When I recently purchased a new set of hearing aids to replace my old, failing pair, it reminded me of when my wife and I traded in our 15-year-old station wagon for a new mini-SUV automobile. Car technology had changed enormously in the interim. Rear-view camera, lane drift alert, automatic windshield wipers — things that were new to us and highly welcome.
With my new hearing aids (Philips 9030 miniRITE T R, sold at Costco), the sound is much better than my earlier-generation Oticons, with less screeching, and there is an app (HearLink) that works as a remote control from my phone or iPad. The new devices are rechargeable, freeing me from having to carry around small zinc-air batteries.
Best of all, the new hearing aids have Bluetooth (BT) built-in. They can answer my iPhone and, with the embedded microphone, allow me to talk “hands free” on the phone while driving, should I need this feature.
Truth be told, though, as a senior living during the Covid era, I don’t drive all that often, so this option is less important to me than it would be for others. However, the ability to listen to audiobooks, streaming music, and YouTube videos directly from my hearing aids while using my iPad Mini is a sheer joy.
I’ll be the first to admit that the sound quality, which I find perfectly acceptable for casual use, is not in the high fidelity range. For that, I have my Apple Airpod Pros and a pair of Bose BT headphones with noise cancellation.
The hearing-aid bass response is thin, though the built-in equalizer helps boost the lower range. Treble is strong, and human voices such as the narrators of audiobooks are clearly heard and easily understood, with the exception of some of the Scottish and British dialects of my favourite UK mystery and espionage novels.
Using the hearing aids with Bluetooth reminds me very much of my childhood years when pocket transistor AM radios first came to market. Despite their poor sound quality, they opened up an entire new way of listening to radio — private listening.
Private listening got another big boost when the Sony Walkman was released, and then again when Sony released the Discman for privately listening to CDs. Private listening transformed into a cultural phenomenon with the advent of the Apple iPod and other MP3 players.
Now even they have been superseded by smartphones and tablets delivering streaming music via Spotify, Apple Music, or Prime Audio. Not to mention podcasts, TV shows, movies, and YouTube videos.
Earbuds have become a way of life, and BT hearing aids double as your always-ready, always-on earbuds.
Seen from this perspective, these new little devices tucked discretely behind your ears, greatly help with the inevitable hearing loss many of us experience as we age. Add BT to this and being a bit deaf isn’t so bad after all.
Gene Wilburn is a Canadian writer, photographer, and retired IT professional.
When you look at the number of writing applications available to writers, whether novelists, short story writers, essayists, or nonfiction writers, you see an almost bewildering number of choices. The time-honored notion that you should use the right tool for the right job sounds good in principle, but what, exactly, is the right tool?
It’s a cliché to say that each writer is different, and that no set of writing tools will be right for all authors. For instance, Canadian SF writer Robert J. Sawyer and American SF writer George R.R. Martin, two highly successful writers, still use WordStar, an ancient, but capable, word processor from the days of CP/M and MS-DOS.
That, of course, doesn’t mean that switching to WordStar will make you a successful writer too. Writing happens in the brain, usually coming out through the hands resting on a keyboard, regardless of the application being used.
Even so, when you find the writing app that suits you best, the app works with you seamlessly, fading into the background as you create your story. Every app has its advocates, and it can be a good idea to try out different approaches to writing to see which type of writing app clicks with you the most.
Essentially, there are three general categories of writing apps:
Full-fledged word processors with all the bells and whistles to create everything from short stories to business reports full of graphics, or graduate-school theses.
Specialized word processing apps designed specifically for writers, with a writer’s needs in mind.
DIY apps that take a minimalist approach to writing, providing uncluttered text editors and usually employing Markdown for text attributes.
Let’s see where you fit in.
Millions of writers use Microsoft Word, the gold standard for word processors. It’s a complete office-oriented app and publishers everywhere can accept Word .docx files. The latest version of Word, in Microsoft 365, even offers a focus mode, that allows you to view your work on a blank screen, similar to such functions in apps like Scrivener.
Despite its widespread use, not all writers either like, or can afford, Word. Its ribbon menus drive some writers nuts, and others have have had bad experiences with Word in terms of stability. Still, if you don’t mind the menus and you can afford the annual subscription, you’ll never go amiss using Word. The current version of Word runs on Windows, Mac, iOS, and Android, which means you can use it on tablets and phones. There is also a cloud version.
If you’re one of those writers who liked the versions of Word prior to its ribbon menus, there’s the open-source and free LibreOffice Writer. It has much of the look and feel of Word from the past, and it has a reputation for being rock solid. LibreOffice can convert its files to Word and many other formats, including Epub. You also get the rest of the LibreOffice suite with it, including a spreadsheet, presentation program, drawing program, and database app. LibreOffice runs in Windows, Mac, and Linux, but not on iOS or Android.
Many writers have discovered the general excellence of Google Docs, a cloud-based word processing app that covers all the basics and is terrific for collaboration. Used in a browser, Google Docs is accessible from every operating system, including ChromeOS for Chromebooks. There are also iOS and Android versions of Google Docs for use on tablets and phones. Google Docs can export to Word format (as well as plain text).
Mac users may be drawn to Apple’s Pages, a very attractive word processor that comes free with a Mac. It’s also available on iOS for iPads and iPhones. It’s one of the easiest word processorsto use and it integrates well with other Apple software, such as Numbers. It too can export to Word format. Pages is a solid choice for those who work entirely within the Apple ecosystem.
