“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 And while I have used Scrivener to sketch out a screenplay or two (as yet unpublished…but, fingers crossed), I have logged more words typed using Scrivener for project management.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 apps) 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 docs 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….


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.


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…

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.

Moon child

Just slightly more alarming to me than marking my own personal fortieth anniversary of entering the world, is the marking of the fortieth anniversary of the landing on the moon (made all the more poignant – if that’s the right word – by the recent passing of Walter Kronkite). Can it really have been that long ago?

If you haven’t yet, please read Tom Wolfe’s Op Ed in Sunday’s New York Times – “One Giant Leap to Nowhere”; it is by turn tragic, cynical, and hopeful; on balance, very well done. He praises those involved in making the moon landing happen, even as he acknowledges that he thinks the success marked the end of the magic that was the U.S. Space Program.

Having launched just four days before our national lift-off, I have always been tied to the moon; both because of my own innate curiosity about it, and because of the cultural moniker given to all us Summer of ’69 births: moon child.

I think one of the reasons that Wolfe’s piece about the moon landing resonates so deeply with me is there is a parallel to be drawn between my life and NASA. Sounds like a stretch, but bear with me; I, too, like the space agency, am struggling to find what that next goal should be; as I face the prospect, due to financial reasons, of having to return to the home I grew up in, I think of some of the critics who say NASA shouldn’t go back to the moon – “it’s been done.” Even if I manage to find gainful employment that allows me to maintain my current standard of living is that enough? Or is the American public – my adoring fans – expecting something bigger, more unexpected out of me. Relocation, and a new job search in un-explored territory? Connecticut? How about elsewhere in New England? Will only NYC do? Where is my Mars, my Jupiter?

See, moving out to WI in the early nineties and pursuing a graduate degree in the performing arts was my long-shot. It was, to use the phrase, shooting the moon. It was the big risk, the kind you take when you are young and relatively privileged enough, and stubborn enough to pursue something you love regardless of its practicality within a capitalist culture. And I did it – I mean, my first degree was earned thanks to my parents and their hard work and judicious saving (which propelled both me and an older sibling to a Bachelor’s degree), but this one was all me, financed by my TA salary (this was long before UW-Madison found its way to tuition remission for teaching assistants) and the six student loans I took out (and have been paying back, up until this past year, entirely on my own). Despite the odds, with a lot of long, hard work, I achieved my goal; I made it to Tranquility Base; I planted my flag.

Being born in the shadow of the moon landing meant arriving on American soil at the moment when America felt a sense of pride in having followed through on the promise of its idealistic, young President some nine years before. Yes, we had suffered his loss, and the loss of his brother and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. thereafter, and we were starting to wake up to the reality of the morass that was the Vietnam War; we were still licking wounds, but we did not let that deter us from reaching for the stars.

Soon after – after the war, and Watergate, the oil crisis, the hostages in Iran, and AIDS, and the dozen or so things we swept under the rug or tried to forget – along came better technology and bigger cars and we got lulled into a sense of false comfort; we were happy enough to have the Cold War end and our economy (seemingly) grow more robust and our standard of living was to be rivaled, so wasn’t that enough?

We forgot what it meant to reach for things – things that cost money and take effort but whose end goal is the furthering of our story as a species and our understanding of our tiny, tiny place in this vast, unimaginably big universe.

So, too, in some ways I became comfortable with my daily job and very nice two-bedroom apartment over-looking the park, and my economic car, and my summer playing Ultimate Frisbee and the occasional trip east to see family and friends. I still pushed myself – did things outside the mainstream, and reached for changing the world, making it better – but it didn’t seem as urgent somehow. Not until I lost that daily job and then the bottom fell out of the economy.

In his article, Wolfe remembers visiting NASA just a few months after the historic landing and finding a former member of the heat-shield team working – as a tour guide. Says Wolfe:

“A baffling wave of layoffs had begun, and his job was eliminated. It was so bad he was lucky to have gotten this stand-up Spielmeister gig on a tour bus. Neil Armstrong and his two crew mates, Buzz Aldrin and Mike Collins, were still on their triumphal world tour … while back home, NASA’s irreplaceable team of highly motivated space scientists … was breaking up, scattering in nobody knows how many hopeless directions.”

How loudly that seems to resonate now. It’s as if all of us, working away in our jobs in whatever our chosen (or not chosen) professions had been through the ’80’s, ’90’s, and early ‘aught’s, were the driving force behind the rise to prosperity of a minority of greedy fellow citizens, and now (while some of them are still on a triumphal world tour no less) we find out that we are dispensable after all.

So, where to from here? How can a nation, entrenched in an unjust (and unnecessary) war, beleaguered with economic collapse from the private sector to the housing market right on up to municipal and state levels, still in many ways reeling from pain it hasn’t dealt with from the recent wounds of terrorism (what’s the statute of limitations on grieving for a sneak attack?), find its way back to pulling together and uniting behind a single, albeit risky, cause?

Can we mark this auspicious anniversary with a sense of pride, but one that is as forward-looking as it is reminiscing? Let us think of extraordinary things – ventures of great importance with lofty goals including the uncharted terrain of justice, fairness, and equality – and let us gather around the drawing board, roll up our sleeves, and get to work.

