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The Working Writer, 2012 Edition (Part 2 – The Tablet)

TabletsTablets aren’t just tools for recording the fifteen   ten commandments! Now everybody can pretend to be a futuristic nerd on Star Trek. Or you can ruin your finger trying to tap out the Great American novel. Tablet computing can be a wonderful extension of your laptop writing environment, provided you understand a few constraints. Chiefly, that tablets are media consuming devices, not so much for media creation. Most tablet manufacturers are more concerned with making episodes of Honey Boo Boo look good than helping you edit your prose. I’ll be discussing what makes a good tablet, which ones to avoid, and suggest some ways you can edit and write on the go.

Connectivity is really important when you’re writing while waiting in the check-out-line for that lady with a hundred coupons. Can you get to the data you need? Can you access the internet? Can you stream that video clip of the sneezing baby panda? Tablets today support one of two connection methods – wi-fi or cellular (3G/4G), and quite a few support both. Having flexibility with accessing networks can be a huge benefit. With wi-fi capability, you’ll need to be within proximity of a wireless network, and you’ll need to know the authentication information. Most public wi-fi hot spots require an extra layer of credentials typically passed through a web browser. You log onto the network, but have to open a browser and either buy access or agree to the acceptable use policy before you can connect. This can be a problem if the site requires a software download, or the authentication screen isn’t compatible with your browser. If you’re using a Kindle (not a Kindle Fire), you don’t even have a browser capable of looking at the use screen! Nearly all tablets can support wi-fi access today. For the few that use cellular, access isn’t an issue, but data streaming is. Cellular connectivity typically comes with data caps. Going beyond the cap incurs extra charges. There are plenty of horror stories where folks get hit with a bill that’s thousands or tens of thousands because they were streaming video or out-of-country. Check with your cellular provider to figure out exactly what your data cap is, and make sure you’re careful not to hit it!

Not only will you need connectivity, but unless your tablet is your primary or only writing device, you’re going to need some way to access your work in progress or send your updates back to your laptop. Fortunately there are a few methods to choose from.

With most tablets, the easiest way to send and receive story info is e-mail. Typically opening an attached document opens a corresponding application (or prompts you to browse a store to find one), and most applications for writing/authoring support a submit-to–email function. Sites like Dropbox and Google Docs offer desktop and tablet features that let you upload files and share them between devices. If you’re using Windows 8, you automatically have access to Microsoft Skydrive, which does the same thing. No Windows 8 but you’re using a PC? Sign up for Skydrive today!

Hardware Specs for tablets aren’t the same as other computing devices. Most tablets today have to run on low-power processors, and while they’re getting better each generation, don’t expect the same performance you’ll get from an actual desktop/laptop solution. For the most part, you shouldn’t worry about the processor. What you need to worry about is the storage. Hard-disks have spinning and moving parts, which eat up precious battery power and tend not to react well when shuffled around all the time. Hence, most tablets today use solid-state storage. Since solid-state storage is expensive, you probably won’t get much. Current tablets range from 8 gigabytes (barely enough to store an episode of Jeopardy) to 256 (enough to bring along your entire collection of Polka MP3’s, even the rare German translations). For most tablets, somewhere between 20-64 gigabytes is plenty. You want enough room to store your data and apps, plus all the great Manimal episodes once they’re made available. Oh, wait… there weren’t any great Manimal episodes.

Tablets now come in three basic flavors of operating system: the Apple iOS, Android, or Windows. It’s easier to talk about them in terms of OS since you’re buying into a market of available apps. All three OS’s have a marketplace where you can buy and download apps and media, but not all apps and media are available on all systems.

ipadThe Apple iOS and iTunes marketplace are perhaps the most mature, and easily win a prize for the most available software. The iPad has the luxury of being the first device to get tablet computing right, and they’ve had a few years to perfect the design. The latest models pack Retina – Apple’s ultra hi-def display which is intended to mimic the resolution the human eye can see. Words look sharper, colors crisper, and everything is easier on your eyes. For the most part, it’s true. Retina does make a difference, especially with text – which is what we’re talking about. Unfortunately Retina requires additional battery power, and most retina-aware apps need additional storage space to hold hi-resolution images. But we’re writing, remember, so that won’t affect our writing apps. Just occasional sessions of Infinity Blade when we get writer’s block. Retina-enabled iPads (3rd generation or newer) have a display that’s bright enough to be seen outdoors, which is great when you’re stuck next to the window seat on a long flight and want to start your novel on elf-torture. The iOS operating system is fairly intuitive and easy to navigate. The learning curve is fairly straightforward, and the interface is very polished. Some functions can be a bit harder to figure out (holding down an icon to enter “edit” mode, double-tapping the iOS button to see background apps, etc.), but an average user can likely pick up an iPad and start writing in minutes.

The native notepad app supports send-to-email, but is pretty skimpy on features. You can use it for capturing some quick ideas, and not much else. One of the best writing apps for iOS is easily Pages. A fairly standard word processor, Pages can do all the basic editing and picture-inserting you want, and even comes packed with a few nifty templates. There aren’t a whole lot of formatting options available, and simple changes like tabbing, bolding, or italicizing require some finger-flexing that may break your train of thought (negated if you spring for a keyboard). Microsoft Word isn’t available on iOS, though it’s been rumored for years. There are a few other apps like simplenote and evernote and textexpander, but they’re more not-taking and organizational apps. Manuscript is worth looking at if you’re writing long prose, and there’s even a script-writing app so you can write Lethal Weapon 7 (or 8? I forget where they left off).

