Monthly Archives: October 2016

A Night in the Lonesome October

Halloween is approaching, and Roger Zelazny's A Night in the Lonesome October is a delightful way to spend some of the evenings leading up to it.

The book takes place during a certain October in the late 1800's—a year when the full moon coincided with Halloween—and has one chapter for each day of the month. It's told by a somewhat shaggy dog named Snuff, who is preparing for a certain event that will take place under that full moon. Snuff's not in this all by himself, of course. He's working for, or more accurately with, a strangely familiar fellow named Jack. Jack has a large magic knife, and seems to be of the wizardly persuasion. One gathers that he and Snuff have played this game many times before, and while they do some of the preparations together there are many things that Snuff does on his own.

For example, Snuff's a watch dog, and it's his job to keep an eye on things: specifically, the Thing in the Wardrobe, the Thing in the Steamer Trunk, the Thing in the Circle, and the Things in the Mirror. It's essential he does so, because otherwise the Things might get out of hand.

But he also has to keep an eye on the other players, of whom there are many, including Rastov the Russian monk and his snake Quicklime; the body snatchers Morris and McCab, and their owl; the Count, and his bat; Crazy Jill the witch and her cat, Graymalk. The Great Detective makes an appearance, as does an odd fellow named Larry Talbot. All the players have gathered for this event on the last day of October, when Something will Happen…or, perhaps, won't Happen, depending on how the game goes. Snuff’s not only a watch dog, though he likes being a watch dog much more than what he used to be before Jack gave him this job….

I won't give it away; Zelazny has too much fun letting you in on things little by little.

This is Zelazny's last novel, and one of his most fun, and I don't think it's ever gotten quite the recognition it deserves. It's a little bit horror, a little bit funny, a little bit goofy, and all-in-all a real gem. Oh, and it has illustrations by Gahan Wilson, another name that's less well known now than it used to be. Highly recommended.

Ulysses: Now Better for Blogging

Ulysses now exports to WordPress. The evening after publishing my post about using Ulysses as a blogging tool, I checked for software updates and found a new version of Ulysses that will publish directly to WordPress blogs. I tried it and it worked a treat. Instead of four clicks, a paste, and a title copy, it's now basically one click. Very, very nice.

DropBox Sync. In addition, I took Ulysses' DropBox sync for a spin. (You are using DropBox, aren't you?) The DropBox sync appears to work just fine across both OSX and iOS; however, there are some limitations. Normal Ulysses "sheets" can contain images, annotations, footnotes, comments, file attachments, and the like, none of which exist in vanilla MarkDown, or really, fit into Markdown's pure text paradigm; and so sheets saved in external DropBox folders can't use them. You're protected against data loss, though: if you try to copy a sheet that uses these advanced features from a folder that supports them to one that doesn't you're warned and given a chance to change your mind.

A Note. I should add: I'm writing about these tools because I use them and like them. I have no relationship with any of the tool vendors I'll be talking about in this series, and I'm not getting any kind of consideration from them for talking about their products. 'nuff said.

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photo credit: Rob Hurson Molly Bloom via photopin (license)

Draft Cover Art for Through Darkest Zymurgia

The publishing process for Through Darkest Zymurgia is proceeding apace! The layout of the inside of the book is complete, and now we just need to get the cover squared away. This is the current draft of the cover image, featuring professors Thintwhistle and Carbuncle and their dog Bruno investigating a new find, courtesy of Jason Bach.

The book is the story of a scientific expedition from Glastonbury University in Angland to the fabled land of Zymurgia. The world of Angland and Zymurgia is rather different than our own, being flat, unbounded (so far as anyone knows). Prof. Thintwhistle has this to say:

It is thought by the simple that if one were to ascend to the top of a sufficiently high tower, equipped with a sufficiently powerful telescope, that one would be able to see the entire world. This is, of course, absurd, and any child with an ounce of sense can see why. If the world really does stretch infinitely far in all directions, and there is no reason to believe that it does not, any tower of finite height is but a minuscule bump. At a sufficient distance from the tower, even a low range of hills would hide many details beyond. Foreshortening would have muddled all detail long before that.

