Categories
technology writing

Sorting Out How I Work With Plain Text

My cup runneth over with superb apps for writing, manipulating, and writing text on any Apple device; so much so that it’s hard to pick the one I want to work in right now. A nice problem to have, but still a problem. A post by @macdrifter published on New Year’s Day, Quick Notes with Sublime Text, prodded me think about this.
As a nerd plunked firmly in the “fiddly” class, at least I know one thing. After years of agonizing over which font I want to use and how big the margins should be, I committed a long time ago to working in plain text using Fletcher Penney’s MultiMarkdown (based on John Gruber’s Markdown). All of my files are synced using iCloud or Dropbox for ubiquitous access from my Mac, iPhone, and iPad mini.
On my Mac, most ideas start in Sublime Text 3. It is always open and one of the best text editors on the market (along with BBEdit, of course).1 A bonus to both text editors is the hot exit; all open files are saved and reopened the next time you launch the app. This alleviates my File Naming Anxiety Disorder (FNAD), an affliction that submitted for inclusion in DSM-6.
So from my Mac I may start quickly in Sublime Text, but at some point I freeze and wonder, “Is this really where I want to be working on this?” These are my top three options, all of which recognize variants of Markdown while curating their own unique strengths:

  • MultiMarkdown Composer — This application for writing in MultiMarkdown is designed by Fletcher Penney, the man who designed the markup language. What could be better?
  • Ulysses III — In my memory, Ulysses kicked off the plain text editing revolution on the Mac. The developers completely overhauled the design and it is beautiful (and dovetails perfectly into their iOS app Daedalus Touch).
  • Byword — Another popular app with many writers on the web, Byword’s designers built in capabilities to publish directly to WordPress and Tumblr.

All three are terrific. Though it’s a Mac application, Ulysses III works the most like an iOS app; open a new file, start typing, and it’s just saved somewhere in the app without irritating my FNAD. Byword and MultiMarkdown Composer (MMC) work with standard files that are saved in iCloud or Dropbox, respectively. MMC handles MultiMarkdown metadata better than the other two (as it should coming from the man who wrote the spec).

Another Can of Worms

This has so far focused on the Mac while ignoring two other platforms, the iPhone and iPad. I’m getting bored with this topic for now, so I’m just going to rip out a few points here.

  • Byword is available on all three platforms
  • Ulysses III, coupled with Daedulus Touch, is sort of available on the Mac, iPhone, and iPad.
  • MultiMarkdown Composer is Mac-only, but being plain text is available for easy editing on any device when synced with Dropbox.

Findings?

The whole purpose for writing this article is to sort through my options and determine a system that works best for me. I don’t think I am quite there yet. If you’re still reading and curious, I chose to write this article in MultiMarkdown Composer. When I nail down something that works for me, I’ll let you know.


  1. BBEdit is still my go to app for cleaning up and reformatting documents using Text Factories. My most common use case is copying the text of meeting agendas sent to me in MS Word, pasting into BBEdit, running a Text Factory that strips weird spaces and characters, converts to Markdown, which is exported into HTML to publish online. 
Categories
design nerd technology

Maximize UI for Rdio & Simplify

When I’m in my Fortress of Solitude working on my Mac, it’s a safe bet Rdio (I’m ELBeavers in Rdioland) is feeding my brain a steady stream of rhythms and beats. Brett Terpstra made Sidecar13, a skin for a third-party Rdio controller called Simplify.
Sidecar13desktop
Sidecar13 provides a nice visual interface, but I can’t stand to have anything floating above all windows so I can’t see it in the background.
Then I thought about my shortcut to maximize windows, Keyboard Maestro macro that’s always a quick keystroke away.
First I considered created a Macro Group, but as far as I can tell that only makes actions available based on a selected apps availability. Knowing there had to be a way, I looked at the Maximize Window script again and added an if then else statement.
If Rdio is running, the Maximize… script zooms the front window to 1,116 × 786 (on my MacBook Air) ((This macro’s utility is limited to my screen’s dimensions, but with a little more work someone could tweak the macro to see what size screen it’s dealing with and act accordingly.)) and scoots the window 250 pixels from the left edge of the screen. This fills the space to the right while Brett’s beautiful Sidecar13 languishes gorgeous on the left.
Maximize window macro
Another couple of macros watch Rdio’s status. If it’s active, then Simplify is launched (if it wasn’t already). When Rdio quits, Simplify quits too. When those apps aren’t running, the Maximize Windows macro zooms to fill the entire screen.
2013 10 20 simplify
Check out the macros on Github or just go ahead and download them to use with Keyboard Maestro. Let me know if they’re as helpful for you as they are to me.

