Ted Goranson - Personal Blog

The blog of Ted Goranson. This is both a personal blog and an ongoing update on his projects.

Tools

Published: 30 Aug 2011
Revised: 7 Oct 2013

Edited on 1 Oct 2013: to link to iOS tools.

Over on the Sirius-Beta site, before getting this blog up and running, I wrote a little piece on tools that I use. I'll copy it here and expand it over time.

The bottom line is:

  • BBEdit for most text editing/authoring.
  • Tinderbox for the heavy structuring and publishing to the web.
  • Mellel with Bookends for structured print documents.

A parallel note on iOS tools is here.

Tinderbox

A tool for notes, jazzed up.

Tinderbox is an anchor program for me.

The creator of Tinderbox describes it as a tool for notes and has written a book with a general philosophy of capturing and relating thoughts. The application is tailored for user-generated text, and is not great for images or snippet input. The general idea behind the ‘Tinderbox way‘ is that one should make a short note of anything, ideally in an initial context, before the insight is lost. Tinderbox’s power is in allowing you to make or discover emergent structure among those situated concepts. Described this way, the application is designed for precisely what outlining was originally conceived to support: working in the small and zooming out to the large to work with evolved structure.

In my case, I start with significant structure in mind. I do not have a junk drawer use case for the application and manage all that elsewhere.

Tinderbox’s architect, Mark Bernstein, also uses the term spatial hypertext, when describing its unique category. Hypertext in this context predates the web, where a web hyperlink is merely a ‘go to’ relation. Rich hypertext is a matter of working with concepts (in text) that are related by concepts (as links). Generally, the metalevel of the links is structured so a machine can assist with organization.

Tinderbox has superior support for this metalevel with the ‘spatial’ view being essentially a living research program in visually working with this structure. I find this aspect of Tinderbox experimental and thrilling, very much along the lines of an original user interface concept for the Mac where the position of multiple windows on a screen, and spatially arranged icons in a window carried meaning.

Mark brings a philosophy of Victorian Programming to his product, playing up the hand crafted qualities. To my mind, this includes an active involvement with the user and research communities and a personal quest to discover new ways of doing things elegantly. It is a sort of Ruskin-like approach to software.

I would define Tinderbox as four things.

  • it is an outliner in the ordinary sense with tree structure. It is a particularly rich outliner compared to others, with aliases and special tools. Each note is cleverly designed to have an open set of attributes and everything is an attribute: note location in the hierarchy, fonts, colors badges and so on. Most of these are changeable by the user or automated agents. Attributes provide a deep, consistent and easy way to work with outlines.
  • it is a typed link hypertext environment. You can make links, usually by simply dragging, among notes and text blocks. These links have a user-definable type system, which is about the closest you can get to a machine-understandable structure that reflects human cognitive constructs. This is the hyper-text or better, ‘meta-text’ system.
  • it is a programming environment where the programs understand attributes and links and can act on those, changing some. A built in ‘action code’ language, tailored for this is provided, and you can move to shell scripting for a greater capability if you wish. The native file format is XML, and you can manipulate that directly as well. Most attributes can be modified. This programming power extends to Tinderbox publishing and export, making it the most powerful XML document producer I know.
  • as mentioned, it is a graphical environment for spatially managing concepts and their relationships.

My external macros are managed in Keyboard Maestro and TextExpander.

BBedit

A premier code and text editor.

Edited on 1 Oct 2013: to remove many obsolete utilities. So very many it shocks me.

Much of my writing is in BBedit.

BBedit has grown to support more than one structured mode. I worked in their projects for some time as a way of organizing text files, but I’ve settled on EagleFiler for this.

BBedit is enhanced by Default Folder, Popchar, Moom, Keyboard Maestro and TextExpander.

The iPhone’s writing environments are described in another note.

Mellel

A ‘structured text‘ word processer.

For printed and PDF documents, I use Mellel. It has a number of features that help me manage a complex document that fit what I call the outliner paradigm while staying clean and useful. Additionally, it has its own text layout engine that does a superior job, and can handle OpenType fonts well. My text font is a slightly modified Emigre Vendetta with titles and captions in Bitstream Chianti. An OpenType font set with custom glyphs is being designed.

Crossreference and notes are handled in a way that is attractive to me. This is the most FrameMaker-like OS X environment I can find; I had to leave FrameMaker when it abandoned the Mac.

References are managed by Bookends and in the case of my books, fed by Delicious Library. Referenced texts are stored in EagleFiler, linked from Bookends and internally published. Equations are created in MathMagic, but I am not happy with that.

Graphics for these documents are created in OmniGraffle Pro with which I am happy.

