writing: outlining in tomboy notes

There are tons of outlining tools out there. Graphical ones, bulleted-list ones, physical ones the writer draws on large sheets of wallpaper, ones set up in word processor templates. Personally I tend towards onscreen sticky notes, maybe because of all the document review meetings I've sat through at the day job which included a "parking lot" full of yellow stickies. I've been using Tomboy Notes (available for Linux, Unix, Windows, and Mac OS X) since at least 2008, which is the last time I blogged about it.

Tomboy is better integrated with Ubuntu now than it was then, which is a bit ironic since they no longer officially support it. No biggie so far — it works fine in v11.04. I set up my system to automatically start it when I log in, so it's always in the top toolbar waiting for me (see screen shot above). Clicking the icon displays all of the major menu choices plus all of the recent notes you've made.

Each note allows very basic word processor functionality, can be as long or as short as you like, and can be categorised into a notebook. Notebooks are just collections of notes given a label the user creates. It's a pretty unfussy way to store information, and if you forget what a note is called, the search function will let you do a text search, either on a specific notebook, all uncategorised notes, or all your notes.

I love Tomboy for outlining larger works of text. My Tuesday Serial has finally got far enough along that it's hard to remember all the character names and plot points, so I made a cluster of notes to keep track and illustrate this blog post at the same time:

I started with the note in the top left. Once that was written, I highlighted the text "the Zondernaam family" and clicked the Link button. Tomboy created a new note for me with the title "the Zondernaam family". Any time I use that phrase in any other note from now on, it will automatically create a link back to the note with that name. It's important to choose meaningful text as note titles, which is a good thing because it keeps you from making a note called "this" or something else non-descriptive.

If you look at the screen shot at full size (click to view), you'll see that all the major characters are have notes with their first names except for Beth Zondernaam. I was worried because I've had other characters named Beth in the past, so I changed the title of the note about her. Tomboy asked me if I wanted to update the links, and I said yes, so it did an automatic global search and replace for me. If a note gets deleted, all links to it get deleted as well (not the text itself, just the linking formatting and behaviour).

Notes may be exported to HTML. The links will stay intact, so if I were to export the top-level "Tilly with the Others" note, for instance, Tomboy would include all of the child notes attached to it. The result would be a single HTML page with internal links to the different notes (now sections in the overall HTML document). This has come in handy when I need to move content from one machine to another.

It is possible to synch notes (you can see that option in the menu screen shot), but I've never had much call to use it. Some of the features highlighted here can be altered or turned off as well.

Tomboy isn't as strict or as hierarchical as other outlining tools out there, but that's partly why I like it. I'll often arrange a set notes on a screen pane when I'm trying to organise something (there's that whiteboard parking lot training again). It doesn't go as far as some of the "mind cloud" organisers out there (which personally I see as a good thing), but the physical/spatial aspect can be a definite plus.

YOU MUST LEARN

The cliché is that those who don't know their history are doomed to repeat it. There's another cliché, though, the one about history being written by the victors. In this case it's not so much the victors as the advertisers, though, and historical accuracy is not in their selfish best interests.

I've seen lists like these in some of the computing magazines etc., and they always have one or two things wrong with them. First of all, they're often inaccurate, and rush too quickly to get to the star names. It's like they're worried their readers will stop reading if they learn something new.

Second of all, they're often confused. They'll start way early in the timeline, or way late, like a student who didn't exactly understand what their own thesis statement was.

This is my timeline for the development of personal computing. Don't let your eyes glaze over, 'cos unless you're a computer science major (or act like one), you may learn some surprising things. Besides, if you're reading this blog, it means you're taking a break from on-line games or porn or your friends' status updates or whatever else you usually look at.
  • The rough sketch for what we now call the personal computer (or tablet, or smartphone, or whatever) was published in July 1945 by someone called Vannevar Bush. He wrote about it in an essay called "As We May Think" in The Atlantic Monthly, and it's still available on-line today. It's as good and accessible a read as anything that magazine publishes now. Bush gives a series of small examples, which, while interesting, leave you thinking, "okay, so....?" until he puts them all together and delivers the knockout punch at the end.
  • That July 1945 issue of The Atlantic Monthly was read by, amongst other people, a man named Douglas Engelbart. Once he finished serving in the Pacific theatre of the Second World War, he went home to the US and started working on creating some of the things Bush presented in his essay.
  • Engelbart invented the mouse in 1963. Bill English carved the first prototype out of a block of wood. Engelbart patented the mouse in 1970, but the patent papers were filed in 1967.
  • 1968: The Mother of All Demos. Engelbart demonstrates using the mouse, display editing, copying & pasting text, hypertext (links), and multiple windows. The whole thing is video conferenced, so that those who want to see the demo but can't attend in person can watch on closed-circuit TV.
Please pause and re-read that last entry. All of that stuff was working well enough to demonstrate live in 1968.

Oh yeah: in 1969 Engelbart (again!) helped start ARPAnet, which eventually became what we now call the Internet. I don't think it's a big exaggeration to say that he's shaped to a very large extent everything the world thinks of as "normal" in a human-computer experience, and yet most people haven't heard of him. Luckily he seems to be a force for good.

And that is where I'm going to end my timeline, because from where I'm sitting, everything that comes afterwards is a long, slow, painful crawl to commercial acceptance from that 1968 demo. If you look around Doug Engelbart's site thoroughly, you'll see that his overarching aim has been to augment human intelligence. That we were stuck with the 1968 paradigm for so long (albeit with prettier video interfaces) is a tad worrying.

Where is computing going now? On the one hand I'm glad that innovations like the gesture-based commands in the Wii and Kinect systems made it to market, because I think a thinking environment that encourages us to use all of our bodies instead of being hunched over a desktop is a good thing. On the other hand, it's a tad worrying that these are coming out of the gaming world, which means they might be a hard sell in the business realm. After all, back in the 80s PCs themselves sometimes had to be purchased at large corporations as "word processors" or "adding machines" to avoid refusals from the accounting department.

Notice I made it this far without mentioning Bill Gates or Steve Jobs (or even Steve Wozniak). Notice how young Gates and Jobs were when all this was happening. Bush's essay was published ten years before either of them were born. I don't mean that Gates and Jobs haven't contributed; I just mean that there was already a lot in place by the time they started working on things.

The advertisers tell us that computing is changing very quickly, and that we have to run to keep up. Given that the idea came in 1945, was realised by 1968, and then didn't catch on until the 1980s, I'm not so sure.

how i found time to post this blog

Usually I hate it when someone gives time management advice, or evangelises about a time management system. Most of the ones I've come across aren't flexible enough to adapt to different work situations, involve spending as much time managing the thing as they do using it, and don't scale well.

I do even worse with the common suggestions for writing routines. Keeping a word count minimum and/or writing first thing in the morning have the opposite effect: I get so wound up about meeting the goals that I don't write at all. Deadlines can help — I've sucessfully completed NaNoWriMo more than once — but all this stuff about "goals" and "milestones" leaves me clammy.

