I had the pleasure of being a guest on Emma Palova’s For the Love of Books, to discuss Shift Happens: Essays on Technology.
You can listen to it here:
I had the pleasure of being a guest on Emma Palova’s For the Love of Books, to discuss Shift Happens: Essays on Technology.
You can listen to it here:
Are you attracted to the Dark Side?
Recently many apps and desktop backgrounds have sprouted a “dark mode” option or theme, reducing the amount of white light that strikes your eyes. It’s a welcome option in Kindle Reader, Apple Books, and Overdrive Media, giving respite to tired eyes especially in the evening when the greatest eye fatigue sets in and the ambient light is more subdued.
Dark mode is now making its way into writing apps, such as my go-to editor, iA Writer, and I, for one, am delighted (pun intended). For long-haul ebook reading and for writing, I prefer dark mode, finding it causes me less eyestrain than light mode.
Dark mode isn’t something new, though. It was a previous age’s standard.
If your memory goes back to the 1980s or earlier, you may remember that computer monitors, and terminals before that, had a black background with white, green, or amber characters. This was in the age of command-line MS-DOS, CP/M, Commodore, TRS-80, and other PCs of the era. When colour computing became an option, screens were often dark blue, with white letters — classic WordPerfect colours. Dark mode has a long history.
Things changed abruptly, in 1984, the original Macintosh computer (and Unix workstations before the Mac was released), introduced a graphical, windowed environment. Soon Microsoft Windows followed, and the new white background with dark letters became de rigeur, proving ideal for desktop publishing and word processing.
We’re now used to seeing our work as a kind of virtual paper with black letters on a white background. This has been the standard for so long that the dark mode had largely been forgotten, other than for command-line users, many of whom adjust their terminal emulation colours to white on black.
Some changes are the result of fads and it’s become stylish suddenly to sport dark mode backgrounds. Apple has taken this a step further by introducing wallpapers that change mode from light to dark depending on the time of day. Whatever the reasons, dark mode has again become popular, especially among computer geeks.
Gizmo China ran a poll in 2020 asking which do you prefer: Light Mode or Dark Mode? Approximately 78% of the 562 participants preferred dark mode, 11% preferred light, and 11% preferred “scheduled mode” — light mode during the day and dark mode in the evening.
“Better” is a subjective term, of course, and for many of us “better” is simply what we’re used to. There have been some studies on this and the answer seems to be “it depends.” When ambient light is high, as it often is during the day in a well-lit room, light mode is easier on the eyes because the pupils are contracted and black on white is easier to see. In the evening, though, when the light begins to fade and the ambient light is less strong, our pupils dilate more and white on black is easier to read for many users. “Scheduled mode,” which you can set up in Apple’s Books app, for instance, is an ideal balance.
As far as I know, no one has done an informal study on whether dark mode conserves battery life on a laptop. It should, for the simple reason that black on the screen indicates LCD pixels that are switched off, and a lot of laptop battery power goes into powering the screen. In light mode, most of the pixels are drawing full power.
With these factors in mind, it might be worthwhile for you to “visit” the dark side to see if it works for you. The only right answer to the question of which is better is this: “Your eyes, your call.”
By Gene Wilburn
There are many tools that can be used to write a book and prepare it for self publication. Microsoft Word, of course, is commonly used for this purpose, and LibreOffice Writer, a free, open-source alternative to Word, is rock solid.
Word processors, however, are not true typesetting systems, though they do a decent job if “good enough” is your aim. If your aim is a little higher, you need to move up a level.
The next level up from word processors is the tier of publishing systems that do a more nuanced, attractive, and professional-looking job of kerning and leading, especially for print books and PDFs with fully justified lines. Adobe InDesign, Adobe Framemaker, QuarkXPress, and Affinity Publisher are commercial products that offer this kind of quality. The open source world offers Scribus, as well as traditional text-based typesetting systems such as troff and LaTeX, two systems frequently lauded for their ability to produce beautiful typesetting. It’s your choice which typesetting program or system to use, but they all have a non-trivial learning curve.
As a self-published independent author myself, as well as being a retiree on a tight budget for software, I’m going to outline a way to produce great looking books and ebooks using a combination of free tools that work in Windows, MacOS, or Linux. These products and systems are not as widely used as Microsoft Word, and they have a reputation for being “techie,” but I think they’re accessible to anyone who is willing to take on a modest amount of learning.
The tools covered in this article are:
These are the tools I used to produce Shift Happens: Essays on Technology, co-authored with my wife, Marion Turner Wilburn, in 2020, during the first wave of the Covid-19 pandemic. Shift Happens is an overview of many of the technologies of the past century that have shifted our lives, environment, and perceptions. We made it available in ebook, PDF, and printed book formats. Given the subject matter, we wanted to include a “Further Reading” bibliography. We wanted the references in the ebook format to provide hotlinks to the cited sources so that readers could simply tap or click on a link to jump to it. The tools we used made achieving this an easy task.
One input, multiple outputs
Markdown is an example of what are called text markup schemes — methods that allow you to add attributes and structure to plain text files, then run them through a document converter that translates the Markdown files into another format, such as HTML. The goal of Markdown is to create one set of master input files, such as chapters of your book, and from those create multiple outputs, whether ebooks, PDF documents, HTML pages, or printed books or reports.
Markdown is simple and easy to learn. For example, surrounding a word or phrase with asterisks, e.g., *italic* produces italic text. Double asterisks around **boldface** produce boldface. Other features follow similar patterns.
Furthermore, there are text editors that are designed specifically to help you with Markdown. Four of the best known are iA Writer, Byword, Ghostwriter, and Typora. They make italicizing a word or phrase as simple as pressing Ctrl-I, as in a word processor. All four have preview modes.
Although Markdown files are usually created in a text editor, you can use Markdown notation in a word processor such as Google Docs, then export your work as a plain-text Markdown file. We used Markdown this way when we wrote our book.
Work from anywhere
Google Docs is a brilliant collaboration tool. As we were writing the content of our book, we had many writing sessions where we both sat in the same room, each with a laptop on our laps, working back and forth through rough passages. We could see in real time the changes the other was making to the text and we would then decide whether to keep it or modify it further.
What made this possible is that Google Docs is a Cloud-based product that you can access from any browser or Google Docs app. The writing and editing of our book was done from a mix of Windows, Mac, Linux, Chromebook, and iPad computers. Having the content in the Cloud also protects it from computer hard disk failure or any other local calamity. There is comfort in knowing that content remains safe on the Web.
Another thing Google Docs is brilliant at is versioning, which it does automatically. We sometimes decided that we preferred an earlier version of what we had written, and we could go into a file’s document history and recover previous passages easily and painlessly.
We used Markdown inside Google Docs as our master documents for the project and any changes to our chapters were done there and nowhere else. Google Docs can export its files as plain text, and we exported them back as plain-text Markdown files once the chapters were finished.
From anywhere to anywhere
Pandoc is an open-source, command-line utility that is an impressive document converter — a Swiss-army knife that can convert a large number of document formats into other formats. We used it to convert plain-text Markdown files to LaTeX files and HTML files in preparation for final book production. It can even be used to convert Markdown files into other formats, such as Microsoft Word. Pandoc is available for Linux, MacOS, and Windows.
In use, Pandoc invoked from the command line, such as
$ pandoc -o chapter1.html chapter1.md
as an example of converting a Markdown file to an HTML file, or
$ pandoc -f markdown -t latex chapter1.md
to convert a Markdown file to a LaTeX file with the same base filename, e.g.
LaTeX (pronounced LAY-tek) is a rich typesetting system available for all major operating systems. There are distributions of LaTeX available for easy installation in Windows (MikTeX), MacOS (MacTeX), and Linux (TeX Live). Often used for formal academic books, reports, conference proceedings, and theses, it has hooks for creating footnotes, end notes, bibliographical entries, and mathematical equations. Its output is gorgeous.