Categories
general nerd technology writing

Labor Day

Labor Day for us meant our daughter came home for her first break from Valdosta State University, which was great. We miss her when she’s gone, which already kicked in after she left earlier today to return to campus.
We watched The Shining together; her first time. During the first half she was rolling her eyes. Second half? Scared out of her wits. She’ll carry that one around for a while. Hey, they don’t call it a psychological thriller for nothing.
On nerdier notes, I sorted out my text files and narrowed my iOS app use to Notesy for quick reference (though I’m still digging into Editorial). I also began migrating to the new Apple Affiliate program. When you click links to apps and make a purchase, you’re supporting this site.
You can learn more about me, this site, and click updated affiliate links on the About page.

Categories
technology

Ulysses III brings something old, something new

Buy Ulysses III – The Soulmen GBR and support this site.
The Soul Men launched plain text editor Ulysses 10 years ago and introduced Mac users to the glory of a full-screen writing environment. I don't claim to know Merlin Mann's opinion about the latest release, but this is what he had to say on his site 43folders.com in 2004:

Ulysses is a text editor for writers. That’s it. It doesn’t make code, draw pictures of your kitty, or pop kettle corn. It just helps you plan, organize, track, and write your stuff in a way that I find entirely intuitive. Other document editors have a full-screen option–Scrivener1 springs to mind, I'm a fan–and the concept has infected Macs and iOS devices as full-screen design was embedded in the operating system. The developers of Ulysses have had ample time to reflect, refine, and redesign the writing environment.

New design for a new era

One of the concepts that made Ulysses unique from the beginning was the idea of semantic writing. Using a predefined set of textual cues, a simplified set similar to the HTML and CSS use to manage textual style on websites, allowed the writing to embolden, italicize, and otherwise enhance the style of their text completely within a plain-text environment.
Since the application's genesis, semantic writing has become relatively commonplace as more writers adopt John Gruber's Markdown, which is baked right into the app.2 The Soul Men also include “Markdown XL,” which augments Markdown with text-based editing marks to mark up a document with inline comments, annotations, or suggested deletions for yourself and collaborators.
By default, the blinking blue cursor is reminiscent of iA Writer for Mac OS X and iOS. The rigid standards required by Writer pushed me away, though I appreciate that app's resistance to my fiddly nature.3

iOS influence, iCloud done right


Well-placed popover windows peppered throughout Ulysses III attractively spice up the app with a flavor of iOS.4
Apple Pages and its ilk still freak me out a little when it offers an iCloud dialog box upon opening. Ulysses III eliminates any weird iCloud-Finder5 confusion by altogether skipping the dialog. Much like most iOS apps, users just open a new “sheet” and start writing. Those sheets may be organized with groups or filters.
The developers built in support for their iOS app, Daedalus Touch, as a natural extension to Ulysses III, though wordsmiths may also sync their work via Dropbox (affiliate link) and Box.com, or their own WebDAV server.

Write once, publish anywhere

Most of the words I write are slated for publication on the Web, yet who doesn't need to print every now and then. Ulysses III provides an attractive stylesheet for printing to actual gasp paper. (Print tip: limited options to adjust the fonts are available in the print dialog box).

Room for improvement

Autopairing items such as [], (), and "" would be helpful for writing in any flavor of Markdown (keyboard shortcuts exist for tasks, i.e. select a word or phrase and press ⌘-i to wrap it in asterisks or underscores for italics, ⌘-b for bold, etc.) and I'm fairly certain I'm not the only one who would like to see MultiMarkdown support rolled into Ulysses III.
The Soul Men encourage and welcome suggestions at the bottom of each page at their website:

There may be shortcomings, errors even, and you will have questions. We are anxiously awaiting your feedback, so please don’t hesitate to get in touch. Let us know how it fares. The Soul Men have done a lot of things right with their latest iteration of their premium writing application. Let them know how they're doing by email at support@the-soulmen.com and on Twitter as @ulyssesapp.


  1. Scrivener also enjoys cross platform support with versions for Mac OS X, Windows, and Linux. More information is available at literatureandlatte.com.
  2. I look forward hope the developers will expand to support Fletcher Penney's MultiMarkdown (fletcherpenney.net/multimarkdown), which enables writers to display attractive tables set in plain text and more.
  3. For writing apps, I waffle between Adobe Source Code Pro and Inconsolata (though I'm trying out Courier Prime as I write this review in Ulysses III).
  4. Apologies if my extended metaphor left a bad taste in your mouth.
  5. For the record, I prefer Path Finder.
Categories
general

Fantastical-esque BusyCal 2

Shawn Blanc mentioned that BusyCal 2:

“added a Fantastical-esque Menu Bar extra that lets you view your schedule and crate events quickly with natural language.”

