Sunday, November 20, 2005

A God's-Eye View of the World

We are as gods, the old Whole Earth mantra has it, and we might as well get good at it. Google Earth is one of those astonishingly right-on tools that come along every few years to validate that motto: it allows the viewer to swoop down from the heavens to view just about any address in North America (and many abroad), affording a macro, regional view of place that zeroes in on the extremely particular in just a few clicks. (Suffice it to say that you might want to reconsider rooftop sunbathing unless you're sure no Google spy satellite is floating about in the sky above.) Be warned: as with all godlike technologies, it's addictive. Sadly, it's Windows-only for the moment, but a Mac version is said to be in the works.

Friday, July 29, 2005

Kindly Cuts

I'm an inveterate clipper of newspapers, and even though I do much of my research online and pull down the resulting goodies in bits and bytes, I still have stacks of newsprint cluttering my desk at any given moment. This superbly made little tool from Levenger makes the clipping easy and safer for all those around me--for I tend to be a dangerous creature indeed when equipped with scissors or penknife.

Another plus: you can (at least for the moment) get the implement onto an airplane.

Sunday, July 24, 2005

Tooks for Readers 3: Update

If nothing else, the last post illustrates the rocket speed with which technological time moves; much of the software I mentioned in the original publication (of 2003) has been thoroughly updated or made obsolete. The best features of Photoshop Album, for instance, have been ported over to the new Photoshop CS and Elements iterations for both Mac and Windows. And I don't think I'd recommend a ScanSoft program without extensive field-testing after the disaster that was PaperPort 10, which did some awful things to the awful Windows register. (One more reason to prefer Macs, always.)

Hoover Dam is still there, though, if locked in a weird security cordon in this weird police-state age. For all the hassle of getting there, it's still worth a look.

Tools for Readers 3: Permanence

Among the buttresses and turbines of Hoover Dam, on the lower Colorado River where Arizona and Nevada meet, lies a marble-and-steel map of the stars.

Designed by sculptor Oskar J. W. Hansen in a mix of Art Deco and Futurist styles, the map was meant to show future inhabitants of the Southwest, and the cosmos, that the dam’s builders knew their place in the universe, physically and chronologically. (The map shows the location of the dam relative to the United States, that of the United States to the Earth, and that of the Earth to the solar system. It also pinpoints the date the dam was commemorated, September 30, 1935.) Hansen’s unstated assumption was that the gigantic structure would stand for countless generations. Long enough, anyway, that visitors to it might no longer speak anything recognizably like English, but might nonetheless be able to read a celestial chart and figure out the story it told.

Is that assumption reasonable? Probably not, considering that information of much more recent vintage is already all but lost to us 21st-centurians: the flood of electronic data produced in the 1980s, when personal computers first became widely available. Some of that information rests on eight-inch diskettes or fast-disintegrating tapes, which only a specialized archival firm will have the hardware to read. Some of it comes from old Kaypros, Eagles, and Commodores, using code that no modern operating system can decipher on its own. Some of it lies in faint dot-matrix type on dusty fanfold paper.

Much of that information, doubtless, can be forgotten. Much is worth saving, but for most users the data may as well be in cuneiform script on brick tablets.

As anyone who has tried to migrate data from an ancient floppy can tell you, retrieving that information, though only twenty years old, is no easy task. (The floppy disk itself is a nearly extinct medium, for that matter.) The mere difficulty of retrieving old data provides the rationale for Adobe’s now-standard PDF (portable document format), documents that can be read and printed across any operating system. What is more, Adobe developers maintain, “ten years from now, and into the future, users will still be able to view the file exactly as it was created”—meaning that fonts, layout, and illustrations are locked into the document and cannot easily be changed, unlike documents created with standard word processing software. (For more, see Adobe’s white paper “PDF as a Standard for Archiving,” available at

This built-in immutability has two advantages for those who swim in seas of paper. The first is that PDF documents look just as they did when they were generated, essential for users who must keep faithful copies of, say, legal or medical records. The second is that publishers can control the appearance and content of books and other publications; lock a PDF document with an encrypted code, and no one can rewrite or reformat the work, or even annotate it without permission.