Sure as I started out this blog post with the above paragraphs, I think I've found a method that works, at least for me. It's called the Pomodoro Technique, and it's been around for twenty years. But it's new to me, and it seems to be new to the people I've been evangelising to telling about it.

Instead of worrying about your word count, or letting the whole whatever-it-is at hand loom over you, you just concentrate on working steadily on one task, for twenty-five minutes straight, without interruption. When the twenty-five minutes are up, you take a five-minute break to do other things. Then you start the timer for twenty-five minutes again. Each twenty-five minute work period plus five-minute break is called a Pomodoro. The details of how to apply the technique are available for free from the Pomodoro web site.

Note: I have no idea how good or bad the stuff they're selling on the site is. My enthusiasm is strictly for the free book you can download. I also found a free timer for my cell phone that was made to manage Pomodoros. Apparently there are several out there for both phones and computers, although the book just recommends a regular kitchen timer.

What I like is that the technique gets rid of all the anxiety that was making me freeze up. I wrote five nights out of seven last week, and got 4,631 words completed — 369 short of the 1,000 words a day x 5 days a week I was aiming for previously (and failing miserably to obtain). I only wrote one Pomodoro per day, averaging 840 words per session. At two Pomodoros per day, someone could comfortably win NaNoWriMo writing at that rate.

Every technique has its pros and cons, of course. But if your current routine isn't working for you, Pomodoros are definitely worth trying.

Gmail

After the actual Google search engine, Gmail was probably the first Google app I started using. I'd had it to the teeth with my Bell Sympatico internet connection, and was shopping around for a new ISP. That meant my sympatico.ca e-mail account would be going away. I didn't really want to use Hotmail because I used to train people on how to do tech support for it (along with sausage and journalism, the workings widely-deployed web apps should not be seen by the weak-stomached).

At the time, too, maximum attachment sizes and maximum mailbox sizes were pretty punitive for web-based e-mail. Besides that, some web mail clients were trying to police their users by not allowing files with certain extensions through. Since I'd been using PKZip since DOS was the norm on PCs and tended to write some of those "forbidden" files myself (like .JS files), I was pretty annoyed at just about everyone offering web e-mail.

I begged an invitation to Gmail off the person that told me about sometime in the summer of 2004 (my absolute earliest e-mails are long gone, and not terribly missed). What made me sign up was:
  • their maximum on-line mailbox size was (and still is) bigger than most other web-based e-mail clients
  • they had keyboard shortcuts way before anyone else
  • you can use the Google search tool to hack through your inbox and find messages
  • even though the infamous "keyword targeted ads" are there, the interface is much less flashy and therefore tends to load more quickly than the competition's
  • the ads themselves are not entirely bad — I usually get ones for Wired.com, which I read anyhow.
I don't know if the numbers would back me up on this, but I suspect Gmail is also Google's most popular tool (after the search engine). It seems like a lot of people have accounts, even if they're not primary accounts. That's easy to manage, because Google lets you grab mail from other accounts and will even label it for you. You can even reply back using Gmail, but say it's from the other account. I manage three accounts from one Gmail address, and it works great.
    Gmail was also the first web mail app (that I know of) that encouraged you not to file away things in folders. Instead, you just kept everything in your inbox and then searched through it when you needed something. When Gmail came on the scene, this was weird, and outright frowned upon at the offices I worked at. Now it's the norm, and other e-mail apps have had to improve their search capabilities to keep up.

    Gmail's account capacity is now somewhere in the neighbourhood of 7.5 GB (they keep increasing the inbox size gradually), they've recently added a task list feature, and the contacts list has improved a lot from the early days. They also have integrated chat now. This is different from the ill-fated Buzz, which seems to have been some sort of Twitter competitor and that no-one I know ever took too seriously. They don't seem to have a lot of downtime, and, although I noticed that my on-line inbox only goes back to 2005 now, they don't seem to lose accounts a lot. From what I have heard, when they do, it's game over, but that's just another reason why you shouldn't trust cloud computing and should always have a backup mailbox.

    Like anything else that's free, if you think you could use it, you should check it out.

    a google of reasons

    I've said here before that I try to be nobody's fangirl. That's including software and web sites. That's especially including software and web sites. They're like bad boyfriends — as soon as you decide they're perfect, you discover this nasty side to them that's a complete turn-off.

    I do, however, use an awful lot of Google's on-line tools. I even switched to Chrome as my default web browser, away from Firefox. Here's a list of all the tools I use. Some of them I use every day, some only a few times a year, but they're all in regular rotation:

    That's fifteen things, and all of them except for one involve cloud computing, which I am on the record as being sceptical of. I had no idea that I'd joined the Google universe that completely. I like to think I check things out and choose the best tool for the job, not just the one that Google makes.

    But you know? By and large these tools are the best ones I've found out there. My usual criteria list is:

    • Can be used on Windows, Ubuntu Linux, Mac OS, or Maemo ('cos I use all of these)
    • Has the feature set I want
    • Is preferably free, or at least has a usable free version
    • Is stable "enough" (Note: I don't believe any software is completely stable)
    • Is easy enough to use that I can recommend it to someone without spending the rest of my life helping them with it
    • Does not require users to buy into the entire universe just because they want to check out one thing (I'm looking at you, Facebook!)
    At first I had an idea that I could review all the Google tools I use as one of my blog series, like I did with document processing or basic Linux applications. But fifteen... that's over five weeks, and those tool/application posts take more time to put together than the average post.

    So I'm going to start posting a Google tool entry every Friday instead. Let me know what you think.

    reassuring... i think

    In my own personal top ten of "things I wish people would stop asking me," there is an entry for "which famous author do you write the most like?". I hate this question because I honestly have no clue, but I know when it comes time to query the current novel-in-progress I'm going to need a good answer. The ever-reading J-A says my short stories remind her of Ray Bradbury a lot. That's extremely flattering, but since I still can't see it myself, it doesn't help me much when it's query-writing time.

    That's why I was very interested when @tdoerr had a link to a Toronto Star article about I Write Like, a web site that compares text you paste into a text box to sample works by fifty different published authors. That's a small sample, but with better data it could actually become useful. After all, there's always a difference between who you wish you wrote like and who you do write like.

    I ran my blog entry about my theory of Facebook's real agenda through I Write Like, and it told me:


    I write like
    Cory Doctorow

    I Write Like by Mémoires, Mac journal software. Analyze your writing!


    Given what Doctorow himself writes about Facebook, that's not really surprising. But he's one of my favourite authors, especially for non-fiction, so hey, I'll take it!

    Even I can tell most of my fiction isn't like Doctorow's though, so I ran my current favourite short story (a ghost story set during the Spanish flu pandemic) through the I Write Like analyser, and got:

    I write like
    J. K. Rowling

    I Write Like by Mémoires, Mac journal software. Analyze your writing!


    I love Rowling's character development and how she handles mystery plots. Neither of these are evident in my little 2,000-word short story, but I'd much rather have a comparison script decide I write like her than James Joyce (another option on this site).

    Which leads me to conclude: if I ever get down on my writing, I can just run a page or two through the analyser. Sure, it's all BS and about as accurate as, well, one of those silly Facebook quizzes, but its response and another cup of tea might be all it takes to get going again.