All of the above, plus a few lesser-known word processors, can get the job done. If you’re happy using one of these applications, there is no reason to switch to something else. You have everything you need.
Specialty Word Processors
On the other hand, if you find word processors to be, well, a bit boring, there’s a tier of specialty writing apps that have turned the heads of a lot of writers who swear by them and who swear they’d never go back to a word processor after using them. The best known of these, and probably the most widely used, is Scrivener.
Scrivener, from an English company called Literature & Latte, was designed from the ground up to meet the needs of serious writers, rather than the word-processing needs of office workers. It offers views of your writing that are extremely useful, including an equivalent of storing everything in a spiral notebook, corkboard views, the ability to include synopses, and a place to store your research and your character and plot ideas. It has templates for novels, nonfiction, and screen writing.
Scrivener can output to Word, of course, but also to rich-text format, HTML, OpenOffice/LibreOffice, Final Draft, Fountain Screenplay, plain text, PDF, and Markdown.
Scrivener has become the gold standard for a writer-oriented, specialized word processor. It runs on Mac and Windows, as well as iOS. There is no Linux or Cloud version. It is a commercial program that you must purchase, but there is no subscription required.
Another up-and-comer in the specialty writing category is Ulysses, a Markdown-based word creator with a minimalist interface, similar to other Markdown editors, but with some Scrivener-like features like a way to package your writing together and easily rearrange parts, like chapters. It has the usual export features. One of the distinguishing features of Ulysses is its beautiful interface. That alone might convince you to make an annual subscription to use the software. Unfortunately Ulysses works only on Macs and iOS.
The most specialized writing app I’ve used is LyX, which calls itself a “document processor.” This is an app for techies who also write. It’s a front end to the powerful TeX/LaTeX typesetting system and can be used to produce beautiful books and articles, especially those with an academic purpose. It has deep support for creating mathematical equations, abstracts, supported graphics, and all elements of traditional book publishing, including front matter, back matter, footnotes, endnotes, and bibliographies. I include it here because I believe it should be better known. A free, open-source product, it runs on Linux, Mac, and Windows. It’s definitely not “easy,” but if you’re looking for something that can create formal books and reports, this is it. It can produce beautiful novels and Epub ebooks, too.
DIY Word Processing Systems
For the DIY (Do It Yourself) crowd, the way to go is with Markdown. I’d have put Ulysses in this category except for its additional features, but the rest are pure Markdown editors with one job only, to help you write words with a minimum of fuss and bother. Anything you need to do with your words after they’re written is up to you.
A Markdown editor is simply a plain text editor, full stop. Any text editor will do, from Notepad in Windows to TextEdit on Mac, to any number of text editors in Linux. You can use oldies like Vim and Emacs or use a more dedicated Markdown editor.
One of the most universal Markdown editors I’ve used is Ghostwriter, available for Windows, Mac, and Linux. It’s a free, open-source editor that just gets the job done but with a few niceties like keyboard shortcuts for inserting Markdown notation.
My personal favorite Markdown editor is iA Writer, a commercial product available for Mac, Windows, iOS, and Android. I’ve used it for years and it’s never let me down. On its own it can output to HTML, Word, and PDF. It has dark mode support and one of the least cluttered interfaces around. iA Writer was once free and had at one time sponsored NaNoWriMo, so it’s already known to many writers. The commercial edition is modestly priced and doesn’t require a subscription, like Ulysses. That, by itself, tips me toward iA Writer.
Typora is another solid Markdown editor, freely available for Linux and Windows (no Mac version). I’ve not used it yet myself, but, in addition to distraction-free writing, it offers an outline panel and a wider range of exports than iA Writer. It looks like a good offering.
One last app I’ll mention in the DIY section is Joplin. It bills itself as a note-taking app, a kind of Markdown-oriented Evernote. Open source and free, it is available for Mac, Windows, Linux, iOS, and Android. It includes a built-in Markdown editor, plus a rich-text editor, and can as easily be used for writing as for note-taking. The organizational framework it offers gives it a bit of a Scrivener and Ulysses vibe. In my experience, it syncs well across platforms. One feature that grabs me is that it can also invoke an external editor, such as iA Writer, when you’re writing with it, storing the story in Joplin itself.
Ultimately, as a writer, you are what you write, not what you use to write with. Nonetheless, each of us develops preferences for which tools we like, and there’s no lack of options.
It’s worth experimenting with different writing tools to see which ones attract you, and why. Most of the commercial ones offer a free trial period, and you can experience the open-source ones at leisure. When the tool fits, you’re more productive.
The main thing is to get the job done. Happy writing!
Gene Wilburn is a Canadian writer, photographer, and retired IT specialist
Here are some of the reasons why you might want to try out Linux, the free, alternative computer operating system:
You’re adventurous and willing to try something new.
You’re broke and can’t afford to keep up with software prices and subscriptions.
You have an older PC or laptop you’d like, or need, to use beyond its best-by date.
You’re going into STEM studies and need a more technical computing environment.
You’re a rebel who dislikes the near monopoly of Microsoft and Apple.
You’re a skeptic who wants to see if Linux is as good as its users claim.
You want to be as cool as your techie roommate.
