In absolute terms, humanity hasn’t been around very long at all. From our own perspective, though, evolution seems to be taking an eternity. As a species, we remain profoundly stupid.
We haven’t learned to share, or to work toward our common interests. We befoul our own nest. We continue to develop weapons which threaten annihilation. With every small step forward made by an Einstein, a Beethoven, a Tolstoy, the species as a whole has trouble following. We lurch toward progress, then rapidly retreat again—witness the 2016 U. S. election.
Do we need somebody—or something—smarter to step in and take charge? AI may fit the bill, especially artificial intelligence of the “superintelligence” variety discussed in Oxford philosopher Nick Bostrom’s thought-provoking book of the same name.
But of course, as with all things human, the answer is not so straightforward. You may have read that scientific and tech luminaries such as Stephen Hawking and Elon Musk have sounded warnings about the potential dangers of artificial intelligence technology. Indeed, Musk calls AI an “existential threat” to human civilization and has co-founded OpenAI, a non-profit, open-source AI research company, to try to foster collaboration in developing “friendly AI” as a result.
Bostrom sounds an alarm in Superintelligence, as well. The concern is that research into and continued development of AI might lead to an “intelligence explosion” that would create an entity or entities so much smarter than us that we would become redundant and dispensable. Bostrom has coined the term “Singleton” to designate such an all-controlling superintelligence. A “bad” Singleton would be the end of us.
However, a vein of optimism runs through Superintelligence, too. Bostrom believes, or would like to believe, that humanity has a potential “cosmic endowment” which could be realized through a benign superintelligence. He acknowledges that the odds would seem to be against this, and likens humanity and superintelligence to a child with an undetonated bomb in its hands. The core problem is one of control: how do we create a superintelligence that will not jettison humanity but rather work to enhance it?
We must, Bostrom says, “hold on to our humanity … maintain our groundedness, common sense, and good-humored decency even in the teeth of this most unnatural and inhuman problem. We need to bring all our human resourcefulness to bear on its solution.” This is, Bostrom maintains, “the essential task of our age.”
At a moment in history when bellicosity and benightedness are ascendant, this is a very tall order indeed. Yet contemplating Bostrom’s suggested cosmic endowment is a worthwhile exercise in staving off despair. One must hope there remain enough intelligent and altruistic people at work in the field of AI (and in every other important field) to make envisioning a better future viable.
One of my first posts on this site was in praise of Ulysses, the very stylish and capable writers’ text editor I used to write my 50,000-word novella during last fall’s NaNoWriMo. I continue to admire and enjoy this software but I’m about to stop using it. The reason? Ulysses is switching to a subscription-only model.
I oppose such a model on philosophical grounds, which I’ll try to outline below. I also think this switch will prove to be a failing business model for Ulysses, unless there are more dilettante/hobbyist writers out there than anyone previously realized. In fact I hope this model does fail, and Ulysses returns to the standard software practice of buy once, then pay for occasional significant updates.
Adobe was the conspicuous pioneer in subscription software and the model has apparently worked for them. The big difference here, though, is that Adobe is the industry standard for designers everywhere. (Since I’m not a designer, I promptly stopped using Photoshop and other Adobe products and was able to replace the functionality I needed with no difficulty.) The equivalent standard for writers, at least where submission for publication is concerned, is Microsoft Word. And Word still offers the ability to purchase the software, instead of subscribing to it. There is no standard software for the process of writing. If there were to be such software, Scrivener would probably be the most likely candidate.
Ulysses actually suits the way I write better than Scrivener does, but so do many of its rivals, some of which also offer cross-platform capability (Ulysses is Apple only). And Scrivener itself can be a marvelous writing tool when pared down to its composition mode. The program is not as “pretty” as Ulysses but it does far more. Scrivener is essential for its excellent templates and for its comprehensive export capabilities. You can use it to write fluidly, reorganize and revise in fine detail, and then prepare a flawless manuscript for submission. No other software, including Ulysses, can do all of that nearly so well.
iA Writer, Sublime Text (properly configured) and the up-and-coming Write! all provide attractive, customizable writing environments with a left-hand sidebar for project navigation and organization (Write! just recently introduced a local sidebar and is already working to improve it). Update, 4/9/18: I no longer use Write! software and can’t recommend it. See this article for more information. Any of these programs can substitute for Ulysses during the first draft process, with Scrivener coming into play after the first draft is complete. (The software I’m using to write this post, Byword, would also qualify if it would just add a navigational sidebar.) What’s more, all of these programs employ traditional files and folders to organize your work. Ulysses, in contrast, hides your work deep in a largely inaccessible database, though you can deliberately create external files and folders if you wish. Some people think this system provides advantages; I don’t.