    Kobo coda

    Last Saturday I gave my mum the Kobo I won at Book Summit 2010. It was an interesting study of both usability and the inaccuracy of stereotypes.

    My mum is pretty computer literate. She knows how to build web sites, use Photoshop, and create multimedia presentations. She's an MS-Excel power user, and is comfortable talking about hardware specs on laptops.

    So it gave me pause when I was the one who wound up installing the Kobo synch software on her machine.

    Explaining how to use the Kobo itself to her was easy, even with my toddler niece sitting on Mum's lap and trying to help push the buttons (the gadget-fascination continues to the next generation). My mum's only comment was, "That's all there is to it?" We decided to move to the next step of loading the synch software on her laptop.

    We went to the Kobo web site. We found a very aesthetically pleasing, clearly-written page that extolled the virtues of the software, but noted nothing about where to get the software from.

    "Where do you buy books for this thing, anyhow?" Mum said, so we took a break and bought a copy of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.

    Buying the book from Chapters/Kobo was easy, but once it was bought we couldn't figure out how to download the ebook file.

    At this point we were both getting confused and worried. Sure, checking the Kobo's on-device manual probably would have helped, but, as my mum pointed out, you can't power on the Kobo while it is attached to a computer, and we didn't really want to undock it until we had no other options to check.

    My mum gave me the computer to fiddle with, and I checked the Kobo folders Windows could detect over the USB link. Sure enough, the required software was on the device all along. It wasn't in a very obviously labeled folder (I was hoping for something called INSTALL), but it was there.

    The installation app itself was a joy to behold. It started with a device operating system upgrade, then installed the synch software on the laptop. All along the way, the instructions were provided in wonderfully clear text plus easy-to-follow diagrams. Everything worked like a charm. Sure, I've been updating firmware on various devices almost as long as firmware has existed, but I have to say I appreciated this process like no other. The instructions make it easy for any newbie or casual computer user to follow the steps, yet at the same time treat the user with respect. If all technical writing was this good the world would be a far better place.

    Best of all, when the synch software itself finally launched, it immediately discovered that The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo had already been purchased and promptly added it to my mum's library of Kobo books. I clicked the "synch" button on the software, and the ebook was added to the Kobo device.

    My mum's been reading the book on the Kobo ever since, and she loves it (mostly the device, but also the novel). Her only concern so far is how to share the device with my stepfather. He reads mostly nonfiction, and she reads mostly fiction, so probably they won't want to read the same book at the same time, but arranging reading time on the device itself could prove to be difficult.

    I think I know what he's getting for Christmas already.

    Coda to the coda: For any readers who are bursting to say, "Why didn't you just follow the damn instructions? It says the software is on the device!", here are a couple of points to ponder.

    Yes, the Desktop page does state, right near the top, "The Kobo Desktop Application comes preloaded on every Kobo eReader." It doesn't say which folder it's in, though, and it doesn't have any technical how-to information (or a link to the same). That was the sort of text my mum and I were scanning for when we went to that page. People who are reading in a hurry for how to install something are going to skip right past that sentence, which is what we did. If you want to call us idiots and not typical users for doing that, that's cool — it won't be the first time and I'm sure it won't be the last.

    Again, once the user finds the software to install, the experience is absolutely superb.

    the World Wide Wrong number

    Wrong numbers used to be pretty straightforward. The caller would ask for someone who didn't live in your home, you'd explain using a standard polite phrase, and they would apologise and hang up. Easy. There were some loopholes, as immortalised in certain Hitchcock films, but they weren't common. If you lived in a small town, it wasn't unusual to know the person who had called you by accident anyhow.

    Cheap long distance started to change that. There's less reason to check a number carefully if the financial penalty for screwing up is reduced, but there's more reason to dial a number incorrectly if you can't look it up in a phone book. (This applied to the era before the WWW, of course.) So we all started getting wrong numbers from people who lived the next town or two over.

    The proliferation of non-phone devices changed things a bit more. If you've ever been forced to take your phone off the hook in the middle of the night, just because some aspiring fax spammer fat-fingered your home number into their overnight transmission list and set the retries to the maximum, you know what I mean.

    Then "phone plan options" appeared, and something new started to happen: the reverse wrong number. You'd call someone, realise you had the wrong number, apologise, and hang up. Unluckily for you, you'd just accidentally called someone with both an unlisted number and caller ID. They'd call you back, and the conversation would go something like this, at least if you deal with such situations the way I do.

    Me: Hello?
    Them: Why did you just call me?
    Me: Um, other way around — you just called me.

    (This is the part where they get whiny/panicky/irate.)

    Them: Nooooooo, you just called me! And I have an unlisted number!
    Me: Hm. I did just try to call a friend of mine, but I dialled a wrong number.
    Them: But my number's unlisted!
    Me: Doesn't mean people can't dial it by accident. After all, my number's unlisted and you called me.
    Them: But that's because I have call display.
    Me: Yeah, but now you've invaded my privacy by recording my unlisted number and calling it. I could report you for harrassment. What did you say your name was again?

    [Click]

    Just about when the paranoid people finally figured out what their optional services really did, all those new (no longer that new) area codes were added. Toronto finally had a succinct way to identify conservative suburbia — the "905" — and having a 416 number became a status symbol in some circles. Plus, calling a wrong number became a lot more easy and common than it used to be.

    I got some experience with just how easy and common it was when some guy named Kevin got a cell number the same as mine, but with a different area code. It was right at the beginning of a long weekend, and I got lots of late-night calls from drunken young men, giggly (and also drunken) young women, and irate older people who wanted to know who I was and why I was answering Kevin's phone. After two nights of interrupted sleep, I got a call from the Humber OPP asking for Kevin. The police were the only ones I called back — to confirm that they had the wrong number. I never found out who Kevin was, but I hope he learned how to party without getting on the radar of the provincial police.

    That brings this narrative up to the present day. Phone services on the interweb have proliferated. There are plenty of phone number searches, and now there are VoIP services like Skype. In the same way that you don't need a TV set anymore to watch TV, thanks to computers, you no longer need an actual phone number to make a phone call. As my mother now puts it when I call her long-distance over Skype, "the call display said 'unknown caller' so I figured it must be you."

    And it's that flexibility, that global reach available to anyone who has access to an internet café and a cheap long-distance card, that is making wrong numbers get really, really weird.

    In the past year I had a call from people who said they were in Constantinople and who claimed to be friends with my nephew. I don't have a nephew and they did have a wrong number, but it was a long, convoluted discussion before I felt I could hang up politely. (I don't like to just hang up. People hit redial, and now they're annoyed at you for being rude.)

    I've also had a call from someone who thought I was their long-lost half-sister (this one wasn't so much a wrong number as a wrong relation), and a lot of calls from people who get very confused when someone with a Canuck accent answers the phone. This last group is almost always very polite and apologetic — I hope they reach their intended party.