_You want to attract love interests_ (Sorry, N/A)
If you find yourself in this list, or have a special need of your own, let’s take a layman’s view of Linux without getting overly technical.
The Linux Operating System
Linux, like MacOS and Windows, is a computer operating system that runs on PC desktops and laptops. Unlike MacOS and Windows, there is no corporation that owns it. It was built by volunteer programmers around the world who not only created the operating system, but also most of the software that it runs.
Linux was borne of many early grassroots computing projects, including those of the Free Software Foundation (FSF) that created what are known as the GNU utilities. A University of Helsinki student, Linus Torvalds (who has long since moved to the United States), created the Linux kernel, the core of the operating system which, when combined with the GNU utilities, created a complete operating system sometimes called GNU/Linux but more frequently is called just Linux.
From the early 1990s when Linux was first introduced, until today, Linux has undergone a tremendous era of growth and improvement in which it has become a modern operating system that measures up well against the ones from Microsoft and Apple.
While Linux is a distant third behind Windows and Mac in terms of general use on personal PCs, in the technical world Linux is frequently the operating system of choice. Linux is also widely used as an Internet server for web services. And if your phone is an Android, you’re already using a modified version of Linux behind the scenes without even knowing it.
What Does Linux Offer?
Because Linux is a community-supported operating system, it’s not monolithic like MacOS or Windows. Because there is so much choice available, different groups of developers have packaged Linux in different ways. These packages are called “distributions” or “distros” and there are many to choose from. They vary from lean, tight distributions that will still work well on old PCs, to slick, larger distros with all of the bells and whistles one expects from a major operating system.
There are several distros that emphasize ease of use and installation. These are ideal for new users. Linux Mint is but one example of a good beginner’s distro with user-friendly software included, such as Firefox, LibreOffice, Thunderbird Mail, and an easy interface that a Mac or Windows user can feel right at home with.
There is another sense of choice that is more philosophical. People often choose Linux because they believe in what its developers are doing. In a departure from corporate greed for profits, Linux is entirely free to download and use.
Nearly every kind of software that most people use on their computers has a counterpart in Linux. Most of this is open-source software created by communities of programmers working with each other. There are browsers, office apps such as word processors, spreadsheets, and presentation software, as well as photo editors, sound editors, video editors, 2D and 3D creation packages, and chat software, not to mention the more technical computer languages that are freely available to users.
Some widely used software such as Firefox and Chrome have Linux versions, and there are native Linux clients for Dropbox, Zoom, and Skype. And if you absolutely must have access to Microsoft Office for collaboration with others, you can use Office for the Web. Similarly, photographers and designers can use the web version of Photoshop, though there are open-source programs such as Gimp (GNU Image Manipulation Program) that are worthy alternatives.
In other words, there is no shortage of native Linux apps to choose from.
One area where Linux falls short, however, is for gaming. Serious gamers are pretty much stuck with Windows, although Linux, like MacOS, offers some quality games of its own, and offers a client for Steam streaming games.
The first principle of computer security is that no operating system is totally secure. This applies to Linux in the same way it applies to MacOS and Windows. The difference is that when exploits are discovered in Linux, they are fixed quickly. Neither Apple nor Microsoft is as quick to deliver fixes. It’s easier to keep a Linux computer up to date with the latest security fixes.
There is a strong sense of community among Linux users. Each Linux distro provides user forums where users can ask and answer questions and pick the brains of more advanced users. This is especially helpful to those who venture forth into using Linux as a home server for sharing a printer or as a backup server for storing personal files.
The satisfaction factor in using Linux can be very high, if you click with it (no pun intended). Openly admitting that Linux is not for everyone, it can be deeply satisfying for those who respond to its charms. That person might be you.
How Do I Get Started?
There are distros that are very beginner friendly, providing easy installation procedures and help in getting oriented to the system. Here is a good overview of some of the best distros for beginners:
If your Windows PC desktop or laptop has sufficient disk space, you can install Linux side-by-side with Windows, booting into either system. If you have an older PC around, you can use one of the lightweight beginner’s distros to bring it back to life.
Modern Linux distributions are easy to install and recognize most hardware components such as built-in wifi adapters, Bluetooth, and ports including USB-A, -B, and -C. It supports HDMI ports and SD card ports as well. Overall, Linux has very good printer support.
You can use Linux without have to type commands into a Linux terminal, though as you grow into Linux, you may discover the power of the command line. Technical users will love the command-line programs and utilities.
For all the reasons mentioned, Linux makes an attractive alternative to Windows and MacOS. It should be mentioned that Macs are inherently Linux-like under the hood and that if you are technically inclined, you can install more up-to-date open-source utilities by installing Homebrew, making the Mac even more Linux like.
Windows users can install Microsoft’s Windows Subsystem for Linux or WSL as it is called. This will install a version of Ubuntu Linux that you can run concurrently with Windows.
Neither of these options, however, is as satisfying as a dedicated Linux system, complete with one of the attractive graphical user interfaces that some users find more logical and easier to use than either MacOS or Windows.
Sure, you know what a meme is. It’s a picture with words, usually humorous, sometimes acerbic. You see dozens of them each day if you’re on social media. You probably share really funny ones with friends. And, as you’ve seen, there are hundreds of cat memes floating around the Internet.
But did you know that the word meme has strayed from its intended meaning?
