hrj: (doll)
This post is all about First World Problems.

When I was in junior high, my English class (or maybe it was Social Studies class -- the program I was in had them paired with the same set of students and we often had joint assignments covering both) was assigned Alvin Toffler's Future Shock, a book about (as the author summarizes) "too much change in too short a period of time". The book was published in 1970, so it would have been quite recent when we read it. My thoughts went back to that book as I sat down to order my new Apple Macbook Air.

I don't think it's just a sign of being an old fuddy-duddy that I hate the rapid pace of computer-interface change with a passion. The flip side of "always offer something new and improved" is that for 99% of my computer use, something old and half-assed works perfectly well. And what works best is not having to constantly learn new ways to do the same old thing. And change purely for the sake of change? Changing the visual appearance of my phone interface, or the layout of the program tool menus, or the names given to various actions? It's hard not to see that as simply messing with us just because they can.

I have a friend who's a professional computer usability expert, and it's fascinating to read him expound on the nuances of determining the "perfect user experience" and how such things are measured. But in many ways, the perfect user experience is the one where the means of the experience are unnoticed in the moment and the user can focus on the end result. It doesn't matter if an interface is 5% better than the previous one if what I notice is that it's 100% different.

But computer-updating future shock isn't only about superficial aspects of interaction. Every time I approach a major operating system upgrade, I cast my mind back to all the software I've had that was obsoleted by a new OS that wouldn't run it. For the big programs--the MS Office and whatnot--I shrug and shell out. But over the years I've picked up a lot of programs that I might use a few times a year, or that I might be waiting for the right opportunity to explore, that were turned into junk by an "improved" OS. Eventually I learned my lesson. I stopped buying marginally useful software. Now there's a way to support the larger software industry! Discourage users from trying new things and taking chances.

After the last time this happened--installing OS 10.7--I bit the bullet and started running a second machine with an older OS so that I could switch over for the occasional project. That's where I'm running Adobe Creative Suite 3, for those three or four times a year when I want to mess around in Photoshop or do a booklet layout in InDesign. That's where I'm running MacLink so that I can continue working through my old WordPerfect files and convert them to something I can actually use.

I approach every software update with an underlying terror that something I've found useful, something I've invested time in, something my creative output is currently locked into, will be snatched away from me. Something as simple as the data in the automobile data log app that an iOS update made completely inaccessible because the app developer had decided to abandon it. (Fortunately, a competitor was snapping up new grateful customers by offering to do the data conversion to port it over to their app.) Or something as complicated as the music software files for various songbook projects that I may never be able to retrieve. (Including some arrangements that I may not have other copies of.)

My response to computer future shock has been to hunker down, retreat, become conservative in my usage. Stick to using a few core programs for everything, even if it means using them in awkward ways. Always know your escape route. It's made me even more committed to avoiding any program or system where I don't have direct control over and access to my data. Cloud storage? Only to mirror things that live on my hard drive. "Rented" software that requires a wifi connection to use at all? No thanks. (I noticed that the current Office suite is really pushing their "rental" version with their own proprietary cloud storage. Fortunately it's still possible to avoid that.)

What does hunkering down look like? My current laptop is 6 years old. When I bought it, it came with OS 10.6. It was upgrading to 10.7 that sent me into a tailspin of "OMG I could lose access to all my work and programs!" So I'm still running 10.7 and the most current version (El Capitan) is 10.11. I'm a version behind on iTunes, a version behind on iOS. But I can't update those until I get the new OS. The problem with hunkering down is that the world doesn't stop moving. You drop your phone and have to replace it. It comes with an iOS that requires a more recent OS. You update your phone apps and the new version won't run unless your running the current iOS. In the case of my favorite Twitter client (TweetBot), it hit a built in "kill date" after which the current version won't even open.

So I figured that if I need to bring everything up to date, then I might as well do it with a new machine as well. (I'm delighted to have left behind my "three-year burglary-driven laptop replacement plan".) But now I'm spending vast amounts of time and energy making lists of my current programs, researching reports on whether they'll run under El Capitan, identifying whether updating the programs will require jumping to a rental/cloud system, and above all else, working with the expectation that I'll lose a week of productivity getting everything to play nicely together after the shift. It makes my stomach churn just to think of it. I'm making a list of programs to update after the purchase--just the core ones I use all the time. I'm probably going to bite the bullet and start storing more stuff on Apple's iCloud simply to buy space on the phone and tablet. (Though most of my music is ripped from CDs, so iCloud is useless there.) And Apple has a long history of jerking users around about cloud storage and accounts and whatnot. (Mobile Me. Remember Mobile Me?) But I'll keep my Dropbox for documents because it works the way I'm comfortable with and it's never betrayed me yet.

And in the mean time, being a belt-and-suspenders type of gal, I've decided to make a drag-and-drop backup of my personal files to supplement the Time Machine backup. Just in case something goes badly wrong. And I find that the old external hard drives that I used for offsite backup in my pre-Time Machine days no longer talk to the laptop. It isn't worth figuring out why or how, but since they have old backups on them, I'll need to destroy them before discarding them. What a waste. So now I'm trying to figure out how to turn my older Time Capsule into a plain storage drive so I can do the backup. It isn't obvious. Fortunately, the personalized laptop I ordered (always upgrade everything to the top of the line when you only buy a new machine every 5 years or so!) won't arrive for a couple weeks. That should be enough.

