“It’s a floor wax!” “No, it’s a dessert topping!”

Why I use Scrivener for Project Management and You Should Too!

If you’re a writer who has geek-like tendencies, it’s highly likely you’ve already encountered Scrivener; if for some reason you have not, get thee to Literature & Latte and give it a whirl. It is single-handedly the best writing tool a computer user can have – a statement that holds even more water now that the developer is on the verge of releasing a Windows version (currently still in beta)[UPDATE – the Windows version is now officially released…].

Even if you don’t consider yourself a writer, for goodness sakes give Scrivener a whirl. “But I don’t write novels”, you say? Neither do I – at least not yet. And while I have used Scrivener to sketch out a screenplay or two (as yet unpublished…but, fingers crossed), I have logged more words typed using Scrivener for project management.

You heard me right; Scrivener is actually a stealth project management and GTD (Getting Things Done) powerhouse.

First, for the uninitiated, a quick overview of the Scrivener environment:

screenshot - scrivener work environment

the Scrivener work environment – with bells & whistles

 

Fair warning: I’m a “bells and whistles” sort of guy, so you’re seeing Scrivener with all the major parts visible – the Binder on the left, the Inspector on the right, and the main writing pain in the middle with Format Bar and Ruler visible (that’s just how I roll). It need not be this way, and one of the strengths of Scrivener is that you can bend it to your will in terms of how you want your desktop (or laptop) work environment to be set up; you’re also very much in charge of how deep into its functionality you choose to delve.

If you are a word smithing purist, take heart; note that Scrivener (along with a growing number of modern writing app’s) sports a full-screen writing mode where everything else on your screen disappears behind a veneer of black – or a color of your choosing; the text you’re working on takes center stage.

The hierarchy of a Scrivener project is simple: text items are created and can be placed into folders; folders can themselves contain text; any item can be converted from a folder to text or the other way around. So, let’s say you start out creating a text item for “that topic you want to write something about” – let’s say Topic A; then, you subsequently realize that said topic actually is part of a larger group of sub-topics; you can turn the Topic A text item into a folder and then create more text files inside for Subtopics B, C, and E.

In addition to generating text, you can Import documents – either via the File menu, or (my preferred modus operandi) simply drag a Word file from the Finder and drop it into the Binder.

As if that didn’t give you enough flexibility, the contents of a folder can be viewed as index cards on a cork-board (and yes, you can customize the background); here you can play free-form with the structure of your document, re-ordering cards, etc.; you can also view folders and their contents as an outline, where you can track Label and Status (more on this below). Furthermore, you can view the contents of any folder as “scrivenings” – a view where all the individual text files in a folder can be viewed, scrolled through, and edited as if they were one document (which, they really are).

In short, you can see that Scrivener is set up to give you the ability to play around with words, content, order, structure and the manner in which you shape the logic of whatever argument or cause your writing seeks to illuminate or advocate.

So, then, what’s this project management business? What sort of projects?

How about a web site? I cut my modest webmaster chops in the days when Dreamweaver was coming into its own. And given my druthers, I’d still be using Dreamweaver to manage the site for the non-profit where I currently am the resident geek and communications guy. However, before I arrived on the scene, said agency began the move to a CMS (Content Management System), all the more to help the non-geeks on staff to contribute directly to web page content. But a CMS can be a bit clunky – yes you can have “drafts” of non-live content by creating “copies” of pages, but then navigating through the page listings gets incredibly tiresome. And the interface, built to be user friendly for the Microsoft Office crowd, isn’t exactly the most inviting writing environment.

My solution was to make a “shadow site” in Scrivener. In place of Dreamweaver’s site management window, I have the Binder; the advantage of drafting page content in Scrivener is that not only can I get a quick overview of the site content and organization, pilot test things by moving/creating/deleting pages and page content without interfering with the live site, but also, using Label and Status along with built-in meta-data tools, I can flag pages for revision, denote drafts versus live content, and more.

Even better, as I build page content, if it includes links, Scrivener lets me embed those links into text, and these links carry over perfectly when I copy and paste the finished text into a page on the live site. If you happen to be managing a website where you have FTP access, you can, of course, export Scrivener documents directly into HTML.

screenshot - Scrivener in outline mode

the Scrivener work environment – Outline view

 

Another aspect of the web project is the e-newsletter. The screenshot shows a use of the Outline view; with the colored Labels I can easily identify the variety of content (news items vs. event info vs. other sorts of post), and with Status I can track items that have been posted (meaning they’ve already been put into the HTML newsletter template on the CMS, vs. stuff that is still in draft form and still needs more editing or information). In addition, Scrivener has a robust implementation of meta-data, allowing you to tag files with any number of keywords. These keywords, the labels, and the status are all searchable, and any search can be saved in what Scrivener calls Collections.

screenshot - the binder window with collections

the Scrivener work environment with Binder Collections

Web sites aren’t your bag? How about grants? Putting a grant proposal together can be a monstrous chore – there are often multiple contributors and varied sections. In my experience, this usually led to one point person receiving two dozen Word doc’s and having to magically graft them into one, monstrous document for output.

