Sacred Places of Work

I wanted to move game playing out of my home office and transform the area into a space where I would just focus on work stuff. Paint my miniatures, write, draw, work on my trains, or learn to program. Have something to show for my time. So, I bought a PS4, put it in the family room, and moved the Alienware off my desk. All that remained was the iPad, MacBook Pro, and a sacred place of work.

My home office is amazing. We had it painted recently, there isn’t much in the way of decorations. I look out at 57 acres of woods, and several times a week see the local wildlife in the back yard. I have two work surfaces: a large desk that is the 3rd generation in my family; and an IKEA dining table that I use for painting my miniatures and working on my trains. On the desk is my MacBook Pro, the 27” monitor hooked up to my Alienware Alpha, and the related chargers and cables.

The first paragraph was written earlier this year. The second one a week or so ago. An astute reader will notice in the first paragraph the Alienware was off the desk, and in the second paragraph it came back. The problem with bad habits left unchecked they come back like weeds. The painting happened in early June. The Alienware was put away when I got the PS4 in December 2016. By September, it had crept back on my desk like a pile of kudzu. I’m looking at the 27”monitor right now and thinking: that right there is a big bucket of fail. The foundation of bad habits is lies and false promises you make to yourself. I just put that there to have the game on. I want a big screen to watch the drawing tutorials on. It’s out of the way and you hardly notice it.

I used to follow the Minimalists a lot (my full feelings on them is a future article), but one of their mantras is if you lead a distraction-free lifestyle free of things like video games, the TV, the internet, and cell phones you will miraculously find yourself an amazingly productive person.

Bullshit. Hard work may pay off tomorrow, but procrastination pays off today. If I feel like writing and drawing, I will. If I don’t, I won’t. The beauty of personal side projects is there are no deadlines. The curse of side projects is there are no deadlines.

Instead of Minimalism, I instead try and follow simplifying and the essentials. Minimalism feels like paring down too far. A minimalist may have only one Lightning charger, but I have five: one at my desk, one by my bed, one in my car, one at my desk, and in my bag is a set of MacBook and Lightning chargers. It’s not minimal, but it is simpler. Everywhere I need a charger there is one. Because it really sucks when you run out of juice someplace and realize you left the charger the last place you were at.

Likewise, my iPhone, iPad, and MacBook are essential. The Alienware and the 27” monitor are not and will be removed. The rest of the desk will be clean, simple, and essential.

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I Write Because I Have To, and the Realities of Writing on the Web

On a good day, this blog gets tens of visitors. Whenever I check the WordPress stats — which I assume to be slightly accurate — I ask myself: is this even worth it? Ben Brooks doesn’t look at analytics anymore. I’m sure he gets feedback on how well a post is received from Twitter or emails. My posts go into an internet black hole. Maybe twice a year I will get some feedback or a retweet or something.

I write these posts because I have to. The idea comes into my head and I will have trouble sleeping until the post is published. I don’t agonize over it. A lot of these posts sit in draft form until I’ve got the idea in a good enough shape to publish. In Ulysses I have a folder labeled Abandoned. The posts that I am never happy with go there. I rarely look at them. It could just be something that typing up felt good enough, or the circumstances that lead to me writing the post changed, or I just gave up. Usually posting is the end goal; sometimes just writing it is enough.

Like most writers, I dreamed of going independent. Daring Fireball was a great inspiration, and it’s hard not to look at the success Gruber has had and think: that could have been me. It takes talent and luck to make it. Gruber has had both. No sour grapes there1.

The last time I was paid for my writing was back in 2014. I wrote some for-pay articles in 2015, but Gigaom closed down with a balance due that was never paid. In 2011, the company I worked for laid off its entire Tech Ops team. Over the next two years, the only employment I could obtain was short-to-medium term contract work. What little freelance work I was able to do made a difference. Stephen King said in On Writing something along the lines of: If you received a check for your writing, and you used that money to pay a bill, you are a professional writer. I paid plenty of bills with freelance checks.

