Scrivener or Devonthink Pro, with a side of James Joyce’s Ulysses

James Fallows’ post about the writing program Scrivener “suggests broader truths about the ways computers help and hinder the way we think.” He’s right, although I’ve used Scrivener and didn’t love it enough to switch: for anything beyond blog posts I mostly use a combination of Microsoft Word and Mellel, a word processor that is very fast and stable but can’t track changes. This, for me, is not merely bad: I can’t use Mellel beyond first drafts.

The other problem with Mellel isn’t related to the program itself, but to the release cycle. It’s discouraging when a forum post from the developer says, “Yes, we have been slacking off. The pace of development of Mellel – that is, the number of new releases – have dropped significantly over the last three years.” That’s another way of saying, “We’re not really working on it.”

Word, in turn, gets used for any documents I have to share with others (since they already have Word).

Fallows describes how Scrivener offers “a ‘project’ organization system that makes it easy to amass many notes, files, quotes, research documents, etc related to the essay or article or book you’re writing.” I primarily use Devonthink Pro (DTP) for this kind of purpose, and it connects whatever ideas I have to other quotes, ideas, and the like. The “artificial intelligence” engine is surprisingly useful at making connections that I didn’t realize I had. Obviously I could use DTP with Scrivener, but the use of DTP makes the marginal value of Scrivener somewhat lower.

Scrivener 2.0, however, is intriguing; these videos demonstrate its power. More on that later, as I’d like to follow-up on the idea that computers can “help and hinder the way we work.” Scrivener enables one to rearrange large chunks of materials easily, which is how a lot of writers work in the off-line world. For example, I’ve been reading Critical Essays on James Joyce’s Ulysses for a seminar paper and came across this description of Joyce’s process in A. Walton Litz’s “The Design of Ulysses:”

[Joyce] did not write Ulysses straight through, following the final order the episodes. First it was necessary to determine the design of the novel, to visualize its characters and the course of the action, and this entailed putting scattered portions on paper in order to clarify them. Then, like the mosaic worker, Joyce collected and sorted material to fit the design. Finally, the fragments were placed in their proper positions through a process of rough drafts and revisions.

The “design” and the ability to “visualize its characters and the course of the action” corresponds roughly to Scrivener’s idea pane. The “scattered portions on paper” come next so they can be rearranged, “collected” and “sorted.” There’s nothing wrong with using pieces of paper, of course—it worked for Joyce!—but I wonder what the great novelist would think of working digitally.

Joyce used notecards, and Litz liked the mosaic-worker analogy so much that he uses it again a few pages later:

It was the function of the note-sheets to assure that patterns and relationships already visualized by Joyce reached their fore-ordained positions in the text. Like the mosaic worker, he was continuously sorting and re-grouping his raw materials, assigned each fragment to its proper place in the general design. The mechanical nature of this process emphasizes the mechanical nature of those ordering principles which give Ulysses its superficial unity [. . . ]

I used to write more like this and now I write less like this: it is often my goal to ensure that each chapter follows inexorably from the preceding chapter. The narrative threads and the desires of each character should force the novel in a particular direction. If I can rearrange the chapters relatively easily, then I feel like I’ve done something wrong. I still want “patterns and relationships” to reach conclusions, but I don’t want those conclusions “fore-ordained:” I want them to arise organically, and for them to be inevitable yet surprising. This is a difficult trick to pull off, but it means that the serial nature of the writing I do is probably less likely to be helped by the structure of Scrivener than the writing some others might do.

In the essay after Litz’s, Anthony Cronin’s “The Advent of Bloom” begins with the structure of Ulysses: “[. . .] if Ulysses can be said to have a plot, its plot is formless and does not give form to the book – it is not shaped to produce a series of dramatic sensations for purposes aesthetic or otherwise; it has no conclusion in event, only a termination in time [. . .]” If a plot “does not give form to the book,” then something must; for some writers, Scrivener might organize it and help find a way to present formlessness. The program helps one create a mosaic, but I’m not trying to create a mosaic in my work, at least right now: I’m trying to create a linear plot. So I don’t think the program will help me as much as it could.

Nonfiction books, on the other hand, might be much better with Scrivener: in my papers, I move material around much more frequently than I do in fiction. Since I haven’t written any nonfiction books, however, I can’t comment as much on those.

