As the years wear on, my esteem grows for the writing program Scrivener as the single best bargain ever offered in the software world. And I mean: ever. It was originally for the Mac but now comes in a Windows version; it costs all of $45; and it is a program that seems ideally tailored for the way that many writers, including me, would like to approach their work. You can see its (quite impressive) list of testimonials here; read a detailed description of its power from a U Chicago student, Noah Ennis, here; and consider some previous discussion here and here. I've now written two books, two or three dozen Atlantic articles, and many other reports and presentations with Scrivener. I was pleased that its creator, Keith Blount of Cornwall, England, appeared in this space as a guest blogger two years ago.
There is a new entry in the lineup from Literature and Latte, Blount's little software company. It is called Scapple, and I mentioned it earlier, during its beta period, here. It costs all of $15 (technically $14.99), and if you have any interest in software or idea-sketching, and if you are using a Mac, you would be crazy not to try it out. I'm using it right now for a big forthcoming project.
1) Scrivener Guide. Over the years, and most recently here, I have extolled the virtues of Scrivener as a major step forward in computerized writing tools. I'm grateful to my friend MG in the United Arab Emirates who has alerted me to a detailed, useful, very well-illustrated online guide to advanced fluency with Scrivener that is available free here.
The guide is by Nicole Dionisio, it's part of the MakeUseOf series, you can download it as a 14MB PDF file, or you can read it on line. In whatever incarnation, it's highly interesting and valuable. Here's how it shows one of Scrivener's advanced features -- setting word-count goals for different chapters or sections of a writing project.
I don't use this when writing articles with Scrivener, but I have when writing books. Among other things, it helps in setting the daily output targets that are crucial to maintaining sanity through the months-long slog of finishing a protracted writing project.
Here's an illustration of another surprisingly useful tool: subtle but immediately recognizable variations in shading to let you compare various revisions in a piece of writing.
And -- why not? -- here is one more: a name generator. It's a feature that is meant for novelists and that I don't use but which indicates some of the elegant ingenuity of the program.
I have used Scrivener for years but still learned things from this guide. It is particularly useful in clarifying that Scrivener does not aspire to replace the functions of a normal word processor. Indeed, the last step you take before printing out or emailing a document from Scrivener is to export it to Word, for final formatting and spell-checking. Instead its features address the strategic aspects of writing books, academic papers, or long articles: how to keep your research material close at hand, how to organize your arguments, how to keep track of revisions and pentimenti. Check it out.
2) Google survival rate. I mentioned a few weeks ago that I was wary of Google Keep, an embryonic Evernote competitor, because Google had killed off so many similar interesting-seeming products in the previous months.
The author of the Gwern.net site replies as follows:
I think you may be overly skittish here. I collected data on 350 Google things and ran some statistics on it all.
Results: Only ~1/3 of Google products have ever been killed, and in particular, the 5-year survival estimate for Keep produced by my final model is ~60%, which seems like a pretty reasonable risk to take if the product is useful, and especially given that you correctly point
> 1) Google has often orphaned services, but it has never "disappeared" data. (I am using "to disappear" in the transitive-verb sense familiar from Latin American politics.) It has been a leader in making sure you could make your own copies, or extract, any of your info that was in its part of the cloud.
The loss of Reader is a serious blow to many people including myself, but let's not go overboard and damn Google for worse than it deserves.
The study at the Gwern site is quite a tour de force. I won't attempt to summarize it but will just say, if you're interested in statistical analyses, you will find this interesting. I hope it's right about Keep, but for now Evernote does the job for me.
It's been a while since the latest update on this front, so here is a quick mention of developments in two programs I've followed over the years.
