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The Northern Spy
May 2003

Getting the Word Out

Rick Sutcliffe

Nice ambiguous appearing title that, but as Wirth once said, "If it is ambiguous it is because I meant it to be."

OTOH, there is the program of that name. We gave up on Word at about version 3 when it set some kind of record for bugs in a released product. Version 5.1 nearly won us back, but subsequent ones have turned us off entirely. We find that a week away from the program is enough to forget how to do all but the most basic things. Not that we have analysed this phenomenon in any great detail, but somehow Word hasn't an intuitive feel to it, the accusations of bloatware ring true, and using it appears to be more a chore than it is worth.

On occasion, the Spy has to prepare a manuscript in Word format because some technology-poor publishers don't know there is anything else, much less how to use it. When this happens, he uses NisusWriter Save As (first choice) or MacLink (not as good) to get .doc output, then fire up Word to fix certain formatting elements that translate poorly. (Headers, footers, line spacing, and fonts often need work; with MacLink the results can be chancey.) By the way, if the converter crashes without warning it is probably because the Nisus document has, or once had, a publisher and/or subscriber. Removing all such, then copying the material into a new fresh file and saving usually solves this problem and allows the conversion to proceed.

But the last time the Spy had to do this with one of his novels, he was reminded why he uses NisusWriter as he watched Word take several minutes (not a misprint) to repaginate the 300-page book after each minor change. Sorry, this is definitely not a class act. 'Course, Nisus itself came so late to the OS X party they ended up buying a half finished product then trying to backpaste enough of their own features into it to sell it as though it were an X version of their own. Even this much was a dream until recently, and the inevitable delays took a toll on the Nisus faithful.

However, Nisus recently released a public beta of Nisus Writer Express, which is what they will call the OS X incarnation of their venerable but aging NisusWriter. As noted, this has been a long time coming, and the Spy was most interested to see what was up. It was several days before the server offering the beta file would respond to queries in an error free manner, but eventually, demand slacked, a mirror became functional, the application came through, and we went lightly through the paces with it.

Nisus Writer Express is still a beta and has a long distance to go before being a finished product. However, it has a distinctively OS X look to it, and, given its lineage, is more a new product than a rework of the old one. Indeed it bears little resemblance to the Classic version. Features include customizable toolbar, a very nice tooldrawer, and multiple clipboard facility. It opens and displays old NisusWriter files more or less correctly, except that it does not honour the invisible format, showing all such text as any other.

The new spell checker appears to have the potential to be a vast improvement (it now includes interactive checking, better rules, and more dictionaries), but the Find command, though in a convenient drawer has its powerfinding (GREP) options slightly less accessible than the old program. One has to guess that a particular icon needs to be clicked to invoke this functionality.

Images are now more easily inserted into the single layer documents, but there are no longer (at the moment) any image editing tools.

Of course, features pioneered by Nisus such as non-contiguous selection, headers and footers, and user-defined keyboard shortcuts are all still there. Indeed, the multiple editable clipboard facility is even better than before, as it can be customized. For instance, the user can decide how many clipboards there will be.

NWE is able to read some Word files more or less correctly, but this ability falls off rapidly as the complexity of formatting in the Word file grows. NWE can also write Word, RTF, unicode, and HTML, though the latter is likely to need substantial tuning up before being placed on a web site. In fairness, no one would use the HTML generated by Word on a "real" web site, either, but the latter's anaemic capability in this arena would be easy to beat. The Spy writes code directly in BBEdit or NisusWriter, though his mode of working in the latter will now be impaired (see below).

However, NWE currently lacks styles, the old document menu and Catalog window, thesaurus, footnotes, endnotes, right to left input, line numbering, tables, and backward compatibility with some formats. It can read NisusWriter 5 and 6 files but not write them with formatting as the classic Nisus file format is not useable in NWE (the original versions stored formatting information in the resource fork.)