I suspect that large, high-resolution monitors enable programs like Scrivener: at 24″ or larger, one can have a broad enough swatch of material open to really make a (computer) desktop feel like a (physical) desktop. You can layout and rearrange items much more easily. The new 27″ iMacs in particular are appealing for this purpose, and one can now find 27″ external monitors from Dell, Apple, and others. As desktops become more like desktops, being able to visualize large amounts of information at once makes tools like Scrivener more useful.

At the moment, I’m about 80K words into a novel that I think will end up in the neighborhood of 100K – 110K words, which is a bit long for a first published work but not impossibly long. Using a 24″ iMac, I can easily have two pages of text open at a time, which is very convenient. That’s what I use for my “notes” section (miscellaneous stuff I want to remember but can’t immediately add to the main narrative) and my main window, which has the novel progressing from Chapter 1 to “### END ###.” On my second monitor, a 20″ cheapie Dell, I have an outline and character list open.

Some of those functions could be taken over by Scrivener, based on what I’ve seen in the videos. For my next novel—if there is another in the immediate future; I need to devote more time to academic writing—I’d be willing to try Scrivener long enough to know if version 2.0 is a good fit. For this one, however, the thought of changing tools in the middle of the process would be too disruptive. There’s no reason, after all, that I can’t use both Scrivener and Devonthink Pro.

Scrivener or Devonthink Pro, with a side of James Joyce's Ulysses

James Fallows’ post about the writing program Scrivener “suggests broader truths about the ways computers help and hinder the way we think.” He’s right, although I’ve used Scrivener and didn’t love it enough to switch: for anything beyond blog posts I mostly use a combination of Microsoft Word and Mellel, a word processor that is very fast and stable but can’t track changes. This, for me, is not merely bad: I can’t use Mellel beyond first drafts.

The other problem with Mellel isn’t related to the program itself, but to the release cycle. It’s discouraging when a forum post from the developer says, “Yes, we have been slacking off. The pace of development of Mellel – that is, the number of new releases – have dropped significantly over the last three years.” That’s another way of saying, “We’re not really working on it.”

Word, in turn, gets used for any documents I have to share with others (since they already have Word).

Fallows describes how Scrivener offers “a ‘project’ organization system that makes it easy to amass many notes, files, quotes, research documents, etc related to the essay or article or book you’re writing.” I primarily use Devonthink Pro (DTP) for this kind of purpose, and it connects whatever ideas I have to other quotes, ideas, and the like. The “artificial intelligence” engine is surprisingly useful at making connections that I didn’t realize I had. Obviously I could use DTP with Scrivener, but the use of DTP makes the marginal value of Scrivener somewhat lower.

Scrivener 2.0, however, is intriguing; these videos demonstrate its power. More on that later, as I’d like to follow-up on the idea that computers can “help and hinder the way we work.” Scrivener enables one to rearrange large chunks of materials easily, which is how a lot of writers work in the off-line world. For example, I’ve been reading Critical Essays on James Joyce’s Ulysses for a seminar paper and came across this description of Joyce’s process in A. Walton Litz’s “The Design of Ulysses:”

[Joyce] did not write Ulysses straight through, following the final order the episodes. First it was necessary to determine the design of the novel, to visualize its characters and the course of the action, and this entailed putting scattered portions on paper in order to clarify them. Then, like the mosaic worker, Joyce collected and sorted material to fit the design. Finally, the fragments were placed in their proper positions through a process of rough drafts and revisions.

The “design” and the ability to “visualize its characters and the course of the action” corresponds roughly to Scrivener’s idea pane. The “scattered portions on paper” come next so they can be rearranged, “collected” and “sorted.” There’s nothing wrong with using pieces of paper, of course—it worked for Joyce!—but I wonder what the great novelist would think of working digitally.