1) "Getting Started With Tinderbox." For the past few years, my go-to workhorse program for data organizing/software-for-thinking has been the Mac-only program Tinderbox, from Eastgate Systems in Watertown, Massachusetts. (My program for writing, as I can't mention often enough, is the absolutely unparalleled Scrivener, from Literature and Latte software in Cornwall, England.) I still love the idea-organizing program Zoot, which I first wrote about in this magazine back in the mid-1990s. But Zoot is Windows-only, and since I made the switch to the Mac world six years ago, fleeing the nightmare that was Windows Vista, I've mainly had to admire Zoot from afar.
In an age of ubiquitous free apps, Tinderbox can seem pricey. It's $249 for initial purchase and updates for a year, and then $98 a year for ongoing updated releases. The new releases are frequent and valuable (as are those that Zoot's creator, Tom Davis, keeps issuing for his program). But if you don't care about them you can use the original program as long as you want. Tinderbox's creator, Mark Bernstein, has justified his business approach as part of a new wave of "artisanal software" or Neo-Victorian computing. You pay more for craft beer than for the cheapest swill; you may choose to pay more for organic food than the very cheapest source of calories. So too with certain kinds of software.
The way I think about it is this: $98 a year is much less than I'd pay for one standard day of business travel, and this program's value to me through every day of the year is greater than what I gain on the standard day on the road. Judge for yourself, but I've found the investment very much worthwhile.
The real obstacle to wider adoption of Tinderbox has been the difficulty in getting started with the program. If someone hands you a sledgehammer, you have an idea of what you might do with it. But the first time you're handed a pencil, you have no idea of the million possibilities it opens up. To help potential users over this hurdler, Bernstein has created a carefully annotated step-by-step guide, available as a PDF for download here. Worth checking out.
2) Jerry Michalski's Brain. For years I've also loved the innovative, multi-platform program TheBrain, from TheBrain software in Los Angeles. I wrote about it in the New York Times 10 years ago, and then in the Atlanticin 2009 and 2012. It has various free or very low-cost versions; the full-strength desktop edition, for Mac or Windows, starts at $219.
The very most ambitious and creative user of TheBrain has long been the tech-world figure Jerry Michalski. He has been chronicling his life and thoughts via this software for 18 years now and has posted his results on the web. Now he's created an iOS app, called JerrysBrain. He sends some notes about what he's doing:
My Brain has been openly available on the Web for many years and will remain so, at JerrysBrain.com. Now a Jerry's Brain app is available for iOS and costs a buck. Here's the direct link to it in the app store.
It's easy for me to create permalinks to specific thoughts in my online Brain, though not to the iOS app. Here are a few useful and interesting direct links:
I started this Brain in December 1997. It has over 257K thoughts, all put in by hand. I just ran the numbers and it's a span of 6300 days, or 40 thoughts a day.
The top insight from 17+ years of using TheBrain is that we're an amnesic society. We have little context or memory available. A huge causal force is the business model of the media businesses, which historically needed us to watch the ads scattered in the content, so it kept the content from us.
For further exploration, here's a screenshot from Jerry's Brain and then three posts and screencasts from Jerry Michalski on how and why he works this way:
Early post with 8-min screencast introduction to my Brain, the best intro
Post for anyone wanting to dive deeper, after a 30-min talk I gave at the Personal Digital Archiving conference.
Most recent post, pointing to the newly available Jerry's Brain app.
For the record, I have no relationship with any of the companies here except as a (full-freight) paying customer. In that capacity I say: Check them out!
Over the years, including in a number of posts collected on this Thread page, I’ve talked about some of the “artisanal” Mac-based programs I’ve used in my daily work since I made the PC->Mac switch eight years ago. The two I rely on most heavily are the writing program Scrivener, and the info-organizing program Tinderbox. (Plus, of course, TextExpander, which is on whenever my computer is.)
The hardest of these to explain is Tinderbox, because its very open-endedness means you can use it for almost anything — but you have to know something about it to start imagining what it might do. (“What could you use a pencil for? Well, you could make a list...”) Thus the more specific illustrations, the better. At his Welcome to Sherwood blog, Steve Zeoli has provided an ongoing set of examples and explanations.