There is ostensibly a macro capability, that includes Perl and AppleScript as well as a menu command facility, but there aren't yet any instructions on how to use it or indication if there will be a connection with the old macros. One comment on the NisusWriter site indicated that macros that used menu commands would still work if the menus were in the same place, but the current version does not even offer to open old macro files and does not yet come with any of its own, so it's too soon to tell. Documentation and support are, of course, as with all beta versions, nonexistent.

The Spy's mode of working with books (those intended for the web at any rate) involved using a suite of macros to put html markup into the file invisibly so that the same file would both print and display as a web site correctly. Chapters were broken down by section using publish and subscribe. With the latter gone, invisible text now absent, and macros problematic, all this style of working is apparently out the window. For books not intended for the web, he saves each chapter as a separate file (convenience and security) than assembles the whole at the end using Print Merge. Hmmm. Can't find that command any more either.

To torture test load times, we opened The Interregnum Volume II --The Friends, a 150K word 700K character file. NisusWriter Classic took three seconds to open the file and it was ready for use immediately. Word took nine seconds to open the converted version and several minutes to repaginate. Alas, NisusWriter Express Beta hung, unable to complete opening the file, so no comparison could yet be made.

We encountered minor difficulties making all the features work, and some operations were slower than they used to be, but one would expect this in a beta, and it may be that unfamiliarity with the product caused us to stumble in a few places. Thus, there is no bottom line here as yet. How useful Nisus writer Express will be depends on the final feature set, optimization, and interopability. For some, an alternative to Word is all that matters. For others, a full-featured word processor is essential. The beta version of NWE is farther away from being that than the Classic version was, but it shows promise. Give it a few months and we'll see.

OTOH, "getting the word out" may be used to refer to alternative publishing options. Indeed, though the Classic "Publish and Subscribe" is no more, there are new modes of same, though with different contexts and semantics.

Ranchero Software's NetNewsWire (Lite version free, heavier version $39.95) is a case in point. NetNewsWire is a Cocoa three-paned RSS news feed reader. The paid version also includes a weblog editor and other additional features. The bumph on Ranchero's site includes:

- Remembers which items you’ve read, and lets you know when there are new items, so you spend less time surfing.

- Reads RSS news files from thousands of different websites.

- Comes with hundreds of sites you can subscribe to with one click.

- RSS discovery--it can usually find a site’s RSS feed given the home page URL.

- No up-front configuration required: getting started is just a matter of launching the application.

- Familiar interface means there isn’t a bunch to learn.

- Subscriptions can be grouped via drag-and-drop, so you can organize your news your way.

- Customizable appearance, including colors and window transparency.

- Imports and exports subscriptions files compatible with other RSS readers.

Like your neighbourhood church bulletin, it's all true! The spy has already saved hours by using this program. Instead of surfing the news sites one at a time for articles of interest, just tell NetNewsWire which feeds or weblogs you want (and group them into categories for convenience), then once a day order it to refresh the headlines. When it's done, the ones you haven't previously marked as read will be indicated. Click on one for a description, click twice to pull the whole article from the relevant site.

Ranchero supplies a drawer full of sites that can be added to one's personal subscription list. Naturally, the Mac sites are heavily represented. I asked developer Brent Simmons why he didn't make the drawer a news feed itself, so it would be kept up to date dynamically (to get a new list you have to update the software). His answer:

1. I subscribe to the principle that you should limit the number of things that can go wrong. The file system is more reliable than the network. So the list of sites is stored in a text file (that's embedded in the app).

2. The list of sites is *much* larger than most RSS feeds, making failures to read it all the more likely. It would also mean lots more bandwidth use by NetNewsWire users (and by me, since I would have to put the file on my website).

3. I *hate* software that contacts the company's website in hidden or semi-hidden ways. And I think lots of people feel the same way. In NetNewsWire, the only reason it would contact my website is if you've subscribed to ranchero.com and/or inessential.com. Yes, ranchero.com is a default subscription -- but it's right there in the Subscriptions pane, open and visible, and it's not treated any differently than any other RSS feed.

