Podcasting Tools

Now that I’ve done a few episodes of The Koncast, I can give you a rundown of the tools I’m using.

I use two different methods for recording: remote and in-person. Face-to-face is best, but I interview guests all over the place, so I have to do some remotely.

Remote Recording

  • I am using a site called Zencastr to handle remotes. I fire it up in my browser, give the other person a link to open in their browser, and then we talk away over a VoIP connection. At the end of the session, both browsers upload their copy of the audio to Dropbox, and I can later mix the files together.
  • You’ll need Dropbox for this, so go sign up for a free account.
  • A good USB headset works well for this. We’ve been using a few of the Logitech H390 headsets. The quality is decent, and they’re only 25 bucks online.
  • I’ve heard of people using Skype or Facetime with a plugin to record the calls, which would be easier for the other person, but it would sound like skype.
  • The ultimate way to do this would be to set up Skype to use a real microphone and headphones, then have each person record their end of the conversation, but that’s way too complicated for the casual user.

Face-to-Face Recording

  • I’m using a Zoom H5 recorder. It records four tracks, and has a decent X/Y mic built in, plus handles two XLR inputs with phantom power, so you can use real microphones. One thing that’s nicer on this new version versus the previous H4N is that the built-in mic is removable, and you can swap it out for a different Zoom mic, or an attachment to add two more XLR inputs.
  • For microphones, I use a Shure SM-58 per person. It’s a cardioid mic, which only picks up sounds in front of it, and won’t pick up background noises. I’ve messed with a few different condenser mics, and they seem to pick up everything, so every little bump and rustle and background noise is crisply present. The SM-58 is also pneumatically shock-mounted inside. It’s pretty close to its sibling, the SM-57, but it has a pop filter on it. And after a total nuclear war, the only thing that will be left are cockroaches and SM-58s. They can really take a beating. The only caveat on the Shure mics are that there are many counterfeit Chinese ones floating around eBay, so only buy from somewhere reputable.
  • There are a lot of options for mic stands. I wanted a boom mic, so I got two of this Neewer stand. It seems to work okay, although the clamp can be an issue with table thickness. I recorded a few sessions in a hotel that had a table too thick for the c-clamp and I had to find another table. I have a few other stands as backup, but the Neewar ones are decent.
  • I also use two XLR cables, but the SM-58-CN package from Shure includes those. Oh, don’t forget an SD card for the recorder. And I had a pair of Sony headphones already, but you’ll need something similar.

If you want to cheap out, you could get a Zoom H4n instead, or spend $150 on a Focusrite Scarlett interface and record straight into a laptop. I’m sure Behringer has a knock-off version of the SM-58, but I think the microphone makes the difference, and $100 is a good investment in a mic that’s going to last longer than you will.

Mixing/Production

  • I use Logic Pro X to mix together my individual audio tracks and master them down to an MP3 for hosting. Logic costs $200, and is probably overkill, but I already had a copy, so that’s what I use. The Mac comes with Logic’s little brother, GarageBand, which works similarly. You could also use another DAW like Reaper, Reason, Ableton, or Adobe Audition. If you bought an audio interface, it might come with some bundled software. The Zoom H5 comes with Cubase LE, but I’m not sure how the LE version is kneecapped. Audacity is free, but you will end up deleting an entire episode or finding out it isn’t what you want.
  • I used Band in a Box to record my theme music. Also had a copy of that laying around. BTW, the song is the Thelonius Monk jazz standard “Let’s Cool One.”

Hosting

  • I’m using LibSyn to host. You get a monthly upload quota, and then it’s unlimited downloads for everyone. It creates an RSS feed of your episodes, which you can then submit to iTunes or Google Play and tell people to go subscribe. You can also connect Facebook and whatnot, so it puts the links there. And it provides a basic blog of your episodes, so people can go there and see them.
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New iPad

Thanks to a generous gift card from Sarah for my birthday, I ended up at the Apple Store, upgrading my iPad again. I was really on the fence about upgrading at all, because there’s a rumor they will be updating in March, but there’s another rumor that there’s a massive 10nm chip shortage that’s going to push back the release significantly. And I’m far enough behind the curve with my circa-2012 iPad 4 that anything would be a big upgrade.

My big dilemma was whether to get the 9.7-inch iPad Pro or the 12.9-inch. I ended up choosing the smaller one, partly because of price, and partly because the 12.9 is a bit ungainly for me, slightly heavy and hard to type on. Also, it really feels like I’d bend it in half at some point, like the first time I put it in a computer bag. So I went with the 9.7, but I did option up to 128GB of storage.

I don’t use an iPad that much to need a Pro version, but this is an oddball side effect of the horrible market segmentation going on at Apple right now. There are essentially four different iPads in three different sizes right now, and none of that makes any sense. What is the difference between an iPad Air 2 and an iPad Pro 9.7? Better processor, better screen, better cameras, the smart connector, the use of the pencil, and better speakers. But why make those two different lines? It’s confusing, and it reminds me of the mid-90s, when there were three dozen different Centris and Quadro and Duo and Fucko models of the Mac, back when Apple really sucked.