Somewhat more lofty objections are made, late at night, by the sophomores at Glastonbury. “Well, now”, one would ask, “if you did, just for the sake of argument, ascend a high enough tower to see beyond the edge of the Known World, what would you see there? Nothing! It’s unknown, innit!” “But would it be blank? Or would it become Known as you watched?” Someone else would point out that the Lands of Fable lie beyond the Known World; it wouldn’t be blank, just uncertain. Eventually someone would drag out that horrid old chestnut, “If a country is inhabited, but nobody observes it, does it have a culture?” Yes, I am afraid I remember those days very well.

The Problem of Blogging, Solved!

In my last post I laid out my requirements for a blogging tool. I said:

Bottom-line. I wanted a solution that would let me compose blog posts off-line, using whatever hardware I had to hand; would let me move from device to device as convenience dictated; would keep the posts resident in one place on my local machine; and would streamline the posting process.

My current favored solution is a tool called Ulysses, which you can see in the screen shot at the top of the page. Ulysses is a tool for getting your words down, and then getting them where they need to go.

Let's start by taking a quick look at the default window layout (pictured above), which shows three columns. The first column displays a tree of folders that you use to organize your work. You can define any set of folders you like. As you can see, I've got a Blog Posts folder that contains a Zymurgia House folder, which in turn contains folders for the different categories of blog post I write. The middle column contains a list of the documents (Ulysses calls them sheets) in the current folder and its subfolders; and the third column contains the text of the current document.

To begin a new post, I select the Zymurgia House folder and press the new document icon on the toolbar; and then I just start typing. Once I've finished the post, I drag it from the Zymurgia House folder to the appropriate category folder for safe-keeping; and I can easily copy and paste the content into WordPress.

Ulysses and My Requirements

So, how does Ulysses stack up against my requirements? Let's take them one at a time.

Access. Ulysses has versions for OSX and iOS (sorry, Windows users), and it syncs your data between your devices over iCloud. I've written posts on my desktop, my laptop, and my iPad, and they all sync up perfectly well. iCloud is not DropBox, which I much prefer, but it gets the job done. Consequently, I can work anywhere, and move seamlessly from one machine to another. (You can also sync to an external folder, which might be in your DropBox, but there are limitations so I haven't tried that yet. And if you don't like iCloud syncing, you can turn that off and just keep your files locally.)

Offline Composition. Yeah, got that. I can write whether I've got a network connection or not, and let Ulysses sync things up later.

On-Site Backup. Ulysses stores your documents to your local disk, as well as to iCloud; and it stores them as plain text files. You have to know where to find them, mind you; the information is in the Ulysses FAQ. So even if iCloud went away, I'd still have my files; and because they are plain text files I'll always be able to read them. And since your documents are synced via iCloud, you also get off-site backup as well.

No Formatting Fix-ups When Posting. And here's where Ulysses really shines. Ulysses saves your documents in a text format called Markdown. It's a simple format, easily learned, which lets you add formatted headings, boldface, italics, hyperlinks, and so forth to a plain text document. If you've ever used a Wiki, it's basically a kind of wiki markup. It's intended to be both easy and pleasant to read, and easy and pleasant to type. (Actually, Ulysses supports several markup styles; the default is something called Markdown XL.)

For example, to make something bold you enclose it in double-asterisks. To put something in italics, you enclose it in underscores.

This is **bold** and this is _underlined_.

But Ulysses is more than just a fancy text editor. You can enter bold and italics using these special characters, or you can use the usual command keys you'd use in Word or most other programs. Ulysses displays both the special characters, and the style you asked for, as you can see in the screen shot.

Because it's using Markdown, Ulysses can easily convert your prose to a wide variety of formats, including plain text, HTML, Word, and ePub format (used by e-readers). You click the "export" button on the toolbar, and it will export the desired format. More than that, it can export it in a number of ways: to a disk file, in another application, or (my preferred approach) directly to the clipboard.

Uploading a Blog Post

When I finish this post, I will upload it to the blog as follows:

  1. Press the Export button in the toolbar. Select HTML from the pulldown, and press the "Copy to Clipboard" button.
  2. Open the WordPress dashboard in my browser, and create a New Post.
  3. Select the "Text" tab rather than the "Visual" tab in the WordPress editor.
  4. Paste the post.
  5. Cut and paste the post's title into the Title field.

As far as formatting fix-up goes, #5 is the only step. And in my normal usage, HTML is always already selected in step #1, and the "Text" tab is always already selected in step #3. I get my text into WordPress without about four clicks of the mouse.