RSS is a Netscape idea that's been around for a while, but has only recently taken off. The advent of WebLog creation tools, the increasing prominence of XML, and the market appearance of programs such as NetNewsWire make news feeds a personal and individual experience both in the reading and in the writing. Look for a proliferation of sites offering blogs or feeds as this catches on. Ranchero has a big winner here. NetNewsWire is amazing.

On the faerie hand (Pournelle calls it "the gripping hand", but that's its Christian name, as Leacock might say) one does not need a blog editor to create a news feed. News feeds, after all are just XML files. Enter the URL for one in a browser and you'll get the raw text, not too useful for display, but great for learning. Copy the whole thing into BBEdit or Nisus, and consider the structure. It shouldn't take long to duplicate it. There are several versions of RSS; the file below, which is a feed from The Northern Spy follows version 0.91.

<?xml version="1.0" encoding="ISO-8859-1" ?>
<rss version="0.91">
      <title>The Northern Spy</title>
      <description>Macintosh Column and Portal</description>
      <copyright>Copyright 1983-2003, Rick Sutcliffe and Arjay Enterprises.</copyright>
         <title>The Northern Spy</title>
         <title>Apple's Golden Delicious--An Inside Report (Apr 2003)</title>
         <description>2003 04 01 A new chip and a new operating system for Apple's new era.</description> 
         <title>Spy About Town (Mar 2003)</title>
         <description>2003 02 28 Comments on OS X, languages, and the mad scientist scenario.</description>
         <title>Forward To The Past (Feb 2003)</title>
         <description>2003 02 09 A twenty-five year retrospective of the Northern Spy.</description>
         <title>The 1G TiBook (Jan 2003)</title>
         <description>2002 12 21 A review of the fifteen-inch Titanium 1G G4 Power Book.</description>
         <title>The The Northern Spy 2002 Archive</title>
         <description>All the articles from the previous year are now archived here.</description>

         <title>Rick Sutcliffe's novels now have a new publisher</title>
         <description>Northern Spy columnist Rick Sutcliffe's Irish Christian SF novels have now been re-published by Writer's Exchange ePublishing.</description>

         <title>Arjay Enterprises provides a variety of services and information</title>
         <description>Besides The Northern Spy, Arjay Enterprises also publishes opundo (a word garage of clean humour), and Sheaves Christian Resources. In addition, it offers name registrations and hosting. All services and sites are available through ArjayEnterprises.com.</description>


The first line specifies the standard being followed, then the rest of the file is enclosed in <rss> and <channel> tags. The next several tags are informational. Readers may or may not make use of them, but they make available information about the site, its author, and supply an image tag.

The actual news items are enclosed in tags, and each of these includes a <title>, <link> and <description>, none of which should be left out. There can be as many of these as desired. The finished file should be named rss.xml and placed at the top level of a web site beside the index file. This last is not strictly necessary, but programs like NetNewsWire have the ability to detect such files even if they are just given the main site page, so it is useful to make the detection as easy as possible.

That's it. You include a link on your main page that can be pasted into the news window of a reader, advertise it on sites carrying compendia of RSS feeds, and the world will beat a path to your door (provided you regularly update your feed with new and fresh information people want to read.)

The month would not be complete without a mention of Apple's new music store. Accessed via iTunes 4 it offers thousands of song titles that can be downloaded for $0.99 and either played using QuickTime or passed along to the iPod (new model now available). Ostensibly, (where have we seen that word before) this is a state of the art music facility. Lots of titles from top labels, mostly pop/rock, with modest selections from other genres such as classical and "inspirational". Practically, the Spy has no way of knowing how good the service is. As a resident of Canada, he lacks a United States credit card billing address (a requirement of the system) and cannot make purchases of music at the Apple store. Ah well, judging from the selection he is as unready for the music store as it is for him.

Now if only Steve would offer electronic books through this service.

-- The Northern Spy

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Last Updated: 2006 11 08