Archives for April 2014

Books of Kane

Last week I pre-ordered a couple of books by one of my favourite Sword and Sorcery authors, Karl Edward Wagner. This morning The Book of Kane and Death Angel’s Shadow automagically appeared on my Kindle courtesy of Amazon and Gateway. These are books have been out of print for a long time and can usually only be found for hideously inflated prices on eBay. Now they are sitting there on my ereader inviting immediate attention.

It is a mark of the age we live in and a huge change from the world in which I grew up. As a teenager I treasured my fantasy books because they only intermittently appeared in the spinner racks of the local newsagents or on the shelves of Stranraer’s John Menzies. If you were a fantasy fan, you just grabbed whatever you saw while it was still there. You could go a long time between fixes of fantasy in those days. These days ebooks are slowly but surely making available almost all the texts I so desperately wanted to get my hands on.

The Sixties and Seventies were the time of the great rediscovery of 30s pulp. Paperbacks with covers by the likes of Frank Frazetta and Bruce Pennington introduced me to Robert E Howard, Clark Ashton Smith and H P Lovecraft.

Wagner’s Kane books came slightly later, somewhere around the mid–70s if I recall correctly, but they were definitely part of that tradition. As a teenager, I found them disturbing, to say the least. Characters you cared about died with a regularity that would have done credit to George R. R. Martin. There were always horrific undertones to the work of the pulp greats but Wagner amped them up to eleven. The stories were astonishingly dark. Kane himself was about as far from a hero as it was possible to get; a psychotic killing machine, an evil sorcerer, a doomed immortal cursed to wander the world for millennia. Somehow he managed to be both charismatic and occassionally sympathetic.

We were still in recognisable sword and sorcery territory. The world held echoes of Lovecraftian horror, just as,in some ways, Howard’s Conan stories did. There were elements of science fiction too with the Elder Races who were quite obviously not from this world.

The stories were beautifully constructed, the prose was impressive and the characterisation done at a level that was not common in the genre.

These ebooks are collections of Wagner’s short stories about Kane. One oddity is that the same story , Reflections For The Winter Of My Soul, appears in both of them. It’s a great story, a country house murder mystery featuring a werewolf (and I promise you a lot less genteel than this makes it sound), but this seems like overkill.

Death Angel’s Shadow contains pretty much what I remember being in the paperback version. There’s just three stories but two of them, the aforementioned Reflections and Cold Light are crackers. The latter is a long novella in which Kane is hunted through the ruins of a dead city by the so-good-he’s-bad Gaetha the Avenger and his henchmen. The third story Mirage is a minor work but still worth a read.

The Book of Kane features some but not all of the contents of the collection Night Winds. Three of my all time favourite stories Undertow, Two Suns Setting and Lynortis Reprise are missing. Instead you get Misericorde and The Other One. I’m not sure why this happened and I do hope the missing stories show up in a future volume. It would be nice to have access to these sword and sorcery classics.

You do get another of my favourites, Raven’s Eyrie, which features a sinister family reunion under the light of the Demon Lord’s moon on the one night when the hordes of hell are free to roam the earth.

I do hope that Gateway get round to releasing Wagner’s Kane novels Bloodstone, Darkness Weaves and Dark Crusade as soon as possible. They’re off to a fine start with the release of these two books.


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More Useful Software

DragonDictate 4

As someone pointed out in a review elsewhere finally does what it’s supposed to do is not exactly a great slogan but, in the case of DragonDictate 4, it is an apt one. This is the first version of DragonDictate which I have not had a problem with, and believe me, I have tried them all. For me, speech recognition on the Mac has had a long dishonourable history of raised hopes and dashed expectations. This time around Nuance have finally got things right first time.

The main thing about DragonDictate 4 is that it’s pleasant to use. So far, and I have been testing it since it was released a month ago, I have not had any problems. Recognition accuracy is at least on par with Dragon Naturally Speaking on Windows. The program has also learned to cope with the made-up words I use in my fantasy novels too.

The remaining big difference now, as far as I can see, between the Mac version and the Windows version of Nuance’s flagship product is that when you make a correction in Windows, the cursor automatically returns to its previous position at the end of the document. With DragonDictate you still need to send it there with a voice command.