Meme is not an old word. It is a word coined by Richard Dawkins in 1975 in his landmark book on biology, The Selfish Gene. It is a foreshortening of the Greek word mimēma ‘that which is imitated.’ It was intended to signify ideas that spread through a population in the manner of a gene, though faster.
Think of ideas that have swept through populations: philosophical or religious beliefs, the idea of a renaissance, the concept of an age of reason, to highlight a few. On the societal side, think of political phrases like “lock her up” and “#metoo” that have spread far and wide.
In an interview with Newsbeat, Dawkins admitted that “I’m not going to use the term internet meme to refer to a picture with writing on it.” For Dawkins, memes are “ideas that spread from brain to brain — a bit like genes, they are replicated many times.”
And so it is that while gaining a popular new word for pictures with captions (now its primary meaning in dictionaries), we’ve mostly lost an intellectually useful word to explain how ideas spread.
One thing linguists always tell us: language is in a continual state of change. Words change meaning, and there’s nothing we can do to stop it. It’s the way language works. We may rue the change in the meaning of meme but it’s now a done deal.
As Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. often wrote, “And so it goes.”
Gene Wilburn is a Canadian writer, photographer, and retired IT specialist.
Words are … the most powerful drug used by mankind ― Rudyard Kipling
Words are the core stuff of writing―its quirks, quarks, roots, and branches. To form sentences and paragraphs, we use words. To express ideas, thoughts, plots, characters, dialogue, or scenes, we use carefully crafted combinations of words. The richer our vocabulary, the more precise and elegant we can be, not to impress the reader, but to seek le mot juste, the perfect word or words to describe or express something.
As a self-appointed dictionary evangelist, I believe all writers should love and use dictionaries. They’re the gateway into our language’s word horde, and English has the largest word horde of any language as measured by the number of entries in a dictionary — over a million words and counting.
Dictionaries provide not only the correct spelling of a word (including variant spellings), but also the definitions of words and the nuances of distinction between a word and a word with a similar, but not exact, meaning. Today’s online dictionaries even come with an audible pronunciation guide, to enable you to pronounce the word correctly in speech.
Selecting a Desktop English Dictionary
If you don’t already have a preference in dictionaries, and would like a print dictionary to keep on your desk, any of the so-called college desk dictionaries will provide you with an excellent companion and guide. Top Choices for American English include:
These dictionaries not only provide spelling, pronunciation, and syllabification, they define words, and give a bit of the word’s history, or etymology. These are among the most handy dictionaries available.
Canadian writers might also want to supplement one of the above with a paperback copy of theOxford Canadian Dictionary of Current English to check on Canadian spelling preferences for Canadian publications, such as colour instead of color and other words with -our spelling, and doubled consonants in words such as counselling.
Some of these dictionaries are also available in ebook format or as an app for phone or tablet. My favorite dictionary app for American English is provided by the august Merriam-Webster company, publisher of the definitive Third International as well as smaller dictionaries. On my iPad, I use the Merriam-Webster Dictionary and Thesaurus app almost daily and consider it the best dictionary app I’ve used. It can be obtained from the app store for your iOS or Android device.
If you simply want to quickly check the spelling of a word, Google (or your search engine of choice) is your friend. A quick check on Google will usually zero in on the spelling you want, even if you don’t spell it totally correctly.
Beyond Google, there are free online dictionaries that might suit your needs as well as a desk dictionary. Here are some that you might want to bookmark:
This site is a terrific aid to writers writing contemporary fiction and who want to include some of the latest in colloquial and slang terms and expressions. It’s kept very up to date on the latest words, some of which are at least semi-vulgar. You know. The way people actually talk. These recent words can add spice or variety to your character’s dialogue. E.g., Cape: “When someone is protecting, covering for or being a ‘hero’ for another person — ‘Lisa always gotta cape for Jay when he gets caught leaving early’.”
This is the most authoritative dictionary of the English language. It is famous for its etymologies and its historical citations that give examples, with dates, of how a word has been used in written English, from earliest recorded history of the language. The creation of the dictionary is the stuff of legend. Here’s a primer on the subject.
Bonus for fiction readers:Dictionary of Lost Words, by Pip Williams. A delightful novel about a young girl who grows up to womanhood working in the Scriptorium where the Oxford English Dictionary was created.
The downside of the online OED is that it requires a hefty annual subscription. However, some public library systems and colleges subscribe for the benefit of patrons and you may be able to access the dictionary for free through your library.
Simply one of the best. The website offers both dictionary and thesaurus listings from its carefully curated database. It seems on a par with the desk version of Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate. Note that it does display ads when using it for free.
The Cambridge dictionaries are another of the fine set of professionally created dictionaries available online. You can toggle it to either US or UK English, making it especially handy for Canadian writers. It too contains ads.
Wiktionary is a popular site for looking up words. It has been created in the same manner as Wikipedia, by volunteers. It presents a less attractive interface than the previous dictionaries but it offers, according to its opening page, over a million words in English. It may be one of the best places to find the definition of technical words and terms. It provides some etymologies as well and it’s totally free, with no ads.
Here’s a site to bookmark by word lovers who are interested in the history of the words we speak and write. As it says on its opening page: “This is a map of the wheel-ruts of modern English. Etymologies are not definitions; they’re explanations of what our words meant and how they sounded 600 or 2,000 years ago.” Sheer fun and delight.
