Brainstormbringer, Eater of Black Moods

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First, let me say that if I were a good Stoic I’d be blaming the workman and not his – my – tools. That said, I’ve been trying to finish writing my third book (a book of fictional reviews of the board games, video games, and sports of a parallel Earth). I’ve been working in Emacs, and although I love many things about the program, I’ve come to think it’s not ideal. In fact, it’s too good.

I’ve gone through a couple of periods of creative block, and one of my initial home remedies was a browser add-on to prevent me from viewing my favorite websites during certain hours every day. It kept me from visiting those sites, all right – but I could still visit most of my bookmarked sites (I literally have 28,835 bookmarks at present) and I could engage in non-writing, offline computer interests such as interactive fiction (lately I’ve been fascinated by The Gostak).

Moreover, the Emacs editor itself has been too interesting – too tempting to tinker with and learn about – for me to write much in it directly. Now, the AlphaSmart Neo, on the other hand, is a limited-capability keyboard with a tiny screen they gave to children in schoolrooms ten years ago. What could be duller? It’s great.

To recap, the tragic flaw of Emacs is that it’s highly hackable and therefore intrinsically cool. That’s bad. You don’t want a writing tool that’s an end in itself.1 Your tools must be invisible enough, unattractive enough, not to draw you away from your work, or, Muse forbid, become your work. Emacs, like the slightly demonic mystery in “Step Right Up” by Tom Waits, will find you a job. It is a job.

That’s why tonight, after weeks of drought while trying to write in the excessively excellent Emacs, I completely shut down my Ubuntu laptop for several hours, broke out my Neo again (Marty has dubbed it Brainstormbringer, a much more exciting moniker than it deserves), and extended my manuscript substantially.2

What would you think of an auto mechanic you hired to fix your car but instead billed you for merely putting her toolbox in order? I’ve spent a lot of time messing around with Emacs, FunnelWeb, and Pandoc in my attempts to just write. This is the opposite of the “Fuck it! Ship it!” philosophy of Markdown I started with.

In conclusion, I frankly don’t care whether you fuck it. Just ship it, by any means at hand.

Footnotes:

1

WordStar is also powerful, and that’s why it has both plenty of fans (for retrocomputing software) and people saying they still get work done on it (as distinct from fans). It might also help explain why there’s a WordPerfect mode for Emacs. On the other hand, Emacs probably has Morse code and pizza-ordering modes too, so I shouldn’t find it remarkable it can emulate WordPerfect.

2

I used to get a lot done with boring old Gedit too – the Linux equivalent of Notepad.


What do you think? And hey, how about leaving comments on this blog, rather than on Twitter or F*c*b**k or wherever else you found this? Thanks.


Photo by João Pimentel Ferreira (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons.

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The Time Cadet Keyboard

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A few entries ago in this blog, I used a photo of the so-called Space Cadet Keyboard, the keyboard shipped with the famous Lisp machines of the 1980s. Depending largely on whether you are an Emacs user or a vi user, the Space Cadet Keyboard was either the most brilliant input device of all time, or the cause of everything that has gone wrong in any field of human endeavor under discussion.

That photo attracted lots of attention, for certain very, very wee values of “lots”. My friend John Braley remarked on F*c*b**k, “My new mantra: Hyper super meta – meta super hyper.[repeat]”, referring to the special modifier keys present on the Space Cadet but not most other keyboards – unlike Shift, Control, Alt, and so on. Of course, the Space Cadet wasn’t only long on modifier keys, but on Greek characters, math and logic keys, and keys of dubious utility – Roman numerals, friends?

I was (briefly) a computer science major at Yale in the mid-1980s, when this bizarre beastie flourished. I remember typing my APL homework on a similarly baroque keyboard – they were in all the labs – but I wouldn’t swear it was a Cadet. In fact, it was probably a descendant of the IBM 2741.

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One thing I wanted to show in this post is that the Space Cadet was a lot more complicated than the first photo I included as a joke. As you can see up top, the keys are very tall – that is, high off the base – and they have room for even more characters on their fronts – the parts facing the user when she is facing the screen. (Closeup)

These characters can be Metaed, Supered, and Hypered until your carpal tunnel becomes inflamed. It says here that the Cadet could generate over 8,000 discrete characters. (Another large illustration.)

Space Cadets and Christianity (what?)