Here are a few reasons why a I think a subscription model for Ulysses is a really bad idea:
The cost for the end user becomes disproportionate. Let’s say you paid $45 to purchase Ulysses. Suddenly, you’re asked to pay $40 per year to continue using it. (Granted, existing users pay “only” $30 per year.) Now, this isn’t cost-prohibitive per se. Ulysses is excellent software and many people would argue it’s worth the added cost. But suppose you also buy Scrivener for $45 and then pay for two upgrades at $30 each over a 10-year period. That’s $105 over 10 years for what is arguably the one truly indispensable writers’ program, vs $300-$400 for Ulysses. Ulysses is not worth that cost differential; I think its developers are being a bit greedy here.
Suppose every bit of software you use regularly suddenly demanded that you subscribe in order to continue using it. Apart from the significant added cost, it would drive you crazy to keep track of all the required payments. The historical purchase-once, pay-to-upgrade model for software makes far more sense.
Ulysses is writing software. Its developers argue they need the extra subscription money in order to deliver “continuous improvements”. Writing software does not need continuous improvements—indeed, constant change for the sake of some supposed “improvement” would actually be detrimental. Once a writing program offers a flexible and pleasing interface, basic editing features and word count and the ability to navigate and modify project file structures, anything beyond is extraneous at best. I don’t use many of the extra features Ulysses already offers.
So, unless or until Ulysses comes to its senses, I’ll be using iA Writer and Sublime Text, among other programs, for short fiction and poetry and Scrivener for long-form work and revisions.
When I worked as a web developer, Sublime Text came out of nowhere (Australia, actually) to become enormously popular. I understand it remains popular still, though I believe the newer program Atom has also gained a lot of adherents. One of the best things about Sublime Text, though, in addition to its name, is its flexibility—flexibility that extends to making the program a suitable environment for writers.
For years, I’ve heard stories about writers adopting Sublime Text in place of some other software. Indeed, the Sublime Text site now bills the program as “a sophisticated text editor for code, markup and prose.” Having used Sublime Text as a developer, I decided to give it a go as a writer. It works remarkably well. For shorter forms of writing, especially poetry, it is superb.
The “minimap” feature (which the recently reviewed Write! app also uses) is very helpful in longer narratives, as it lets you visualize where a current line fits into the larger story. Update, 4/9/18: I no longer use Write! software and can’t recommend it. See this article for more information. For my money, though (speaking of which, Sublime Text retails for $70—this gives you a license to use the software on all your computers, regardless of whether they’re running Windows, macOS or Linux), the program’s real killer feature is its exceptionally configurable layout.
I like to compare multiple versions of my work as I move toward a final draft, and Sublime Text’s vertical columns feature (you can have as many as four columns) lets me view multiple versions side-by-side. This is especially useful for poetry, since it provides a direct line-by-line comparison.
Sublime Text’s programming heritage remains evident in some ways, but writers should not feel unduly intimidated by this. For example, you need to configure preferences via individual files, and you also need to add a few plugins to make Sublime Text a solid environment for writing.
You can install the necessary plugins via the program’s Package Control feature. Only four are really needed: Markdown Editing, Pandoc (which lets you export your Sublime Text work to Microsoft Word), Side Bar (a better replacement for the default sidebar) and Word Count.
If setting up Sublime Text seems a bit too hands-on, then there are plenty of other solid writing apps out there, including the aforementioned Write! But if you like the idea of customizing your writing environment, and the capability of directly comparing multiple versions of your work appeals to you, you’ll find Sublime Text very satisfying. You may even find it sublime.
Update, 4/9/18: I no longer use Write! software and can’t recommend it. See this article for more information.
Update, 8/17/17: Write! has now added a local navigation panel and is actively working on expanding its functionality. This is a big step forward for the program’s productivity.
Sometimes I wonder which category has grown fastest: the number of people aspiring to write in one form or another, the number of MFA or independent writing programs designed to serve them, or the number of writing applications created to address their every need—particularly their need to focus.
