Category Archives: Computers and Writing

MacBook Keyboard Pain: Is this the aspirin pill?

Gaaah! Have we been here before?

From the minute I bought this expensive new MacBook Pro with the accursed touchbar, I’ve been unhappy with the accursed keyboard. At first it was a kind of malaise that I took for discomfort with getting used to a new machine. It would pass, I thought.

Well, not so much. Soon I realized that I simply could not type a paragraph or even a sentence without sprinkling the copy with typos like pepper on a pile of French fries. What a mess! And why? What was wrong with me? Had I had a ministroke? First signs of dementia? What???

Finally it dawned on me: The new Macbook keyboard is a different size from the ones on the two previous Mac laptops I’ve had. The layout is identical — no change in the position of the keys. But the keys themselves are just a tiny bit wider than before. A fraction of a fraction of an inch…but there it is. And the keys are set slightly further apart. The result is that if you’re a touch typist, when you reach for a desired key in its wonted position, your finger misses and you hit not one but two keys.

Hence, if you try to type a word with the letter “e” in it, you get this: H3ence…. Type a comment in Facebook and it comes up littered with crazy, unpredictable errors.

And yeah: enter corrections or revisions in a client’s copy, and the same damn thing happens. And then you look like a friggin’ idiot.

But that’s not all. Because of the way they designed the keyboard by way of making the computer’s silhouette as skinny as possible, turns out sometimes a key decides not to work. In my case, it was the letter “b.” So every time I would type, say “bubble,” I would get “ule.” Cute, eh?

Well, the issue resolved itself before I could get in to the “Genius” bar, but it certainly did nothing to build confidence.

I have a wonderful ergonometric Microsoft keyboard, very old — dating back to when I used to use PCs. And you know, it will talk to the Mac. In a way. It has its own dialect, and some things it wishes to say are not understood by the accursed MacBook. But today I learned that there’s a way to translate Microsoft keyboard commands to Apple keyboard commands!

Hallelujah, brothers and sisters!

As it develops, Microsoft’s “Start” (Windows) button is read by the Mac as the “Command” key. The “Alt” key in Microsoftese is “Option” in Mackish.

AND…mirabilis!!!! As a bonus, the volume control buttons on the Microsoft keyboard work to control the volume. This frees you from having to fart with the damned touchbar — a true PITA — whenever you want to turn the sound up or down. Or off.

Thus…

This means that the most common keyboard commands will run from a Microsoft keyboard. The “Windows” key is also called the “Start” key — on a Mac, it answers to “Command.” We’ll call it “Start” because that requires fewer keystrokes than “Windows” and is also somehow less annoying…

Copy = Start C
Paste = Start-V
Undo = Start-Z
Redo = Start-Y
Highlight all = Start-A
Delete = Backspace
Make Dictation read copy = Alt-Esc

To my amazement, one really cool feature of OS X somehow works on this dusty old keyboard. That is, you can get a diacritical by holding a key down for a second, thereby evading having to look it up, tediously, in the accursed “Symbols” chart. Thus…

à é í ô (or œ or ø) or ü…and all those

That’s a bit of a godsend when you edit academic copy.

Given the brain-banging cost of a new MacBook Pro, though, it’s pretty damned annoying to have to hardwire an antique Microsoft keyboard (using the ULTRA-ACCURSED dongle now required to make a USB connection) in order to have a keyboard that doesn’t scotch you up while you’re typing.

It’s not perfect — the touchpad is also a nuisance, made more so by having to use a separate keyboard. But it’s one hell of a lot better than having to backspace and correct a typo with every third or fourth keystroke.

Apple computers have a lot to recommend them. My son says the new Windows software comes with embedded ads (!!!!) to which you are subjected whenever you try to use your computer. Using a PC with a lot of anti-malware running is a lot like swimming upstream through molasses. And I’m sorry, but I would be fucking enraged if a computer decided to shut down, upgrade its OS, and reboot when I was in the middle of a project. As I happen to be most of the time. So far, the Mac inflicts none of these quirks on its users.

