tool up already

If you've ever received an e-mail from me, you've seen my sig. It says, "Humans — the tool users." It's actually been my sig-line since about five years before I even got my first e-mail account — originally it was on a small piece of paper that was stuck to the door of my first apartment, where the name plate was supposed to go. My friends would tell each other to "get off the elevator at the third floor and look for Katherine-style snark" as directions to my place.

The full origins of the sig may get explained in another post sometime, but the reason I'm bringing it up for this post is because of the incredible respect I've learned to have for objects that augment the already-incredible power of human hands (and mouths, and feet, and now brains with the new research in thought-controlled devices). Think about how badly an alien invasion could cripple us if they just disintegrated anything that they could identify as a tool: from screwdrivers to computer keyboards to teaspoons to hairbrushes. We'd be left trying to tune up the defence fleet with shards of flint. I'm not saying we couldn't do it — I once put together a coffee table using a butter knife for lack of a screwdriver, and it held together fine for at least ten years. But it would be a lot harder, and a lot of time would be wasted while all those mechanics searched around for just the right-sized shards of flint.

Or, to revisit that butter-knife example, imagine if the aliens were more bloody-minded than thorough, and just got rid of some tools in any given family of tools. So we got to keep hairbrushes, but combs disappeared. We got to keep slot screwdrivers, but not Phillips screwdrivers. While waiting for new replacement tools to be created, people would try to make do as best they could, and there would be a lot of yanked hair and stripped screw heads.

Still sounds pretty annoying, doesn't it? Then riddle me this — why do people keep using the wrong features for the job in their word processors? I'm not talking about an occasional user who needs to tap out a letter once a year or less. I mean people for whom the word processor is a serious tool: writers.

When Holly Golightly gives Paul Varjak a typewriter ribbon in Breakfast at Tiffany's, he doesn't need to call tech support to install the thing. Instead, he kicks off his shoes jauntily, and a few scenes later is typing up the opening lines of "My Friend." There's no way Paul Varjak would have sat there and said, "Oh, I'm such a Luddite, I wish we could just use quills and vellum like Shakespeare did, I'll have to get one of my techie friends to help me...." No way. The typewriter is his writing tool, and he bloody well knows how to use it and take care of it.

Typewriter ribbons are still sold, although admittedly they are much more difficult to find these days. Pens and notepads are still as easy to find and use as they were in Truman Capote's day. Computers are the tool of choice for many, though, and that means using a word processor application.

And that means, if you are a writing human, you need to get to know word processing applications, because that's your tool.

A couple of odd things are happening, though. For one, there seem to be an awful lot of writing humans out there who never get past the butter-knife stage, and even act disdainful if you tell them there are things called screwdrivers that work even better than butter knives for the purposes of assembling furniture... they just don't want to leave their little newbie comfort zone. Even more inexplicably, certain software companies are encouraging people to not become proficient.

Next post: an overview of the tools that are out there, focusing on ones that are cross-platform (ie: I don't care what kind of computer you have — the tools I will review work with any computer five years old or less in reasonably good condition). 

After that: best practices, tips & tricks, and some ideas for document processing.