Ever since WriteRoom began the focused writing craze many years ago, its imitators and progeny have expanded exponentially. From direct copies like JDarkRoom and PyRoom to Markdown-enabled programs like Byword and iA Writer to full-scale writing environments such as Scrivener (and even Microsoft Word), virtually every writing software program available today offers a full-screen, “distraction-free” mode to aid writers’ ability to concentrate. Many take this a step further by enabling one to focus on individual paragraphs or sentences.
However, just as with MFA programs (and writers themselves), these programs diverge significantly in their overall capabilities. Some (Scrivener, Storyist, Ulysses) aim to fill the many diverse roles involved in creating longer works, including research, note-taking, formating and so on. Others seem intent on streamlining and doing one or two things well, and these latter programs tend to specialize in creating an aesthetically pleasing environment in which one can concentrate and be productive.
Write!, a program I had been aware of but not yet tried, is in this mode, but with some distinctive new twists of its own. Last week, a member of its marketing team reached out to inquire whether I’d consider doing a review. Intrigued, I decided to investigate further. I saw enough promise in the program to purchase a license and give it a test drive. A quick overview follows below.
Let’s start with what is immediately obvious: Write! is a beautifully designed piece of software. On purely aesthetic grounds, it rivals anything else in its field and surpasses most of its competitors. If you’re looking for a program that will get out of your way and let you focus on drafting your story, this is as good as anything out there. It’s also much more capable than the WriteRoom-style editors.
Write! began life as a Windows program; subsequent versions were quickly released for macOS and Linux. Since I write on Mac and Linux, this cross-platform compatibility is a big plus. The program looks and behaves the same on both platforms, as it should. (And it’s easily the best-looking writing program on Linux.) It also syncs your work seamlessly between platforms, thanks to its own, built-in cloud integration (which costs $4.95 per year, starting one year after the purchase date). The program itself costs $14.95. Rather than a traditional license, Write! sets up an account for you—you need to set up this account before you can download the software. There is no trial version, but you can cancel your account and get a refund within the first seven days, should you so choose.
The program is under very rapid development and the developers are quite responsive to users’ suggestions. For example, the program originally defaulted to saving documents in the cloud; there is now an option to save locally. I’m told that, very soon, there will be a localized version of the Cloud panel, which will make the program much more flexible in terms of organizing your work.
Write! is a text editor that supports Markdown, Wiki and Textile syntax. It can export to any of those formats, as well as to .docx, .odt, plain text (.txt), PDF or HTML. A unique feature of the software, visible in both of the above screenshots, is a pure prose take on the Sublime Text coding editor’s “Minimap,” running down from the upper right corner. This bird’s-eye view of your text shows you where you are in your document and you can use the map to navigate up and down.
Here’s a quick rundown of the program’s other features:
Tabs and writing sessions—you can save groups of tabs as a session and return to it later.
Thanks to Write’s built-in cloud storage, you can create links to your documents for sharing with others (NB: Write! uses AWS and 256-bit encryption for cloud storage).
Again thanks to cloud storage, there is an unlimited undo feature. Not that most of us would need that (I hope), but it is a unique feature nonetheless!
Productivity counters, which you can tweak.
Native spell-checking (in multiple languages!), plus online access (via links to your browser) to a thesaurus, Google lookups, translations and Wikipedia.
And here are the quirks and drawbacks, some of which the developers are already working on:
Proprietary cloud storage, as opposed to Dropbox or Google Drive. There are advantages to this, as noted, but you’ll need to determine whether it works for you.
Limited functionality with local files (this will soon be remedied, according to the developers).
Limited import capabilities (though export capabilities are quite strong).
Limited functionality for longer works. Documents can only be combined manually, which would make for extra work in something as long as a novel.
Style restrictions. The built-in styles are gorgeous, but you’ll need to export your work and reformat it to industry standards before submitting.
To summarize: Write! is a relatively new entrant in the highly competitive field of distraction-free text editors and it is already quite strong. The program has a great look and feel, and new features and functionality are being added regularly. If you’re okay with the caveats cited above (some of which are already being addressed) then you’ll find this program provides a satisfying and productive writing environment.
Mathew Kirschenbaum’s Track Changes: A Literary History of Word Processing (Belknap/Harvard University Press, 2016) will delight a certain kind of readership: those who, like myself, are interested not only in what a writer has to say but in the tools the writer employs to say it. Readers who are keenly interested in both literature and technology are undoubtedly a minority but I’d wager there are more of us around than you might think. Certainly word processing itself has been around long enough, and become mainstream enough, to warrant a history of its development.
