anthony dobranski online


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Recovering technophiliac

I use a MacBook Air 2012, second version of the Air line and model for all that follow. It’s a perfect size for serious work, with a screen that usefully shows a half-dozen apps in a single desktop space. It’s substantial yet light, easily portable, fine in a lap or a desk. It has local storage so no need of wifi for work on the go, and cloud backup the moment it connects.

At my desk, it runs two HD+ monitors, a backup drive, and any peripheral I need. Home and away, from apps to settings to bookmarks to the structure of the folders, everything is the same on it, wherever I take it. It’s the most useful thing ever.

Drives me crazy.

I have an addiction. I like new computing gear. I like to get better gear that does new stuff. A perfect computer can do everything – but that.

Every other year, I spend good money on e-trash, some quirky machine with a clever feature like a touch screen or small size. Each time, the affair is short-lived, and soon the device ends up housed in a cabinet, so backlogged with updates that I fear to turn it on. My last one went three days from unboxing to reboxing.

It’s as if I drive a McLaren sports car, every day, but I keep buying new Cadillacs for the bigger cupholders.

It started out innocently enough. I got into computers as a teen, as a writer, at the dawn of word-processing, still a hobbyist’s preserve but even then superior to typewriters. My then-rare comfort with the technology dovetailed with the dawn of online connectivity as a consumer business. I was rewarded with a prestigious international career.

If you bought your winning ticket for the mega-lottery at the liquor store, how would that affect your alcohol abuse?

The same for my success and my need to poke at new gear – even in this new career where (from a gear perspective) I merely key words in empty spaces, and there’s no more technology to master.

Meanwhile my MacBook Air just works. It’s got another four years at least. Four more years of perfection, of comfort and familiarity and a natural flow.

Maybe longer.

The itch is stressful. I am trying to realign it with better pursuits, like the ambulance-chasing lawyer in Banks’s The Sweet Hereafter, proud to have a good use for his anger. When my dad’s old desktop needed its final backup, I taught my son the basics of computer architecture. We rebuilt it at modest cost with new drives, cards, and memory. We did such a good job my dad demanded it back.

Of course, I spent two afternoons after thinking through and researching how to build powerful desktop machines for different uses from parts at low cost.

But I didn’t buy anything.

That’s something.


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Make time for new work

My main creative work since my book contract has either been editing my manuscript or developing my (approach to) social media. By any commercial measure, that’s what I should have done. Polishing and sharing best honors my creative expression.

One has creative intention too, and each success makes one’s ground more fertile. Recently my editor Vivian Caethe, fresh off her first Kickstarter success, turned a Tumblr post into a new anthology on Kickstarter, which shows how quickly ideas can bloom.

I need to be there for my finished work. I also need new work to do.

These last two weeks I’ve been making myself make things up, just opening blank text screens and letting words fly. It’s not exactly automatic writing but it’s my least self-judgmental form of creativity. Nothing that will go further in this form. Nothing anyone’s waiting for yet. It can be stupid and playful. I even wrote the outline of a wordless ten-minute play, mostly on my smartphone, in a car.

Most of these ideas will go nowhere. A few return in funny ways. A jokey conceit I never developed for my blog became a Russian propaganda television serial in my NaNoWriMo manuscript. That manuscript was once a dream, hastily written down and played with for weeks thereafter. In another year it could be a book.

It’s important to make new things, especially if it feels unimportant. Something takes root if you keep seeding.


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NaNoWriMo recap (winner!)

National Novel Writing Month was a huge personal success for me, and a big confidence booster. I will miss my silicone NaNoWriMo bracelet tomorrow.

By the numbers, 50,028 words, finished in the wee hours of November 27. On the twenty-three days I wrote, I averaged 2,175 words a day, due mainly to a big push in the first two weeks that had me writing close to 2,500 a day.

As a project, I reached the end of the draft narrative. I kept control of the pacing so I landed it roughly as I intended. It was an active effort, matching my word count to the outlines, planning scenes ahead in 500-word increments, fleshing out passages still short of their part of the total.