On the down side, iPads have few connectivity options, and no expansion/memory/card slots. While there is a camera USB connector, don’t expect a thumb-drive to work. Current generation ipads use the new Apple Lightning connector, which so far has a huge premium on accessories and won’t work with any of the old iPod/iPhone/iPad accessories. Want a car adapter? $60. Lose your USB connector? $40. And while writing apps are available, there aren’t a while lot of options that are easy for the mobile writer to use.  Cost is also a factor. Expect to pay $499 to $849 depending on your storage and wireless options. The good news is that used iPads are still decent machines. It’s fairly easy to wipe the operating system and delete the previous owner’s Polka collection, so picking up a low-res iPad 1 should be a viable option.

Recommended: Pages (for editing/writing), and Dropbox for sending your work back and forth. That, or e-mail always works. To make your life better, pick up the Apple Wireless Keyboard. Your tapping-finger will thank you.

Microsoft Windows RT/Windows 8 tablets started hitting the market in December, and lots more are on the way. Microsoft hasn’t entirely fractured the marketplace with two different tablet operating systems, but there are some things you should be aware of. Both versions look pretty much identical, both connect to the windows Marketplace, and both can run any app in the marketplace. Windows RT has been compiled for ARM processors, which are lower-power systems with great battery life. There are some excellent Windows RT tablets available now, and they’re pretty much all priced lower than iPads. What’s even better is that Microsoft Office is available for both RT and Windows 8. If you’re already familiar with Word, you’re good to go!

Windows 8 tablets are slightly different animals. They run the full Windows 8 operating system, which means you have access to all Windows applications. All Windows Applications. Let that sink in for a minute. The potential is enormous! Finally your 1998 floppy-disk edition of Encarta won’t go to waste! Well, not so fast. Windows 8 tablets will run Intel processors and potentially all Windows applications, but they’re still not fully ultraportable machines. There are no floppy drive add-ons. Floppy-drive aside, running the full Windows 8 OS on a tablet is a great experience. Getting to a desktop or browsing through operating system files seems kind of strange on a tablet, but if you’re already familiar with Windows you won’t have much adjustment.

Lots of Windows tablets have USB ports and expansion card slots. Slipping your camera card right into your tablet can really simplify things, and connecting a USB mouse is possible, though using it with a tablet can seem weird. Still, it’s nice to have options.

Microsoft has led the way with Windows tablets by building the Surface. Currently only available through the Microsoft site, the Surface will be coming soon to a retail outlet near you. Or within your general proximity. Or maybe just an international flight and four-hour car ride away. The Surface Pro has yet to hit the market as of this writing, but it’ll be available later in January with some impressive hardware specs. One of Surfac’s best features is the cover – available in Type or Touch style. The tablet cover becomes your keyboard. Touch covers are just that – very little trigger distance, and can feel uncomfortable when typing for longer periods, but are still far better than tapping on a screen. The Type cover sports an actual cissor-switch keyboard and is more comfortable, but still not as nice as using an actual laptop. Writing on a Surface with a Type cover for several hours was far easier for me than using an iPad with a remote keyboard.

All this power comes with a price that isn’t just cost. Windows 8 tablets will not have the same battery life as Windows RT machines. Even Intel’s best low-power processors aren’t quite mobile-processor efficient. Battery life will vary by vendor, but expect anywhere from 2-10 hours depending on what you’re doing. Surface tablets start at $499 putting them right in line with an iPad, and the top-of-the-line Surface Pro will run around $999. That’s laptop-price territory, but you do get an incredibly powerful and flexible machine. Unfortunately none of that power is necessary for writing… but hey, you can play World of Warcraft and skip out on your writing career. Or connect an XBox controller and make it the ultimate gaming machine while in bed! Annoy your significant other with clickity-controller sounds all night! Then sleep on the couch! Then take up drinking during your divorce! Then write about it on your Windows Surface Pro!

Recommended: Surface RT or Pro tablet, Microsoft Word for writing, and Skydrive for sharing content.

Android Tablets aren’t great mobile writing devices for the average writer. I may enrage the entire internet, but that’s my opinion. Plus my dad can beat up your dad. The Android marketplace is fractured with multiple app stores, features can vary widely between devices, and you have to be somewhat IT savvy to navigate the landscape. One of the best Android tablets (certainly the best known) on the market is the Kindle Fire, which is more an extension of Amazon’s streaming content service than anything else. The Kindle Fire is light, has a decent screen, and is easily the cheapest tablet available. But understand what you’re buying – Amazon is relying on the cloud for storage and processing, and will only let you browse the Amazon Android app store – not all Android apps are on the list, making the flexibility very limited. The Fire is a great content tablet if that’s what you want, but not so great at writing. The few writing apps available are more for note taking than writing. And when your internet access is down, you won’t have much content available. There’s hardly any local storage.

The Samsung Galaxy Note 10 is a fairly decent, lightweight and sturdy tablet, and comes with a pen that makes hand-scrawling your next novel fairly easy (nobody would have to re-type what you wrote). The Asus Transformer comes with a combo keyboard/trackpad making it essentially a laptop.

Recommended: Samsung Galaxy or an Asus Transformer. On the app side, Writer and Google Docs are worth looking at. Evernote and Springpad and a few others are really note-taking apps not well designed for writing more than ideas.

securityAnd finally, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention security. Tablets are computing devices. Anything that runs software is subject to vulnerabilities, and hackers are targeting tablets more and more. While there aren’t (yet) requirements for running antivirus and firewalls on tablets, that day may come. You should be aware of how your tablet can be compromised. Web browsing is still the number one method, and affects all tablets on the market. Vendors are typically quick to plug the holes, but safe browsing is still advised. The next method attacks use is the marketplace. Some malicious apps can compromise your system without you knowing. Both Apple and Microsoft have strict policies for their respective marketplaces, and both companies review software before it’s made available. While that doesn’t mean malware can’t slip through, it’s much less likely to happen and more likely to become public when it does. With Android, however, it’s the wild west. With great freedom comes the possibility of great corruption, and that “tap-to-fart” app may very well send all your personal info to a teenager in Shanghai who’ll use your credit-card to buy videos of virtual strippers. Don’t corrupt underage Shanghai hackers. Check out your apps before you buy them.