Two more today. One is from the French philosopher Dominique Renauld. He has just posted this trippy video — narrated in his charming Gallic English, subtitled in his native French, scored with atmospheric music presumably from his previous career as a DJ — about one way he uses the program for research notes.
The other is from the painter and writer Howard Oakley of the Isle of Wight, on his Eclectic Light Company site. He has a new three-part series called “Making First Impressions,” about using Tinderbox and its sibling program StorySpace in preparing notes for an arts discussion. The series starts here. Below you’ll see a sample illustration.
Over the eons, starting with a word processing program called The Electric Pencil back in the late 1970s, I’ve mentioned software I’ve found interesting in a more-than-utilitarian way. You’ll see several previous installments collected in the thread on this page. Today, quick updates on two programs I use all the time and mention frequently, and that continue to evolve:
Tinderbox, an all-purpose organizing, note-taking, info-visualizing program that I’ve relied on in all sorts of ways over the past seven or eight years.
To say that a program is “all-purpose” is a blessing and a curse. It is a blessing in the open-endedness of applications. It’s precisely because I don’t know the exact way in which you’d use a pencil—or a bicycle, or a working knowledge of algebra or of HTML—that those tools are useful. It’s a curse in the challenge of explaining the specific thing you might use the tool for.
For me, the Tinderbox program has been useful in storing notes for books, articles, and blog posts; for laying out the plans for articles or speeches; for keeping track of tasks (actually doing them is another matter); and for other sorts of info. It is the current title-holder of the “tool for thinking” championship that was held by Lotus Agenda when I used DOS, and which I wrote about in the Atlantic nearly 25 years ago; by Zoot when I used Windows, which I wrote about in the Atlantic 20 years ago; and by various others like Actioneer (for the Palm Pilot) and Sidekick and GrandView and Magellan and Chandler down through history’s churn. I turned to Tinderbox when I entered the Mac world, and it has held the title ever since.
This is all as prelude for saying: The program is pricey but is on sale now for $50 off. You can read an interesting entry by Alex Strick on how he used it in his PhD research, and another here; see a video by Dominique Renauld on how he uses it to take notes; and see a list of explanatory posts by Stephen Zeoli on the program’s possibilities. Tinderbox is not for everyone, but I find it surprisingly useful. (It is Mac-only.)
Scrivener, a program from the small Literature and Latte software house in Cornwall, England, that is beyond all question and comparison the most useful software for writing that has ever been invented. You can see some previous posts to that effect here and a recent enthusiastic review (not by me) here.
The news about Scrivener is that a very powerful iOS version has appeared, which is so effective and convenient that it is, gasp, actually usable as a working and writing environment. Stephen Zeoli mentions it here; and the Literature and Latte blog, by the program’s creator, Keith Blount, and others, is here.
That is all. Happy Labor Day.
(For the record: I have no relationship with either of these companies except as a full-fare paying customer.)
The U.S. may end up with the worst COVID-19 outbreak in the industrialized world. This is how it’s going to play out.
Three months ago, no one knew that SARS-CoV-2 existed. Now the virus has spread to almost every country, infecting at least 446,000 people whom we know about, and many more whom we do not. It has crashed economies and broken health-care systems, filled hospitals and emptied public spaces. It has separated people from their workplaces and their friends. It has disrupted modern society on a scale that most living people have never witnessed. Soon, most everyone in the United States will know someone who has been infected. Like World War II or the 9/11 attacks, this pandemic has already imprinted itself upon the nation’s psyche.
A global pandemic of this scale was inevitable. In recent years, hundreds of health experts have written books, white papers, and op-eds warning of the possibility. Bill Gates has been telling anyone who would listen, including the 18 million viewers of his TED Talk. In 2018, I wrote a story for The Atlantic arguing that America was not ready for the pandemic that would eventually come. In October, the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security war-gamed what might happen if a new coronavirus swept the globe. And then one did. Hypotheticals became reality. “What if?” became “Now what?”