To be honest, though, LaTeX can be bewildering to a newcomer, and for this reason I highly recommend using LyX, a front-end word-processing-like editor that uses LaTeX as the back end for final output. LyX is easier to use than straight LaTeX — if you can use Word, you can use LyX, which comes with excellent help file documents. LyX, too, is available for Windows, Mac, and Linux computers. LyX and LaTeX were used to typeset the PDF and on-demand print versions of Shift Happens, and using them proved no more difficult than using a graphical DTP package.
In practice I used Pandoc to convert our Markdown text files to plain .tex files, and imported those into LyX. From inside LyX I adjusted margins, spacing, justification, chapter and section numbering, page size, gutter margin, kerning level, bibliography, and table of contents to create a 6×9″ format trade book. I exported the result as a PDF file, ready to read, and also ready to upload to our on-demand book publisher Blurb. You may choose a different publisher such as Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP).
Getting it right
An Epub file can best be described as a zip file containing a miniature website. The contents of the zip container are HTML files, maybe some CSS files and some images in its /img directory, plus a manifest that lists all the files and graphics in the publication, as well as containing Epub metadata. If you want to create an Epub, or modify an existing one, you could scarcely do better than turn to Sigil, a terrific, free Epub editor.
One part of Sigil is an HTML editor displaying HTML code on the left, and live rendered output on the right, for comparison and direct editing. High-level menu options can be used to adjust heading levels, and attributes such as bold and italic. It is easy to create and test Internet links, and to include graphics. Sigil also makes it easy to split or combine chapters and sections. For Shift Happens we simply imported our individual chapter files in the HTML format created from our Markdown files by Pandoc, made a few adjustments where needed, and saved the results to Epub format. For the Amazon Kindle store, we used KDP to upload the finished Epub to convert to Amazon’s proprietary ebook format. The conversion was perfect.
By the way …
If you plan to publish a non-fiction book and intend to include a bibliography or “Further Reading” appendix, it’s useful to use some kind of bibliographic software that will store your references and format them according to one of the bibliographic style sheets that are used in the sciences, social sciences, and humanities. Zotero to the rescue.
Zotero describes itself as a “personal research assistant — a free, easy-to-use tool to help you collect, organize, cite, and share research.” It does a great job at this, allowing you to grow your references as you research topics. It has data entry screens, but best of all it can automatically create entries from a website and format them correctly. It is used directly on a computer and the results are syncronized with the Web version. It is also available as an add-on to most major browsers, and it can be integrated with Word, Google Docs and LibreOffice.
Zotero is a professional-grade package, up to the task of organizing and exporting references in accepted academic bibliographic citation styles. If all you need to do is create a simple bibliography and don’t need all of Zotero’s bells and whistles, you can use its simplified Web-based sister product, ZoteroBib.
The devil is in the details
Assembling these tools in Windows, MacOS, and Linux —- downloading them for use on your book project —- is as straightforward as any software installation. Although it may sound complicated to use several packages instead of just one or two, like Word and InDesign, the workflow smooths out as your familiarity with the software grows. Nonetheless, there is a learning curve involved and all the packages require attention to detail. The shift, for many users, is see your book as a logical structure, rather than a visual one. The software is guaranteed to produce visually beautiful output once you get the structure of your book down. The beauty of these products is that they work with anything from a simply structured novel to a complex academic book. Best of all, the products are free.
Gene Wilburn is the author of Northern Journey: A Guide to Canadian Folk Music, Recreational Writing, Markdown for Writers, as well as co-author of Shift Happens. He has also written dozens of articles, essays, and reviews, primarily on computer technology.
By Gene Wilburn
Just as I began learning basic techniques for natural language processing (sometimes called “computational linguistics”) in the Python programming language, I read that F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Great Gatsby had been released into the public domain. As an English major (B.A., M.A.) who had pivoted into a career in IT, this attracted me like a folksinger to a new acoustic guitar. I knew I had to try out my new licks on Gatsby, so I downloaded the plain text version of the novel from Project Gutenberg.
As is the case with most lit majors, I’m a word addict, so I thought I’d pull out some of Fitzgerald’s vocabulary to see if it was in any way exceptional — meaning the words he used, not the deft way he put them together in his classic American novel. This was not intended as a form of literary criticism. It’s more of a word-watcher’s curiosity about how a gifted writer used his word hoard.
By extracting all the individual words from the plain text form of the novel, then putting it through a stop list of words like a, an, and, or, but, the, etc., I had a working list of relevant words. Using the resources of the excellent NLTK (natural language toolkit) module (NLTK Book), I was able to prepare a frequency distribution list that could be used to highlight the most frequently used words as well as those used only once or a few times.
It turned out that words Fitzgerald used most were not particularly interesting or enlightening. Examining the words used 50 or more times one sees common words like I, she, he, said, Gatsby, Tom, Daisy, you, house, car, get, and something. Nothing particularly inspiring.
It then occurred to me that it might be much more interesting to look at Fitzgerald’s least used words, hoping to find some fancier words he used only occasionally. In addition to its .FreqDist() method, NLTK also has a method called .hapaxes(). This derives from the Greek expression Hapax legomenon meaning, literally, “something said only once.” The method, appropriately, flags all words used only once in the novel.
This immediately produced more interesting results, as varied as adventitious, amorphous, aquaplanes, vestibules, and wall-scaling, along with common words used only once. By experimenting with selecting various degrees of frequency, I found that the most interesting all-around list was obtained by including all words used three times or fewer.
Although this was interesting, it seemed to me that it would be doubly interesting to a word hound to compare The Great Gatsby with another novel of the same period. I thought of Hemingway, since Fitzgerald and Hemingway were friends, but Hemingway’s use of simple vocabulary makes him less interesting in terms of the actual words he employed.
Gatsby was published in 1925. By coincidence I had just finished reading a 1926 murder mystery novel called The Benson Murder Case, by S.S. Van Dine, the pseudonym for American art critic and writer Willard Huntington Wright, an erudite writer whose detective, Philo Vance, was at one time highly popular with readers and who was featured in several Hollywood films. Amateur detective Vance, a kind of American version of the British sleuth Lord Peter Wimsey, was played in films by actors William Powell (before his Nick Charles period), Basil Rathbone, and Edmund Lowe (Wikipedia, “S.S. Van Dine”). Nick Caraway rubbed shoulders with the rich. Vance was a member of rich NewYork society, and an art collector, and, as such, had a remarkably sophisticated, at times foppish, vocabulary. The novel sent me to the dictionary several times to look up new words.
I purchased an Epub edition of S.S. VAN DINE Premier Collection: Thriller Classics, Murder Mysteries, Detective Tales & More and extracted the text of The Benson Murder Case and put it through the same lexical procedures as Gatsby, likewise limiting the word list to words used three times or fewer. I then converted all the words to lower case, alphabetized both lists, and filtered the two lists together using a Unix/Linux word utility called comm. What it did was put the results in three columns. Words used only by Fitzgerald, words used only by Van Dine, and words used by both. The full list is here.
