First Today, Then Tomorrow

Practical thoughts on living today and being prepared for a very different tomorrow.

Writing Assignment: Description and Details

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If your goal is to become a better writer, you need to practice. Here’s your writing assignment for today: write a short description focusing on clear details.

One of the keys to good writing is the ability to describe a person, place, or thing and provide enough details to allow the reader to accurately imagine what you are describing. “Evocative” is the term used to describe a writer’s ability to elicit amood or an emotional response. To achieve this, you’ll need to be able to master description and the right level of detail. Often the right level means very few specific details, but picking just the right ones will aid in lighting up a reader’s imagination.

Details are like the individual strokes in a pencil drawing. A skilled artist can use just a few masterful lines to create a representation of a thing. The writer can do the same thing with words. It’s your choice on how detailed you wish to be, but remember, it’s never a good idea to overwhelm a reader with a laundry list of descriptive items.

For today’s assignment, write a short piece describing an object. Focus on the specific, physical details of this thing, providing the reader with enough so they can picture the item. When you are satisfied with your work, give it to a reader and ask for their comments and responses.

Here’s my example:

“The last of the snow melted and I made my way around the side of the house. When the ice and snow had been piled high I hadn’t been past the edge of the patio. Now weeks had passed and the snow had cleared, so I fetched a leaf bag and my pruning shears from the garage and went to check on the Lenten roses.

The leaves from last season are still firm and green, although now they are tinged with brown and lie flat across the mulch bed. I debate every year about removing these, but they come back so strong each time that I find that I can’t resist pruning them back. So I squat along the brick path and begin snipping the plants as close to the damp, black mulch as I can manage. I have to be careful with these leaves. They’re as big as my hand and have sharp, serrated edges, as if someone had shaped them out of painted tin and edged them with pinking shears. The two feet of snow pressed them down against the mulch, but last summer they were more than a foot high and formed a solid dome of deep, dark green. They love the heavy shade of this corner patch.

I see I’m none too early. This year’s shoots and the plump strawberry-sized flower buds are already dragging themselves aloft. These buds look heavy, bowing towards the ground.

I can’t remember if I set them out this way intentionally, but the two outer plants are the faintest purple, the middle one white.  And they are aggressively pushing out of the ground as if they’d been heaving against the snow cover, and now that they’re free they’re defiantly stretching up, challenging the weather, daring it to snow or rain.

I trim the leaves away carefully; these new shoots are tender and the leaves are still sharp.  I think the new shoots will reach eight or ten inches high in a week and not long after that they’ll start putting out their new leaves.  These shy, drooping flowers will quickly disappear beneath the open, impenetrable umbrella of leaves. This is one tough plant. Down the row, the ferns appear tissue paper thin and fragile in comparison. But that’s a deception. The ferns are resilient in their own way. They’re just not a fortress like the Lenten roses.

It doesn’t take long for me to finish. I clean up and bag the trimmings and fill the bag half full.  They’re now spring-ready, prepared to stretch, yawn, and spread out for a leisurely spring and long summer in the shade.”

You may leave your completed assignment in the comments section below.

Click here to view and complete previous writing assignments.

Written by Randy Murray

March 26, 2010 at 8:00 am

Three Reasons Why You Probably Shouldn’t Buy A Kindle (Or Other Dedicated e-Reader)

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Yesterday I laid out Three Temporary Advantages of Dedicated e-Readers. Today let’s talk about the Kindle’s disadvantages and why it might be a better idea to purchase the iPad.

  1. Amazon is not a computer hardware company. Amazon wants to sell books and other goods. They see the Kindle as a means to an end. The cannot put the necessary research and development into the device to keep significantly improving it without losing focus on their core business of selling other “stuff”. I think it will be very difficult for them to maintain focus on this device over time, especially in the face of mounting and superior competition.
  2. Amazon’s e-book format is proprietary. A book you buy from Amazon will only work on the Kindle or inside Kindle software for other devices. You stand a significant risk of losing access to your purchases because of their Digital Rights Management (DRM). While other devices use DRM and proprietary formats as well, the EPUP format appears to be closer universal support, as the MP3 audio format is to music players. While publishers require DRM at this stage, a more universal format is always more desirable.
  3. The device is a “single-tasker”. I’ll bow to my hero Alton Brown on this: “no single-taskers allowed.”  Alton’s talking about kitchen gadgets, but it’s good advice with wider applications. Why would you buy a device that can do only one thing well when another device, for about the same price, can do that thing as well or better AND do many other things as well?