    One last note: drunk dialing has been around as long as there have been phones. My maternal grandparents were painfully aware of it — their phone number was one digit off from the local taxi company, so they got plenty of calls at closing time with people saying things like, "Yeah, pick me up at the Rose & Crown[click]". It's just that now there are more phones around (and, arguably, more recreational chemicals), so drunk dialing is reaching new heights/depths just like all the other wrong number dialing we do.

    My new Nokia N900 still doesn't have a SIM card in it (my old phone still works, so I'm being lazy about dealing with that), so it can't receive or send phone calls except via Wifi and some VoIP service like Skype.

    Last Saturday night found me watching one of those lovely, chick-flick Jane Eyre film adaptations. It was right about the part where the hero and heroine finally have their one kiss of the entire movie when all of a sudden my phone started ringing and buzzing.... as if I was getting a call or something.

    So I picked it up and checked (I figured I'd accidentally set an alarm for the wrong time)... and it was a Skype call. From France. Since I don't know anyone in France who would call me at midnight Toronto time, I just hung up. But this caller was redialling so fast it was as if I had never touched the End Call button. Finally I just turned off the Wifi.

    I got two chat messages from my French caller. One was in the French version of texting shorthand, and I have no idea what it said because I don't know the standard abbreviations for French text messages. The other was in regular, if ungrammatical, French, and I could read that. It said "repend moi" (answer me).

    Pro tip: if you're going to drunk dial, be polite. You never know when you're going to call a semi-bilingual former teacher in Canada by mistake.

    If you have any favourite wrong number stories, please add them to the comments!

    want to speed up web access? block Facebook!

    Back when I was researching the most efficient way to commit Facebook suicide, I came across an article about how Facebook can pursue you even in the non-Facebook afterlife. I made a note to try it out once my account was good and gone.

    The account is officially dead, so I went ahead with the next step and blocked "www.facebook.com" in my router's firewall settings. These settings were originally designed for parents to keep children from porn sites and the like. It felt pretty strange blocking myself from a site that I never use anyhow, but I was curious as to why people were recommending it in the first place.

    Adding the domain to my settings took under five minutes. It would have taken under two if I had known where in the router's settings I needed to do the data entry.

    After the router restarted and I was back on the web, I headed over to my favourite on-line magazine web site to do some light reading. To my astonishment, the site loaded much faster than it normally does, so quickly I checked the status bar on my browser for an error message. Nope, nothing. So I scrolled down the home page to see if there had been a noticeable revamp of the layout or something else to explain the speed. Everything looks the same, except for what's shown in the screen shot below, and that was my doing:

    I knew from the "www.facebook.com" test I did after the router reset that the block is very fast — the router is very quick to check and invoke the blocked URL settings (which is about what you'd expect, but it's nice to see it in action).

    Traditionally pulling in information and displaying it from disparate URLs was known to slow down page loads, but this was the first time I'd ever really noticed it since switching from dial-up to DSL over ten years ago.

    Out of curiosity I went to a couple of my favourite newspaper sites. Same thing, and for apparently the same reason.

    Now, I'm not nearly enough of a propeller-head to do the measurements and attach some numbers to this, but what I thought would be a "set it and forget it" ethical stance against a site that had annoyed me turned out to have some immediate, positive benefits.

    It was tempting to see what would happen if I blocked "www.google.com," but I didn't. Why? Mostly because, while I refuse to be anyone's fangirl, Google doesn't bug me nearly as much as Facebook does. But that's another blog post.

    we need to talk

    Today I got the Nokia N900 I ordered. I decided I wanted to get one as soon as they came out, but there were the usual ordering shortages, early-adopter angst, and all the rest. Besides, watching other early adopters has convinced me that the best thing to do is read all the reviews and then wait a few months.

    The Eyrea normally has a strict policy of not upgrading gadgets unless and until there is a damn good reason. "A newer, shinier one got released" is not a damn good reason. The N900's predecessor, the still-working N800, eliminated the MP3 player from the "stuff I cart around in my purse" list, plus gave me a simple word processor for when inspiration struck and I was standing up on a TTC bus. Turns out it's handy for other things I find of value, like keeping a calendar, making a usable calculator handy, and surfing the web at Starbucks. Plus, erm, Mahjongg and Tetris. Games don't seem important until you realise they're the only thing between you and the overwhelming urge to throttle the annoying person three seats away from you on the subway.

    The N900 does all the things the N800 did (the only loss seems to be handwriting recognition, which I probably won't miss in the long run), plus it has GPS and a built-in phone. So now I can quit carrying around a phone, too. It also has a camera with a flash and Zeiss lens. Maybe I can quit using my little digital camera too.

    A phone. That means I can ditch my old cell phone and just use the N900 as a pocket wireless gadget, a simple word processor, a calendar, and all that other stuff.

    But before all those gadgets can be shed, the ugly stuff has to happen. The data transfers.

    Sure, the N900 has a USB cable connection, plus Bluetooth, plus WLAN, plus of course the phone connection, plus a microSD slot. Sounds pretty connected, right? Not quite.

    The USB only shows the microSD card.

    The microSD slot on the device is internal, right beside that nice Zeiss lens on the phone.

    The Bluetooth.... works like Bluetooth. All the usual "sure this device is wide open but I can't see it la la la", or "I can see it, but I'm not going to talk to it" inanity that besets Bluetooth. Or else the Nokia is willing to talk, but the other device won't, even thought it's wide open and can recognise the Nokia is trying to talk to it.

    I'm not picking on the N900 here. I'm not even surprised. This is what often happens when older gadgets get folded into a single gadget, or even when you just do a straight one-to-one upgrade.

    The good news is they're getting better all the time. The bad news is they weren't better before.

    At any rate, I'm sure I will get everything figured out eventually. When I do, I'll post about the solutions here, rather than the first-night-of-acquisition problems.

    Update: Aha! I gave up for the night, and powered down the device, but left it charging on the USB from my computer. The laptop detected both the microSD card and the main storage! This would probably be highly boring if I just read the manual cover to cover first instead of just browsing the index. It would also be less fun.

    So if I can get it on my laptop, I can get it on the N900. Okay.

    Kobo review -- includes instant DIY case info!

    The first time I did any research on ebook readers was around 1994-95. E-ink was already being talked about, as was desktop synchronisation. Since the Web only started in 1995, people were talking about downloading a lot more than they were doing it.

    I never got to actually handle any of the ebook readers I checked out back then. The first reader I've had a chance to take for a real test run was the Kobo I won at last Friday's Book Summit. The main place they seem to be sold in Canada is Chapters/Indigo.

    The Kobo got its initial check-out over some post-Summit libations on a patio by the lake. The company that makes the Kobo is very smart about getting on a new customer's good side right away. The reader comes out of the box with enough of a battery charge for an initial play session, and 100 books are pre-loaded so you can start reading right away. There is only one page of settings to adjust, and then you're ready to read.

