Update: Scrivener 3 on Linux

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.

The Joys of Two-Timing

As a late-blooming watch nerd, I didn’t think much of smartwatches at first. I owned one, though it was a bit of an outlier—a Polar M600, which was more of a running watch than anything else. The M600 did its job well (though not on a treadmill, where it couldn’t track distance) but I never really used its smartwatch features. I preferred “real” watches: high-value-for-dollar Seikos, tough-as-nails field watches, Swiss steel chronographs.

(I also owned the original Pebble Classic, arguably the first smartwatch. Chunky, all plastic and quite lovable. Also quite capable—I still have it and still wear it now and then, fashion be damned.)

Pebble Classic—the smartwatch that started it all.
Pebble Classic—the smartwatch that started it all.

All of this changed when I purchased an Apple Watch Series 5. Although I’d been curious about the Apple Watch for a while, it wasn’t until the 5 came out that I was tempted to purchase one. The always-on screen was a huge factor in this decision, as were the favorable reviews on high-end watch sites such as Hodinkee.

Since I was already planning a privacy-based transition from Google/Android to Apple products in general, I purchased the Apple Watch 5 along with an iPhone 11 and the latest iPad Mini (the latter is mainly for reading e-books).

The amazing Apple Watch Series 5. Too good to leave at home.
The amazing Apple Watch Series 5. Too good to leave at home.

As many have discovered before me, the Apple Watch is an amazing device. Well-designed and stylish, as you would expect from Apple, but extremely capable and versatile as well. It has beautiful watch faces, yes, but it also has a wide range of digital complications (extra features, in watch parlance) that you won’t find in the analog world. These let you discreetly check the weather, stock prices, your heart rate, news headlines, messages and a whole host of other things. I was astonished to discover that you can have conversations with the thing, a la Dick Tracy. I didn’t purchase a GPS + Cellular model but as long as you’re connected to wi-fi you can use your watch as a phone, at home or elsewhere.

You can also use your watch to monitor your health, particularly your heart health, with its ECG app, and use it as a really good fitness device, too (Apple Watch Series 5 does measure distance on a treadmill, and does so pretty accurately). You can use this watch for so many things, in fact, that it is hard to imagine not wearing it.

That’s why some watch aficionados have started a trend called “double-wristing”—you wear your traditional classic analog watch on one wrist and wear your Apple Watch 5 on the other. I prefer the term “two-timing,” and I’ve become a strong advocate of the practice. The Apple Watch 5 is simply too good to leave at home, but then so are your exquisitely crafted analog timepieces, which offer unique pleasures of their own. Wear both, and experience the richly sensual joys of two-timing.

Enlist your significant other as well—that will give you a foursome, and a sexier experience still!

Do Writers Need Writing Software?

Update, 1/31/2020: it should be noted that the abandoned Scrivener Linux beta, version 1.9.0.1 with no expiration date, is still a valid option. Scrivener 3 on Mac or Windows can export to the version 2 format, which the Linux beta version can read, so you can go back and forth between platforms. At least for now. You’ll want the AppImage version, available here.

Do writers actually need specialized “writing software” such as Scrivener? Or is the publishing industry’s standard word processor, Microsoft Word, sufficient unto itself?

The questions above have been making the rounds for a while now. When specialized software for “creative writing” first began to appear a decade or so back, there was a definite stigma attached to such software by professional writers. This piece in The Atlantic by Scrivener creator Keith Blount, from 2011, sums that stigma up nicely.

Even today, in the third decade of this troubling new century, the question is not entirely resolved. But I don’t believe it remains particularly relevant. Most writers have acknowledged the usefulness of Scrivener and its competitors, even if they stick with Word or (in some cases) don’t use a computer to write at all.

Is Word alone enough? For some writers, yes. For many others, no. Word logo © Microsoft.
Is Word alone enough? For some writers, yes. For many others, no. Word logo © Microsoft.

R. O. Kwon, whose debut novel The Incendiaries received very strong reviews, told me she investigated Scrivener but found its complexities too distracting and decided to stick with Word. For her, that was obviously the right choice. Michael Chabon, on the other hand, has credited Scrivener (along with iA Writer, DEVONthink, Nisus Writer and numerous Apple products) in the creation of his work.

The more relevant question today, then, is how can writers make sure today’s technology works for them, rather than the other way ’round. And this question was prompted by a recent experience I had with Scrivener itself, which remains the most popular (and capable) program of its kind.