With Scrivener, all of those Word docs can be dragged from the Finder or Win Explorer and dropped into the Drafts folder. Re-order, edit as needed; when you’re ready for output, review the finished product as one document in scrivenings view and Compile – setting your layout, pagination, and other options to get the resulting product in line with grant submission guidelines.

As an added bonus, pair your Scrivener experience with a Dropbox account, and you can keep your Scrivener file (and zip compressed Back-ups) safely stowed there. If you’re adventurous, you can also synchronize entire projects or individual folders/documents with Dropbox as text-only files and access them via a variety of iPad or iPhone based apps for editing remotely.

If you’ve read this far, allow me to go just slightly out farther on a ledge. With Scrivener storing text info in its database, allowing you to view, edit, remix, and export said content back out for sharing, there are times when I think I don’t need the OS X Finder at all – at least not from a documents/text files perspective; Scrivener represents the way I wish the Finder allowed me to manage document related data.

So, here’s hoping you’ll take some time to check out Scrivener, and that you’ll find it as helpful to your writing and project management needs as I have these last couple of years. Oh, and one more thing: for the uninitiated (ie: anyone born after the 1970’s), or anyone asking “what’s up with the title”, an explanatory video clip

Craft…

Via Tumblr – Lapham’s Quarterly to be more specific – I got wind of Mike Rowe’s testimony before the U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation. Mr. Rowe is the host of Dirty Jobs on The Discovery Channel – a show I rarely get to see since it’s on cable, which I don’t have; nevertheless, it caught my eye and I spent some time reading it because it eerily coincides with a book I’m currently (finally) reading – Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry Into the Value of Work by Matthew B. Crawford.

Both Mr. Crawford and Mr. Rowe are calling for a re-examination of the place that manual labor holds in our society – the manner in which our physical connection to things we use has been severed by a replace (vs. repair and maintain) culture and mindset. Both make astute observations about what’s being lost in the process – Mr. Crawford’s are very in-depth (I’m still in the first few chapters of the book, but other readers have already hailed it as an insightful study), but Mr. Rowe’s thoughts cut to the quick of the immediate impact given the current economic climate:

“Right now, American manufacturing is struggling to fill 200,000 vacant positions. There are 450,000 openings in trades, transportation and utilities. The skills gap is real, and it’s getting wider. In Alabama, a third of all skilled tradesmen are over 55. They’re retiring fast, and no one is there to replace them.”

It’s that last sentence that I find quite chilling. In all the talkregarding the downturned economy, from people on both sides of the political divide, I don’t hear a lot of talk about connecting a vast percent of the vast number of unemployed people to current tradesmen as mentors to pass on the skill and craft of these folks before they retire, giving valuable job skills to those who need them and re-elevating manual labor from it’s current “menial,” perceived lower status.

Both are worth a read.

Hardcore…

Well, where were we?…

I know. I’ve been neglectful. Or, the modern equivalent – busier than I care to describe; I’m sorry I’ve let the blog slip; it won’t happen again; all those other web sites meant nothing to me, etc. etc…

As a way of mending bridges, getting back on track, etc. – allow me to share something I stumbled upon that I think epitomizes the power of the web – if not computers in general.

First, go over to Forbes (yes, Forbes) and read Jason Oberholtzer’s piece Revise and Evolve, relating to the manner in which Charles Darwin’s watershed book “On The Origin of The Species” was produced – ie: with lots of hard work, evolving over time, not sprung from his head fully formed.

Oberholtzer’s post is well-written and insightful in and of itself, but it links to the real piéce de resistance, Ben Fry’s chart on the work of Darwin. (page loads text and an embedded interactive piece requiring Java)

Fry has taken all six editions of Darwin’s text, arranged them in an interactive, time-based chart which shows how each of the chapters was edited – including allowing the viewer to hover over sections of the chart and read word-for-word the text, with edits color-coded by version.

This, to me, is mind-blowing.