As far as the not using part, I really have/had high hopes for the smart connector thing, because bluetooth keyboards are always a pain in the ass, especially charging them. But the $170 keyboard that Apple sells is hot garbage. It feels like typing on an Atari 400, and you have to use it on a table. I want something I can use in my lap, but I don’t know what one that is yet.

I don’t write on the iPad, but I do think about it. For a while a few years ago, I would only take the iPad and a keyboard on trips, and try writing that way. But now, it’s just as easy to bring my MacBook Pro with me, and have access to all my writing at once. I wouldn’t mind using the iPad more for notes, or for a distraction-free writing device.

I also ordered an Apple Pencil online, after deciding not to in the store. Maybe I can use the Paper app to sketch out ideas. A million years ago, I had a Toshiba Windows tablet with a pen, and had huge plans to use OneNote and plot out books and take notes, and I never did shit with it. Maybe this will be the same, but who knows.

Overall, the upgrade, which is about four or five times faster, seems nice and snappy. The new screen is much better looking. And it’s odd that it is physically smaller overall, but has the same screen size. I expect that in a week, I won’t notice the speed jump at all, which is what happened when I upgraded from the gen-one to the four. Still, very nice birthday gift to myself.

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Boxes

I recently found this excellent Jon Ronson documentary about going through the boxes that Stanley Kubrick left behind. Check it out on vimeo: https://vimeo.com/78314194. The basic gist of it is Ronson was contacted by Kubrick’s assistant for a copy of a documentary of his, and before he got a chance to catch up with him, he passed away. Later, his estate let Ronson poke around, and he found thousands and thousands of archive boxes filled with notes and photos, raw research for most of his films after 2001.

This doc is forty-five minutes of mind-blowing thing after thing, and you expect it to top out, and it gets even better. Like there’s a scene where Kubrick is going back and forth with a box company to get a better storage box with the perfect lid. A few minutes later, Ronson finds film cans containing 18 hours of behind-the-scenes footage shot during Full Metal Jacket. This is after a series of memos instructing his assistant to find a cat collar with a bell to scare away with birds, but with a breakaway feature to prevent the felines from getting stuck in a tree. (This eventually had to be specifically fabricated by his team.)

And then the stationery. Stanley used to hoard it. Paper, notebooks, pens, inks, drafting supplies. His assistant said he could probably start a stationery nostalgia museum. He would spend hours at a shop, always paying in cash so nobody would ask questions.

I have a huge stationery problem now. For years, I’ve been buying these Moleskine notebooks and go through one every year or so, writing a page or two a day. Last winter, I got some Field Notes notebooks, at a shop in the Public Market in Milwaukee. They were the ones for the state fair series, for Wisconsin, which had a certain kitsch value to me, and I’ve been keeping one in my pocket when I go to lunch, so I can jot down ideas.

Because I heard Draplin do his sphiel on Maron’s podcast, I decided to subscribe to Field Notes. You pay a lump sum and get a package four times a year, with whatever cool limited edition books they just came out with. They’re also good about shoving a bunch of extra stuff in there, discontinued booklets and pens and stickers and whatnot. It’s all made in Chicago, well-designed, and has a weird addictive quality to it.

The only problem is, I’m now sitting on two dozen blank notebooks, and only using a few of them a year. And I still have the urge to buy more every time I see their web site. There’s something so collectible about them, and there’s also this feeling of “I’m a writer, I need to write, this is justifiable” and it isn’t, but I will keep subscribing and buying the shit.

I had this problem when I was a kid. There was this store called Stationer’s in downtown Elkhart, and they sold absolutely every kind of pen, pencil, paper, and business supply. It obviously doesn’t exist anymore – big-box office supply stores barely operate anymore. But back when I was 12 or 13 and playing D&D, they had every kind of graph and hex paper imaginable, along with special erasers and felt-tip markers and anything else you needed as a dungeon master.

And I studied drafting earnestly as a teenager, thinking I would go to college and become a draftsman or architect. These were the days of actual paper-based drafting: t-squares, big tables, protractors and scale rulers. That meant supplies galore: wooden 6H and 2H and HB pencils with points you carefully filed down by hand; kneaded erasers; dust-it powder; metal erasing shields; fine-tipped ink pens; translucent sheets of paper. We got the first CAD systems toward the end of my high school drafting career, PS/2s with digital tablets, running VersaCAD. But those tactile supplies — I hoarded that shit, bought as much as I could, somehow holding some psychological connection between having the most stuff versus being able to do a good job.

The Kubrick thing makes me wish I had more space to collect this garbage, a thought that would freak out my wife. But now that we’re in a digital age, the hoarding has gone to my hard drive. I have sets of folders filled with old PDFs, scanned photos, saved web pages, text files. I like the idea that Kubrick spent every day, hours and hours sifting through this stuff assembled by assistants, looking for the next idea, doing pre-production on films that never got shot. As I fret over what’s next, I often think I need to do this, forget about rushing out the next book that nobody will read, and spend a decade looking at photos and researching things out.

