27 April 2010

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.

22 April 2010

consider the act

It would be very hard for me to pick just one favourite part in WS Burrough's book Naked Lunch, but for the film version by David Cronenberg, it's easy. Lee and his wife are crossing a frontier between two countries via car, and get stopped by a border guard. The guard asks Lee what he does for a living, and he replies that he's a writer. The guard asks him to prove it. Lee pulls a pen out his breast pocket and tells the guard he has a writing instrument.

I love that: a writing instrument. Not a machine, not a (shudder) medium, but an instrument.

Writing is old and varied enough that writers can choose from many different instruments. I switch hit: poetry (when it comes) gets written with pencil on three-ring paper, probably because I started making it up when I was three or four and started writing it down myself when I was about six (before that, my kindergarten teacher took dictation when she heard me reciting something interesting).

The short stories, then longer stories, and then novels didn't start arriving in full force until halfway through high school, by which time I'd learned how to type. My brothers and I got a Commodore 64 for Christmas when I was 12, so I've been typing on computers all that time, and my handwriting has always been sufficiently awful that I can't imagine any other way.

Between that and all the business writing I do for my day job, I am very picky about word processors. I want them to do what I need them to do, in a reasonable manner, and then get the hell out of my way. The years of experience between the arrival of the Commodore 64 and now make me suspect that companies that make word processors don't see it that way, but I still hold out hope that someone will see it my way someday.

The following is a roundup of the three major word processors I use on a regular basis for writing. I use a couple of text editors too, mostly when I'm on a lightly-powered machine like my Nokia tablet, but I'm not including them in this survey because when it comes time to edit I always switch over to my laptop.

Aside before the reviews proper: that link to the Nokia tablet blog post? It details how I use my Nokia to write whilst in transit. It's from almost exactly two years ago, and I haven't really changed my setup since. Wow, maybe I've finally found the toolkit I like. At least until something better comes along.

Google Docs

I have to recommend Google Docs to everyone who doesn't have a computer, but can get some computer time with an internet link attached. Maybe you have internet access at your local public library, or maybe you have a friend who doesn't mind if you come over and use their machine for a bit, but you don't feel right leaving your own files on their computer. Or maybe you usually do have home computer access and your own web access, but inspiration struck when neither of these were handy, but a web connection was.

Or maybe you hate computers but need to create a typed submission?

Google Docs lets you upload word processing documents up to 500 KB in size in lots of different formats, and lets you save them in even more formats, including MS-Word and PDF. Bonus: they have hooked it up to Google Translate so you can translate your docs on the fly. I tried the English-to-French translation on an old blog post (those being the only two languages I am reasonably fluent in), and the French sounded decent, although of course not "native." I would say it was good enough for a French speaker to understand, but not good enough for everything to come across correctly. But it might be good enough to give a proper human translator a good jump start.

500KB is plenty of room for the average novel — one that doesn't have a lot of fancy formatting in it, or need to use specific fonts for text. Like any on-line editor, speed and access are both issues, but it's a lot better than some of the alternatives. As for features — again, it's fine for the average novel.


I've blogged about OpenOffice (OOo) and its features before. For me, it's proven more than adequate for writing with. It supports master/sub-documents, it has style support, and like Google Docs, it's free, free, free. Unlike Google Docs, it doesn't live in hyperspace — you install it on your local machine. The full office suite runs around 100MB  —  not horribly big for today's machines.

I've heard some gripes on-line about OOo's feature set, but truth be told I've never had any problems with it. I wish the template organiser was a little more user-friendly, but that's about it. I don't know about you, but I only update my templates for books about... once every eighteen months? Something like that. I want to change how the default paragraphs work in my writing template, so I'll get to try it out before the next blog post.

Microsoft Word

I haven't used MS-Word for personal writing in years, but I use it at work every day for business and technical writing. Everyone in my department is a power user: we have strict rules around style and template usage. Form follows function: if we're making text big for a communication reason, that reason will be reflected in the style used (because we use styles for nearly all the formatting), and will thus be reflected in the document's structure. The ideal is that someone who doesn't read English should be able to take a look at one of our documents and be able to see the organisation of the content and understand what information may be found where.

And, like the vast majority of businesses in North America, we use Word to accomplish that.

I would never question my company's decision to go that route — I completely understand and support the business logic — but I will question what on earth Microsoft did to Office 2007. Some things are better, but some things are simply awful. It's become even harder to use some of the so-called advanced features, and template organisation is now worse than it is in the freeware OpenOffice. A lot of features I use at least once a week, like updating styles from another document or template (so, you know, a set of documents look like they're a set?) have become obscure and unwieldy.

I used to say that if you already knew Word and were nervous of OpenOffice's learning curve, you may as well buy your own personal copy of Word and write with that. As of the 2007 version, I've reversed that. Just learn OpenOffice. It will be much less painful in the long run, and you can still save as clean, well-formatted Word documents.