As an atheist, I am no friend of Madeleine L’Engle’s YA Christian propaganda A Wrinkle in Time and its four sequels, the “Time Quintet”. But I haven’t always been an atheist, and I’m pretty familiar with the books, especially the first two – I used to love them.

I’m sure that the Space Cadet Keyboard influenced the fourth book in the Time Quintet – Many Waters – just as I am that the board game Cosmic Encounter influenced William Sleator’s novel Interstellar Pig

Sandy stuffed another large bite of sandwich into his mouth, and left the warmth of the stove to wander to the far corner of the lab, where there was a not-quite-ordinary-looking computer. “How long has Dad had this gizmo here?”

“He put it in last week. Mother wasn’t particularly pleased.”

“Well, it is supposed to be her lab,” Sandy said.

“What’s he programming?” Dennys asked.

“He’s usually pretty good about explaining. Even though I don’t understand most of it. Tessering and red-shifting and space/time continuum and stuff.” Sandy stared at the keyboard, which had eight rather than the usual four ranks of keys. “Half of these symbols are Greek. I mean, literally Greek.”

Dennys, ramming the last of his sandwich into his mouth, peered over his twin’s shoulder. “Well, I more or less get the usual science signs. That looks like Hebrew, there, and that’s Cyrillic. I haven’t the faintest idea what these keys are for.”

Long story short, merely by typing into what I must refer to as the Magic Time Cadet Keyboard that they want to go somewhere warm and dry, the twins Sandy and Dennys are transported to the antediluvian Earth – the time of Noah himself – where they both fall in love with Noah’s forgotten daughter, and conclude that the people of Noah’s time are so unmentionably evil that it’s only right that God murder all of them. The Flood was good to the last drop!

Given its profound spiritual powers and the fact that it has not only math and Greek characters on the keys, but Hebrew and Cyrillic (what about Enochian?), I am forced to conclude that the Time Cadet Keyboard is to the Space Cadet Keyboard as the Space Cadet is to a random decrepit IBM Model M. The Time Cadet Keyboard is a must-have for the retrocomputing enthusiast who has everything. Five thumbs up!


I bet you didn’t think this post was going to swerve from the retrocomputing hobby to the history of board games to atheist apologetics, did you?

What do you think? And hey, how about leaving comments on this blog, rather than on Twitter or F*c*b**k or wherever else you found this link? Thanks.


Photo by Dave Fischer, Retro-Computing Society of RI (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)], via Wikimedia Commons.

APL keyboard diagram By User:Rursus (APL-keybd.svg) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)], via Wikimedia Commons.

Avoiding the Yoyo Info Diet

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I’ve been spending far too much time consuming empty scraps of webpages lately and far too little on books and media that matter to me, not to mention this book I’ve been trying to write. I’ve decided to start one of those regimes called an “information diet” – a misnomer, because most literal diets don’t work, but this figurative one might.

My initial rules

  1. Purge my Pocket account, keeping only articles related to work and writing, and those of intense interest. Pocket articles are normally synced to my ereader and my phone, as well as available on my laptop.
  2. “Pocket Zero”: Only add more articles to Pocket when I’ve emptied the current batch.
  3. Create a “tbr” tag on Pinboard for articles I think I’ll really want to read later. Come back and see if I do.
  4. Stop skimming RSS feeds (more than 90 minutes a day). Take The Old Reader out of my browser menu.
  5. Stop surfing new book listings. Take them out of the browser menu too.
  6. Delete my perpetual “emacs” keyword search in Twitter. Replace it with a select list of Emacs glitterati (for example, Sacha Chua).
  7. Postpone starting any games that will consume a lot of time, no matter how fun they look. Examples: Hadean Lands, Dwarf Fortress.

My initial results

In my first Pocket purge, I managed to reduce the number of articles in Pocket by 90%, from around 2000 articles to around 180 (step 1). I also completed steps 2-7.

Thus, I was able to carry out every step of my plan, but it has only been a couple of days. We’ll see whether my new regime is nourishing enough that I don’t enter into that kind of counterproductive databinge/purge/binge cycle.

There is always ever more interesting and useful information than you can access. Where you stop is arbitrary.

For the (akashic) record, I started trying to quit caffeine this morning. Who knows? Perhaps the two efforts will potentiate each other.


Photo by Jorge Franganillo (Flickr: Information overload) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

What’s all the Yubnub, bub?