However measured, when I could write, I did, at speed and with some level of consistent craft throughout. I’m not sure I believed I could do it. I am glad to no longer have to rely on belief.

I don’t think I have universal advice, but for me it started well before November 1. Continue reading


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Markdown lets any text app do more work

For grabbing ideas when inspiration strikes, or trying to make a long wait into useful work-time, an Internet-connected smartphone is a great device. It’s already with you.

Word-processor apps still aim for completeness of function, however, which makes them labored to start – just opening a file can scare a good idea out of one’s head. Text editors are cheap and light, but even for printing, text needs layout and formatting.

If you use Markdown syntax, you can quickly reformat any text into any electronic publication format.

Markdown, invented by John Gruber, is a set of punctuation-mark tags that tell an app reading the file how to format and display text. With Markdown you can tag your notes with headings, emphasis, images and links, all using single or paired punctuation marks.

You can write Markdown in any text editor, from Windows Notepad or Mac TextEdit to word-processors and programmer’s editors. For a long work, it’s convenient to store the file in a cloud folder, but you can write Markdown in an email. To convert it to other formats, it must be saved as a text file, with, by convention, the extension .md.*

To write in Markdown, separate each paragraph with an empty line. Use single or paired punctuation marks for formatting. For example:

  • Asterisks (*) and underscores (_) around a word or phrase of text emphasize that text.
  • Begin a line with one or more hash marks (#) to make it a heading. One hash mark is Heading 1, two is Heading 2, etc.
  • Begin a line with a right angle bracket (>) to indent it.

Other simple marks indent, make formatted lists, and insert links and images. There are variations on Markdown for technical needs, but for a prose writer, Gruber’s original syntax is easy to use.

Gruber’s own command-line converter, written in Perl, will turn Markdown text into HTML. Many other text editor apps on all desktop and mobile operating systems read and convert Markdown. In another post, I’ll discuss Pandoc, a quick document converter that can turn Markdown text into any current text or publishing format.

For more details, visit Gruber’s site Daring Fireball.

Markdown is designed for prose writing. For a script-writing text syntax, look into Fountain.

*If you have an option for encoding, which tells apps how to handle accented characters, most English-language writers should use UTF-8.


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Be here now (Apple’s new Watch)

The Apple Watch is not the first wrist-worn computing device — the Timex Datalink from 1993 could be programmed using the flickering of light from a personal-computer screen — but it seems to be the first designed to interface with the body, not just eyes and fingers. In his review of the device’s first generation, the New York Times‘s Farhad Manjoo notes that it was quite a transition to use it, but in making it, he found himself less absorbed by the device than extended by it.

Wearable computing has always had at its heart the difference between productivity and augmentation, between making specific tasks easier and giving people new abilities. It is a subtle distinction, until it isn’t. A cordless drill lets a worker mount a sheet of drywall much faster; a crane changes how buildings are built and how they can be repaired. Spell-checking fixes your spelling; dictation software spells for you. A constant video log of your life shows you a reality that memory doesn’t.

This distinction may be one factor in Apple’s excellent run in the last fifteen years, a realization I came to while reading an Economist article about Satya Nadella‘s changes at Microsoft. We might have had an iPad years sooner, if Microsoft had let it not be a Windows device. Bill Gates’s insistence on using the Windows interface as a precondition to all devices finally limited his vision. Continue reading


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Productivity through multiple logins

I’m wearing my technology hat today, with a productivity column inspired by some weekend discussions.

If you conduct your work and home lives from the same computer, it’s hard to keep them apart. Your home office or studio, carefully landscaped free of distractions, hides its biggest time-sinks on the same screen as your work. It’s hard not to “pop into” Facebook, hard not to pay bills or label vacation photos, when work grows dull — but even a small distraction can cost you a half-hour of good focus.

Of course you could deactivate your Internet, but then you lose a vital research tool and regular backups to cloud storage. And the family photos are still unlabeled.

To promote concentration and avoid distraction, divide the computer like your life, using multiple logins. Continue reading