And the biggest reason: Apple is almost certain to dominate the market.  Although you may debate this, consider for a moment what the implications are. First, if Apple dominates the e-Reader space, even though the iPad is not strictly an e-Reader, then Amazon may discontinue the Kindle. If they do, all of the books you purchase in the Kindle format may be lost – unless they maintain a Kindle app for the iPad.

The Kindle served its purpose. It’s brought attention to the potential of electronic books and established that consumers are interested. But in the scope of the full market, the Kindle is only a minor player with a very small installed base. If you don’t already have one, I’d recommend not buying in at this point.

Written by Randy Murray

March 25, 2010 at 8:00 am

Three Temporary Advantages of Dedicated e-Readers Like The Kindle

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The iPad approacheth. Is it complete doom for dedicated e-readers like the Amazon Kindle?

Yes, but not quite yet.

There are MANY advantages of a flexible solution like the iPad, but the Kindle retains three distinct advantages. These may not be enough, and they certainly won’t remain distinctive for long, but they are still very important.

  1. Battery Life.  The Kindle will provide up to a week of reading – far beyond the iPad’s reported 10 hours.  Admittedly, the iPad is full color, a fully functioning computer in most aspects, but for reading, the Kindle has a distinct advantage. Until battery technology improves. For many, 10 hours between charges will never be a problem, but usable up time is a significant issue for all portable devices.
  2. Display. It’s unclear at the moment, but it appears that the Kindle’s use of E Ink makes for a very readable display as well as improves its power usage (see point #1). For pure reading, this may be a clear advantage. I won’t know until I’ve had extended time with the iPad. But this advantage is only one for reading long form materials. For all other uses, like watching movies, surfing the web, playing games, etc., it’s a big disadvantage.
  3. No fee 3G connectivity. Although there’s limited functionality and poor display of the web, there’s no charge for wireless connectivity for Kindle users. This is terrific for purchasing books anywhere and controlling the cost of ownership. But in a larger scope, it’s meaningless. The Kindle is designed as a “reader”, not an online device. It needs very little connectivity. Most Kindle users never use the online features, beyond accessing Wikipedia. The iPad requires either access to an open wireless network (then it’s free), or a paid 3G subscription, but it provides full online access for the web, games, and applications.

Are these reasons enough to purchase a Kindle over an iPad? Probably not. But they remain clear advantages and for some who are only interested in reading, they may be enough.

There are some distinct disadvantages that the Kindle has as well. I’ll cover them tomorrow.

Written by Randy Murray

March 24, 2010 at 8:00 am

When Spending Is Saving – Win The Spend Nothing Game Buying Smart

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I have a new desk chair.  While I haven’t thought much about chairs, I got to think a lot about them recently. But as I mentioned in The Spend Nothing Game Part 2: Planning For The Unexpected, you don’t always get to pick when you’re going to have to spend money.

My old chair broke. It was one of those good looking but uncomfortable wooden desk chairs. I found that I perched on it, rather than sat back in it. And after five or more hours in a morning writing session, it was very uncomfortable.  But I soldiered through.

That is, until Sunday, when I was sitting on it and typing, and one of the casters and legs gave way and broke. I got a nasty jolt that immediately made my back flare up. I’m always on the verge of significant back pain from arthritis, and this sent me over the edge. I examined the broken leg and caster. It might have been possible to repair it, but I would always have suspected its imminent collapse, and it probably would have broken again.

So I went chair shopping. I started out with the big comfy chairs, leather and memory foam. I wanted comfort. They call them “executive” or “manager” chairs. They were very nice to sit in. Until I remembered I wasn’t going to be using my new chair to sit at a conference table or have meetings. They were comfortable to sit back in. But when I write, I need to sit up straight, with good posture, and as much support as possible.