Word of the Day
An excellent way of increasing your awareness of words and their subtleties is to subscribe to the “Word of the Day” offerings from several of the dictionary companies. Each day in your email inbox you will find a word that is examined and explained, including its history of how it evolved into today’s meaning.
The sites that offer this list it on their front web page. I must admit I have a favorite:Merriam-Webster Word of the Day. It even has a companion podcast that is available from Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, and Spotify Podcasts. Merrriam-Webster also offers a more general podcast calledWord Matters.It describes itself this way: “Word Matters is a show for readers, writers, and anyone who ever loved their English class. Join Merriam-Webster editors as they challenge supposed grammar rules, reveal the surprising origins behind words, tackle common questions, and generally geek out about the beautiful nightmare that is language.”
What could be more fun than geeking out on words? Well, okay, maybe that’s an exaggeration, but as a writer our stock of words and our intimate knowledge of them is one of our best assets.
Gene Wilburn is a Canadian writer, photographer, and retired IT professional. He has a B.A. and M.A. in English with a specialty in the history of the English language.
For some years now I’ve been using Overdrive Media Player as my ebook reader and audiobook player for books and audiobooks borrowed from the public library. Overdrive is on my iPad, my MacBook, and my wife’s iPad. Between us we must have listened to or read several hundred borrowed library books. We like and enjoy Overdrive and, for our purposes, it’s an ideal library companion.
Recently, though, we learned that Overdrive (the company, based in Cleveland, Ohio) is replacing Overdrive Media Player with a different client app called Libby. In fact, they’re set to pull the plug on Overdrive Media Player by February, 2023. It’s no longer available in the various App Stores. Given that we’re now living on borrowed time, we added Libby to our tablets and laptops to get used to it, preparing ourselves to leave the Overdrive app forever.
It’s a truism in the software world that users don’t generally like changes to their interfaces, or having to switch to a different product. Word users balked at the “ribbon menus” of later versions of Word, and few Word users have switched to Google Docs or LibreOffice Writer. When you’re comfortable with an app, changes are painful. And so it was as we moved to using Libby.
The Overdrive interface is clean, neat, and tidy.
Whereas Libby is expansive, not as neat, and very chatty.
Of course beauty, being in the eye of the beholder, means that what one user likes, another wouldn’t. You can never please everyone, but on the whole I can move into Libby without overt trauma. Almost.
However, I’ve found two flaws in Libby.
Libby Doesn’t Allow You to Copy Text
I must say I was shocked when I discovered that you can’t copy and paste text from ebooks in Libby. This is something I do a lot in Overdrive, copying passages to my Notes app for research purposes, or quoting an opening line or paragraph when talking about an interesting book on Facebook. This, for me, is a serious deficiency.
Libby Doesn’t Support More Than One User Per Library Account
The reason why this might be a problem is simply this: Sometimes family members share the same Library card. For example, my wife and I live in the city of Mississauga, Ontario, adjacent to the city of Toronto. We each have a Mississauga Public Library borrowing card, but having previously lived in Toronto, we missed the larger selection of resources from the Toronto Public Library system. This we solved by purchasing a single extramural reader’s card for TPL. At a cost of over $100 per year, we didn’t feel we could each could afford one, so we share a single library account.
When we use Overdrive, we can each download books and ebooks from the library and our borrowings don’t get confused. If we’re reading the same book or listening to the same audiobook, our individual Overdrive apps keep our position locations discrete, which is great because we obviously don’t read or listen to the same book at the same pace.
Libby synchronizes its bookshelf automatically across devices, meaning that our separate reading locations get updated to whoever is farther along in the reading or listening. Then if one of us returns to a previous location, it resets it for the other one. Relocating your place, especially in an audiobook, is a painful experience.
Unfortunately, there is no setup mode in Libby that allows you to turn off synchronization, making it work more like Overdrive.
Better Font Sizing in Libby
Aside from those two problems, Libby is pleasant to use and, like Overdrive, allows you to choose your reading font, size it for your eyes, and choose between white, sepia, or black backgrounds. Black is especially good for reading at night. Both offer a timer to switch off your audiobook after a certain number of minutes, say 60 minutes, which is a godsend if you fall asleep while listening. You don’t have as far to backtrack.
One thing that has bugged me for years about Overdrive is its too-coarse adjustments of font size. I frequently hit that condition where the font is ether too small, or too large, with no steps in between. Libby has much finer font size adjustments. I can always seem to find that just-right “Goldilocks” font size when I’m reading on Libby, which gives Libby the edge for me on ebooks.
For the most part, I don’t anticipate great difficulty adjusting from Overdrive to Libby. I still prefer the clean, terse Overdrive user interface, but Libby is easy to use and is probably a better interface for new library users.
Overdrive (the company) only needs to fix two deficiencies: The ability to copy text from ebooks, and the option to turn off synchronization. If they can do that, I’ll give Libby full marks. Until then, it’s an app that just misses being great.
Gene Wilburn is a Canadian writer, photographer, and retired IT specialist..
When I started using Linux in the early 1990s, my first distro was Slackware, followed soon after by Red Hat. Eventually I discovered Debian Linux and it quickly became my favourite, especially after Red Hat evolved into an enterprise company.
Along the way I tried Ubuntu Linux and Linux Mint and liked both, partly because they were part of the Debian family of distributions. Over the years I’ve watched them become easier to use and more polished. I run the latest Linux Mint on my desktop machine.