Well, at least they're only First World Problems and I don't have to worry about drought or natural disasters or the looming threat of despotic fascist governments. Oh, wait.
hrj: (doll)
I confess that despite some necessary rules about acquiring new toys ("you must demonstrate that you'd really play with it once you have it"), in the end I always seem to be a sucker for each new Apple thingie. I love my iPhone. I held out on the iPad until I'd come up with a list of five things that I could/would do with it that I couldn't do with any other appliance. Not so much with the "get the complete set of sizes" thing -- I can't imagine what I'd want a mini-iPad for that I couldn't do better with either the full size or the phone. And of course my Mac laptop IS my brain. (Though I'm probably getting due to upgrade. Just need to do a complete analysis of how the newest OS will fuck over my current favorite programs first.)

But I cannot see myself buying an Apple Watch.

I was in Walnut Creek last Saturday for a haircut (this was just at the leading edge of when my current lung crud was raising its head so I still had brain power) and decided to swing by the Apple Store to check things out. Yes, I know the Apple Watch has been on the market for quite some time now, but there's no rush, right? I had only the vaguest notion of what the functionality of the thing was -- basically a sort of micro-iPhone, right? But it talks to your iPhone so it can delivery a more convenient interface without needing the internal capacity? OK, as far as it goes that was the right impression. But I hadn't quite realized just how limited the functionality was.

So as far as I can tell, you've got basically 20 functions. A quarter of them are essentially clock functions of some sort. Another quarter are informational interfaces equivalent to the "swipe down info" on the phone screen (calendar, weather, various notifications). Another quarter are basically "remote control" options for programs on other devices (camera, music, passbook).

The only really specialized functionality are the "fitbit-type" activity monitoring functions. But even more than a fitbit(tm) device, it must be worn on the wrist to function (due to body sensors) and therefore may be selective in what types of activities it detects. (If it's using an accelerometer, then vigorous activity that involves little hand motion may be under-reported.) And while it's "water resistant", wearing it while paddling still sounds counter-indicated. So all the issues I had with an actual fitbit still hold.

That brings us around to the final two factors.

Back when I got my first cell phone, I stopped wearing watches and never looked back. The tan on my left wrist has been seamless for quite some time now. I like not having anything on my wrist. Everything I ever wore a watch for now happens on my phone far more conveniently. One of the reasons I disliked the fitbit (and one of the reasons I took to wearing it on my ankle) was that annoying presence. If there were an Apple Watch that you could wear as a pendant, as a pocket watch, as a brooch, or as any of these interchangeably, then I might consider it. But it needs that body contact for the fitness functions. And that puts me off.

And then there's price. Let's just say that after taking phone plan discounts into effect, I'd end up spending more for an Apple Watch than I did for my full-function phone. More than I did for my iPad. I'm not saying that I judge on a price-per-gram basis, but I do judge on a price-per-function basis. And I just can't see that there's any way it would be delivering hundreds of dollars worth of function-value to me.

So, Apple? I'm happy that you're exploring new ways to entertain the gadget-geeks (in which category I do, indeed, fall) but you've seriously missed the target with this one as far as I'm concerned. I'll pass.
hrj: (doll)
So as predicted, wearing the Fitbit on my wrist (as intended) rather than the ankle resulted in a noticeably lower step-log for the exact same activities. I can't do an exact comparison because I didn't track exact intermediate numbers during the day, But by the time I got home, the step-count was approximately 2000 lower than yesterday's. (Approx. 10,000 yesterday, at that point, approx. 8,000 today.) Now my overall day's total ended up higher today because yesterday when I got home and did yard work, I was running the weed-whacker in the back yard with involved a lot of planting my feet and moving the arms back and forth (less foot movement) whereas today I was raking up the cut grass/weeds which involved a lot of hand movement (also more foot movement but remember I have the Fitbit on the wrist this time). And I also went out to see a movie after that, so more walking. But as predicted, the specific vigorous activities that I do get under-counted based on wrist movement. So for maximal tracking, I should wear it on the ankle during the day but on the wrist when I get home (or for dragonboat practice!).This suits me since I'm disinclined to view the device as a desirable fashion statement. But I'll probably come up with some alternate method of fastening it on my ankle because even the loosest setting on my skinnier ankle is a little tight.

At any rate, an amusing gadget. It will make the corporate fitness program happy. And it's an easy way to get a relative read on my day-to-day activity. I'd be happier if it gave more accurate metrics. Note that the default step-goal is 10,000 per day and I manage that only by dint of putting in at least 80 minutes of vigorous exercise.
hrj: (doll)
I'm entering a new phase of my relationship with e-books: I've bought copies of several novels that I already have in hardcover but have not found time to read yet. (My previous e-book reading has all been re-reading of favorites.) I'm feeling a need to return to fitting fiction reading into my life. For the last several years I've found myself avoiding novels -- especially novels that intersect significantly with the genres and themes of my own work -- because I want to avoid by the appearance and reality of being influenced by other people's writing. And because to a large degree I use the same head-space and life-space for writing and reading and it's been more important to me to write. But now that my own book is coming out I'm both feeling a bit more more comfortable that I can maintain the distinction between what I consume and what I produce, and feeling like I want/need to be part of the larger conversation and community of writers.

So, lined up on my iPad are Nicola Griffith's Hild (just out), and Mary Robinette Kowel's "Glamourist" novels. That should see me through my Thanksgiving-related travels adequately.
hrj: (doll)
I'd been waiting in some trepidation for the feedback from my editor at Bella Books. (I didn't know who it would be until I actually received the feedback.) You hear depressing stories about how nobody has the budget to do actual editing any more and you're lucky if they even get some intern to do a proofreading pass. Well, I have to say I'm much relieved and heartened to find that Daughter of Mystery was the subject of serious critical review ... but also a bit chuffed at the relatively small amount of "corrective" editing I received. The feedback pretty much came in three parts: minor changes and suggestions red-lined in the file; more nebulous but still focussed recommendations regarding specific scenes; and a couple of big-picture items that apply to the whole story. The first category was easily dealt with. I'd say I just hit "accept change" on about 80% of them and took most of the rest as an indication that some fix was needed, but I fixed it in a slightly different way. There were only two items worthy of a stet and those were both cases where I was doing something fairly subtle and below-the-radar with word choice, but it was important both that it be there and that it not be made more overt.

