Indulging Once More in Digital Excess
An update on all I’ve been doing instead of what I actually intended to do.
There will always be plenth of things to compute in the detailed affairs of millions of people doing complicated things. – Vannevar Bush, “As We May Think“
Everything happens so much. – Horse_ebooks
You have a desire for indulgence in your home and family, Co-Star has just told me in my weekly, email newsletter-delivered horoscope. “Venus conjunct to natal Moon” indicates this part of yourself will transform into something else, and goes on to say something truly stirring: the way you relate to your past is changing. I continue to be amazed by how influential the potential of the computing hardware present in my life at any given time can be on my habits. In the two weeks I’ve had my first moderately powerful desktop computer in over ten years, I have found myself using new image & video editing software, installing local WordPress stacks, finally experimenting with Git, somehow generating 20 draft posts on a fresh experimental WordPress site, and putting my whole back into my new Notion account, including – among others – projects like my “Keyboard Shortcuts Wiki.” All the while, there has been a pull toward a more deliberate, focused sort of digital existence: reflection on Kevin McGillivray’s Word of The Year concept, digital gardening, and a few other like discoveries have culminated in a newfound, unironic use of the term “Creative Wellness” to describe a set of ideologies which I believe I should strive for in order to improve my intellectual wellbeing.
In tandem with the fact that I have gone back to school, this has all crucially resulted in very little actual writing, which may or may not be conclusive evidence toward the classical minimalist technology argument that less capability results in more focus. On that note, remember when the Game of Thrones author appeared on Conan’s show and mentioned that he still writes exclusively using WordStar 4.0? This happening has been vaguely in the back of my mind since I encountered it during the relatively brief, basement apartment-dwelling era in Oregon when I first discovered WinWorldPC and got into running a bunch of DOS VMs, trying out every download from that blessed site which sounded even remotely interesting. Before I go on, let me just include a transcript of the entire anecdote I’m referring to here, because it’s actually much shorter than one is led to believe:
Conan: These novels that that you write are can be over a thousand pages long. They're massive tomes and apparently you write them all on a computer, but unlike most authors, you're not worried about a computer virus. I mean an author who writes a thousand-page book their greatest fear is a virus invades and destroys a chunk of their book you don't worry about that. Why?
Martin: No I have a secret weapon – I actually have two computers: I have the computer that I browse the internet with and that I get my email on and I do my taxes on and that computer and then I have my writing computer which is a DOS machine not connected to the Internet.
Conan: A DOS machine. How old is this program?
Martin: A DOS machine. You remember DOS? I use WordStar 4.0 as my word processing system.
Conan: Did you make this computer out of wood? Did you carve it? I'm curious why you decided to stick with this old program.
Well I actually like it. I mean, it does everything I want a word processing program to do, and it doesn't do anything else. I don't want any help. I hate some of these modern systems where you type a lowercase letter and it becomes a capital. I don't want a capital – if I wanted a capital, I would've typed a capital. I know how to work the shift key. Stop fixing it!
Conan: You yell at computers a lot. What about spellcheck?
Martin: Oh, I hate spellcheck. Especially when you have the realm of [???], it's [???].
That’s it! A less than sixty second exchange. I did not remember just how much coverage it received on digital news sites. Embark on a Google search for “george rr martin wordstar,” and you’ll discover a ridiculously long list of brief stories including the YouTube embed. A book I’ve just recently discovered and begun – which I am extremely excited about – is Professor Matthew G. Kirschenbaum’s Track Changes: A Literary History of Word Processing, and its introduction begins by mentioning The George Thing, which surely indicates that it is the most significant mention of word processing software in popular culture for at least a decade:
The clip was posted to YouTube and from there embedded in innumerable tweets, Facebook feeds, and blogs. Some commenters immediately, if indulgently, branded Martin a Luddite, while others opined it was no wonder it was taking him so long to finish the whole story (or less charitably, no wonder that it all seemed so interminable). But what was it about these seemingly obscure details that people found so compelling? Part of it was no doubt the unexpected blend of novelty and nostalgia: Many fans would be old enough to remember WordStar for themselves, and the intricacy of its interface seems somehow in keeping with Martin’s quirky persona, part paternalistic grandfather and part Doctor Who character. WordStar thus becomes an accessory to his public image, like the black fisherman’s cap he is frequently photographed wearing. But it is also clearly much more than that. Martin’s passion for the program is unmistakable...
The book, itself, was also more widely reviewed than one would expect, where it was deemed genuinely unique. I related quite hard to the preface’s first few sentences:
Track Changes began, as many books do, with a question: What was the first novel written with a word processor? Being an English professor interested in the history of writing as well as computers, I thought it was the sort of thing I should know, but I didn’t.
