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.