Archive for the 'Writing/Literature' category

 | March 8, 2012 12:15 am

For many writers, the act of writing (or placing one word after another) is synonymous with the tool that they use to do it. There’s a reason why writers feel so strongly about their moleskin notebooks, fountain pens, and computer software. I’m no different than any other writer. I have my preferred tools, and I love them dearly. They help to focus on my ideas and craft prose that I can be proud of.

When writing on a computer, the tool of choice for many writers (dare I say most?) is Microsoft Word. It’s everywhere and everyone has used it. It comes preinstalled on most computers and is a de-facto standard for exchanging written material with others.

Unfortunately, Word is not part of my preferred toolset. I prefer to write using LyX and an add-on I’ve written for it called LyX-Outline. But while I love my writing program, it makes it difficult to collaborate with other writers who use Word, as LyX doesn’t have a straightforward way to directly import Word files.

This isn’t a new problem and I’ve written about it before. I’ve even proposed a solutions. But while that solution was a good fit for me, it isn’t something that I would recommend to others.

For starters, it required a great deal of software to be installed. You needed a program to convert Microsoft Word documents to Open Office documents. You then had to use a second utility to convert it to HTML or LaTeX. After that, you used to a third utility to clean it up and import the LaTeX code into LyX. Three distinct steps, with a lot of places where things could go wrong.

Over the past few months, I’ve found that I need a better way, a tool that can directly import a Word document and cleanly translate its content. So, I decided to create one.


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 | February 6, 2012 5:18 pm

This past week, my grandfather passed away, and I’ve been asked to write a speech for his funeral. It is the strangest thing, this being asked to distill eighty-seven years into twenty minutes. What do you include? What do you say? Do you tell the story about grandpa as reluctant mouse-hunter (it ends badly)? Or the one where his hip went out at the lake and his friends decided to take him to the emergency room, boat and all? Do you talk about the distressed husband, at the bedside of his dying wife, realizing that there might have been a lost opportunity to express just how much he loved her?

Human lives are complicated things. When well lived, they encompasses moments of beauty, love, friendship, and happiness in addition to tragedy, lost opportunity, and regret. (And my grandfather’s life was well-live.) What’s more, we human beings are embodiments of paradox: a man may be both a great philanthropist and a brutal monopolist, who built his fortune upon the shattered careers of others. Or he may be a vicious murderer and anarchist who “loved sunflowers, eating yogurt with honey; who took his children to the beach, and let them sleep under the stars.” How do you capture all of it: the good, the bad, the ugly, the contemplative, the tragic, and the hilarious?

The only answer I have been able to find to that question was given by Neil Gaiman, while being interviewed by a reporter about someone still very much alive:

I spent half an hour yesterday talking to a reporter who was working on the obituary of someone who is currently very much alive, even in good health, and it was … well … very odd. I’d always known that obituaries aren’t just knocked up (or perhaps tossed off. Look, neither phrase sounds particularly wholesome) on the spur of the moment by some dusty, but hard working, obituarist whenever someone kicks the bucket, but they are written ahead of time, often rewritten many times over the years. The Daily Telegraphs are the best, I don’t why this is, but it’s true. Here is my favourite Telegraph obituary ever, because it contains:

Despite a brisk code of discipline, Singleton took a laissez faire approach out of the classroom. Every November 5, the smallest boy in the school was sent down a tunnel to light the very core of the bonfire. None, so far as anyone can recall, was ever lost.

Good obituaries (and by extension, eulogies), it appears, is much like any other sort of writing: a careful product of thought, time, review, and attention.

That is, perhaps, why they are such an art-form. Unlike other types of communication, they have to be composed in moments of pandemonium, distress, and chaos; at a time when it’s essential to find precisely the right words under conditions which make it all but impossible.

Manifestly unfair, if you want my opinion.

 | February 1, 2012 11:06 pm

In this series, we’ve covered a lot of ground. We’ve looked at the basics of Subversion and talked about why you might want to use it for a writing project. We examined some of the advanced features, and how to dive into the history of your work. Then, we detailed how Subversion can be used for collaboration: the way locks help writers to own their ideas, how the log facilitates communication, and the way in which branches help to prepare drafts for review.

