Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Watch Out

I have to admit, I felt pretty clever. I'd rigged up my tablet and a Bluetooth keyboard into a pretty workable solution, and with the addition of an Ikea table and our broken-in sofa, I had a surprisingly ergonomic little editing setup. I'm still lacking actual *time* of course, and it's in the throes of the fall youth sports and annual project cycles at work that I wonder how I ever manage to carve out any spare time at all in November. (Secret: sleep deprivation, in the name of creativity.)

The best thing about my new setup is that it is fairly portable and easy to set up. Just about any location will do. And with a WiFi connection (strong on the sofa) all my changes would be backed up, trouble free in the magical Internet Cloud, where I could pick up the next day during a break at work, or on our home PC in the kitchen. Better editing through technology!

The Edit Zone
Textual Purgatory

Of course, there have been rough patches. No adoption period is completely smooth. I misunderstood the new Google Docs at first, for example, and assumed that a plain text document that I was editing on the tablet would see its changes blitted out into cyberland. In fact, I should have taken the trouble to convert that plain text into a "Docs" document first, because all those hard-entered changes were, quite simply, lost. It was with a Biblical level of frustration and some very un-holy language that I swore at my own stupidity, accepted that hour of writing as Really Truly Lost, and rewrote again. And maybe it's a little better for the experience, though a part of me still thinks that some of those lost sentences were gold.

Now flash ahead two weeks or so, and another editing opportunity opens up on a Sunday afternoon. I sequester myself in the bedroom with the door shut, flip the tablet into "Offline" mode after taking care to download the fragment I'm rewriting, and set to it with vigor. The words, they are flowing. The prose, it is prosing. Progress is being made: sweet, sweet progress. And eventually, when the kids and pets are demanding meals, I set the whole thing up on the table, click on the WiFi, and wait for the magic to happen.

Needless to say, the magic failed to happen. In fact, I was greeted with the unhelpful "Opening document failed" message for upwards of an hour or two, interspersed with random app crashes. Checking the document online on a different computer was just as discouraging, since it showed the pre-edited state from the morning, with a recent time stamp -- implying that Yet Again, all those newborn words were slurped into the ether, or whatever purgatory awaits the otherwise unsaved. The unholy vocabulary vented forth again.

This does, surprisingly, have a happy ending. After contemplating Deep Mysteries for a good long while, the tablet manage to send the text up into the 'Nets, though to this day it still cannot actually open the offending document. And I have come away properly humbled and chastised for daring to do the evidently unthinkable act of editing while not connected to the perpetual umbilicus of Internet connectivity. I dared to go offline and create, and I was punished for it. Those of you in the 'sphere doing your own voluntary de-Googling are welcome to smile at my hubris and the soul-crushing that followed.

So, ha ha, Google. Fool me twice, and all that. I've dug out the Neo, and what it lacks in superconvenience it more than makes up for in reliable simplicity. I'm back on the sofa again, typing this up, and I fully expect to retype the other chapters of this draft in this very spot. The Bluetooth setup will henceforth be reserved for idle forum posting or Twitter or the occasional remote access for work, where the text is transitory or unimportant or both. You don't get to hold my creative output hostage any more. I can't spare the time.

Old Faithful

* * *

And speaking of time, today was the generally-anticipated announcement of the latest Apple gadgets, including their first generation take on a Smart Watch. It sounds pretty slick, if you're the right sort of market. I'm certain that I'm the wrong sort of market, since I don't receive nearly enough calls to justify a buzzing reminder on my wrist, or if I need to -- send a doodle to someone? I'm sure it's going to prove invaluable to some market niche, and I'm perfectly satisfied not fitting into that niche. Surrounding all the hype and glory are all the unspokens, too: details like battery life, and the workability of the device when removed from the communications cloud emitted by its master device. I've had the unpleasant experience of watching my own personal technology have a mini-meltdown when it was isolated from the rest of the connected world for an hour or two. I can't imagine the anguish this poor device might experience if the wearer were to leave it in another room or (horror of horrors) turn the damn thing off now and then.