What about all those "writer's" word processors?

I've been reading a lot about them, but haven't tried any in earnest yet. Having a word processor just for writers appeals to some egotistical part of me. I've yet to see a feature set that can't be easily accomplished in a regular word processor like OpenOffice or Word, though. It seems like "writer's" word processors are taking advantage of the people who don't know how to use those features.

Starting next post, I aim to try to fix that.

19 April 2010

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.

14 April 2010

what real roads look like

The Netherlands is famous for how much people use bikes, but what's missing from that reputation (at least as people seem to understand it in Toronto) is why so many people bicycle. This is what I've learned from just watching people and talking to my cousins who live over there:
  • Bikes are much less of a pain to navigate and park than cars. 
  • You can park dozens of bikes in the amount of space that it takes to park two or three cars. 
  • The acquisition and maintenance costs on a bike are much less than on a car — an especial concern in these days of wildly fluctuating gas prices.
Notice that "exercise" is not explicitly on the list. Neither is "the environment." More about that in a moment.

Given the above, there is an infrastructure in place in the Netherlands to make cycling a good option. Bicycles have dedicated lanes on the vast majority of streets, which car drivers respect (see photo above). Parallel parking a car in a bike lane carries the same penalties it would for parking in a driving lane, ie: you don't do it. Notice that in that photo at the top, parallel parking in the bike lane would actually mean you were double parking. That's something even most Torontonian car drivers understand is a no-no.

While I'm going on about that shot from my Amsterdam hotel window, notice that the car lanes are only as wide as is required for a typical car. That means the lanes overlap a bit. That means drivers and cyclists have to pay attention to each other and create "safety cushions" around them. And that means no weaving through traffic just because a car-size (or bike-size) gap appears. Life is not a game of Pole Position.

The bike lanes ensure that bicycles are considered part of the overall traffic. Compare that to the Greater Toronto Area, where things are so car-centric some drivers don't even give respect to pedestrians.

Back to Amsterdam: A lot of people switch between driving their car and riding their bike depending on what they need to do and how far they have to go.

Cycling on roadways that encourage it for basic transportation means that everyone who uses a bicycle regularly gets some "free" exercise that they don't have to think about too much. In other words, it's a setting that encourages people to move around instead of just sit around. It also means that most days, in most weathers, there is less incentive to use a polluting vehicle than a non-polluting one. To any climate change deniers out there: cars were established as sources of pollution long before "global warming" became a catchphrase. Even if you are right about global warming, cars will still be polluting, and oil will still be a finite resource. Cycling helps manage resources and clears the air. Period.

For all that, when you mention cycling in Toronto, you get pigeon-holed as someone who is dreaming in technicolour and obviously doesn't have "real" transportation needs. It really is an amazing backlash mentality — this idea that doing something that happens to be environmentally friendly must needs have major drawbacks otherwise.

A lot of people cite the winter snow and cold in Toronto as being reasons why cycling will never catch on the way it has in the Netherlands. I don't buy it. Okay, sometimes it does get too cold or snowy, but that's only a tiny portion of the overall winter season most years, never mind the entire year. Most of the time the weather is nothing a good pair of cycling gloves and a windbreaker won't mitigate. The last day I was in Amsterdam, it was very windy, with bursts of rain that turned to hail a few times, but the cyclists were still out. Of course, braving the weather is something you get better at the more you do it.

From what I've experienced as a Toronto cyclist and driver (and pedestrian, and public transit-taker), true acceptance of bicycles as transportation has two things going against it: drivers and cyclists. Drivers, because too many of them treat cyclists either as invisible or as targets, and nearly all of them seem to have forgotten the rules of the road. I've had a lot of drivers tell me point-blank that roads are only for motorised vehicles, and I've had to remind them that according to our road laws that's actually not true.

Cyclists seem to agree with the drivers' assessment that they aren't covered by the road laws (even though they are), because most of them don't follow the rules of the road at all. Drivers both good and bad can't deal well with unpredictable moves that break the geometry of lane use. As a cyclist, I have actually had drivers roll down their windows and thank me because I was doing things like signalling, sharing the lane correctly, and stopping at intersections. I've also noticed a lot of cyclists riding at night with no reflective strips or lighting on their bikes or themselves. They have no right to complain if people don't see them, and they're breaking the law.

I think part of it just might be critical mass: once enough cyclists get on the road in Toronto, they will have to be paid attention to by the drivers, and the cyclists will have to start behaving. But the critical mass will have to be helped by the environment, and by attitudes. Drivers need to stop endangering cyclists. Cyclists need to stop pissing on everyone who is a non-cyclist (including a friend of mine who claimed that those who took public transportation weren't really helping the environment because they weren't taking any exercise while riding streetcars and subway trains).