Even so, I enjoy trying out different distributions to see what they offer. Of course, Linux is Linux, no matter which distribution — under the hood they pretty much all do the same things. Where they differ the most is in packaging systems, method of installation and maintenance, and the user interface.
My test computer for experimenting with distributions is a Lenovo Thinkpad E431 i3 laptop, introduced in 2010. It contains 4GB RAM and 500GB of hard disk. Not a speed demon, but it has plenty of memory and storage, and is supported by all the Linux distributions I’ve tried.
Using this laptop, I took a look at the no-nonsense Fedora 36 Workstation. Fedora is sponsored by Red Hat and is characterized as a “bleeding edge” distribution, continuously introducing the newest versions of applications. It is popular and has a large support community.
After loading the Fedora .iso file onto a stick disk, I booted it up on the Thinkpad and asked it to install to my hard disk. The installation procedure worked but was less explicit about what was going on than, say, an Ubuntu installation.
The only confusion I encountered was in letting it know it could blow away the existing Linux Mint and use the entire hard disk. There is less feedback than I’m accustomed to, and it was unclear to me whether I had set it to delete the existing partitions. It turned out to work fine, but I prefer the feedback I get with an Ubuntu-family install.
After Fedora booted up for the first time, it displayed the latest GNOME user interface, which left me wondering what to do. There were no docks or panels on the screen. My first hurdle was how to access stuff. I tried clicking at the corners and clicking on the background screen, to no avail. Then I pushed the Windows key, which led me to the dashboard, or “dash” as it seems to be called. From the dash I could launch selected software or invoke a full screen of installed apps, similar to Launchpad on a Mac.
I’ll never understand why most distributions, including Fedora, do not include a Terminal app in the initial dashboard. That’s always the first thing I need to use.
Fedora Workstation is highly integrated with GNOME and is configured to present an uncluttered screen, leaving most of the screen available to applications. I like this approach, especially when working on a restricted screen such as a laptop.
From apt to dnf
Instead of the apt command-line tool of the Debian variants, Fedora uses dnf for command line management of software installations. Fedora packages are .rpm files rather than .deb files and Fedora supports both Snap and Flatpack, which are increasingly used for software distribution. Fedora differs from Debian-based distros in its security mechanism. Ubuntu-family distros use AppArmor while Fedora uses SELinux.
In practice, switching to dnf is straightforward for an experienced Debian user.
In Debian distributions, you might install a software package such as btop by typing
sudo apt install btop
In Fedora you would type this instead
sudo dnf install btop
The two systems are similar enough that transitioning from apt to dnf presents no particular challenge.
Changing the Look & Feel
Although I find the GNOME interface interesting and slick, I couldn’t get comfortable with it, so, in the great Linux tradition, I added my favourite GUI, Cinnamon, as an alternate GUI with the simple command
sudo dnf install cinnamon
and, upon completion, Fedora installed the Cinnamon option. This significantly increased my comfort level.
I give Fedora 36 highest marks: It’s a great distribution. I suspect, though, that it’s a better Linux for experienced users than beginners. For those new to Linux I think Ubuntu or, particularly, Linux Mint, makes a better choice.
If you want to use a solid, leading edge Linux, and have a bit of Linux experience, Fedora is one of the top choices.
Gene Wilburn is a Canadian writer, photographer, and retired IT professional.
These days it seems as if every vendor of every product has jumped on the “service as subscription” bandwagon. While this might be good for vendors, providing a steadier income stream, it’s reaching a breaking point for customers. Worse, it’s often nothing more than a greedy money grab.
$18/Month to Warm Your Derrière
BMW has recently introduced a monthly subscription fee of $18US a month if you want access to the vehicles’ heated seats. Other car vendors are implementing a monthly subscription fee for remote-start key fobs.
“Earlier this year, Cox Automotive conducted a survey of 217 people who intend to buy a new car over the next two years. Only 25 percent said they’d be willing to pay a monthly or annual fee to unlock a feature in their vehicle. The remaining 75 percent said piss off. [my emphasis]
Remember, this is beyond the base price you pay for your family automobile, and it’s not just aimed at luxury cars.
How Much Monthly Streaming Services Cost in Canada
The following prices were what I could confirm as Canadian prices. U.S. pricing tends to be slightly lower.
Netflix Canada: $9.99 / $15.49 / 19.99 depending on the plan Crave: $9.99 for mobile devices, $19.99 for all platform HBO (ad-free): $19.35 YouTube (ad-free family plan): $17.99 BritBox: $8.99: Hulu (ad-free): $11.99 Wondrium: $20.00 (lower with quarterly or annual plans) Spotify: $9.95 Amazon Prime: $9.99 Cable or Fibre Plan: $50 (for basic package)
Depending on how many streaming services you subscribe to, you could be pushing $150 per month. It wasn’t so bad when there was just Netflix, but everyone jumped on the bandwagon, diluting the offerings on each service so that you’d need them all if you are a serious movie and TV buff.
And then there’s software. Adobe has always charged plenty for its software but, in recent years, seems to have found the subscription model more profitable. As a photographer, I purchased its last sales-based package of Photoshop CS6. Unfortunately, CS6 apps no longer run on my current Macs so the only option, if I want to continue to use Photoshop, is to subscribe to it for $9.99/month.