I then imported the list into Google Docs and exported it as an Epub file that I loaded into Apple Books on my iPad. This allowed me to do a leisurely read through the list and highlight words from each author that struck me as being “interesting” and at least slightly out of the ordinary. When I had finished scanning, I manually copied the results for each author into the listings below:
Great Gatsby (1925)
abortive, adventitious, aluminium, amorphous, aquaplanes, araby, asunder, beluga, cahoots, caravansary, caterwauling, chartreuse, coney, convivial, crêpe-de-chine, debauchee, demoniac, dilatory, distraught, divot, dog-days, duckweed, echolalia, ectoplasm, euphemisms, expostulation, fishguards, flounced, foxtrot, fractiousness, grail, harlequin, holocaust, hornbeams, hors-d’oeuvre, humidor, inconsequence, inessential, jonquils, juxtaposition, knickerbockers, lustreless, meretricious, nonolfactory, obstetrical, pasquinade, petrol-pumps, plagiaristic, platonic, pneumatic, portentous, postern, prig, probity, rot-gut, rotogravure, sea-change, sheik, somnambulatory, staid, substantiality, subterfuges, teutonic, vestibule, wall-scaling, whitebait
Benson Murder Case (1926)
a-flutter, a-kimbo, acerbities, adipose, amasis, animadversions, approbation, aquiline, argot, arrentine, astigmatic, badinage, ballyrag, bezique, bisonic, brachycephalic, bunjinga, burglarious, casuistic, champêtre, chef-d’œuvre, cinquecento, cloisonné, confab, contretemps, craniological, darwinian, davenport, deltoids, derring-do, déshabillé, diatonic, discommode, disharmonious, dissolution, dolichocephalic, dulcet, dyspnœa, ebullition, embayed, emulsification, endocrines, factitious, factotum, flâneur, flummery, forensic, garrulous, gewgaws, halcyon, hauteur, hedonist, helixometer, hirsute, mpecunious, imputation, inamorato, infinitesimal, ingress, inspissated, joss-sticks, juxtaposition, lambrequin, leptorhine, lèse-majesté, lineaments, loquacious, lugubriously, mandragora, mêlée, mellifluously, mock-turtle, modish, moue, myrmidons, obduracy, orthognathous, oubliettes, palaver, peccadilloes, perfeccionados, perspicacious, phrenologist, platitudinarian, plebeian, polychrome, popinjay, prognathous, protasis, puerility, quavering, quixotic, rapprochement, ratiocination, redolent, remonstrances, repine, reproche, rubicund, sabreur, sardonic, sententiously, sequester, smouldering, sobriquet, soirée, somnolently, soupçon, stertorous, suave, sybarite, sycophant, syllogism, tenter-hooks, tête-à-tête, teutonic, tonneau, totemistic, triptych, truculent, tutelary, twitted, ventral, vestibule, viscid, vitiated, vituperation, vortices, what-for, whirlin’-dervish
There are a couple of things one might conclude from comparing the lists. The first is that F. Scott Fitzgerald did not use an especially challenging vocabulary for The Great Gatsby. This makes the novel suitable for readers of younger ages, say high school or first-year university students. The second is that you don’t need fancy words to create a masterpiece. Gatsby has stood the test of time.
S.S. Van Dine, though once highly popular, has faded into relative obscurity. Part of that may be attributed to his more challenging vocabulary and part to the writing itself, which is slow-paced for a detective novel.
Those of us who are addicted to detective fiction are used to authors with large vocabularies and, in fact, if a work of detective fiction doesn’t offer some word challenges, it’s disappointing to the reader.
The bottom line: S.S. Van Dine walks away with the prize for most interesting vocabulary, while F. Scott Fitzgerald walks away with a literary masterpiece. A generous reader can enjoy both.
My Covid-era 2020 Christmas present to myself was an eye-catching red and white keyboard with a computer inside: a Raspberry Pi 400. Like a 1980s-vintage Commodore 64 all it needed was a cable connection to my monitor and I was sitting in front of a fully operational Linux computer. Cost: $70 US for the unit alone, or $100 for a complete kit that includes the keyboard/computer, color-coordinated mouse, HDMI video cable, and a book, The Raspberry Pi Beginner’s Guide.
As a writer, I’m fascinated by low-cost, minimalist writing devices and the Raspberry Pi 400 (RPi 400) delivers more power per dollar of computing device I’ve yet encountered. Let’s take a look.
What you get in a Raspberry Pi 400 is not just an attractive keyboard, but a full 64-bit ARM CPU computer inside, with 4GB RAM, a microSD slot to store the operating system and local data, 2 micro-HDMI ports, 1 USB-2 port, 2 USB-3 ports,, a USB-C port for power, a Gigabit Ethernet port, built-in WiFi and Bluetooth, and a GPIO (general purpose input output) 40-pin port.
The GPIO port is for makers and experimenters — those who create things such as robots and robotic structures, specialty electronic circuit boards, art and light installations, and much more. To this crowd the Raspberry Pi is at the heart of many a specialty project. For them Raspberry Pi is as common a brand name as Dell, HP, Lenovo, Acer, or Asus to most home computer users. Chances are you’ve not heard the Raspberry Pi name bandied about much in writing circles … yet.
With the RPi 400 that may be about to change. This is the first Raspberry Pi model that is a ready-to-boot-and-use Linux computer with appeal beyond its usual user base. I can see parents picking up one or two of these for their kids. It’s a inexpensive and great way for anyone who has heard of Linux, but may have been shy about trying it, to get a hands-on introduction. The purpose of this review is to examine this device as a potential minimalist writing tool that could be used by someone with no previous experience with a Linux computer.
The RPi 400 arrives with a 16GB microSD card inserted, ready to boot up Raspberry Pi OS as soon as you add a monitor or TV, and a USB mouse for convenience. The first time you boot the system it prompts you for your country, language, time zone, and a new password. The RPi then scans for a WiFi connection and prompts for its password.
Once set up, the interface looks similar to Windows or MacOS, with the task bar at the top instead of the bottom. Navigation is simple: click on the red raspberry icon in the top left corner to display a menu from which you may launch any of the included programs or apps. The RPi 400 comes loaded with programming editors, text editors, and the Libre Office suite, which includes a Word-like word processor. The default browser is Chromium, the open-source version of Chrome. A file manager allows you to browse through your folders to copy, move, delete, or select files. The operations are intuitive and familiar to any Windows or Mac user.
And that’s it! You’re ready to write.
Because I use Google Docs for much of my writing, I fired up Docs for this review and found the RPi a very comfortable device to work with. The keyboard is full size, minus a numeric keypad. Because it’s weighted with a computer inside, it has enough heft to feel solid as you work. The keys are well spaced and the layout is normal with well positioned arrow keys in the lower right-hand corner.
At this price you don’t get a first-class keyboard, but it’s completely serviceable. The one caution with the keyboard is that you occasionally get keyboard bounce — two characters appearing with one press of the key. The bounce is infrequent enough that it’s not a show stopper, but you need to keep an eye on the output for occasional misbehavings. Some of the bounce may be determined by your touch on the keypads. I’m a heavy-handed typist, raised on upright typewriters and the original IBM PC keyboards.
The RPi 400 is not a speed demon. It has enough zip that it doesn’t lag while you type but it’s not a sports car. It’s more like a cute VW Beetle with rear engine. Fun to use and it gets you there.
The RPi 400 is a variant of the small Raspberry Pi 4 used in maker projects. As such it will certainly be of interest to makers and experimenters, but putting the computer inside the keyboard opens the device to a much wider audience.
Parents can purchase this unit for their kids as a way to learn programming, or just for general use. It’s a little sluggish on websites that include heavy graphic material but that’s to be expected.
Writers may be interested in this unit if they’re in need of a cheap computer and already have a monitor or HD TV it can attach to. At this price, it could serve as a complementary machine to a laptop or tablet, or even a unit you might want to leave at a site you visit regularly, such as a cottage or other external location.
Overall, the Raspberry Pi 400 is cute, highly usable and cheap. For most writers I would recommend the $100 kit over the $70 standalone model. The kit comes with matching USB mouse plus the critical HDMI video cable.
Although you don’t need to know much about the included terminal app that is similar to the Windows Command Prompt and nearly identical with the Mac Terminal program, you will need to use the command line occasionally to make certain your software is up to date. This is done by starting up the terminal and typing the following two lines at the command prompt:
$ sudo apt update
$ sudo apt upgrade
Running this once a week or so will keep the Raspberry Pi 400 software and operating system up to date with the latest upgrades and security updates.
As you can tell, I’m enthusiastic about the Raspberry Pi 400 as an inexpensive, minimalist writing device. The bang for the buck is incredible and there’s nothing difficult about using a Linux computer for writing. All the usual amenities are here, packed inside a keyboard. The unit, while easy enough to carry to other locations, is not a portable. This is a small desktop computer waiting for you when you’re ready to create the next best seller. Happy typing!