Joyce used notecards, and Litz liked the mosaic-worker analogy so much that he uses it again a few pages later:

It was the function of the note-sheets to assure that patterns and relationships already visualized by Joyce reached their fore-ordained positions in the text. Like the mosaic worker, he was continuously sorting and re-grouping his raw materials, assigned each fragment to its proper place in the general design. The mechanical nature of this process emphasizes the mechanical nature of those ordering principles which give Ulysses its superficial unity [. . . ]

I used to write more like this and now I write less like this: it is often my goal to ensure that each chapter follows inexorably from the preceding chapter. The narrative threads and the desires of each character should force the novel in a particular direction. If I can rearrange the chapters relatively easily, then I feel like I’ve done something wrong. I still want “patterns and relationships” to reach conclusions, but I don’t want those conclusions “fore-ordained:” I want them to arise organically, and for them to be inevitable yet surprising. This is a difficult trick to pull off, but it means that the serial nature of the writing I do is probably less likely to be helped by the structure of Scrivener than the writing some others might do.

In the essay after Litz’s, Anthony Cronin’s “The Advent of Bloom” begins with the structure of Ulysses: “[. . .] if Ulysses can be said to have a plot, its plot is formless and does not give form to the book – it is not shaped to produce a series of dramatic sensations for purposes aesthetic or otherwise; it has no conclusion in event, only a termination in time [. . .]” If a plot “does not give form to the book,” then something must; for some writers, Scrivener might organize it and help find a way to present formlessness. The program helps one create a mosaic, but I’m not trying to create a mosaic in my work, at least right now: I’m trying to create a linear plot. So I don’t think the program will help me as much as it could.

Nonfiction books, on the other hand, might be much better with Scrivener: in my papers, I move material around much more frequently than I do in fiction. Since I haven’t written any nonfiction books, however, I can’t comment as much on those.

I suspect that large, high-resolution monitors enable programs like Scrivener: at 24″ or larger, one can have a broad enough swatch of material open to really make a (computer) desktop feel like a (physical) desktop. You can layout and rearrange items much more easily. The new 27″ iMacs in particular are appealing for this purpose, and one can now find 27″ external monitors from Dell, Apple, and others. As desktops become more like desktops, being able to visualize large amounts of information at once makes tools like Scrivener more useful.

At the moment, I’m about 80K words into a novel that I think will end up in the neighborhood of 100K – 110K words, which is a bit long for a first published work but not impossibly long. Using a 24″ iMac, I can easily have two pages of text open at a time, which is very convenient. That’s what I use for my “notes” section (miscellaneous stuff I want to remember but can’t immediately add to the main narrative) and my main window, which has the novel progressing from Chapter 1 to “### END ###.” On my second monitor, a 20″ cheapie Dell, I have an outline and character list open.

Some of those functions could be taken over by Scrivener, based on what I’ve seen in the videos. For my next novel—if there is another in the immediate future; I need to devote more time to academic writing—I’d be willing to try Scrivener long enough to know if version 2.0 is a good fit. For this one, however, the thought of changing tools in the middle of the process would be too disruptive. There’s no reason, after all, that I can’t use both Scrivener and Devonthink Pro.

Highly recommended — the Best Book Stand “Jasmine”

A few months ago I realized that I needed a better way to hold books as I copy passages for both reviews on this blog and for my academic work. A bit of Googling found some really janky looking products that led me to sigh and rig a solution that consisted of a bunch of heavy anthologies (those of you who were English majors might remember the infamous Nortons; they’ve finally become useful again, albeit in a way slightly different from their intent) to lean a book against, while the heaviest of them all sat slightly in front to hold the relevant book up.

Then Kevin Kelly’s blog Cool Tools came to the rescue through a review of the Freesia Book Stand:

This is a simple but well-designed book stand that does exactly what it sets out to do. It is sturdy enough to hold big, heavy textbooks, but [it] looks nice. It is impressively adjustable, allowing for nearly any reading angle . Amazingly, despite the ability to hold heavy books, the stand itself is relatively light (around 3 lbs). The stand has an anti-skid coating on the bottoms so that it stays where I put it.

Exactly what I wanted. Thank you, Stephanie Misono, for suggesting this. She says, “I now wish I had gotten it years ago.” Me too; I chose the Best Book Stand Jasmine, and it would’ve been insanely useful as an undergrad, when I spent many hours looking at computer science textbooks in particular, going back and forth from page to screen.

The Freesia version is too big, so I ordered the smaller version. I have something similar for standalone printed papers, but even that isn’t nearly as satisfying; I was making edits to a novel earlier, and I flipped from one page to another with greater ease by using the Jasmine. So it’s not only good for copying passages from books, but for holding edited pages.