The Working Writer 2012 Edition (part 1)



Unless you plan on piercing your finger and scrawling in blood every time the muse strikes, you’re going to need some tools to get the job done. My career in information technology (IT) seems to attract a deluge of questions about personal computers, operating systems, and nifty tools. My answers, depending on what kind of party it is and how free the alcohol is flowing, will range from insightful to snarky.

In the next few articles, I’ll talk about the tools modern writers can use to help them. If you’re shopping for a new laptop, tablet, or if you’re insane enough to write a novel on your cell phone, I have some suggestions to make your life easier. I’m going to be making a lot of generalizations, so if you work in IT you’ll indulge me.

First, let’s get the booze out of the way. Writing is a fantastic excuse to have a few drinks while you’re checking Facebook. Social media aside, writers have a long history of loving their booze, from Hemingway to Hunter S. Thompson, drinking and writing seem to go together like bacon and cheese, bacon and ice cream, bacon and smoked turkey. Bacon flavored alcohol doubly so. Truth be told, recent studies show that moderate amounts of alcohol can improve your creativity. The trick is moderation, something I’m not remotely familiar with but I will try to write about anyway. Just try to control yourself, otherwise you’re likely to fall into a fit of depression and consider the Hemingway solution as a crowning achievement to the peak of your writing career.

Let’s discuss laptops. Unless you’re ancient (like, mid-40’s or something), you probably know that modern laptops have really replaced desktop computing inosborne1 terms of available power and cost. But when shopping for a laptop, what should you look for? There’s so much to choose from, which ones work for writing? Which ones have good keyboards? Which ones can store your collection of Polka and Rockabilly classics? Let’s break it down into a few basic categories:

1. Brand: The easiest breakdown with brand relates to operating system. Either you like Macs, or you like real computers. I’m partially kidding. When shopping for a computer, it’s good to be educated about the brands out there. First and foremost, steer clear of retail. You’re going to pay too much overhead. Shop at sites like Newegg, Amazon,, or directly from the manufacturers sites.

Apple makes great laptops. They’re sturdy, the Mac operating system is relatively easy to use, and there are some great writing tools available. Macs are stupid expensive though. And if you’re not web or techno-savvy, you may end up shorting yourself. Most journals, editors, and agents want submissions in Word. Microsoft makes Office for Mac, but it’s easy to save the wrong version and upload incompatible files unless you’re familiar with the operating system. The new Retina displays are easy on the eyes and have a resolution and backlight that reduces glare in direct sunlight. Mac keyboards are the chiclet-style with low trigger distance but are fairly comfortable to use. Bottom line, Macbooks make great laptops, but be prepared to spend nearly twice what you’d spend in an equivalent PC.

On the Windows side, there are one hojillion manufacturers of laptops. The big named brands include Dell, Sony, Toshiba, HP, and Acer. Sure, there are others, including some boutique manufacturers, but those are the biggest. On the PC side, brand really matters little. It’s the hardware that’s important.

We can’t talk about Windows PCs without mentioning Windows 8. The latest OS from Redmond is quite possibly the best, leanest, cleanest version of windows yet! it also sports an interface that’s nearly disastrous. Gone is the Start button and Start menu, replaced now with the Charms bar and Metro screen. It’s sufficient to note that it’ll take a bit of getting used to, and it’ll be much easier if you have a laptop with a touch screen. Most of the newer laptops shipping with Windows 8 have touch screens, so you’re going to be just fine in that arena. Otherwise, do yourself a favor and stick with Windows 7, or consider an application that puts the classic windows Start menu back in place, like Start8 from Stardock. It’s a testament to Windows 8’s failure to live in two worlds when you need a third-party application to make your machine functional. But if you have a touchscreen, or you’re using one of the new Windows 8 tablets, you’re going to love it.

Mac Chic-let Style Keyboard

Mac Chic-let Style Keyboard

2. Keyboard: I put this second since we’re talking about writing. Unless you’re in the market for a typewriter (and if so, you’re probably too old to be on the internet), then the keyboard is one of the most important decisions you’ll make in a writing laptop. Nearly all writing laptops are scissor-switch. Typically what that means is a short travel distance to trigger, and a responsive feedback (spring-ness). Either you like scissor-switch, or you don’t. Plenty of writers really like the old IBM style clickity-keys. The ones that make a satisfying KERCHUNK when you press them. You won’t find such a thing in a laptop, but there’s no reason you can’t spring for a USB keyboard either.

Next, consider the style of keys. Chiclet-style keyboards are the latest fashion in laptops. Usually they’re scissor-switch, and typically have some spaces

Finger-catching keys

Finger-catching keys

between the keys. I prefer chiclet keyboards, as standard scissor-switch keyboards where the keys meet up can snag if you’re a lazy typist or are writing particularly fast. With some standard scissor-switch boards, it’s possible to drag the edge of your finger along a separate key, tugging the key up. Over time, this can loosen or even break the key off. I haven’t seen many newer keyboards with this issue, but I had a Toshiba years ago that suffered from that problem.

Backlit keyboards are either illuminated around the keys, or from within the keys themselves. Usually manufacturers employ one or more white LED lights that generate little heat. The keys have clear plastic spacers that join the printing to the backlight assembly. This means you can type in the dark. Since most QWERTY typists don’t really look at their keyboards, this may seem like it’s of limited use, but trust me – when you’re writing in the dark and need to hit SHIFT-F7 (thesaurus in Word), or lower your volume or hit PRINTSCRN, you’ll be glad you have a backlit keyboard. It’s becoming a standard feature, so you’re likely to find them everywhere.