File Under “Now I’ve Seen It All” : Vibrating Mascara

Now I’ve seen it all… while munching on my breakfast cereal and catching up on morning email on my PowerBook, my ear caught something coming out of the EyeTV (running on a freebie MacMini that acts as my own private media empire) which caused me to actually look at the screen as the Today Show segued into commercial land (this is usually when I look away from the screen)…

And that’s where, as they say, my life changed…

For until this morning I was totally unaware of the existence of Maybelline’s Pulse Perfection Mascara. See, I don’t pay much attention to make-up generally, especially mascara; maybe it’s because I’m male – though plenty of men do, (and “not that there’s anything wrong with that”) not to mention that as an actor I’ve worn my fare share over the years – or maybe it’s because I have plentiful eyelashes that have been the envy of every woman I’ve ever dated (but that’s another blog post…).

Well, let me tell you, eyelash technology has really improved while I wasn’t looking; now you can purchase mascara with a brush that is powered to oscillate some “7,000 times per stroke” [per their ad campaign; number unverified – ed.].

Really? Does the human race really need this? And I’m not being smarmy – like it’s a news flash that someone made another product to fix a need that arguably doesn’t quite exist; I mean to say “does the planet need this?”

And Maybelline is not alone. Apparently Lancome, and several other competitors, produce these kinds of products. These things are powered, somehow – there’s little info on the web on the exact “technology” behind them, but one has to surmise there’s a small motor and some sort of power source packed into the applicator. And it’s not rechargeable, it’s disposable.

See, if they would make it rechargeable, I’d even start using it; it would be my lefty obligation practically. But, come on, do we really need to take a product that was already wasteful and ad mechanical parts and battery acid to the mix and watch these things pile up in our landfills?

Just for kicks, I Googled “Pulse Perfection Mascara, environmental impact” and most of the hits referred to, I’m not kidding, “creating the right spa environment” and how just a few applications of a certain cream “had a big impact.”

I realize I’m treading that dreaded double-standard line: here I am, a man, complaining about a product that’s geared toward women, all the while typing away on a computer which also has a battery and limited life-span and will eventually wind up in a landfill. Granted, Apple’s recycling program is getting better (and I’m trying to help the situation by continuing to use a five year old computer and get every last drop of usefulness from it), but even first world recycling programs can have tremendous impact on third world cultures and the ecosystem (and if you haven’t seen Frontline’s piece, you simply must); so even us non-make-up-wearing techies need to take a sobering look at our own contribution to the problem.

But there’s a larger problem that I see which the Maybelline commercial touched upon: the mechanization of processes that otherwise need no mechanical apparatus. Powering devices to make them useable by people whose physical abilities are impaired is one thing; adding mechanics and power sources to products used in conditions where said power adds very little other than the illusion of a more efficient, convenient way of doing something that good old “elbow grease” can already do just fine seems downright lame.

Are we really this lazy, America?

Another #$*%&!^ blog…

Despite his better intentions to not succumb to the cultural pressure to join the blog-erati, my long time friend, Bryan Reesman, has finally made the leap and installed a WordPress adjunct to his site.

Bry has been a freelance writer for over fifteen years, covering everything from heavy-metal, ambient, industrial, and techno music, to movies, Japanese anime, Hollywood, Broadway, and pop culture celebrities. Not everything he’s captured on tape or put to paper (or hard disc, really) over the years has seen the light of day; after all, writers are the foot-soldiers, but editors really hold the final say over what readers’ eyes see. That’s why it’s so exciting that he’s finally launching a blog where he intends to share some of this other-wise edited content.

Well, it’s not exciting for me; I’ve been privy to his work since we’ve first met in (gulp) 1982, and it’s been my pleasure to watch him grow as a writer and build his career. But it’s exciting for the rest of the world who might finally get a chance to hear what’s been hiding in that head of his for so long…

His first post, “Into the Wild Blog Yonder”, can be read at:

Attention Deficit Delirium – Exploring a plethora of pop culture.

Rob Thomas: The Big Gay Chip on My Shoulder

Good piece on The Huffington Post by Rob Thomas regarding being a straight ally to the gay community vis Prop 8; I think he sums it up pretty well:

A civil union has to do with death. It’s essentially a document that gives you lower taxes and the right to let your faux spouse collect your insurance when you pass away. A marriage is about life. It’s about a commitment. And this argument is about allowing people to have the right to make that commitment, even if it doesn’t make sense to you. Anything else falls under the category of “separate but equal” and we know how that works out.

George Orwell would be proud [see: Animal Farm – “all animals are created equal, but some are more equal than others”]. As would John Hodgman: 

I have confidence that, in no short order, Prop 8 will be repealed, and the gay marriage debate will look as absurd at the miscegenation debates of the 20th century do now. I have confidence this will happen not because it is merely right, or because the electorate will suddenly love gayness, but because opposition to gay marriage has no logical foundation in a civil society that is premised on equality.

I seriously can’t quote that often enough; it is the fundamental bottom-line, and this silly Prop 8 would go away in a second if all the folks who claim to love this country and the freedoms it stands for were to suddenly awaken to their collective hypocrisy… anyway, read Thomas’ piece:

Rob Thomas: The Big Gay Chip on My Shoulder.