I was determined not to make any Black Friday purchases this year, but my resolve melted when Amazon offered a sale price of $50Cdn, approximately $30US, on its diminutive, discontinued, 16GB Kindle Fire 7 ereader/tablet. I’m a tablet junkie with a soft spot for minimalist writing devices that goes back to my days of writing on a Palm Pilot. Small, I learned, could be not only beautiful, but also portable and productive.
And so, despite my resolve, I clicked the slightly more expensive ($70Cdn) 32GB version of the device into my shopping cart and checked it out. Two days later it arrived.
On its own, the Fire 7, about the size of a thin paperback novel, makes a fine ebook reader and a minimal Internet browser — nice, but unexciting. However, like the wardrobe in the Narnia books, the device harbours a secret — a passageway that can lead to new vistas.
In short, the Kindle can be upgraded to include the Google Play Store, which opens up the limited Kindle to a much broader selection of apps than Amazon intended, including Gmail, Chrome, and the writer’s friends, Google Docs and Microsoft Word — apps that Amazon does not make available through its own App Store. (Although not illegal, it should be noted that this upgrade is not officially sanctioned by Amazon, who would prefer you to remain within their gated ecosystem.)
All that is required is that you download four Android programs and run them in sequence, following “Option One” of Chris Hoffman and Craig Lloyd’s excellent instructions on How-to Geek.
With the Google Play Store installed, the Kindle Fire 7 punches above its weight, morphing into a kind of digital David that isn’t afraid to take on Apple’s Goliath, the iPad. (Spoiler Alert: an iPad it’s not, but the Fire’s chutzpah might amuse you.)
Compared to my ancient Palm IIIc, the Kindle Fire 7 Is downright luxurious. Running a modified version of Android on an ARM CPU, it comes equipped with an earphone jack, MicroSD card slot (providing up to 128GB additional storage), front and back cameras, microphone, speakers, USB charging slot, Wi-Fi adapter, Bluetooth support, wireless printer support, and apps from Amazon store. It has a smallish 7-inch, 600 x 1024 pixel screen in 16:9 ratio. It also offers Alexa for voice commands.
The front and rear cameras are good enough for Zoom meetings and taking casual snapshots, but by today’s standards the camera resolution is minimal — 2 megapixels on the rear camera and even less on the front camera.
The Fire 7 is small and lightweight, easily slipping into a jacket pocket, tote bag, or purse. Larger than smartphones and smaller than an iPad Mini, it’s a ready-to-go device that is easy to carry around.
Because the Fire 7 is larger than a smartphone, I found it easy to type on the virtual keyboard in vertical position. Turning the device to landscape position offers an even larger keyboard, at the expense of seeing less on the screen. The device offers word suggestions that you can tap for completion, saving keystrokes. However, it has a mind of its own and will sometimes change a word after you hit the spacebar. If you hit the backspace key immediately, your original word is restored and it stops changing it. It’s something you have to keep an eye on. This word-substitution quirk only occurs while using the built-in virtual keyboard.
Many writers will prefer to work with an external Bluetooth keyboard for faster typing speed. The Fire 7 connected easily to both my BT folding keyboards. It’s more efficient to use an external keyboard and I preferred it on the Kindle virtual keyboard when practical.
To prop up the Kindle Fire while typing, I purchased a case for the unit with a textured back and a “kickstand” to hold the tablet in landscape mode. This works very well, and with no virtual keyboard taking up screen space, the typing window in Google Docs is pleasant to work in.
I generally find that the virtual keyboard is most useful for jotting down ideas, outlining a topic, or writing short passages where typing speed isn’t as important. It’s also useful in editing completed drafts. An external keyboard, of course, allows you to flow at faster speeds.
The Kindle Fire 7 is no speed demon. It’s akin to driving an old rear-engine VW Beetle — it gets you there, but leisurely. When I return to my iPad Mini I feel like I’ve stepped into a high-end BMW. This is not a device for the impatient, but it’s solid and dependable. Web pages in particular take awhile to fill and refresh, but I’ve experienced no particular sluggishness when using Google Docs.
The battery life of the device is so-so. I’d estimate I’m getting 4-5 hours of active usage, which is better than many laptops, but not as good as other tablets. In the evening, when I’m using the device to access social media or ebooks, I frequently plug in a 6-foot charging cable to charge the device and save battery life. It recharges back to 100% fairly quickly.
To say the least, it would be challenging to find a cheaper writing device. Costing 1/10th of the price of an iPad, it’s been a fun purchase, despite a few quirks. That said, this model has been officially discontinued. The next best price is on the Kindle Fire HD 8, a device I tested and can readily recommend. It’s faster, with better battery life, almost identical in size with the iPad Mini. It, too, can be upgraded to side load apps from the Google Play Store.
Still, if you see a Fire 7 for sale, and love small but workable writing devices, the Kindle Fire 7 Is a bargain.
Gene Wilburn is a retired Canadian IT professional who frequently writes on technology topics. His website is located at http://genewilburn.com
By Gene Wilburn
For years I resisted using a word processor. My preference is to write with a simple, fast, and uncluttered text editor, such as iA Writer. For things like headings, bold or italic, and links to URLs, I use Markdown notation. I find Word, LibreOffice Writer, Pages, and Scrivener overkill for my needs. Hence it came as a surprise to me to discover that I like using Google Docs.
There were two factors that drove me to try Docs:
Prior to Google Docs I had been storing my plain-text Markdown files in a Dropbox folder. This worked fine when I was writing solo, but it lacked convenient versioning and collaboration tools. I needed both for a book project — Shift Happens — that I co-authored with my wife, Marion.
To further complicate things, I use a number of devices for writing: Macbook, Chromebook, Linux laptop, iPad, and iPhone, while my co-author uses a Windows laptop. We needed something common to all of them – something to act as a universal host. Google Docs filled that role.
The first thing I learned about Google Docs is that you also need Google Drive, a separate but related web application. Drive is where you create folders to use to organize your documents, and it allows you to mark a folder as shared, setting it up for collaboration or mutual access.
Any web browser can be used to access Google Docs and Drive, but, on a tablet or smartphone, Docs and Drive are separate apps that need to be installed. With this done, every computing device you own can access your files.
Because docs are stored in Google’s cloud, you never have to worry about losing your work due to disk failure, theft, or fire. It also means that your document is always up to date for both you and your collaborator.
All this assumes you have WiFi access to the Internet, of course, but Google Docs has a provision for working offline when you don’t have access. You can tag any document or set of documents with a “Make Available Offline” feature that stores the document locally as well as at Google. I use this for documents I want to edit while I’m travelling by commuter train into the city, or at least I did in pre-Covid times. When I later connect to the Net, Docs automatically synchronizes the local file with the cloud version.
Whether you’re writing by yourself or with a co-writer, Google Docs offers outstanding version control. Docs tracks your changes and keeps copies of your editing sessions, automatically, in the background. Available from File > Version History, you can inspect the edits in various versions going back in time. This offers the peace of mind that allows you to flail away at a draft, knowing you can restore from an earlier version if you mess things up. Versioning also shows you which collaborator made which changes to a document.
One of the impressive features of Google Docs is that it allows you and a collaborator to edit together in real time. My wife and I used this feature extensively while revising chapters of our book. Sitting in the same room, each of us with a device open to the shared document, we could each see what the other was doing, and any changes made by one of us quickly showed up on both screens.
This meant we could discuss the wording of the text, decide on changes, and see those changes reflected in real time when one of us typed them in. Although we were in the same room, connected to WiFi, this could also be done while in a Zoom session or on a phone call with a distant collaborator.
Not only does Google Docs act as a kind of universal host, it’s also a kind of universal donor. It can export (File > Download) to a number of highly useful formats: docx, odt, rtf, pdf, text, html, and epub. When I’m using Google Docs with Markdown notation, as I did for our book collaboration, I export as plain text.