In a section below, I re-examine my choice of Mellel based on the appearance of a new Nisuswriter. The main thing I am unhappy about with Mellel is the poor handling of image frames.

Images for this Site

Am experimenting with a few applications.

This note is written before the image infrastructure and workflow is mature.

Charts are created in OmniGraffle Pro, a superb tool.

The workflow is managed by GraphicConverter and AppleScript but this has not yet matured. Component applications are planned to be Pixelmator, Blender and an unselected animation application. Possibly Sketch will play a role.

I’ll be working on a set of graphical workflows that I expect will be far more complex than needed for illustrating blog posts. This will be because of the requirements to sweep all of the essay areas into graphically navigable models.

Utilities

Additional utilities.

Edited on 21 Mar 2012: Removed applications abandoned in the switch to Lion.

Edited on 1 Oct 2013: removed even more.

Reference information of all kinds is stored by OmniOutliner Pro in a DropDMG encrypted image.

We abandoned Bento before it was shut down and now we just use the OSX Contact app.

My to do lists were in TaskPaper, imaged to the iPhone, but the developer is focused on other things and it stopped working. So we now have a hodgepodge for this. I am not happy with any of them and am still looking for a reasonable list manager. If we can get OmniOutliner to sync, that will my near term target.

All of this makes me unhappy.

Legacy Applications

A few old favourites, now abandoned.

Edited on 20 Oct 2014: to mention SpellCatcher.

Palimpsest (by Western Civilization) was a very capable typed-link outliner that I used extensively. It was ‘hardabandoned.’ I was also an extensive user of Frontier, both for scripting and content creation. It was abandoned as well, leaving a badtaste. I now use Tinderbox for this and am very happy.

I used Nisus Writer (now called Nisus Writer Classic) and wrote a very elaborate built in outliner for it. Those products were bound to the old operating system and so had to be abandoned. They fed FrameMaker, using my own SGML structure. Web export was via WebWorks Publisher. This was an extremely powerful publishing combination. Adobe abandoned the Mac platform with FrameMaker. I now use Mellel for this and it does the job.

Mailsmith was my mail client. It used much of the BBedit text editor, and was extremely AppleScriptable. So I made a homemade outliner to my specifications with communication capabilities. It had to be abandoned when it ceased to be an active product. Before that I used Gnus. I have no good substitute for these.

I used SpellCatcher from when it first appeared, allowing it to interrupt me. You get used to things and when the developer died, it took me some time to adapt.

There are many other fine applications, especially those that touch outlining. The selection I use should not be taken as any absolute ranking. These just fit my workflow and ideal environment.

I use the term to denote that the company continued but it simply stopped answering any emails on Palimpsest, and acts as if the application never existed.

I was not alone in this. The product was originally targeted at scripters and was brilliantly designed. It was announced before the much clunkier AppleScript, and the man-in-charge actively promoted its use by a community of the best hackers of the era. The business model was clear: the community would build most of the functionality for free — well before the open source phenomenon took off. I was a minor part of that group, originating on a Compuserve board. Everyone benefitted. Then the man-in-charge stopped having fun.

Though I was not alone, I was particularly hard hit by this, having built Frontier into an ARPA project as a mission-critical component. The project collapsed, costing the nation (and me) plenty in opportunity cost.

Small Developers

Small can be good; thanks to developers.

Edited on 21 Mar 2012: Removed about 8 items abandoned in the shift to Lion.

Edited on 20 Oct 2014: Removed some more, about 10. I have not added the new ones.

This list reminds me of one of the strengths of the Mac: small developers. All of my key apps are from small shops. I suppose the Omni Group is the largest. I think most of my key applications come from a single programmer each. I would like to take a moment to thank them. My imagination works in worlds they accommodate:

And the small, quality shops: Bare Bones, Black Pixel, Delicious Monster, Flying Meat, Omni Group, Panic, Pixelmator, Redlers, SmileOnMyMac and SoftPress.

Thank you all.

(I buy from Small Dog and Other World when I can.)

Pismo and iPad

I embrace constraint by choosing a Pismo.

Edited on 2 Oct 2013: to note that I got an iPad 4.

I got an iPhone the first moment I could. It was a wise choice, and I expect to stick with it for years. I use it primarily for email, but for me the killer application category is note taking. I know that no matter where I am, I can capture a thought and have it available on my big machine. Dropbox and SimpleNote have changed my life. All else is extra.

So what about the iPad? It sure is sexy, and likely the future of consumer electronics. I have not bought one, nor do I expect to. I have a top of the line MacBook Pro that is my primary machine and that I do not hesitate to carry around. Except for my movie habit, I am not a media consumer in the sense that Apple is targeting. Being confronted with my periodic re-evaluation of tools by the appearance of the iPad, I settled on a machine that I now use in place of the iPad I would have bought.