Does this sound minor? Maybe it is, but managing to find the perfect tool to fulfill a major need is incredibly satisfying, and this is perhaps the best solution I’ve found to a major problem in my life since reading “Tool for Thought” by Steven Berlin Johnson, which concerns DevonThink Pro. Although these tools are useful on a micro level, they probably also change the nature of what I do; as Nicholas Carr says in The Shallows:

Even as our technologies become extensions of ourselves, we become extensions of our technologies […] every tool imposes limitations even as it opens possibilities. The more we use it, the more we mold ourselves to its form and function. […] Whenever we use a tool to exert greater control over the outside world, we change our relationship with that world.

I’m probably more likely to copy marginal passages from books now that it’s become marginally easier both to do so and to organize the output once I have done so. The Jasmine hasn’t yet faded to the point of it reaching what Heidegger called “readiness-to-hand” or “Zuhandenheit,” which, to use Graham Harman’s formulation, “refers to objects insofar as they withdraw from human view into a dark subterranean reality that never becomes present to practical action any more than it does to theoretical awareness.” I’m entirely aware of the Jasmine, which is part of its pleasure, but when it fades “into a dark subterranean reality,” it will be really incorporated into my work (I suspect that writing the dissertation might force this state on me, as one book after another checks in and check out).

The Jasmine cost about $30, with about $10 in shipping. I probably would’ve paid $100 for it. Maybe more. It’s difficult to overstate its usefulness, given the kind of work I do. Students, academics, and bloggers are an obvious audience, but I’m sure other groups would find it useful too.

Highly recommended — the Best Book Stand "Jasmine"

A few months ago I realized that I needed a better way to hold books as I copy passages for both reviews on this blog and for my academic work. A bit of Googling found some really janky looking products that led me to sigh and rig a solution that consisted of a bunch of heavy anthologies (those of you who were English majors might remember the infamous Nortons; they’ve finally become useful again, albeit in a way slightly different from their intent) to lean a book against, while the heaviest of them all sat slightly in front to hold the relevant book up.

Then Kevin Kelly’s blog Cool Tools came to the rescue through a review of the Freesia Book Stand:

This is a simple but well-designed book stand that does exactly what it sets out to do. It is sturdy enough to hold big, heavy textbooks, but [it] looks nice. It is impressively adjustable, allowing for nearly any reading angle . Amazingly, despite the ability to hold heavy books, the stand itself is relatively light (around 3 lbs). The stand has an anti-skid coating on the bottoms so that it stays where I put it.

Exactly what I wanted. Thank you, Stephanie Misono, for suggesting this. She says, “I now wish I had gotten it years ago.” Me too; I chose the Best Book Stand Jasmine, and it would’ve been insanely useful as an undergrad, when I spent many hours looking at computer science textbooks in particular, going back and forth from page to screen.

The Freesia version is too big, so I ordered the smaller version. I have something similar for standalone printed papers, but even that isn’t nearly as satisfying; I was making edits to a novel earlier, and I flipped from one page to another with greater ease by using the Jasmine. So it’s not only good for copying passages from books, but for holding edited pages.

Does this sound minor? Maybe it is, but managing to find the perfect tool to fulfill a major need is incredibly satisfying, and this is perhaps the best solution I’ve found to a major problem in my life since reading “Tool for Thought” by Steven Berlin Johnson, which concerns DevonThink Pro. Although these tools are useful on a micro level, they probably also change the nature of what I do; as Nicholas Carr says in The Shallows:

Even as our technologies become extensions of ourselves, we become extensions of our technologies […] every tool imposes limitations even as it opens possibilities. The more we use it, the more we mold ourselves to its form and function. […] Whenever we use a tool to exert greater control over the outside world, we change our relationship with that world.

I’m probably more likely to copy marginal passages from books now that it’s become marginally easier both to do so and to organize the output once I have done so. The Jasmine hasn’t yet faded to the point of it reaching what Heidegger called “readiness-to-hand” or “Zuhandenheit,” which, to use Graham Harman’s formulation, “refers to objects insofar as they withdraw from human view into a dark subterranean reality that never becomes present to practical action any more than it does to theoretical awareness.” I’m entirely aware of the Jasmine, which is part of its pleasure, but when it fades “into a dark subterranean reality,” it will be really incorporated into my work (I suspect that writing the dissertation might force this state on me, as one book after another checks in and check out).