From Google Drive, you can batch download any number of tagged files at a time. When you choose this option, the files are converted to .docx and placed in a single compressed zip file. There are no other options for batch downloading.
For our book project, we would batch download our files and run a custom script to unzip them and convert them to LaTeX files for typesetting.
Another useful feature of Google Docs is its ability to display a document outline beside the document being worked on. This is similar to “document maps” in other word processors. The outliner is based on assigned heading levels. You could outline an entire story using headers, then fill in the details later.
All in all, I found Google Docs to be a solid writing tool. With its highly useful versioning, its excellent support for collaboration, and its comprehensive export features, Docs could easily become the centre of any writer’s workflow.
This is not to dismiss other excellent writing tools, and if you’re already happy with your setup, there’s no compelling reason to change. But if you’re not totally convinced about your current editor, Google Docs is well worth taking for a spin. You may find it liberating to know your files are safe, in sync, and accessible through any computing device you may own. Its attractiveness is not lessened by being accessible for free, with no upfront or ongoing subscription costs. Of all the writing tools out there, Google Docs stacks up highly favourably. Recommended.
Gene Wilburn is a retired Canadian IT professional who frequently writes on technology topics. His website is located at http://genewilburn.com
There are times when you meet with a group and want to share documents in common, but your meeting place doesn’t have WiFi Internet access. It could be an informal classroom situation, a regular meetup group, or, as in my case, two music-jam/singing groups.
In one of my groups we use Dropbox for sharing electronic versions of lyric and chord sheets. In the other we use Google Drive. These work well enough when there is Internet access, but often the places we meet to set up and play don’t have WiFi available.
Dropbox and Google Drive also have two disadvantages: every time a new member joins the group, we have to set them up with Dropbox or Google Drive and Google Docs apps for sharing. Even worse is helping them make local copies of the lyric sheets on their tablets for offline access.
This was technically challenging for some members, not to mention that it requires each member to personally update their local storage regularly. In order to create a more user-friendly experience I put together a solution that I’ve dubbed SongNet.
It occurred to me, as I’m certain it must have occurred to many others, that a nifty solution would be to create a small private wireless LAN, or Intranet, that could be set up in the meetup venue room, creating a private hotspot that could be accessed by any device that members preferred, whether it was a smartphone, tablet computer, or laptop. The only required app is a web browser.
The gear needed to set up a private local wireless LAN has been around for some time and you might even have some of this in your parts bin.
I focused on small size and portability by selecting the following three pieces of hardware:
Any Raspberry Pi model with a built-in or external USB WiFi adapter would work. I acquired the TP-Link travel router from Amazon for around $35 Canadian. Because the MicroSD card holds the operating system, the web server, and the web contents, I wanted one with plenty of storage and one that is as fast as possible. I selected a Samsung EVO Select 32GB microSDHC UHS-I U1 Memory Card with Adapter from Amazon for around $12 Canadian.
The first order of business with the new MicroSD card is to set it up so it can boot the Raspberry Pi. Using the SD adapter that comes with the MicroSD card, put the card into an ordinary SD slot of a Windows, Macintosh, or Linux computer download NOOBS and add the NOOBS files to the MicroSD card, following these instructions and the ones that come with the download.
This done, remove the MicroSD card from the adapter and insert it into the Raspberry Pi and boot it, connected to a monitor, external keyboard, and mouse. When it boots, choose to install which version of Raspbian you prefer. I selected Raspbian (not Raspbian Complete or Raspbian Minimal). When that’s done, reboot the Raspberry Pi and follow the prompts for resetting the password to one of your choice and selecting an active WiFi network. More prompts will follow for updating the files. This takes awhile.
The Raspberry Pi Zero has so little RAM (512MB) it strains to run the graphical desktop environment and the GUI is a significant drain on system resources, so we want to eliminate it from regular use once we’re set up. We also want to activate the SSH server in order to log into the Raspberry Pi when it’s “headless” — that is, unattached to an external monitor or keyboard.
To so this, open a Terminal application and type the following:
$ sudo raspi-config
This brings up an easy-to-follow, character-based menu.
3 Boot Options and press Enter.
Next Select B1 Desktop / CLI and press Enter.
B2 Console Autologin hit the TAB key and press
What this does is deactivate the GUI desktop environment from loading automatically, presenting you instead with a console screen with user pi already logged in. Should you need to boot up the GUI for any reason, when you’re attached to an external monitor, type the following at the Command-Line prompt:
The next step is to activate the Raspberry Pi’s SSH server so you can log in from other machines using an SSH client:
Put the cursor line on
P2 SSH then tab to
Select and press Enter.
On the next screen tab the cursor to “Yes” and press Enter.
Next, in a Terminal window or at the console, type the following commands to set up the directories to prepare for installing the web server.
$ cd /var $ sudo mkdir www $ sudo mkdir www/html $ sudo chmod -R 755 $ sudo chown -R pi
Because the Raspberry Pi Zero W is a minimalist Linux computer, I elected not to use the fully-featured Apache2 web server. Instead I opted for the simpler Webfs, a lightweight web server that is more than sufficient for serving static pages such as song lyrics.
To install webfs on the Raspberry Pi, type the following commands in a Terminal or at the Console and follow the prompts:
$ sudo apt update $ sudo apt upgrade $ sudo apt install webfs
In order to add content, we need to know the IP address of the Raspberry Pi. To find this out, type the following:
And look at the IP address for wlan0, the WiFi adapter. The IP address is the set of numbers just to the right of inet, in this case
We can first test this by opening a Terminal on a Macintosh, Linux, or Windows Subsystem for Linux (WSL2) computer and typing:
$ ssh -l pi 10.0.0.10
or whatever your IP address is for the Raspberry Pi. Answer
yes to accept the security credentials and if all is well you should now be logged into the RPi.
To populate the Raspberry Pi’s web site, we turn to another command-line utility called rsync. Go to the directory where your lyric sheets are stored on your Mac or PC and type the following in a Terminal window:
$ cd Lyrics (or whatever your directory name is) $ rsync -avz * firstname.lastname@example.org:/var/www/html/
Of course you use your IP address rather than the 10.0.0.10 for my Raspberry Pi. Then you can watch as the files transfer to the Raspberry Pi’s web directories.
To test the site, first log onto SongNet (password: singalong):
Then open a browser and point it to the IP address of the Raspberry Pi: e.g.,
You should see an alphabetical listing of your song sheets. Webfs by default allows directory listing, which, if you don’t mind scrolling, may be all that’s needed for your site. The web listing will look something like this and you simply scroll and click on the song you want to see:
If you know some HTML and want to create your own index.html page for the site, log into the Raspberry Pi and type the following:
$ sudo nano /etc/webfsd.conf
Go to the line that reads
And change it to
Because Webfs defaults to port 8000, it’s also preferable to set the port to the standard 80. This too is located in the webfsd.conf file. Go to the line that reads
And change it to
Save the changes and reboot.
$ sudo shutdown -r now
Because my groups have accumulated a very large number of files, I wrote a Perl script called buildIndex.pl that pretties this up by putting an Alphabet Selector at the top of the lyrics page and Anchors within the listing for quicker access. It also looks nice.
Following the instructions that come with your router, log into the router using a browser. The first thing to do is to set the IP address of the LAN (Local Area Network). Choose a network IP range that is different from the one you have at home to assign what is called a “non-routable IP” range, which is a set of numbers set aside for LANs that are not connected directly to the Internet. To make typing the addresses easy, I set my router to a 10.0.0.0 network, subnet 255.255.0.0.
It’s important that the Raspberry Pi have a fixed IP address or the system won’t work. You can do this in one of two ways. One is to use the RPi’s graphical interface to log onto the portable router hotspot and follow the menus to manually assign a fixed, or static, IP address. Another way to do this is, if your router permits it, is to put the MAC address of the Raspberry Pi’s WiFi adapter in the router itself and have it automatically assigned by the router:
Users of SongNet need to type this IP address into their browsers to access the songs, so I chose to assign the address 10.0.0.10 for ease of entry.
