Two Quick, Flawed Updates

In the midst of horrendous catastrophes unfolding around the world, here are two little first-world fixes to help resolve issues of minor consequence. Note that both solutions are somewhat flawed, echoing our collective attempts to resolve humanity’s larger problems.

First, a solution for the would-be writers among you who have been following Writeside’s posts on running Scrivener 3 on Linux and have recently run into problems on older hardware. A small group to be sure, but if running Scrivener with Wine has recently stopped working for you and attempts to start Scrivener from the command line have resulted in this

Error of failed request: GLXBadFBConfig

there is still a workaround, courtesy of the Wine forums. Create a text file (without the .txt extension) named .pam_environment and place it in your home directory. The file should contain this line:

MESA_GL_VERSION_OVERRIDE=4.5

and nothing else. Now, log out of your Linux session and then log back in. Scrivener should now work. The catch? Electron apps, such as the Min web browser, will stop working. A klutzy “solution”: move the .pam_environment file out of your home directory (onto your desktop, for example) when you want to run Electron apps and move it back into your home directory when you want to run Scrivener.

The Scrivener logo. Source: Literature & Latte.
The Scrivener logo. Source: Literature & Latte.

Pretty half-assed, isn’t it? Welcome to the way the world works, as per Afghanistan, U. S. infrastructure and climate change.

The second update is more straightforward. Recently, a mail plugin for WordPress (which this site runs on) got a little carried away and sent multiple instances of the last Writeside post, understandably annoying a number of subscribers. To be fair, it was more my fault than the plugin’s, as I draft these posts on a number of machines, all of which are perfectly capable of using WordPress to send mail even when I don’t want that to occur. I’ve tried to resolve this with another WordPress plugin (the aptly named Disable Emails) and I now intend to outsource emails to subscribers using the ubiquitous Mailchimp. This is the free version, so you’ll see lots of Mailchimp branding. But ideally you will only receive one email for each Writeside post, a much-needed improvement. You’ll also be able to choose text- or HTML-formatted email, and you’ll find it much easier to unsubscribe (not that I want you to do that).

The Mailchimp logo. Source: Mailchimp.com.
The Mailchimp logo. Source: Mailchimp.com.

So there you have it: two tiny, imperfect solutions to minor problems affecting a small number of people. This is how progress takes place.

Tesla vs. the Government

The Biden administration announced a plan to promote electric vehicles today, part of its response to the world’s growing climate emergency. This is a vast improvement from the previous administration’s do-nothing stance but it is still woefully inadequate.

Part of the reason for the plan’s shortcomings is its constantly touted “bipartisan” approach. Thanks to this bipartisanship, Biden’s infrastructure plan has been substantially cut back, is running behind schedule, and is far from guaranteed Congressional passage. Its shrinkage of electric vehicle support is particularly notable—what had been the largest single portion of the infrastructure bill has been significantly reduced.

The 2021 Tesla Model Y. Photo: Tesla.com.
The 2021 Tesla Model Y. Photo: Tesla.com.

At today’s event, Detroit’s three major automakers were present. They say they support Biden’s modest goal of having EVs or plug-in electric hybrids constitute half of all auto sales by 2030. There are several striking things wrong with this picture:

  • Plug-in electric hybrids currently only travel 25 to 40 miles on electric alone; they depend heavily on gas. Therefore they should not count toward Biden’s 50% goal.
  • Even if the goal were 50% purely battery electric vehicles (BEVs), it would still well lag behind what is needed to address climate change today.
  • While representatives of Detroit’s “Big 3” smiled and shuffled and congratulated themselves on their forward thinking, the largest and most successful EV manufacturer on earth was conspicuously absent, having not been invited.

I am of course referring to Tesla, the company which put BEVs on the map and which still maintains a wide technological and sales lead in the sector.

Tesla, operating in less than ideal circumstances (the four years of Trump’s administration, to cite just one example) has almost single-handedly pushed electric vehicles into the public spotlight. The company has also managed to get a large number of electric vehicles onto the nation’s streets and highways, having sold more than 200,000 cars last quarter. Yet Tesla was not invited to be part of Biden’s big EV event, an event where he joked about one day driving an “electric Corvette.”

