myMFA – A two year writer’s development program

A few months ago a writing pal passed along a link to Dennis Cass’ web site. There I found a post discussing his version of an idealized MFA program, an alternative MFA. Cass’ point of view was that traditional MFA curriculums were filed with blanks, specifically outside of craft development, as done through workshops, and outside (perhaps) literary criticism, as done through massive reading work.

This struck a cord with me, it sounded about right. I had just read the rather MFA deviating essay by Louis Menand in the New Yorker, “Show or Tell,” about the vast industry of writing programs that have sprung up across the country since the Second World War, and I had already rejected the idea that a traditional MFA program was the way I would develop as a writer.

But that didn’t mean I rejected all structured development outright. From Cass’ post I began to think about the design of what I call myMFA. Like his, it’s an alternative to the mainstream MFA structure that has taken root out there.

Much like my Infobase system, the origin and much of the original thinking of this program began with someone else, in this case Cass. He gets the credit for these ideas, I’ve just modified them to my needs and my point of view, fleshed out some, abandoned other, and put the whole thing into implementation. So if you don’t like it, it’s probably because of something I did, if you do like it, the credit goes to Cass. Read More »

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WriteRoom and Notational Velocity

Jesse Grosjean over at HogBay Software put out an update to his fabulous (and free) application, SimpleText, and the change log caught my eye.

The update specifically was to integrate the app (which is the sync system for WriteRoom for iPhone, eventually for TaskPaper for iPhone, and in fact any set of txt files you throw at it) with Notational Velocity, an iconoclastic and intriguing open source note taking data base manager that I tried and dumped a year of so ago because it stored all its data in a central database, obviating my architecture of ‘external to any application’ data files.

So I was trying to figure out how and why would SimpeText work with NV, when it dawned on me to actually go look at the NV application again (duhhh) and I found that in the most recent (Sept 09) release, NV now has the option to not only store data as TXT’s or RTF’s it can also access those files from an any folder, all via a preference option.

The lights clicked on.

SimpleText is a sync tool that reads a folder filled with txt files to a cloud server. There you can edit them in a cool minimalist web page, and from there they are synced to your iPhone. Jesse had just modified SimpleText so it could read and write to a list of txt files created or modified by NV.

So what’ the big deal? People who use NV get kind of religious about the design of the application. It’s an entirely different way to keep notes and manage text; not quite wiki, not quite shovebox. It is designed with the idea that a note once taken can be expanded on rather than recreated. When you create a new note in NV, by writing a new subject for the note, the application brings you to any prior note on the subject with a type along search process. You have to try it to grok it.

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BusyCal, an iCal Replacement, is not quite busy enough

Last week I installed and then de-installed BusyCal, a new and hotly touted iCal replacement.

It was the product of the development team that created David Pogue’s favorite calendar, Now Up-to-Date, and I thought it promising since there really is not another iCal replacement package out there unless you adopt Entourage which means being outside the Apple suite of apps with all their interconnected goodness.

What I liked about BusyCalc was its integration with iCal. It uses the same calendar data files so transition back and forth from applications, or to and from iPhone apps is seamless. Someone is finally taking data integrity seriously.

I also liked the big text box access to notes. I like putting notes in appointments and the tinny little box on iCal is always frustrating (but can be dealt with by using tools like WriteRoom when you install the free QuickCursor add-on) BusyCal presents a Huge text editing area for notes, but bizarrely does not let you strip the editing ruler away as on TextEdit or Bean. There are little design oversights like this all over BusyCal.

Supposedly the core of the app’s functionality comes from group calendaring, something I don’t really use. The interface shows many options for group vs local notes, which would be useful to keep colleagues away from your secret agenda for next week’s staff meeting, or your girl friend clueless about the surprise anniversary diner you are planning for her. If I used group calendaring extensively these would be very valuable features.

But for all its group functionality the application has a very clunky design, it is not as attractive as the slick interface of iCal, (the colors are not quite right, the fonts look cheep and ill sized, the faux 3M stickie note is annoyingly in the way all the time…) and it does not address the major deficiencies of iCal for the single user, which is additional calendar views.

Missing from iCal is a rolling 4 week view, which you can understand best when trying to schedule items at the end of one month and the beginning of another. Also missing is a two, three, or more day view, that allows for user defined groupings of days. Both these features have been standard on Outlook and Thunderbird for years (even on Lotus Notes for gosh sakes), and are practically required for paper based systems. BusyCal only has the standard iCal views plus a two week at a time view that because of the design issues noted above, is almost unusable.