* * *

Multi-faceted technology can be great, I suppose, if your life is suited to it. But complex technology is like the teeth of a key, and it will only mate to a similar lock. If you depend on your watch (I depend on mine) and your watch depends on your phone, then maybe you adapt your behavior so you always always always carry both. Now you worry about charging both nightly. Now you protect your investment with cases and covers and carriers and pockets and pouches. Maybe you'll hold off on that hike or that bike trip, because the signal is so weak out by the reservoir, or you're not sure if everything is waterproof, and God, what if it slipped out of your pocket?

Watch out, is what I'm saying. The smarter the gadgets, the more they shape our behavior. The more the teeth of those keys will bite. I wouldn't wish those hours of textual uncertainty on anyone, and I certainly won't live them again. I'll write where I like, and I'll tell time by the old reliables -- my kids demanding food -- and I'll keep my habits my own.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Noises Off: Sounds in the Newsroom?

I contemplated posting this on Typosphere, but I try to keep the really grumpy/cynical stuff out of the way. I don't know if you've seen the piece, but it's bouncing around my "typewriter" newsfeed just about as fast as the Hanx Writer story did:

The Times' newsroom set to ring with the sounds of typewriters once more

And with a little digging, one finds a tweeted pic of one of the speakers in question.


On the one hand, I can actually see some benefit. My kids and I all find it easier to work with some kind of background noise going on. I got into the habit in college of packing my trusty Walkman, a couple of cassettes and some spare batteries and camping out in the library to recopy notes. (My wife is the lone dissenter in the house, and can't so much as read with the radio on.) Public typing aficionados in the 'sphere have reported favorable responses to the sound, too. ("I haven't heard one of those in years.") As a kind of productivity susurration, perhaps the recorded drone of a flotilla of typewriters will have the intended effect.

But what is the intended effect here? It feels more like cheap manipulation to me, like the old saw about piping in the scent of vanilla at amusement parks. It's like a sensory trick, isn't it? Wouldn't this get old after a while? Unless the sounds are truly randomized, I can see this being something of an aural assault. I hope that it's not just a single sound effect layered and looped upon itself, like an early Steve Reich tape composition. There is a point at which a wave of noise can be too much. Even I had to stop every now and then and flip the cassette over.

What nobody's pointing out, though, is that this is being played in a newspaper office. Not exactly the best place to work right now, given that the readership is almost certainly carrying around the latest news on a device in their pockets. A very, dark cynical part of me says: if they play it loud enough, they can't hear progress coming.

I will be the first to confess that there is certainly a lot of romance in the sounds of a typewriter, and as any type-in attendee can avow, a roomful is even more special. I don't know if piped-in sounds have the same impact, but if they do, I hope all the divisions at the Times get to choose their legacy-tech background music, otherwise the Times' web team will be stuck listening to the harmonies of a hundred screeching modems.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Onegin Off Again

Eugene Is Off

Eugene the typopigeon is winging his way to his next destination: stay turned for his further adventures.

A little birdy says that he's wanted and welcomed in Australia. Perhaps a trip across the Pacific is in his near future? Can one kickstart-fund a pigeon delivery? How does one begin to declare this sort of thing on a customs form ("Contents: One well-traveled squab, plastic. Charming.")

Tuesday, August 12, 2014


I may have mentioned once or twice that I'm a little pinball-crazed. Crossing my newsfeed today is this item about a group working to recreate in the physical realm a popular pinball machine that formerly only existed in the digital. There are constraints to the project, not the least of which are budget and the laws of physics. The availability or practicality of parts, for example, are utterly unlimited in a digital realm, and I own some games that simply cannot exist in any physical form. And there are some that lie vaguely in-between the realms of "physically possible" and "batsh*t cukoo" (and get criticized for basically being tables that play themselves.)