The scene-specific suggestions are all ones I agree with, now that they've been pointed out. (This character's conflict with the protagonists needs to be resolved more explicitly, that scene needs to be on- rather than off-stage and with a different viewpoint, etc.) But the suggestions that I could tell would be the most work -- yet I couldn't argue against their validity -- were that I add more explicit description of my main characters' appearance, and that I give my readers more reminders of just who people are if they've been out of the story for a while.

OK, fair cop. I'm not a visual person. I know these characters very thoroughly, like the back of my ... eyelids. But I honestly didn't really know what they looked like. There's a reason why I have trouble recognizing people -- even ones I see regularly. I simply don't think in visuals. (This is probably also part of why I tend to get weird around compliments to my appearance. For me, visual appearance is ... unimportant. It's not "real".) But my editor wasn't the first reader who had commented about wanting a better idea of what my characters looked like. So ... fair cop. Now how do I do it? Hey, I'm a geek. So the first thing I do is pull out my spreadsheet.

Well of course I have a spreadsheet with all my characters (and place names, and specialized terminology, and invented authors and their works, and ... well you get the picture), cross-referenced by the place of residence, class, and which social circles they hang out in. Once I started working on my second piece of fiction set in Alpennia, I also added columns for which characters appear in which works. But if I need to keep track of which characters are prominent enough to need description, and where that description would best be introduced (especially if it relies on being presented through a particular point of view), and especially if I need to keep track of when a character has been offscreen for long enough that I need to remind the reader who they are ... well, for that I need to expand things a little.

So now the spreadsheet includes columns for every chapter in Daughter of Mystery, for the short story (a pre-quel) Three Nights at the Opera, and for what I've written so far of The Mystic Marriage. And each character that appears in any given chapter is so noted, with an "n" if they are named and an "r" if they are referred to in some way not including a name or title. I then went in and highlighted red for the first appearance where a visual description would be appropriate (the character has to be physically on-screen and the POV character has to have a rational reason for ruminating on their appearance). A pink highlight is added for opportunities for further description (either by the other viewpoint character or in a particular circumstance where a consideration of appearance would make sense). A yellow highlight marks the reappearance of a character after 4 to 8 chapters off-screen where a casual reminder of the character's identity and/or relationships might not go amiss.

So now I know where I'm going to put the descriptions ... but what am I going to describe? What it comes down to is that I don't have to know exactly what my characters look like ... any more than I need to know the complete geographic layout of the city of Rotenek. I just need enough scaffolding that my readers can easily fill in the specifics, and I need to not contradict myself. So along with noting what description I've already included (which -- when I started cataloging it -- really is pitifully little), I started casting about for images to use ... not so much as references, but as anchors. As a way to describe a consistent whole, without necessarily describing all the specifics. The vast majority of my reference images I snagged from portraiture of the era. (Sometimes I strayed a little earlier and pick images that were "the character as a young woman/man" simply because it can be hard to find portraits of older people.) But for a few of my characters I wanted to start from a very specific physical type. So, for example, for Barbara I started browsing pictures of Olympic fencers and stumbled across what I now consider the definitive inspirational image:Italian fencer Valentina Vezzali. (Please note that I'm not saying this is what Barbara looks like. I'm saying that when the reader develops a picture of Barbara from my description, I want it to feel like the energy I get from Vezzali. Also, Barbara wears more clothes.) There are a couple of other characters where, once I started thinking about it, there was a particular actor or screen character who had the "feel" that I wanted to achieve, and therefore where I could use that character as an anchor. But for the most part I find that Hollywood faces -- especially women -- are much too same-same and far too modern to give me the right sort of inspiration.

At any rate, I now have at least one visual anchor for every character who will get a physical description at some point in Daughter of Mystery. And I have my chapter-by-chapter schedule of where to consider inserting those descriptions. The only logistical problem is that during the week I normally do my writing work on the iPad (easier to whip out on BART than the laptop -- especially if I don't get a seat), but since I'm tracking changes for the current revisions, I have to do it in the full version of Word. So I may end up just writing fragments of descriptive prose in my Evernote files (yes, this project finally tipped me over into getting an Evernote account) to be inserted when I can work at home.

Maybe the whole spreadsheet thing is overkill. All I know is that when I hit the parts of the writing process that aren't natural to me, a good spreadsheet can make up the deficit.
hrj: (doll)
I've been getting a lot of use out of doing my daily writing in Quickoffice on the iPad, accessing my files via Dropbox. Mostly it works wonderfully. But every once in a while, something gets corrupted. The current error message is "illegal xml character", which I think has been the message on previous occasions. And then I can't open the file for love or money, not in Quickoffice, not in Word. Peculiarly enough, I can view the entire file without problems using Apple's "spacebar preview" function.** (Thus resulting once in a very annoying session of re-typing an entire file from the preview display.) Oh, and I can open the file in nuts-and-bolts text editors like Text Wrangler -- I just haven't figure out how to use that to identify the problem and repair it. A certain level of safety net is also provided by my regular drag-and-drop backups of my Dropbox contents to my hard disk.