Bottom line – if you can find a similar laptop in retail, test out the keyboard before you buy it.

3. Type: Manufacturers like to break laptops down into distinct categories. They’ll throw out funky names like Ultrabook, Laplet, or Mobile Workstation or some other silly name. As far as I’m concerned, if it looks like a laptop, it’s a laptop. Ultrabooks are Intel’s attempt to push manufacturers to build something that resembles a Macbook. Laplets are usually tiny laptop/tablet hybrids, and I haven’t yet seen one that doesn’t suck. Smaller mobile laptops usually sport cramped keys. if you have Sasquatch hands, are prone to fat-fingering, or are a lazy typist who doesn’t completely lift fingers when traveling to the next key, you’ll want a regular sized keyboard in your laptop. What’s considered Full Size usually means the number pad is next to the keys. Unless you’re an accountant, that’s probably not going to be much use to you.

4. Processor: There are two major (well… as of this writing) processor manufacturers – Intel and AMD. Intel produces the fastest, most power efficient processors. AMD chips are usually less expensive, but you get what you pay for. I have trouble recommending AMD, especially since the company is on the verge of bankruptcy.

On the Intel side, nearly all Intel chips are multi-core. That translates to multiple processors on a single physical chip. Each core can handle separate instructions, and some programs can take advantage of that. Think about it like check-out lines in the grocery store. One line is slow, but everybody gets served. Two lines are better because the clerks can check people out simultaneously. Having some extra lines for limited item customers is even better. Plus you can have bacon only lines which… I’m getting off track. Multi-core processors let you write while you’re downloading the latest episode of Mad Men in the background, or write and listen to iTunes at the same time without making your processor beg for a break.

Actual processing speeds mean little anymore. Intel produces processors in different “classes”. The Core i3 series are budget targeted, and usually have less cores and less power. Core i5 is usually the best price/performance and will last you a few generations. Core i7 is typically enthusiast aimed – for the folks that do lots of things simultaneously and need the fastest processor available.

5. Video Cards: You’re not buying a laptop capable of playing Call of Duty: Kill All Humans Edition, so the video card shouldn’t factor too much in your buying decision. It’s worth noting  that discreet cards are far better than shared memory cards. The Intel video chips use shared memory, and render images as quickly as a constipated ninety-year-old. You’ll end up thinking your laptop is slow and crappy when it’s probably just your underpowered video card. While Word and other programs don’t exactly push the pixels, the video card comes into play when you’re browsing the net and looking at those lovely full-page ads for Bacon Memorabilia. We’re shifting into an era where the video card has become one of the processor cores, which makes this less of an issue. If you can, get a system that has a discrete video card. This is more important when you’re buying a second-hand laptop.

5. Memory: Computers are stupid, kind of like idiotic puppies who can’t follow instructions past some basic “Sit, Stay, Beg” commands. Computers need memory to store programs and help remember what it is they’re doing. The more RAM you have the better, up to a point. I recommend a minimum of 4 gigabytes (4GB) of memory for any modern computer. 8 gigabytes is preferred (8GB). Anything more than 8 is great, but overkill. If your running Windows Vista or Windows XP, or you have a 32-bit version of Windows, you should know that Windows cannot address beyond 2 gigabytes of memory. Windows 7 has some tricks around it, but it slows everything down. Bottom line, stick with Windows 7 64-bit and aim for 4-8 gigs of ram.

6. Disk Drive: Despite what you’ve heard, the “disk drive” is not your entire computer. Rather, it’s the way your computer remembers stuff when the power is switched off. It’s like a giant file cabinet. Today, there are two major kinds of disk drives: Solid State and Mechanical (and hybrid, but we’ll go into that later).

Solid State drives are like really big USB memory sticks. They’re extremely fast, and can greatly improve the performance of any computer. They’re also very expensive. You’ll usually pay twice as much for a Solid State drive that’s half as big as a mechanical counterpart. That being said, I think it’s worth it. Having your computer ultra-responsive is great, and writing doesn’t take up a lot of room so you’re not likely to fill it up. if you’re shopping for a solid-state drive or a solid-state laptop, I’d recommend no less than 64 gigabytes. 120 gigabytes seems to be the best price/storage space break point (at least for now), but SSD prices are falling faster than Lindsay Lohan’s career. The more storage you can get, the better.

Mechanical drives are made of thin magnetic platters. They look kind of like record players on the inside. There’s a mechanical arm that moves over the disk, and there are usually multiple platters where the information is stored. Being mechanical, these drives are slower. They’re usually rated in spin-speed. 5200 RPM is the standard. 7200 RPM is better, and offers improved performance but needs more power. 10,000 RPM drives are rare, and typically reserved for server products. You’re likely to find a laptop with a 5200 RPM drive that has twice as much storage space as a laptop with a SSD.

Hybrid drives are a variation of the two, the result of a mad drunken night between a mechanical drive and a solid-state drive. Hybrid drives usually have a chunk of solid-state storage with one or more platters. The logic engine in the drive sticks commonly used data on the solid-state portion. The user doesn’t have to do anything, and sees the entire disk as one drive. It used to make sense to have hybrid drives, but SSD prices have gotten so low that it’s better to go with an SSD option if you can.

7. Resolution: If you plan on writing with a laptop, it’s best to have a decent display that doesn’t hurt your eyes, has an adjustable backlight, and low glare.  Plus, better resolution means your cats-who-look-like-hitler pictures will look better! Resolution is broken down to two sets of numbers – horizontal pixel count by vertical pixel count (or Width by Height). HDTV resolution is broken into two basic categories – 720p (1280×720) and 1080p (1920×1080). The “p” stands for Progressive Scan – every horizontal line will be drawn for every single frame. That gives you a smoother picture. 720i and 1080i also exist – the “i” stands for Interlaced – every other line is drawn every frame, giving a less clear image – but you won’t find interlaced in a laptop. Most laptops are 1680×1050 for a 15″ screen.