The Timeshock! table, though -- and the other virtual tables produced by this studio -- all appear to have just enough grounding in reality to make them practical, and that, in my opinion, is a large part of their charm (I have two of the other titles they list in the article.) They're challenging and yet predictable: simulating reality in a convincing fashion is sufficiently difficult, and I'm sure that goes two ways. I like the idea, though, almost as if the idea of pinball retreated to a digital cocoon during the lean years of the 1990's, only to re-emerge reborn and metamorphosed.

Of course, I'm still rooting for the creation of digital simulations of some of my favorite tables, too. Farsight did a decent recreation of the classic Haunted House table for their Pinball Arcade app, and they're promising a Kickstarter campaign to bring over The Addams Family, the top-selling table of all time, and (not coincidentally) the one that appears to be requested the most. I'd love to have a playable version of this machine around, as it contributed in part to my delinquency in grad school and made me weigh the importance of truly having clean laundry vs. setting aside a few quarters for a game. (Hint: laundry did not win.) As I've pointed out before, pinball machines are in top form as they leave the factory, and then are devoted to a life of being bashed and battered around from the inside-out. Care and upkeep is much easier on a tablet than a table.

All the same, I'm pretty excited. I hope this digital-to-analog port happens, and I hope to give the game a try in person if it does. It's not too often something digital gets to insert itself into the analog realm, and I think it's noteworthy when it does.

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Pen Review: Namiki Vanishing Point

Time again for some pen geekery...

Namiki Vanishing Point

Maybe not a full review, since I've only had it for about 18 hours now, but at least a first-impressions review. tl;dr: I'm very happy with the choice.

20140805 pencast

I have no great love for eBay and I can usually pass up some of Levenger's more esoteric or expensive options, but I am known to haunt their online outlet store. They have famously excellent customer service, so when the listing said "like new, appears to have never been used," they weren't joking. I'm not sure who received/bought this originally and returned it, but thank you. The blue is just sedate enough to look professional, and just happens to be my preferred color. Well done.

Namiki Vanishing Point - Closed

The mechanism on the vanishing point is pretty clever: this little chromed tailpipe has a tiny flap inside that the nib pushes open when the pen is engaged. The barrel of the pen is serving more like a sheath. The downside is that you're limited in refilling options, since the whole writing mechanism is being moved around in there, so there's no practical way to also add a piston or snorkel.

Levenger helpfully included a cartridge, squeeze converter, and a piston converter. I already have other Pilot/Namiki pens about, too, so care and feeding is covered.

Namiki Vanishing Point - Open

I've heard that new nibs can sometimes squeak a bit when they're first used. I haven't encountered that. I'm not sure if it happens every time or if I lucked out, or if my pre-inking ritual of flushing out the works with water did the trick.

You can see the slightly indented sides on the clip where your fingers are supposed to rest. I don't find this obtrusive at all when I'm writing. It's a subtle tactile guide to holding the pen properly with a triangle grip. Supposedly the tinier nibs can run a bit toward the dry side, so I've read about VP owners choosing a fine enough nib to conserve ink vs. picking a nib that's smooth and not scratchy. I'd personally recommend the Medium, and you can see that it's shading nicely on my scratch pad of sugarcane (bagasse) paper. Just don't wander too far from a bottle of ink or supply of cartridges. There's no window for checking ink levels.

Why go capless? Both because of the sheer coolness of the thing and the convenience. I don't post my pens when I write, that is, I don't stick the cap on the back of the pen. Partially this is out of a desire to keep it looking nice and not scratch up the barrel or crack the cap. Also, it's a good way to ensure that your pen comes back home to you when you let someone borrow it: keep the cap in your other hand. :-) For meetings, or quick notes, or one-handed writing situations (e.g., standing up), a click pen is convenience itself. I will say, though, that the argument that a VP keeps the nib pointed upright ("No leaks!") is just silly. Regular capped fountain pens should be stowed nib-up in your pocket or a case. It's nothing special or unique to a capless pen. Most fountain pen owners who value their wardrobe learn quickly to keep them upright when not in use, and not shove them into a pocket nib-end down. Gravity: it's the law.