That notwithstanding…Steve, we miss ye!

Word: Save, Save, and CounterSave!

The Wyrdness that is Word:

So today I finish editing 29 pages of mathematical analysis on the evolution of boards of directors in Chinese corporations. In looking it over one last time, I notice that in table 1, our authors have italicized the math terms listed in column 1; in table 2, they’ve left them roman. So I enter a comment next to the first item in table 1, column 1 to the effect that they should make these consistent.

Because this is not in the “Edits” version that I’ve just generated by running “Compare Documents” on the file I’ve cleaned up vs. the original unedited document, I go over to “Edits,” turn on “track changes,” and enter the same comment in the same place in the table. Hit “Save”….and Wyrd hangs.

So it appears.

In fact, though, it hangs my entire system! EVERY PROGRAM THAT IS OPEN hangs.

To avoid having to retype the contents of the comment, I copy the squib and try to paste it into Excel, which is open for the purpose of calculating the bill. That’s when I see that Excel is jammed, too. Figuring it must be Office that’s hung up, I go over to Mac’s “Mail” program, by way of emailing the comment’s content to myself.

No. Mac Mail is frozen, too!

I crash out of both Office programs and out of Mac Mail. Interestingly, the Mac does not demand a system reboot: when I reopen the three programs, they come back up. The only data lost from the clean copy is the comment that caused the hang-up — probably because these days I hit “save” after about every third character I type in Wyrd.

HOWEVER….the “Edits” version that shows all changes — generated through “compare documents”  and which indeed has been manually saved many times — is GONE. Disappeared. Not visible in the subdirectory.

Did I save it somewhere else by accident?

No. It is ERASED. 

Fortunately the data is saved in the “clean” version, so all I have to do is rebuild a new “edited” file in Compare Documents. But you understand, that file WAS saved, both manually and automatically, and it was saved in the correct directory.

It was there when I sat down to work on it again this morning. It should NOT have been “disappeared.” What happened to it, I do not know. Fortunately, Wyrd didn’t give me any static in generating a new document. But it was a startling episode.

The paper is 29 pages long (10.5-point type!) and it does contain a number of math formulae. Unclear whether it was generated from LaTex, but I don’t think so. I suspect they created this thing in Wyrd from the git-go, but how they got the math-lingo into it escapes me. WhatEVER, it seems to have maxed out Office’s (or possibly the Mac’s) memory.

Evidently a one-sentence comment was the proverbial straw.

So: what is the moral of this story?

In using the Weirdness that is Wyrd, don’t just save:

Save, Save, and Countersave.

The only reason two and a half days’ worth of work was not utterly lost is that I set Wyrd to save every five minutes.

Normally I don’t set it also to make a back-up copy automatically, because we have SO much content — thousands and thousands of files in Wyrd, Excel, PowerPoint, and graphics formats. In the first place, that’s all being backed up regularly to DropBox and to TimeMachine; in the second place, duplicating all that data on the computer’s hard drive would quickly max the thing out. But these days, even with the auto-save running every five minutes, I hit Command-S whenever I enter anything new.

It’s easy to set Wyrd to auto-save. On a Mac: Go to Word Preferences > Save > Save options > Save autorecover info every ___ minutes. Fill in the desired interval. On a PC, of course, nothing can be simple. Check out this page and follow the instructions for your version of the program.

Hassle Central, reporting in…

It’s been awhile since I posted here, more out of laziness and general harassment than intent. “Upgrading” both my Macs to OS X El Capitan was a big mistake. It’s a buggy program and has almost disabled the little MacBook Pro — the machine I use most of the time because sitting at a desk makes the aged back hurt. A lot.

So bad is it that I’m seriously considering buying a PC to replace the laptop. Big step backward for me: I really, really don’t want to relearn Windows (ugh!), nor do I want to have to “upgrade” to Office 365 so as to work on a Windows machine.