This led me to focus on “task” chairs, which brought me to another realization: my chair is one of my most important writing tools. When I’m thinking about writing tools, I naturally think about my computer, keyboard and mouse, or about notebooks and pens. But the chair is one of the most important and most used of them all. Getting the right chair means I can write longer, keep the pain in control, and, thus, produce more. I found a very workable and comfortable chair for around $200, but I could have spent much more.

I had a choice. I could have cobbled together the leg on the old chair. I could have pulled up another chair from somewhere else around the house. But those solutions, while they would have let me not spend money, would have cost me more in the very short term because I would have been at risk of pain and injury. I can’t work well if I’m hurting or doped up.

The chair was an unexpected expense, but by choosing wisely, I hope to avoid additional expense (trips to the masseuse or therapist) or lack or productivity, and for me, being productive means earning money.

It was also a business expense, so it gets recorded for next year’s taxes. I hope there won’t be many more of these, but if there are, I’ll keep in mind what I really need, what keeps me productive, and healthy.

How are you playing the Spend Nothing Game? Are you winning?

Written by Randy Murray

March 23, 2010 at 8:00 am

Greetings Blog Spammers! A Word Or Two About Your Career Choice

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This morning when I checked my blog to moderate comments I noted one blog spammer calling herself or himself “Beverley” had slipped into the comment queue hoping I’d approve them and they could grow their link farm. The spam filter, Akismet , had caught 76 others. I glanced at them quickly, and then deleted them all. Over the course of the day there were dozens more to be dealt with.

I know why people do it. It’s the same reason that Nigerian princes send you email. It’s the same reason you get physical mail enticing you to buy collectable gold coins.

Blog spam is a special case. The person on the other end is hoping that they will be able to publish links on my site and enhance their search engine rankings. And that will, in theory, improve the traffic and sales to their sites. But it doesn’t work. It’s a waste of everyone’s time.

It’s just sad.

I know. People are telling you that you can earn thousands of dollars doing this. It’s just not true. They’re getting you to pay for tools like Trackback Submitter, promising you to grow your site traffic and search engine ratings. And I am sorry to tell you this, but it’s all just some enormous con. And while you might think that you are the one spreading the spam and pulling the con on us, it’s actually you that’s being conned.

You are wasting your time. You’re performing a useless task. You’re spending what little intellect and energy you have to do something that just doesn’t work. The only think you achieve is annoying people like me who have to clean up after you.

Think about it for a moment. I mean seriously think about it.

  1. I will not let your messages and links be posted on my site.
  2. I will never click on your links.
  3. I will not purchase from you.

There are so many more legitimate, productive, and profitable ways to spend your time.

I know that most of the links are submitted through robots, but for the few of you out there who may actually read this, take a moment and think about your lives. Is this really the way you want to spend your time and efforts?

Written by Randy Murray

March 22, 2010 at 8:00 am

Writing Assignment: Capturing Dialog

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If you have the goal of becoming a better writer, you need to practice.

Here’s your writing assignment for today:

Write a short section of dialog. You can start from an overheard conversation, but you are not limited to it. Try and convey the individual personalities using only their spoken words.

Dialog is one of the most difficult types of writing. You are limited to only what a person says, not what they do, not what they’re thinking, what they look like, or other visual cues. Working with dialog only focuses you very narrowly on what they are saying and precisely how they say it.

Try this: go to a restaurant where you know no one and listen to the people around you. Listen to how they speak, the sounds that they make. Note that most people don’t talk in complete sentences or paragraphs. Listen for the things that make them individuals.

When you’re done with your writing, ask yourself if this dialog reads and sounds like real human speech. Does it convey the personalities of the speakers? And as always, give your completed work to someone else to review and comment on.

Here’s my example:

“She said I could spend the night at her place, but I’ve been in the city since seven.”

“Yeah.”

“Oh, and I’ve got to be at that sale tomorrow. My mother wants me to come home, too.”

“Sure. You should go home.”

“Oh, I’m not even looking forward to going out. Everyone always says, ‘Oh you’re a nutritionist? What do you eat?’”