The other view that is missing in all calendar apps, except for paper ones, is a year at a glance view. Why there is not one that works on a Mac is just amazing. With all this computing power at hand it really is time to have a system that is better designed than it’s analogue predecessor.

So I’ll watch BusyCal develop, but without enhancements to its graphics or the addition of new views I’m afraid the price tag, at $40, is a bit high.

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The Right March on Washington

When I was young, civil disobedience was the tool of choice of the left. The anti-war movement, the environmentalists, the riots in Chicago during the DNC, the freedom rides, the Weathermen, the March on Washington, the SDS, sit-in’s, teach in’s, love in’s…

These protests were so prevalent that they became romanticized. Years later otherwise establishment, middle aged people nostalgically donned tie-die shirts and multi-colored love beads as if they really had been at the rally, had actually been there to dare the fire hoses.

The romanticism became institutionalized. When I was in college a once radical, then tenured, professor chided us for not being more active in our dealings with the university administration. “If we didn’t like what they said,” Dr. G told us, “if they didn’t give us what we wanted, we’d get our guitars and some cheep wine and move in, take over the president’s office…you should too. I’ll show you how…” That was the left. This was their stock in trade. Act up, make noise, stop the system from functioning.

So seeing the right wing now use these same tactics (without the bombing and violence that peppered the activism on the left) must be bitter sweet for ex-activist Barack Obama. Democracy givith and democracy taketh away.

This August was an uproar of popular discontent for every Congressman brave enough to have a town hall (”Scared to death” the New York Times described congressmen returning to Washington) and today busses arrived from all over the country to unload a new kind of protester to the Capital Lawn – protesters from the right

It’s funny because the right is not really comfortable with the tactics of Gandhi yet. They stand stiffly, wear pastels and khakis. Their signs have none of the humor of the old 1960’s banners. They look like they are going to overheat in the sun, and no one burns their bras or even takes off their cloths. Someone needs to clue them into the guitar thing.

But the crowds are large and growing, and in an internet era they have an organizational advantage that their leftist predecessor could only dream about.

As odd as the American right looks “on the march” it is clear that the Obama administration is turning into the greatest instigator of conservative activism in, well, forever. No one took to the streets against Jimmy Carter, there were no marches on Washington in support of Reagan. But this administration has become the catalyst for discontent against federal monarchism; against the vast self perpetuating bureaucracies whose expansions are at the center of the current national debates.

Is this John Birch revisited? Maybe, but the themes of this new movement are remarkably attractive and if managed well could have broad national appeal, especially after the economic hysteria that brought this administration to power subside.

Perhaps the most articulate presentation of the anti-government movement is being made by Senator Jim DeMint a soft spoken, I’m-a-Republican-but-I’m mad-at-them-to, gadfly from South Carolina. He lays out the message in a simple two part statement. It’s about …

  1. Fiscal Responsibility

  2. Personal Responsibility

Almost everything else is secondary.

Sure there are groups that will argue that capitalism is a sham, so fiscal responsibility is unimportant (Michael Moore) and others, like Dr. G, who would say that collective responsibility trumps the individual (To each according to his needs, from each according to his ability) but these two ideas of responsibility tend to strike a deep cord with Americans, especially recent immigrant groups who came here just for, or just because of them.

So I guess the scary vector of this situation could be the left using the totalitarian power of the (gargantuan) federal government to quell the uprising of the disruptive right because they know just how powerful these tactics will be, which would be a really bad thing. The real test of the character of President Obama will be how he deals with the swelling unrest.

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Health Care Reform: It is a Lie

Finally last night someone (inadvertently, and in the wrong place, and for all the wrong reasons) spoke the truth. Health care reform and the debate around it has all been a lie.

This massive political battle is not about improving the lives of the citizens of the United States, it’s about who’s going to control one of the largest industries in the world. And even if Congressman Joe Wilson was a jerk, he said what everyone has been feeling, that we are not talking about the real issues.

To get you all to agree or disagree with the current proposals for health care reform some really big lies are being told.

The first lie: All of this will have any effect on health care costs

In the U.S., health care costs are driven by lifestyle decisions and personal choices about longevity. Obesity, diabetes, heart disease, and lung cancer are the major drivers of health costs. All of these are the direct result of what we chose do every day.

Who in Washington is brave enough to say, “Put down the Big Mac, no more beer, stop smoking, go out for a walk?”

Promoting the idea that an industrial reform driven by the federal government will change this is a lie. We spend vast sums on health care late in life because of what we do early in life. Obama care will have no impact on that at all.