Anyway, great documentary – go check it out on Vimeo, before it vanishes.

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The Latest S

Another two years have passed. My iPhone wouldn’t hold a charge more than half a day anymore, and I got annoyed at carrying an external battery charger everywhere. So this week, it was off to the Apple Store to trade in the old 5s for the new 6s.

First things first: I do not understand what the hell is going on with upgrading phones. I’m on AT&T, and it used to be you had a contract, you did your two years of time, then you came in and got a $700 phone for $200 or $300 and the promise to re-up for another two years. I realize phones are not “free” and you pay for that $500 subsidy over time. I recently moved to a different plan and gave up my unlimited data plan so I could use tethering, which was probably a mistake, especially since everything is streaming or in the cloud now. But anyway, I was under the assumption this upgrade deal would continue, and the AT&T web site made it look like it would.

But once I got to the store, they said no. I was given three options: pay $750 for an unlocked phone, join AT&T Next and pay an extra $25 a month for the phone and be locked in for 30 months with an option to swap phones at 24 months, or use Apple’s financing to pay some amount (maybe like $25, I don’t know and I’m too lazy to look it up) and then trade up every year. There is allegedly some discount on the AT&T Next thing if you have a newer plan, probably with a lower data amount — I don’t even fucking know. All I know is my cell phone bill went up like 25% for no real reason, but I did end up not paying for the entire phone up front. So they have made it so you pay the same price for not getting the phone subsidy, or you can pay extra to get the subsidy, which is total bullshit. I have a feeling if I would have said “Yeah, I’m not upgrading at all today and keeping my old shit phone” they would have charged me another $25 a month to do that.

Anyway. I jumped from 5s to 6s. The biggest thing about the 6s is the phone itself – it moved from the 4” to the 4.7” size. I looked at the 6s+, and it seemed far too big for a phone. The 6s is honestly too big for me. It’s also very slippery and I’m almost sure I would drop it within the first day if I didn’t get a rubbery case for it. I haven’t dropped an iPhone ever, but I’m certain I won’t make it six months with this one without face-planting it, hopefully not on concrete. The move of the lock button to the right side is also awkward to me, and touching anything at the top of the screen is a chore when holding the phone in one hand. Maybe I should have gone to the larger size and just completely given up on ever using it with one hand. I like the small amount of extra screen real estate, but honestly, there are rumors of a 4” next-gen phone, and I’d almost consider that when the next upgrade cycle happens (and who knows when the hell that is now, with this stupid contract I signed.)

The 6s is faster. It’s much faster, but I’m sure I won’t notice it in a week or so, and it will be the new normal. But the touch ID is remarkably fast. Battery life is about the same. There is the new 3D Touch feature, which detects finger pressure and opens little pop-up windows for frequently-used functions. This feature is largely useless to me, and is the equivalent to when right-clicking was introduced in Windows 95. It meant that some but not all things had a weird right-click menu on it, and you never knew what you could do unless you experimented forever to find these “bonus” menus in odd places, and who has time for this shit.

The camera is a big upgrade, going from 8 to 12 MP on the rear, and 1 to 5 on the front, with better sensors (really the important part, not megapixels) and the video moving to 4K. I haven’t had a chance to do much with the camera yet, but I used my iPhone as camera for most of my vacation pictures over Thanksgiving, so I see myself doing that going forward.

Upgrade was smooth, going from a backup. I had a phone with no music and no stuff on it for the drive home, which was the same as last time. But this time, I also had a watch that was similarly dead (although it could still tell time and everything) because my watch was now paired to an old phone that had been wiped and traded in. The one snag I had moving forward was that Apple Music and the iTunes Cloud crap meant that no music was syncing on the device anymore, and I was streaming everything. I had to fuck around forever with making playlists available offline, and I’m still not sure they are. Apple really needs to figure that shit out.

There’s always been an odd emotional reaction when the old phone gets wiped, shut off, and shoved in an envelope to go off to the recycling plant. My phone never leaves me, has everything on it, and there’s always a close emotional bond to it, as stupid as that sounds. My phones end up going to many states and countries, held to my face for many long phone calls, and tapped away for literally years of online interaction.

This strange nostalgia seems to happen less and less now with each upgrade cycle; I remember it being horrible the first time I traded in my broken iPhone 3G for a new one, after only nine months of use. Now, it’s not as big of a thing. With the cloud stuff and upgrade process, it’s more like a digital soul is being pulled from one host and dumped into another, because the new phone had the same old layout and data and preferences, but in a shiny new case.

Makes me wish I could do that with my own body at some point. Isn’t Kurzweil done with that shit yet?

 

 

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New (Old) Kindle

I bought a new Kindle, but an old Kindle. It’s actually a Kindle DX, the large-screen variety, which is long discontinued, but for some reason, Amazon occasionally has them in stock, through “Amazon Warehouse,” whatever that is.