You’ll also need to consider screen size. A 1080p resolution is great, but on a 13″ laptop screen, will you really notice? 15″ screens are about as small as I can handle without straining my eyes. 17″ screens are better, but there’s a tradeoff between screen size and laptop weight. You can have a great resolution 17″ or 18″ laptop that’s easy on the eyes, but kills your shoulder because it weighs 10 pounds. With increased screen size comes more power requirements and reduced battery life.

The Bottom line: As a writer, you want a laptop that’s lightweight, powerful, has a decent screen and a comfortable keyboard. An Intel Core i5 processor with at least 4 gigabytes of RAM is a good start. A 15″ 1680×1050 screen (or better) will help your eyes adjust. A bright low-glare screen means you may be able to write outside in sunlight. Solid-State drives have less room to store your data, but are far faster making your laptop seem like it loads your latest story before you’re done clicking the file. Keyboards vary by preference, so find a style you’re comfortable with.

Here are some recommended examples – laptops I’ve either reviewed for a tech site, used at some point, or own:

Macbook Pro: Macs are expensive, borderline arrogantly elitist machines. Despite what the Mac fanatics want you to believe, the Mac operating system isn’t free of viruses. Caveats aside, the Macbook Pro Retina 15″ is a fantastic machine. All solid state (save some cooling fans), great keyboard, decent battery life, and good all around performance. The retina display is easy on the eyes and is one of the few displays visible in sunlight. But you’re going to pay for it. Expect to shell out anywhere from $1900-$2500 depending on your options. Available directly from Apple, Apple Retail stores, Best Buy and a few other brick-and-mortar outlets.

Dell InspironThe Inspiron series has a long and sordid history. The latest, the “z” series, has some decent examples. The newest 15z is a decent laptop for the money. As a writer, you won’t need anything better than the base model, unless you plan on editing video or playing the latest games in the best resolution… but if that’s the case then you aren’t writing, so why are you here? The base model 15z will run you around $700, available directly from Dell.

Toshiba Satellite U845: Toshiba doesn’t always make the best laptops, but the Satellite U845 manages to hit all the right notes. An Intel Ultrabook, the U845 is lightweight, chiclet-keyboard system with a 5400 RPM drive and decent processing power. Expect to pay around $800 for the base model, available from Newegg, Amazon, Best Buy, and a few other brick and mortar outlets.

Acer Aspire V5-571Acer isn’t exactly a household name in the world of mobile computing, but they make some decent equipment. The Aspire V5-571 is one of the best ultrabooks on the market at a great price point – starting around $650. The keyboard is a bit closed in, but still functional. Definitely a worthy low-end option for the mobile writer.

And that sums up the laptop portion. Next up I’ll be looking at Tablet computing and writing software.

The End of the World!

end-of-the-worldWe’re all doomed. DOOMED! The Mayans have pinpointed December 21st, 2012 as the end of the Long Count calendar. The hype associated with December 21st is hitting a fevered pace not seen since the presidential election. That same kind of panic the world will experience if the bacon shortage ever comes true. As it turns out, the world will not be ending. You will still need to pay taxes and your electric bill. Not necessarily in that order.

The translation used to convert the Mayan calendar to the Gregorian calendar contained some bad math. Originally completed in the 1920’s, it’s no wonder. They were primitive back then, and they didn’t have Wikipedia to back them up. So the Mayan calendar actually won’t end in 2012 – we’re off by anywhere from 50-100 years. More to the point, what were we expecting from the Mayan doomsday anyway?

Panic-stricken paranoid types will point to a horrific solar flare that will kill us all. Solar activity is nothing to laugh at, unless you enjoy being set on fire. The last major solar storm occurred in 1859, and caused mass destruction. Telegraphs stopped working, telegraph paper ignited, microwave popcorn spontaneously combusted. It was horrible for primitive mankind. Truth be told, we’ve long known the dangers of our sensitive electronic world. A solar flare could actually bring down the internet. Then we’d have to talk to each other. Hell on earth! A solar flare strong enough could short out satellites and landlines, possibly even frying cell phones and laptops. Still, horrible as that sounds, it’s not likely to spell the downfall of the human race. That, and NASA (you know, the people we pay to track this kind of stuff) doesn’t predict a major solar flare until next year.

A rogue asteroid could hit us, but you’d have a better chance of winning the lottery. Then again, the asteroid-space-lottery means only one of us needs to win for all of us to die! If it were a comet, we’d likely see it coming. We probably couldn’t do anything about it, but we’d at least know it was headed our way.

We don’t actually have a lot of information for the Mayan civilization. Turns out the Spanish Conquistadors who ravaged the Yucatan in the 15th century were kind of dicks. They burned every scroll they could find, pretty much wiping out all records of the Aztec and Mayan civilizations. The few remaining documents (chiefly, the Popul Voh – which is either the Aztec Old Testament, or a children’s book) says nothing about the world ending at the end of the long count calendar.

The truth is simpler, and the Mayans get the last laugh. The long-count calendar wouldn’t mean anything to the Mayan civilization if they were still around. It’s no different than a New Year for the rest of us. The Mayans probably would’ve had a party. Granted there’d be some beheadings and bloodshed, games of Pok-ta-pok where the losing team was gutted, but hey – man’s gotta be entertained.