I mean, having access to text was an early promise of the web which for many people was accomplished with the advent of Yahoo! and Google. But here, thanks to modern computers and a robust network that can move a lot of data, we have the ability to have access to the complete evolution – all six versions of one of the seminal texts of our modern age. What Fry has crafted is not just a static scholarly resource (which arguably would still be impressive and valuable), but a sort of organic, interactive, story experience of the information as well.

That, to me, epitomizes the power of what the web can really mean to the future of information sharing, search, research, and new discovery. Hardcore.

the ‘Pad

Yep, I did it. I bit the bullet. I became an early adopter. I got an iPad.

Early this morning (well, early for a Saturday), I got up, went out to East Towne, walked in to Best Buy and – after cradling one in my hands for the better part of twenty minutes – I plunked down my hard earned do-re-mi (along with a BB gift card left over from Xmas which I had yet to use).

I was very good. I managed to put off the un-boxing for most of the day, opting first to do the adult thing and take care of other errands and food shopping (true, I did leave my MacBook Pro to the task of downloading a necessary iTunes upgrade, but still you have to admire my restraint…).

Thanks to previous experience with the iPod Touch, syncing the ‘Pad was a cinch. My app’s, music, contacts, calendars, bookmarks, and other goodies made the transition to the new device without a hitch. True, I had to do some tweaking of settings in individual apps (such as the WordPress app that I’m currently writing this post in), but otherwise it’s off to the races… or blog post writing, or picture viewing, or video watching, or blasting some tanks away in Battlezone, or anything else I please.

Of course, I don’t really NEED an iPad right now. Even though it’s fun to have a brand new entertainment device around the living room, the real reason for plunking down the dough is the hope that it will prove to be a true productivity device (which it is so far proving to be). Purchase of some other app’s – including iWork, and Omnigraffle, which I hope is right around the corner (or soon as the next paycheck comes) will be the next step. Then the real testing begins…

The fun? That began a couple of hours ago…

pilgrimage

[Warning: this will not be a fun post. Sorry.]

It’s hard to believe that it’s been five years.

Today, I will make my annual pilgrimage down county highway M to lay flowers on the very spot where we lost Sam, age eighteen, in a senseless car accident, on March 15, 2005.

When I was there last year, pieces of the automobile could still be seen lying in the grass.

Sam was the only son of my supervisor, coworker, and good friend. She was singlehandedly raising him – never an easy thing to do. When we first started working together, in 1997, her ex-husband had just filed for divorce and Sam was ten. The ex seemed to never get into the spirit of being a father; my coworker turned often to me, asking for advice on how to help her guide this pre-adolescent, then adolescent, son into adulthood.

To say that I was his surrogate dad, or he was like my son, would be over-stating things, a bit. Yet there are aspects of both of those statements that hold true; by coaching and advising his Mom, I had a hand in helping to shape his growth; Sam loved the theatre, was a budding actor, and we went to see each other’s shows; I became a de-facto member of the family, sharing Thanksgiving dinners with Sam and his Mom year after year.

As with any child who comes from a divorced home, High School was difficult for Sam (and, one should add that in addition to the divorce, Sam had to cope with his Dad taking his own life). Nevertheless, he persevered, and was on track to graduate that June. He turned eighteen in January; late in February, he was accepted to Beloit College in their Art program. I started saving up money to buy him an iPod as a graduation present – something that I thought was the sort of gift a Dad would give a son. But then, of course, all of that never came to pass…

After a few moments of reflection at the crash site, it will be on to Forrest Hill Cemetery, where I will lay some more flowers where Sam’s remains are buried.

I recall, last year, as I drove there, a particular Suzanne Vega song – Widow’s Walk – came on the old iPod playing through the car stereo; one part of the lyric seemed to repeat itself over and over again in my head:

“Though I saw it splinter, I keep looking out to sea.
Like a dog with little sense, I keep returning,
To the very area where I did see the thing go down,
As if there’s something at the site I should be learning.”

What is it, I wonder, that I’m supposed to be learning from this tragedy that I haven’t already learned? That life is precious, fragile, and all too short? I was sure I’d learned that lesson long ago. But perhaps some part of it still evades me.

Or, perhaps, there is no lesson to be learned. Maybe this is just the duty that we take on when we love and care about people; when they leave us, we have an obligation to keep the memory of them alive, and to mark their passing. There are, of course, many ways to do this; but for some reason I choose this one. I wonder some times if I will always mark the day this way; will there come a time when my mourning transforms and takes a different shape? I suppose it’s possible.

Until then, I have this; and so tomorrow I will take my annual pilgrimage. I will trace the route, I will stand watch at the graveside, and I will feel the pain of him no longer being in the world and having been taken all too soon.