When I reviewed Scrivener 3 a couple of years ago, I was running it on both macOS and Linux (via Wine). I continued to so until quite recently—the Windows beta ran fine under Wine until late last year (Beta 30, I believe). For whatever reason, the developers upped the .NET system requirements and I have not found a way to get the program running again on Ubuntu 18.04 LTS. What’s more, I spent far too much time trying. This was time wasted, which I regret. One should never follow technology down a rabbit hole, and I did precisely that.

It’s true that, these days, every minimally conscientious citizen needs to pay some attention to the software they run, both for ethical reasons and to protect themselves from the surveillance state (and surveillance capitalism), to the extent this is possible. That’s why I recently moved from Android to iOS, and why my main computing platform will continue to be macOS. Apple is not without serious ethical flaws (Asian labor standards, tax policies, Chinese censorship, et al.) but they do seem to be the best commercial platform from the standpoint of privacy and security. And by and large, their stuff does “just work.” I run Linux to avoid being completely captive within Apple’s attractive walled garden.

But since my main focus these days is writing, I don’t have time to screw around with software configurations, as I mistakenly did trying to get Scrivener running again on Ubuntu. Past a certain point, the technology has to defer to the writing. No more Scrivener on Ubuntu unless or until it simply works under Wine, which may very well be never.

And that brings us back to the original question of whether specialized writing software is necessary for writers. From an absolute standpoint, the answer is of course “No.” But from the standpoint of convenience and flexibility, I find Scrivener to be invaluable. Syncing a story or poem from my Mac to my iPhone via Dropbox is an almost ideal way to proofread and revise—there’s something about the iPhone’s smaller screen that enhances focus wonderfully. And as Chabon noted in the interview cited above, Scrivener remains by far the best program for long-form writing.

I’ll still run Linux as an escape hatch now and then, and I’ll occasionally even write on my Linux laptop: LibreOffice Writer is more or less equivalent to Word on my Mac, and there are many open source writing programs that run fine under Linux. I’m disappointed in the Scrivener developers for abandoning their original intention to support Linux and then breaking compatibility with Wine after a long run of successful betas. Such is life; this is definitely a minor first-world problem.

For me, though, Scrivener in conjunction with Word or Writer continues to be indispensable. At least until something better comes along.

Big Other

How to begin? Shoshana Zuboff’s The Age of Surveillance Capitalism is an extremely important book, one that critics have already compared to Rachel Carlson’s Silent Spring and Karl Marx’s Das Kapital. It is the first book to truly tackle the full aspects of what is actually happening in the whirlwind digitization of our society, along with the pervasive and deeply sinister threats this transformation poses to our freedom and to our very selves. It is essential reading—“easily the most important book to be published this century,” according to the acclaimed novelist Zadie Smith. Indeed, the Guardian has already named The Age of Surveillance Capitalism as one of the 100 best books of the 21st Century.

Essential reading. Photo: publicaffairsbooks.com.
Essential reading. Photo: publicaffairsbooks.com.

Shoshana Zuboff is Professor Emerita of Business Administration at Harvard Business School, and she was awarded the 2019 Axel Springer Award “for her courage and forthright stance in analyzing the problematic sides of the digital economy as well as her tireless efforts to remind us of our responsibility to be conscious of the personal and societal impacts of a data-driven economy on the public.”

In the award’s citation, Germany’s Axel Springer SE, Europe’s largest publishing house, noted that Zuboff has largely “shelved her lectureship,” as she does not agree with Harvard’s economic relationship to the digital economy. The citation further noted that Zuboff “sharply criticizes the collection of personal data, in particular by global internet corporations like Google and Facebook, and describes their business models as ‘surveillance capitalism’ which, in her view, ‘destroys the inner nature of man.’”

Shoshana Zuboff. Photo: http://axel-springer-award.com.
Shoshana Zuboff. Photo: http://axel-springer-award.com.

The Age of Surveillance Capitalism is very much concerned with the inner nature of man, and with the absolute human right to self-determination which has been and is being stealthily undermined by the predations of “Big Other,” of which big data is but a part. The ultimate goal of companies like Facebook and Google (the book’s two primary villains) is nothing less than the “the colonisation  …  of our minds, our behaviour, our free will, our very selves” (Zadie Smith) in the service of predictable behavior and outcomes harvested for private gain.

This concept is so startling that it is difficult to grasp and confront—in James Bridle’s Guardian review of the book, he makes the point that “there’s something about its [surveillance capitalism’s] opacity, its insidiousness, that makes it hard to think about, just as it’s hard to think about climate change….”

Some critics exhibit this difficulty in the very course of their reviews. Jennifer Szalai, writing in the New York Times, uses a jokey title for her review (“O.K., Google: How Much Money Have I Made for You Today?”) and says that Zuboff “can get overheated with her metaphors” and that some portions of the book are “frankly ridiculous.” But Szalai is also astute enough to recognize the source of her resistance: “…maybe my reflexive discomfort only indicates that I’ve become acclimated — or ‘habituated,’as Zuboff likes to say — to the world that surveillance capitalists have created,” she notes.