    I already read ebooks a lot — I put free (and legal!) downloads from Craphound and elsewhere on my Nokia tablet, mostly PDFs. So I'm used to reading novels on a colour screen about the size of an slightly-larger-than-average smartphone. Given that, these are the things that jumped out at me about the Kobo:

    Positives

    • I managed to choose the right date & time settings, adjust the reading font, flip through the catalogue of loaded books, choose a book, and start reading without ever looking at the manual. Having said that, taking a careful look at all the edges before you start playing with it in earnest is a good idea. Some of the buttons are so discreet that it isn't obvious where they are. Once you know where they are, they're easy to use and remember, but it's more pleasant to find them before you want to use them.
    • The device is light, light enough that you can comfortably hold it in one hand and read with it while waiting at a TTC stop for a long time — which is exactly what I did with it after I went to the Small Press Fair last Saturday. It's also more than light enough to read comfortably lying down.
    • It is also completely easy to read in bright sunlight. That TTC stop I just mentioned didn't have a shelter, and it was about four o'clock in the afternoon on a very bright day. No problems at all.
    • I didn't time it, but the battery seemed to charge very quickly. Although I've read about people having problems with battery life, my unit seems to be fine. Then again, I'm used to having to recharge my Nokia tablet every day because I use it so much, so I'm easy to please in that regard.

    Negatives

    • I can read the Kobo fine under natural light and fluorescent tubing (ironic, since the latter gives me eyestrain headaches), but it seems too dim when I have lamps with energy-saving lightbulbs on at home. I knit, read on paper, and bead under the same lamps, so I know that normally they provide enough light. The Kobo seems to do better under the halogen reading lamp I have by my bed.
    • The navigation rosette (they call it a D-pad) doesn't always interpret a "next-page" click correctly. If my thumb really loses the mark, I can wind up in a menu or at the home page without meaning to, and have to wait for the book to load again to continue reading. So far it hasn't happened often, but if I did it a lot it would be annoying.
    • The desktop software, which is an essential install on your computer if you want to buy books for the Kobo, does not have an official Linux version. That means I can't buy new books for the device, because my home computer and my Nokia tablet/phone all run Linux.
    About that last negative point: Kobo does have an unofficial Linux distro of its software. Unfortunately for me, it's compiled for 32-bit processors, and my laptop has a 64-bit processor. However, I want to take a moment here to thank them for thinking of Linux users. Just because we decided not to give money to Microsoft or Apple doesn't mean we won't cheerfully buy things from other companies!

    Because I can't buy new books for it at the present time, I decided to give my won Kobo to my mum. She runs Windows, so she'll be able to install the required software just fine, and she's been coveting a Kobo (and specifically a Kobo) for a while now.

    "You're going to need a case for it," I said when we talked about it over the phone. "I've been reading the reviews on the Chapters web site, and everyone says that protecting it from any accidental drops is very important."

    "Does it feel fragile when you use it?" she said.

    "Not for reading with it," I said. "But when I brought it along on the TTC, I was really glad my backpack had a pocket almost exactly the same size. I could see it getting smashed or cracked if you're rough with it. Probably true for all of these things."

    "I'll have to watch out for that," she said. "Well, stick it in an oven mitt in the meantime until you give it to me. I'll have to figure out whether I'm going to buy one of those Roots cases or just sew my own."

    I've talked about it on my other blog, but let it be known here as well that I don't come by this DIY stuff all by myself. A lot of it is inherited. Mum's completely right — the Kobo fits perfectly into a standard-size oven mitt, and gains a little eccentric je ne sais quoi that appeals to me, like when women use tea kettles or other found items as purses:

    If I tie a length of grosgrain ribbon or seam tape to one side of the mitt and a button to the other side, I'll have a strap to keep the Kobo from slipping out if the oven mitt gets turned cuff-side-down, at the cost of less than 15 minutes of work! (Oven mitt: $3.99 for a matching pair of two at Canadian Tire.)

    the iPad anti-review

    I haven't seen an iPad except in review videos. I haven't touched one, tried one out, or gotten within ten feet of one (unless I was sitting next to someone one the subway who had it in their knapsack and I didn't know).

    Because I like to read about technology and because I am a geek, I've been hearing a lot about them, including full-on debates about their merits and drawbacks well before anyone outside of the Apple development group even knew what the thing was going to look like.

    And I have to tell you: I'm confused.

    So this... thing is like a lightweight tablet computer. Okay, other companies have had those out for a while, except those companies include a keyboard.

    But, so I'm told, it's not about the feature set. It's about what you can do with it.

    The early adopters have all been blogging about how the iPad can be used to watch movies, listen to music, surf the web, read books. The ads I've seen are big on that last one, although the bloggers I read seem to be doing more movie-watching. Actually, most of the iPad-owning bloggers I read just seem to be chanting "Shiny! Shiny! SHINY!" at the moment, kind of like in that issue of The Tick where the bad guy hypnotises The Tick by placing that chrome apple in front of him and.... hey. Chrome. Apple. Hypnosis. I never picked up on that before.

    But I'm still confused.

    If I want to watch movies, I watch them on my TV set. My TV set can play all the file formats the iPad can (and more) thanks to the media box I have plugged into it. If I'm travelling I watch movies on my Nokia tablet. Yeah, the screen is smaller than the iPad's, but it's dead sharp and the gadget weighs less than half of what the iPad does. If I'm on a long trip, I might have my laptop with me, and that has a bigger screen than the iPad, although since I own a biggish laptop yes, it does weigh more.

    If I want to listen to music, I can use that media box again if I'm in my living room, or use my Nokia tablet if I'm not. If I'm on the go, I don't want to listen to music on something that is too big and heavy to hold comfortably in one hand for long, sorry. Ideally I want something that tucks into a pocket or small purse.

    If I want to surf the net... you get the idea. I just don't see what this thing is for, besides fleecing consumers.

    Maybe if someone owns a netbook and they want to replace it with something a bit flashier... I could see a market existing there. Netbooks are often sort of alternative computers, backed up by the real thing. The iPad matches them (kind of) in weight and form factor.

    Otherwise, I can't really see why it exists.

    top 5 pens

    My favourite day-to-day writing instrument has got to be the keyboard on my Dell laptop. That statement is misleading, though, as it hides the significant pen fetish I've developed since about the time they let us stop using pencils in elementary school. I've had a lifetime of bad handwriting coupled with a constant desire to be writing, and that has led to some very strong preferences regarding pens. I've certainly tried out enough, hoping to find the magic writing stick that will make my scribble legible to other people (and me!).

    #5: V Pen by Pilot

    I wrote with a Skrip fountain pen for most of university. For once this wasn't just being pretentious, but because my handwriting improves a tiny little bit when I use a heavier, non-ballpoint pen. I think it's because it forces me to slow down. The V Pen by Pilot is lightweight (bad), but it's also the only disposable fountain-style pen I've ever been able to find. It's also extra-fun to lend to people, because they see and feel the plastic case and then are confronted with the fountain pen nib when they write with it. I really do like the stroke of a nib across the paper as opposed to the run of a ballpoint. It just feels more "right."

    #4: found Cross pen

    I found this smaller-than-normal Cross pen on a Mississauga Transit bus seat, way back at the turn of the century. For a lightweight, narrow, ballpoint pen (which is three strikes against with me) it writes remarkably well. I alternate between trying to keep it nice and saving it and trying to use up the ink so I can replace the bright blue with my preferred black.