Trump is utterly unsuited to deal with this crisis, either intellectually or temperamentally.
For his entire adult life, and for his entire presidency, Donald Trump has created his own alternate reality, complete with his own alternate set of facts. He has shown himself to be erratic, impulsive, narcissistic, vindictive, cruel, mendacious, and devoid of empathy. None of that is new.
But we’re now entering the most dangerous phase of the Trump presidency. The pain and hardship that the United States is only beginning to experience stem from a crisis that the president is utterly unsuited to deal with, either intellectually or temperamentally. When things were going relatively well, the nation could more easily absorb the costs of Trump’s psychological and moral distortions and disfigurements. But those days are behind us. The coronavirus pandemic has created the conditions that can catalyze a destructive set of responses from an individual with Trump’s characterological defects and disordered personality.
The government is showing how not to handle a pandemic.
By now, the global timeline of the coronavirus’s development has been well established: The first case reportedly appeared in mid-November; in December, the Chinese government was still attributing hospitalizations to a peculiar form of pneumonia; through January and February, the outbreak began spreading around the world; and its epicenter is today firmly in Europe and the United States.
Throughout, another set of events were occurring here in India. Late last year, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu-nationalist government introduced and passed a controversial new law, ostensibly in support of minorities in neighboring countries, that in fact openly discriminated against Muslims and undermined India’s secular foundations. Then, early this year, protests over that new law snowballed into a pogrom in which dozens of people—mostly Muslims—have been killed.
“The thought of simply breathing in and out without coughing and reuniting with my children ... is goal enough. To—literally—live and let live will be enough.”
I can pinpoint the exact moment I started feeling off. My partner, Will, and I were on a bike ride on the afternoon of Wednesday, March 18, to escape our apartment and get some exercise. This was back when leaving a New York City apartment to get some exercise was still okay, or at least that’s what we’d read, or at least that’s what we thought? If the coronavirus pandemic has taught us anything, it’s that what is considered dogma today might change tomorrow.
Ten minutes into our bike ride, I was overcome by an intense fatigue. “I think I have to go back,” I said.
Back home, I felt chilled. Took my temperature: 99.1. I’m normally 97.1, but still, not a huge deal. We’d been so careful about wiping down doorknobs, washing our hands, and keeping everyone except for our family out of our apartment. I’d been ambiently worried enough that my 13-year-old son could be a silent carrier of the virus that I’d yanked him out of his public middle school and off the crowded subways four days before Mayor Bill de Blasio pulled the plug– (far too belatedly, in my opinion). I was getting over a urinary-tract infection, so my fever, I thought, must be from that.
The coronavirus outbreak may last for a year or two, but some elements of pre-pandemic life will likely be won back in the meantime.
The new coronavirus has brought American life to a near standstill, closing businesses, canceling large gatherings, and keeping people at home. All of those people must surely be wondering: When will things return to normal?
The answer is simple, if not exactly satisfying: when enough of the population—possibly 60 or 80 percent of people—is resistant to COVID-19 to stifle the disease’s spread from person to person. That is the end goal, although no one knows exactly how long it will take to get there.
There are two realistic paths to achieving this “population-level immunity.” One is the development of a vaccine. The other is for the disease to work its way through the population, surely killing many, but also leaving many others—those who contract the disease and then recover—immune. “They’re just Teflon at that point,” meaning they can’t get infected again and they won’t pass on the disease, explains Andrew Noymer, a public-health professor at the University of California at Irvine. Once enough people reach Teflon status—though we don’t yet know if recovering from the disease confers any immunity at all, let alone lifelong immunity—normalcy will be restored.
China warned Italy. Italy warned us. We didn’t listen. Now the onus is on the rest of America to listen to New York.
In the emergency-department waiting room, 150 people worry about a fever. Some just want a test, others badly need medical treatment. Those not at the brink of death have to wait six, eight, 10 hours before they can see a doctor. Those admitted to the hospital might wait a full day for a bed.