Nobody Wants To Read Your Blog

Writers seek validation. There’s no way to get around that. And no matter how humble you want to be, you’re going to have to brag about achievements. That’s easy for some of us, especially in a social media-based society where we’re used to telling everyone alive about our day, our mood, and the color of our poop (mine was light brown, just in case you’re curious).

But the plain truth is, nobody likes social media. Sure, we claim to love Facebook and Twitter, but that’s because they’re new toys. They’ll likely be eclipsed by something that’s easier to use, faster, cleaner. Your online presence is nearly impossible to erase, which is something the younger generations will figure out when they go job hunting and have to explain that picture of themselves at a keg party with a strap-on attached to their foreheads.

But more to the point, for the writer it presents both a blessing and a problem. Never before has access to publication come so easily. I can write something and post it, and in a matter of minutes it’s accessible to everyone with a web browser. Writers have tools we’ve never had before, tools that not only express our passion but build our market. It comes with a price though.

We’ve gotten used to instant replies. It’s ingrained in our culture now, and there’s no avoiding it. The older generation of writers could get by answering snail-mail and hiring publicists to handle their online presence. For the rest of us, the world expects Facebook, Twitter, blogs – expects near instant replies to e-mail. Writers of the future won’t have it easy.

Culture change is never easy, but it’s coming, and it’s unavoidable. In the next few weeks, I’ll be talking about the shift the publication industry is facing, and the (potentially) frightening impact it’ll have on the future of the written word. The novel was born in the 17th century. Will it die in the 21st? Only time will tell.

E-Publishing is the wave of the future! Wait, no it isn’t…

I’ve had more than a few people ask why I haven’t embraced digital publishing and started uploading books to Amazon. While the idea is certainly enticing, I don’t think it’s the quick road to international readership Amazon wants it to be. Not yet. I think I’d have more success standing naked on a street corner waiving a sign to encourage people to buy my book. The sign wouldn’t exactly work, but the local news story of the crazy naked guy would grab reader’s attentions.

Self-publishing and e-publishing will always have a remarkably high signal-to-noise ratio. E-publishing has made it so painfully easy that Amazon is filled with everything from Twilight ripoffs to books like “Ten women I’d like to pork”. I have yet to read a great self-published book. Some are good, sure, but great? No – not yet. And the reason for that is the “George Lucas Syndrome.”

George Lucas was a visionary, and the original Star Wars film remains a cinematic masterpiece. But what about those prequels? They’re kind of like cinematic supermodels. Pretty to look at, but vapid and boring. Sure they sold plenty of tickets and DVD’s. I think you could film a Jedi opening cans of tuna for two hours with a light saber and still make millions. Fans love Star Wars. But the stories in the new prequels were beyond terrible. They made very little sense. Stilted dialogue from actors we know can act, cheesy lines, retarded comic relief tropes no other film would ever be able to get away with. How the hell did this happen?

All three original Star Wars movies had producers. In movie terms, a producer is a lot like a good editor. The producers job isn’t to make the movie, it’s to make sure the movie gets made well. Producers help shape the story, construct scenes that flow together, and build a coherent film people will want to watch. With the new prequel, George acted as the sole editor. He funded the movies himself, skipping the big studios altogether. There was nobody to tell him “Hey, George, why does the trade federation want to blockade a planet? Wouldn’t that stop trade?” Or “I know you want to sell toys, but do we really need a twenty minute pod-racing scene?” In the end, the Star Wars prequels have become effects-laden soulless films. And the truly sad reality is that there is a good story in there, buried under all the crap. A story desperately in need of an editor. You could argue that my point is invalid since the prequels made a lot of money. But consider this: if George made the prequels first – if “Phantom Menace” came out in 1977, the series would’ve ended there.

Self publishing authors become mini-George Lucases. Lucasi… whatever. Without good editing, you’re writing in a vacuum. Stories just don’t work that way. It’s great if you’re writing just for yourself, but then why are you putting your work on Amazon? We write to be read, and that means writing the kinds of things people want to read. And not just friends and families and your great aunt Gertrude who sends you Tonka trucks every Christmas even though you’re no longer five. Some e-pub authors actually do hire editors, and as a result their work has less grammatical problems and tends to stand out. But few for-hire editors help a writer shape their story. Telling your clients their 400-page opus about elf-torture set in a dungeon is unreadable crap? That’s not a very good business model.

Not everything in the e-publishing world suffers from George Lucas syndrome. There are plenty of folks who can write well and don’t need much (if any) editing. What happens to those books? That brings me to my second point. When you self publish, not only are you the editor, you’re also the marketer and publicist. You need to actually go out and sell your book. That means blogging, tweeting, posting on forums, and if you’re really willing to spend some dough, buying ads. Doing all of those things requires a lot of time. Time you’d be better off spending writing and polishing your story. Most writers aren’t independently wealthy. We have day jobs, which means at best 2-3 hours a night writing with a few nights off every week so you can pet your kitty and save your marriage. If you’re spending most of that time self-promoting, how much are you actually writing? What about editing? There are plenty of anecdotal stories about authors who churned out a book in a couple of weeks only to have it become a bestseller.

First, that’s extremely rare and it’s usually significantly impacted by luck. When the Amazon e-publishing platform was young, there was less crap to churn through, so a few decent novels managed to grab significant sales. I’m willing to bet those novels wouldn’t have made it if published today under the sheer volume of titles clogging up the digital bookstore. Secondly, some of those books only made it because they latched on to a gimmick: teenage vampire drama right when vampires were a hot item and the market didn’t have enough. Or badly written lusty sex books because, let’s face it, we giggle when someone says penis.