I am not really a fan of ebooks. I gave it an honest go back in 2010 or so, bought a lot of my favorite published authors at crazy markup prices, like buying Vonnegut classics at ten bucks a pop. But I found reading fiction to be difficult on a Kindle. Because everything is the same font, and the device always has the same feel, the same heft in your hand, it removes the experience of reading the book, and I typically retain nothing I read on a Kindle. I went back to paper, and I’m fine with that, mostly. There are more titles available, it’s often cheaper in the long run, and there’s something about going to a physical book store that I miss when I’m simply e-hoarding books online.

But, there’s a big problem with space, and allergies. I’m finding that old books, ones infested with dust and mites, make me incredibly sick. I simply cannot buy a fifty-year-old paperback from a used book store, because the moment I open the browning pages, I have a horrible allergy attack. Yes, I take the medicine and I get the shots, but I’ve pretty much exhausted the medical possibilities. I just can’t read old books. And now, I’m finding my “new” books are all old. I pulled a Kerouac book of letters the other day, just for a quick skim, and it made me sick. And I “just” bought that book, but when I checked the receipt stashed inside, and it’s twenty years old. So I don’t know what to do about that.

It’s nice to not have the clutter involved with collections. I was religious about collecting CDs and DVDs, and they took up a good amount of my apartment when I was single. After I got married, and after the technology of MP3s and streaming video took off, I ripped everything, and junked or stored away all optical media. I don’t really miss it, and I’m glad I have the space. But books are more difficult for me.

I have issues with current e-readers, too. I love e-ink displays. The first few iterations of Kindle had less refined screens, a lower PPI count, the weird black-flashing issue with a slow refresh speed, and some slight ghosting of old images. There are new ones with higher PPI, better resolution, and backlighting. But they’re all the smaller screens. As my eyes go, I really want a big screen. Ideally, I would want an 8.5×11 screen. This also helps with PDFs, which you really want to not get downscaled or zoomed weird.

But, the big-screen e-ink readers just don’t exist. Sony has one in Japan, that’s insanely expensive, like $800 or something. And there are one or two cheapie made-in-China ones that are half-broke, hard to buy, and still pretty pricy. Every year, there are CES rumors of a big-screen reader, but these are always vaporware, and — huge pet peeve of mine — put out the idea that there are big-screen readers. But what you see at CES is never what you get, and they simply aren’t out there.

I don’t think the masses want a paperwhite e-ink display. They want a tablet, something like an iPad that can play games, show a video, and do things best left to a color screen that eats batteries. I have an iPad, and they’re great, but I can’t read on it. It causes too much eyestrain, and I’m also convinced that heavy use of a screen right before bed causes bad sleep hygiene. Almost all of my reading takes place in the hour or two before sleep, so I can’t deal with an iPad. That’s where paper has been great, and where a big e-ink display could be helpful.

So I hunted down the Kindle DX, and I found this one on Amazon. It was only $140, which was a steal, compared to the original $400-ish list price five years ago. This is the Kindle DX Graphite, which has the 3G connection, no WiFi, and the second-gen DX display, which is “50% improved.” It has roughly the same lineage as the third-gen Kindle Keyboard, but less RAM inside. No backlighting, no apps, no touchscreen.

Although the Amazon page made it sound like this was a used model or maybe a refurb, this was a new-in-sealed-box model, with plastic on it and everything. The only snags I found was that it did not come with an AC adaptor, just the USB cable. (Not a problem, I have 784 110V-to-USB adapters around here.) But it also would not register to the Whispernet network, and the wireless appeared dead. I gave them a call, they asked me for the serial number and a few other things (IMEI, something else) and then after a reboot, it connected wirelessly and all my stuff was ready to go.

My main use for this, at least initially, is to read PDFs. I have a giant archive of UFO docs and conspiracy theory stuff, FOIA requests and declassified government reports, and it will be nice to plop all those onto this thing. The screen is 5.5×8, so almost the size of a paperback book. It’s much easier to read than the original one I have. So I will give it another go.

It’s oddly nostalgic for me to look back at the documents that were waiting for me on the Kindle. I got my original Kindle in 2009, and toward the end of my Samsung tenure, spent a lot of my lunch time reading science fiction books on it. Also, when I started my allergy shot regimen in 2010, I would bring the Kindle and get a lot of reading done there. I had horrible writer’s block then, didn’t know what would be next for my writing, so I was reading a lot of Philip K. Dick books for inspiration, and also a lot of schlocky how-to-write books, which were useless. The Kindle font, and the general layout of the thing, the dark grey letters and the LCD-like background color, remind me so much of reading those books. But I can’t really remember much about them. So, we’ll see how this works out.

 

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The Watch

I got an Apple Watch this week – it was an anniversary present from my wife. I’ve vaguely wanted one, but wasn’t sure. I’ve used it for a day now, and it’s interesting in the same way all new Apple products are interesting to me.