Kirschenbaum, an English professor at the University of Maryland, does a fine job of describing how writers came to terms with (or chose not to come to terms with) word processing technology. In fact, as the author points out, word processing is just another point on the spectrum of writers’ methodologies. It did not replace longhand, nor did it completely replace the typewriter. Writers are a versatile lot.
Here are a few examples: George R. R. Martin, whose series Song of Ice and Fire became HBO’s “Game of Thrones,” writes with an antique word processing program called WordStar, using a DOS-era computer which is not connected to the Internet. (Philip Roth also used a DOS machine, in his case with WordPerfect.) Joyce Carol Oates, an incredibly prolific writer, sticks to longhand (and a typewriter).
At first, the ease and fluidity promised by word processing (for those writers who chose to embrace it) were thought to threaten literary quality. It was felt the machine and its software would wind up doing too much of the writer’s work. Some early adopters even tried to conceal their use of word processing because of the perceived stigma. The writer Gish Jen describes fellow students at the Iowa Writer’s Workshop working at mainframe terminals and then deliberately “doctoring” their printouts—adding annotations by hand, rumpling the corners—before sending their work out for consideration. “Real writers,” their instructors said, used pencils or typewriters. Yet for Jen the personal computer (in her case an early Apple) overcame such prejudices. “Computers coaxed out of me an expansiveness the typewriter never did,” she said. “What came out … was not further from the human heart; it was closer. It was looser, freer, more spontaneous—more democratic, too.”
Kirschenbaum’s history runs the gamut from do-it-yourself personal computer kits to early Kaypros and Osbornes to the latest “artisanal” software tools like Scrivener. He nominates Len Deighton‘s Bomber as the first published (in 1970) novel written with a word processor, the IBM MT/ST. The book is nicely written, with an appealing tongue-in-cheek humor. If you’re at all interested in how writing gets put together, this is highly recommended.
I won’t try to cover the absurd press conference conducted by our so-called President yesterday, as it’s already been done quite effectively (Steven Colbert stands out here). Laughter is a natural response, and many progressives take heart from the fact that every such fiasco undermines Trump further.
But I don’t share this optimism. Even if Trump fails to last a full term, as many pundits are predicting, we’re still left with Pence and an amoral Republican Congress intent on undermining every bit of social progress the country has made in decades.
Well, the pendulum will swing back, others say. And to that I respond, so what? Let’s say we manage to elect a Democratic President and control the Senate again in 2020. We will still be left with the ignorant, misguided and/or malevolent citizens who voted Trump into office last year. So how much lasting progress can really be made? The pendulum is swinging more slowly now, and the clock is winding down.
The country’s two-party system, with its electoral college and other quaint artifacts, is broken beyond repair. Universal suffrage is no cure when half the electorate is uninformed and unqualified by temperament, education and upbringing to make rational decisions. (The Republicans have done their best to increase this pool of unqualified voters through effective gerrymandering.)
All of which brings me to a surprising statement made by Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s CEO, yesterday: “progress now requires humanity coming together not just as cities or nations, but also as a global community.”
This is absolutely true. Both climate change and nuclear weapons, to cite just two examples, are terrifying threats that only a global response can meet effectively. But how do we get there? Somehow I think Facebook alone is not the answer. But maybe it can help, if it does more to curtail the ignorance promulgated on its network and more to help people break out of their tight little groups and constant posting as an end in itself to take part in organizing change in the real world.
Zuckerberg has raised a very important issue and I admire him for speaking out in today’s nationalistic, close-minded environment. How do people of intelligence and good will come together to make genuine progress? That is the question more of us need to address today, regardless of national boundaries or Trump’s latest tweet.
I voiced concern, in a recent post, that progressive Americans were exhibiting a strange passivity as the inauguration of Donald J. Trump approaches. This reluctance to engage with the profound transformation confronting the nation is understandable on one level—it’s painful. Yet resistance across a broad spectrum of American life is essential if the very worst is to be avoided. Mass surveillance is one of these areas. You can take a stand and help reduce its impact.
The NSA and other agencies have amassed enormous power in recent years and that power is likely to be more aggressively displayed after January 20. Too many people have displayed a resigned helplessness in the face of this sinister development for too long. American citizens are entitled to lead private lives. Don’t think, “If I’ve done nothing wrong, I have nothing to worry about.” You have plenty to worry about—we all do.
