Ulysses 2.0 is out, and it's quite interesting to return to its plain text simplicity after getting comfy with the razzle-dazzle, do-everything, rich-text smorgasbord of Scrivener. They are both great apps, but it's clear after a few hours with Ulysses that it's a very different beast, and will appeal to very different sorts of writers.
You know me, you know I have an obsession with writing software for ages. I like to try out everything that comes along. Rarely has anything lived up to the gorgeous simplicity of TextMate and a bunch of folders in the Finder.
The difference for me, and this is something I consider fairly fundamental to my obsessive behaviour, is that a lot of what I write is destined for publication on the web. Right now, about 70% of all my paid work is for blogs and other web publications, and will never see the light of day in print.
If I were solely a print journalist, I’d probably have stuck with something like Scrivener or Mori or DevonNote years ago. They’re just the thing for managing articles where all you need to consider is the words.
But a web writer has to consider more than the words. A web writer has to consider the links, and to some extent, the presentation and formatting of the words. This is stuff that simply isn’t required for print content.
So the direct consequence of this is that most software that’s great for writing just words isn’t so great for writing words for the web. There’s a difference in the required output, and there’s a difference in the requirements of the software.
This is what lies behind my obsession. I’ve been writing for web sites for many years, but I’ve never really found the writing tool that fulfilled that very specific niche. It has to have certain features:
- easy integration with various blog tools and their APIs
- word count (live if possible, called up by command if not)
- treat plain text properly
- convert Markdown to HTML in situ and instantly
- have a full screen editing mode, and be able to flit between window and full screen with one button
- ideally, offer some degree of management of content, so that I can keep track of ideas-for-articles, articles-in-progress, articles-to-be-posted, and articles-posted-previously
Now I’ve known about MarsEdit for years, but haven’t sat down and tried using it properly. Not until a couple of weeks ago, when anger with WordPress-in-a-browser sent me scurrying for a client app that wouldn’t make me quite so cross.
And having downloaded and used it for just a few hours, I couldn’t believe I hadn’t done so years ago. It solves many of the problems I was dealing with, and adds other features to boot. For 15 quid, it’s a marvel.
But there’s more: although MarsEdit doesn’t have everything, I can add things to it with a utility like ThisService. After an hour or so of of Googling and fiddling about, I have set up MarsEdit so that it can do everything on the list above. It can even do full screen editing, thanks to its helpful “Edit with…” command that can be invoked with a simple tap on Command+J.
I’m almost exploding with excitement about this. ThisService makes a sensible Word Count and use of Markdown possible in every app I have. Now I have them inside MarsEdit, which does all the article-management and talking-to-API gubbins too. And it copes very nicely with images too, just drag ‘em in. This is the software setup I’ve been looking for inside a single app for years, but it turns out that three very niche apps, working together, have provided the answer instead.
I’d urge any of you who regularly write for web publications – yes, both of you – to have a try with this setup and see if it makes you more productive. Cos I think it probably will.
Some odd stuff has been happening today. In fact, before today.
I’d noticed that I was sometimes being prompted to fix “errors or omissions” in my iTunes billing information, every time I tried to buy an application from the App Store. Sometimes, though: not always.
But today it failed completely, and I was caught in a loop: try to buy app, get prompted to fix errors, fix them, click “Done”, try to buy app, get prompted to fix errors… and so on.
My fix (and I have no idea how long this is going to work) was to remove my billing information altogether by choosing “None”. Quit and restart iTunes. Then enter it afresh. And restart iTunes again, just for good luck. And now – finally – it lets me buy something.
I’m just mentioning it, in case you get stuck in the loop too.
I need some fresh air.
Sorry to keep banging on about Mac writing software, but here’s another one I’ve been enjoying recently: Bean.
I tried it when it first came out and didn’t really find much to shout about. But then I tried it again a week or so ago, and suddenly found myself loving it.
What’s so great? The live word count, of course; and the simplicity. It doesn’t faff about with anything and isn’t bloated with any useless crap. My editor at PA recently asked me to make some changes to my weekly internet column, which means I have to keep a close eye on word counts as I go along. As much as I love writing in TextMate, Bean is easier for this sort of task because the word count is always visible.
And some other great things about Bean: it’s free, it’s open source, and it’s Cocoa.
WriteRoom’s great as a full screen editor, but it has a hidden beauty as a windowed text editor too.
Look at it – gorgeous simplicity, green-on-black loveliness, and a live word count in the window’s title bar. I shall say that bit again: a live word count in the title bar. That’s the one feature that I wish, I wish, I wish I could enable in TextMate.
People like me – people who often have to produce a certain number of words for a client – are prone to have joyful grins on our faces whenever we find a decent bit of writing software that includes a live word count. It matters, you see, when you’re trying to get exactly 550 words, and you’ve knocked out the perfect bit of well-argued prose and it ends up being 532 words, or 581 words. Either way, that live word count is essential for the clean-up process that follows.
It’s daft. I’ve been using WriteRoom full screen for years but it’s never occurred to me to use it differently until today. It’s not a TextMate replacement but it’s yet another writing environment to add to my list of favourites.