I’ve had two different experiences with new Apple products: either it is a complete game-changer, or it doesn’t seem to offer anything, and over time, it slowly becomes apparent why it is valuable. A clear example of the latter is the Apple TV. We had a Roku box, and replaced it with the Apple TV. And at first, all I thought was “okay, more of the same.” It didn’t run apps, didn’t do anything special, and was pretty much the same thing, with a different UI and slightly different lineup. But then its value became slowly more apparent as I realized I could stream anything from my Mac into the living room, and use AirPlay to mirror over video from an iOS device.

Other things hit it out of the park. Switching from a big tower PC with Linux to a little Mac Mini in 2005 was a complete game-changer. Moving from a MiniDisc player to an iPod with every piece of music I owned was a complete paradigm shift. The move from a crap Windows Mobile phone to an iPhone in 2009 was a huge thing. I think any time I replaced something with an Apple equivalent device, it was a major positive change, and usually added functionality that greatly helped my productivity. Or, in most cases, it removed distractions that gave me much more time to focus on other things.

The iPad was a weird example, though. It didn’t replace anything; it was an odd supplement. It did take over using an old laptop when I was sitting on the couch watching TV, and made the passive second-screen experience much more fluid. It also took over using my main laptop on planes or during travel. But it ping-ponged between being too big to be a phone and too small to be a laptop. I tried bringing only it on small trips, using it as a writing machine with an external keyboard, and it never really hacked it. I also used it as an ebook reading machine, before I largely gave up on reading ebooks, because they are horrible and you really should read everything on paper. I love the iPad, but it’s stuck in this chasm between what I need and what I want.

That brings us to the watch. First, like any other Apple product, it is immaculately designed and engineered. The display is incredibly crisp and radiant. The lines of the case are smooth and minimalist. The way it sits on the wrist is not overly “techie” looking like a Pebble watch or other smart watches. It’s very sleek and smaller than my last watch, a Timex Expedition.

I’ve always worn watches. I never don’t wear one, including at night and in the shower. Since high school, it has been a changing cast of plastic waterproof Timexes and Casios, ranging from the most basic drug-store cheapies to a few more expensive G-Shock and Ironman models. My only real requirement of a watch is that I don’t need to think about it, that it is ultimately waterproof, unobtrusive, and has a battery that lasts a long time. I don’t care about fashion or gold or leather or any of the fetishistic Rolex-esque collectible qualities. I dislike analog watches, and I don’t care for wind-up or mechanical watches. If I have to have features, I want a date function, maybe a multiple-timezone thing, a very readable display, and a light is key.

I’ve wandered into the world of smart watches only in the earliest ideas of it. I did have a solar-powered G-Shock with altimeter, barometer, and all that jazz. It was okay, but did not charge well indoors, and I never went outdoors. I did a few different iterations of the Timex DataLink, which was interesting, but ultimately flawed. I generally like the look and feel of Timex, but it always seems they don’t test the UX of their watches, or they generally have 80% of the features I want, and the other 20% is sheer stupidity. And then when they break a year later, you have no way to replace a weird-shaped proprietary band or get them repaired, so they are ultimately disposable.

There are obvious issues with my demands that an Apple Watch won’t meet. It needs to be charged daily. There are Apple apologists who say you can maybe get two days out of it if you turn everything off and don’t actually use it, but get real — you need to charge it every day, for about 45 minutes or so. You could do this at night, but I like to have a watch on at night so I can read the time when I wake up at 2:37, and I’m interested in tracking sleep. I also can’t really wear the Apple Watch in the shower. You can, but it’s “splash resistant” and not “water resistant 5M” or whatever. Washing hands with it on is fine. It’s probably best to keep your wrist clean and avoid irritation, too. So I will try to kill two birds here and put it on the charger in the morning while I am getting ready, and let it charge while I’m in the shower. That’s a change in workflow, and I’m super anal-retentive about getting ready in the morning and do everything in the same exact order like I’m on the spectrum or something, because if I don’t follow a Rainman-esque procedure, I end up putting on deodorant four times and then only shaving half my face. So I need to get used to the new procedure.

The interface to the watch is interesting. It’s a new paradigm. When the iPhone came out, it took a page from the Palm Pilot playbook and made itself a subset of the Mac from which it synced, so you took only your essential data and mirrored it to your phone, along with its own Apps. This is different than the way Windows Mobile and now some Android phones work, with a different methodology, in that the phone is a PC, and the data is partitioned or divided between the two in some hodge-podge manner just like if you had two completely different PCs in your house. My friends who believe in the phone-as-PC are dumbfounded by the phone-as-subset paradigm, and think it is an indicator that the iPhone is “stupid” or “cobbled” because it can’t do everything a PC could. I see it as the opposite; a phone masquerading as a PC usually can’t do everything as well. The input and output methods on a phone aren’t the same as a PC, so you need to tailor the UI of the phone differently, to expect a touchscreen and fat fingers and less viewing area. You also want to keep a phone lightweight, so it requires less CPU and uses less battery. (This is more apparent on the tablet-as-full-PC paradigm, like the Surface. When you transfer an entire PC to a tablet, you also bring over all the parasitic overhead of an OS that has to be backward-compatible 20 years, so you have a disaster of a registry system, DLL hell, the requirement of a thousand background processes and virus scanning and obsolete drivers for floppy drives and line printers polluting your OS, and random PC LOAD LETTER errors or whatever the hell else you don’t want popping up in a Win 3.11-esque UI on your tiny touchscreen.)