I’ve had a BusyCal license for many years and switched to Fantastical in the past year. I have read nothing substantial about the latest version yet, and I’m sure it’s an awesome release, but Blanc’s description implies the upgrade is almost as good as another app. That does not encourage me to upgrade? If you need the full calendar “”experience,”” I can recommend BusyCal based on past performance. If you don’t need a full-screen app, then Fantastical is an awesome alternate and that’s what I will continue to use.

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Finding Your Power Apps

Michael Schechter recently asked Are Power Apps Like Omnifocus and Scrivener For You?. Watching tutorial videos for “power apps” has helped him decide when it is worth investing his time, attention, and money to learning a new application. He proposes that:

If you aren’t willing to take the time [to watch a video], you probably aren’t really all that ready for whatever app you are considering. And once you do jump in, you’ll have a better idea of what to look for and probably have a few power user tricks that you are anxious to try out.

He closed with a question that got me thinking about how I choose the software that helps me do the work I do.

What’s your process? How do you go about gauging if an app is worth your time and effort?

My process is probably among the worst out there. I can admit to being a perpetually lazy serial procrastinator. It’s easy for something shiny to lead me on a chase for a while, largely because there is nothing to fail at there. Nothing, that is, except the obvious failure to accomplish anything worthwhile.

I’ve spent more money than I care to think about over the years on apps that rarely saw any action. I should probably let you know I’m a recovering app bundle junkie. I still get cravings when I see $5,937 worth of apps for a few bucks, but I’ve gotten better at shaking off the shakes. I’ve wasted a lot of time, a lot, trying to find a use for many of those bundled apps. Even if it was a bargain bin purchase, I paid for it, right? I should learn to use them.

Nah, not really. Usually, my main reason for making a bundle purchase was to get at one of them. This is how I first saw the light with 1Password (and haven’t looked back). Get it. Get it now. Even you Windows users out there. All of you need it. Thank me later.

My Process

Back to Schechter’s questions. My process is to avoid new apps. Like I said, my tendency to chase the shiny has waned, but I do respect the opinion of people I follow online. See also, Twitter. Watch smart people in your field of interest. They have probably had more apps thrown at them than you have time to study on your own, and they have decided what works and what doesn’t.

There is room for personality though, especially in the writing space and most especially on iOS. There has been an avalanche of high quality writing tools for iPhone and iPad. I’ve weeded the garden and found what works for me (Writing Kit if you’re interested).

As a writer, the best advice I’ve found in the past 20 years is to axe word processors and stick to plain text. I only drop into a word processor to open files other people send me or to print a heavily formatted document. Plain text and Markdown are all I need (MultiMarkdown if I need tables). The only hypocrasy in my stable of writing apps is Scrivener, but it’s so amazing every writer should use it. Yes, even writers who use Windows (in fact, you can pick Scrivener for Windows at a discount through Nov. 7).

Hidden Wisdom

I hope you found the hidden wisdom in my failures. No? Let me spell it out for you.

  • Find good tools, learn to use them, and stick with them.
  • Take notice if someone you respect says an app changed their world.
  • Don’t look for new apps to do the work you already do. Great apps will find you.
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Possible Dark Linen Kludge on OS X Lion

When I use my MacBook in my home office, I run my display on an external monitor and use Apple’s bluetooth and Magic Trackpad to work. Since updating to OS X Lion, I’ve notice a couple of quirks in regard to the desktop background.

Without some fiddling, the background on the external display defaults to Apple’s dark linen background on the desktop. If I try to change it I can see the changes reflected through the translucent menubar, but the desktop background stubbornly hangs on to that dark linen pattern.

After the obligatory 30 to 120 seconds of research on Google, it’s easy to learn this is a common problem. I discovered a fix of sorts.

The linen pattern is associated with fullscreen apps. I went through my apps and pulled them out of fullscreen mode. I put them back in fullscreen mode and my preferred desktop background remained.

Interesting point of note: I “minimized” the fullscreen apps Safari, iTunes, and third-party email client Sparrow to uncover the correct desktop image; however, Terminal.app remained in fullscreen mode as my background returned to normal. Maybe it’s a display bug with Safari or iTunes? “So…”1 I exclude Sparrow because, as a third-party app, I assume the widespread reports of display weirdness are associated with stock applications.


