Windows 10 and Productivity Risk

While there are certainly plenty of arguments for and against Windows 10, for users who treat their desktops, notebooks or tablets like nothing more than large-display smartphones many of Windows 10’s new features make sense. If you’ve already thrown in the towel and become a co-dependent computer user, nothing Microsoft is doing with Windows 10 is any different than what Google, Amazon and others have been doing to you for years. Picking up on a subplot in the previous post, however, the rollout of Windows 10 should give anyone pause if they use their computer to create.

The problem with Windows 10 is that there’s a big difference between having badly-behaved or data raping apps on my computer and having a badly-behaved data-raping computer. The operating system on my machine isn’t just another program, it’s the most privileged program from an administrative standpoint, meaning it must be the most secure. Windows has always been full of holes, and its registry is a mess, but with some care it was possible to keep the bad guys out, whether the bad guys were hackers or high-gloss Silicon Valley corporations. Windows 10 changes all that, because Windows 10 is designed to serve Microsoft’s competitive needs first and user needs second.

I do not think of my computer as simply a large-display smartphone. My computer is used for productivity — meaning mostly writing, but also other tasks. From that perspective, whatever advantages Windows 10 offers, it also includes several serious drawbacks regarding productivity and security, and one feature in particular that is a deal breaker. Fortunately, I believe Microsoft will ultimately be compelled to change that feature, at which point Windows 10 might become a viable option.  Read more ]


How to Preview Your Book in Word

Maybe everybody else figured this out years ago, but I’m passing it along in case other self-publishing writers are still stumped….

I write in Microsoft Word. Specifically, I use Word 2003, which is the last version of Word prior to the introduction of both the ponderous ribbon interface and the defaulting of all MS Office docs to the web-happy in-house .docx file format. (When Office 2007 debuted I decided I was done learning new productivity tools, particularly when the people making those tools were repeatedly and unrepentantly inclined to radical and proprietary changes that did not benefit my productivity. See also Windows 8.)

When you format a document for printing as a book, the first page of your document will become the page of your book that appears on the right-hand side when the cover is opened. Thereafter, all left-hand pages will be even-numbered, all right-hand pages odd-numbered. When previewing your book in Word, then, what you want to see is the first right-hand, odd-numbered page all alone on the right side of the screen, followed by pairs of left-and-right-hand pages showing the correct pagination and formatting (particular the gutter margin) as you scroll through the document.

In Word 2003 there are five different view modes available under the View menu — Normal, Web Layout, Print Layout, Reading Layout and Outline — and not one of those views will give you what you’re looking for. Normal view only shows one page at a time, inline. Web Layout shows the entire doc as an endless scroll. Print Layout will show two side-by-side pages, or more if you zoom out, but the first odd page will always be on the left when it should be on the right. Reading Layout, which does show two pages side-by-side, like a book, also incorrectly puts the first right-hand page on the left. And of course Outline view shows the entire document as a single-page outline.

Way back when I formatted my short story collection, the only way I could figure out how to force Word to display the first right-hand page on the right side of the screen was to add a dummy page at the beginning of the doc (effectively page zero). The problem with that hack was that Word would then display all of the correctly numbered and formatted right-and-left-hand pages on the wrong side of the screen. For example, page two, which should have a larger gutter margin on the right side of that page, would correctly display on the left of the screen, but because Word then counted that as page three of the doc the larger gutter appeared on the left — meaning the outside of the two-page display. Worse, headers and footers were also affected and had to be scrupulously ignored.

Although I repeatedly searched for a solution, I could not figure out how to get Word to display the first page of my doc as a single right-hand page, followed by the correct side-by-side view as if I was reading a book. Because I’m now monkeying around with another book I recently found myself confronting the same problem, and again I refused to believe that Word could not somehow be configured to give me the view I needed. So I did yet another series of searches, and this time I found the answer, which was apparently there all along:

It *does* work, at least in Word 2003 (and every previous version AFAR). I
have a four-page test document. If I select “Mirror margins” then switch to
Print Preview and choose 1×2 pages, I get page 1 on the right. Paging down,
I get pages 2 and 3, then 4. Same if I check “Different odd and even.”
Either of those settings has the desired result.

So there you go. In Word 2003 and earlier, and perhaps later, set Mirror Margins in the Page Setup dialogue, then select Print Preview under the File menu. (It doesn’t even matter what View mode you’re in at the moment.) The first page of your book-formatted doc will appear alone on the right side of the screen, followed by side-by-side-pages the rest of the way as you scroll.

If that works in later versions of Word, please drop a note in the comments. I don’t want any other writers wasting time trying to solve this completely contrarian problem.