Dial it up…

O.k., so it’s happened. Scott Brown handily defeated Martha Coakley and will soon be sworn in as the next Senator from Massachusetts. Let the pundit games begin (and they have).

But let us also remain a bit sober about this; I’m reminded of an episode in the 2nd season of The West Wing (those who know me well know that my affection for The West Wing, seasons 1-4, knows no bounds) – “The War at Home”. In it, two of my favorite characters – pollster Joey Lucas (played by Marlee Matlin) and Deputy Chief of Staff Josh Lyman (played by Bradley Whitford) have a little exchange about poll numbers; see, Josh is trying to measure response to President Bartlett’s 3rd State of the Union speech in which he laid out a gun control strategy that included a five-day waiting period. Josh wants the numbers from five key districts because he sees the gun issue as a measure of how those states will vote in the upcoming presidential election — in other words, it’s a litmus test (much like the Coakley defeat is already being used to write obits for the Obama Presidency).

Josh insists that the high numbers against mean that he needs to advise the President to dial down the rhetoric on gun control if he wants to win re-election. Joey insists the opposite is true; he says “Numbers don’t lie.”, to which she replies “Numbers lie all the time…  You say that these numbers mean dial it down; I say they mean dial it up. You haven’t gotten through. There are people you haven’t persuaded yet.”

Dial it up, people. The work is hard, but the prize – social justice, fairer government, and a better healthcare system – is too important to let it slip by. There are people we haven’t reached yet. Dial it up.

ghosts…

In the late 1990’s I had the good fortune of playing the lead role in one of my favorite plays of all time, Equus by Peter Schaeffer. It was produced by First Banana Players, a community group in Madison that had no formal resources — ie: we didn’t have our own rehearsal or performance space (and this was before the Bartell Theatre); we ended up renting Kanopy Dance‘s old studio…

cast of Equus

with cast, in full horse mode...

I mention this not just for the random nostalgia, but because the recent turn of events has brought the memories of this production into my head once again.

See, the old Kanopy Dance space is in the Gateway Mall on Williamson Street; Kanopy moved some years ago, and the Gateway underwent some remodeling; the front part of the space now is occupied by OutReach, Madison’s LGBT community center; the back part of the space is where the offices of my new employer, WCASA, reside.

It’s a bit surreal, showing up for work every day, walking around the modest office space which has been so transformed that it is hardly the space it used to be – except when I look up and see the black painting on the steel structural beams and ventilation ducts; instantly I’m reminded of its previous incarnation as a performance space, and of the fact that a few feet away from where my desk and cubicle now reside I once stood, lit by gelled fresnels and lekos, and spoke out toward the silhouetted audience: “With one particular horse, called Nugget, he embraces…”

Anyone who has spent considerable time in the theatre will tell you that they – the physical performance spaces – contain ghosts. Maybe not the literal kind; wispy, ephemeral spirits from the after-world; but certainly the theatrical kind – the scantiest trace of memory of the words spoken within its walls that seem to reverberate for all eternity. Standing on a darkened stage in an empty theatre is practically a religious experience for an actor.

So, you can imagine for me the strange mix of feelings; it’s not a darkened theatre, but rather a brightly lit office space. Yet, one can’t help feeling that the essence of Mr. Shaeffer’s words, and the spirit and energy of all the folks that poured their blood, sweat, and tears into the production linger slightly. It gives me a sense of great comfort… even as it spooks me a bit.

Finally…

Sorry for the radio silence. The past month has been jammed packed, and tension-filled. It culminated in a nail-biting, down-to-the-wire cliffhanger which, I’m pleased to say went my way: I got offered a job.

Actually, two jobs; after over two years of job hunting – some 310 job applications and 42 job interviews (a few of those second and third interviews for the same job) – I found myself in the enviable position of having to choose; and not just choose between a mediocre job and a so-so alternative – these were two viable, exciting, interesting jobs in a field I actually have a strong passion and commitment for: ending violence.

In the end, I was flattered to be offered a new job – one that I will have a hand in shaping and building – as the Violence Prevention Communications Coordinator for the Wisconsin Coalition Against Sexual Assault (WCASA). I will start later this week, as Sept. turns to October. I look forward to it with much excitement and anticipation.

That also means that things might be on the slow side here; I will be spending the first part of this week traveling (returning from a visit on the east-coast with family and friends) and better part of the next two weeks acclimating myself to a new work environment and schedule. As soon as I get a chance to come up for air, I’ll have some stories and thoughts to share here. I promise.