I’m sorry to say this yet again, but the Tesla omission is yet another example of the current administration’s fumbling, inadequate response to both America’s mediocre infrastructure and our accelerating climate crisis.

Collapsing Infrastructure

The heading above is, sadly, quite literal, the Florida condo collapse being only the most recent example of America’s dangerously neglected roads, bridges and buildings. But the heading also refers to President Biden’s attempts to address the problem—by compromising with Republicans on a smaller package, and by pushing projected passage of this legislation out to the fall, the Democratic administration risks accomplishing nothing whatsoever.

Rescue crew members and a search-and-rescue dog at the collapsed Champlain Towers South condominium building in Surfside, FL. Photo: Ricky Carioti/The Washington Post.
Rescue crew members and a search-and-rescue dog at the collapsed Champlain Towers South condominium building in Surfside, FL. Photo: Ricky Carioti/The Washington Post.

As of this writing, it appears that well over 150 people will have perished in the Florida disaster. Residents of neighboring buildings wonder, rightly, if their homes are safe to occupy. Where is the sense of urgency that should be driving attempts to repair our infrastructure? (Where, for that matter, is the urgency that should be driving our efforts to preserve the right to vote?)

Are we going to continue to accept our slide into societal mediocrity? Are we going to allow Republicans, by engaging in “bipartisan” negotiations with them, to reassert minority rule in Congress next year?

The “GOP” has become a party of nihilists, a party that doesn’t care whether America falls apart as long as it retains power. The Democrats, in contrast, seem willfully ineffective. They have so far failed to protect the basic right to vote, and—until and unless this reduced infrastructure bill passes—they have failed to address our crumbling roads and bridges. (Don’t even ask about climate change.) By trying to achieve a bipartisan consensus that is no longer possible, Biden and his delusional colleagues may well have dug another large pothole on our country’s road to ruin.

Build Back Better

After getting off to a widely praised (among Democrats) fast start, the Biden administration is slowing down. I’m thinking of the $2.25 trillion infrastructure package in particular, where Democrats have, at the President’s urging, tried to negotiate with Republicans to pass a bipartisan plan. It has become obvious, at the end of May, that the two parties are very far apart—just as they are on virtually everything else.

President Biden driving a disguised electric F-150 truck at Ford's Electric Vehicle Center on May 18. Photo: Doug Mills, The New York Times.
President Biden driving a disguised electric F-150 truck at Ford’s Electric Vehicle Center on May 18. Photo: Doug Mills, The New York Times.

The Republicans retain a dated view of what constitutes infrastructure, one that excludes electric vehicles, for example. It is another instance of their willful disregard of science, of climate change, and of the need to create new economic and social opportunities to improve the country’s health. EVs represent a wide-ranging near- and mid-term economic boom that will encompass a large population while also helping to meet the urgent need to reduce carbon emissions. How can the Republicans not see this?

The same way they cannot see their responsibility for the January 6 insurrection at the Capitol. The same way they insist on investigating Black Lives Matter alongside that insurrection. The same way they retain fealty to Donald Trump, who did everything he could to accelerate America’s downward path.

When the Ford Motor Company, hardly a model for social democratic initiatives, introduces an electric version of their F–150 pickup, America’s best-selling vehicle, it’s obvious that EVs represent the future. Republicans, as usual, do not. Instead, they represent a very real and increasing threat to the future, in myriad ways. And it goes without saying that they are negotiating in bad faith on infrastructure.

President Biden has spent enough time on this last-ditch attempt at bipartisanship—a former political norm which, for all practical purposes, is dead. It’s time to use the reconciliation process to “build back better” and more broadly, in order to address this country’s huge infrastructure needs on the widest possible scale.

Scrivener 3 for Windows Released

Finally. After a very long wait, Scrivener 3 for Windows has finally been released. It may be April Fool’s Day, but the official release actually came on March 23. Let’s take a quick look at how it works with Wine on Linux.

There are a few initial glitches, at least on my Ubuntu setup, but they’re easily circumvented. And once you do have Scrivener 3 up and running, it’s good looking and functional. Is it worth the $49 cost? Absolutely; there’s no real competition.