That precise control has made PDF a standard throughout the publishing industry, and increasingly books are sent to the printer as PDF documents. The recent release of Adobe Acrobat Professional 6.0 includes a suite of sophisticated tools for preparing documents for the press and creating PDF files for electronic distribution. It’s not cheap—a full version runs $449, an upgrade $149—but if you’re thinking of setting up shop as a publisher, even for a single chapbook of poetry, you would do well to make the investment. Adobe sells a stripped-down version of Acrobat for $299 ($99 upgrade), and it is much superior to most of the third-party programs available for making PDFs. Of these, Scansoft’s PaperPort 9.0 ($100) saves scanned documents in native PDF and can convert unencrypted PDF files to editable form.

One now much improved application of the PDF standard is its ability to preserve graphics in their full glory. Take a photograph made with a digital camera or scanned into the computer, for instance, and run it through a PDF conversion program, and you’ll be able to share it across platforms—and, presumably, across decades—just as with any document. Adobe’s Photoshop Elements 2.0 suite ($99) supports such conversion, and it includes most of the remarkable image-doctoring features of its big brother, Photoshop 7.0 ($609 full; $149 upgrade).

Photoshop Album ($49), unveiled in the winter of 2003, includes some of Photoshop’s doctoring routines as well, allowing a quick fix for, say, red eye or incorrect exposure. Its real strength, however, lies in its cataloguing tools, which enables the user to organize photographs scattered across many directories and even drives, and then to embed captions and technical notes. Professional photographers have been using similar but much more expensive programs (by, say, Extensis and Camera Bits) for a few years now, but Photoshop Album has features that even these lack, such as the ability to browse through photographs on a timeline and to create PDF slideshows.

Photoshop Album, like all Adobe programs, has many buried tools and comes with a steep learning curve. Having used it to make thumbnails of more than five thousand high-resolution photographs I’ve taken over the decades (but that took the program only about twenty minutes to read), I’m now puzzling over the many ways to tag and index them all. I expect to be an ascended master about the time Oskar Hansen’s star chart is covered over with Colorado River silt—but to have good geeky fun in the bargain.

Saturday, May 07, 2005

Tools for Readers 2, updated

There's much to revisit in the previous column. I've been carefully navigating away from the world of Windows for the last year, and I haven't kept up with much of the material mentioned here except Golden Section Notes and AskSam, now up to version 6.0. As is so often the case, the counterparts in the Mac alternate universe are vastly superior in many ways: Golden Section Notes pales next to Sticky Brain, and AskSam seems much less wonderful next to FileMaker Pro, a piece of magic (also available for Windows) that seems to have sprung like Athena from the head of Zeus. I'm learning both FileMaker and Sticky Brain now, as well as a program that blends the two, sort of, called DevonThink. The challenge is to write something clever enough to make all that programming firepower worth the while.

More on the Mac side later. In the interim, if there's anyone listening out there, let me recommend a great "life-hacking" site called 43 Folders, which regularly praises one of my favorite pieces of technology: the Moleskine notebook.

Tools for Readers 2

To be shortlisted is a good thing, particularly if you’re after a partnership down at the brokerage or a Golden Globe. To be blacklisted is not. Neither is it good to list too much, not if you’re a ship. And to be on a Listserv, Erin Jansen’s handy NetLingo: The Internet Dictionary will tell you, is to have access to messages that are transmitted via email “and are therefore available only to individuals on the list,” which ought to make the recipient feel very special indeed. (The printed—or “forestware”—edition of NetLingo sells for $19.95 paper and is available through most online booksellers, as well as through, where you can take the lexicon out for a spin.)

I’ve been thinking about lists, a strategy that has taken time away from the actual making of them—which, as compulsive listmakers know, sustains the illusion that by getting organized on paper you’re actually getting something accomplished. I have so many to-do, to-buy, to-go-to, and to-ask-for lists that one day soon I’ll have to start keeping a master list of lists, fully indexed and dumped into an electronic database for instant consultation so that I’ll never forget an obligation or deadline again.