Amazon isn’t a nonprofit. Providing infrastructure to electronic self-publishing is a brilliant business model because it costs them so little and brings in so much revenue. The Kindle is finally cheap enough to have a wide install base (and consequently, I’m convinced that’s why Fifty Shades is so popular – nobody has to be seen with the book open, but if it’s on a Kindle, then nobody knows what you’re reading unless you tell them). Amazon isn’t going to promote you, which means you’ve got to do it. Self-promoting is damn hard work, and you see very little return on it. Ewan Morrison wrote a really good article on pitfalls of relying on social media to sell. In short, social media sells social media. When was the last time you got a tweet or read a facebook post about something, then immediately ran out to get it? Worse, unless you’re a star blogger, you probably have a limited circle of social contacts. You can try asking friends of friends to go buy your book, but frankly that comes off as a mild step above door-to-door Amway sales.

Frankly, I’d rather spend my time writing. If I get desperate, I’ll stand on the corner, naked with my sign: Buy my e-book about vampire elf-torture!

Cloudy, with a chance of confusion

Saying I’m a Cloud engineer is like saying I work for Willy Wonka.  I usually get the kind of look most people use when stumbling over a pile of dog poo on the sidewalk, a blend of surprise and disgust.  The land of technology is a dangerous place littered with acronyms like unexploded ordnance and dual-meaning words like landmines in a demilitarized zone.  Navigating this battleground, even for IT professionals, is hazardous and usually results in a casualty of pride when meaning is lost in a dense fog of change.  The only constant with technology is confusion.  Cloud has become one of the most abused and misunderstood buzzword the past few years, and I hope to emancipate it from the confines of Dilbert comic strips and re-establish its use to the lofty height of functioning jargon.

Put simply, cloud computing is infrastructure as a service, a phrase which won’t impress at parties so don’t try it. Think of it like this: renting a movie used to be structured around a product – first videocassettes, then DVD’s. Mom-and-pop stores and Hollywood Video and Blockbuster made a killing renting a product. But technology changed. Instead of renting a product, Netflix viewed it as a service – the service of delivering videos to consumers. Mailing a DVD was far cheaper than renting out a brick-and-mortar store, and saved on overhead. And because their business model was focused on the service of providing customers with things to watch, as technology changed the business adapted and Netflix started streaming videos. Brick-and-mortar video rental stores have passed into the realm of history books, and we can tell future generations: “why, back in my day you had to go out to rent something and streaming meant peeing in an alley.”

Cloud computing takes (relatively) inexpensive computers and makes them function as one large computer.  All computers, even the largest and most complicated, are really just logic engines.  A problem is defined in computational terms (how much money does Jack owe?), a program runs in the computer’s processor (add up all of Jack’s debt using these addition instructions), and arrives at an answer (wow, Jack owes more than the GNP of Norway!).  While this is an oversimplification, it shows enough of the basic process for us to work with.  Let’s say that all of Jack’s debt is spread over thousands of separate accounts.  Adding up all of those accounts at once will take some time, and let’s face it, that’s time I need to work so I can pay off my debt.  If those addition instructions could be split up and given to multiple computers who can all add their parts at once, then deliver results to a master computer which then adds all the results together, the problem can be worked much faster.  This concept is what makes the Cloud work.

In the grand old days, computers were astronomically expensive (I think it’s because brave explorers had to fight dinosaurs to find the precious metals used in making big computers).  Most specific-purpose computers were custom designed and ran software customized for their purpose.  Where it might take a desktop computer all week to crunch payroll numbers, a big payroll computer could be designed to do it in a few hours.  If there’s one thing computer geeks are good at, it’s finding better and cheaper ways to do things.  Parallel computing was born from the need to do big jobs in small chunks without buying a stupidly expensive custom designed machine to do it.  The concept is still, at its heart, simple: one computer acts as the master (the Head Node) and divides up the job to all of its member nodes who then go out and perform their tasks and report back to the head node.  The more member nodes there are, the faster most tasks can be accomplished.  Better yet, having all those distributed nodes means our program won’t crash if one or more nodes stop working.  The rest of the nodes take over. It works great for storage too – instead of sticking my files on a single hard drive, I can spread them among many. The cloud takes that a step further – files are split into chunks and distributed to member nodes, and often those files are triplicated. This makes it faster to read big files (dozens of computers can read their pieces at the same time), and if computers crash or hard drives die, there will be enough of the file left to rebuild the missing pieces.

When we talk about cloud, we’re talking about big clusters of inexpensive computers linked together to act as one big, specialty purpose computer. Apple’s iCloud and Amazon’s cloud store the software and music and books their members buy. Those clouds are themselves replicated to other data centers allowing faster regional access. When I’m on the east coast, I can get to my files from the Amazon data center in Ashburn, Virginia. And when some crazed militia storms the data center and cuts the communication lines, I’ll get my files from the data center in Palo Alto, California.

Aside from distributed storage, most Computing Clouds today are built for analytics or for infrastructure. Analytic clouds are designed to crunch numbers, usually modeling and simulating. The National Institute of Health uses a cloud to predict the spread of disease and infection, or simulates protein folding in the pursuit of new drugs. Infrastructure as a service is a tad more complicated. This site is run off a computing infrastructure cloud. Years ago, I’d “rent” a web server in a data center. Expensive and not very efficient. Virtualization changes all that, and allows multiple virtual computers to run on a single physical computer. Think of your desktop PC – it doesn’t really do much when you’re not using it, and even when you’re surfing the web, you’re only using a tiny fraction of its available resources. Virtualization changes that and allows multiple computers to run, using the resources available. Each of those virtual machines operates as if it’s a real physical computer installed on its own dedicated hardware. That single web server I used to rent can now host multiple sites, each one thinking they have a dedicated web server of their very own. But if that single server crashes, it takes down all the virtual machines with it. Cloud changes that by distributing the load across multiple machines. The failure of one or more servers won’t affect the systems running in the cloud because they’re distributed. Amazon has a cloud service it rents out to companies that need more computing power.