This insight would seem to apply to the Times at large, as The Age of Surveillance Capitalism does not appear on the paper’s list of the year’s 10 best books released yesterday, a glaring and irresponsible oversight. (I’m hoping it will show up on the traditional Times “100 notable books” list, which should appear within the next week or so.)

I don’t deny that The Age of Surveillance Capitalism can make for difficult reading. It is long, extensively researched and footnoted, and presents several slippery new concepts that no one else has really identified to date. Concepts that, like climate change, can be hard to fully grasp and absorb.

But if you’re open to new ideas and are concerned about our perilous future, this book will immediately grip you. Naomi Klein, author of This Changes Everything and No Logo, sums it up best: “From the very first page I was consumed with an overwhelming imperative: everyone needs to read this book as an act of digital self-defense.”

A Modest Proposal

It’s often said that America has not been this divided since the Civil War. Indeed, some prognosticators even suggest a new civil war may be in the offing. To this I say: nonsense. There is always a way to resolve problems, even the most intractable ones.

For example, take guns. That’s a pun, as I am literally suggesting to take the guns. But I do not suggest this merely as a progressive who would like to see a degree of sanity restored to American society by reducing gun violence. Of course not—I recognize that there are some very fine people on both sides of the gun debate. That being the case, it will be necessary to provide each side with something of what they want.

Easy target—a recent arrival in Idaho. Photo: News-Press.com.
Easy target—a recent arrival in Idaho. Photo: News-Press.com.

So, let’s start by envisioning a Democratic landslide in the election next year. Warren or Sanders as President, a solidly Democratic Senate and a Supreme Court which has been expanded to 15 members, now under Democratic control. The first step will be to abolish the Second Amendment and the second step will be to establish a mandatory buy-back program for every gun in America, all 300-400 million of them.

“Wait a minute!” you might exclaim, if you happen to be a Republican. “Everything you’ve just described is part of a far-left Democratic wish list! What do Republicans and gun nuts enthusiasts get out of this?”

I’m coming to that. I’ve anticipated your concerns, and I have some answers I believe you and the Proud Boys will like.

Obviously, a great many patriotic right-wing Americans will defy the new buy-back program. The new socialist government will offer them, and anyone who wants to join them, an attractive cash incentive to relocate to the great state of Idaho. And that’s only the beginning.

Once ten million gun owners and their 350 million guns are in Idaho, the real fun begins!

Now everyone knows guns are only one topic which sorely divides today’s Americans. Race, religion, economic status, climate change and immigration are a few of the many others. Well, I have a plan for that. It’s called The Great American ShowdownTM, and it will enable these brand-new Idaho residents to resolve their differences in the most direct and down-to-earth way possible: with their guns.

Every Idahoan who kills someone with an opposing viewpoint will receive $50 cash. That might seem a meager amount, but with ten million people involved the rewards can add up fast. Not only that, but the victor gets to claim the deceased’s weapons, adding to their stash of guns that are illegal in the rest of the lower 48.

But wait, there’s more—The Great American ShowdownTM will be televised! It’s going to be the biggest program of all time (bigger even than “The Apprentice”), and it will be available for streaming and on network TV. Imagine the thrill of watching real-life bloody shoot-outs in the comfort of your own living room. And imagine the gigantic advertising revenues that will result!

Your new government will be nothing if not fair. Advertising revenue will be divided between renewable energy programs (45%), universal health care coverage (45%, for the other 49 states) and the Republican National Committee (5%). I will retain 5% as the originator of the concept, but the RNC will be able to use their dollars for any purpose they see fit (except firearms).

Idaho will benefit, too. Tourism will increase dramatically, as our more adventurous citizens venture to the Gem State (who knew it was called that?) to witness the mayhem firsthand. And eventually, when all the shooting is over, one lucky Idaho resident will wind up with 350 million guns and a substantial fortune to call their very own.

I call this a win-win! So be sure to vote for Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren next fall and do your part to make it happen.

My apologies to Jonathan Swift.

AI Poetry

Here’s another step forward in humanity’s slow, steady march toward … our future. Google, which recently vowed to make privacy a paramount concern, has enlisted the UK artist and stage designer Es Devlin and its own formidable artificial intelligence capabilities to come up with a demo they call Poem Portraits.

It’s actually kind of fun.

Google Poem Portraits—AI tries its hand at art.