Once, I thought the problem happened because I tried to save and close a file when I was going through a wireless dead zone. (The stretch between the Rockridge and Macarthur stations on BART, for some unknown reason, is totally dead.) So I've learned that if I get a save error, I just save a local copy on the iPad and copy it over to Dropbox later. But this time, the last time I was editing the file, it was on my laptop while at the coffee shop (but not connected to wifi -- just editing the resident copy of the Dropbox file). And I've done that any number of times without having later problems with the file.

Taking a look at the raw code in Text Wrangler, the only thing I've noticed so far (other than the annoying messiness of the seamy xml underbelly of the file) is that some of my apostrophes are ascii characters and some are the xml encoding "'". But both of those should be valid xml characters.

Hmm, and there's something displaying as an o-umlaut when perhaps it should be the xml code for that? But I composed that part through Word, not through Quickoffice. So if it's the problem, then the problem is that Word is saving characters that it later refuses to recognize? Or is all this irrelevant and the invalid character is something else entirely?

In any event, the problem isn't the specific invalid character but the problem that, at unpredictable intervals and for no obvious reason, Very Important Files are becoming corrupted resulting in an annoying amount of work to reconstruct them. And if it's the Quickoffice/Dropbox interface that's causing the problem, then all the workarounds will be annoying. (E.g., do all my active editing on resident files on the iPad and then copy back and forth to edit them on the laptop ... and to back them up.) I've been Googling keywords describing the problem but haven't turned up anything useful yet. (Or any indication that this is a problem other people are having.)

**ETA: Actually, no. I can view up to the next-to-last sentence in chapter 1. And the code immediately following that shows absolutely nothing out of the ordinary. So I'm back to having no clue what the illegal character is. But now between the preview and being able to crack the raw code in Text Wrangler, I've reconstructed the most recent version of the file. Honestly, I'm beginning to wonder whether I should write my working drafts in rtf instead. It would help if I knew where the corruption was coming from.
hrj: (Default)
So the "problem" I wanted to find a solution for is that the first market I'm shipping Daughter of Mystery off to has a few less-common formatting requirements in their style sheet that will require a bit of hand-tweaking. The most significant part of these requirements is that their house style doesn't use the serial comma. There are a couple other similar items where they require one of two options that is different from my own default settings. A more minor issue are things like chapter formatting and whatnot.

When you combine this with the sure and certain knowledge that, at some point in my final just-about-out-the-door review, I will undoubtedly find more minor corrections and tweaks, and the realistic understanding that I may have to send it out to more than one publisher before it finds a home ... well, there's a potential for annoying amounts of re-work.

So it seemed to me that there should be a way to use the Track Changes function in Word to keep different classes of edits separate: one group that was just the style issues, one for the formatting specifics, one for substantial edits. So here's how it works:

1) Tracked changes are "tagged" with the reviewer's identity. This tag shows up when you view the document with one of the "show markup" options, and you can view only one reviewer's changes at a time using the "Show Reviewers" menu in the Reviewing toolbar.

2) The reviewer's identity is taken from the "user information" panel in the Preferences menu. Change the user name in that panel and new edits will be tracked under that identity with previous edits tracked under the previous identity. Change the identity back to some previously used name, and new changes under that name will be tracked in the same group as the previous changes under that name.

3) Tracked changes can be accepted (incorporated into the document with no history-trace) or rejected (removed from the document entirely) wholesale as well as one as a time. But there's also an option for "accept/reject all changes shown".

4) So if I want to accept only "substantial edits", I select to view only the edits by the identity I used to make them and then "accept all changes shown". Conversely, if I want to revert only one specific set of formatting options, I select to view only the reviewer associated with that set of changes and "reject all changes shown".

It takes a bit of paying attention when making changes under the specialized identities so that I don't reflexively fix other things while using that identity. And the version that I'll be sending off for consideration will be an "accept all changes" version of final edit, to avoid confusing and subsequent editors of that file. And, of course, magical thinking means that, having gone through all this trouble to make life easier for subsequent submissions with other requirements, all the work will be for nothing because my first market will snap it up. Right?
hrj: (Default)
I sent the following off to Splash ID tech support even though my last crazy, ridiculous stab in the dark seems to have solved my problem. I'm posting it here on the off chance that it might help someone else who stumbles across this via the right keyword search.

No need to bore the regular readers. )
hrj: (Default)
On my Kalamazoo trip I also had the chance to experiment with using my iPhone as a GPS device ... courtesy of having forgotten to pack one connecting component of the regular GPS, which omission rendered it useless. (I had the GPS, I had the car-power cord, I forgot to include the bit that connects the power cord to the GPS.) Since I was just using the map app I couldn't get voice directions and there was a certain amount of having to reach over to pinch-expand/contract the display to change the detail. But given that I'm fairly familiar with the route between O'Hare and Kalamazoo and with the overall geography of Kalamazoo, the app was sufficient unto my purposes. Due to the ad hoc nature of the experiment, I didn't have a power cable that could connect the phone to the car outlet, but I had sufficient juice in external power packs to tide me over (and I'd thought to bring one of those "jelly" mats that you can put on your dash to provide a "sticky" surface for phones and whatnot.

I've been looking at the Navigon phone/pad app to provide the additional functions of a GPS, although I'm a bit put off that evidently a number of the functions I'd consider standard are provided instead as in-app add-on purchases (and the most common complaint in the iTunes store has to do with difficulty downloading the map files). I've been holding off on paying for a map update for my Garmin in order to look into switching to a mobile app instead, and this one looks like the best candidate so far. If anyone has experience with it, I'd be interested to hear.