One of the critical functions of the router is that of a DHCP server that serves dynamic IP addresses to the users of the network. When they log into SongNet they get a 10.0.0.X address that connects them to the system. This is handled in the router’s DHCP section where you set aside the range of IP addresses that are available. In this case the addresses from 10.0.0.100-199 (100 addresses) have been made available.
Now that it’s all put together, it’s time for a test. Disconnect the travel router from the Internet by removing its ethernet cable, disconnect the Raspberry Pi from its external monitor and keyboard, and put the router and RPi together in a room and plug them in.
At this point it’s necessary to use your tablet or computer’s WiFi setting to join SongNet. I assigned the password singalong for joining SongNet.
Now open a browser and enter:
This should show you (and everyone logged in) your songs and allow you to select them for display.
Finally, before you unplug the local WiFi network to carry it or put it away, you should shut down the Raspberry Pi properly. To do this SSH into the Pi and type the following:
$ sudo shutdown -h now
Give it a minute to finish closing all its files then it’s ready to tote to the next gig.
Until recently I’d shied away from Chromebooks. They didn’t seem like real computers to me and for the price of even the basic ones, you could often pick up a used laptop with more overall functionality. I have several programs, such as Photoshop and InDesign, that require a high-end computer and I use both MacOS and Linux computers for these heavier-duty computing needs.
What softened me to the possibility of using a Chromebook was my iPad. It changed the way I used the Web. Between the iPad and the advent of reasonably-priced cloud storage, I began using the iPad more than my laptop computers, especially for writing. I went from being a touch typist to a single-finger poke typist on the iPad’s virtual keyboard. Occasionally I augmented this with Bluetooth keyboards and the combination of an iPad with a wireless keyboard made me wish for something along the same lines but in a single, integrated unit, similar to but not expensive like the Microsoft Surface.
I was intrigued by an announcement from Google in the fall of 2017 that they would soon upgrade ChromeOS to allow it to run both Linux and Android apps concurrently with ChromeOS apps on their Chromebooks. Linux is my favourite operating system and Android apps are pretty much identical to the apps on my iPad. It was beginning to look very interesting.
Deciding to take the plunge, I found the Chromebook unit that had the specs I was looking for in the Lenovo C330: 4GB RAM and a 64GB eMMC drive, plus extras that I thought of as gravy, such as a touch screen and a 180 degree pivot of the LCD panel. At roughly $360 Cdn, it seemed reasonably priced.
The first thing I did when the machine was in front of me was hold it up so I could check out the whereabouts of the I/O ports. On the left side, facing the machine, is one USB-C slot which the power supply uses but which can be shared with other peripherals. One USB3 slot for backward compatibility plus an SD card slot. Nice touches these. The right side of the unit has a mechanical volume control, on/off switch, and an earphone jack. Did you hear that, Apple? An earphone jack! A lot of us still have good wired headphones we’re satisfied with. It’s a real courtesy to customers to not expect all of us to upgrade to USB-C devices in one fell swoop. Kudos to Lenovo.
I opened the lid and feasted my eyes on the keyboard. An honest, full keyboard with all the keys exactly where I want them. Wide shift keys, easy-to-hit Enter key, full-size numeric keys, and a set of arrow keys at the bottom right, underneath the right shift key. The keys are coated in a kind of plastic that feels slightly rubberized. Response is on the soft side, but so far I have not witnessed any sign of keyboard bounce. Speaking as a writer, the Lenovo keyboard passes muster. It’s not as good a feel as my Macbook Air (old style non-butterfly) keyboard, but given the difference in price level, the Lenovo keyboard holds its own.
As I was about to turn on the unit, I paused momentarily for a big breath. I’d never before in my life ever used a Chromebook and had no idea what to expect, other than its reputation for ease of use. When it booted into the Chrome logo it asked the same kinds of setup questions you get on any tablet, such as network and password. It assumes you have an email account with Google. That’s mandatory, I believe, so I put in my Gmail ID name and password, and it began the setup, already familiar with my profile. There was the usual keyboard question, defaulting to US keyboard but I chose the Canadian-English spell checker. Boom, it was done. Installed and ready to go. Anything else you want, visit Settings and help yourself.
Naturally the default browser is Chrome. It went straight to my Gmail account and right into my Google Docs documents and folders. Seamless.
I studied my way through Settings next. I tested the Bluetooth adapter on a BT speaker and a pair of BT headphones and they both checked out fine. The only disappointment for me was that I didn’t see anything about Linux. I then guessed, rightly in this case, that ChromeOS wasn’t up to date so I updated it, rebooted, and this time in Settings, there was a new Linux section, with Install Linux as an option. It warns that this is still in beta, but I’ll take a beta Linux over no Linux any day.
When it finished installing Linux I opened the Terminal app. After a few seconds wait as things initialized in a KVM (kernel virtual machine), a beautiful Linux system appeared, at the command line. It turned out to be pure Debian, the latest version of Debian at that, which delighted me. I’ve been a Debian Linux fan since the mid–90s. I used Apt to update Linux and now both ChromeOS and Linux were up to date.
The desktop of ChromeOS has a bottom panel called the Shelf that contains an icon for the Chrome browser, Gmail, YouTube, and Play Store. Play Store is where you find Android apps. I’ve populated my Chromebook with some of the same apps I use on my iPad: iA Writer (a writer-oriented Markdown editor), Netflix, a File Manager utility, Dropbox, Snapseed, Great Courses, plus a few more. Each, so far, has worked as expected. An Android app, such as iA Writer, has access to that same shared Downloads folder that is shared by ChromeOS and Linux, meaning you could edit the same document from three different operating systems, which I did out of sheer curiosity.
One of the noticeable things about using Android apps is that the fonts are not as crisp as you might like. The fonts have a slightly fuzzy, artificial look, unlike the well-formed ChromeOS native fonts. This is not a show stopper but it makes the Chromebook more of a Grade B tablet when running Android apps. I would not care to read an ebook with the Android fonts.
For me the Linux subsystem (still in beta) is the jewel in the crown of the Chromebook. As mentioned, the default installation is based on Debian GNU/Linux, and there are hints that other distributions of Linux might be offered sometime in the future. Oddly the Chromebook default Downloads directory does not appear in my
/home/gene personal space. Instead it’s mounted at
/mnt/chromeos/MyFiles/Downloads. To make this more convenient I immediately made a symlink to that from inside my personal workspace with:
$ ln -s /mnt/chromeos/MyFiles/Downloads/ Downloads
At this point the system was ready to easily share files among the three operating systems.
I used the Debian Apt utility to update Linux and install certain pieces of software to try. Among my downloads were Gedit, Wordgrinder, Joe, Emacs, Pandoc, and LibreOffice. All worked well, though there was occasional background screen flashing when using Gedit. I experimented with writing a bash script but could not get the system to chmod my file to an executable, even using
$ sudo chmod a+x filename. It appears that the basic ChromeOS file system is mounted with a ‘noexec’ flag and at this time I haven’t yet figured out if this can be changed. The good news is that the shell script can be run as
$ bash scriptname.
I installed and tried out a couple of different standard Linux terminal programs, Gnome-terminal and Konsole, and unlike the default terminal they can be launched in multiple instances either in separate windows or in tabs. The default terminal can only handle one thing at a time and there are no tabs for additional instances. What it does have, however, are better looking fonts.
There are occasional glitches in the Linux subsystem. Once in awhile, if I’d switched between environments several times while using Linux, it would lose its pathing and respond with “command not found.” When I closed the terminal app and opened it again everything returned to normal.
At a user level, the Linux subsystem generally works well, but I wouldn’t try any development in the environment, at least not at this point in its evolution. All the Linux utilities I tried worked normally, including the many text utilities.