I am an emergency-medicine doctor who practices in both Manhattan and Queens; at the moment, I’m in Queens. Normally, I love coming to work here, even though in the best of times, my co-residents and I take care of one of New York City’s most vulnerable, underinsured patient populations. Many have underlying illnesses and a language barrier, and lack primary care.
Megxit is the most complicated, self-involved, grandiose, shortsighted, letter of partial, fingers-crossed resignation in history.
In 1940, in the second month of the Blitz, the announcer of a BBC Radio program called Children’s Hour told listeners that they were about to hear the most important episode in the show’s history: Princess Elizabeth was going to address the children of the empire.
Fourteen years old, her voice clear and piping, Elizabeth told the evacuated children of England that she, too, was away from her family: “My sister, Margaret Rose, and I feel so much for you, as we know from experience what it means to be away from those we love most of all.” She reminded England’s children that they were engaged in something noble: “We are trying, too, to bear our own share of the danger and sadness of war.” But more important, “we know—everyone of us—that in the end all will be well.”
Unless the country does dramatically more to provide them with the equipment they need to do their job safely, it risks disaster.
The morning before my shift, I try to stay busy with emails, writing, cleaning the house, anything really. If I sit and think about it too long, undisturbed, I get nervous. I’m afraid to go to work, and yet I’m told I must. The flitting anxiety swells as I pull on my scrubs and head to the car. The streets are empty. I drive alone into the epicenter. It peaks when I first step through the door into the jumble of patients in chairs, stretchers, and beds crowded around our cramped workstation, staff jammed together discussing care, writing notes, calling reports. Then I start, surrounded by my colleagues, and am too busy to think about it. The fear is as much for my family and friends as for me. Probably more. I’m a physician who works in an emergency department in Washington, D.C., and the coronavirus is spreading.
You live in a cramped apartment and you’re scared. But escape is selfish.
Hello fellow New Yorkers. You want to leave. So badly. I know. Me too. But don’t. Don’t do it.
It is absurd at this point that it’s even your choice. The bridges should be closed to all but essential traffic. The airports should be shuttered. Instead, Hertz is still renting cars at its 17 Manhattan locations, AirBnB is listing “Corona free” homes in New Jersey, and airlines are offering (apocalyptically cheap) tickets from all three New York airports to Anywhere But Here.
I know all that because I spent one morning this week Googling a dozen possible escapes, in a moment of claustrophobia and panic. I share 900 square feet with two kids and a dog. My wife is a physician who is still seeing patients. And even though I trust her precautions and protocols, I can’t shake the feeling of dread. Mixed in with the uncertainty is the certainty that everything is going to get much, much worse, as the cases spike and people I love or know or admire begin to die. My impulse is to do something—to move, to flee. I’m sure virtually everyone else in the city feels the same way.
We’ve known about SARS-CoV-2 for only three months, but scientists can make some educated guesses about where it came from and why it’s behaving in such an extreme way.
One of the few mercies during this crisis is that, by their nature, individual coronaviruses are easily destroyed. Each virus particle consists of a small set of genes, enclosed by a sphere of fatty lipid molecules, and because lipid shells are easily torn apart by soap, 20 seconds of thorough hand-washing can take one down. Lipid shells are also vulnerable to the elements; a recent study shows that the new coronavirus, SARS-CoV-2, survives for no more than a day on cardboard, and about two to three days on steel and plastic. These viruses don’t endure in the world. They need bodies.
But much about coronaviruses is still unclear. Susan Weiss, of the University of Pennsylvania, has been studying them for about 40 years. She says that in the early days, only a few dozen scientists shared her interest—and those numbers swelled only slightly after the SARS epidemic of 2002. “Until then people looked at us as a backward field with not a lot of importance to human health,” she says. But with the emergence of SARS-CoV-2—the cause of the COVID-19 disease—no one is likely to repeat that mistake again.