Reporter's Notebook

Chronicles of Interesting Software
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Dispatches by James Fallows and others, and responses from readers, on the match between digital technology and human thought.
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New From the Makers of Scrivener: Scapple

Thumbnail image for Scrivener-Icon.pngAs 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.

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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.
That is all.

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.

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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.

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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.
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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.

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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
out that
> 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 Atlantic in 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.

Have fun!

An example of a very dense, complex map with Tinderbox AlexStrick.Com

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.