Discovering the volume was a result of a personal determination in the last week to give in to my latent obsession with word processing/text editing software, which also led to my creating a Notion table of every word processor I’ve ever heard of. Thanks to my desktop PC acquisition, found myself virtual machining a bit again, though some of the programs I’m particularly interested in trying have inexplicitly disappeared from my personal library and been removed from WinWorldPC, probably due to (mostly absurd) copyright claims. Most versions of WordStar are still available, though, and I’ll confess I still have a desire to learn how to use its cult keyboard shortcuts, as evangelized by Robert J. Sawyer in an essay also discussed in Track Changes, which specifically shits on WordPerfect more explicitly than I remembered. I keep returning to the idea that I should try writing the stuff I normally work on – like this post, for instance – in these software, but file transfer is a bigger and bigger obstacle the older the OS you’re running: VirutalBox’s “Guest Additions” – which allow clipboard sharing/shared folders/other interoperative network functions – are not compatible with DOS or any Windows editions before 4.0. There are workarounds, but I haven’t found any reasonably within my current abilities.
Truthfully, though, emulating twenty-year-old software seems a bit unnecessary when contrasted with the fact that Markdown, Typora, and Writeas were supposed to be my saviors from distracted writing. A compulsion to comment on a recent note-taking app comparison published in The Information reminded me that I still haven’t written an in-depth review of Typora, which I plan to prioritize in the near future, especially since it may finally be officially releasing, according to recent activity on Twitter.
Another result of my reintroduction to academia is that I can now afford a subscription to Adobe Creative Cloud thanks to student discounts. This has been life-changing in a manner which I should probably be a bit ashamed of, but once the desire to make full use of my subscription (by trying every single program it licenses) subsides, I really do intend to become proficient with InDesign – a learning experience which I will surely at least attempt to thoroughly document, here.
I think it was Tom Critchlow’s Digital Gardening blogchain that first exposed me to the term and his static site-generated wiki project that introduced me to the concept of personal wikis, not so long ago, though the desire to organize and/or archive personally-relevant information through the format has actually been rattling around my head for the better part of a decade. When I discovered that one could install MediaWiki – the platform Wikipedia, itself is built on – I created the shortlived Drywall Wiki, once upon a time. Since I last wrote you, I also purchased the extratone.wiki domain and played around once again with the platform. Typora even offers exports in MediaWiki’s bizarre proprietary text format! For better or worse, though, I don’t see anything becoming of the project for the moment I suppose it feels like somewhat of a risk, investing a lot of time I probably shouldn’t have into documenting all of my Twitter jokes. For the moment, I think my Notion account will have to serve as my personal wiki.
The most inciteful argument I’ve read among the Digital Gardens discourse revolves around value as it is created within our personal online writing spaces. Two of the many infinitely-quotable essays within this space: Mike Caulfield’s “The Garden and the Stream: A Technopastoral” and “Stock and flow” from Snarkmarket. The former references Vannevar Bush’s infamous “As We May Think” essay (which I’ve finally gotten around to finishing and its description of a “memex,” which many cite as a disturbingly-apt prediction of the World Wide Web. Caulfield, however, disagrees:
So most people say this is the original vision of the web. And certainly it was the inspiration of those pioneers of hypertext. But in reality it doesn’t predict the web at all . Not at all. The web works very little like this. It’s weird, because in our minds the web still works like this, but it’s a fiction.
Reading back from a lens including this commentary, I immediately understood. The memex concept is far more intimate than the web has become (or perhaps ever was – I wouldn’t know.) “Stock and flow” defines creative value in two disparate types of media:
Flow is the feed. It’s the posts and the tweets. It’s the stream of daily and sub-daily updates that reminds people you exist.
Stock is the durable stuff. It’s the content you produce that’s as interesting in two months (or two years) as it is today. It’s what people discover via search. It’s what spreads slowly but surely, building fans over time.
To be honest, I personally cannot imagine undertaking the task of explaining this differentiation to anyone in my own life, but if the reactionary movement within The Web back to a focus on valuable content is, indeed, underway, perhaps such conversations are bound to shortly become more and more natural. For my part, I have attempted setting up an experimental site on Github Pages using Jekyll in the past few days with partial success: as soon as I tried to specify a custom theme, I apparently broke it, at which point I realized that I had homework to do. As much as I hate to admit it, Kev Quirk’s posts regarding WordPress’ practical simplicity over SSGs earlier this monthrings somewhat true. As things currently stand, WordPress’ permeability throughout The Web is an advantage for those who just want to publish something as simply as possible. My counterargument to both Kev and myself: Writeas is a wonderful compromise in terms of substance and image among one’s super e-enabled, Mullenweg-disgusted peers. It’s very much pure Markdown, but it’s far more accessible, cross-platform, than SSGs due to its shear simplicity.
One component which Digital Gardening would seem to offer others that I have never particularly struggled with is the freedom to write whatever I feel like writing. If anything, I have struggled in the opposite sense, existing in a state completely unhindered by consideration of the value my work may or may not offer anyone else. Perhaps the most substantial addition I’m capable of making to the Digital Gardens conversation, then, is best quoted from the first chapter of the advice book I have finally begun writing for young men, For God’s Sake, Just Sit Down to Piss:
If there is one idea of mine you ever engage with – in this book or otherwise – it is best distilled in this single sentence: you do not *actually* want to attain a state of true apathy, trust me. It is extremely unhealthy, miserable, and alienating. I have existed for an excruciatingly long time trapped in a state of being truly unable to care about anything in the face of a great, varying effort to do so. It is very far from the immunity imbued in terms like carefree – in reality, it is manifested in extreme depression. It is less immunity than it is distance from an essential part of life.