So the Watch is a subset of a subset. It pairs with your iPhone and gives a glimpse of its data through a bluetooth tether, with a certain amount of computing working through its own CPU, memory, and network connectivity in the form of WiFi. I don’t know what the division is; this is hidden from the user. It’s fairly seamless; you put on the watch, tell your phone to pair with it, and after scanning a weird QR-like code on the watch face with your iPhone camera, it’s done. It is odd to think of this Russian dolls method of nesting, but that’s how it works, and it works.

I was worried the watch UI would not work out for me with my rapidly diminishing nearsightedness, but it seems fine. The big change is the haptic interface it uses to send notifications. This is more than just a single-frequency buzzer; it uses some kind of variable motor that can make notifications feel like a “tap” of different frequency to send things to you. Depending on the app, this can be quite effective. The issue is how to standardize this on apps, or have an app come up with a good idea of how to notify you. For example, the Apple Maps app uses different tapping to indicate when you should take a turn, which is pretty genius. I think there is a good possibility for an app that uses taps to do things like tell you running pace or notify you of different types of communication via a morse code-like tapping system, to change the need to look at things. I don’t know what yet, but the idea of a haptic sensor in such a prominent place (as opposed to a phone in a pocket) could mean something significant in the form of direct communication beyond the sense of sight.

Apps right now are limited, and it depends on what you want to use the watch for. There is essentially no good input device for the watch, aside from Siri. If you use Siri a lot now, this is very useful. I use Siri at least ten times every time I cook (I can’t do measurement conversions at all — sorry for failing you, grade-school math teachers) and having it on my watch is wonderful. If you make a lot of quick phone calls, having a speaker phone on your wrist where you can yell “call home” is very useful if you drive a lot. Frequent texts, in the form of “send a message to Joe saying I’m going to be ten minutes late” is helpful.

Many of the apps — especially the mail app — are in their primitive, first-stab level of functionality. When I was sitting in bed, it was useful to open mail, and immediately delete half the messages, which I always do. But as I was doing this, it reminded me of 1999, when I had my first Sprint PCS phone, a flat rubberized slab of butt-dialing goodness that had a tiny calculator screen to show you texts and what it thought was “mobile web,” a rough and dumb approximation of browsing the internet in the form of showing you the first 18 characters of a stripped-down web site after about a minute of loading. Reading my mail messages on this little screen made me think back to those early days of reading mails on the tiny square screen of a Nokia, with no adornment or spacing or anything, just bare words in a little LCD box. It looks better and smoother on the Watch, but in my mind it is a representation or reminder of that feeling of “this is our first go at this, but in ten years, this is going to be phenomenal.”

Some apps are silly, or plain dumb. Apps are not separately synced; an iOS app may or may not have an associated Watch app. When your phone app has a watch app, you get it when you sync. As an example, the Walgreen’s phone app has a Watch app, and all it does is remind you when to take your pills. That’s it. I could have used a Watch app that showed me my rewards balance, but no. Some apps are decent. Like the Yelp app is pretty good at giving you condensed choices. The Weight Watchers app is buggy as hell and largely useless. The MLB At Bat app seems to be well thought-out, but won’t even launch for me. I think this will get better as the new native apps API get out there. The possibility for good apps exist. Maybe now that they’ve sold a few billion dollars’ worth of watches, they will start to happen.

Built-in apps are good. I like the idea of controlling iTunes with my watch. The messaging apps are decent. I rarely text or use the phone because I’m an introvert shut-in with no friends, but if you talk to friends a lot, there’s a lot of usefulness there.

One of the main reasons I wanted the watch is to keep track of fitness and quantify that. The sensors for this are excellent, as is the activity monitor. I normally use a Fitbit to count steps/floors, and the Watch seems to count slightly lower, which is normal for a wrist-mounted counting device, I think. The heartbeat sensor is pretty good. The integration with Apple Health is awesome. I first used the exercise monitor feature on yesterday’s walk, and it was great to capture my heart rate changes during the usual fast-walk with hills. I also used the Sleep++ app to track sleep last night, and that worked well.

All in all, it’s an interesting device — I’d like to see how it works out in the long term, and find more uses for it with regard to the usual writing/research/data collecting/tasks workflow.

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Scrivener Tips, Redux

I am in the midst of production work for my next book, and this is the time I always learn new things about Scrivener.  Here are some random bits of info.  If this makes no sense to you, don’t worry; I’m mostly documenting this so that a year from now, I’ll google it again and find it here.  BTW all of this is in the latest version on the Mac.