If you’re on Facebook, that part of your life is an open book, obviously. (Corporate power is on the verge of expanding exponentially as well.) If you send and receive your email as plain text or HTML, you can assume every word of every message you’ve ever sent or received is available to government investigators, along with any photos or other attachments in your email. Unless you take basic precautions, every website you visit can be listed against your name, along with the location you viewed it from and the date and time of the viewing.
Do you want everything you do online filed away in a government database? No? Then start taking some basic steps to resist mass surveillance. Do it now, before Trump takes office.
Email: You can encrypt your present email account using OpenPGP but this takes a degree of technical know-how. It’s a very solid solution, though, and if you’re game to try this article does a fine job of guiding you through the process. I use Enigmail on Thunderbird myself, but you can select other options, as the article makes clear.
If you’d like to choose a simpler path then open a free email account with ProtonMail, based in Switzerland and encrypted by default. Use it to email your friends, even if they don’t have a ProtonMail account. You can give them a passphrase so they can receive your encrypted email anyway. ProtonMail is encrypted end-to-end and on the server. The system is designed so that ProtonMail itself has no access to your data, and thus cannot turn it over to third parties like the NSA (plus, Swiss laws on privacy are much, much tougher than they are here).
Update, 5/12/18: this article provides a fine general overview of how encryption works.
Browsing: If you must use a mainstream browser, use Firefox. It is open source and inherently more secure than the others. You can add to your security by using some key add-ons, such as uBlock Origin and Privacy Badger. If you want to be really secure, though, use Tor Browser.
Update, 3/5/18: If you decide to use Tor to explore the Dark Net, though—a completely different proposition from granting yourself some extra privacy on the web—you need to be careful, as this article makes clear.
These are the bare rudiments. If you care about keeping your life your own, do some research. The Surveillance Self-Defense project of the Electronic Frontier Foundation is a good place to start.
In order to resist the worst of what the Trump administration has in store, start by opting out of mass surveillance and encourage your friends to do the same. The more citizens who do this, the less likely we are to enter truly Orwellian territory under Trump.
Yesterday, the House Intelligence Committee produced a 33-page report claiming that Edward Snowden is in contact with Russian intelligence services. The report also claimed that Snowden was a chronically disgruntled employee who acted out of personal pique.
The committee had released a three-page summary of its report in September to counter the premiere of Snowden, a movie by the director Oliver Stone that portrayed him as a heroic whistle-blower.
According to the New York Times, the full report was “not the result of an independent intelligence investigation by the committee. Rather, it was a review of the N.S.A.’s response to Mr. Snowden’s leaks and of the findings from an executive branch investigation. The committee said it did not conduct witness interviews, to avoid jeopardizing any future trial of Mr. Snowden.”
What’s more, key sections of the report remain redacted, including claims about Snowden’s contacts with Russian intelligence. As a result, today’s Times story notes, “the redactions made it hard to judge whether the report’s conclusions were merely a reiteration of the intelligence community’s contempt for Mr. Snowden or were based on new evidence.”
Considering that we’re talking about the current, Republican-dominated U. S. House of Representatives, a do-nothing body with obstructionist policies which have contributed mightily to the dystopian political landscape in store for us next year, I think the motivation for the report is obvious. While the summary was released to counter any positive effect from the Oliver Stone film, the full report is intended to argue against any possible pardon by President Obama before he leaves office (something that seemed unlikely anyway).
The post-truth machine is operating at full force here.
As a writer with a technology background, I find apps designed for writing of more than ordinary interest. I’ve tried a huge number of them and have quite a few still installed. For the 2016 edition of NaNoWriMo, however, I basically chose one app and stuck with it most of the way through: Ulysses.
Most of my writing is done on a MacBook Pro, although I also use Linux from time to time (Ubuntu on a Dell XPS 13). The Mac has a huge number of writing apps available, more than any other platform. Scrivener and Ulysses are probably the best known and most widely used.
For NaNoWriMo, I found Ulysses to be virtually ideal. The chapter summaries (in the middle column) keep you oriented as you work through your plot development. Progress toward your daily word count is graphically shown in the upper right hand corner, which is quite motivating. The application is streamlined and powerful, but not overly complicated. It can be configured in any number of ways to suit your preferences (full-screen mode is especially nice).
Linux, unfortunately, lacks the Mac’s variety of writing programs. Still, there are options. For two or three days last November, I used FocusWriter, a nicely designed and versatile open source program available across platforms. It too offers a nice full-screen mode and a daily word count progress indicator, albeit text-based.
Ultimately, though, I felt most comfortable and productive during NaNoWriMo while using Ulysses.