After that, of course, I need to set categories and tags and attach a featured image…but all of those are easier to do in the WordPress GUI, and they don't involve editing the body of the post.

Caveats

Ulysses isn't for everybody. First, it's an OSX/iOS app, which leaves out a lot of people. It's not free, either (though there's a free OSX demo you can try), though I find the cost to be worth it (and as a working programmer, I don't mind paying for a good tool; the workman is worth his wages). And, of course, you need to be willing to deal with Markdown. But given that, it's just about perfect for my current needs.

Other Features

The real point of Ulysses is to make it easier for you to get started writing. You've got an idea, you start Ulysses, you hit the "New Sheet" button, and start writing. Later, you can drag the sheet to whatever folder you like. But it's there, and you can find it again. You don't need to worry about where to save it or what to call the file, and because the formatting is so simple you don't get caught up in trivialities like playing with the header font. You just start writing.

You can work on your documents anywhere, with or without a 'Net; you've got both an on-site and off-site backup; and you can export your writing in most formats you're likely to need. What's not to like?

Update: Ulysses now exports directly to WordPress!

The Problem of Blogging

I’ve been blogging more or less since blogs were a thing, and had a website since long before that, and I’ve used a whole raft of tools to get words onto the Web, from hand-coded HTML to custom markup and hand-written formatting tools to a variety of blogging platforms.

Over that time, I’ve learned that blogging presents me with certain problems, and I’ve come up with the following requirements.

Access. I do most of my non-fiction writing on a desktop computer, but I also have a laptop; and there was a time when I did a lot of writing away from the house on an iPad. Whatever I write, I want to be able to work on it wherever I am, on whatever hardware I’ve got with me. I initially solved that problem by installing the MovableType blogging software; then I could blog from any web browser. But ultimately that fell afoul of my next requirement.

Offline Composition. I don’t much like composing in a browser window. Using MovableType, and later the early versions of WordPress, it was far too easy to lose your work before it got saved to the server. That led me to a neat app called MarsEdit, an off-line blogging client. MarsEdit knows how to talk to most kinds of blog software; and it lets you compose your posts on your own computer and then upload them to the server at your leisure. It was pretty nice; but it didn’t run on my iPad, and it only kept the most recent posts. That became the next requirement.

For a while I tried to finesse the iPad issue by composing my blog posts in Evernote, which I like a lot, and still use for other things. It’s available on every device I own, and (given ‘net access) syncs to every device I’ve got. But Evernote fell afoul of the next two requirements.

I should add: the in-browser blog editors have gotten much more reliable, and by this time are quite reliable. But they don’t meet the next requirement either.

On-Site Backup. Usually you hear about off-site backup, and I agree that off-site backup is very good thing—but you get that automatically with blog posts, since they usually live on a server in a server farm somewhere. I’ve become much more interested in on-site backup, which is to say I want to keep the words I’ve written closer at hand, where I can get at them, and maybe re-use them or repackage them later. It’s possible to download a complete backup of your blog posts from WordPress, but it’s not in a very pleasant form. That meant using something that runs locally and saves data locally, but also works via the cloud.

Consequently, my next solution was Scrivener, which I’ll be saying a lot more about at another time. Suffice it say that one Scrivener project can contain any number of blog posts, categorizing them any way I like; and if I save the Scrivener project in my DropBox folder (you do use DropBox, don’t you?) then it’s available on all of my machines. I’d gotten my laptop by this time, so iPad access wasn’t needed (though Scrivener has recently added that).

Scrivener did the job pretty well, and since I use it for other writing projects I was pleased to use it for blogging as well. But both Evernote and Scrivener had a serious flaw: any formatting I put into my posts rarely carried over properly when I cut and pasted them into the WordPress blog editor. Evernote and Scrivener had differing problems in this area, but they both had them. And that led me to the next requirement:

No formatting fix-ups when posting. Having written and proofread a post, I wanted to be able to copy and paste the post from my off-line app into the in-browser blog editor, and have it retain all of the formatting and links.

Bottom-line. I wanted a solution that would let me compose blog posts off-line, using whatever hardware I had to hand; would let me move from device to device as convenience dictated; would keep the posts resident in one place on my local machine; and would streamline the posting process.

And I found one…but that’s another post.

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photo credit: Sjors Provoost Dragon via photopin (license)