing English well comes from experience, experience comes from writing English poorly,” which is exactly the relation I’ve found.

So now for some minor words of wisdom. Start a blog and don’t worry about who reads it or why. Don’t worry about how many people read it or why more aren’t reading it. Start a blog and write. Doesn’t matter what you write about, does matter who you write for, just write. As a child I was always the math and science guy. I would always think that being good at math and science means you don’t have to worry about writing. This is completely false. So much depends on one’s ability to write. When searching for a job having a well written cover letter can make a huge difference. For me it has already made a huge difference. When I first applied for the Computer Engineering program I was denied, on my second attempt I was accepted. The only major difference was my written responses. My grades hadn’t changed, there was some more of them, but the old ones were still the same. But those written responses, those are what really made the difference. I’m not going to sit here and claim that writing a blog got me into my major, hard work did that, but writing a blog helped.

So much information is conveyed these days through written English. I could write a whole other blog post about how funny it is that for so many years we were inventing new contraptions for communicating at a distance via voice and video, and now all anyone wants to do is send little text messages* back and forth. It all comes back to the importance of writing well. I’ve said English because that is what applies for me, but the same could be said about any language. The ability to write well is essential for people of any profession. This post turned out longer than I had anticipated, but I’d like to say one more thing. It doesn’t have to be a blog that you write. Find some place to sit and write about what interests you. Whether it’s a journal or a blog, or if you want to write books. Just sit down and write. I think you’ll find it can only help.

*I’m not talking about just cell phone SMS text messaging services, but also IM, the group messenger’s that are so hot right now, Facebook wall posts, dents and tweets, and all sorts of other things.
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Email Abstraction

In computer programming (and math) abstraction is a key concept. One typical way in which abstraction is used is to hide the underlying details. I don’t need to know what type of sort algorithm the built-in sort method uses in programming language X, I just need to know what I’m going to get back when I call it. That way if some super genius comes up with a faster way to sort things on a computer the underlying programming language can change their sort algorithm and my code runs faster just by updating the programming language. This is generally considered to be a good thing. It has advantages to security, and saving programmer’s time.

Why this post then? well I’ve changed my email. My new mail address is muel [at] muelnet [dot] org. And now for the abstraction. A side effect of this email change is now my email is portable. I can change who hosts my email and no one need notice when I do. I own the domain, so I can switch to self hosted, or Google Apps, Office 365 (not that I’d want to), or any other email service that lets me bring my own domain, and my mail just keeps coming. There is the annoying bit about having to move my old emails around with me, but that isn’t a huge deal. Although it did take over 24 hours for it all to finish importing this time, but that’s mainly because the way I imported it was extremely inefficient.

I’ve abstracted away the underlying details of who my hosting provider is and made it s that I will from now on always be reachable at my new address. To relate it to postal mail it would be like if you could just put my name on a piece of mail and the Post Office would send it to me no matter where I moved. Most people using a gmail, yahoo, or hotmail account are forever chained to those services. I no longer am and it is a beautiful thing. So now if foomail becomes the next big email provider, assuming they allow you to bring your own domain, I can transfer my email to be hosted on foomail rather than having to annoy everyone with yet another change of email address. In a sense it is the final email address that I will ever need.
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