Health care costs are also driven by elder life extension decisions. The system spends vast sums on keeping our seniors alive for just a few more months. There is no gentle way to say this, but if you want to stop health care cost inflation you have to control geriatric care. To their credit the original Dem’s proposals included provisions to manage care at the end of life. To their shame they ripped it out and denied it ever existed after Sara Palin and her buds started screeching, oh, and after the AARP called.

Truth: This isn’t about health care costs, they will continue to spiral unless people change their daily habits or care is rationed.

Second Lie: All this will add needed regulation to an out of control insurance industry

The health care industry and the insurance industry that administers the payment of its expenses is the most heavily regulated industry on the face of the earth. The problem for those who want to control it is that it is regulated at the state level by insurance commissioners which really means by the New York and California Insurance Departments. So let’s be clear: This isn’t about “the people getting control of the system,” it’s about Washington taking over the system.

The objective of the “reform” bills written by congressional Democrats is the federal take over of the health care system. The correct term for this is “federalization”. Why can’t we just say that out loud and decide if that’s what we want?

“Single Payer” – “Public Option” these are disguise words, camouflage terms, meant to hide the real objectives of reform. If you argue that “Single Payer” doesn’t mean “Federalization”, then you are ignorant of how bureaucracies and institutions work. Read More »

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File System Infobase Manager

Using the file system for your notes.

I’ve been keeping notes and journals for as long as I can remember. And I was born long before these cool PC/Mac thing’ies became ubiquitous, so my earliest notes were written on the best technology of the day: paper. Then came the revolution, and before too long I got with the program, moved on to the electronics, and started typing up all kinds of stuff in all kinds of applications.

Technology over this time period has been about as fickle as a saloon girl after a roundup, so I’ve used almost every type of system that’s been rolled out since the green screen VAX I played with in 1983. The result was a pile of notes that collected then collapsed into a mish-mash of various file types, in different formats, with incompatible structures, all strewn about various locations on multiple generations of mediums.

For example, in my notes folders I had files produced by AmiPro, WordStar, WordPerfect, Commence, Ecco Pro, and Word. There was text in Lotus 123 files, and Excel spreadsheets. There were files from an outliner app called Think Tank, and others from an outliner called Outliner. There were emails from Outlook, emails from Lotus Notes, stuff from an HP95LX, an HP200LX and a number of Palms. There were text files, doc files, files with extensions I had forgotten from applications I’d forgotten – all kinds of electronic exotica. But I carefully saved them all ‘cause I was sure that someday, somehow, I’d use them.

In 2007 I became a full time writer. All of a sudden this hoard of electronic chaff became a mineable resource. Making sense of it changed from deferrable issue to current todo because someone told me that note taking, journaling they called it, and, crucially, retrieving said notes so they could actually be used, was a key skill for a writer. I scrounged up the old data folders, consolidated them and began the search for a system to manage it all.

IT Architects like to call collections like this, “unstructured infobases” and there are lots of programs around – variously called information managers, PIMs, or Everything Buckets – to help manage them. Surveying the field I adopted two, Journler and DEVONThink, after I demoed a dozen more (and did this all, probably, while I should have been writing).

First, I poured all my notes into Journler, a fabulous but sadly abandoned gem of a program. Journler allowed me to think of my infobase as a structured whole, rather than as disparate segments, and it prompted me to habitualize the process of capturing and synthesizing the random bits of data flowing past my writing desk every day. Primarily the import to Journler standardized all my file formats. From the transition I got a fairly fixed TXT/RTF/RTFD/HTML set of documents, augmented with some PDFs, various image and audio files. This was not an insignificant feat.

When I outgrew Journler (and you always outgrow these packages, always, eventually, each and every one, no mater what the developer says about capacity and growth potential when you sign on) I transitioned to a beast of an application called DEVONThink. DT ultimately showed itself to be both constricting and superfluous. (see my Dating DEVONThink post about this) But DT further refined my file formats and got me to add tags to files in a common data set rather than categorizing by topic into groups.

Along the way I played with Evernote, MacJournal, SoHo Notes, Mori, EagleFiler and Yohimbo. I’ve written about these attempts, and my struggles with DEVONThink, elsewhere. In their own way each of these apps was lacking, but as a group hey all demanded attention to their own set of quirks that their programers thought of as features. You had to conform your dates, workflow, ideas, cataloging, to their app’s functionality. This for me was perfectly backwards.

So, now, while my data format was standardized, thanks to Journler and DT, and, as such, much more usable, the whole process was still not stable, not at least for any time horizon of more than a year of two, since everything was still in someone else’s app. I was dependent on one or another of these applications to make sense of it all, which was kind of where I’d been all along. Then I found a better way.

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