— Mark Barrett

Revisiting Hemingway’s Suicide

Whatever you think you know about Ernest Hemingway, most of what you know or believe you know — and I mean 99% of it — has to do with his persona or celebrity or some facet of his life other than what he actually wrote. That’s true whether you’re a perspicacious academic, an inveterate reader or a militant blogger with an axe to grind for or against.

This post is not about any of that. It is also not about Ernest Hemingway the writer. It is, instead, a post about Ernest Hemingway as a physical being, and as such broaches a narrative that runs at cross purposes to the exploitation, condemnation or exultation of Hemingway as a consciousness. While this post is thus incidental to the objectives of almost anyone who has ever commented about Hemingway as an artist or entertainer, it may yet be central to understanding Hemingway as a man, as opposed to a man’s man.

Most people know that Ernest Hemingway killed himself. If you did not know that prior to stumbling on this post, you do now by virtue of both the headline and this sentence. Many people know that Hemingway shot himself in the head with a shotgun. Some people know that his father committed suicide with a revolver in the same way. That is all true. Because Ernest Hemingway was a celebrity, however, his suicide triggered an outsized desire — if not a cultural need — to frame that act in the context of his life and work, to say nothing of spawning the usual mindless attempts to ascribe a single motive to his decision.

Having thought about storytelling for a long time I have come of late to conclude that such deliberative efforts are not born of the rational mind, which purports to be the agent of concerns about motive, but the narrative mind. It is the intrinsic storyteller in each of us which seeks — if not needs — to make sense of events, particularly when the weight of evidence makes clear that chaos does exist, and that we, at times, are its embodiment. It is because of this instinct, whether you ever paid much attention to Hemingway or not, that today you still likely hold some belief — some plausible cause and effect in your own mind — which explains why Hemingway did what he did over fifty long years ago.  Read more ]


Email Subscription Conundrum Update

Faced recently with the choice between yet more proofreading and advancing my feeble knowledge, I spent the better part of a whole day digging into the Feedburner issues mentioned in the previous post. The good news is that I learned a lot. The bad news is that none of what I learned has solved the problem, or is likely to do so.

As was to be expected, Feedburner is now toying with me by sending emails to at least some of the addresses in its subscription list. I can confirm that because I registered a couple of test-addresses, and a few days later a message got through on one account notifying me of a recent post. Unfortunately, that same message did not arrive at two other accounts, so I now have to figure out if the issue is with Feedburner itself (impossible to determine) or with the site hosting those addresses (possible but not likely given their disinterest).

As for fixing potential issues with Feedburner, in fits and starts I managed to work through all of the steps that I later found helpfully enumerated here. If you’re having Feedburner issues yourself, that’s where I’d start. (None of that troubleshooting did anything for me.)

On the subject of whether I’m using Feedburner for my RSS feed, by chance I stumbled across confirmation (now lost) that the only thing Feedburner does with regard to feeds is give you visibility to stats associated with their use. And as far as I can tell, it even does a miserable job of that. Then again I am terminally naive about how to exploit the data habits of people who come to Ditchwalk, so I’m probably missing something. In any case, Feedburner seems to be non-essential for feeds unless you’re an analytics junkie.

The ENews Extended plugin, which was closely associated with StudioPress/Genesis themes for several years, now seems to be deprecated, moribund and — while still working — non-viable if you want to use a solution derived from Cpanel or your own ISP/mail package. I asked a couple of people if they’d ever even seen that plugin configured to use something like Mailman, and they said they had not.  Read more ]


The Email Subscription Conundrum

For at least six years I’ve been using Feedburner to send a single email to registered subscribers after each new post is published. A few weeks ago Feedburner stopped working for reasons I cannot ascertain. I’ve tried everything possible to get it to work, but even though all systems appear go the emails are not being sent.

I know this is not a new complaint, and that Google (which owns Feedburner) has allowed the site/service to languish. It is, technologically, adrift, and has been for a long time. I used it because it works, it no longer works, so it’s time to do something else.

One complicating factor is that Feedbuner handles both emails subscriptions and RSS feeds, and I think I’ve been using Feedburner for both. I say ‘I think’ because no matter how much I learn about RSS feeds I’m never quite sure what they are. They seem to be a kind of parallel channel to my published site — like a radio version, or maybe a telex or telegraph. If you don’t want to click on my site you can point your browser or feed-reader to the Ditchwalk feed and get my content that way.

What’s never clear to me is what Feedburner is actually doing to make that feed happen, because I think it’s actually doing nothing. Rather, it takes my feed — which WordPress creates — and then redirects it, or repurposes it, or maybe even reporpoises it, or something. Which means not only that Feedburner isn’t doing anything for me in terms of email subscriptions, it’s doing nothing for me in terms of RSS. Or at least nothing I need to care about if the rest of Feedburner’s functionality is on the fritz.  Read more ]


Worth The Paper It’s Printed On

A few weeks back I was looking at several recently published non-fiction titles, and while holding each in turn I kept having the odd feeling that something was wrong. I couldn’t put my finger on it until I flipped through one of the books and found a multi-page section which had black text against a light-gray background. The contrast between the light-gray page and what should have been jet-black type was so slight as to make the text almost unreadable, even under bright light.