I’ve written a number of posts on Scrivener 3 betas; just search on “Scrivener 3” to find them. Not a lot has changed recently. There’s still an installation error you may need to work around, but once you do you’ll be happy with the results.

Here’s a quick tutorial on installing Scrivener 3 on Linux (in my case, Ubuntu 20.04.2 LTS). I’m sure many in-depth reviews will follow in the coming days—for now, the aim is just to get you started.

Download the appropriate version (in most cases, 64-bit) here. Don’t double-click on the downloaded .exe file, though. If you do, you’ll liable to get this error:

Installation error.
You may get an error message when you double click the installer.

Not to worry. Just drop into the Terminal app and navigate to wherever you downloaded the installer. Then use the wine command to install it, like so:

wine Scrivener-installer.exe

The setup wizard should then appear. Just follow the instructions to install.

The Scrivener 3 setup wizard.
The Scrivener 3 setup wizard.

On my system, the installer has trouble creating a desktop launcher. The workaround, again, is via the terminal. You need to navigate to the install location (.wine/drive_c/’Program Files’/Scrivener3) and issue the wine command again to launch Scrivener for the  first time, i.e.,

wine Scrivener.exe

All subsequent launches are easy, at least on a Gnome desktop. Just hit the Super Key and start to type in Scrivener—once the app icon appears (this is actually the Wine icon on my laptop, with a Scrivener caption beneath) select it and hit Enter to launch.

I didn’t find any misbehavior within the app itself on a quick initial tour. It seems to function as it should, and it looks great, just as it does on the Mac.

Composition Mode, with controls and stats on hideaway bottom panel.
Composition Mode, with controls and stats on hideaway bottom panel. Click to enlarge.

And there you have it: Scrivener 3 for Windows, fully functional on Linux. Kudos to the Literature & Latte team for maintaining Wine compatibility.

Take All the Guns

This column won’t follow the usual pattern of analysis and a plea for gun “control” following yet another mass shooting, except to state the obvious: United States policies regarding gun ownership are deranged. In terms of analysis, the facts have been out there for a very long time. This country simply has more guns, and more gun owners, than is sane; more guns equate to more gun deaths (see the obligatory chart below, click to enlarge).

Gun deaths and gun ownership by population.

There is, at this point, no plausible way to enact meaningful gun control. If we couldn’t do this after Newtown, then we’re not going to do it at all. Anything Congress might manage to do now—and the odds against Congress doing anything at all are very high—will make very little difference in terms of everyday outcomes. Why? Because there are already some 400 million guns floating around the country, a great many of them in unstable hands. For those guns, and for the people who own them, any unlikely new law (universal background checks?—it’s a bit late for that) would be meaningless.

What needs to happen is the removal of those 400 million “loose” guns. To be absolutely clear, the guns need to be removed from their owners (they would be compensated for their value), and their owners need to be prevented from acquiring replacements. The Holy Second Amendment, which has been grossly distorted by Republicans and their conservative courts, needs to be scrapped. Nothing less than these measures will solve the current problem.

The right will scream in outrage at this—if I had a larger right-leaning audience for this blog, one or more readers might well try to shoot me (a common impulse among problematic gun lovers). The left will say what I am proposing is impossible, and these people would be right. Under our current United States government, the solution I’ve described is impossible.

So what can be done? The answer, as for so many other intractable American problems, is secession: rational people joining together to create a rational new state (the Democratic Federation of America, let’s call it). A state where individual gun ownership would be permitted only under the most tightly controlled circumstances. A state where long-standing American myths—manifest destiny, rising by one’s own bootstraps, the inalienable right to shoot oneself or others—would no longer hold sway. A democratic socialist state on the Nordic model where crime would still occur, but rarely and on a much smaller scale. Where people would have more equality, where there would be far less poverty and deprivation. A state where life seemed meaningful again.

Jettison the crazies. Start over. Don’t “build back better.” Build something new, and better.

Update: Scrivener 3 on Linux

Update, 1/30/21: there is a bug in the recent Scrivener 3 betas which prevents Scrivener from launching successfully after installation. You can resolve it by using winetricks to install speechsdk. This is now fixed.