I gave the Linux subsystem a serious workout by installing LyX and all its TeX and LaTeX components. It took four tries. The subsystem crashed three times, once with a segmentation fault, requiring me to shut down and restart the entire Chromebook each time, but it picked up each time where it left off after the previous try. Eventually it finished and I was able to run LyX and preview a typeset document. Not bad, but the Linux subsystem is not yet what I’d call robust. At this point it’s best to think of it as Linux Lite.
As a writer who is also a techie I’ve usually eschewed word processors. I like working with text files because they’re non-proprietary and there are many good utilities that work with them, but, like writers everywhere, I often need to italicize the title of a book or movie or a record album and sometimes I want to boldface a word. I also want to put hyperlinks in my text that point to places on the Web. To handle this, in plain text, I use the excellent Markdown system of notation.
My go-to editor for the past couple of years has been iA Writer, which comes in Windows, Mac, Android, and iPad versions. It’s a text editor wrapped around Markdown, making it easy for writers to use, and it has a first-rate HTML export function built in. It’s uncluttered and has a focus mode and a night mode that allows the writer to concentrate on the writing rather than the writing environment. The Android version is similar enough to my Mac and iPad versions that I suspected it to be my editor of choice on the Chromebook.
I’m also addicted to Linux text editors and as long as I was setting up shop anew on the Chromebook, I gave them a spin, using them with Markdown. I tried a number of console editors, including the very basic word processor called Wordgrinder, Joe, which has WordStar/Borland style keyboard shortcuts, and my favourite console editor, Vim, with stands for Improved Vi. These all work flawlessly in the Linux subsystem, and they’re light on resources. Occasionally, when I’m feeling exceptionally brave, I dabble with Emacs.
On a whim, however, I decided to try Chromebook’s featured editor, which is Google Docs. I’d used Google Docs occasionally to store information, but I’d never taken it seriously as a writing tool. I was surprised at how much I liked it, not least because the fonts are excellent and easy on the eyes. I wrote a few paragraphs then tested its various export formats. All were very good except for one quirk when it saves output to a plain text file. In text files it puts two blank lines between paragraphs where I only put in one while I’m typing.
Not being too sure about Google Docs, I asked writers in the “Canada Writes” Facebook group if any of them used it and what they thought about it. I got back several replies from writers who say they use it nearly exclusively and have found it to be stable and excellent for all their writing, including client work. That was enough to convince me it was worth a try and this review is my first piece written in Docs. I suspect Google Docs will become my main editor.
In the short time I’ve owned the Lenovo Chromebook C330, it’s become my favourite writing machine for drafting stories. It’s also a pretty decent machine for listening to music or watching streaming video. To be honest, other than seeing that it works, I don’t make use the feature that allows me to fold the viewing screen back 180 degrees. I already own an iPad which I greatly prefer as a tablet.
For the most part, the Chromebook is a writing machine with the side benefits of being a very good web browser and Gmail viewer. I use the Linux terminal to run utilities on text files, and to SSH (encrypted remote login) to my other Linux and Mac computers.
It has met my expectations and then some. Overall I’d give it high marks in the bang-for-the-buck department. At $360 Cdn, it’s a bargain, and a writer’s delight.
By Gene Wilburn
Gestalt (ge STALT). A word meaning, roughly, when the brain perceives with clarity that the whole of a system is greater than the sum of its parts, and everything clicks into one awareness. One can have a gestalten moment. But can one achieve a gestalten existence?
When I was coming of age intellectually at university in the early to mid 1960s, there were a number of explorations of the mind making the rounds. Existentialism, the sometimes bleak philosophy that arose strongly in Paris after the Nazi occupation at the end of World War II, was alive and well. Sartre, Beauvoir, and Camus were still publishing and there was something compelling in the message that you’re responsible for who you become, creating a personal integrity in the face of the meaninglessness and absurdity of the universe. This is, of course, an over simplification.
Along with the primary existential philosophers came “Theatre of the Absurd,” a literary form of existentialism, perhaps best seen in the play by Samuel Beckett, Waiting for Godot, in which “logical construction and argument give way to irrational and illogical speech and its ultimate conclusion, silence.” [Wikipedia, “Theatre of the Absurd”]
Another prevailing line of thought came from the field of psychology, in the form of Abraham Maslow’s “Hierarchy of Needs” with “self actualization” at the top of the pyramid. In its wake people were self actualizing all over the place, or at least that’s what they professed. It certainly launched a full-blown pop psychology business and fuelled New-Age-style thinking before “New Age” had even become a word.
A different branch of psychology, from Germany, had earlier in the century introduced Gestalt Theory, a holistic psychology that seemed to imply that if you could attain a gestalt with yourself and your environment, you could flow through it with understanding, and perhaps appreciation, in the way that listening to a symphony is an experience that transcends the individual notes of the musical score.
Looking back on this fifty years later, I think existentialism has held up rather well, especially when augmented with a generous helping of late Roman-style stoicism. Maslow’s hierarchy of needs still has a sound feel to it, though there is a sense that Western society, as a whole, has slipped down the pyramid a bit in this era of anti-enlightenment, anti-science populism.
But the one that still teases my mind is gestalt theory. At the turning of each decade I’ve been waiting for that gestalten moment when everything would click into place and I would reach an understanding — “Because something is happening here / But you don’t know what it is / Do you, Mister Jones?” [Bob Dylan, “Ballad of a Thin Man”]
The problem is, how does one achieve gestalt when everything keeps changing?
I emerged from the 1950s like most boys who had reached their teens by the start of the 1960s, interested in cars, playing basketball, grooving to the week’s Top–10 radio, and thinking about going to university after high school. In other words, I was as cookie-cutter naive as one could be.
It was the folk music era which, in my relative isolation, I took to be the music of the Kingston Trio, Limelighters, Chad Mitchell Trio, Burl Ives, and that new group on the radio, Peter Paul and Mary. It was when I heard Joan Baez sing a couple of old ballads like “Barbara Allen” I began to perceive a different kind of folk music that was less slick and more personal. Back then it was just music I liked. Later it would change me.
My intellectual life began when I went to university where I first majored in engineering. It was a tough study, but I was getting by, being moderately good at math and logic. There was, however, a problem. I enjoyed learning folk music more than studying STEM subjects and the lyrics of Bob Dylan and Phil Ochs left me questioning what I was doing. I bought a guitar, learned a fistful of chords, and learned to sing and play the songs that were haunting me.
My taste in folk music had also led me to discover the Weavers, Pete Seeger, Woody Guthrie, Cisco Houston, and a rich vein of black blues singers from Big Bill Broonzy and the Rev. Gary Davis to Mississippi John Hurt. I loved all these voices of the people.
I couldn’t square my study of engineering with my awareness of what was happening. The civil rights movement in the American South highlighted the inappropriate treatment of black people. President Kennedy had been assassinated, then Martin Luther King, then Robert Kennedy. There was a strange, unpopular war being waged in Vietnam.
Things were changing, blowing in the wind, as it were, and the gestalt of the time was changing with it. I switched my major to English and my minor to French, and began studying literature with its plays, novels, poems, and essays. In French classes, we frequently read the existentialists Sartre and Camus. I studied philosophy, social history, and art history. I met and became friends with dozens of like-minded individuals, some male, some female, some straight, some gay, a few who were black or hispanic, all of whom shared a passion for literature, art, philosophy, and music. I had found my people.
Something happens to your mind when you embrace the Humanities — something that comes as a series of epiphanies that raises your consciousness into new realms of thought and feeling resulting from contact with the great writers, poets, playwrights, philosophers, artists, and musicians of all eras. It’s intoxicating and exhilarating and, as Thomas Wolfe proclaimed in the title of his novel, You Can’t Go Home Again. You’re changed.