Without thinking I fingered the paper on that page and suddenly the connection was made. What I was holding felt wrong because the paper was feather-light, like bound newsprint. Checking each of the books in turn I realized that without the covers and dust jackets — which felt as if they were half the weight of each book — I’m not sure any of the titles would have weighed more than a comic.

While I understand that price pressures in the publishing industry are crushing, each of these books was selling for upwards of $25 at retail, yet felt insubstantial at best. In comparison, a copy of my self-published short story collection, while shorter by page count, not only felt more substantial, each page felt weightier and had more contrast.

I recognize that much of what is lauded as professional publishing amounts to little more than industry droppings from a hits-driven marketing machine. I also realize that nobody expects most books to last twenty years, let alone a hundred. I cannot help thinking, however, that devaluing the physical properties of your own product might diminish interest in that product over time.

Then again, given the margins and production efficiencies inherent in electronic books, maybe that the industry’s goal.

— Mark Barrett

Trigger Warning: Trigger Warnings

I don’t get trigger warnings, particularly as discussed in the context of higher education. I mean, I get them, but I don’t get them.

If the point is to let people know that they might have to read something potentially disturbing, why isn’t a blanket acknowledgement simply proffered? I.e., if you come to our school you may be asked to confront some scary ideas?

If the point is to prevent people who have been traumatized from being reminded of their trauma, why is that not properly the responsibility of the mental health professionals on campus? I wouldn’t want someone who had been raped to be compelled by a bureaucracy to read a work describing graphic rape, but where’s the line? If reading something simply makes you feel bad have you been violated? Do we all get to pick and choose which ideas do and do not get access to our pretty little heads?

It seems to me that the very idea of a trigger warning is a trigger warning. The more easily you are triggered, the more likely any warning will trigger you even if the specific warning doesn’t apply to whatever it was that traumatized you. And that’s assuming that you were traumatized to a medical-grade degree, and not just upset or frightened in the normal course of human events.

What about people who have been traumatized but not sought help? Are trigger warnings providing a service, or are they enabling people to avoid healing or confronting reality? It’s certainly understandable that someone would not want to revisit a trauma, but if that trauma has been dealt with to whatever degree possible, wouldn’t that either diminish the need for trigger warnings or make it possible for that particular individual to do other work — perhaps in part based on an actual note from their campus doctor?

In reading this post you may have intuited some snark or sarcasm, but I assure you that in writing it and revising it several times there is nothing but sincere confusion in these words. I’m even given to wonder if the smartphone — with its endless ability to control and throttle streams of communication — has not given rise to the assumption that all manner of information can be controlled, including information previously deemed important to a well-rounded education. (Which includes the ability to deal with bad news and disturbing ideas and confrontational subjects in an adult manner.)

Then again, it seems equally clear these days that most institutions of higher learning are positioning themselves more as educational resorts than anything else, so it shouldn’t be surprising that their guests are particularly interested in personal comfort. And yet, in an age when actual campus rape seems to be emerging as an unacknowledged and perhaps even longstanding epidemic, the idea that those same guests are determined to avoid reading difficult or disturbing texts seems particularly incongruous.

Like I said, I don’t get trigger warnings. The more I try to figure out how they would actually work and who they would actually help, the more I end up thinking they’re primarily designed to facilitate happy thoughts and prevent unhappy thoughts. Which is fine if you can afford to pay the world to treat you that way, but has nothing to do with being educated or living in the real world.

— Mark Barrett


Publishing is for Professionals

So today is the day that Harper Lee’s new ‘novel’ goes on sale. Far be it from me to question the motives of the titans of cultural responsibility at HarperCollins, but if the early returns are any indication this is not a glorious day in the history of literature:

“Watchman”s portrayal of the older Finch as a man who has attended a Ku Klux Klan meeting and opposes racial desegregation has already grabbed headlines because of the stark contrast to the noble lawyer in “Mockingbird” who defends a black man wrongly accused of raping a white woman.

The Wall Street Journal’s Sam Sacks described “Watchman” as “a distressing book, one that delivers a startling rebuttal to the shining idealism of ‘To Kill a Mockingbird.’ This story is of the toppling of idols; its major theme is disillusion.”

Several reviewers found fault with the new book on artistic grounds.

David L. Ulin of the Los Angeles Times called it “an apprentice effort (that) falls apart in the second half” and Julia Teller at the Chicago Tribune said it was “almost unbearably clunky” in parts.