It goes without saying that these are troubling times. Politics and the pandemic, bound tightly together in this dysfunctional country, will be with us through the end of this year and well beyond. So let’s focus on something small and potentially positive, only tangentially related to the larger world.

There aren’t many fiction writers who use Linux as a regular platform, I’d wager. Yet there are a few, including me. I believe that open source at its best serves as a role model for how the larger society should function. This quality in itself attracts some socially conscious creative people to the platform. The problem, of course, is that commercial software remains dominant, and not all of it can run on Linux. It is possible to write with existing open source solutions. But the best solution for aspiring novelists is the carefully crafted Scrivener, developed by a small, quality-focused software team at Literature and Latte in the UK. And Scrivener no longer runs natively on Linux.

Good news—Scrivener 3 will work with Wine.
Good news—Scrivener 3 will work with Wine.

To the company’s credit, a version of the Scrivener Linux beta remains available, and this can interface with the current Scrivener 3 on the Mac by translating documents from Scrivener 2 format to Scrivener 3, and vice versa. But the need to “translate” back and forth is a less than ideal solution.

For a while, Wine had come to the rescue—Scrivener ran just fine “out of the box” on default Wine installations. But that changed sometime back, as Scrivener 3 for Windows development evolved. Wine stopped working, and I turned back to Scrivener on macOS to continue work on my novel. Apple still leads the pack in terms of both ease of use and options for writers (but Linux exemplifies the moral high ground, as noted above).

Now that the new version (20.04.1) of Ubuntu LTS is out, I decided to take another look at the situation, and I have some good news for the small audience of writers on Linux. The latest beta of Scrivener 3 for Windows does run on Wine. You just have to do a little extra work to enable this.

A quick disclaimer: while I worked as a developer for many years, I now focus on writing. As a writer, I can’t afford to be distracted by any particular tool. If something doesn’t “just work,” I’ll find an alternative that does and concentrate on the writing. That’s why I hadn’t wanted to get down into the weeds to figure out all the nuances of enabling Scrivener 3 on Wine. But when I took a quick look, I discovered that things weren’t that bad. My Wine configuration is probably a little wonky, and I’ll likely do a complete reinstall when Scrivener 3 for Windows is officially released, supposedly sometime this fall. But getting the software to work again isn’t all that much work.

Scrivener 3 in Composition Mode on Linux.
Scrivener 3 in Composition Mode on Linux.

The latest beta, 2.9.9.9 (RC9), would seem to indicate that the official release is near (fingers crossed). The beta expires in mid-September. Here’s how to get it working.

If you already have Wine installed, you have two choices: you can create a new prefix for Scrivener, or you can update the parameters of the default .wine prefix. (I’ve tried both, which is why my configuration is not as clean as it should be.) If you don’t have Wine installed, then installing it should be your first step. It’s straightforward, and I won’t describe the process here.

If, like me, you only plan to use Wine for Scrivener and one or two related programs (Literature and Latte’s Scapple “brainstorming” software runs fine on the default Wine install), then I recommend updating the environmental settings for the default prefix .wine to meet Scrivener’s current requirements. The process described below applies to Ubuntu Focal but should be translatable to other distros.

The core requirements are Windows 7 or higher and .NET v4.6.2 or higher (Wine 5.0 will let you use .NET v4.8).

Once Wine is installed, make sure you have 32-bit architecture enabled. This is needed for various reasons overall, and also to register Scrivener. The command is:

sudo dpkg -i –add-architecture i386

Following that, run this:

env WINEARCH=win64

Now you’ll need to install Winetricks. Again, this is straightforward. Once you have it installed, run the following commands. The first one is:

env WINEPREFIX=$HOME/.wine winetricks dotnet corefonts

This is necessary for Times New Roman, the most popular font for submitting your work to publishers. If you already have the font on your system (it might have come with or been installed by another program), you can omit the above command.

Next run:

env WINEPREFIX=$HOME/.wine winetricks win7

And then:

env WINEPREFIX=$HOME/.wine winetricks dotnet48

Now you should be able to right-click on your downloaded Scrivener 3 beta file and use Wine’s installer to install it.