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Yubnub, the “(social) command line for the web”, is an underappreciated website, ten years old but constantly updated, that is many things to many people, if not everything to everyone. It’s a front end to a vast variety of search engines and other web services, and is so useful that I’ve added Yubnub capability to Firefox, Emacs, and the Linux command line on my laptop. (For more information, see the Yubnub installation page.)

In case you’re curious why Yubnub has such a weird name, it’s the victory song sung by the Ewoks at the end of The Return of the Jedi. Apparently the word means “freedom” in Ewok. I don’t know what the deal is with the snail, though. An Ewok delicacy?

Here are some of the Yubnub commands I’ve found useful or interesting, including Esperanto dictionaries and Finnegans Wake search engines, as well as staples such as Google and Wikipedia. Sadly, some of the really interesting ones no longer work or have been deleted recently, such as search commands for the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction and the Chess Variant Pages.

To discover your own commands, visit Yubnub and type ls.


  • am: Amazon. Example: am duct tape
  • amzns: AmazonSmile. When you shop here, Amazon donates 0.5% of the price to the charitable organization of your choice. Example: amzns duct tape
  • bgg: BoardGameGeek, database of board games. Example: bgg cosmic encounter
  • brickipedia: Brickipedia, an encyclopedia wiki about LEGO. Example: brickipedia darth vader
  • fweet: Fweet, database of Finnegans Wake annotations. Example: fweet chaosmos
  • g: Google. The default search engine for Yubnub. Example: g random celebrity Note: omitting the initial g will retrieve results from Google by default.
  • gdef: Performs a Google define: command that gets definitions of words. Example: gdef supernaculum
  • gim: Google Image Search. Example: gim random celebrity
  • ifdb: for games at the Interactive Fiction Database. Example: ifdb zork iii
  • libt: Add books to LibraryThing by ISBN. Example: libt 978-0394718330
  • luzme: Luzme monitors ebook prices at multiple online stores and notifies you of price drops. Example: luzme grapes of wrath
  • obl: Draws a random card from the Oblique Strategies deck.
  • pinb: Pinboard.in bookmarks. Examples: pinb chicago searches your pinboard.in bookmarks for “chicago”. pinb -a chicago searches everyone’s pinboard.in bookmarks for “chicago”.
  • wa: Wolfram Alpha, “computational knowledge engine”. Unique and cool. Example: wa half a gallon in cc
  • wkeo: Esperanto Wiktionary. Includes definition of word in Esperanto and translation of word into other languages such as English. Example: wkeo hundo
  • wp: English Wikipedia. Example: wp micronation
  • wq: English Wikiquote. Example: wq simple as possible but no simpler

Industry standard manuscript word counts under Linux

Last night I did a word count on my book in progress within Emacs, my text editor of choice. I was astonished that it had apparently gained 2,000 words with only a few edits – from about 43,500 words to about 45,500 words.

I had been using the Linux command-line utility wc to count my words before that, and it had been returning the lower number. I also tested Gedit (results on the high end), and LibreOffice Writer (on the low end).

I wondered on Twitter which I should trust, and a writer friend advised that LibreOffice would probably be closest to Microsoft Word, the standard among professional editors and publishers, so I should stick to the former. However, I ran a word count under my wife Marty’s copy of Word, and it was both highest of all and furthest from LibreOffice. Emacs was closest! Here are the numbers, from high to low:

Microsoft Word 2010 = 45,653
GNU Emacs 24.2 = 45,466
Gedit 3.10.4 = 45,309
wc = 43,855
LibreOffice Writer 4.2.7.2 = 43,726

Moral: M-x count-words in Emacs comes closest to the industry standard – a little low, in fact, which is better than a little high. Gedit is not bad. Stay away from wc and LibreOffice Writer for counting words if you are writing professionally.

Breaking news from my friend: With a much longer manuscript (around 190,000 words), he’s seeing a spread closer to 4,000 words than 2,000, but otherwise his results are quite similar.

A further postscript: A couple of days later, my word count dropped again by about 1,000 words for no discernible reason. I grabbed an older copy of the document from Dropbox and diffed it with the most recent version. I finally understood that I had turned section numbering off in recent versions, and those section numbers had been counted as words, sometimes more than one. For example, section 4.3.2.1 would count as four words. Multiply that by a couple of hundred sections, plus their appearances in the table of contents, and you’ve got a thousand words that can evaporate invisibly.