There is really only one thing left to talk about: conflicts, errors, and their resolution.

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 | January 30, 2012 2:30 pm

When I started talking about the ways which SVN can enable collaboration, my goal was to show how you can replicate some of the best features of a paper based workflow and then supplement them with the power of digital tools. We’ve already looked at some techniques for doing this, using file locks to promote idea ownership and leveraging the SVN log for communications. In this article, we’ll take a look at one more feature that makes it easier to work with others: using SVN snapshots (or branches) to facilitate the review of your work.

Here, I want to reiterate one important point: creating drafts that can be consumed by others is extremely important. It forces you as an author to find break points where you can send something definitive. Finding these points, where you can draw a line in the sand and say “draft …”,  causes you to solidify your thinking and take an important step toward completion. You may end up throwing the whole thing away because it was ineffectual, but that doesn’t mean the exercise was futile. The process of creating something, a draft, is an enormous step toward completion.  You’ll likely take many such steps, but each one results in a better manuscript.

SVN branches can be a huge help in drawing your lines in the sand.

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 | January 27, 2012 2:30 pm

After reading the previous article, you may have the impression that I think collaborative writing is a bad thing. Nothing, however, could be further from the truth. When you write with others:

  • it’s possible to distribute tasks according to individual strengths, meaning that the finished product will (probably) be more than a sum of the parts
  • brainstorming is more effective, more people means more ideas
  • not only will you have more ideas, but as you discuss, challenge, and research the topic amongst the group, you will have different ideas than you might develop on your own
  • having many people working on a project gives it energy and focus, which is tremendously helpful upon entering the hinterland of any project commonly known as “middle”

Collaboration is good, but it is also complicated. It takes a great deal of work for a collaborative project to be success. You have to balance competing needs against one another. On the one hand, it is really important to provide an author the freedom and space required to own her ideas. At the same time, though, you need to make sure that everyone is clearly communicating about the project and where it is headed.

Making sure that everyone is on the same page and that efforts are coordinated is a complex challenge. It requires meaningful discussion happens; establishing a system for sharing documents and knowledge; and that goals, scope, audience, and purpose of the project are well defined. In many ways it shares much in common with another complex endeavor, coordinating the care of a medical patient.

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 | January 25, 2012 8:21 pm

Though they are wonderful tools that have transformed how we live and work, computers also cause about as many problems as they solve. We can see these problems in the way that work has crept into our private time via email; in the ways teenagers choose to socialize with their peers via text messaging and social networks, often to the exclusion of the world around them (and parents); and in the way that we prepare the written drafts of our work.

In each case, these problems aren’t the result of malicious intent. Rather, they were unforeseen consequences of a transformative technology. When it was originally developed, email was a great way to quickly exchange letters with friends and colleagues. Its original designers never intended it to become the way in which a large number of people organize their daily lives. Nor was the introduction of text messaging or social networks meant to cause teenagers (or adults) to socially withdraw into an online world, but to provide an efficient and convenient way to keep people connected. This is also true in the changes that word processors and communications software have brought to the process of writing.

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 | January 24, 2012 7:00 pm

If you’ve read parts one and two of this series, you should now have a pretty good understanding as to what version control is and how it can benefit you. You’ve seen how it can be used to keep a backup of your files, synchronize your work between computers, and ensure that you will never suffer the panic of losing your work.

But that’s really only the beginning. Hopefully, you’ve taken things to the next level and feel comfortable digging into the revision history to look at past drafts, make comparisons between documents, or to see how your work has evolved.

Mastering the basics of version control, followed by the finer points, is a fantastic way to be more productive as a writer. By relegating the job of backup and synchronization to a tool, you can spend more time actually writing (and who doesn’t want that). Having the ability to look at how you’re writing has evolved can make you more thoughtful. Both are powerful additions to the scrivener’s arsenal. If you can believe, it though, there is yet another level which allows Subversion to be even more helpful: using it to work collaboratively.