The solution is the Pismo (aka PowerBook 2000, Bronze Keyboard & FireWire). Yes, it is a thirteen year old machine, which makes it a bona fide antique. And yes, I have put nearly as much money into restoring and accommodating the machine as I would have with purchasing the iPad.

Photo of a Pismo

(Image) A stock photo of the PowerBook.

Pismo
Click image above to enlarge
Even today, the machine looks stylish.

The downsides of the Pismo: it is heavy, it does not run most of the software I use on my big machine and there is a problem with WPA Wi-Fi passwords (that I fix with a PC card). The trackpad does not support multi-touch gestures and that is awkward.

But the upsides are significant. It can handle two 84 watt-hour batteries and hotswap with the six extras I have. (Years ago with less powerful batteries, I squeezed 20 hours of continuous use out of a Pismo on a long trip.) By comparison, my 17" MacBook Pro has a 105 watt-hour battery and burns at more than three times the rate.

I toss the Pismo in the car and recharge from my cigarette lighter. It has what I think is the best keyboard I have ever encountered, on any Apple product, indeed or any other computer. It is rugged as heck and possibly has already averted a disaster on my big machine, which by the way is just as heavy.

No one is going to steal it and if they did, there are some spooky security mods I made (that later versions of OS X would not allow).

I can run Classic (OS 9.2.2) when I want to, and believe it or not I still have important documents in FrameMaker.

It is the ‘64 Mustang, the slant six of computers. I love the way it looks and feels. It is as responsive as my MacBook Pro for most things that matter.

The Pismo has a Fast Mac 550mhz G4 upgrade, the 1G max RAM, a newly replaced screen backlight, a speedy new SSD, new batteries (including the PRAM battery), a replacement superdrive and new fan. I’ve placed Grip-it-strips on it to enhance its portability. It plugs into a Bookendz at home.

What a Bookendz looks like

(Image) A stock photo of the dock.

A Pismo Bookendz
Click image above to enlarge
This is actually overkill for the way I use the machine. Mostly, all I need to do is charge it.

It runs OS X 10.4.11, which I have enhanced only a little: DoubleCommand, Dropbox and Spell Catcher. Onyx has tuned it a bit. The browser is TenFourFox, a version of FireFox tailored for Tiger and compiled for my particular processor. It seems to me as fast as Safari on Snow Leopard.

This machine is not used for general purpose work. It exists for writing, period. I have versions of all my text applications. Usually I have BBedit working on a file in Dropbox. I can send files by SimpleNote, email and FTP as well.

I like the Pismo so much I have a second one with Linux installed (MintPPC, which is a Debian variant) and Leo for my programming work. It has its own Bookendz.

What would make me buy an iPad? Magazines. I get a ton of these. If I could get them electronically, be well formatted and have an available archive, I’d switch immediately. These would have to be real magazines, not newspapers. But alas, this isn’t the case yet.

Edit: I have an iPad now. Full sized 4, large capacity. I am having trouble putting my periodicals on it. It should be simpler than this. Editing is currently with Editorial and the main use is FileMaker Go edits. More information is here.

About Nisuswriter Pro 2.0

It is not yet good enough.

As I write this, Nisus Writer Pro 2 has appeared, and it has been reviewed enthusiastically by Joe Kissell. I respect his opinion, on word processors at least.

This prompts me to once again re-evaluate this area of my tool strategy because I am obsessive about my tools and environments.

Some history: my career has involved a lot of writing, and much of that is long, complex technical work. Starting in the early nineties, I settled on an environment that I stuck with for a very long time, until I could not any more. That was the Macintosh with its original operating system, Nisus Writer as my authoring environment and FrameMaker with a variety of third party extensions as my publishing environment. All was tied together with the scripting environments Userland Frontier and WestCode OneClick.

I became an anchor member of these communities. Nisus Writer had a rather rich internal scripting language (actually three), and I was able to extensively script behavior so that the environment was uniquely mine. I wrote a rather elaborate outliner that had features still not available anywhere and integrated that in. The visual and behavioral appearance of MasOS was highly tailorable, so when it all added up, I had created an authoring and publishing environment that looked and behaved like none other, not really recognizable as a Mac. I even designed my own fonts, hinted to hack the anti-alias rendering and TrueType GX animation engines in such a way to exploit theories of perception we were just uncovering.

The resulting document structure was a precursor of the type that would become DocBook, but more sensitive to markup of narrative structure.