Scrivener will create a .desktop file than you can use to launch the program (which didn’t work in my case, because my overall Wine installation has some issues—as I said, I’ll clean this up when the official version is released). You can then add the launcher as a “favorite” in the dock.

An easy alternative for launching is simply to hit the Super key to bring up Search and type in the first few letters of “Scrivener.” Once you see the program just hit Enter to launch it.

Or, if you like the command line, make a little shell script like so:

!/bin/bash

cd ~/.wine/drive_c/‘Program Files’/Scrivener
wine Scrivener.exe

Then you can run it with:

./scrivener.sh

from whatever directory you placed the script in. That said, a launcher is probably the best way to go and that’s what I’ll use once I clean things up.

And there you have it—a little work, but well worth it for those who want to be able to use the best long-form writing program on Linux.

A Burning

My intent this time out was to forgo the increasingly bleak political and societal scene in the US and examine a compelling work of fiction instead. The book under review here is A Burning, by Megda Majumdar, and it is a debut novel. Don’t let the word “debut” put you off, though—this is one of the most powerful and accomplished works I have read in quite some time.

A stunning debut and a savage indictment.
A stunning debut and a savage indictment.

However, if you sometimes read fiction to “escape” the cascadingly unpleasant realities of day-to-day American life, I cannot in good conscience recommend A Burning, even though it is set in and intimately concerned with India instead. While the societal particulars are quite different (and in some ways, as bad as ours have ever been), and while there is no pandemic underlying the action, this novel is a razor-sharp examination of basic aspiration in a capitalist society of grotesque inequality, and the ways in which universal human nature can be twisted in such circumstances. Indian setting or not, this book will not let you escape life in the United States.

The plot is streamlined and increases in intensity throughout the novel. A Burning will in fact grip you like a thriller. A poor young woman whose principal ambition is to achieve a middle-class existence is unjustly accused of a horrendous crime. The lives of two other Indians striving to make their way upward in a fundamentally flawed society—a physical education teacher who falls in with a right-wing political party and an engaging Hijra who is determined to achieve film stardom—intersect with hers in ways that seem inconsequential at first, and then increasingly heartbreaking.

If calling a novel “the book of the summer” once conjured up beach reads like Jaws, this novel will instead make you freshly aware of just how much we all have left to achieve. It truly is the one novel you should read this summer, and experiencing Majumdar’s brilliant and savage dissection of Indian society will help fortify you to face the enormous challenges remaining in this country.

This is a stunning and immensely rewarding book.

Why We’ll Never Fix the Police

In the wake of George Floyd’s brutal murder in Minnesota and the resulting nationwide protests against police brutality and racism, there’s been a lot of hopeful talk about the possibility of structural change.

It’s not going to happen.

Granted, there have been positive steps taken around the country. New York State, for example, just put in place several reforms—including the banning of chokeholds and the opening up of police disciplinary records—that should make it easier to prosecute individual cops who commit murder. That’s the theory, at any rate.

Derek Chauvin, in the process of murdering George Floyd. Photo: theguardian.com.
Derek Chauvin, in the process of murdering George Floyd. Photo: theguardian.com.

But already, ambitious reforms are running into age-old roadblocks. This is certainly the case in Minneapolis, where Floyd was killed, and it will prove to be the case elsewhere as well.

Structural change is hard. Especially when the conditions for it do not exist. And the conditions for it do not exist in these so-called United States.

To actually change the system, a great majority of the populace must agree there is a great need to do so. But in the U.S., a substantial portion of the population does not agree such a need exists. A substantial portion of the population does not agree on anything.

While earnest and appalled citizens were taking to the streets to protest racism, millions of others were challenging them, on the streets and, especially, on social media, with “All Lives Matter” or “Blue Lives Matter” taunts. Others have signed on to the so-called boogaloo movement, which wants to incite civil war and overthrow the government. And that movement has plenty of company on the far right.

Meanwhile, the nation’s government itself works against the interest of its citizens on a daily basis (see Covid–19, America’s failure to respond) and pays the most token of lip service to protesters’ demands for change.