The Jasmine cost about $30, with about $10 in shipping. I probably would’ve paid $100 for it. Maybe more. It’s difficult to overstate its usefulness, given the kind of work I do. Students, academics, and bloggers are an obvious audience, but I’m sure other groups would find it useful too.

The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains — Nicholas Carr

One irony of this post is that you’re reading a piece on the Internet about a book that is in part about how the Internet is usurping the place of books. In The Shallows, Carr argues that the Internet encourages short attention spans, skimming, shallow knowledge, and distraction, and that this is a bad thing.

He might be right, but his argument misses one essential component: the absolute link between the Internet and distraction. He cites suggestive research but never quite crosses the causal bridge from the Internet as inherently distracting, both because of links and because of the overwhelming potential amount of material out there, and that we as a society and as a people are now endlessly distracted. Along the way, there are many soaring sentiments (“Our rich literary tradition is unthinkable without the intimate exchanges that take place between reader and writer within the crucible of a book”) and clever quotes (Nietzsche as quoted by Carr: “Our writing equipment takes part in the forming of our thoughts”), but that causal link is still weak.

I liked many of the points Carr made; that one about Nietzsche is something I’ve meditated over before, as shown here and here (I’ve now distracted you and you’re probably less likely to finish this post than you would be otherwise; if I offered you $20 for repeating the penultimate sentence in the comments section, I’d probably get no takers); I think our tools do cause us to think differently in some way, which might explain why I pay more attention to them than some bloggers do. And posts on tools and computer set ups and so forth seem to generate a lot of hits; Tools of the Trade—What a Grant Writer Should Have is among the more popular Grant Writing Confidential posts.

I use Devonthink Pro as described by Steven Berlin Johnson, which supplements my memory and acts as research tool, commonplace book, and quote database, and probably weakens my memory while allowing me to write deeper blog posts and papers. Maybe I remember less in my mind and more in my computer, but it still takes my mind to give context to the material copied into the database.

In fact, Devonthink Pro helped me figure out a potential contradiction in Carr’s writing. On page 209, he says:

Even as our technologies become extensions of ourselves, we become extensions of our technologies […] every tool imposes limitations even as it opens possibilities. The more we use it, the more we mold ourselves to its form and function.

But on page 47 he says: “Sometimes our tools do what we tell them to. Other times, we adapt ourselves to our tools’ requirements.” So if “sometimes our tools do what we tell them to,” then is it true that “The more we use it, the more we mold ourselves to its form and function?” The two statements aren’t quite mutually exclusive, but they’re close. Maybe reading Heidegger’s Being and Time and Graham Harman’s Tool-Being will clear up or deepen whatever confusion exists, since he a) went deep but b) like many philosophers, is hard to read and is closer to a machine for generating multiple interpretations than an illuminator and simplifier of problems. This could apply to philosophy in general as seen from the outside.

This post mirrors some of Carr’s tendencies, like the detour in the preceding paragraph. I’ll get back to the main point for a moment: Carr’s examples don’t necessarily add up to proving his argument, and some of them feel awfully tenuous. Some are also inaccurate; on page 74 he mentions a study that used brain scans to “examine what happens inside people’s heads as they read fiction” and cites Nicole K. Speer’s journal article “Reading Stories Activates Neural Representations of Visual and Motor Experiences,” which doesn’t mention fiction and uses a memoir from 1951 as its sample text.

Oops.

That’s a relatively minor issue, however, and one that I only discovered because I found the study interesting enough to look up.

Along the way in The Shallows we get lots of digressions, and many of them are well-trod ones: the history of the printing press; the origins of the commonplace books; the early artificial intelligence program ELIZA; Frederick Winslow Taylor and his efficiency interest; the plasticity of the brain; technologies that’ve been used for various purposes, including metaphor.