Rendering CGI is expensive because of the computing power needed. Pixar had to invest in some beefy hardware to make movies, and special effects houses need to run their own data centers. Those machines are constantly crunching when a movie is being made, performing the calculations needed to render special effects, or to draw computer-generated scenes. When the movie’s finished, those machines are idle. And for small companies and most television stations, buying hardware to render special effects is far beyond their budget. Enter cloud computing: now any special effects house can rent computing space in a cloud and render their scenes. My movie about a bacon-monster can be made on a low budget. I can rent out part of Amazon’s cloud to render the 80-foot bacon monster in stunning detail.

But I’m pretty sure nobody would watch it.

What happens when you drop the SOPA in the shower?

Unless you’re living under a rock (or a Luddite like my wife) you’ve probably heard something about SOPA and its Senate counterpart, PIPA.  SOPA stands for Stop Online Piracy Act, while PIPA represents the Protect Intellectual Property Act – lawmakers just love their acronyms.  Personally, I think they should’ve called it the Destruction Of Online Foul Unacceptable Stuff (DOOFUS), or maybe Protect Online Files from Internet Technology (PROFIT) – at least it would’ve hinted at what the bill really aims to protect, or even Semi-Legal American Persecution of Online Foreign Fraudulence (SLAPOFF).

At their heart, both SOPA and PIPA aim to address the same problem: there’s an overabundance of online piracy.  Big media companies are convinced they’re losing billions, and they’ve convinced lawmakers that the US economy, democracy, and the lives of kittens everywhere hinges on the ability to protect intellectual property by throwing away more than 220 years of due process.  The Bill of Rights ensures the accused are innocent until proven guilty; SOPA and PIPA ignore that and put the burden on Internet Service Providers (ISPs) and content owners (e.g. people who put stuff on the intarwebs – from youtube and wikipedia to sites like mine and even people who post in Internet forums).

Pretty much anything Congress or the Senate puts together reads like it was carved in bark by a three-year-old in native Swahili, then translated to Occitan before being translated into English.  While SOPA is a tad too complicated to sum up, I’ll do my best: these two bills allow Intellectual Property holders (movie studios, recording studios, etc.) the ability to accuse web sites of piracy.  It’s not the accusation that’s the problem – it’s the power said accusation levies against the accused.  Under SOPA, service providers would be required to block access to accused sites, search engines like Google must de-list accused sites, billing services and credit-card companies must block any payments, domain ownership transfers to the accusers, and a hundred fluffy kittens must be killed, all without a court order.  OK – I made part of that up.  They’ve actually dropped the domain ownership issue.

If you dig into it, there’s a lot of good content on SOPA/PIPA from both sides (mostly from the truthful open-internet supporters, rather than the communist pig dogs promoting SOPA/PIPA).  What troubles me, particularly from an author’s standpoint, is that Big Media not only had a key hand in writing these bills, but worked very hard to push them through the process before anyone could complain.  It’s easy to sit back (particularly several days after Dark Wednesday when most lawmakers have rescinded support for SOPA/PIPA) and talk about how much the process works, how the people’s voices have been heard, how the little guy has won and we shouldn’t ever worry about becoming some warped, dystopian society run by corporations.  Nobody sane supports piracy save pirates and people who think it’s their right to have free stuff, and most would agree the Digital Millennium Copyright Act is far from perfect.  Big Media doesn’t exactly have a good track record of fairness – Warner Brothers even admitted last year to submitting DMCA takedown notices for files they didn’t even have the rights to.

The issue is far from over, regardless of where these bills end up in the coming months.  The evolution of technology is forcing content owners and big media to adapt or die.  Survival by litigation is nothing new, but it provokes the kind of innovation-stifling idea-killing future where everyone will end up eating Soylent Green.

I’m not Batman

I have to wonder – does Batman get dental surgery?  His alter-ego is super rich, so I’m sure he’s got a great dental plan.  But what if he gets a root canal?  Does he just hang up the bat-suit for awhile until he’s all better?  Or does he prowl the streets in pain, taking out his frustrations on Gotham’s criminals?

I can’t talk to you

I sat down with a work associate after hours and the discussion drifted to non-work subjects (as it often will when alcohol is involved).  We were talking about literature and his idea for a sci-fi Sherlock Holmes book he wanted to write (pass me the phaser, Watson, the game is afoot).  I happened to mention that I write, and my associate’s face melted into the kind of scowl teachers give when homework is turned in with gum stuck to it.  “Well then I shouldn’t talk to you about anything,” he said, “because I don’t want you stealing my ideas.”  To make his point, he quickly shifted the conversation to sports.  My knowlede of sports is equal to my knowledge of zero-g neurosurgery and the study of Amazon river basin silt.

I’ve managed to uncover what is, in my mind, the great truth about ideas: they are worthless.  No matter who you are, how brilliant you think your idea is, it’s still has less value than a chipped commemorative Elvis dinner plate showcasing his fat years.  Ideas are not a kind of social currency to buy admiration and respect, and the concept of a brilliant idea-generator who does nothing but think of things is a myth.

Execution is everything.  Any idea, no matter how brilliant, is absolutely worthless without execution.  It seems like the amateurs who lack the ability to execute are the ones who covet ideas the most, guarding them like impressionable children.  Writing is lonely enough already, isolating yourself and segmenting your idea is a great way to kill it.  Good writing is a result of good critiquing, discussing, and sharing, which can’t happen if ideas are precious, fragile treasures never to be shared until final release.

Beyond this, consider that stories which hinge entirely on concept and idea usually fail to be engaging and entertaining to the reader.  Characters are the reader’s gateway into the story, and good characters are what make ideas memorable.  Think about your favorite story, and you’re likely to picture a character first, idea and concept second.