Actually, though, getting a lightweight Windows laptop to use only for Word and Excel tasks would probably make sense. You can still buy a standalone copy of Office 2016, and it will run fairly trouble-free on Windows.

Not so much on a Mac. The reason I did not update to the latest operating system, Sierra (don’t those cutesy names aggravate you?), is that my version of Word will not run at all on Sierra. Neither will Office 2016, at least not without endless bugs.

And the reason I do not want to sign up for Office 365? How can I count the reasons?

Foremost are these three:

1. It’s a rip-off. Renting the damn program with a monthly payment will quickly cause the cost to add up — and up, and up, and up — to way more than the cost of a program resident in your own computer. I resent that more than I can say.

2. Much of the work I do is proprietary. I do not want to be working on my clients’ projects in the flickin’ CLOUD! Indeed, sometimes I have to sign an agreement that I will not allow anyone else to see the client’s research or to put it at risk of being seen by anyone else. Sticking some scientist’s paper on a Microsoft server could put me at risk of liability. Even if I wanted to do that. Which I don’t.

3. Functionality of documents created or edited in non-365 versions may be limited. So it’s questionable whether I’d even be able to work on a document using more than one of my computers, even if one were a Windows machine.

Truly, this is a mess. I don’t know which way to jump and am truly furious that Apple has turned my computers from “it just works” to “it just doesn’t work.”

Meanwhile, in saner realms:

Delivered a presentation yesterday:Structure of Feature Articles.”

People in the audience wanted to buy the new book, The Complete Writer. It’s still in page proofs — I need to cut the back cover copy some and adjust the design accordingly, and need to check the second proofs AGAIN. But by the next meeting, I hope to have a carton of hard-copy paperbacks to tote out to the group.

Incoming paid work has…come in. Read about 17,000 words of academicese compiled by a pair of ESL co-authors.

These people hold me in awe. They’re required to publish in English-language journals. And they do it — with panache.

Can you imagine an American academic writing a dissertation or a scholarly paper in Chinese? Fat chance! It’s all we can manage just to stumble through a PhD program in English…and many US universities have quit requiring a second and third language for the PhD.

I could probably write a journal article in French and have it come out about on a par with what the Chinese authors produce in English. But folks…as an undergraduate I majored in French! Not in math, not in economics, not in communications, not in political science…. Criminey!

And as for the novel: ça va, lentement.

Weirdly, drafting scenes in ink with a real pen is one of the things that’s making me resent the computer hassles as passionately as I have come to do.

A pen and a piece of paper do not go offline. They do not crash and shut down everything you’re working on

Well, OK: the pen can run out of ink. But when it does, you do not lose any of the words you’ve just written. The two other documents you’re working on do not disappear into the ether. The spreadsheet you’ve been wrestling with does not lose an hours’ or a day’s worth of data.

You can carry a pen and a notebook around, and it will work anywhere you choose. You do not have to sign a pen and paper into a coffee house’s network, thereby rendering it and all your private information open to hackers.

Nobody is interested in stealing a pen and a notebook, so you do not have to lock up your draft behind a deadbolt or hide it under a pile of blankets when you put it in the back of the car.

You do not have to plug a pen and a notebook into anything. Their battery never runs out of juice.

They do not waste hour after hour of your time in techno-hassles.

And they never, ever, EVER need a new goddamn operating system!

The Ballad of Pen & Paper

Pens&Notes{chortle!} Well, this may not rise to the level of ballad, since its author still has to clean the pool this afternoon. There are only so many minutes in the day. But by way of resisting work, here I am with another little rave.

You’ll recall that one of my scribbling acquaintances and I rediscovered the joy of writing with actual fountain pens and actual ink. Since that revelatory day, I’ve taken to drafting the current chapter of the current (increasingly challenging…) novel this flat stuff called paper, using these sticks that hold ink, which leaks out when you run the pointed end of the stick across the paper.

