Tag Archives: OS X

Using TextWrangler to write poetry

One of creative writing’s decisive advantages over similar arts is its low barrier to entry. The writer needs little more than a way to produce text, whether word processor, blog template, or pen and paper. Great work can be created at minimal expense; the labor is mostly in the head.

This doesn’t mean that the writer should become complacent and be contented with standbys like Word and iWork or even higher-grade tools such as Scrivener. Writing-specific apps, especially distraction-free and corrective ones, have come to the fore over the past decade, and while many of them aren’t so useful (for example, I wasn’t so high on the overbearing Hemingway) there are some that can be hacked for neat effects.

I previously discussed how both Google Keep and Notif Pro – neither one a “writing” app per se – can be used to improve the writing process. Although one may never find herself composing “Ulysses” in Google Keep, it serves as a scrapbook and a way to air mental dirty laundry. Notif Pro is great way to see and manipulate the top idea in your mind, through persistent notifications with lists and photos.

Text editors
Simple, barebones text editors are powerful creative writing tools. Many were designed for composing source code, but they have features that make them uniquely conducive to offbeat poetry and prose composition. In these examples, I mostly consider TextWrangler, a free text editor for OS X that I first started using in early 2013 to write Python files:

Lines
Writing poetry in Word or Google Drive is painful because it feels like a prose tool is being contorted into a poetry one. TextWrangler et al treat text as a collection of discrete lines rather than a blob of contiguous words.

This paradigm is naturally suited to poetry. Plus, the white space that naturally occurs between blocks of code and poem stanzas, and the source code comments that are often written in apps like TextWranger, inspires avant-garde approaches to creative writing.

Through TextWrangler, I got the idea for commented poetry. By that I mean poetry in which a blank line is left above each line so that the poet can make meta-comments on the poetry. It’s easier to show than tell:

wranglerpoem1

A commented poem written in TextWrangler. Note the gray side margin.

I doubt I’m the first person to take this approach, but I know that I would not have thought of it had I stuck to Word or Drive. The notion of text as just lines on a page is utilitarian and literalist, but effective for unlocking new creative angles.

Stylistic agnosticism
Text is text in text editors. Fonts, sizing, and automatic spacings from copy/paste cease to be bottlenecks. Writers can focus on ideas and execution instead of wrangling with style. Poetry, more so than prose, has little need for elaborate formatting or supplementary material. A text editor like TextWrangler helps because it gets out of the way.

BBEdit
The upgraded version of TextWrangler, BBEdit, has other features such as clippings and scratchpad (no need to create an entirely new file just to temporarily hold text you may not end up needing) that ease poetry and prose composition. Repetitive poetry, even on a super-simple level, can be powerful, while advanced pieces often employ motifs (“The Raven,” anyone?).

One of my favorite workflows in TextWrangler is writing a poem, taking a screenshot of its finished state, and then editing the photo in something straightforward like Pixlr Express. The stark interface of TextWrangler provides an earthy grounding to the eventual visual poem:

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An example of a poem screengrabbed from TextWrangler and then edited with Pixlr Express

Finding a Happy Balance Between Mobile and Desktop

“Mobile-first” and “mobile-only” are almost clichés in terms of current app design. But overuse of “mobile” language aside, iOS and Android users have definitely benefitted from this new focus from developers on producing software that exploits and respects the unique capabilities of smaller devices. Maybe even too much so: I recently combed thru my app drawer and felt overwhelmed by the nearly 100 apps – most of them both beautifully designed and easy to use – in it. My first instinct was to simply cut myself off from many of the services provided by these apps, so as to simplify my experience and reduce app count. I initially thought about completely ditching RSS reading and some social networking, for example.

Ultimately, I opted to do something different and instead I redistributed my workflow across my mobile device (a Nexus 4), my Mac, and my wifi-enabled Wii U. Although many of the apps and services I was using had versions available for both Android and OS X (and Web), I decided to restrict many of them to only one of my devices and ignore its other versions. So for example, I kept the mobile Google+ Hangouts app, but eschewed its desktop Web/Gmail version, and likewise kept my desktop RSS reader (Reeder) while ditching my previous mobile RSS clients.

The most difficult, yet most rewarding, part of this process was determining which apps and services I could remove from my phone and perform only on my Mac or Wii U. Amid the swirl of “mobile-only”/”mobile-first lingo,” I reflexively felt that I was selling myself short by offloading many of the excellent apps and services I used onto my relatively old-fashioned Mac and my dainty Wii U, but the experience has been liberating. I have improved my phone’s battery life, reduced clutter in its launcher, and restored some piece of mind: there are fewer things to blankly stare at and anxiously check on my phone while on the train, at the very least.