In terms of one’s blogging, I am glad for those who will/have/are finding a new freedom of expression, but hold this as a serious caution regarding the other extreme. Should you ever approach it, remember that considering one’s audience – as academics love to prioritize – really is important, eventually.
At this point, I’ve used a channel in Extratone’s Discord as my ongoing reading list for several years essentially without change. Earlier this month, though, I discovered Raindrop – a bookmarking service with public collections that (so fars) feels much more aligned with my own needs than Pocket – and pretty much immediately signed up to begin paying for it and set up a bot to crosspost from my new Reading List collection, there to the same Discord channel via the collection’s RSS feed. Raindrop’s browser extension – along with Notion’s, come to mention it – is actually usable in day-to-day browsing. As much as I love Reading.am, the prospect of its longevity worries me considering the most recent post in its development blog dates to 2016. Writing a dedicated “Little Review” of Raindrop is on my (ever-lengthening) todo list, but at the moment, I would especially emphasize my Digital Magazine Collection, which is the result of thousands of hours of web exploration and genuinely worth significant value for most anyone, I think.
With the combination of my public Notion workspaces and public Raindrop collections, I hope to make my curatorial endeavors both more accessibly beautiful and more intimately available. In terms of a dedicated discussion of Notion’s interworkings and culture, I think I have quite a bit more exploring to experience before I’m sufficiently qualified, though my notes are already quite extensive (and publicly accessible, thanks to… Notion!) In general, I continue to be astounded by the amount of tools/services/applications I have not yet heard of, despite how long I have labored to become an authority on Writing Tools.
In my endeavor to more intentionally design my workspace – to actually dedicate a space for working, originally – I originally very much intended to set up dual displays for my desktop, but the desk I settled for (an old family piece from the early 1900s?) does not have enough surface area to position two displays, regardless of how thin they’ve become since I last had one. Combined with a limited budget and a concern that two displays might actually result in further distraction instead of less, I instead went for a single, 27” LED affair. I’ve also been making full use of Windows 10’s desktop switching feature and have found it surprisingly easy to make a habit, especially thanks to the Ctrl+Win+Lateral Arrow Keys keyboard shortcuts.
On the subject of keyboard shortcuts, I’ve by now worked out a personally-optimized remap (thanks to the keyboard manager tool included with PowerToys, about which I have far too much to say in some future post.) I had a conversation with a few Mastodon friends two weeks ago convincing me that my methodology of forcing myself to learn shortcuts by integrating a cheat sheet into my desktop backgrounds may actually be an original idea and useful to other users.
In terms of writing spaces, I have actually been composing the less serious stuff I’ve been writing within WordPress’ Gutenberg editor, which is not an admission I would’ve expected to be making, just a year ago. A dedicated post about this, too, is fucking coming, but suffice it to say that with a fairly-substantial PC and a better hosting provider (DreamHost over GoDaddy, in this case,) composition has become far far smoother – improving enough to make it a viable space within which to pound away original stuff for the first time. Writing essays for academia has encouraged my return to Microsoft Word, once again, on which I’ll blame the fact that I am currently composing this very bit in The Old Bitch. A desire to once again hack together a set of personalized Word templates has led to the birth of two such files which I am proud enough to share on my Notion drive. Eventually, I would also like to take the time to completely redesign the “Ribbon” in Word – something which I’ve literally never seen anyone else do. (I spent a substantial amount of time trying to find a library for MS Office customization files, to no avail, though you can find my own customization file as it stands on the same Notion page linked just now. Let me know if you’re able to successfully import it.)
A confession of vanity: I suspect the only reason I haven’t yet stopped composing within WordPress is that I figured out how to change the typeface to Adobe Caslon (across both the editor and the front-facing site, naturally,) thanks to my newfound access to Adobe Typekit. Yes, apparently I really am that shallow. For those Office 365 users among you, I highly suggest you look up how to enable the Classic Office sound theme. Unlike Make Use Of, I find them both adorable and genuinely useful as auditory feedback. You may also be interested in my discovery of some fairly-Woke additions to Word’s autocorrect options and the subsequent bitchy controversy their introduction spawned.
The Read-It Website
If you know me at all, the following admission probably seems unbelievable: I have been using Reddit. I created a new subreddit for Extratone – which I do not necessarily expect to be populated any time soon – and r/SoftwareHistory after discovering that it didn’t yet exist, which I definitely do not expect you to populate, but would be delighted if you did. As with seemingly everything else I’ve covered, I also intend to write about how Reddit’s recent feature additions and redesign may actually make it a redeemable space on The Web, which should prove interesting. Clearly, I have become more than willing to accept the moniker of Software Historian whenever/if ever my authority achieves the appropriate volume to deserve to be christened so.
Obviously, none of the developments I’ve shared in this post indicate any improvement in my productive output, but I hope to learn soon how to settle into a fairly-consistent (and hopefully much more original) writing process.