    #3: Pierre Belvédère

    The ever-thoughtful J-A got me this pen as a birthday present this year. It's a ballpoint, but it's a wide-bodied, heavy ballpoint. So far I've used it to write out a short-short story inside a birthday card (seemed appropriate), and the heft and balance make it very nice to write with. When I finally get around to trying to re-teach myself handwriting, this is definitely the pen I'm going to practise with.

    #2: wooden commemorative

    It's not unusual for teachers to receive commemorative pens or other academic tools as retirement gifts. This pen, and all the other pens that go with it, are unusual because they were given to teachers when they got their first full-time contract. It was presented at the adult education centre I spent the first four years of my career at. It was, in a lot of ways, a great place to work — except that the Harris government had just made a lot of funding cuts to education, which meant that even basic items like photocopy paper were in short supply (our principal had to beg boxes of paper off other schools the first semester we were open under the new rules), and all the teachers were on short-term, dead-end casual contracts. If we wanted to have a teaching job with a career path (plus things like health benefits and merit increases), we had to get a full-time contract at a school for teenagers. Leaving was always bittersweet — not because any of us particularly hated the idea of teaching teenagers, but because we had to leave a perfectly good job arbitrarily just because some politician wanted to score points.

    Each pen has a real wood barrel with the name of the "graduate" on it (that's what we called it when someone went full-time), and has a carved solid-wood case. The cover of the case has the school's logo and motto: an open book next to the words "In pursuit of lifelong learning."

    #1: a practical glass pen

    I've had this pen for almost twenty years now. It's made completely out of glass, and is based on designs that were popular in the 18th century — sort of after quills but before steel nibs. You dip the nib in the ink, and the spirals of the nib "catch" enough ink to write comfortably for about five lines of text. Then you dip again, and continue. The pen itself only cost about twenty dollars, and the bottles of ink are available at any decent art supply shop.

    I've written a lot with this pen, including some lengthy letters. It is light and narrow, but the ink delivery method makes me write like no other pen does. The feel of the inflexible glass sliding along the paper on a thin layer of ink is a sensation like I've got from no other pen, even my fountain pens.

    I wish I could cite where I got the glass pen from, but the shop went out of business shortly afterwards. There's no maker's mark on it or the box it came in (long gone anyhow). I've seen other glass pens, but they're almost always just for show, rather than actually writing with, and often have lovely, colourful, fantastically-shaped barrels that would not be comfortable to write with for long.

    What are your favourite writing instruments? What makes you want to write with them?

    cute AND useful

    The ever-together Suzanne got Jake and I these mini-USB keys during her recent trip to Hong Kong. I've been coveting the one she got herself on her last trip.

    The little silver thing at the bottom of the blister pack is to attach the key to your phone. There's a lobster claw clasp to latch the key itself onto, so you can remove it easily when you want to use the key.

    It holds 16GB, and as an added bonus, it's cute. It has a little panorama of Parisian landmarks on it, which is ironic in a cute way, given that the company that made it is based in New York and we've only ever been able to find them in Hong Kong (although I suppose if I checked out the College St. computer strip here in TO I might find some).

    The cuteness connects to something that I was talking about with my work friends tonight over drinks: manufacturers and the technology media have been slow to notice that women are into computers too. Okay, laptops come in colours now, and the EeePC was marketed directly to women and children, but there's still a lot of "tech is for guys" noise out there. C'mon people, I can't be the only person who remembers who Grace Hopper is. Tech is for everyone.

    an experiment

    Yesterday I had two people, who were never with me at the same time, ask if I knew how many people visited my web site.

    I had a response all ready. "The 'web site' is one page," I said. "I haven't even launched it yet. Not until I get the first draft of my novel done. Right now isn't the time to be fiddling with web pages. I need something to talk about first."

    Unfortunately for my ego, they both had the same counterpoint all ready to fire back with. "But what about your blogs? You've been running those for over two years now."

    "Those are just because I like to write about topical stuff," I said.

    This is true. I do not want to be one of those whiny people who are always saying, "Oh, well if you read my blog..." But I write. And writers like to be read. Also, I agree if I'm putting it out there, maybe I should pay attention to who's glancing at it, much less reading it.

    So tonight I went on Google Analytics and got tags for both my blogs and my web site. Judging from my comments rate, I'm not expecting to find a secret legion of Eyrea-visiting web denizens. But currently I don't have hard numbers of any kind.

    If you have made it this far, I humbly request 30 seconds and two mouse-clicks from you. You don't have to do anything else. Really.

    I need to make sure all of the analytics scripts work. One of them is on this blog. The other two are here:
    Please click on the above links. That's it! You don't even have to read anything. If you load the pages, it'll show up in my report as a visitor. I'd do it myself, but I suspect Google filters my own visits out. I'll play around and see.

    And no, the reports don't tell you who exactly visited or anything fancy/privacy-invading like that. Just how many people visited, where in the world they were visiting from, and how long they stayed. So if you want a personal thank-you (which I would love to give you), please leave a comment to let me know you helped out with the experiment!

    teach your word processor how to read

    There's more I want to write about document processing (as opposed to word processing). I'd love to get into master-/sub-documents, templates, tables of contents, tables of figures, indexing, lists, and all sorts of other fun stuff. But there are other blog topics out there, and I think it's time to let this series rest.

    Last time I showed how to use the basic paragraph style — known as Text Body, Default, Normal, Regular Text, or something like that — for all your basic paragraph formatting. That included the basic font, first-line indents, between-paragraph spaces, line spacing, and just about anything else you would ever need to do with a paragraph. Today we're going to look at heading styles.

    I feel like I have to tread carefully here, because I have had several writers, including Published Authors, tell me that they always make separate physical files for each chapter. When I swallow my incredulity and ask why, usually they tell me one or more of the following:
    • Book-length document files are too difficult to navigate for edits.
    • I won't lose everything if the file corrupts.
    • My computer runs faster with smaller files.
    I have yet to have an all-out debate with anyone about this, mostly because when I start to their eyes glaze over and they say it's "too technical" for them. At that point I choke back any mention that I have an English degree and learned most of this stuff to stop from going completely crazy when I was teaching English lit to high school students. "Technical." Right. Feh. But my real responses to the above three points are:

    • It's not unusual for software specification documents to run to 300 pages or more. I know, I've written enough of them, and so have the ever-professional J-A, the ever-cool Cathy, the ever-prolific Jake, and many others I've met through work and elsewhere. Now, 300 pages is only about half a nice fat beach paperback, to be sure, but formatting-wise, the beach paperback is bound to be simpler. I've never seen a single fiction title with use case diagrams in it, for one. 300 pages of specs is probably about the equivalent of a 900 page book in terms of formatting complexity. Yet we edit them in single files all the time. We have to, or else the cross-references, figure numbering, and other automation won't work right.How we manage this is the how-to portion of this post.
    • I can sympathise about the fear of file corruption. Word starts to do this somewhere in the 250-400 page mark, depending on what's in the doc, although I've also had it happen on smaller files. Cathy's FrameMaker horror stories are enough to scare people off technical writing for life (although she always perseveres in the end). But there's a solution to these crises, and it's called backing up. If you back up all those little files (and I know you do), you're going to back up the big ones, right? Right?
    • If your computer is running noticeably slower with word processing documents that are completely text and only a few hundred pages long, YOU'RE PROBABLY USING MESSY FORMATTING. Sorry for shouting, but it's true. Think of it from the computer's point of view: is it easier to tell it: "Any time I write a Regular Paragraph, make it indent 1.5cm on the first line only, single-spaced, in Garamond 11pt," and then shut up about it for the duration, or is it easier to tell it for every single paragraph in the book, over and over and over again? That's what makes your file slow. Use styles, and things get faster (your file will likely be physically smaller too with all those extra instructions gone).

    how to use headings

    See that text just above that says "how to use headings"? That's in a headings style. Yes, even blogs have styles. I didn't have to do any explicit formatting to make it look like that — I just told the blog editor that I wanted a heading, and it formatted it for me. Easy.