The execution is straightforward enough—visit this page, enter a word of your choice (be creative!) and give your device’s camera permission to take a selfie.

Voilà! Your very own Poem Portrait! Poetry courtesy of Google AI in collaboration with Google Arts & Culture; facial mapping inspired by the art of Es Devlin. Have a look:

Thomas Pletcher, after processing by Google’s poetry machine.

The word I chose was “fluid,” and the resultant poem reads:

This fluid beauty of the sun is broken on the sun,
A sea of stars, where the wild bees are blind.

Hmm. I might have chosen to write a somewhat different couplet. But this does have a certain resonance, doesn’t it? (All “generated” poetry does, if you’re receptive.) Not to mention the ability to imprint itself across one’s face, like tire tracks. I’m impressed, Google!

Actually, this venture is a very clever move on the company’s part (as is the whole arts and culture effort). It makes one prone to regard Google with friendly affection, as I’m sure it wants us all to do.

Cynicism and privacy concerns aside (does AI analyze, tag and catalog all those selfies?), this is really quite an interesting exercise. And in fairness, it should be noted that Google gives you the option to skip the portrait and simply generate a poem if you’re concerned about privacy.

Try it. You may come up with something that speaks to you and matches your own uniquely identifiable face.

More Open Source Writing

Update, 1/31/2020: the Organon plugin for LibreOffice Writer no longer works with the current version. Development has been paused.

It’s been just over a year since I reviewed some open source writing apps, so I thought it would be a good time to check back in and see what, if anything, has changed in the interim. It also gives me an excuse to take a break from my own work, and from America’s ongoing national crises.

Last time, I stressed the importance of open source code (and the Linux OS) in terms of autonomy, freedom from commercial exploitation, and privacy. I continue to believe in these criteria. Eric S. Raymond famously wrote about the importance of openness in The Cathedral and the Bazaar, and there’s no doubt that open source software has become enormously influential since then—the Internet runs on it. Yet many people, writers included, remain only vaguely aware of the distinction between open source and commercial software. What’s more, to the extent that they are aware, many people believe commercial software to be superior.

Still the best: Scrivener 3 Windows beta running on Linux via Wine.
Still the best: Scrivener 3 Windows beta running on Linux via Wine.

There’s little doubt that a dedicated commercial team, properly motivated, can accomplish wonders. In this field (writing software), Scrivener is the outstanding example. But as I argued a year ago, I think Scrivener is the exception. Its developers seem to be at least as motivated by the desire to serve writers well as they are by the urge to make money. Quality is the preeminent focus, and it shows. iA Writer is another proprietary program that fits this model; unfortunately, they do not plan to release a Linux version, and the newish Windows version will not run under Wine.

However, commercial imperatives drive some decent software right off the rails. I’m still incensed by the decision Ulysses made to employ a subscription model—there is no justification for it, apart from a naked desire to maximize profits. And I note that sometime over the past year, the mystery-shrouded Write! application has made the same greedy decision. The latter case is especially telling in terms of the vulnerabilities you may encounter with commercial software. Write! has always been coy about who the developers are and where they are located (they are located in Kiev, the Ukraine), and the program requires you to log in in order to use it. You can save your work to their servers, which are also vaguely described. Write! is a potential privacy nightmare, and their decision to start charging a monthly fee after purchase only adds insult to injury.

OK, then. Rant over. Let’s take a look at what’s new with open source writing tools.

First off, there’s a new writing application to report, or rather the revival of a previously languishing application. It’s called UberWriter and it was directly inspired by iA Writer. Its young creator, Wolf Vollprecht, wrote the app for an Ubuntu App Showdown and it was named one of the Top 10 Ubuntu Apps of 2012. Vollprecht charged $5 for it at the time, but then the program was idled for several years (this happens in open source development, especially with young programmers). Now the software is being actively worked on again, with the addition of a second developer, Manuel Genovés, and it’s licensed under the GNU GPL v3.

UberWriter was inspired by iA Writer and has a similar look and feel.
UberWriter was inspired by iA Writer and has a similar look and feel.

UberWriter is written in Python and it’s quite nice—you can definitely see the iA Writer inspiration in its look and feel. Like iA Writer, it has an optional “focus” mode which greys out all but the sentence you’re actively working on. (I hope the developers will also try to implement something like iA Writer’s Syntax Control, where adjectives, nouns, adverbs, verbs, prepositions and/or conjunctions can be highlighted; this is extremely helpful for brief, concentrated writing like poetry.) UberWriter uses Markdown and it can export to .odt and .rtf, along with .pdf and .epub, among other formats. I’m glad the app is back. It seems very promising, and it’s already quite useful for shorter work. The chief downside: it’s only available for Linux.