More importantly, I know have a firmer sense of what I want each device, with its accompanying apps and services, to do. The productivity bump and happiness that I have experienced has also made me realize, finally, why Windows 8 has flopped. Trying to treat all devices the same and have them run the same apps is a recipe for poor user experience and too many duplicate services. It becomes more difficult to know what any given device excels at, or what a user should focus on when using it. If focus is truly saying no to a thousand things, then it’s important to say “no” to certain apps or services on certain platforms. Steve Jobs famously said “no” to Flash on iOS, but one doesn’t even have to be that wonky or technical when creating workflow boundaries and segmentation in his/her own life: I’ve said “no” to Web browsing on my Wii U and to Netflix on my phone, for example.

With this move toward device segmentation and focus in mind, I’ll finally delve into the tasks that I know do only on desktop or in the living room, so as to relieve some of the strain and overload from my mobile device. I perform these tasks using only my Mac or my Wii U, and I do not use their corresponding apps or services on my Nexus 4.

RSS Reading

RSS can be tricky: you probably shouldn’t subscribe to any frequently updated sites, since they will overwhelm your feed and leave you with a “1000+ unread” notification that makes combing thru the list a chore. Rather, sites that push out an update once or twice per day (or every other day) are ideal material for RSS. Rewarding RSS reading requires you to have specialized taste borne out of general desktop Web browsing (see below), as well as a tinkerer’s mindset for adding and subtracting feeds. It’s a workflow meant for a desktop.

Granted, there are some good RSS clients for Android: Press and Minimal Reader Pro spring to mind. However, neither is great at managing feeds due to their minimalism and current reliance on the soon-to-be-extinct Google Reader. Plus, I’ve yet to find an Android rival for Reeder, which I use on my Mac an which is also available for iOS. The time-shifted nature of RSS also makes it something that I often only get around to once I’m back home, not working, and sitting down, with Reeder in front of me, and so I forego using a mobile client most of the time. This may change if and when RSS undergoes its needed post-Google Reader facelift.

Web browsing

The thrill of wide-open desktop browsing doesn’t exist on mobile. Maybe it’s because most mobile sites are bastardizations of their desktop forbearers, or because screen size is a limiting factor. Moreover, most mobile apps are still much better and much faster than their equivalent websites. I haven’t disabled Chrome on my phone, but I seldom use it unless another app directed me there. Instead, I prefer news aggregators like Flipboard and Google Currents, or strong native apps like The Verge, Mokriya Craigslist, and Reddit is Fun Golden Platinum.

Facebook/LinkedIn/Tumblr

Of this trio, only Tumblr has a first-rate Android app in terms of aesthetics and friendliness to battery life. It’s easy for me to see why I don’t like using any of them on mobile: they all began as desktop websites, and then had to be downsized into standalone apps. Alongside these aesthetic and functional quibbles with website-to-app transitions, I also consciously limit my Facebook and LinkedIn intake by only checking them on desktop, and in the case of Tumblr, I may create content for it on my phone, but I usually save it to Google Drive (if only to back it up, which I’ll always end up doing one way or another) and then finish formatting and editing it on my desktop before posting it.

Twitter is a different story, due to its hyper-concise format. I’ll talk about it in the next entry. Google+ – which is almost completely ignorable as a standlone site on desktop – is also much better on mobile, wherein it performs useful background functions like photo backup. Mobile-first networks like Instagram and Vine are obvious exclusions as well.

Spotify

Spotify is a unique case. Its Android app is certainly functional, but unstable and not so good with search. It is difficult to get a fully populated list of returned search results, and in many cases you must hit the back button and re-key the search. Its Mac app is much better – the gobs of menus and lengthy lists are right at home on the desktop. For listening to music on my Nexus 4, I use Google Play Music, where I have a large, precisely categorized personal collection accessible via a clean UI, and the terrific holo-styled Pocket Casts, which I use to play weekly trance podcasts from Above & Beyond and Armin Van Buuren, among others.

Netflix

I’m not a huge fan of Netflix on tablets or large-screen phones. I do probably 99% of my Netflix viewing on an HDTV connected to my Wii U, with the remainder done on my Mac. I can see the appeal of viewing Netflix while lying in bed, so I don’t rule out its mobile possibilities altogether. However, most of the video watching I do on mobile is via YouTube, Google Play Movies, or my own movie collection as played by MX Player Pro.