Based on my Kalamazoo experience, I wouldn't care to use the iPhone version for most driving situations, due to the small screen size. (This is exacerbated by the fact that the glasses I use for driving don't focus well at dashboard distance.) So in addition to the app, I'd need to find an iPad holder that would place it in a safe and convention position for GPS functioning. The natural location would put it smack dab in front of the radio controls/display which is suboptimal. Ideally, something on an extensible arm so that it could be variably positioned would be nice, but I haven't seen anything suitable yet. (Alternately, I could try something with the case I got with the GorillaPod arms, but that would end up being rather jury-rigged.)
hrj: (Default)
Just to clean up a few loose ends, here is a review of various techie aspects of this year's Kalamazoo experience.

The iPad Keyboard

I decided to try doing my live-blogging by iPad this year, in part to test its performance, in part because doing it on the laptop means risking running out of battery if I can't angle for a seat near an outlet (and when I can, it sometimes means creating a tripping hazard). The battery is good for a couple of sessions without recharging, but not for an entire day's worth. But while I'm happy using the screen keyboard on my commute (in fact, I prefer it, given that I regularly have to work standing up on the evening return), I knew I was unlikely to keep up with the necessary typing speed for note-taking unless I had an actual keyboard. So I went down to Fry's (yet another plus for living in Concord -- a local Fry's) and benefitted from their new policy of "salespeople get commissions for successful sales" which meant I not only got help in comparing keyboard cases, but I got enthusiastic help. I needed a combo keyboard-case that would hold a relatively rigid shape when balanced on a lap. So several candidates were immediately rejected because they needed to sit on a hard flat surface to support the screen properly. I ended up with a Kensington "KeyFolio" Bluetooth keyboard/folio case.

It worked very well for the job in question. I did have to get used to the precise limit of the angle of my lap at which the weight of the iPad would tip the whole thing forward (or, more usually, would overcome the velcro fastening of the lower edge of the pad-holder part to the keyboard part, letting the pad flop back away from me). Once the keyboard has been synced to the pad, it pairs up quickly and easily when turned on. The entire keyboard section of the case can be folded back behind the pad if you find yourself wanting to work one-handed without the keyboard. (You need to have the keyboard turned off in this mode, since the supporting hand will be pressing against the keys.) The case allows for use of both the front and back cameras and all controls are accessible. I quickly got used to using a combination of both keystrokes and gestures (e.g., while the keyboard has cursor keys, jumping to a new position in the text is still done much easier by tapping the screen). When the keyboard is on and paired, tapping the screen no longer brings up the screen-keyboard, so you get full-screen display at all times. The Kensington has excellent keyboard-feel: positive "click" action and home-spot bumps on the f & j keys as usual. While considerably smaller than a regular desktop keyboard, it's only minimally smaller than the keyboard on my MacBook, so that wasn't a problem for me.

As I note, I would use the keyboard in certain specific circumstances, not universally, but it functions very well in those circumstances. If you want to be able to keyboard in both landscape and portrait modes, then you'll need a different model. I suspect a portrait orientation wouldn't balance well on my lap, so the fact that mine won't rotate doesn't matter much. Overall: very successful at the job I bought it for.

iPad vs. Laptop as a Travel Device

I realized, at some point late in the conference, that I almost could have made it through the entire event without using my laptop at all. Not only the blogging, but e-mail, social media, and general web browsing were all very convenient and practical with the iPad + keyboard combination. The only things I actually needed the laptop for were retrieving and e-mailing several files that I wouldn't have known in advance I'd want access to. I also used it as a usb hub for recharging other devices. And Sunday evening when I was logging in my book purchases and composing the post about them, the ability of the laptop to have both files visible at the same time was convenient (although it wouldn't have been absolutely necessary). But I'm unlikely to leave the laptop home when attending events like this, simply because I never know when I might get a request for a copy of a class slideshow, or to look up a piece of data, or need to forward a draft of a paper for consideration for a future session ....

QuickOffice Pro

This is an iPad / iPhone app that can be used to create, open, and edit stripped-down versions of Microsoft Office products. "Stripped down" in that only minimal formatting can be performed and a lot of functions aren't accessible. (If you open a regular Office file to edit it, you don't lose any of the originally-included features, you just can't add or manipulate them via QuickOffice.) I've been using this extensively on the iPad when working on my novel(s) on BART and whatnot and I used it for drafting up my blog posts (rather than drafting them in the LJ interface) on the principle that I was less likely to lose work that way. Well, I was partially right.

One peculiarity of QuickOffice is that, while the program does interim saves as you're working, in order to do a "real" save, you need to exit the file and then re-open it. And when you re-open it, of course, you're back at the beginning of the file. Not a problem for small files, but annoying when one is working on a 100+ page document, both for the file-location issue and because the file size affects opening time. (One work-around I use for large text files is to use a unique non-alphabetic symbol as a "bookmark" so I can jump back to it easily using the search function.) Another peculiarity of the interim saves? They appear to be accessible only by the internal functions of the program and can't be used for recovery purposes. Evidently when you switch between apps you actually "close" the file when you leave it and re-open it from the interim save when you return to that app. But if the program crashes .... Well, let's just say I'm glad I learned that lesson on one of the least interesting sessions I was blogging, and not while composing new text on my novel.
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Friday I took my Geek High Holy Day vacation day to go to the MacWorld expo. Last year I grumbled that if the expo continued to be so thin on the ground I'd probably reconsider going. But it's hard to figure out whether it was a bit better this year or whether my starting expectations are now lower. At any event, it was enjoyable enough that I'm not ready to swear it off -- although I didn't end up buying anything at all.