For the Mac version Nuance has added something else to sweeten the pot. You now get the able to transcribe dictation as part of the program. I’ve tested this using the speech recording program on my Galaxy S3 and it works pretty well. It does make the odd error in transcription, and, as far as I can tell, there is no way you can teach the program it has made a mistake as you can with realtime speech recognition. Since the transcription ability was only previously available on the Mac as a very expensive standalone program this is a welcome bonus.

There is one area that the Mac version is ahead of previous Windows versions of Dragon Naturally Speaking and that is in the ability to define your own user commands. In the Windows versions I own this is only available as part of the extremely expensive Professional edition. It is baked right in to the Mac version. It works too.

So far using DragonDictate 4 has been a pleasure– it is not even had a problem running at the same time as TextExpander which in the past used to give it a lot of problems (on my machines at least). If I am hedging my bets and sounding less than convincing, it is just that Mac speech recognition has a history of leaving me disappointed and I am still waiting for the other shoe to drop. So far, it hasn’t, and I am starting to suspect that finally speech recognition on the Mac has come of age.

Hazel

If like me you are naturally lazy and sloppy, then Hazel is a godsend for keeping your surroundings tidy, on a computer at least. It is a program that runs on the background on your Mac and performs assorted house-keeping tasks. It does this by following rules that you set it and these can be as long or as short as you like.

For example, I have Hazel monitoring my downloads folder and shifting any PDFs it finds there into my PDFs folder. Once it gets to the downloads file, I have it further set so that if certain names are part of the files title they automatically can transported to the appropriate folder. For example if Hazel finds Mutants and Masterminds as part of the files name, that file automatically gets transferred to the M&M folder.

You can set Hazel to perform more complicated tasks, such as rename files and move them based on their content. I know of one example where someone takes scans of various financial statements and has them shifted to the appropriate folder based on the contents. The example I found most striking was where the Hazel Rule involved looked at the scanned file and if the content contained the name of his gas company and the word statement, Hazel tagged the scan, renamed the file as Gas Bill Date X (Where X was the date of the scan) and moved it to a folder called Gas Bills.

I have Hazel set to clean my desktop of assorted things that get dumped there and move them to their proper folders. I also have it set to tidy away files from my Dropbox once they are older than a few months. I have set up exceptions in the Hazel rules so that it ignores the files I specifically want left in there. I do need to be careful about this since sometimes Hazel is left running in the background and I forget about it and it shifts some important files around that I have forgotten about.

Hazel is a fine example of a program that does one thing really well. I find it well worth the money I paid for it. 



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WriteMonkey

Over the past few weeks I’ve been doing a lot of writing in simplified plain text word processors using Markdown. I was surprised and rather pleased to discover my favourite of these was not one of the many excellent Mac programs such as Byword or iaWriter but WriteMonkey which is available solely for Windows.

WriteMonkey hits all the right zenware buttons. After launch you get a blank screen and a blinking cursor. At the bottom of the screen is the name of your file, your word count and a small digital clock. All of these can be switched off either en masse or on a case by case basis, for those times when all you really, really want to be looking at is a blank screen.

Since all of the zenware applications look pretty much the same why do I prefer WriteMonkey? There are a couple of reasons actually.

The first is that WriteMonkey is not, arguably, zenware at all. For me that implies a really stripped down and basic writing environment which cuts down on the number of features available and lets you just get on with the writing rather than tinker with your formatting or your settings. WriteMonkey actually has rather a lot of features but they are all ones that I really like or need. In fact, WriteMonkey has almost every feature from Scrivener that I require and that from me is high praise indeed.

It has an easy automatic backup system. You don’t need to worry about file format since it’s plain text.

It has a timer and a progress meter. Want to set yourself a target word count? WriteMonkey has you covered. Want to set yourself a countdown for writing sprints. WriteMonkey has a timer. Want to combine the two and attempt to write 1000 words in a fixed interval. WriteMonkey can do that to. WriteMonkey will even show you a progress bar along the bottom of your screen if you want.

There’s a scratchpad for keeping your notes somewhere easy to find so you can refer to them. Those features are pretty much all I need from a basic word processor. On top of that WriteMonkey can do a lot more.

There are small TextExpander type shortcuts similar to auto-replace in Word which allow you to insert the date by typing /now. Any other word or sentence boilerplate you have previously defined can be triggered by a combination of keystrokes you define.