    Word processors have hierarchical headings. Heading 1s are the top-level. Then Heading 2s are beneath them, and Heading 3s are beneath them, and so on, and so on, usually up to Heading 9. To be honest, I have never needed more than five levels of headings in my work documents. If you are writing a novel, you will probably only use Heading 1 for chapter headings and stop there.

    Heading styles are convenient the same way regular paragraph styles are. You decide that all your chapter headings (Heading 1) will start 12cm from the top of the page, be in Gill Sans Ultra Bold 24pt, centred, and will automatically start at the beginning of a new page, no matter where on the previous page the previous chapter ended. Make a line of text Heading 1, and it'll just happen. You only need to set it up once.

    The bonus part about headings is that you will teach your word processor to read, at least a little. Word processors have yet to truly understand human language, but they understand hierarchies very well. In OpenOffice, headings show up in the Navigator:

    (I didn't add any new-page formatting because I wanted all the headings on a single page.) Click on any of the headings in the Navigator (in Word, it's called the Document Map), and OpenOffice will navigate to that part of the document. You can move from Chapter 5 to Chapter 13 to Chapter 20 to Chapter 6 with ease. Er, but maybe Gill Sans Ultra Bold isn't the best choice for heading text.

    Did you notice that the heading I have highlighted in the screen shot has a "+" sign to the left of it? That's because there's a Heading 2 beneath it. If you're writing non-fiction (or heck, maybe even for fiction), you'll be using Heading 2s for sub-headings, and maybe even Heading 3s for sub-sub-headings. You can fold up or fold down headings by whichever level you want to navigate by.

    If you can use headings and regular paragraphs, that's enough to create a document that is organised at the most basic level. Most word processors have ready-to-use styles as soon as you open them, so you don't have to edit any styles to get going. Remember, once the styles are applied, you can always format after the fact to suit yourself — or a set of submissions guidelines.

    I hope these last few posts will be useful to someone. If you have any questions, please ask in the comments or via the contact e-mail in the sidebar.

    it's supposed to be less work, people

    From here on in for this series, I will be using OpenOffice (OOo) for most of the screen shots, supplemented by some Google Docs. I won't be using any screen shots from MS-Word — as I've said before, The Eyrea lies comfortably within the greater province of Linux. I will, however, try to give the Word equivalent term if OOo calls it something different.

    Okay, let's say you have a short story or a novel you want to write up, and you want to write it up on a computer, in a word processor. You know all about the benefits of word processors, and if you're an adult, you've probably known about them for over twenty years now. Depending on your age, you may have even had to memorise these basic features for a quiz in school. Word processors let you:
    • move text around without whiteout, scissors, or glue
    • spell-check
    • change your mind without having to re-type the whole damn thing (although I've heard many authors claim this is actually a drawback)
    • format text so it is bolded or italicised or underlined, or, gods forbid, all three at the same time
    • change your font in ways that neither a strong training in calligraphy or the knowledge of switching out the Courier ball for the Elite one on your IBM Selectric typewriter would ever let you do
    All of this is fine and well at the atomic level, but there's more to it than that. Look at that list again. Every single item takes place at the word and letter level, the most basic level in a word processing document. Back when I was pounding out high school essays on the Commodore 64, that was fine, but the feature set has expanded considerably since then. Things have gotten more automated.

    Move up to considering the paragraph level. Most novels are written in sentences and paragraphs, after all. Take a look at the screen shot of this paragraph*:

    (Pay no attention to the half a dialogue you can see in the shot for a moment.) It looks like I hit the Tab key on the first line, doesn't it? I didn't. Instead, I included these format settings in the Text body style  — the style the paragraph is in. Word users will probably find the equivalent called Normal in their files.

    See that First line setting, third field down from the top? That's what's making the tab-like indent at the start of each paragraph. Every time I press the Enter key and start a new paragraph, the first line automatically gets indented for me. Notice also that the Spacing setting for Below paragraph is also set so that there is a small gap between paragraphs.

    But now I'm ready to submit my manuscript, and one place I want to submit it to specifies they want to see double spacing. Meanwhile, another place wants indented paragraphs, but with single spacing and a blank line between them. No problem: I just save versions of the MS with the style settings changed to provide those details, just using the fields in the above dialogue tab:




    Now, some clever person is going to read this and think, "Yeah, but there's another way to do that! Just Select All and format the paragraph!"

    You could do that. You could stick pins in your eyes, too. It's true that most full-fledged word processors give the users multiple ways to accomplish the same task. It's also true that some ways are better than others.

    If you are doing a Select All + format, it means that you are assuming that your entire MS consists of nothing but paragraph upon regular paragraph. Formatting the paragraph won't work if you have chapter or section headings, because those will get formatted like regular text too. Also, if you didn't quite Select All, or if you somehow managed to get the cursor past the point of the old end-point for the Select All (and that can be done), you will have some paragraphs formatted the old way. Formatting paragraphs outside of styles is both clumsier and more delicate.

    Also, go back up to the screen shot of the dialogue box. See how many things you can adjust for a style at once? Fonts. Conditional formatting. You can even make drop caps automatically in OOo. Can you do all that from a Format Paragraph dialogue? Right.

    Next up: I'll show how to use and include automatic headings, and show how that makes long documents much, much easier to navigate.

    * All examples are written in Lorem Ipsum pseudo-text, courtesy of Lipsum.

    Augmented Intelligence

    It was 40 years ago today that Douglas Engelbart first demonstrated, in a single groundbreaking multimedia session, an awful lot of things that we take for granted in personal computer user interfaces now:
    • an on-screen pointer controlled by a mouse
    • a screen organised into windows
    • copying and pasting between documents
    • hyperlinks
    • one of the first (if not the first itself) slide-style presentations
    The whole thing was filmed, so we can still see it today.

    In 1968.

    I taught for seven years, was a corporate trainer for three, and now work as a business systems analyst, and I have to say: the quality of the tools may have got better, but the tools are still basically the same. You have sound capability on most business computers, but it's often disabled or not set up, so instead you use a conference line for sound and show the visuals over remote desktop sharing. You almost always make a slide presentation, if only to kick things off, and you use the mouse pointer to keep everyone focused and on track.