It’s quite clear that until very recently Harper Lee never intended this ‘novel’ to be published, and that until the death of her sister, who was her primary caretaker, that wish was respected. Now, amazingly, at exactly the moment when Lee is alone and also quite aged and infirm, it turns out that the kindly cultural stewards at HarperCollins have been able to convince Lee otherwise. It’s a miracle — and in particular a miracle that has absolutely nothing to do with money.

But there’s a problem, of course, and the problem is how to see this new ‘novel’ in the context of Lee’s less-infamous novel, To Kill a Mockingbird. Or rather it’s a problem for some, but not for anyone who has ever written, because what’s being sold as a new novel from Harper Lee is almost certainly an early exploratory draft that held great meaning for Lee not because of what it was, but because of what it led to.

When you’re a writer, and particularly when you work in long form, you learn that your initial work is not always on the mark. Sometimes you get help from others, sometimes you see a better way yourself, but in any case you try something, it doesn’t work, so you try something else. There is nothing new in this. It is the way authors have always written, even as many authors themselves prefer to cling to the self-aggrandizing (and coincidentally salable) lie that great works emerge wholly formed, without typos.

In the graphic-novel genre Lee’s new ‘novel’ would simply be considered an alternate history and discussed in that context, but Mockingbird is sainted literature. Sainted literature that may now be indelibly stained by the noble and benevolent actions of a giant corporation acting only in the best interest of its author and readers. Because many of the critics who bless literature with sainthood are themselves culturally unable to comprehend Lee’s new ‘novel’ as a work product, as opposed to a statement of some kind, the myth will be perpetuated that this new work is in fact a separate work, which it almost certainly is not.

Whatever becomes of Lee and her legacy, the lesson for other writers is clear. If you’ve got an early exploratory draft, and you don’t want someone coming along later and misrepresenting that draft as a separate work, then you need to burn or delete that draft. At which point the academics will accuse you of having stolen or appropriated the final product, because they will find no evidence of how you got there on your own.

— Mark Barrett

VR, Drones and Autonomous Vehicles

As you are probably aware due to the unending stream of utopian press reports emanating from Silicon Valley, three new technologies bankrolled by three of the biggest names in tech are poised to change your life for the better. Just as the computer and internet have been nothing but a positive in the lives of all people everywhere, so too will virtual reality, drones and self-driving vehicles liberate human beings from the tedium of, respectively, sensing the real world, delivering packages, and driving.

Still, in the wee hours of the night, and admittedly afflicted by the kind of doubt that will forever keep human beings from reaching the computational certitude of computers, I find myself thinking that VR, drones and autonomous vehicles sound nice in the vacuum of public relations and venture-capital funding, but may experience or even provoke real-world problems upon deployment. In fact, I can’t keep my storytelling reflex from filling in all the utopian backdrops and can’t-miss financial windfalls with scenarios in which these technologies fail or are repurposed to darker intents.  Read more ]

Authors, Artists and the Internet

Because it’s easy to become overwhelmed by tech minutia, particularly if you hail from the arts, I thought it might be useful to step back from the discussion of SEO in the previous post and consider the internet in broader context. If you’re not into technology most tech-speak probably sounds like gibberish, but you probably also have faith that it all makes sense to someone somewhere. If the internet is a mystery to you as an artist or author, you trust that the smart, wonderful, benevolent people who created the internet in order to help you reach both your intended audience and your creative potential really do understand what it’s all about.

The internet is an amazing creation, and has come to dominate our lives in an amazingly short amount of time. Backed by hundreds of billions of dollars in investment, infrastructure and advertising, the internet is clearly the place to be, at least according to the internet. Beyond making a lot of people rich, however, the internet as a method of communication has democratized conversations that were previously controlled by self-interested if not bigoted gatekeepers, meaning voices that were perpetually overlooked or muted can now be heard on issues of critical importance. In every way the internet imitates life, and at times even imitates art.

The problem with that feel-good appraisal is that it ignores another fundamental truth about the internet, which is that is completely insane. And in saying that I do not mean the internet is exasperating or wildly avante-garde, nor am I being hyperbolic or pejorative. Rather, I mean that as a cold, clinical appraisal. If you are an author or artist the maze of technologies driving the internet may make it hard to perceive the systemic dysfunction emanating from your screen (though the phrase virtual reality is itself a shrill clue), but you are in fact better positioned than most to understand it. All you need to do is recast your conception of the internet in familiar terms.

If you’re a writer, think of the internet as having been authored by Joseph Heller or Kurt Vonnegut. If you’re an artist, think of the internet as a work by Salvador Dali or René Magritte. Which is to say that the internet is not simply the sum of its technologies and techniques, but a construct, space, and experience informed and distorted by human perception and imagination.  Read more ]