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The Northern Spy
June 2008

Getting The Word Out

Rick Sutcliffe

The word processor is mightier than the sword

and much more useful in the Fourth Civilization. But some are better than others. The Spy has used and reviewed dozens over the years--from venerable Apple ][ programs Screenwriter, Gutenberg and WriteAway, to Word, Word Perfect, and Appleworks (in various incarnations), to text programs like Alpha, TextEdit, NotePad, BBEdit, and VI/VIM. He has played with assorted Office Word clones/replacements, with Mariner Write, Mellel, Pages, and scores of other offerings on a variety of platforms, but never adopted any of them.

Back in the day, attempts to port Word Perfect to the Mac were among the most pitiful of all, with Word version three a close second (though the latter had only its thousands of bugs, and didn't destroy hard drives.) WP's utter failure to produce a workable Mac version was one road marker in its decline to oblivion, though far from the only problem with the once dominant software company.

Long time readers know that Word in any of its versions has never been the Spy's favourite--a clumsy, non-intuitive piece of code bloat if there ever was one. (To be fair, his opinion of Excel was quite the opposite until the recent decision to abandon cross-platform compatibility). Worse, attempts to use most versions of Word with a novel -length manuscript proved an utter failure, as it was brought to its knees by a two hundred thousand word document. (He hasn't attempted to test the most recent version with large documents.)

The fastest and most versatile Macintosh word processor was NisusWriter, which reached version 6.5 under OS 9. Whether writing a letter, report, textbook, or novel, it had everything a writer needed, and was never troubled by document length. The search and replace function, graphics layer, invisible text (to hide markup), mail merge, and many other features made it simply the best writing tool available. Second place was distant. The only serious drawback was a quirky spell checker that the company never bothered to fix.

Then came OS X. As often happens, the programmers who'd created much of the old product code base were long gone, and porting to the new OS was a nightmare (shades of Lotus). Nisus instead purchased a competing product, Okito Composer, and attempted to merge its own ports with the new product. In time this has produced a basic product (Nisus Writer Express) and a more full-bodied one (Nisus Writer Pro). Along the way, it has improved greatly, particularly in its ability to read NW6.5 files. However, even after all this time, the Pro product, though among the better word processing environments of the last thirty years, still lacks features that were available in 6.5 on OS 9. Unfortunately for the Spy, he uses some of those extensively in creating textbooks (invisible text and file merge.)

Version 1.1 (recently released in a public beta) adds the latter. For a user of 6.5, the feature is disconcerting, because it appears to use the same syntax for field names (a name enclosed in chevrons), but the names are actually variables and the chevrons a screen decoration to set them off, not actual characters. Moreover, file joining via a list of files to merge into a master document is absent. So, the new mail merge is just that. It will mass produce letters and receipts, but for joining the chapters of a book into a single gigantic file, one must look elsewhere.

Elsewhere appears to be Scrivener.

Literature and Latte's product is not the only novel writing software on the market, but in a couple of months' use it has answered the Spy's needs admirably. Scrivener allows the writer to divide a project (novel, screenplay, text) into sections (say, chapters) and these in turn into scenes (more levels are possible). Each scene can have a storyboard and notes as well as the text. Other sections may contain reference material, character sketches, timelines and other information. Scenes can be edited individually, or several selected as scrivenings and worked on together (very handy).

A project is stored as a OS package, meaning that even if something went horribly terribly wrong, the scene files inside the package would still be available as .rtfd entities. (In the Finder, control click the package and select Show Package Contents.) Such .rtfd files can be directly opened by NW Pro, among other programs.

Scrivener allows one to define a format template for exporting the project files. This allows the writer to create in one set of formatting rules and produce a document that satisfies a different set of rules for an editor (italics can be transformed into underlined, chapter headings and scene separators added, etc.) Obviously the mail merge problem goes away, and so does the issue of maintaining several formats for different purposes. (Well, html may be an issue, but....)

Scrivener is available only on the Mac, and is the kind of well-thought-out and innovative software that induces people to buy a Mac just to run it. Very highly recommended--the best truly new product seen here in many a year.

Waking up from last month's sleep problems,

the Spy notes that the latest firmware upgrade to the MacBookPro improved things substantially. Now, when moving the machine from one cradle to another, or to travel use, one only need wait a few minutes after the screen comes live, and the trackball will discover itself correctly. Actual crashes have also been minimized. Better than it was, anyway.

The acid test

for the new Canon 40D starts day after tomorrow with its first major shoot trip--a once-in-a-lifetime two week sojourn to Ireland, sourceland of most of the Spy's ancestors. Just now transferring the first 500 pics to CD and hard drive to ensure a clean slate and plenty of room for the thousands of images he expects to make. USB is so sloooooow.


continues this month with reports that a G3 device is about to be released by some European carriers. If true, this might also be what Rogers is waiting for before launching iPhone in Canada, supposedly with a $7/month unlimited data plan. Believe it when you see it, but watch the WWDC (sold out, BTW) news later in June for details. An iteration of the MacBookPro is also a possibility for WWDC, but don't hold your breath for a tablet.

Market numbers mean more bad news

for purveyors of cheap computers limited to running W*nd*ws rather than OS X as well (not to mention bad news for MS Vista sales). Some reports suggest that Apple's market share is as high as 14% overall, and a phenomenal 66% of the $1000+ market. PC portable sales are flat, with desktops dropping some 25%, while Mac sales are up between 40% and 50%. These are much higher than the Spy's own projections, and may be slightly inflated, but the trend is very clear--the two market segments are rapidly heading in opposite directions. Apple now has a lock on the premium market. It wouldn't take much to achieve the same overall.

Don't call or write

any time soon, as the Spy may only check eMail every three days or so while away. TTFN.

--The Northern Spy

Rick Sutcliffe, (a.k.a. The Northern Spy) is professor of Computing Science and Mathematics at Trinity Western University. He's written two textbooks and several novels, one named best ePublished SF novel for 2003. His columns have appeared in numerous magazines and newspapers, and he's a regular speaker at churches, schools, academic meetings, and conferences. He and his wife Joyce have lived in the Aldergrove/Bradner area of BC since 1972.

Want to discuss this and other Northern Spy columns? Surf on over to ArjayBB.com. Participate and you could win free web hosting from the WebNameHost.net subsidiary of Arjay Web Services. Rick Sutcliffe's fiction can be purchased in various eBook formats from Fictionwise, and in dead tree form from Bowker's Booksurge.


The Northern Spy Home Page: http://www.TheNorthernSpy.com

The Spy's Laws collected: http://www.thenorthernspy.com/spyslaws.htm

The Spy's Shareware download site: http://downloads.thenorthernspy.com/

WebNameHost : http://www.WebNameHost.net

WebNameSource : http://www.WebNameSource.net

nameman : http://nameman.net

opundo : http://opundo.com

Sheaves Christian Resources : http://sheaves.org

Arjay Books: http://www.ArjayBooks.com

Booksurge: http://www.booksurge.com

Fictionwise: http://www.fictionwise.com

Apple: http://www.apple.com/

Nisus: http://www.nisus.com/

Literature and Latte: http://www.literatureandlatte.com/

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Last Updated: 2008 05 20