  1. a la Karl van Hœt

N.B.: Learn how to type weirdo characters like “œ” at How to Type.net

Categories
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Typography Insight – New ways of learning & teaching typefaces

Typography Insight – New ways of learning & teaching typefaces:

Typography Insight is an iPad application that introduces new methods for learning and teaching typefaces. The project stemmed from my love for typography and evolving mobile platforms. It was inspired by my own experience in typography classes whilst attending design school.

Do you know the difference between font & typeface? Whether you do or don’t, this application designed by Dong Yoon Park for his thesis work is fascinating. Couple the app with his gorgeous and informative website for an even better experience.

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iPad: My review one year late

Using an iPad (first generation) for a few weeks now improved the way I work.
Taking notes

Taking notes helps me stay focused and engaged during a meeting or conversation. If you saw me in a meeting, it was a safe bet a notebook or legal pad (yellow paper please) wasn’t far from my side. The physical act of writing with a pen or pencil is one of my simple pleasures, yet as a prolific notetaker, the problem I found with collecting mounds of handwritten yellow pages is the lack of an easy way to search them. Proper filing makes pages easier to find (sometimes), but without a meticulous and impractical concordance I know of no way to search those files beyond simple topics. Using the iPad, I can tag my digital notes and search them with ease.
Not only can I take notes at work and church, but the combination of my iPad and iPhone constitue a digital filing cabinet I always have with me. I have used notebook computers exclusively for nearly a decade and an iPhone for about three years now, but the iPad has taken mobile computing to a whole new level for me.

Creating new content

Lots of people–naysayers and devoted iPad users alike–say the iPad is only for consumption and unsuitable for creation.

I disagree.

I’m no artist, but the tools on the market appear to be amazing. Adobe Ideas, Sketchbook Pro, and Brushes are three that come to mind and the number of high-quality photo editing apps is virtually overwhelming.

Words are my craft, and there is no shortage of tools to help writers. I’m juggling several apps right now until I find a home. IA Writer is my favorite so far for creating narrative content (this article for example). I haven’t settled on a favorite app for taking notes, but I’ve narrowed the field. Nebulous Notes is great and I’ve used PlainText and Elements. The new player on the field is OmniOutliner for iPad from the software ninjas at The Omni Group, and it looks perfect for taking notes.

Like any writer/geek these days, I use Scrivener on my Mac and and look forward to paying for final release of the beta version running on my Windows netbook. Sharing files between Mac OS X and Windows is seamless, but there are no plans to bring Scrivener to the iPad. A wise developer decision, but I’m still flailing about until I can find a pleasing way (for me) to edit writing contained in Scrivener projects while I’m on the go.

About that consumption

I disagreed with those who believe the iPad is only good for consumption, but I don’t disagree that the device is a terrific tool for digesting everything the Internet has to offer (unless it runs in Adobe Flash, which is fine with me). This is another area where my workflow has transformed.

The iPad is as close to perfect as anything I’ve seen for plowing through RSS feeds and other news sources online. I’ve been using Reeder on the iPhone for a long time, but more for triage than actual reading. I have to admit that I’m getting older, my eyesight isn’t what it used to be, and the larger screen makes reading easier and following up on the Web a pleasure when necessary. Videos on YouTube, Vimeo, and Netflix run like a technicolor dream (unless you’re into black & white recordings, and those work fine too).

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Here we go again

Everyone in the room sighed and rolled their eyes skyward. “He’s written about this so many times. Too many times.”

I like Macs, but recently added a Windows-based netbook to my lineup of writing tools. Here is an update of the software I use all the time. I’ll be brief.

Mac

Windows

iOS

Everywhere

…and I mean everywhere.

  • 1Password for managing logins and passwords. Priceless.

This isn’t comprehensive, but it covers the bases. I could go on–go ahead, ask anyone–but I won’t. You’re welcome.

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So, I got a netbook

Coming soon… Posts that aren’t so nerdy!

Julie gave me a netbook last week. My last PC was a 386 with an 80mb hard drive and 8mb of RAM. I replaced it with an Apple Performa 6116CD, which science can carbon date to the early 1990s. I have been a dedicated Mac user ever since and have long-since forgotten how to parse the specs for a Windows machine. The netbook is new to me although this model was released about a year ago.

The keyboard isn’t too shabby compared to other netbooks I’ve used. While it isn’t full size, the keys are large and responsive enough to make it a decent and very portable writing tool (until I can afford a MacBook Air). The additional couple of pounds compressed into my white plastic MacBook seems unbearable now compared to the netbook.

1Password

One big step forward for me was securing a Windows license for 1Password, the premiere password management solution for iOS, Mac OS X, and Windows produced by Agile Web Solutions.