The measure I used to determine if I could become a full-time independent worker was if I earned enough each month to pay the mortgage for six months in a row2. I never made the mortgage one month, forget six months. The closest I came was around 2009. At the time, I was writing about video games, and if you added up the hours I spent playing the games and writing the copy, my hourly rate was under what I’d make working minimum wage. Writing for tech sites was a better time to income ratio. My tech articles only took 3-4 hours to write. Maybe a little longer if I needed to review a product. It still worked in my favor compared to an MMO review.

After Gigaom shut down I didn’t look too hard for another freelance gig. Macworld had laid off a lot of staff so there was a glut of Apple-based writers available. One outfit contacted me asked what I made per-article for Gigaom. They never replied when I told them.

So, I started a site (thecasualtechie) to sort of try my hand at getting my own site going. The internet advertising model is pretty much non-existent. I didn’t feel comfortable trying to line up sponsors to pay to advertise on a site that no one reads. If I were trying it today, I would probably start a site whose focus is solely on iPad productivity. I still might. The mantra has always been: write good content and people will come. Few people want to pay for content online. Internet advertising doesn’t pay much, and I’d want to control the ads that appear on my site anyway. Affiliate link commission keeps declining.

I liked having a side hustle. The income from my writing paid for my tech toys, which lead to articles about how I used them. One of the themes I had for 2017 is trying to work on some sort of a model that paid. I liked writing an article and getting paid for it. But, it was a 1 to 1 relationship. Write an article; get a check. I never wrote one article and got two checks. I’m out of the freelance game anyway. In addition to the rates being low, almost every site I worked for actually getting paid was a hassle. Invoices would be tied up, lost, not paid. Promises would be made; these promises were then broken.

As I look ahead to writing, my goal is some sort of passive model. Self-publishing is the likely solution, but It also has long odds. I’m not sure how I’d feel about pouring thousands of hours into a book no one bought. Fiction stories don’t kick at me to be born the way these posts do, but a few ideas are stirring. Maybe there is a story in there trying to get out and I am ignoring it.

This is a post with no answers. It’s not a cry for help. I’m not looking for advice on how to (air quotes) Build a Brand. I just had to share about writing on the web in 2017.

  1. As an aside, I miss the old Gruber. He used to write more original pieces. Now, he just posts a lot of links with some inline commentary.
  2. Granted, just making the mortgage wasn’t a survivable wage. It was a data point that if I could make that amount on a part-time basis, I could probably earn enough to live doing it full-time.

Hands-on: Scrivener 2.0

The iPad forced Scrivener, a great Mac writing app, out of my workflow. I’ve been using various writing tools for the iPad pretty much exclusively, and there wasn’t a need for Scrivener in the process. Now, new features introduced in version 2.0 have earned Scrivener its place back.

Big Feature Number 1: Sync with External Folder

This feature alone was worth the $25 upgrade fee. As you’d expect, it lets you, well, sync with an external folder. The intent here is for you to use a service like Dropbox as your sync folder, although you don’t have to. When you sync a Scrivener project it creates subfolders with the bits that make up a project — a Scrivener project isn’t a single file like a Word (s msft) document; instead it’s a package made up of  files — be it text files as part of the manuscript, or images or PDFs for your research.

When you set this project to sync, it’ll create subfolders for all those nested bits, and you can edit them on any computer that has access to that folder and can edit the text files. This is a fantastic feature for use with iPad editing tools. I’ll export all my current projects to Dropbox. When I edit the project on the iPad, it’ll auto-sync when I open the project up in Scrivener. Also, text files created in the sync folder will auto import. All my TAB stuff goes into one project, so if I create a new article on the iPad, it’ll get imported. This feature is also very handy if you’re collaborating on a project with another Scrivener user.

Big Feature Number 2: Create E-books

Creating an e-book from your work has been somewhat challenging up until now. Open-source tools like Sigil can create e-books, but my experiences with it showed me it’s not for the faint of heart. It’s probably not something the average writer is likely to want to deal with. When Apple recently introduced ePub exporting in Pages, I felt it was the first e-book creation tool average users can work with. Now, Scrivener can create both ePub and Mobi-formatted books.

I haven’t played with this feature much other than to export a project and view it on my iPad and Stanza (s amzn) in OS X, but, it worked, and looked quite good. I did notice the iPad was a little more font-sensitive than Stanza (it didn’t see all the font overrides I set in Scrivener). Using the supplied novel template I also noticed that the table of contents were auto created.