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 | January 20, 2012 4:30 pm

In the last article in this series, we looked at a few of the features that version control (specifically Subversion) offers to a writer, coder, or editor. These benefits include the ability to track all of the changes made to a file in a project, synchronize your work between different computers, and automatically ensure that everything is backed up. But though these are invaluable contributions to a writer’s workflow, they only scratch the surface of what Subversion is capable of doing.

In the next few posts, I would like to dive a bit deeper and take a look at a few of Subversion’s more advanced features, such as:

  • How to compare newer changes to older versions of a file
  • How to use Subversion’s collaboration features to work with others
  • How you can resolve errors that might arise from incompatible changes made to the same file

Though Subversion’s basic features are tremendously powerful, it’s the advanced options that make it indispensible. You know, the little things that live in the background most of the time, except when you really need them. This rest of this series is about how to leverage those. The first of those features we will look at is the revision history.

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 | September 26, 2011 8:48 pm

Erick-Larson-DevilFor the past several months, I’ve been reading Erik Larson’s wonderful book, “The Devil in the White City,” which tells the story of the Chicago 1893 World’s Fair. (More properly called the World’s Columbian Exposition.) It’s been a marvelous experience.

Actually, that doesn’t go quite far enough in its praise. Devil is a magical book in almost every way that matters. It’s the sort of thing that (if you’re not careful) can swallow you up and send you into other worlds.

Indeed, that’s one of the reasons that I’ve spent so long reading it (eight months and counting). Larson keeps enchanting me down some of the 19th century’s most scenic, semi-forgotten by-ways. It can take some time to come back.

For example, I’ve learned about the sordid history of the Whitechapel Club, the polite hazing of women architects (with attendant nervous breakdowns) by prim society women, and a failed expedition to retrieve a tribe of Pygmies for public exhibition.

While these side stories only tangentially touch on Larson’s main narrative, the building of a world’s fair, they make the book. They help to flesh out the world and time in which the  Exposition took place and to place its events in context.

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 | June 9, 2011 5:51 pm

At the moment, I’m entranced with eBooks. There are many reasons for this (and I’m preparing a rather long blog post which explores them), but one rises above all the others: electronic books offer an author the best way to tell complex stories.

If you don’t believe me, take a look at this video from TED, which demonstrates a “next generation electronic book” called Our Choice, by Al Gore. (The video is only four minutes long and well worth your time.)

Though I may be succumbing to hyperbole, I really think that we are seeing the future of non-fiction. We live in a tremendously complex world and those of us who in the business of shaping and communicating ideas — scientists, engineers, idealists, philosophers, teachers, and so forth– face an enormous challenge: how do we take that complexity and make it understandable to others?

For centuries, books have done an excellent job of combining two types of media: text/narrative and images. But while you can communicate many ideas with text and images, there is still a limit. For example, who really thinks that math and certain scientific disciplines are best learned by reading a book? Even an excellent mathematical textbook is only an adequate tool, hardly an exceptional one. It simply leaves out too much of the logic necessary to understand how certain relationships are derived. In such cases, one of the best ways to understand those relationships is to watch them be derived in front of you. When done well, think Richard Feynman, it’s much more instructive than a text narrative could hope to be.

This is where electronic books might take up the slack. In addition to text and images, it’s possible to add video and even interactive elements. There are certain principles that are best explained by a narrative and video clip. There are other concepts where an interactive examples best illustrate an idea. And there are still others where trial, error, and feedback are the best way to teach the concept. With an electronic book, you can include all three. Indeed, just about anything you can do on the web is possible, which is really exciting!

For the electronic version of the Open Source Writing book, I’ve been experimenting with video. (Both ipad and the Nook Color provide rudimentary support for the HTML5 <video> tag.) In the process, I’ve learned an important point: motion and voice make it really easy to show certain points. For example, if talking about how to accomplish a certain task with a computer program, there is nothing more effective than showing how it is done. The rest of the text becomes supporting documentation.

And I think that’s cool because it expands the types of stories I can tell (and isn’t that generally the point of new technology). Cool tech without soul is just flash in the pan.

Which leads to the next important question: how do you create these amazing pieces of electronic art without breaking your wallet or mortgaging your soul? Turns out, the answer isn’t nearly so complex as you might think.