“Oh, but you’re so thin!”

“I eat food, just like everybody else.”

“Sure, you eat healthy.”

“Just not today.”

“Ha! I don’t even think about it. This was good.”

“Yeah. Thanks. We better get going.”

“That’s a nice coat.”

“Uh huh.”

“And you’re going out tomorrow night?”

“Yeah, he’s nice. He called me Tuesday, no pressure. Said he wanted to go out Saturday night. He’s meeting me in the city.”

“Oh. He’s not picking you up?”

“He said he wanted to surprise me. He said he wouldn’t tell me where we were going.”

“You’re so lucky. He sounds nice.”

“Yeah. Did I tell you . . .”

You may leave your completed assignment in the comment section below.

Click here to view and complete previous writing assignments.

Written by Randy Murray

March 19, 2010 at 8:00 am

Posted in writing

Why Apple’s iPad Is Under-Hyped

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April 3rd.

That’s the big date.

It’s not the Singularity. But it does herald a major shift in the way that ordinary people interact with computers. And if that isn’t enough, I believe that the iPad and its successors will transform not just computing, but several other major and seemingly unrelated industries.

Here are my predictions and a timeline:

  1. April 3rd, 2010. The iPad is released. All units sell out that day. Supplies stay tight through the summer.
  2. September 2010 – over five million units have sold worldwide. Amazon’s Kindle numbers are not reported publically, but remain around one million units. Sony’s e-reader has completely stalled.
  3. Last half of 2010. Other manufacturers release their versions of tablet or slate computers, most of them running the Windows 7 operating system. Their sales are almost too low to count.
  4. January 2011. Version 2 of the iPad is released. Over 10 million units of version 1 have been sold worldwide. Electronic book sales surpass hardback book sales in total dollars with Apple outpacing Amazon’s eBook sales.
  5. October 2011 – Dell and HP drop their tablet computers and begin focusing exclusively on business computers and servers. iPad sales pass 100 million units by the end of this year.
  6. 2012 – Cisco attempts a late entry into the consumer/home media server market. They will exit a year later. Apple introduces a series of iPads with sizes up to 50 diagonal inches, intended to be wall-mounted and to replace conventional televisions.
  7. 2013 – The last major US city daily newspaper ceases daily print production. Several “name brand” papers like the New York Times survive, but as online versions only, primarily supported by iPad subscription sales. The third generation of iPads brings new size and function options, as well as much lower pricing. The entry level unit is priced at $149.
  8. 2014 – the “Big 4” television networks cease scheduled broadcast entertainment. Everything is now on-demand or a live event like sports or news. The iTunes Store is now the leading sales channel for music, books, movies, and TV. Amazon sales are now primarily consumer goods with book and music sales comprising less than 20% of their sales. They remain a clearinghouse for used goods as the Amazon Marketplace grows in sales and revenue impact.
  9. 2015 – printed books are now considered luxury items, with the exception of children’s books. Electronic comic books and graphic novels reach new heights of sales and creativity. Movie theaters have a resurgence in attendance, but largely due to new interactive features that allow audience members to participate and comment on the movie using their iPads. Showtimes are electronically coordinated worldwide so audience members can share their simultaneous experiences.  Apple announces their next revolutionary product.
  10. 2020 – the shake-out in the lumber industry is complete. The collapse of the newspapers and end of the majority of printed books has caused lumber prices to plummet.  The use of wood in home and furniture construction is rare. Antique wood furniture skyrockets in price. A much smaller commercial forestry industry begins a very long term focus on developing 100 and 200 year plans for hardwoods.  Planetary reforestation projects begin showing signs of successfully pulling carbon from the atmosphere.

No rocket cars or jet packs; I think my prediction sounds like a very different world, yet one that is only small steps away. Today’s pretty different from 1980, isn’t it? I have no problem seeing things moving three times as fast as they did for the last 30 years, so it’s not so hard to think that my imagined future could happen.

In fact, if anything, I’ve been far too conservative. The future’s bright. Where are my Virtual Light sunglasses?

Written by Randy Murray

March 18, 2010 at 8:00 am

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