What a discovery!

Its main benefit is escape from the tyranny of technology.

  • A pen frees you from the addictive temptations of news feeds, social media, email, online games.
  • It provides a site where your creative work (at least) is saved in a form that cannot disappear into the ether.
  • It can’t be attacked by a virus.
  • It can’t be rendered obsolete and unreadable by yet another arbitrary “update.”
  • It does not have to be password-protected.
  • No burglar is likely to steal it.
  • It does not cost upwards of $1,300; it does not even cost $470. One of these pens set me back all of $13, and it writes nicer than the classy $85 Waterman I bought back in the day when I had a job and could afford such indulgences.

Who’d’ve thunk it?

Another of my writing acquaintances reported that her system went down and she had to have the hard drive rebuilt. She was in a sweat, since she’s been laboring long and hard to produce her next book. Fortunately, she succeeded in saving most of her draft. But it sounds like she did so on a wing and a prayer.

Holy shit! The scribbler’s worst nightmare.

Truth to tell, whatever you have on paper is likely to be just a draft of whatever you end up with in your computer. If you’re like me, you revise during the act of typing, and then you go over and over your MS copy, revising and touching up and adding and deleting.

But at least if you have a first draft in pen & ink, it’s not going to be utterly gone when your computer is gone. And as you know, the computer going down is not a matter of “if”; it’s a matter of “when.”

It also has another advantage: it takes you away from an environment rife with distraction. Writing with a pen, I’m finding myself a lot more likely to sit still and finish a scene — or at least to mock it up roughly — than I am when I’m on the computer. With no recourse to Google, I don’t waste time cruising the Internet in pursuit of the answer to some irrelevant question. I don’t ease my aching brain by loading up a Mah Jongg game. I don’t kill time in the voracious timesuck that is Facebook. I don’t check the email every three or four minutes, or kill some more time writing an email answer that could wait for awhile.

Even if all you intend to do is process words or enter bookkeeping entries, computer technology reaches out its tentacles to take over your life. One could speculate that it has the potential to strangle creativity.

When I was a young pup, all those years ago, I was an early adapter of PC technology. I made my husband buy me one of the first marginally affordable desktop IBMs, and I learned to write online in WordPerfect and XyWrite. I became proficient in DOS and fumed at being herded into windows and rodents.

The thing seemed like such a miracle! In those days, I felt it cultivated creativity, caused it to bloom — it made writing so fast and so easy, your thoughts and ideas flowed right out through your fingertips.

But in those days we didn’t have an Internet. There was no Google, no Wikipedia to look up facts and search for ideas and find new words for you. News was borne into your house on sheaves of paper laden with — yes! — ink. A game was something you played with another human being. If you wanted to communicate with friends from the comfort of your home, you called them on the phone. “Social” had to do with a club meeting or a cocktail party.

Wonderful as the Net is, as many amazing benefits as offers, it nevertheless presents a pernicious distraction. I find it almost impossible to get through a writing task — any writing task, or, for that matter, any editing job — without interrupting myself to cruise the Web, fiddle with the email, or relieve my fevered brain with an online game.

If anything, the ease with which you can barf out copy represents another assassin of creativity. Look at all that self-published stuff on Amazon: fiction and memoir and how-to and inspiration and rant and pop history and wild-eyed theories and this and that and the other are gushing like…dare one say it?…like a sewer. We pour out all this formerly unpublishable stuff, largely unedited. It appears on Amazon because no profit-making publisher in its right collective mind would take it to press. And we’re drowning in it.

The fact that you can toss out content without really thinking about it means…well, it means that what you’re tossing out is “content.” Not art. Not even real craft.

Writing is not a no-sweat endeavor. By its nature, it’s contemplative. And writing by hand is contemplative.

It may be that slowing down to form the characters on the paper fosters creativity by giving the writer a slight edge in time: a few milliseconds and then a few seconds and then a few minutes in which to think about what’s coming out of the fingers.