You reach for a higher kind of gestalt, the gestalt of the modestly well-educated. You begin to read the New York Times, The New Yorker, The New York Review of Books, Le Monde, The Times (London), The Guardian, Harper’s, Atlantic Monthly, The Globe and Mail, and university quarterlies. You listen to folk music, cool jazz, classical music, and opera. You see Verdi in the same tradition as Shakespeare, and taste the richness of Old English in Beowulf and the delightful Middle English of Geoffrey Chaucer.
It’s a heady experience, all in all, but the question always arises: what are you going to do with all this when you head out into the “real” world?
For one gestalten period it seemed as if the world had changed. The war in Vietnam was vigorously opposed, campus radicalism was on the rise, and hair got longer. The folk music I’d grown up with was woven into a new kind of rock music and the voices of Joni Mitchell, Grace Slick, Janis Joplin, and Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young filled the airwaves, along with new bands like the Doors, Led Zeppelin, Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane, Santana, and Frank Zappa.
Alan Watts taught us about Zen, the tarot deck came back into fashion, and decorated VW vans filled with flower children with headbands, victory signs, peace medallions, and bloodshot eyes were common sights.
Among the reading favourites were One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Been Down So Long It Looks Like Up to Me, Catch–22, The Vedas and The Upanishads, The Teachings of Don Juan, The I Ching and The Whole Earth Catalog.
Everyone was for “getting back to nature” and many communes were started, mostly ending in failure, and from the broadway musical Hair to massive rock concerts, it was assumed that the Age of Aquarius was upon us. The Mexican poet Octavio Paz described it as an “explosion of consciousness.”
It’s sometimes said that if you remember the 60s, you weren’t really there. My own memory of the time is patchy, with psychedelically-coloured gaps and an enduring sense of mysticism. But, like many, I didn’t see how it was sustainable. In the words of the Jefferson Airplane, “You are the Crown of Creation / And you have no place to go.”
The flower-power era couldn’t last, of course, because someone has to pay the bills. I trimmed my hair, picked up a degree in library science, and took a job. Through sheer good fortune I ended up as Head Librarian at the Royal Ontario Museum, in Toronto. It was there that I began hanging out with ornithologists, palaeontologists, mammalogists, geologists, mineralogists, ichthyologists, and entomologists, as well as archaeologists. It has shaped my thinking to this day. I had encountered the gestalt of scientific thinking and research.
One of the curators, a palynologist (one who studies modern and ancient pollens) challenged me with the question: “Have you read Darwin’s Origin of Species?” Being a lit major, I hadn’t, so I decided to give it a go.
What surprised me the most was how clear Darwin’s Victorian prose was. I was mesmerized by the concept of “descent with modification” or as it came to be known, “evolution.” Shortly after reading Origin, a new volume by Stephen Jay Gould passed through the library — a collection of essays entitled Ever Since Darwin. I gave this a read and subsequently read every book of essays Gould produced, culled from his monthly column in Natural History.
As a newly-minted amateur naturalist and birder I became hooked on reading science books written for the general public. The 60’s mantra “all is one” took on a philosophically material interpretation when I studied how the universe started, how suns ignited and planets formed, and how, on this one we call Earth, life sparked and evolved, going through great periods of diversity, extinction, more diversity, more extinction, and so on, leading eventually to a group of suddenly sapient simians. As Carl Sagan pointed out, we are made from the remnants of star dust, and every living thing on the planet is related.
My readings in science and science history led me to reaffirm the existentialist theme that life can be heaven or hell, but human beings mean very little in the face of the universe. I shed any last remnants of religion. Materially, we are bodies that live and die, each of us randomly sorted into different situations, different cultures, different countries and it’s these things that shape our sense of who we are.
There are people for whom science is enough. To paraphrase Darwin, there’s a grandeur to this concept of life and its descent with modification through time and its tangled branches and the sudden bursts of evolution that Gould referred to as “punctuated equilibrium.” This is a gestalt that most naturalists come to feel through their observation of life’s many remarkable species.
But is science alone enough to sustain the human spirit, or psyche, that je ne sais quoi that some people call a “soul”? Perhaps, and perhaps not, depending on the individual. What science does, for me, is to throw into relief all the amazing works of mankind, from art, history, philosophy, literature, and music to the increasing technological achievements that accompanied the industrial revolution.
By the time I had begun to assimilate this naturalistic view, information technology was picking up the pace. Television, radio, newspapers and other media shaped us and moulded us in ways that perhaps only Marshall McLuhan could sort out. But that was merely a preface of things to come: the computer revolution.
From the late 70s onward the computer revolution picked up momentum until it reached nearly Biblical proportions: “And in that time a great change came across the land” [my paraphrase]. Computing became personal, portable, and profoundly ubiquitous.
Like others, I joined the revolution, pivoting my career from librarianship to Information Technology (IT). From the earliest whimsical days that included an ad in Byte Magazine for dBase II, entitled “dBASE II vs The Bilge Pump,” to the corporate adoption of personal computers as strategic tools in the workplace, to the computer (aka smartphone) in one’s pocket or purse, a virtual Pandora’s box of consequences was unleashed.
My work involved setting up workstations, email servers, database servers, storage servers, web servers, and firewalls, with a little programming tossed in for spice. I enjoyed decades of computing projects and by the time I retired, in 2006, the industry had progressed from 8-bit personal computers such as the Apple II, to 64-bit powerhouses running Microsoft Windows, MacOS, Linux, iOS, Android, and a few dozen lesser-known operating systems. Smartphones and tablets had become almost a birthright.
Computing begat digital photography, streaming audio and video, automobile electronics, appliance electronics, social networks, and, with lesser success, self-driving cars. I now listen to streaming music, watch streaming videos, and get my news and opinion pages from the Internet.
On another level, machine learning (ML) has grown and penetrated the Internet to such a degree that one can examine a product on Amazon and see ads for it within hours on Facebook. Privacy has suffered. The Internet, invented for the purpose of sharing scientific information, developed a dark side, the extent of which is still being assessed — surveillance, phishing attacks, the hacking of personal information, and possibly enough manipulation to sway elections.
The pace is still swift and the increasingly successful bids to harness Quantum Computing (whose basic unit of information is called a Qubit) will likely bring unforeseen changes. Nothing stands still.
“You can’t stop the future. You can’t rewind the past. The only way to learn the secret, is to press play” ~ Jay Asher, Thirteen Reasons Why
In my retirement, I’ve once again become a student. I read incessantly, both fiction and nonfiction, I take the occasional online course, and I think, if not profoundly, at least genuinely. It aids thinking to have a philosophical framework to compare one’s thoughts to, and I continue to find the challenge of existentialism worthwhile for this. It’s an honest philosophy, derived from the human spirit looking at an irrational and uncaring, absurd, universe and deciding to carve out a personal meaning for being human. It’s a difficult challenge (never underestimate existential angst) but it’s more open and honest than clinging to a derived set of values, liberal or conservative, from those around us.
I’m beginning to understand why Camus used the story of Sisyphus to highlight the challenge. In the Greek myth, Sisyphus was condemned to roll a huge boulder to the top of a hill. Every time he reached the top, the boulder would roll back to the bottom and he was required to repeat the procedure, for eternity. “Camus claims that when Sisyphus acknowledges the futility of his task and the certainty of his fate, he is freed to realize the absurdity of his situation and to reach a state of contented acceptance. With a nod to the similarly cursed Greek hero Oedipus, Camus concludes that ‘all is well,’ indeed, that ‘one must imagine Sisyphus happy.’” [Wikipedia, “The Myth of Sisyphus”]
It would be neat and tidy, at this final stage of my life, to wrap up my thoughts with a pretty bow attached, but I’m unable to do so. There have always been random elements in our story that change the story itself: a colliding meteor, a world war, an economic depression, climate change, the overthrowing of the monarchy and aristocracy, the re-establishment of a wealthy set of plutocrats, the place you were born, the family you emerged from, the schools you attended, the number of freedoms, or lack thereof, of the prevailing government, and, not least, who you fall in love with. It is difficult to piece all this together into a holistic understanding. I am, in my final years, still waiting — waiting for gestalt.