Having used Macs exclusively for nearly 20 years now (20 years?!) it seemed like a no-brainer to pick up another Mac license for 1Password with the MacUpdate Spring Bundle I bought three weeks ago. It didn’t take me long after cracking this netbook open last week to realize my mistake. I needed a Windows license for 1Password!

I already own a license for Mac so I crossed my fingers and emailed customer support at 9:22 EST on a Wednesday night asking them to revoke and replace my latest Mac license. “Happiness Engineer” Nik L. responded 13 minutes later at 9:35 with a Windows license. 13 minutes! “Computer Whisperer” Marty S. (love the titles) even followed up at 1:11 a.m. EST to ensure the new license worked for me.

So many people limit their opinions to the bad times. I spent enough time in the service industry to understand the value of positive comments. The company had no obligation to grant my request, but they did.

The folks at Agile Web Solutions displayed unparalleled customer service for what I already knew to be a superior product. My experience was like staying at a hotel and realizing a day or two later you want a different room. You don’t have a good reason, but their staff happily moves all of your things to an identical room across the hall.

There are other password managers for Mac OS X and other platforms, but I have never heard anyone rave about them. Users treasure 1Password. Merlin Mann and others on Dan Benjamin’s 5by5 podcasts mention it regularly. Agile Web Solutions sponsors the MacPowerUsers podcast, but I think hosts Dave Sparks and Katie Floyd would flaunt the cross-platform value of 1Password whether they were paid to or not.

1Password is superior software and Agile Web Solutions’ customer support is prompt and impeccable.

ResophNotes

Text editors get regular use on all of my devices all tied together with the indispensable twine Dropbox provides. I rely on nvALT (a variant of the open source Notational Velocity) on my Macs. I never can settle on which horse to ride from my stable full of iOS text editors. My top three picks are:

  • Elements – for search capabilities and general use
  • Nebulous Notes – for macros and superior Markdown integration
  • Notesy – for user interface and choice of using a monospace or proportional typeface per file

My search was quick; ResophNotes fills the void on Windows. Because the interface is nearly identical to nvALT on my Mac, ResophNotes dovetails perfectly into my workflow.

Scrivener

Scrivener is my choice for composing longform articles, research-based writing, and incubating book ideas. I committed to using Scrivener several years ago after finding Literature & Latte. Software developer Keith Blount knew exactly how to make writers happy because he happens to be an author himself. He wrote the program to serve his own writing needs and selflessly shared his work with us.

The Windows version is a relatively new venture–still in beta as I write this–but should be available for release soon. I look forward to adding a license soon after Scrivener’s imminent non-beta release.

Dropbox

It seems like everyone has something good to say about Dropbox. The company’s version of cloud storage is a must-have tool that should be installed by default on every single new computing device on every platform. If you don’t have it, get it.

Fonts

The netbook came with a relatively impressive collection of fonts, but I had to add two more free ones–Inconsolata and Bitstream Vera Sans Mono–to keep my wits about me in a text editor. I’m still debating whether I need something as powerful as TextMate for the netbook and I’m open to suggestions for a Windows replacement.

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Why Quickcursor?

I recently wrote about how I use QuickCursor to switch between Scrivener and TextMate, which left at least one reader wondering, “Why?”

“I’d like to know why you sometimes feel it’s necessary to jump from Scrivener to TextMate…via QuickCursor.” –@drdrang

Scrivener is perfect for organizing writing projects and providing a focused writing environment, yet it lacks the formatting mojo I have come to adore in TextMate. In short, I use Scrivener to write and TextMate to format, particularly for posting to the web.

QuickCursor is the glue that binds the two apps together. I almost forgot to mention it because I often don’t realize its there, which is a tremendous compliment.

Most of my words are prepared in some sort of markup these days, usually Markdown in MultiMarkdown. This blog is hosted by wordpress.com, which doesn’t doesn’t directly accept Markdown, so I have to convert it to HTML for posting using MarsEdit. My fellow TextMate users out there already know how well that app handles Markdown-to-HTML conversion. Ctl-Shift-H. Done!

Yes, I know I can post directly from TextMate and I used to use it that way. Now, I prefer to use MarsEdit for its near perfect integration of Flickr, which is where I host my photos.

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∞ Thirty Percent

Eddie perfectly sums up Apple’s much-discussed 30 percent cut in the iOS App Store. Amen and pass it on.

∞ Thirty Percent:

Apple isn’t taking jack from you because without Apple you wouldn’t have a business developing iOS apps. Plain and simple. People really need to get this. If Apple did not create, maintain, pay for, hire people, construct, scheme, profit from the App Store — there would be no App Store to speak of.

(Via The Brooks Review)