But FrameMaker Inc was bought by Adobe, and though the CEO promised to not abandon the Mac platform, Adobe did at the earliest opportunity. And then Apple shifted operating systems. Nisus, Frontier and Oneclick simply died as well, and I had to re-invent from scratch, causing non-trivial disruptions in my professional flow. Nisus, the company, survived and re-entered the word processing market by buying an existing OS X product and renaming it. It was a weak product, not worthy of my attention.

Now, Nisus Re-emerges

Now, finally at least according to Kissell, the reborn Nisus Writer Pro is worth consideration. And Joe should know because he was the product manager of Nisus Writer when it was best in class. He is they guy who pushed to have Nisus be the first serious adopter of Apple’s OpenDoc, which was a revolutionary idea then and even now. I liked OpenDoc, and followed it as it and I became involved in Taligent. OpenDoc lives on in a simple way in LinkBack.

My workflow these days does not start in a word processing environment, but in BBedit, or an iPhone editor. There it flows either to Tinderbox where I am providing for rich structure (beyond what can be done by tags) and visual browsing... or to Mellel, the latter for documents that will be distributed in print or virtual print. I describe this setup elsewhere.

So the only question before me now is to re-evaluate whether to swap out Mellel for Nisus Writer. Like any program in a mature market, Mellel has a large number of features, some of which I never use and others which I consider universally available. Those I will never use include tables and drawing.

A colleague works in Word exclusively, in particular editing my documents using ‘track changes.’ Round-tripping has previously been unsupportable with any application other than Word itself. This is a huge nuisance. Nisus, Mellel and Pages all provide some exchange with Word, mostly through RTF. Mellel does not transfer Word comments and ‘track changes’ transfers poorly. But I never try this anyway because I deeply care about the structure of the document and when we convert between any two word processors, the structured style information is lost. The structure within Mellel is a particularly appealing feature. It is nowhere near as structured as Framemaker’s but it gets closer than the others.

What I like about the new Nisus Writer: it has an automatic index builder. In theory, you can script it using Perl, but this is reportedly obtuse. Search is superior to the other word processors, but pales in comparison to that of BBedit where I do the initial work (and where search matters more). It exports PDFs with linked index. In my simple tests, the style names and track changes conveyed back and forth to Word.

Mellel

Mellel has its own text layout engine, created to support right to left Hebrew and Arabic scripts when OS X could not. Today, it still has much better support for OpenType and Unicode than the others and has a superior page layout engine, the algorithms that decide where spaces are distributed. It is not as good as that in LaTeX, but it and the proprietary hyphenation engine are superior to the others. The OpenType support matters because I will be creating some custom glyphs. The integration with Bookends is superior, and the page view tools are better to my taste, which prefers a minimal UI. The styles dialogs are complex because they support multiple text flows and footnote streams, but are not frustratingly stupid like Word’s. In any case, you set up the structure once. Mellel does cross-references, footnotes and endnotes extremely well, and it is famous for long document abilities.

The one frustration I have with Mellel is that it cannot anchor images to a page. None of these word processors supports Spellcatcher’s Directconnect technology the elegant way that BBedit does (via the Frontier-derived ODB Editor Suite). And none of them exports useful XML, the way I am used to with Framemaker and now Tinderbox. An index builder would be nice.

The reason I do not use Word is the offensive intrusiveness it inserts into my process in so many little ways. Its layout engine is repulsive. And I was way too close to Microsoft when they had the power to be truly evil and were in an unconstrained way. So there is a memory there.

At this point, my choices for a word processer boil down to:

  • Stick with Mellel and cope with the Word disconnects and image placement problems.
  • Switch to Pages and get the benefits of the Apple ecosystem, and assume that Word roundtripping will get tolerable. (This is likely for small documents like conference papers.)
  • Switch to Word. Every document I write for print publication is a collaborative one, and is often required in this format anyway. I’d just live with the intrusiveness, ugliness and painful memories.
  • Use inDesign, which I am told is getting better. Though I would never use Flash, I may have to go to Illustrator for a companion process (to writing) and the integration may matter. It is hard to trust Adobe though, very hard.
  • Run FrameMaker in Windows on Parallels. This would cost about 1400 dollars, give me robust structure and SGML/XML export, but less in both cases than I now get with Tinderbox. There would be no collaborative sharing with my current peers. And again, there's the history of disappointment with Adobe.
  • Switch to Nisus Writer and start to invest in Perl scripts.

Nisus Writer is still at the bottom of the list. They are catching up to where they were 15 years ago, but that is not enough for me. What would it take? The answer is more or less the same that I would have for my desired future mail, RSS reader and web browser: I’ll need something radical and visual, and of these three, the actual need for a word processer will diminish as my email and saved document corpus grows more important.

© copyright Ted Goranson, 2011