The Big Thing this year was accessories for iPads (which, since I'm still waiting for rev. 2, I was only window-shopping for). I find it amusing that the biggest theme for these ultra-portable computing devices is accessories designed to fasten them in place. The stand-out single category was the case-plus-hand-strap so that you can walk around gesticulating violently with your iPad without sending it flying across the room. But there were also plenty of multi-valent fixtures to help you stand it up, strap it to the back of your car seat, fasten it to your refrigerator, sucker it to a wall, or attach it to your music/microphone stand. I went around taking note for future reference of various potentially useful iPad attachment devices, and even more so of truly elegant leather cases.

The big software vendors were still absent, but there was lot of opportunity to chat with small start-ups and purveyors of nifty apps. (Many of which need more training in how to pitch their products.) Other than external batteries and storage drives, there wasn't much in the way of hardware on display. I'd gone in thinking about shopping for a new desktop keyboard with a lighter action and nobody was even selling keyboards.

Saturday was the Crosston Dance Ball which is one of my two designated "haul out the harp and play medieval music" events these days. In addition to which, some unexpected attrition meant I was (I think) the only official Mists Courtier present to look after her highness (although there was plenty of unofficial help, so I pretty much just need to keep an eye out that everything got taken care of).

When I got home, I found a note stuck in the door from my tree-trimming guy who had been in the neighborhood and gone ahead and done the estimate for my job, so that was off the schedule for Sunday. The realtor came out Sunday morning and took a quick look through the other two units (which he hadn't seen on the first visit). I was a bit concerned at the briefness of his visit, but I think I'm at the paranoid stage where I'm expecting everything to go wrong.

After he left, I returned to bed for the rest of the day because the cold from earlier in the week had come back for the sinus portion of the festivities. (I sort of knew it was going to, but the in-between period was nowhere near debilitating enough to justify taking more time off work.)
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The drowned iPhone has been sitting in a baggie with an anhydrous calcium chloride dessicant packet since Sunday morning. I'd been a bit worried that the times I'd tried the "on" button there had been no response. But this evening I figured I'd given it enough drying-out time and tried jacking it in to a power source. I get a "dead battery charging" display. (Which would explain the lack of turning on.) Hey -- I GET A DISPLAY!!! So it's sitting and charging at the moment and we'll see what happens after that. But there is hope. The patient has been taken off the respirator and is breathing on its own so far. Consciousness is still in the future, but there is hope.

ETA: WHOOOHOOO! Five minutes of charging was sufficient to regain consciousness. I have an iPhone again!!!

For future information, the dessicant I used came from Home Depot, found in the painting supplies aisle. It's intended for damp storage areas or rooms prone to mildew. The specific brand I used is DampRid. It comes in a variety of forms. The one I used is small contained packets (intended for storage containers). They come in sealed packets, so if you think you might ever have occasion to need to dry out a small electronic device, you might find it worth while to pick up a package and tuck it away for future use.
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You know those stories about the annoying problems people encounter after accidentally dropping their cell phone into a toilet. And you know how you asked yourself, "How in the world could someone be so 'talented' as to drop their cell phone in a toilet?" Well, let me tell you about one possible path to that outcome.

First, you buy a pair of pants that -- unlike all normal and natural pairs of pants -- has no front pockets. But it does have a single back pocket. A somewhat shallow back pocket. So you stick your cell phone in that pocket because, after all, one must put it somewhere.

Then an hour or so later, at a point when you are no longer consciously aware of where you've put your cell phone, you feel the call of nature and you lift the lid, turn around, begin to drop your pants, and hear a sinister "ploop" when no ploop should yet be plooping.

I'm sure there are many other, equally "amusing" stories out there in the wide world. In the morning, I shall go out and buy more moisture-absorbing packets to supplement the one I stole out of my camera case and we shall see what we shall see.
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The theory is that I'm supposed to sit down and update the financial data a couple times a week, but in reality today is the first day I sat down to make routine use of the newly programmed FileMaker finance package, including reconciling the MC bill. In general, things worked the way they're supposed to. There's one macro routine that didn't call up quite the right set of records. (Easily worked around on the fly, but needs to be fixed.) And the statement reconciliation doesn't go entirely smoothly unless you create records for any additional fees and whatnot before starting the reconciliation routine. But other than that, it does what I wanted it to, including the very useful system snapshots with running balances that point out what my cash flow for the month looks like. I am pleased with myself. In a very geekly sort of way. Now I need to get off my butt and do the taxes so I can get my refund.


Feb. 19th, 2010 09:45 pm
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I am having the most insane amount of fun converting my previous all-encompassing financial tracking system (in Excel) into a new all-encompassing financial tracking system (in FileMaker). Yes, I'm having fun re-inventing Quicken from scratch (except that it's designed specifically to do exactly and only what I want it to do).

There wasn't anything particularly wrong with the Excel version, but I wanted to automate a few more processes, and I wanted to remove some redundancies (like, when I enter the mastercard payment, I didn't want to enter it both where it came out of the checking account and where it went into the mastercard account, or when I get cash from an ATM, I didn't want to make separate entries in the checking register and the cash tracker). And rather than having separate Excel tables for each financial "system" that I'm tracking, I wanted a completely integrated record. I wanted a more elegant, push-button way for doing the statement reconciliation. I had a number of very long drop-down menus for my various budget-tracking categories and I wanted to set up a more dynamic interface where initial selections would narrow down the next set of options.

I've done a couple of tear-down-and-start-again rounds in the last day, but I now have the basic framework set up and it's just a matter of tweaking some of the interfaces and setting up the budget-goal reporting screen. So far, the hardest part has been explaining to co-workers just what I was working on over my lunch break. (Quote: "I just look over my bank statement to see if anything looks funny, otherwise I don't worry about it.")
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Oddly, although I didn't buy any new hardware or software at MacWorld, I was inspired to spend the rest of the weekend doing computer-related housekeeping. (Alas, I do not get Monday off work, or I might even get the taxes done.)