I haven’t tried to send a compiled e-book off to one of the self-publishing services, so I have no idea how well that aspect works.

Not-so-big Features

Better Academic Usage

My experiences using Scrivener for academic work were frustrating. While it was great at storing research, getting Scrivener to bend to MLA formatting just wasn’t worth the hassle. Now, Scrivener includes templates for MLA and other academic standards. There are also now presets for things like block quoting that really help alleviate some of the frustration of formatting.

Also greatly improved is footnoting. Footnotes (and comments) now appear in the Inspector rather than in-line. The combination of these two improvements makes Scrivener a more appealing tool for student use.

Better Outlining

Most of my work doesn’t involve outlining. That said, there are some impressive new additions to outlining in Scrivener. The biggest one for me is custom columns. I live or die by word counts, and now the outline view can show the word count for all my drafts. I can also add columns for progress to a target word count, modified date, etc. This is especially handy for files like my TAB binder, which can become very congested.

Collections

This is going to be the feature I’m glad was included later, even though I don’t currently use it. Basically, collections let you grab scrivenings without changing their place in the overall structure. If you’re working on a large manuscript and you’ve identified scrivenings that are to be the focus of the day’s editing, you can drag those into a collection and not screw up their position. I haven’t figured if there’s a way to create a smart collection based on keywords. I can easily see using this as a to-do list.

Conclusion

Scrivener 2.0 was one of my most-anticipated upgrades this year. It hasn’t disappointed me. The folder sync feature is a boon to us iPad users and lets me use Scrivener as the Grand Central Terminal for my writing. The upgrade is $25 and the full version is $45. It’s a tremendous bargain for such an awesome writing tool.

Elements for iPad Updated with Folders, Markdown Support

Two iPad apps that have been very near and dear to my writer’s heart: Elements and PlainText. They are two simple apps, that let me edit plain text files on a Dropbox folder — each app uses its own Dropbox folder, named Elements and Plaintext respectively. I’ve loved both, but PlainText was winning because it supported subfolders in its folder, which Elements lacked before this update.

Another writing tool I often take advantage of is Markdown, a sort of formatting shortcut language created by John Gruber. The lack of native support wasn’t a big deal for me. I already know most of the formatting commands so I could just enter them in by hand and preview them when I exported them.

The Markdown implementation is a little tricky. If you’ve created a file on the iPad, you’ll need to change the extension to .md, .markdown, .mdown or .mdwn. That will activate the Markdown preview button. It doesn’t appear to add any shortcuts for common Markdown elements, like #. It’s too bad since the need to access the secondary or tertiary on-screen keyboards can slow you down. If you are a heavy Markdown user, I recommend the excellent Edito iPad app.

Now that Elements supports both subfolders and Markdown in version 1.5, it just might become my iPad plain text editor of choice

 

My New Writing Life

About a year ago, I retired from the games writing business. A combination of a declining print market, fairly horrid pay, and massive burnout lead me to decide it was time to hang up the jersey.

One of my goals when I did that was to spend more time writing my fiction. However, after not getting much done with that I learned I work much better with some sort of deadline — or at least a content manager bugging me for articles.

I am pleased to announce I am now one of the contributing writers at The Apple Blog. For me, it’s a fantastic opportunity; I get to write about the technology I use every day and get paid for it.

Time tests loading Word 2008 vs. Word 2007 via an emulator

Today at the day job, I was working on getting Word 2007 to connect to SharePoint on my Mac via Parallels, and it got me to wondering what the load time differences were between Word 2008 12.1.4, Word 2007 via Crossover, and Word 2007 via Parallels.

I ran three tests (four if one of the three tests generated a number out-of-whack from the other two): Three from a fresh startup of the OS, and three from just quitting the app and re-launching it. In the case of Parallels, I quit Word from within the VM and then quit Parallels. I did not do a fresh boot of Windows XP for the tests; I left the VM in a suspended state.

I’ve got the numbers at the end of this post, but from a cold boot time. Word 2007 from within Parallels won, with Word 2007 within Crossover coming in second and Word 2008 natively within OS X coming in third. Warm starts Word 2008 won, with Word 2007 in Parallels coming in second, and Word 2007 in Crossover coming in third.