Speaking of which, I’m so please that my last post has garnered so many comments – especially because many among them are folks who were able to avoid falling for a fake condo ad thanks to my warning; happy to do my part in the cause to prevent a**holes from using Craigslist (and the web in general) to steal people’s personal information.

damn you, Justin Ghif

I pride myself on being pretty savvy in general. That’s why it’s all the more disappointing to me that I spent a whole ton of energy composing a reply email this morning before I finally got wise that it was all just a scam.

Like most scams it was, upon reflection, a “too good to be true” scenario; no, I’m not talking about an offer for millions of dollars if I’d only help out someone in Nigeria (see 419 scams.org). In this case it was a delightful looking one-bedroom condo for rent with a flexible lease via Craigslist. Now it so happens that a flexible lease is almost impossible to come by on the isthmus here in Madison, and as my work situation has been – shall we say “in flux” – and I’ve been thinking of downsizing from a two-bedroom, I was immediately intrigued; I sent the poster an email requesting a viewing.

What I got in reply was a request from the poster – for a credit report, complete with a link to a site where I could obtain one (why thank you!… how thoughtful).

The poster, yes, is one Justin Ghif. Or at least he is in name; of course no such person exists; a quick trip to Google (sorry, Bing) reveals that similar ads have been placed in at least a half-dozen other cities; the details are always slightly different – different interior pics (though all of them depict an A-class living space), different prices (but always below the market average for the geographic region) – but the appeal is the same; a sweet looking one-bedroom with pets allowed and flexible lease period in a great location downtown.

This is the ugly side of humanity. Not that someone is so desperate to earn a living – in a culture driven by money we’re all desperate to earn money – but that someone would choose to go about it by creating false ads that bait an eager apartment seeker (like myself) so that they could harvest credit information (one wonders if the poster is directly connected to the “credit site” to which it links or if there is some other gain he/she gets through bouncing from the linked site to its final destination).

No, Mr. Ghif (or whoever) did not get me really because I was smart enough to investigate before clicking through and I didn’t immediately hand-over any of my identity information. But, he/she did steal my time (I spent time carving out a very measured reply wherein I explained that I thought asking for a credit report before I’d even seen the apartment was a bit out of order) and my imagination – for the many hours that I waited (granted most of them sleeping last night) between my email inquiry and the reply, I had visions in my head of moving to a nice one-bedroom condo with washer/dryer inside and underground parking; and all while eschewing the 12-month lease stranglehold that landlords and management companies have on the downtown region.

So, damn you, Justin Ghif; with one hand, I shake a fist in your direction…

…while with the other hand, I’m reporting you to Craigslist, Anti-Phishing Working Group, and the Federal Trade Commission.

Why I don’t feel sorry for Dr. Boyce Watkins

My thanks to my friend, Suz, for pointing me toward an MSNBC piece, re-posted from a blog where Dr. Boyce Watkins, an African-American author and professor at Syracuse University, is a contributor. Tuesday, Professor Watkin took on the recent arrest controversy revolving around  Dr. Henry Louis Gates.

In his post (“Consider this before crying ‘racial profiling'”, which MSNBC retitled “Why I don’t feel sorry for Henry Louis Gates“), Watkins questions the race aspects of the case and in doing so he plays the “class” card:

“America is far more capitalist than it is racist, so a distinguished Harvard University Professor like Gates is likely to get more respect than the average White American. The idea that he is somehow the victim of the same racism that sends poor Black men to prison simply doesn’t fly with me, and Gates should be careful about appearing to exploit the plight of Black men across America to win his battle of egos with the Cambridge Police Department.”

Exploit the plight of Black men? Far be it from me, a caucasian, to say so, but isn’t THIS the plight of black men?! – If I’d shown a valid ID to a cop that would have been the end of the matter, period. Prof. Watkins implies some sort of snootiness on the part of Professor Gates in saying that he shouldn’t be questioned this way.

Further on, Professor Watkins offers this little gem:

“Dr. Gates, in all of his frustration, might have been served well to remember that the officer has a gun…”

As if black men, nay Dr. Gates, need to be reminded of this; and as if in the very sentence the author doesn’t realize that he’s reinforcing the very mitigating factor whose presence he’s trying to deny: if there was a class disparity here it was not between an “elite” Harvard professor and a lowly cop – it was between an un-armed man trying to lawfully get into his home and an armed officer who demanded more proof because the very color of the suspect’s skin made him more suspect. The very presence of the weapon outweighs any power Prof. Gates might have had in the situation due to his status as a professor at Harvard.

Why I dont feel sorry for Henry Louis Gates – Race & ethnicity- msnbc.com.