First up was external drive conversion. I had an 80GB hard drive, split into 4 partitions (named Pwyll, Branwen, Manawyddan, and Math) that I set up a long time ago when 20 GB was a reasonable amount of memory to keep rotating backups on. I had a 200 GB hard drive that I picked up when the previous concept became non-operative that I used both for drag-and-drop backups of desk and lap for several years, as well as for storing image files and archives of things I didn't want taking up space on the main computer(s). These both had Firewire connections (as one does for large external drives), which became problematic when the iMac went belly up and I decided to stick with just the MacBook which, alas, has no Firewire. And then I had the 120GB hard drive in the iMac which I had every reason to believe was perfectly sound and untouched. So with a minor glitch in which I learned that ATA and SATA are not synonymous but ATA and IDE are, all three are now housed in USB 2.0-connected external cases. I plan to use the two larger drives as rotating offsite backups (locked up in my desk at work), probably on a monthly basis because that gives me a nice trigger for doing them. I have no idea what I'm going to do with the Four Branches. To use for a whole-disk backup I'd have to convert it back to a single partition, which I suppose is the best idea. (Yeah, I'd have to rename it. Darn.) But then, I don't really need more than two drives for the rotation.

Second up was getting the computer desk organized enough (since its move up from downstairs) to be able to work on it. I'm not putting a lot of energy into finding the best configuration at the moment since I'm anticipating taking delivery of some family furniture at some point this Spring and may be getting rid of the current desk entirely. (I decided also to wait on getting the external monitor until that's happened.) It isn't perfect, but it's usable.

Third up was starting to organize paperwork for doing the taxes. This involves computers because I've decided to move to a more electronic-driven record keeping system. Part of the goal here is getting rid of most of my four 4-drawer filing cabinets and although only two of the drawers are full of financial and legal paperwork, it's a good place to start. So in addition to sorting out the year's paperwork to file, I experimented with scanning statements and receipts into pdfs so that I can keep the records accessible without needing to keep them physically present. I'm not sure I'm up to entirely getting rid of the records after I've scanned them, but they can be moved into the attic archives much more regularly. I'm a compulsive record-retainer, but at least I have everything organized and labeled so that anyone who comes after will easily be able to identify everything that just gets thrown out!

Freecycle opportunity for local peeps (who have read this far):

Lacie brand CDRW burner, 24x10x40, compatible with Mac or Windows, can connect with SCSI, USB, or Firewire, includes user's guide and all the connection cables I can still identify as going with it. This is in good working order (as far as I know) and was new in 2002; I now can't imagine that I'll ever own a computer that doesn't burn its own disks internally.

iMac carcass, G5 20", was new in March 2005: certain elements on the motherboard are fried and the hard drive has been removed. Among the remaining useful elements are the RAM chips and internal wireless card. I make no pretense that this is useful to anyone but a serious tinkerer.
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As the first SF MacWorld Expo where Apple wasn't an exhibitor, there's been a lot of buzz about what the effects would be, and whether they'd be distinguishable from the effects of the general economy. (And also a certain amount of buzz noting that, given the timing of Apple's iPad announcment, it seems a bit stupid for Apple not to have participated in the Expo and announced it there.) I have to say, from where I stand, that there's a real possibility -- but far from a certainty -- that the absence of Apple has triggered a death spiral for the event. I've only been attending for the last half dozen years or so (I think -- I'd have to do some research to figure it out precisely) and I've seen the size of the Expo flow and ebb. There was at least one previous year when it only filled half of the Moscone Center space, as it did this year, and it was back to both sides the year after that.

But when [ profile] scotica and her friend Rob and I were mulling it over on the drive back to her place (for Olympics viewing) after attending the Expo yesterday, we kept coming up with more and more examples of long-term favorite exhibitors who were absent this year. All in all, it felt very thin on the ground. (Another metric is the sad scarcity of freebies -- although I think some of that perception is fueled by the shift from stacks of software demo CDs to pointing people at downloadable demos, which is hard to fault on an environmental basis. But the useless tchatchkas -- pens, keychains, foam toys, etc. -- were also very thin on the ground.)

I went into the Expo with a small handful of "missions" as well as the usual intent to check out new stuff, and I failed at all of them, either due to the relevant exhibitor not being present, or due to exhibitors having skipped bringing the stuff I was interested in. I did come away with several nice new toys: a solar charger for the iPhone (handy for future camping trips -- you can leave it on the dashboard charging during the day, then fully recharge your phone when you come back in the evening), a sport armband iPhone purse-case from ArmPocket, which should be handy for bicycling, one of those Gorillapod wrap-around tripod thingies for my digital camera, and for one of this year's emergent themes a pair of Telefingers touch-sensitive iPhone gloves, which enable you to use your touch-screen without freezing your fingers off.

There were several emergent themes from the Expo:

The aforementioned touch-sensitive iPhone gloves. (Three or four different vendors. There was one vendor who had some very nice leather ones, but I'd already bought a cheaper pair elsewhere and while I've been thinking about getting a nice pair of leather driving gloves, I don't know that I'd want to combine the functions.)

Portable iPhone/iPod rechargers (also portable laptop external batteries). These have been available pretty much since the emergence of the power-guzzling iPhone, but there seemed to be an explosion of new products this year. Maybe I just don't use my iPhone enough, but aside from camping trips to locations without electrical outlets (which, coincidentally, typically don't have enough signal to use the iPhone much), I've been quite satisfied with the one model of emergency backup power that I have. So I wasn't in the market.