Here’s what’s up with the other open source writing software reviewed last year. LibreOffice Writer remains a superb (and I believe superior) alternative to Microsoft Word. I’ve noticed that more literary publications are open to accepting .odt files these days, but even for those that continue to insist on .docx or .doc format, Writer’s compatibility with Word is such that this is a non-issue. Writer is very actively developed (as is the entire LibreOffice suite). The Organon plugin for novelists that I mentioned last year has seen no development since then, but it still works fine with the current version of Writer.

Writer is cross-platform (Linux, Mac, Windows), as are all the programs that follow below. I think it’s essential for any writer.

FocusWriter: an exemplary open source program.
FocusWriter: an exemplary open source program.

Graeme Gott’s outstanding FocusWriter is also actively developed, and I still intend to provide a full review of this wonderful application at some point. FocusWriter has multi-document support when you need it, though it’s not really intended for lengthy projects like novels (that’s what the next three programs do). It can be customized to look exactly as you want, and it really shines for short-form work of all types. I think FocusWriter is an exemplary open source program, and it’s well worth adding a tip for the developer when you download it. This “tip jar” approach is far more appropriate for open source projects that offering a handicapped free version and a full paid version, as some apps do.

Bibisco is one of those apps, and I tend to rule it out for its payment model alone. It hasn’t changed much over the past year—there is still no distraction-free mode, for example. And I actually find the program to be quite homely. In addition, I think its character-driven approach is overly rigid.

Plume Creator is still under development, but slowly. Its creator, Cyril Jacquet, states that an entirely new version is underway. The current version (0.67) is available to download from SourceForge for Linux, Mac and Windows. Since the interface hasn’t changed, I’ll refer you to last year’s review for an overview. Plume Creator is helpful and usable now and I look forward to an eventual new release.

Manuskript is probably the best Scrivener-inspired open source program.
Manuskript is probably the best Scrivener-inspired open source program.

Manuskript, my favorite Scrivener-inspired program from last year, has been updated: it’s now at version 0.90 (ever closer to that key 1.0 release). The look and feel of the program are much the same (again, see last year’s review for a more complete description) but the application’s exporting capability has been noticeably improved. It’s now possible to export directly to .docx with fairly decent results. You can also, as before, export to plain text, then use a program like LibreOffice Writer to export to the format of your choice.

Like Plume Creator, Manuskript is very usable now and it’s growing more so. Scrivener remains the preeminent tool for long-form writing, but it’s good to see these open source programs striving to provide some of the same functionality.

Before I sign off, here’s one more news item for your consideration. It involves the longtime Windows writers’ program WriteMonkey, which is not open source. However, there is now a new beta version of WriteMonkey 3 which is available for Linux and Mac, as well as Windows. I downloaded the Linux version and was very pleasantly surprised by how capable the program is. WriteMonkey 3 (WM3) is a complete rewrite of the original Windows program, which has been around since 2006. To quote the WM website description, the app is:

—simple yet poweful,
—plain text only,
—minimal interface,
—distraction-free,
—keyboard friendly (an understatement!) and
—markdown-enabled.

WriteMonkey—not open source, but recommended nonetheless.
WriteMonkey—not open source, but recommended nonetheless.

That list barely scratches the surface. Don’t be fooled by the text-only aspect; this is a very powerful program. It is largely keyboard driven, so there is something of a learning curve. And while it can handle files and directories, I wouldn’t classify WriteMonkey as Scrivener-inspired. Instead, as the Scrivener website itself says,

“WriteMonkey is a free app that presents a stripped down and isolated space for pure writing. Although plain text, it supports Markdown, making it easy to export formatted documents. Its focus is on writing rather than editing, based on the idea of reducing distractions to increase writing quality and speed.”

I would add “enormous flexibility” to that description.

"Monkey wisdom" on the splash screen. There are more than a thousand such quotes.
“Monkey wisdom” on the splash screen. There are more than a thousand such quotes.

Although WriteMonkey is not open source software, it is free. It follows a donation model, much like FocusWriter—the free version is in no way stripped down, as it is with Bibisco. And if you decide to donate you can unlock bonus functionality with various WriteMonkey plugins. This is a fair arrangement, in my estimation, particularly when you consider what the basic program can do.

Unlike the questionable Write! application, WriteMonkey doesn’t hide its source or location: it’s developed by Studio Pomarancha in Ljubljana, Slovenia. If you’re put off by the Balkans origin, you shouldn’t be—WriteMonkey has been around for well over a decade and I’m not aware of any sort of security or privacy issues that have arisen with it. It’s a very capable and polished free program that deserves to be used alongside the open source apps recommended above.