I don’t know that’s true. But I suspect it.

Writing with the Palmer method

Writing with the Palmer method

Computer: Why don’t you have a neck I can wring?

MacbookHOLY doggerel, Batperson! What a computer adventure yesterday! Went from day-before-yesterday’s ecstatic rave about the Mac’s talking narrator straight to the Ninth Circle. Digitally speaking, that is.

The trip was all my doing, like so many computerized adventures. Two portable external drives that I use to back up data had corrupted. The fix is simply to wipe and repartition them, which you can do easily on a Mac. I, being a  master of procrastination, naturally dawdled and delayed until I could dawdle and delay no longer. So yesterday I finally resigned myself to doing some work.

With the smuggest of success, I indeed did manage to reformat one of the external hard drives and set up Time Machine to restart its infinite backups. Problem is, when you have an internal drive that contains more data than Carter has oats, it takes a long, LONG time to establish the first backup. During that time, the computer drags painfully, kindly making work an exercise in frustration.

So I got up and went about some other business: watering plants, cleaning the pool, and generally farting around. I believe a bourbon & water was involved in the latter: user error #1.

Eventually I come back to the machine, plop myself down in my favored writin’ chair, and put the computer on my lap so as to continue the noveloid scene I’d been playing with. Looking forward to this, for a change: the past few hours had put me on a roll. A new character had come to life, and she’s the first in this book that I’ve really “connected” with imaginatively. Finishing the scene I’d been working on for days looked like a piece of cake.

Lemon cake.

Open the lid to wake up the computer, get the endlessly annoying “External drive was disconnected. Do not disconnect these things, idiot, without unplugging them in Finder, ’cause if you screw up on this you could damage the device.” The short cable I use to plug in the external drives is loose, so that every time you hiccup, sneeze, or pet the dog you elicit this effing message.

A-n-n-d…it interrupted the Time Machine backup and so shut down the process.

Shee-ut. So now I had to wipe the drive again and restart Time Machine.

Remember, the file I’m working on is open. It exists in various iterations in two places on my hard drive (user error!) and one place on DropBox (possible user error?). I save to disk but then go straight to wiping the drive, figuring I’ll come back to my project in a minute or two (user error!).

As I start to do this, I think…waitaminit: I’d better save the current items that matter over to DropBox because if I make a mistake, wouldn’tchaknowit, the thing that matters most to me right this minute will get erased.

This crosses my hot little mind as the Mac is wiping the contents of a large disk full of data, a process I find mildly alarming in the best of circumstances.

So, mildly spooked, I do a kind of panic backup: copy this, save there.

The system doesn’t like that. The backup crashes. I think fuck it and decide to re-open the file, work on my little fantasy for awhile, and then get dressed to go meet my friend for dinner and the concert we’d planned to go to yesterday evening.

So understand: while all this computer diddling is going on, I’m setting my hair so I can put it up, washing up, painting my face, shuffling through the closet in search of presentable clothing…and migrating back and forth from bathroom, bedroom, closet, mirror, makeup drawer to the computer screen. Yeah: user error!

Okay, so I re-open the file, ever-so-distinctively titled “chapter 1.docx.” Don’t do that, for cripes sake. Put something in your filename to distinguish it from the ten or fifteen other chapter 1’s on your freaking disk drive. User error.

Chapter 1 comes up…and it’s a version that’s at least a week old. All the work I’ve done over the past two days is absent.

Ohhhh shit.

I bang around and thrash around and I cannot find it. It’s not on DropBox. Whatever I saved to DB overwrote the copy that I’d been working on…deleting the stuff I’d written over the past couple of days. User error.

Word is set to auto-save every 5 minutes, because it habitually loses my clients’ work when I’m trying to edit a file that contains tables, Chinese characters, Hebrew characters or the like. But when I go to try to find a recent autorecover of the Great Novel of the Western World, what do you suppose I discover? WORD HAS NOT DONE AN AUTORECOVERY SINCE MARCH 21!!!!!!!!!!!