Skype

Skype is a good desktop messenger and video calling service, but it may as well be DOA on Android, especially stock Android. Google+ Hangouts (the successor to Google Talk) is much simpler, since it requires only a Google+ account and has a dead-simple video calling/messaging interface. Plus, Skype for Android is unfortunately a battery-drainer, in my experience. That said, Skype’s shortcomings on mobile are balanced by its strengths on desktop: its native Mac app is still an appealing alternative to having to open up Google+ in Safari/Chrome.

In part two, I shall look at apps or services that I now do exclusively on mobile, as well as the select group of apps and services that I use on both desktop and mobile.

iCloud and Metaphors

Web services are one of the only competencies in which Apple clearly lags its fellow superpowers (Amazon, Google, Microsoft). MobileMe was overpriced and under-featured to the point that it drove Steve Jobs insane. Ping was DOA. Siri is an even rarer bird: an explicitly “beta” Apple product. But those failures have been inconsequential, as all of them occurred in the context of Apple having to ramp-up and evolve rapidly in light of explosive growth in sales. Siri’s clumsiness in comparison to latecomer Google Now, for example, didn’t matter since it still helped differentiate the mostly iterative iPhone 4S from a sea of specced-out Android devices.

iCloud is a different matter. What is OS X Mountain Lion if not one giant iCloud client?Apple is betting the farm North Carolina on iCloud’s centrality to the Apple ecosystem, such that its shiny silver logo is emblazoned on every iPhone and iPad box. About that logo: isn’t it, well, odd? It looks like the neatly trimmed, rounded-off icon that we’ve come to associate with iOS (or OS X, increasingly) apps, which are discrete, sandboxed creations that are supposed to excel at specific tasks. iCloud is the total opposite of that – it isn’t an “app” at all, really, but a largely clandestine service that runs behind the scenes and allegedly ties all of your compliant apps together. Still, it’s cute that OS X superapp Alfred thinks that iCloud is actually something targetable and discrete on my Mac:

As much flak as Apple has gotten for its attachment to skeuomorphs, sandboxes and app-centric desktop metaphors, I’m wondering if they made a mistake in making iCloud so intangible. Certainly, some corners of Twitter have had difficulties grasping Cupertino’s cumulonimbus. Myself, I don’t find myself thinking much about iCloud, which is what I suspect Apple intended, that is, for iCloud to be unobtrusive yet something that “just worked.” Its unobtrusiveness, however, begins to be a drawback when it doesn’t just work.

iCloud is a relatively tough concept to explain to a normal person, especially when compared to Dropbox or Google Drive. It helps that the latter two have been presented as a submission box and a hard drive in the sky. Users can accordingly feel that they are actually controlling their data and putting it in a knowable place. This is invaluable mental peace of mind when it comes to common tasks like making backups or putting your class notes in a place in which you can reliably access them (the latter was the original inspiration behind Dropbox). Google’s fusion of Google Docs into the new Google Drive brand helped to reinforce this notion that its cloud service in particular was a place in which you let all of your work breathe and reside. Furthermore, Dropbox and Google Drive, although complex services on the backend, can still exist as simple standalone apps on some mobile devices. They’ve mastered the art of the metaphor, and they make sense on multiple levels to the savvy and unsavvy alike.

So what can be done to make iCloud better? On mobile, it likely needs its own configuration space, not unlike the iOS Settings app, which is a good example of how Apple transformed one of the worst nightmares of PC users (control panels, settings, configurations) into a simple one-stop, intuitive interface. It might not hurt to have this iCloud center on the Mac, too.

Also, iCloud email accounts need to be messaged better. When I answered user support tickets for a startup, I would sometimes suggest that users who were having problems sending out messages from their Yahoo or GMail accounts instead try to send one from their likely unused iCloud (icloud.com) email accounts. Bad move: they would then ask if iCloud were required to use the app at all, and why they couldn’t find any of the app’s data in iCloud (at the time, it didn’t support iCloud integration, but I’m not sure it would have made a difference for them). In general, these same users also almost never requested more iCloud-compliant features or compatability, and they certainly did not take an interest in its refinement like they did with any of our compatible cloud services (even SkyDrive and Box!).

I expect that Apple wanted to have it two ways with iCloud – a major, easily metaphorical selling point for iOS and cross-device functionality (hence the logo on every box), yet also an invisible hand allegedly guiding us through that very same attempt at establishing a working ecosystem. This aim might have worked if iCloud were truly a supercompetent invisible steward, but it isn’t, at least not yet.