Here's Amsterdam's take on that. See the buses using the dedicated bus/tram lanes? Cars use them for passing, but not a lot because they are not supposed to block the way of the public transit. Certainly the buses and trams don't get stuck during rush hour the way they do here.

It's a fucking bike. It is not a moral indictment of everyone around you who is not riding a bike at the time

One last photo above. This is a smaller side street. The bike lanes disappear because the street is too narrow for them (the dashed lines mark where one can parallel park). So the cars and bikes must share the road. And they do.

Seriously now: why can't we?

11 April 2010

a quick visit to civilisation

Okay, Torontonians, try this out as a mental exercise. Imagine a place where everything is organised without being draconian, where the citizens are cared for without being nannied, yet where all the grown-ups get treated like grown-ups. Public transit is clean, quick, and usable (even a distance of over 30 km can be easily travelled in less than an hour by frequent-interval, electrically-powered trains). Furthermore, the buildings all more or less go together, even the street food is decent, and people say "sorry" when they realise they accidentally stepped in front of you. Despite all this tidiness, efficiency, and politeness, people are more relaxed than in TO, and it's possible to spend an entire week there without seeing anyone get more than kind of annoyed about anything, at least by Toronto standards of road rage and general irritability.

The truth is there are lots of places in the world like this (arguably Toronto even used to be one of them), but the one I went to visit two weeks ago is called Amsterdam. This particular comparison is apt because Toronto and Amsterdam used to be sister cities, back when that didn't seem like a joke. They even named a street after Toronto. Did we name one after Amsterdam? We have the Amsterdam Brewery, at least. I suppose that's something.

If you click on the link to the photos I took there, you'll notice that it was mostly cloudy while I was there. I only really noticed when I was taking photos (and I hardly took any photos). The rest of the time I was on my way to or from a museum, or on my way to or from a café, or just walking around and... just walking around. I also did a lot of writing. Somehow it just felt better to be writing in a café there than here. I think it was the organised-yet-relaxed vibe.

I want to blog about some particulars in future posts. For now, here's the photos:

10 April 2010

the source of lies, damned lies, and statistics

As a Canadian blogger, you have been identified as a participant in a short survey to gain a better understanding of the Canadian blogging environment, as well as to gain your perspective on some of the products you purchased recently. Your opinion is important to us and you will be eligible to receive free products and coupons upon completion of this survey.

That was the opening paragraph of an e-mail I received yesterday. Normally for such things I just click the Report spam button, but I had just read Rude Cactus's most recent post (30 March entry) about doing product reviews on blogs, so I decided to click on the link and see what they wanted to know about Canadian bloggers.

The first thing they wanted to know was what age range I was in (35-44 in case you were wondering). The second thing they wanted to know was my gender. I love messing with survey results as much as the next person, but I was honest this time and put "female."

The page after that had a series of topics listed and asked me to rate how often I blogged about them. The topics were all what I would call "whitebread mainstream" -- celebrities, sports, fashion, things like that. The sort of stuff you see on the covers of magazines at the grocery checkout.

Anyone who's read more than one entry on this blog knows that the only topic I could honestly say I wrote about "frequently" was "Other." The next most-frequent topic I could honestly say I've written about is "technology." Most of the rest of them I had to say "never" to.

Okay, so far, so good. I'm well used to checking the "Other" box on surveys. But then things got strange. Or, if not strange exactly, pathetic.

I got asked which of a list of six fashion magazines I bought, and how often (none, less than once per year).

I got asked what brands of shampoo I had tried in the last twelve months (the cheapest one that won't dry out my hair — surprisingly, it was actually on the list).

I got asked what brand of soap I used (that time I had to put "Other").

I got asked about how I learn about new beauty products.

I have two reactions to the above.

One: I am more than the sum of my demographics. Yes, I do wear makeup, perfume, jewelry. But when it comes to my blog, I have other things on my mind. I just don't think keeping clean and being well-groomed should be things that require a lot of thought.

Two: I was very curious as to what men were getting asked about. Fortunately, I have two blogs, so I got two survey links. I also have two machines I can get to the interwebs on, so I could dodge any cleverness the surveyors might have implemented to make sure people didn't double-answer (although to me the questions were less about statistics and more about recruiting).

So I booted up my laptop, clicked on the other survey link, and answered everything the same except for the gender. For once, the questions were exactly the same. Hey, maybe the company who commissioned the survey makes toiletry products. Or maybe they were just worried about getting to their target demographic so much they didn't care what anyone else thought. As a, um, non-fashion-magazine-reading woman it annoyed me, but maybe most men would just mutter "serves me right for taking a survey" before moving on. What do you think?

My take: I know a common marketing mantra is "if they're talking about it, it's a good thing," but I'm not sure how much having people blog "I review computer software on my blog and they asked me about what freaking shampoo I use," is going to attract market share.