So the file that contains the last DAYS of work is GONE. And what’s gone is the most productive and lively copy I’ve managed to gag out for this book since I started.

Check autorecover: the settings have not been changed. No notice to the effect that the hard drive didn’t contain enough space ever popped up. Nothing. I am just screwed! I don’t know what TF is going on but suspect it’s not user error!

Oh, lord, how I hate Word.

Sumbiche. So I emit an electronic wail of dismay and post it to a private Facebook forum I subscribe to, as just about the only way of venting I can think of short of throwing the effing computer through a block wall. It’s now exactly 5:00 p.m. and I’m supposed to be in my friend’s driveway picking her up for our night on the town. Slap on some lipstick, grab a credit card, and fly out the door.

By the time I get back, several hours later, a number of people have posted replies at this forum. One kind person remarks, gently, “Think I heard once upon a time DropBox retains revisions? Might be something there.

Uhhhh…. Hmmm…. Yeah. Come to think of it: a year or so ago, my business partner managed to retrieve a whole set of “disappeared” files that one of our journal editors removed from DropBox, thinking she was doing us a favor. I had remarked to said Editor that mine is the free version of DB and so in due time we should remove completed articles from our shared folder, so as not to run me past the space limit. She took that seriously, and so she dutifully removed a bunch of stuff that neither my associate editor nor I had downloaded.

Well, Associate Editor is smarter than the average snail. She actually knows how to operate DropBox, and she was able to retrieve not only all the “disappeared” files but a record of who had disappeared them and when. So…there may be something to this…

Click on the DB icon, sign in, and find, by golly, instructions for how to recover a disappeared file:

DB instructions 1

A-n-n-n-d instructions on how to recover a disappeared file on a Mac:

DB instructions 2

This latter entails one (1) simple keyboard command. And…damned if it doesn’t work! Command + filename brings up 23 of the most recent pages of draft drivel, just as they were when User Error lost them!

Well, not quite just as they were: they appear in some sort of html-ish format:

copy saved from DB 1

But click on “download,” and mirabilis! The thing appears in perfect, uncorrupted(!) Wyrd format, complete with the infelicitous rhymes and the notes-to-self and the puzzling over what on earth (or…uhm…not on earth) this place looks like… (Click on the images to come close to seeing the details.) (No, WordPress will not let you post a screenshot in any way that makes sense, not that I’ve been able to figure out.) Best of all, this file contains the passage I was writing at the time I contrived to disappear the file: not one word is lost!

Hallelujah, brothers and sisters!

It was well after 1:00 a.m. by the time this little miracle manifested itself. I staggered off toward bed to the sound of angels singing.

So upset was I by the fiasco at hand that I had not one but two panic attacks driving downtown last night, scaring the bedoodles out of my friend, who nervously offered to take over the chauffeuring job. Felt considerably better after two margaritas and a plate of hummus. Enjoyed the concert. Was pretty relaxed (heh) on the way home.

Now we know what takes care of panic attacks: margarita mix, right?

By the light of day, I’m thinking it would be good to overcome one’s cheapskate instincts and spring for the cost of DropBox’s premium service. That file recovery function is one helluva value-added feature. I’ll continue to alternate two or three external drives to back up the Mac’s software and data in Time Machine, thereby providing some protection against ransomware. Andthe extra space on DropBox will hold data files that I can’t afford to or don’t want to lose.

It’s $9 a month for the low-end subscription, and only $13 a month for the “Standard” plan that lets several people share its functions and archives files for three months. That plan gives you 2 terabytes of memory, which is twice as much as I need to back up my entire system, programs included, with TimeMachine. Unfortunately, its apparently not configured to work with TimeMachine. But it still would be worth $360 a year to have key files archived for 120 days.

Definitely worth it.