Provided, of course, that I can remember to look at the file, which is another problem altogether.

Back in the day, to-do listmakers relied on sticky notes, those little glued flags of paper sired by the good gnomes at 3M and shamelessly copied by any number of manufacturers ever since. I still use (and lose) those sticky notes by the gross, but lately I’ve been replacing them with their electronic equivalent—little tabs of virtual paper virtually tacked to every available surface on my desktop display, only now under the glass, not stuck all over the monitor itself, waving in the wind like an aspen forest.

A great many sticky-note programs are now available for Windows users (as is so often true, Mac heads have had them all along). Of the ones I’ve tried, the easiest to use and most visually pleasing is StickyPad 2001, a small executable that sits quietly in the system tray for quick access. The product of a thoughtful English software designer named Travis Spomer, StickyPad is available at It’s free, though Spomer is glad to accept donations.

A more versatile, less visible note-taking and list-making program is Golden Section Notes, which also resides in the system tray. The program uses the visual metaphor of a three-ring binder, with individual, user-set tabs (“to do,” “notes on current projects”) organized in a tree structure to the left of the screen; these tabs can be nested in ever deeper layers, though the deeper you go, the harder it’ll be to find anything, which may be a solution in itself.

Made in Germany, GSN offers multiple language support and allows global searching through native and imported documents. The parent company no longer offers or supports the freeware version (1.3), though you may be able to turn up a copy through user groups on the Web. Otherwise, the current version (2.6) costs $29.95 and can be downloaded at Given GSN’s clean design and all-around usefulness, it’s a bargain.

If your notes are on the order of volumes of data in many forms—spreadsheets, let’s say, mixed up with word-processor files and jotted scribblings—then you’ll need something more powerful to get every bit of data under one virtual roof. Ancient by computer standards, with the granddaddy version first released in 1985, the freeform database program AskSam has recently undergone a major retooling for use with Windows XP. Because it is truly freeform, AskSam 5.0 can be put to any number of uses, from building bibliographies to constructing legal case files. One that I’ve found indispensable is its ability to import a virtually unlimited number of email messages in most major formats (among them Outlook, Netscape, and Eudora) into a single database that allows nearly instantaneous keyword, date, or author searches through, in my case, more than a decade’s worth of correspondence in a single pass.

Similarly, AskSam can port in documents in most major word-processing formats (as well as Adobe PDFs); though the resulting database will be in the scores of megabytes for any sizeable collection of, say, Word documents, the snap-of-the-fingers searching and gathering of files containing a single word or phrase—say, “ruby-studded slippers”— or even multiple phrases, to say nothing of fuzzy-logic word matching, is a sheer relief for anyone used to the slow shudder that Word makes as it crawls through even a couple of files at a time.

AskSam comes with a steep learning curve, and it’s not cheap: the single-user edition checks in at $149.95 list, and the professional edition, with a still faster search engine, costs $395.00. (Go to for more information and downloads.) Still, if you have more than a few lists to collate while avoiding your real work, there’s no handier tool.

The Bloomsbury Review
March–April 2003

Tuesday, April 12, 2005

Tools for Readers 1, updated

A couple of years is a lifetime in the world of software. Mailwasher is still a great and highly recommended program, but its free version is long since a thing of the past; it now costs $37.00. It's worth every cent, and it now comes in Windows and Mac flavors (though the Apple OS X version is still a little buggy at this writing). The Oxford English Dictionary on disk still has its bugs, too, though it's been upgraded to v. 3.0. I find that I use it less than the Merriam-Webster Collegiate Dictionary, which comes bundled with a CD-ROM that is refreshingly problem-free.

More columns and updates to follow.

Tools for Readers 1

The Bloomsbury Review, December 2002

Of Spam and Light

One of the stated purposes of The Bloomsbury Review is to help readers find the books that are most worth reading out of the many thousands of books published each year. Only rarely do our writers take time and room to point out work that, for whatever reason, is of questionable value, or of no value at all. We seek habitable islands in the flood of information, not more water.

