Saturday, December 13, 2008

Overcoming Writer's Block

I've been suffering from terrible writer's block, as evidenced by this blog. It's not that there's nothing to say. Sometimes there's TOO MUCH to talk about. I'm stymied by a kind of shyness: "Why would anyone be interested in what I have to say?" I'm self-conscious about putting my opinions in public. The Web is wonderful, but I worry about how it breaks down our privacy.

I downloaded TiddlerWiki today, just to try it. It's supposed to have some nice features for linking and searching that might be useful.

I'm thinking about two applications for it. First, it'd be a great way to centralize little tidbits about software development (e.g., the stuff I have for setting up a MySQL database buried in my daily diary). Second, it might be a web-based alternative to my personal journal.

One thing I like about it is that I've downloaded an empty.html file to my hard drive. It's in my control. I'm still wary about putting stuff out there, "in the cloud", living on someone else's servers.

I also looked at a site called It's a nicely conceived and implemented site for establishing and tracking goals: simple, graphical, and elegant. Why didn't I write that? I signed up for a username and password, but first I read the terms of use. It was a real eye-opener. It's free now, but they actually have extensive language about billing and monthly charges and cancellation fees. The currency amount just happens to be $0.0, but it'd be easy to change. If the site is free, why add all that unless you plan to monetize it as soon as you reach a threshold number of users?

There's also language that says your data no longer belongs to you. The people who own the site can do whatever they bloody well want with it once you upload it. Woe be to you if you happen to have a goal of working through all the positions listed in the Kama Sutra by your next birthday! It could be dicey if your partner happens to be a co-worker or someone else who isn't your wife.

Anyway, both technologies are right up my alley. I've been keeping an electronic journal in Word since 1994, and I've been tracking my swimming yardage in an Excel spreadsheet since 1996. I've been looking for ways to improve both. The Word docs are nice, but I can't search them very easily. I thought about using Lucene to index and search the documents, but then I learned that my swim tracking got in the way. I started by embedding a spreadsheet into the Word doc at the start of every month. The POI library that I used to read the Word docs blew up over the Excel spreadsheets. So I had to move the Excel data out of the Word documents and into something better.

I became interested in data warehousing and dimensional modeling. I'm designing a data warehouse for my swimming data now. It's a surprisingly good demonstration for the problems of data warehouses and ETL. I'm guilty of "premature roll-up" (don't tell my wife). I aggregated my data by week, and now I'll have to work really hard to get back the finer grained daily results.

GoalsOnTrack seems like a great way to track all the other things that I need to get done. I've been pretty good about doing yoga on my own since I started taking a weekly class fifteen months ago, but actually seeing the hours spent in downward dog accumulate would be a great motivator. I'd love to brush up on the mathematics I've forgotten and learn the news things I need to take a new direction at work, but I'm a lazy man who tends to watch the Boston Celtics on television too much. Having a measure, like my swimming yardage totals, seems to motivate me.

How much tracking does one person need? After a while, the tracking activity consumes a great deal of your time. How anal.

Bloggers like Seth Godin and Jeff Atwood are my latest heroes. I don't know how they manage to be so insightful. Seth Godin posts every day. That old adage about writers having to write every day seems to be true. If I'm going to find a voice, I'll just have to start getting used to the idea of writing every day.

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