If you make a donation, you get access to WriteMonkey’s plugins. These range from index cards that float above your text when you need them and vanish when you don’t, to my favourite (and a feature Scrivener does not have) a Pomodoro timer. This is very useful indeed if like me you use the Pomodoro Method. I’ve never actually found a pomodoro timer for Windows that I like as much as the ones available for the Mac so this is a real bonus. Another plug-in allows you to navigate around your document using the Markdown headers.

There are many more plug-ins such as a sentence highlighter, a clipboard picker and a thesaurus. I haven’t used any of those.

All the features can be uncovered by hitting function 1 which provides you with a handy list of everything that is possible. The same list provides you with a guide to Markdown syntax if you want to use it.

The other reason I like WriteMonkey is that its quirky. If you like it will make typewriter noises when you type or provide you with a funny quote when you load up the program. It’s a zenware program that has a bit of personality and a sense of humour. All of these things can be switched off if you don’t like them.

WriteMonkey can be installed on a USB stick and carried around with you. It’s free. If you make a donation you get access to the plug-ins but you don’t need to and everything essential is there in the basic program. I could do my pomodoro sets using the dash timer if I really wanted to. If only WriteMonkey could move blocks of text around within an outline structure the way Folding Text can then it could do everything I need from a word processor. As it is, it is by far my favourite of the plain text zenware writing environments. Highly recommended.


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Invisible Software

For the past couple of weeks I have been living in a strange alternative universe where proprietary formatting for applications never happened. I have been storing my to do list on my phone and editing it in my word-processor on both Windows and OSX. My phone happens to run Android but I could just as easily be doing this on an iPhone. I’ve been taking notes on my phone when out in the playground with the baby and been able to edit them in my word processor, add them to my Evernote stack and/or do whatever else I want with them. I’ve been writing blog posts that I can send directly from my word processor to this blog knowing they will format correctly. I’ve been running my project management software everywhere.

I’ve been doing all of this courtesy of working in plain text/markdown files and it really has been a wonderful experience. For someone like me, who works on a variety of operating systems and a number of strange devices, including an Alphasmart Dana, markdown has been a real boon. Using an open standard (and it does not get more open than plain text) means I can use anything I want, any time I want, anywhere I want. If I feel like editing my work in progress on my phone (don’t laugh it occasionally happens) I can. What it means is that the software I use becomes effectively invisible. It gets out of my way.

I’ve been working on Byword on the Mac and the extremely wonderful WriteMonkey on my Windows machines for word processing. I’ve been using todo.txt for my to do lists and Taskpaper for my project management/ Getting Things Done Stuff. It all works together extremely well.

It was what I was going to write about today, but when I came to think about it, there’s another sort of invisible software that holds everything together. Dropbox. When I stopped to consider it, I was amazed at how stealthily and completely this program has infiltrated my life.

For those of you who have not encountered it, Dropbox is an extremely simple looking idea, extremely well executed. It is a folder that sits on your desktop and when you put something into it, it gets stored in the cloud on Dropbox’s servers and from there is synchronised with the files on any other machine you happen to have Dropbox installed it. I’ve been using it for years and it works really well. It even stores versioned backups of your recent files, so if you accidentally overwrite something you can go back and retrieve what you wiped.

Dropbox is where my ToDo.txt file lives and my markdown drafts and blogposts and even the Scrivener files for my big writing projects. It’s useful in that not only does it provide an effortless method of synchronising my data between machines, it gives me an off-site backup for my work. (I also use Google Drive, Amazon’s S3 cloud and OneDrive for this as well as a USB stick and Time Machine backup– I know it sounds paranoid but I lost a bit of work once and I never intend to have it happen again.)

Recently Dropbox has allowed me to automatically back up the photographs from my phone’s camera onto my computer. It happens invisibly in the background while I am doing other stuff. I am experimenting with using the speech recorder on my phone to take dictation. Dropbox makes transferring the dictation files from my Galaxy to DragonDictate 4 on the Mac an absolute breeze. I just save the file in Dropbox and, boom, it’s there on my computer ready to import into Dragon when I want. This is the way that software should work. It should just get out of your way and let you do stuff.

I think Dropbox is in many ways the wave of the future, capitalising on the Cloud’s strengths. It’s not something you really notice because you don’t work in it the way you do with a program like Scrivener or Microsoft Word, but it has definitely changed the way I work and I imagine it will continue to do so.


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