I did for a short while. Photoshop is more polished and better than ever, but is it worth over $100 per year to rent it? I’m not a professional photographer, and, being retired, my budget simply doesn’t stretch that far for a hobby. So I unsubscribed and purchased Affinity Photo outright. It’s a pretty fair substitute, and cost me a one-time $40, on sale.
As a writer, I’ve looked at software such as Ulysses. I use Markdown editors most of the time, and Ulysses is a very nice product, but is it worth $50/year in perpetuity (with probable increases in the subscription price along the way)?
We’re talking Markdown here, an open-source format. Any free Markdown editor does the job nicely, thank you.
Then there’s Microsoft Office. $79.00 per year for the personal edition, and $109.00 per year for one to six people (Canadian pricing). In a misleading sleight of hand, they put a “Buy now” button for the subscription, rather than the more honest “Rent now.”
If you need pure Microsoft, there’s no evading the cost, though the excellent open-source LibreOffice suite is free, as are the Google office modules like Docs and Sheets if you’re a student or a casual user.
It happens at the low end of software too. I’m amazed at the number of iPad utility apps from the App Store that only give you a free trial period, then charge you forever with a monthly subscription fee. Even for a calculator app.
The Bottom Line
No single subscription sounds terribly out of line, but the cumulative cost of subscriptions-as-service is an insidious trend for anyone on a low-to-moderate fixed income.
The bottom line is that many of us simply can’t afford to play this game. Or are unwilling to.
I’m booked solid. I will not rent any more software, streaming services, or automotive services, and I know I’m not alone. We simply can no longer afford it. I’m already deciding which services to drop.
Oh, yeah, what about Medium? I enjoy reading what Medium writers have published so I will probably continue to subscribe. But my loyalty is thin. If the price increases, I’m outa here.
Gene Wilburn is a Canadian writer, photographer, and retired IT specialist.
In my 76th year I decided to re-engage in the study of math. It’s important for seniors to keep their brains active, and entire books have been written about the plasticity of the brain and the desirability of keeping it stimulated. Yet one tires of a daily round of crosswords, sudokus, and Solitaire.
Even so, why math? Partly it’s because math fascinates me with its precision, logic, elegance, and beauty. Plus, math is hard. Hard, but not unreasonably hard. It requires effort, which is the point of studying it. Math is also open ended—you can grow with it, taking it as far as your ability allows. This makes math a progressively stimulating brain exercise. There’s always something new to challenge your thinking.
To put my relationship with math in perspective, some background is in order. Before immigrating to Canada and becoming a Canadian citizen, I grew up in the U.S. at the time the former Soviet Union shocked the world by launching Sputnik I, the first man-made orbiting satellite, in 1957. This triggered a call for a new generation of scientists and engineers.
President Ike and the Republican Party (which in those days was pro science) highly encouraged students to study science and engineering —today called S.T.E.M. studies —to catch up with the Russians and to usher in a new scientific and technological era. The transistor had been invented, television was transitioning from black-and-white to colour, rockets were sitting, and sometimes exploding, on launch pads, and exciting things were afoot. I wanted to be part of it.
Being an impressionable teen who, though tall, played basketball rather poorly and baseball even worse, I decided I’d become an engineer rather than pursue my childhood fantasy of becoming a sports star. I wasn’t sure, exactly, what engineers did for a living, but I owned a pair of engineering boots and thought them grand. In my naïveté I imagined that any profession where wearing them was considered de rigeur was the profession for me.
And so I began the math studies of a typical university-bound high schooler of the day: algebra 1, plane geometry, algebra 2, analytic geometry, and a mishmash of precalculus, including trigonometry, functions, slopes of lines, and limits . I was a solid B+ student, decent but plodding.
Off I went to university, slide rule dangling from my belt in a leather holster. I spent my first year flailing away at calculus, chemistry, engineering drawing, and vector analysis and doing poorly in all of them. The only class I liked, and excelled at, was English Composition.
In a life-changing epiphany, it occurred to me that I could switch majors to English, which I did, and for which I’ve been grateful my entire life. I changed abruptly from S.T.E.M. studies to the Humanities, and I couldn’t have been happier. Literature, philosophy, history, French language, art, and music became my focus. I didn’t miss mathematics at all —then.
But life is strange, taking unexpected turns. In the end, against any reasonable probability, I became a kind of engineer after all. Propelled by a deep fascination with personal computers, I self-studied my way into the field of Information Technology, learning the skills needed to undertake a new profession: programming, database design, networking, web design, and infrastructure management. Over the years I’ve worked in IT, variously, in a cultural agency, a government department, a small business operation, and a large financial organization, all in Toronto. It has been an engaging and satisfying career.
Now, as I enter what are sometimes referred to as the “Twilight Years,” I find myself re-attracted to the study of math, though not with any specific goal in mind other than keeping my brain supple by challenging myself with problem solving that transcends crosswords and sudokus.
With this goal in mind, I ordered a widely-used university textbook on precalculus. My god, I thought, can a math textbook really cost $170? How do today’s students afford them? The sticker price caused my senior’s fixed income to stutter. At least the graphing calculator app I selected for my iPad was free.
Ever since the book arrived, I have attempted to learn at least one new concept each day, or to work on an existing set of math problems until I get them right. Speed is not an issue. Slow and steady is the path.