Page-feeding and ultralight sheet-feed scanners. The sort that ScanSnap has been featuring for years, but I think there were four companies with very similar product ranges this year. My crew chatted up all of them about putting out an ultra-light rolling (rather than sheet-feeding) scanner -- something equivalent to the PlanOn Scanner for which I'd like to see competition -- but nobody seemed to have anything similar in the works.

It was also amusing to see how many of the accessory manufacturers already had finished prototypes of gear for the iPad. Targus had some truly drool-worthy cases and sleeves. Some company I won't name or link to because their salesman annoyed me had a keyboard-dock (prop the iPad up in it as a semi-vertical screen and type on a full external keyboard). And, of course, the promise of iPads was the biggest common feature of vendor raffles. (I will probably be buying an iPad after about a year, when they've had a chance to work the bugs out. I note, however, that one of the potential uses for it that I was kicking around at the Crosston Ball -- i.e., a sheet music reader -- is quite likely to be developed (heads-up courtesy of [ profile] ohiblather ). So I have high hopes that by the time I'm willing to take a chance of a new Apple device, I will have discovered enough practical uses for it that my conscience will be clear in buying one.

On the whole "Death spiral or temporary slowdown?" issue, I have to say that there wasn't enough meat to this year's MacWorld Expo to draw me back for a second day, even with the convenience of it being open on a Saturday (today) and even with the draw of an iPad demo today. I will definitely still plan on attending as usual next year, but if next year is as thin or thinner than this year, I'll re-evaluate. This would be unfortunate for the Apple byproducts market, because attending the Expo has driven a enormous percentage of my software and peripheral buying. And, frankly, for me the Apple corporate presence was never a big part of the draw. Yeah, it was nice to see the new products in the flesh, as it were, before buying. But that's not what I spend my money on at the Expo itself.
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tonight I installed the final software program that I bought at a previous MacWorld Expo. Program is MacSpeech Dictate. I am using it to create this post. Nothing will be edited. It's actually quite good at translating speech into text. The problem is that I'm not actually very used to dictate in this fashion. No I'm not going to go back and correct the word dictate to dictating. He can do corrections however. Yet not he. It. I'll get it working correctly yet.

I could see that it could be rather useful for creating large amounts of text when I'm free associating and then going back and doing the minor editing bits later. I think that if I could get used to speaking freely and really getting the text flowing than I could save a lot of keystrokes. But I can't imagine using it to do pay little copyediting jobs. That was picky not pay.

All in all I'm rather astounded at the quality of the voice recognition.
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My replacement Time Capsule came in and was picked up yesterday. I set it to doing the first (long) backup when I went to sleep and everything went off ok. There are a few improvements to my backup hygiene that could be improved (for example, it was simple luck that the drive didn't die at several of the more inconvenient times that it could have, and there things I can do to change "luck" to "planning"). But all in all it was rather painless. Tonight I got back to the "install all the accumulated software" project. Only one more item to go, which is a voice recognition program that was cheap enough (and worked well enough on the demo) to be worth trying. I honestly don't know how well my work habits would mesh with dictation. I've tried a few times simply recording for later (manual) transcription, but never quite got into the groove. But I'm all about trying new things. We'll see. Tonight's installations were the latest version of the Read IRIS ocr software and the IRIS Pen Express pen scanner. I picked up one of these quite some years ago and worked with it enough to make it useful, but then I think my OS version outran its compatibility. The theory is that the pen scanner would help with pulling personal names out of source texts, although at the moment most of my onomastics projects involve organizing my existing data rather than pulling new data. So many projects, so little time.

Busy busy

Feb. 1st, 2010 10:59 pm
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It really does feel like a new year has started at last. On Saturday I went off to the Crosston Ball and played dance music on the harp all evening (as well as getting some dancing in during the teaching sessions).

Sunday [ profile] scotica came over to lend moral support (or, actually, to watch in amusement, perhaps) while I dealt with the Apple Store over my dead Time Capsule. (For really amusing take on the problem, check out the Time Capsule Memorial Register web site. Oh, and they'll be replacing my dead Time Capsule for free. But I found the lack of an abject apology for crappy hardware to be unsatisfactory. After that, I took advantage of having [ profile] scotica's laptop-with-firewire-connection available and retrieved a number of files off one of my external hard drives (now that I no longer have a device that talks Firewire). I have more external drives than I know what to do with at the moment ... except that none of them is of practical use at the moment. I'm going to swap the hard drive from the dead iMac into a usb enclosure to use as a backup-for-the-backup. I may see about swapping one or both of the Firewire hard drives into a usb enclosure for the mean time as well. Then after the computer stuff, we went back to her place to assemble some garage shelving.

This evening I've been making good on my resolution to get all my currently-purchased software and peripherals installed before going off to MacWorld and buying new stuff. Ok, the actual form of the resolution was, "I will install all the software I bought at last year's MacWorld before attending this year's MacWorld." But there was also the new Turbo Tax to install. This has been a useful exercise. I'd been muttering about wanting to try to find a decent media file cataloging program to manage my image files ... only to discover that the Microsoft Office 2008 package I'd bought last year (and not installed yet) included the Expression Media cataloging software. So I'll give that a shot before shopping for anything else.

So now I'm trying to remember what the other two things were I said I was going to keep an eye out for at MacWorld. One was definitely a largish-screen monitor (since I've decided to go the laptop-and-monitor route rather than replacing the iMac). One was the media cataloging software, which I guess isn't as critical. What was the third? Oh, and I may allow myself to splurge on an Optoma Piko PK-101 Pocket Projector for iPhone which is just the cutest little thing and has been bookmarked in my "Computer Shopping" folder for about a year now. But I don't think that was the third thing.


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