Using a Code character style in Kindle output

Need to have a monospace font code style that shows up in your final Kindle output?

  1. Surround your text with the HTML <code> tag.  Like this
  2. Select the text, and select Format > Formatting > Preserve Formatting.  Your text gets surrounded by a little blue dotted outline.
  3. When you compile your book, under Compilation Options, select HTML Settings,  and under HTML, select Treat “Preserve Formatting” blocks as raw HTML.

Making first paragraphs in a chapter or section not indented

  1. When compiling, under Compilation Options, select Formatting.
  2. This gets a little squirrely, because it depends on how you break up your documents/scrivs/folders.  For this project, I had a scriv per chapter, and within them, I had blank lines for sections (where you’d normally have * * * or something in a print book.)  In that situation, select the Section Type of Level 1+ with just one document (the bottom item).
  3. Click Options.
  4. Select Remove first paragraph indents and the relevant option.  I used After empty lines and centered text, but yours might be something else.
  5. You might have to do this for different Section Type levels, depending on your structure.

My About the Author chapter is showing up as Chapter 32 in the Kindle TOC

  1. Make sure your scriv for the chapter has a properly-cased and human-readable title, like “About the Author” and not “WTF FFUUUCKCK FIX ME”.
  2. Under Compilation Options, go to Title Adjustments.
  3. There is a thing labeled Do not add title prefix or suffix to documents:.  It has a little gear next to it.  It’s not very OSX-ish and super easy to miss. Click the gear.
  4. Select the documents you want to not name “Chapter x”
  5. Click outside of this pop-up to close it, like on the dialog underneath it.  (It has no close button. I told you it was a junky piece of UI.)

I imported a Scrivener-generated Word doc into Pages and when I try to have different head/foot/page numbers in a section, it freaks the fuck out and I think my computer is possessed by Satan

Scrivener probably put a page break instead of a section break between a couple of chapters, and now the Pages “use previous section” heading/footing setting behaves wrong. Change the page breaks to section breaks.

Also, if you don’t use section breaks between chapters and your chapters start on even pages of your book, stop doing that.

The spell check isn’t catching things

That’s because it sucks.  You might want to check your spelling and grammar in another program.

Hope these help someone, or at least help me in six months when I do this again.

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On writing tools

In my last post, I talked about my old standby writing tool, emacs, and how I’ve made a gradual break from it.  So here’s what I’ve been doing.

First, there was a recent stream of different full-screen writing tools dumped on the market.  It’s the latest fad: some program that closes off everything but a single window to write.  To me, that seemed largely stupid; you just expand your editor window full-screen and shut off your IM program, right?  Well, there’s more to it than that.

First, I have horrible ADD or ADHD or something.  Not diagnosed, no pills or doctors, but I – what was I talking about?  Seriously, I have a hell of a time focusing on writing these days, especially with all of the distractions out there in the internet world.  And writing involves a certain amount of self-hypnosis, that ability to suspend disbelief and not even think about writing, but still type it on the page and channel your subconscious and capture it into your work.  And it’s damn hard to do that when you can click on the other window to check your twitter feed and derail the whole thing.

For a while, I would either turn off my wifi, or I would use this program called Freedom, which completely locks your internet connection unless you reboot.  (And those of us who don’t use Windows aren’t in the habit of rebooting hourly, so this is a Big Deal.)  I know, I should just be able to shut off wifi, or just not click on that god damned browser window.  But I can’t.  It’s nice to be able to completely childproof the process.

I also experimented with trying to fake a full-screen writing program with emacs, adding some margins and pumping up the font size, so I could go full-screen and only have a nice blank page to stare at.  But one day, in a fit of writer’s block fury, I went to the app store and picked up a copy of OmmWriter.

OmmWriter is pretty damn amazing. Basically, you start it, and it opens a text editor over your entire screen, plain and simple.  But the little details are what make it so slick.  First, it shuts off all notifications.  If you’re using Growl to sling popups when you get new mails and whatnot, those all get halted.  Next, it draws this background picture of a winter landscape that looks like some lost Tori Amos album back cover.  And as you start typing, the borders and minimalist menu buttons fade away.  The fonts are very readable and high-design typography too; no more Courier New or whatever the hell emacs uses by default.  There’s also a word count tally at the bottom of the resizable text area that will vanish as you get to work.  And there’s a choice of several mellow, new-agey ambient soundtracks that play in the background.  And all of this sounds hokey, like I’m about to talk to you about an opportunity to resell some healing crystals to your family and friends, but it seriously works.  I don’t know why, but it made it much easier to fade into the work.  It was awesome for journal entries and articles and brief bursts of automatic writing.  But it was not a full-fledged content management system; there’s no way I could write a book in this thing.

Side note: this thing uses OSX’s text editing widget or engine or whatever you call it.  And something I did not realize: most of emacs’s key shortcuts work in any program that uses this.  So if you reflexively use Ctrl-A and Ctrl-E to jump to the start and end of a line, that totally works, either in the Mac’s TextEdit, or a program like Ommwriter.