Not that math study has so far helped me remember why I’m standing in the pantry, staring at the food shelves, or trying to recall what day of the week it is, but gradually, almost imperceptibly, I sense that my memory is improving. This is anecdotal, to be sure, but when I mentioned to my family doctor that I was reviewing math, he was delighted to hear it and encouraged me to continue, saying that he wished more of his senior patients would engage in a similar pursuit.
I’m aware that the study of math is the last thing in the world most seniors would want to undertake. Too many of them have had unpleasant experiences with it during their school years. Nor is the study of math something you can readily share with family or friends. People are impressed if you tell them you made a hole-in-one playing golf yesterday, or even if you finished under par, but they’re not perceptibly eager to hear that you successfully solved and graphed a dozen polynomial nonlinear inequalities.
Studying math is a solitary pursuit, almost a meditation on the nature of numbers. What distinguishes my study today from my studies as a young student is that there are no deadlines or exams. I can take my time. But I no longer wear engineering boots; they’ve been swapped out for fuzzy house slippers.
My friend and colleague Mark mentioned to me recently that one of his clients was interested in having a search engine on their website and did I have any ideas?
The scenario was this: the site is an informational site, with monthly updates and is hosted in the AWS cloud. It runs in a minimal instance of Linux, with only 1 GB RAM and very tight storage. It’s not an e-commerce site. Was there something small and lean enough to serve?
Mark and I had once worked together on a project for a different client where we installed Apache Solr to build a sophisticated search engine for large amounts of data, but Solr would be massive overkill for the site in question.
GNU Grep to the Rescue
As I thought about a solution for this small site, I immediately thought of grep, the open-source search utility with a long Unix heritage that can absolutely rip through text files to search for words or phrases and show them in context. All it needs are some text files to aim at.
The site in question has a large number of PDF files and HTML files. What, I thought, if copies of these were converted to plain text files and placed in data directory where grep could rapidly search through them? Text files could substitute for the usual inverted index of search engines and, at the same time, have a much smaller footprint on the system. The client wasn’t looking for fancy searches.
Similarly, grep doesn’t need much memory to run in. Furthermore, a lightweight website search engine based on grep could be built with a few day’s programming and testing. After getting the go-ahead to start programming, I invoked vim and began building a simple system.
Building the Text Database, or Index
I knew I’d use Pandoc to convert html files to plain text, but I needed something to convert the PDFs. I discovered the command-line utility pdftotext that is part of xpdf-tools in Linux. (For MacOS, Homebrew installs the utility when you install xpdf.) Between these two, pandoc and pdftotext, I had to tools for building a text database.
To that end, I wrote a batch-processing script in Perl, buildindex.pl that takes the results of a find command that selects all the PDF and HTML files on the site, and processed them through pandoc or pdftotext, putting the resulting text files into a collective data directory called textdata. The script also checks an exclude.txt file that can used to exclude directories that contain private information.
Embedded Filename Metadata
GNU Grep is not a fully-featured search engine, but with a little help from the GNU ls command I was able to prepend the date of last creation or update (mtime format) to the filename so it could later be sorted into most recently updated work to display at the top of a search.
The batch script populates the textdata directory with files that look like this:
Breaking this down, the initial part of the saved text file — 1645460076dot2987186510 — is the date in mtime format.
The word dot indicates an initial dot (.) in the relative pathname, and every _99_ represents a forward slash (/) in the original pathname. The added new file extension is .txt.
This metadata allows the search program to quickly reconstruct the path back to the original document, and to replace .txt with the original extension name.
The Search Module
The client’s website is powered by PHP, so that is the language I used for the search module.
A search form module, searchform.php, prompts for a search term or phrase, which is then passed to the main search program, search.php. The search.php script, in turn, calls on grep to do the search and stores the results in an array that is then reverse sorted. Looping through the array, the search script reconstructs the full path and original extension of the filename, turning it an <a href> HTML link.
To make the results easier to read, search terms found in the results are highlighted in red, to make them stand out in context. Overall appearance is controlled in HTML with an embedded CSS style sheet.
The results, reflecting the song lyrics in my test site, look like this:
Context and Word Boundaries
To refine the search somewhat, the searchform.php file offers two checkboxes. The first allows the searcher to search on whole words and phrases, or do stem searching. In a whole word search, the default setting, the word “train” for example would find instances of “train”, “Train”, or “TRAIN” as a whole word surrounded by spaces or by punctuation. A stem search on “train” would find “train”, “Train”, or “TRAIN” as well, but also things like “trains,” “training,” and “restrain.” This is sometimes useful as an option.
The second checkbox specifies the amount of context surrounding the search term. The default is up to 90 characters on either side of the term. Unchecking the box results in a context of three lines of text: the line before the search term is found, the line it’s in, and the line following.
To keep the search index, or text data directory, in sync with the information on the site, the buildindex.plscript uses brute force. It deletes everything in textdata/ and rebuilds it from scratch. What this lacks in sophistication it makes up for it in efficiency. It takes no more than five minutes to rebuild the index for the entire site, which can be run manually when needed, or run as a cron job at desired times.
To our delight, this lightweight, batch-oriented search engine is speedy, and is well suited to the needs of the client. In honour of grep, we named the search system Greppy.
Greppy follows the Unix philosophy of using existing discrete utilities combined together to process text files. There is no need to reinvent the wheel.
To make this engine available to others who might have a use for it, it is available here at Github.
Gene Wilburn is a Canadian IT specialist and technical writer