Even so, we find ourselves drowning in a sea of unwanted, unsought, unappealing words: that is, unsolicited e-mail, or “spam.” Daily, our inboxes fill with offers to enlarge various organs, heighten various passions, regain lost hair and vigor, and make millions of dollars. Getting rid of this stuff each day, as we must do to remain sane, absorbs minutes, even hours that could be put to reading email that we asked for, or even the odd chapter of Poe, Pooh, Proust, or Proulx.

Several remedies are available. The simplest, and most satisfying to the Luddites we wish we could be, is to sign off permanently from the Internet, eschew emailing, retreat to a Montana cabin. That’s a fine option, to be sure, but impractical for those of us who make our living in the here and now. Another is to apply a battery of inbox filters, file complaints with the Fair Trade Commission, use “traceroute” or other arcane command-line prompts to ferret out offenders, burn down their server farms when they can be found. Such cures may appeal to our inner Buford Pusser or closet hacker, but they, too, are a sinkhole into which valuable time is poured, never to be recovered.

A third option, at least for Windows users, is to snag a copy of a user-friendly, well-intended, and thoroughly well-made little utility called MailWasher. The brainchild of New Zealander Nick Bolton, the program sits between your service provider’s mail server and your own inbox, allowing you to examine the contents of received email before downloading it to your own machine--which means that only mail you want gets onto your system. (You can also see whether a file contains attachments, a useful means of intercepting viruses and worms before they have a chance to make your life miserable.) Among its more brilliantly diabolical features is a “bounce” command that flags spam and sends a message to the sender, instructing said miscreant that your address is no longer in service. Bolton’s fond hope--which seems to be borne out, at least in the tests that I’ve conducted--is that when spammers cull their lists, as most of them do from time to time before selling them to still other spammers, then your supposedly inactive address will be dropped and, voilĂ , no more unwanted mail, at least from that list.

MailWasher is available for download at It’s free, though unregistered users have to put up with a scrolling nag message that reminds them that it would be nice to offer a modest donation—as little as $3.00, Bolton says, will keep his cats in chow and a roof over his head. For $20.00, users receive a fully licensed version and are entitled to perpetual upgrades, as well as access to some of Bolton’s well-considered recipes for battling spam on a total-war basis. The program is well worth the investment, and one of the smartest pieces of freeware to come along in a long while.

If you crack open the pages of the Oxford English Dictionary, that epic, multivolume hymn to the English language, you’ll learn that the term spam has its origins in “a type of tinned meat consisting chiefly of pork” invented in 1937. The trade magazine Squeal noted in July of that year that “In the last month Geo. A. Hormel & Co. launched the product Spam. The think-up of the name [is] credited to Kenneth Daigneau, New York actor. Seems as if he had considered the word a good memorable trade-name for some time, had only waited for a product to attach it to.” By 1939, the stuff had become common enough that it could make a lowercase appearance in John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, and the rest is history. Those data, along with half a million other definitions and 2.5 million quotations, can now rest on your hard drive with the release of the Oxford English Dictionary Second Edition on CD-ROM version 3.0 ($295.00 list), a fine example of what computers were meant to do in the first place--namely, to make huge amounts of information instantly accessible. The installation program is buggy, the registration temperamental. But, if you’re a logophile, having this invaluable reference just a couple of keystrokes away will make up for the headaches involved in getting the monster up and running, though you’ll need a good fan to clear away the blue cloud of profanity that may enshroud your office while you’re doing so.

Spam the pork derivative and spam the nasty mail are things best left unexamined, but many other things in life are best seen in strong light. Tampa-based Ott-Lite Technology has released a series of energy-efficient VisionSaver lamps that simulate natural daylight with low glare and low heat, an outgrowth of the company founder John Ott’s work in designing phototherapy products to combat seasonal affective disorder. The product line ranges from clamp-on desk lights to desktop and floor lamps. For a catalog, call Ott-Lite at (800) 621-0058 or visit