I don’t do a lot of presentations. In fact, I don’t like presentations very much. I’ve been subjected to too many boring ones in my time, and have been guilty of delivering boring ones too.
But tomorrow I’m doing a talk in front of 50 or 60 media professionals at a conference in Bath, and I decided that perhaps it would be a good idea to put some slides together after all.
As any dedicated Mac user would, I turned to Keynote. Which was a mistake.
Because it turns out that Keynote running on a MacBook has a curious bug: it will randomly and spontaneously reboot your computer when you start playing your presentation. It’s random in the sense that you just don’t know when it will happen. Sometimes you’ll click play and the thing just plays, and you smile and relax.
But after three or four instant reboots after clicking the “Play” button on the toolbar, you start to get nervous. Your fingers get twitchy on the mouse button. You start to imagine how unprofessional it would look if you stood up in front of 50 or 60 people, fired up with enthusiasm about the things you were going to discuss, only to find that your computer promptly rebooted itself, live on a big screen in front of them all.
From what I can see, this is not a new problem. There are mentions on Apple’s discussions site of very similar things happening a year or more ago (and again as recently as today), but it looks like whatever this problem is, it still hasn’t been fixed.
Keynote is presentation software, but seems to have a bug that makes it impossible to rely on for presentations.
I’ve exported my slides to the web, and I’ve exported them as a .ppt which I can show in PowerPoint if I have to, but you know what? I’m starting to think that I might well not bother with slides at all. I might just talk, and use a browser to display web pages that illustrate my points. The last thing I want to be doing is worrying about software — presentation software, mind you — randomly rebooting my machine while I bore people.
The computer was on my lap, and I was halfway through reading a PDF document, when I noticed an odd beeping and ticking noise. At first I thought there must be a browser window open in the background, playing some irritating Flash content. But it was immediately apparent that the whole machine was locked up and the strange mechanical noises continued from within.
I knew right then that something serious had happened. I know my way around minor Mac problems because I’ve seen loads of them. But this is the first time I’ve experienced a serious hardware failure.
Which of course it turned out to be. After half an hour on the phone with the delightful guys at AppleCare, the MacBook (not yet a year old) was diagnosed dead and will be picked up tomorrow for repair.
And I’m not in any kind of panic, because I am confident that my Time Machine backups will save me.
I have discovered a problem with them, though. What I wanted to do was restore my MacBook backup to my ancient (and spare) PowerBook; but doing a straightforward restore-all was not possible because the PowerBook’s hard disk is that much smaller. It doesn’t have room for everything that was on the MacBook.
What’s doubly irritating is that there appears to be no way of restoring just a selection of the MacBook’s files. It has to be a complete full restore, or nothing.
The next step was obvious – plug the MacBook’s backup drive into the PowerBook and just drag over the files needed. But that fails too, because of a permissions problem. My user account on this spare machine does not have permissions to read and open the files on the backup.
I’m not going to panic, because I can cope. I’ve managed to rescue a handful of files that are most essential for day-to-day work, and with a text editor and a browser I can get along just fine for a few days, until the MacBook is mended and I can fully restore it.
Still: bloody computers.
I have a Mac mini. I want to run it “headless”, and manage it over the network using Screen Sharing. It runs Leopard just fine. But there’s one minor problem that brings the whole plan crashing down around my ears, and having spent two whole evenings trying to fix it, I’m flummoxed.
The idea, you see, is for the mini to be a testing machine. I’ll install weird shareware on it and play around; some of these apps might get written up as reviews for MacUser magazine, to which I contribute quite regularly. MacUser magazine has rules about the screen grabs that appear on its pages. Reviews must have an orange backdrop on the desktop. Features get a yellow desktop image; how-to guides get a green one. It’s all part of the colour-coding they’ve used to make navigating the magazine nice and easy.
So, back to my headless Mac mini. Here’s the problem:
When plugged into a monitor, I can change the desktop image on the mini to the orange backdrop I require and everything works fine. The moment I unplug the monitor, the backdrop disappears and is replaced by a plain blue backdrop. Not even the blue image that’s the default Tiger desktop, but something much plainer and bluer than that.
Nothing I do over Screen Sharing will remedy this. The blue backdrop remains, even if I delete the desktop preferences file and restart.
So, plug the mini back into a monitor and – oh! – the desired desktop picture is there!
Remove the monitor again, look at Screen Sharing, and – gah! – it’s gone again.
The issue seems to be something to do with Screen Sharing.
Normally a misbehaving desktop background wouldn’t be cause for much concern, but it’s driving me mad because in this instance, and for the MacUser reviews reasons outlined above, the display of the desktop background matters a great deal. Without being able to run this machine headless, it is rendered useless.
I’ve tried re-installing Leopard (erase and install, since there’s no data stored on the mini), but even that does not fix the problem. Which suggests to me that it’s a bug in 10.5.2, perhaps, or 10.5 generally because I’ve had the same problem before updating to 10.5.2.
Gah, gah, and triple drat.