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This is How I Work, aka How I Avoid Obsolete Apps/Software/Tools

Noticed this BoingBoing artlcle today entitled "Writer Clive Thompson describes his work routine" which quoted a Lifehacker article on Thompson entitled "I'm Clive Thompson, and This Is How I Work" which among other questions and answers contained an answer to the question "What apps/software/tools can't you live without?"

Clive's answer was interesting and got me thinking about how I'm writing my book on the history of the PLATO system. At first glance, his answers made what for him I'm sure is a lot of sense, but as I thought about it more, I thought how much I have tried to avoid getting stuck with any particular tool.

I'm a pack rat when it comes to research. I like to save everything, because you never know when it'll be useful. I write primarily long-form magazine pieces and books, each of which takes months to report and sometimes years to gestate, so I often find myself realizing an interview or study I encountered three years earlier is suddently useful now. So I lean heavily on tools for finding and saving everything.

No disagreement there. I too am a packrat and have vacuumed up every shred of information I could get my hands on since 1985. Yes, my book project has been going on a while. I've got interviews I did in 1986, 1987 that form the basis for much of the book. For instance, I interviewed B.F. Skinner in 1987, at his office in the Psych dept of Harvard University. That interview has become vital to my whole project, and forms the basis of the first chapter of my book.

For face-to-face interviews, I use a Livescribe pen, which is invaluable even though the software is kind of creaky. I use Skype out for most of my phone interviews, and Call Recorder to save those files. I have a Scrivener database for my research—whenever I read anything interesting, I make a note about it and paste in any relevant passages. The note-writing is a crucial part of the task for me, because it requires me to slow down and make sense of what I’m reading, instead of just blindly clipping and saving everything. I also use DEVONthink to mirror a lot of my Scrivener notes and store the full text of the thousands of scientific papers and articles I’ve read and found worth saving.

And this is the crux of it for me. I looked at Scrivener and while it's nice and all, I don't trust it. And Livescribe is cool indeed, but I kinda don't trust that either. As for Skype, never done an interview with it yet, and for this book I've done 500+ interviews.

For interviews, I use two recording devices if I am on the road, an Olympus digital recorder and my iPhone's recording app, and if I am at the office doing a phone interview, I use those two plus I set AudioHijack to record right from the Mac's built-in mic to pick up the phone conversation. I save the files as WAV or MP3.

For notes, documents, interview transcripts, scans, images, everything under the sun, I use . . . the operating system's filesystem, MacOS X. Period. I put the raw files into folders and sub-folders. Then I take the contents of the text files and the PDFs and I drop 'em in the appropriate "slush" files, of which there is one per chapter, using Omni Group's OmniOutliner Pro software, which spews out .oo3 files which are essentially .rtf files. These "slush" files form the basis of each chapter. They're a mix of outline, notes, and found material. I then use -- reluctantly -- Microsoft Word for the book manuscript.

For interview transcript creation, I use Transcrivia and then promptly export to .rtf format when a transcript is finished.

If there's an underlying rule here, it is this: save stuff in the simplest, most basic file format possible for the media type. ASCII text, followed by Rich Text Format (.rtf), followed by PDF, when necessary, Microsoft Word format. Everything else is just left raw in the file folders.

Why am I so weird about file formats? Well, consider this. When I started doing research for this book project, the IBM AT was the machine to have for PC folks, and the Macintosh SE had just come out. DOS was at version 2.0. The 286 chip was considered all the rage, and all the cool kids used Borland programming tools. WordPerfect was the ruler in word processing software. There was no web. No PDF or MP3 formats. Everything was still emerging in 1985. When the NeXT computer came out, I moved my project to that platform, and that is when I ran into the WordPerfect problem. Until then, everything had been stored in WP files for DOS. I used FrameMaker on NeXTSTEP OS, but for notes and transcripts I settled on .rtf which NeXT made use of heavily. Since NeXT "acquired" Apple and turned MacOS into NeXTSTEP, .rtf is still around, which is good. Everything else has changed pretty much. And this is what I don't "trust" about some of Clive's tools. I simply do not trust Scrivener's company to be around forever. If they fail, they go out of business. If they succeed, they get acquired, at which point they will fail. So they fail in the end. Whereas a Unix file system has been around a while and will be around a while, and files stored in directories and subdirectories should stick around for a while. When your book project lasts 28 years and counting, being free of platform, software, and file format dependencies is a Good Thing.

To find stuff on my Mac I use EasyFind which happens to be freeware. I will not touch Apple's Spotlight. Apple doesn't know how to do search well; the user interface is a nightmare, and the user experience, including the crazy mdworker daemons that slow your machine down to a crawl, is worse. EasyFind "just works" and does exactly what I need without any muss or fuss, and nothing's indexed. It's just . . . fast. If EasyFind goes out of business or gets discontinued, which I fully expect, there will no doubt be some other free or cheap desktop search tool to replace it. Anything but Spotlight. And I often just use grep at the command line.

My Book project currently consumes about 95GB of disk space, all organized simply using the filesystem. Makes backups easy too. And I keep lots of backups at three different physical locations. (I don't trust the hardware or software at all. Nor do I trust the backup drives, so I use several.)

Everyone has a different method; everyone finds a different way to organize and be productive. My way just evolved to keep longevity in mind. ASCII and RTF for the win!

Finally, I totally agree with Thompson about E.E. Cummings. I have his Complete Poems too. Though lately I'm reading Cervantes, Homer, Shakespeare, and Melville. Oh. And Plato.

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The Friendly Orange Glow: The Story of the PLATO System and the Dawn of Cyberculture, by Brian Dear
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