Those digressions almost add up to one of my common criticisms of nonfiction books, which is that they’d be better as long magazine articles. The Shallows started as one, and one I’ve mentioned before: “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” The answer: maybe. The answer now, two years and 200 pages later: maybe. Is the book a substantial improvement on the article? Maybe. You’ll probably get 80% of the book’s content from the article, which makes me think you’d be better off following the link to the article and printing it—the better not to be distracted by the rest of The Atlantic. This might tie into the irony that I mentioned in the first line of this post, which you’ve probably forgotten by now because you’re used to skimming works on the Internet, especially moderately long ones that make somewhat subtle arguments.

Offline, Carr says, you’re used to linear reading—from start to finish. Online, you’re used to… something else. But we’re not sure what, or how to label the reading that leads away from the ideal we’ve been living in: “Calm, focused, undistracted, the linear mind is being pushed aside by a new kind of mind that wants and needs to take in and dole out information in short, disjointed, often overlapping bursts—the faster, the better.”

Again, maybe, which is the definitive word for analyzing The Shallows: but we don’t actually have a name for this kind of mind, and it’s not apparent that the change is as major as Carr describes: haven’t we always made disparate connections among many things? Haven’t we always skimmed until we’ve found what we’re looking for, and then decided to dive in? His point is that we no longer do dive in, and he might be right—for some people; but for me, online surfing, skimming, and reading coexists with long-form book reading. Otherwise I wouldn’t have had the fortitude to get through The Shallows.

Still, I don’t like reading on my Kindle very much because I’ve discovered that I often tend to hop back and forth between pages. In addition, grad school requires citations that favor conventional books. And for all my carping about the lack of causal certainty regarding Carr’s argument, I do think he’s on to something because of my own experience. He says:

Over the last few years I’ve had an uncomfortable sense that someone, or something, has been tinkering with my brain, remapping the neural circuitry, reprogramming the memory. My mind isn’t going—so far as I can tell—but it’s changing. I’m not thinking the way I used to think. I feel it most strongly when I’m reading. I used to find it easy to immerse myself in a book or a lengthy article. My mind would get caught up in the twists of the narrative or the turns of the argument, and I’d spend hours strolling through long stretches of prose. That’s rarely the case anymore. Now my concentration starts to drift after a page or two. I get fidgety, lose the thread, begin looking for something else to do. I feel like I’m always dragging my wayward brain back to the text. The deep reading that used to come naturally has become a struggle.

I think I know what’s going on. For well over a decade now, I’ve been spending a lot of time online, searching and surfing and sometimes adding to the great databases of the Internet.

He says friends have reported similar experiences. I feel the same way as him and his friends: the best thing I’ve found for improving my productivity and making reading and writing easier is a program called Freedom, which prevents me from getting online unless I reboot my iMac. It throws enough of a barrier between me and the Internet that I can’t easily distract myself through e-mail or Hacker News (Freedom has also made writing this post slightly harder, because during the first draft, I haven’t been able to add links to various appropriate places, but I think it worth the trade-off, and I didn’t realize I was going to write this post when I turned it on). Paul Graham has enough money that he uses another computer for the same purpose, as he describes in the linked essay, which is titled, appropriately enough, “Disconnecting Distraction” (sample: “After years of carefully avoiding classic time sinks like TV, games, and Usenet, I still managed to fall prey to distraction, because I didn’t realize that it evolves.” Guess what distraction evolved into: the Internet).

Another grad student in English Lit expressed shock when I told him that I check my e-mail at most once a day and shook for every two days, primarily in an effort not to distract myself with electronic kibble or kipple. Carr himself had to do the same thing: he moves to Colorado and jettisons much of his electronic life, and he “throttled back my e-mail application […] I reset it to check only once an hour, and when that still created too much of a distraction, I began to keeping the program closed much of the day.” I work better that way. And I think I read better, or deeper, offline.

For me, reading a book is a very different experience from searching the web, in part because most of the websites I visit are exhaustible much faster than books. I have a great pile of them from the library waiting to be read, and an even greater number bought or gifted over the years. Books worth reading seem to go on forever. Websites don’t.