As much as all reasonable and empathetic citizens would like to change America, we must face the truth of life in this country today:

  • Racism is built-in. It’s not going away.
  • America’s cultural and political divisions may have reached an all-time high, and there is no fix for this on the horizon.
  • There are many good cops, as the truism goes. But there are many more bad cops. They join the force from warehouses and fast food restaurants and become drunk with their newfound salaries, benefits and power. What’s more, they become part of a cool blue fraternity that always sticks together. I contend that the worst young men and women in America aspire to join the police precisely because they will be able to commit violence with impunity.
  • America’s two-party system is hopelessly hamstrung in terms of flexibility and rapid response. And it, like the people it supposedly serves, is also crippled by cultural and political divisions, likely beyond repair.
  • There are too many stupid politicians and too many stupid cops. If we don’t have a competent and professional government, how can we expect to have a competent and professional police force?
  • The ideal solution to eliminate killings by the police would be to disarm them, as in Britain and other countries. Oh, wait—there are more than 300 million firearms floating around the United States. Guess that’s not such a practical idea.
  • Well then, what if we got rid of all the guns, then disarmed the police? Yeah, good luck with that one. Refer to all the points made above.

Our country is irremediably broken, folks. Outrageous police brutality is just the latest systemic problem we will not be able to resolve, at least not as the U.S. is presently constituted. And racism, of course, is our original sin. It endures.

It’s not just police departments that need to be dismantled and rebuilt more intelligently.

It’s the nation itself.

Learning from The Plague

Several months in, it seems to me that too many Americans have begun to accept the ongoing pandemic as some kind of “new normal.” Perhaps not the millions who have recently lost their employment, and certainly not those who have been directly impacted by COVID–19, but many, many others seem to have become quite acclimated to America’s current state of affairs. This may be due in part to the rash/rush of “openings” in the past few weeks.

Casual accommodation is not a realistic viewpoint, as the majority of American health officials continue to maintain. Not with a death count of more than 100,000 and rising. If you’d like a corrective dose of reality, you could do far worse than read Albert Camus’s classic novel, The Plague. I reread the Stuart Gilbert translation a couple of months back and it is a brilliant work of art and philosophy which goes straight to the heart of what it means to experience a pandemic.

Albert Camus's exemplary novel still packs a punch. Jacket photo: Penguin Random House.
Albert Camus’s exemplary novel still packs a punch. Jacket photo: Penguin Random House.

The novel describes the sudden disruptions, growing fear and increasingly desperate measures taken to fight the invading disease in ways that are now intimately familiar to thinking Americans. Its protagonist, Dr. Bernard Rieux, exemplifies the heroic medical personnel fighting on the front line of today’s pandemic. Moreover, the book is a gripping read in and of itself.

But perhaps the novel’s greatest contribution lies in its depiction of human nature, vis-a-vis the outbreak. While it’s true that the townspeople in Camus’s novel did not have to contend with deluded far-right “patriots” determined to expose themselves and others to the disease in the name of “freedom,” they did have to contend with many other dark strands of humanity. The novel’s invading plague is often cited as a metaphor for the Nazi occupation of France. One might make a similar comparison of the COVID-19 pandemic and what passes for “government” in America today.

Our broken and corrupt national government will certainly need to be dealt with, and soon. But so will COVID–19. The current policies being implemented, especially in Middle America and the South, are not going to work.

Odd as it may seem, reading The Plague today is a strangely uplifting, even hopeful experience. This is because, while it tells stark truths about human nature, it also shows people at their best, as with Dr. Rieux. The book is both cautionary and morally instructive, as shown in its final paragraph:

And, indeed, as he listened to the cries of joy rising from the town, Rieux remembered that such joy is always imperiled. He knew what those jubilant crowds did not know but could have learned from books: that the plague bacillus never dies or disappears for good; that it can lie dormant for years and years in furniture and linen-chests; that it bides its time in bedrooms, cellars, trunks, and bookshelves; and that perhaps the day would come when, for the bane and the enlightening of men, it would rouse up its rats again and send them forth to die in a happy city.