I’ll admit: there are a lot of apples to hand grenades comparisons happening here. About the only valid point is two separate Microsoft Word Processor have drastically different start times between a native app and one running in a two different emulators. You also can run into some issues if the emulator doesn’t want to start up properly – not to mention in Parallels’ case running an entire OS on top of OS X.

I’m not really sure what to make of these numbers. If you told me Word 2007 running in two different emulators would actually start faster than Word 2008, I would have laughed my ass off. However, in none of the cold start time tests I performed did Word 2008’s fastest load time beat the fastest cold start time tests of an emulated Word 2007. If you rarely reboot your Mac, subsequent loads of Word 2008 are faster, but not dramatically so.

One other difference is looks. I’ve attached screen captures of the three versions below, but I found Word 2007 in Parallels to read clearer because it uses Clear Type. Word 2007 in CrossOver looked the worse since it was bolder than the other two. Word 2007 also interacts with SharePoint and Blogs better; this entire post was written and posted in Word 2007. I’m also enjoying the ribbon interface a little better in Word 2007.

That said, I think it’s unlikely I’ll be doing a lot of work in Word 2007 – mainly because it’s not a native OS X and running Windows XP on top of OS X is too resource intensive. I did find it amazing that it loads faster than Word 2008.

 

Time Tests

Word 2008:

Cold Start 1: 1:03.11

Cold Start 2: 34.7

Cold Start 3: 1:09.4

Cold Start 4: 1:22.3

Warm Start 1 7.3

Warm Start 2: 6.9

Warm Start 3: 8.4

 

Word 2007: Parallels

Cold Start 1: 32.7

Cold Start 2: 46.5

Cold Start 3: 43.5

Cold Start 4″ 1:29.8

Warm Start 1: 10.7

Warm Start 2 : 1:36.4

Warm Start 3: 11.6

Warm Start 4; 10.3

 

Word 2007: Codeweavers

Cold Start 1: 40.8

Cold Start 2: 41.0

Cold Start 3: 38.5

Warm Start 1: 12.8

Warm Start 2 :13.8

Warm Start 3: 11.8

 

 

 

 

Fully Integrating Scrivener into my writing flow

I mostly do two forms of writing: short, 1000-word columns for Massively, and anything required for school. School is either as simple as an essay, or as complicated as a heavily formatted document.

I’ve been struggling with fully using Scrivener for a while. When I bought the program, it seemed great for long bodies of work like books, short stories, etc.. With none of the stuff I write these days being that long, Scrivener seemed doomed to sit in the neglected pile. Which is too bad, because there are a lot of features I like in it. Its full-screen view is amazing, for instance.

There were two big hassles: since the columns end up on the web, creating a Scrivener project for of them seemed silly. School often has rigid formatting guidelines, and I was afraid I’d be spending as much time reformatting the exported Scrivener document as I would have spent just doing the damn thing in Word.

I had a perfect storm of light-bulbs going off in my head. Instead of creating a separate Scrivener document for every column and essay, why not create a Weblogsinc and School project, and then use Scrivener’s multi-document tree structure to write each column. When I’m done, just delete the file but keep the project. Same thing for the essays. My print clients will also get their own Scrivener file. It’d probably make sense to just have one Scrivener file for ALL my articles and columns, but it’s easier for me to focus this way.

It’s worked well so far. I’ve come to the realization I’m never, ever, going to get rid of Word and I’m ok with it. Unlike some Mac people, I’m not that anti-Microsoft and I actually kinda like Word 2008. My big beef is the damn thing takes too long to load and most of my instructors still can’t accept docx formats yet.

Which got me to thinking about Pages 08. The big strike against it has been the fact that it saves everything in .pages formats, and I need to export it to a .doc file to hand it off. Kinda like I have to do with Word 2008, now that you think of it.

The amount of stuff I need to do heavy formatting in is negligible. The Online Documentation class that just wrapped had heavy formatting needs with some tables, but the Modern Middle East class just requires single-spaced Times. Even though I prefer using Cambria these days, I set up a Scrivener Compile Draft setting to export or print it in Times. Scrivener sorta integrates with Endnote, so if I need to cite something I can run it through Endnote and get the bibliography done.