But if I don’t have that spark of discipline to stay off the Internet for a few hours at a time, I’m tempted to do the RSS round-robin and triple check the New York Times for hours, at which point I look up and say, “What did I do with my time?” If I read a book—like The Shallows, or Carlos Ruiz Zafon’s The Shadow of the Wind, which I’m most of the way through now—I look up in a couple of hours and know I’ve done something. This is particularly helpful for me because, as previously mentioned, I’m in grad school, which means I have to be a perpetual reader (if I didn’t want to be, I’d find another occupation).

To my mind, getting offline can become a comparative advantage because, like Carr, “I’ve had an uncomfortable sense that someone, or something, has been tinkering with my brain,” and that someone is me and that someone is the Internet. But I can’t claim this is true for all people in all places, even as I tell my students to try turning off their Internet access and cell phones when they write their papers. Most of them no doubt don’t. But the few who do learn how to turn off the electronic carnival are probably getting something very useful out of that advice. The ones who don’t probably would benefit from reading The Shallows because they’d at least become aware of the possibility that the Internet is rewiring our brains in ways that might not be beneficial to us, however tenuous the evidence (notice my hedging language: “at least,” “the possibility” “might not”).

Alas: they’re probably the ones least likely to read it.

Mellel 2.7 released

I should’ve noted this earlier but forgot: Redlers released Mellel 2.7 in mid-September. The biggest new feature from my perspective is Snow Leopard compatibility.

Quick background: Mellel is a word processor for OS X, and Redlers has listed the top ten reasons to switch (presumably from Word) at the link. Many academics use Mellel for its stability, language support, and excellent formatting, and I sometimes use it for very long documents because it doesn’t crash easily. The major problem: no track changes/editing support. But recent forum activity indicates that track changes might be in development; you can see my own comments in the thread.

Computer post follow-up: The relative reliability of laptops versus desktops

In a post on the merits of laptops versus desktops, I wrote that “the inflated notebook total [regarding units sold] is probably in part due to the disposable nature and limited longevity of notebooks.” Two e-mailers took issue with this assertion because I didn’t have any direct evidence backing it up aside from the obvious engineering constraints that impair notebooks.

Evidence isn’t easy to find. The best I’ve seen comes from a recent issue of Consumer Reports, which says:

Cons: Laptops cost more than comparably equipped desktops. Our reliability surveys show laptops are more repair-prone than desktops. Components are more expensive to repair.

Isn’t that obvious? The miniaturization necessary to cram components into a laptop case combined with inferior heat dissipation and the wear of constantly opening, closing, and moving a computer would reduce the reliability of comparable laptops versus desktops. People who need the mobility should obviously make that trade-off, but to me the benefits of a laptop are overrated, especially given the price premium most already command. This holds true across brands.

One issue bigger than price is hassle: the longer I can keep a computer without the hard drive, logic board, or other components breaking, the better off I am because I don’t have to undertake the tedious process of fixing the computer. By that standard, a long-lived desktop is a beautiful thing indeed—especially when one doesn’t need the portability.

A recent NPD survey on netbooks found that “60 percent of buyers said they never even took their netbooks out of the house.” If your laptop never travels, why bother having one?

Still, my desktop preference may  eventually change. AnandTech’s review of the new MacBook Pro batteries highlights the astonishingly long charge they hold and waxes euphorically in a way most unlike the normally staid tech site:

Ever since I first looked at the power consumption specs of Nehalem I thought it didn’t make any sense to buy a new, expensive notebook before Arrandale’s launch in Q4 2009/Q1 2010. While performance will definitely increase considerably with Arrandale, Apple just threw a huge wrench in my recommendation. The new MacBook Pro is near perfect today. If you need a new laptop now, thanks to its incredible battery life, I have no qualms recommending the new MBP.

But the power/performance of desktops today still beats laptops for those who don’t need the mobility. A MacBook Pro, 24″ monitor, and Intel X-25 SSD run well north of $2,000, compared to $1,500 for an iMac, which, according to Consumer Reports, should have greater longevity.

AnandTech has one other piece that sways me towards desktops, as this 2007 article shows: “Without even running any objective tests, most people could pretty easily tell you that the latest and greatest desktop LCDs are far superior to any of the laptop LCDs currently available.”

Gizmodo has also run a polemic announcing the justified end of the desktop. I’m not buying it.

EDIT: It’s 2016 and I’m using a Retina iMac. Laptops have, however, made impressive strides in screen quality.

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