So I’ll cut to the chase: after a few other trials, I finally got into using Scrivener.  And it has completely changed the way I write, because it finally does what I need to keep organized.

One of the biggest things is I need a system that can deal with me writing in “chunks”.  There are other virtual index card systems, but they typically don’t let you meld the cards into one huge work.  And outline programs are great (I’m a long-time user of OmniOutliner) but I always hated trying to reconcile changes in the actual writing with changes in the outline and vice-versa.  I wanted a way to have the outline be the document.

Scrivener is a lot like modern IDEs you’d use to write code: there’s a binder that’s a project-level collection of folders, with one folder being the actual manuscript, and the other folders being whatever the hell you want.  In a folder, you can create other folders, or you can create documents.  So let’s say my manuscript has a dozen chapters, I can make each of those a folder.  Then in each folder, I can have a bunch of text documents, one for each scene or paragraph or whatever the hell I want.  I can drag those around in any order, chop them into smaller pieces, merge them, add more, delete them, whatever.  Then when I click on my chapter folder in the left navigation pane, I’m presented with every piece in that folder, all glued together into one document.  Click at the root level, in the manuscript folder, and you’ve got your entire book.  It makes it very easy to write in fragments, and move things around easily.  This is pure magic for me.  I really wish I had a program like this when I wrote Rumored to Exist – it would have saved me at least a year of time.

Here’s the real beauty.  You like to work with index cards?  Each of these fragments has an associated title and page of metadata that you can see in the right pane inspector.  You can type in a little blurb of what happens in your fragment, or what needs to happen, or what you want to fix.  Then you click a button in the toolbar, and instead of seeing the text editor, you see a corkboard with a bunch of index cards, each one being that metadata for each text document.  If you don’t like the order, drag them around and make it work.  When you go back to the text editor, all of your pieces will be reordered.  You want an outline?  Click another button in the toolbar, and you see all of your documents and folders and stuff in an expanding/collapsing outline.

I take a lot of notes when I’m writing, and have all sorts of loose text documents and other crap associated with a project: loose wikipedia articles, jpeg images, maps, whatever.  Instead of throwing all of that in a directory on my hard drive, I can keep it all in a folder that resides outside of my manuscript.  And you can totally hyperlink this crap, too.  So you can have a page per character, with facts and stats about the person, a character sketch or notes or whatever else, and you can drop links in there to scenes where they appear.

There’s a full screen mode, too.  It’s not as pretty as the OmmWriter one, and it does not have any Brian Emo ripoff music playing, but it works.  It’s pretty easy to jump back and forth between the full screen and the three-pane mode, which is good for me; I can focus on inputting long passages of text, then jump back into org mode and move things around.  I’ve still got those emacs shortcuts too, because it uses that Mac text engine.

One of the big issues I had too was import and export.  I really can’t have my stuff locked into a proprietary format where I can’t get it to a publisher or to someone for review.  Scrivener has very good import and export functions; you can work in this weird nonlinear format, and when you’re ready to lock it down, you press a compile button and jet out a copy in RTF for your Microsoft Word-impaired buddies.  Need it in plain text, or Final Draft, or HTML, or PDF?  No problemo.  It gives you a fully submittable, standard format document that’s ready to go to the world.  And here’s something awesome: you can press a button, and it will spit out a perfectly formatted .mobi file, ready to submit to the Kindle store.  (It does .epub too, if you’re not down with Amazon.)  All of the exports are very configurable, too.  So if you need different headers or footers or page breaks or fonts or whatever, you can screw around with that stuff to your heart’s content.  You can also do weird stuff like import or export parts of your document automatically.  So you can do stuff like use a standard text editor to take notes on another computer or your phone, then dump that stuff into Dropbox or a shared directory, and Scrivener will pull those files into your binder, or vice-versa.

Another big thing for me is statistics.  I need to know at any given second how many words are in a project.  Whatever you have open in the text editing pane (chapter, fragment, manuscript, whatever) has a word count in the bottom bar.  But you can also do a quick Ctrl-Shift-T and get a word count for the project.  You can also set a goal date and count, and it will calculate how many words you have to write that day, and pop up a nice little reminder in Growl when you hit your target.

There are tons of other features I will never figure out.  It has comments, and little flags you can set to indicate if something is a draft or a revision, and snapshots, and citations, and tons of search and replace things I have not figured out.  But the ability to write in a completely nonlinear fashion is a big thing for me, and this works way better than any other system out there.

Anyway, if you’re in a similar predicament, check out their site and download the free trial.  The learning curve is steep, and I initially had a big freakout trying to figure out how to carve my next book project into the right type of pieces.  But I’ve got the next book underway and it’s motoring along fine.  And I’ve imported both Summer Rain and Rumored, and I’m vaguely thinking about dumping those to the kindle.

Enough babbling about tools.  Time to get back to work.

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