    And so, every time the anniversary of the invention of the mouse (in 1965) or of this demonstration comes around, I think about what the purpose of inventing all this interactive "stuff" was: the augmentation of human intelligence so that we could work better together and, to put it one way, surpass ourselves.

    Have we? And if we haven't, why not?

    I don't know what research has been done on this, but I do know what I've seen in workplaces, teaching, at home, and in various capacities as a volunteer. For one thing, there is often resistance to change and radically new ways of doing things. From what I've observed (and experienced myself), it's not always simple pigheadedness. There is a tendency to throw out the baby with the bath water when it comes to new technology, where some people evangelise and other people immediately become suspicious from the hard sell. I think the world would be a better place if people assessed technology rationally rather than emotionally. It feels silly to point that out, but it's true. I have four computers at home. I also have a glass pen that requires an inkwell to dip it into to write with. Both are communication technologies better suited to some contexts than others. I think we're very fortunate that Engelbart's audience wanted to analyse and innovate based on what he showd them that day 40 years ago, rather than knee-jerkedly falling into either technolust or Luddite horror.

    What about groupware technologies that let people work together better? Maybe I hang out with too many Luddites, but I have to say that it's only been in the last two years that I've found people willing to use groupware without being in a paying work situation with a manager dictating its use to them. It's as if we all finally learned how to use this openly, instead of fighting with it all the time.

    The major point for me as the "mother of all demonstrations" turns 40 is that while there may be the occasional flash of invention, the truth is that these changes happen far more slowly than the hype would have us believe. It's popular to build up remarkable statistics about the rate of progress. But again, that's about technology, not the real standard of living: education, nutrition, work/life balance, happiness. In some parts of the world, these have gone up. In others (including North America, where I am), they're deemed to have gone down or stayed the same, depending on the measuring stick and who's wielding it.

    Ultimately the augmentation of our collective intelligence has to be done with our humanity, not our technology. Visionaries like Engelbart can provide us with excellent tools, but it's down to us to learn how to use them and apply them to the right jobs.

    Stop hitting the panic button!

    Some tempests in teapots are not worth paying attention to, but this one got to me because of the slant on it.

    I'm talking about the Twitterank storm.

    I found out about Twitterank from, well, my Twitter feed, when people I follow mentioned that they got their rank done. I decided to check it out because I was curious. After all, that's why I'm on Twitter in the first place. It's been the best social networking site I've found so far (far more useful than F*******). Why wouldn't I want to learn something new about it?

    The asking-for-the-password thing didn't make me terribly comfortable, but when Twitter asked me for my e-mail password (or when F******* asked me for my entire freaking life) it didn't make me feel too comfortable either. So I entered it, based on the best criteria I had:
    • Tweeters I trusted had tried it out
    • The Twitterank site was written in a language style I know very well: educated North American geek (that's a compliment, in case the author ever stumbles upon this post). I've received a lot of mail from phishers and wannabe hackers in my spam box, mostly since I went on F*******, but unlike most people I actually read some of it randomly. The writing is almost always frighteningly bad.
    • I don't consider Twitter an essential internet service like I do my e-mail or my on-line banking. If you get into my Twitter account, you can cross-reference it to my main e-mail address, but you don't get the password for it. Everything else on that profile is already publicly posted.
    • Unlike other sites, I didn't need to enter my entire freaking life to get any level of access. Think about it: what if certain social networking sites whose names I always asterisk out had been phishing? Er, and in fact, they were, in their own way, but people keep using them anyhow.
    So, I clicked the submit button, I got a number back, I thought "hmph! wonder what the algorithm is," and went back to the rest of my life. To be a good private world citizen, I should have changed my password at that point, but I didn't. It was stupid, and that part I feel bad about. But not the rest.

    But then (also over Twitter) I find about a ZD about gullible Twitter users who were driven by nothing by egos gleefully entering private information into an untested site. This is quickly followed up with a reply from the creator himself, posted in the same column.

    What I don't like about this is all the points people are making about the madness of crowds, and how people should be more careful when they provide their passwords. Think: social networking sites ask for your password, your home town, and all sorts of other information that is an identity thief's dream, just so that you can have a chance of making it easier to plan birthday parties with people you already know. Yet Twitterank is the one we're supposed to distrust.

    Did you use Twitterank? Do you think you would have used it if you had had anything really personal in your Twitter feed?

    I know my answers.

    Now then: I'm still somewhat ill and I'm way behind on my NaNoWriMo counts. I think it's time to duck back to my fictional 1964-in-an-alternative-universe. They don't have the internet yet.

    Writing Deskless

    When I was very young (Grade 1 to Grade 5 or so), my parents had a rule that I had to do my homework on the kitchen table. I hated it. I remember sitting there with my math homework, tears running down my face, my mother telling me not to carry on and reminding me that "smart kids finish their homework."

    From Grade 6 until about six weeks ago, I had my own desk. The furniture changed. First it was the fold-down in my parents' old bookshelf. Then the pine scrollwork desk with the useless pigeon holes, my aunt's old kitchen table, my uncle's old clear-top with the National Geographic map of the world under the laminate, then the IKEA desk I just got rid of.

    Some were good desks (the IKEA was my favourite, hands-down, which is probably why I held onto it so long). Some were bad — the pine one wins for that, since it was originally a hall desk design that was made deeper and wider to be sat at, yet still didn't work.

    For my new apartment, I got rid of the IKEA desk (too much horizontal space taken up), and replaced it with a narrow shelving unit that has drawers. I haven't missed a desk yet.

    The truth is, I've never really got the hang of sitting at a desk. Maybe it's because I associate it with being uncomfortable. Maybe it's because it's something I do away from home (ie: school or work). Maybe I just like sitting on beds and couches better.

    In university, I had a desk, but I would only use it for the final typing-up of my essays (it being where the old Roland 286 I had resided). Otherwise, I used the living room couch to work on. I also marked papers on the couch when I was a teacher, and once I got my first laptop... that was the end. The laptop I'm writing this on now stays in the living room when it's not on the road, and can be found tucked under a piece of furniture when I'm not using it.

    As far as my fiction-writing goes, I think the only time I work at a desk is when I'm adding a couple of paragraphs to a short story during my lunch hour (using the N-800, not my work computer, in case any co-workers read this!). The vast majority of last year's NaNoWriMo got completed either in the comfy chairs at home or the comfy chairs at the nearest Starbucks.

    This, of course, is heresy. Think of all the writers' biographies you've read. Now think of how many included a description of their desks. Alice Sheldon had three, one for each name she wrote under. Ernest Hemingway had one that was to be stood at; he had back problems and couldn't sit for long. Big desks, small desks, desks in "dens" the size of my apartment, desks tucked away to one side that only came out once the children were asleep. To write is to be a desk owner.

    But memory, even the collective sort, is selective and fickle. Did Jane Austen have a desk? From what I've read, she rarely wrote at one, working instead in the parlour with the rest of her family as company. And Hemingway is more famous for his use of Moleskine notebooks than for his specially-designed desk.

    Desks will always be useful to someone, somewhere. But the wisdom of their necessity as writing equipment needs to be questioned.