Early Baez: A Tribute


By Gene Wilburn

Album Cover Copyright Vanguard Records

I just read on Facebook that it was Joan Baez’s 83rd birthday. I’m only trailing her by a handful of years and, in a way, Baez and I grew up together, meaning we both passed through the same turbulent time periods. Not that I ever met her. I was just another fan, but her voice accompanied me through the early folk revival years, the Vietnam War, Civil Rights, and her singing introduced me to Bob Dylan.

I was seventeen in 1962 when I first heard Joan Baez on my transistor radio. She was singing the traditional ballad “Barbara Allen” and I was struck by two things: her beautiful, sad, gentle pitch-perfect soprano voice, and her guitar work. She played the song in D, if I recall correctly, using inverted arpeggios.

I was just learning my first few chords on a beat-up old guitar that had a turnbuckle on the back to keep the fingerboard from snapping off. I tried imitating her playing and found I could do it, a little. I couldn’t match her singing, of course. I was a teenage male without a great voice, but I could at least sing more or less in tune.

From that point on, she became my favourite folk singer, and, unbeknownst to her, my first guitar instructor.

The next year, 1963, I was struggling as an eighteen-year-old freshman engineering student at the University of Arizona, Tucson. I was failing chemistry and just getting by in calculus and feeling miserable about my prospects, but nonetheless it was a great year for folk music. I’d been to live performances of the New Christie Minstrels, the Clancy Brothers, Mike Settle, Joe and Eddie, and those enigmatic Tucson favourites, Bud and Travis.

I had acquired a cheap used Goya flamenco guitar which I used as a folk guitar. By this time I was listening to the early Baez albums over and over to pick up more of her guitar techniques. I was learning other folk styles as well, but there was something in the way Baez played that always drew me back.

My engineering roommate and some other engineering dorm buddies and I had planned a trip to the Grand Canyon to hike down and back up the Bright Angel Trail but an unexpected event intervened. It was announced, on short notice, that Joan Baez would perform a concert in the university auditorium, so I let my friends hike in the canyon without me. There was no way I was going to miss this.

I bought a medium-priced ticket and attended the concert. I think it happened on a university break because the seats weren’t filled. But the audience was attentive, enthusiastic, and adoring.

With no introduction by an announcer, Baez simply stepped out from behind the curtains into the spotlight, walked up to the mic, turned her Martin guitar around and sang her first song of the night. It cast a spell on us. The sound coming out of the many AR-3 speakers in the hall (engineering students notice such things) was purer than any recording I’d heard. She was even better live than she was on record, and she played song after song of her early ballad material. She also played some early Dylan which we all loved.

Because there were empty seats near the front, I moved into a first-class seat close to the stage where I could watch her play.

To this day I think Baez is an underrated guitarist. She wasn’t a guitar virtuoso, and played the standard folk/country chords, but what she did with them was something special. Her guitar not only provided accompaniment to her beautiful singing, it served as a second voice. She had a deft, confident technique (I never heard a single clunker) and while she was singing a lot was going on with her guitar.

In tunes like “John Riley,” “Girl of Constant Sorrow,” “East Virginia,” “Donna Donna,” and “All My Trials,” her guitar joined her in harmony, played mostly on the bass lines. In “Wildwood Flower” you could hear that she’d been influenced by Maybelle Carter, yet she moulded the technique into her own.

Baez had a remarkable way of using her guitar as an amplifier of her sung lyrics. In both “Henry Martin” and “Mary Hamilton” her sudden light double stringing on the bass strings brought forth dramatic moments of the ballads. Subtle and beautifully effective, cradling her clear soprano voice.

I’ve been to many folk concerts since then, and heard many better guitarists, but few folk artists ever matched the exquisite combination of Joan Baez’s voice and her single guitar accompaniment.

Not long after, the early Beatles bombarded the air waves, and the folk movement was more or less washed away. This led to the psychedelic era of rock, and folk music was largely forgotten and ignored, except for established folk festivals like Newport and Mariposa.

Baez, too, changed with the times and her work became increasingly singer-songwriter oriented, including some masterpieces from her own pen, like “Diamonds and Rust.” But even in that iconic song, her lovely guitar accompaniment underscores the lyrics.

When I see photos of the current Baez, she’s smiling a lot. I get the impression that she’s lived the good life and fought the good fight, and has achieved an inner peace. She still looks lovely.

But my memories harken back to the sad-eyed, serious early Baez who started me on the path of folk singing, something I continue to this day.

I owe her a great debt of thanks. Dear Joan, to me you are forever young.


If you are new to early Baez recordings, you can sample her at https://music.youtube.com/playlist?list=OLAK5uy_lvlmIBhrHo_Munfas0UYXIJVsr3UhBdyk&si=KeNlIyG5sKFBwLnOhttps://music.youtube.com/playlist?list=OLAK5uy_lvlmIBhrHo_Munfas0UYXIJVsr3UhBdyk&si=KeNlIyG5sKFBwLnO

Klondike Solitaire with a Twist: A New Approach to an Old Game

By Gene Wilburn

Solitaire may have started as a fortune-telling game. Image DALL-E 3, requested by the author

Origins

The game of Solitaire, also known as Patience, has an indeterminate origin. The entry for “Solitaire” on the Britannica website suggests that a group of card solitaire games originated in the Baltic region of Europe, possibly as a form of fortune telling, sometime in the late-18th century.1

The first recorded mention of solitaire comes from France, as the French name for the game — Patience — implies. Spreading through Europe and the UK, the game of solitaire had many, perhaps hundreds of variants.

The North American version of solitaire that is best know is called Klondike, or Klondike Solitaire, thought to have originated in the Klondike region of Canada during the Klondike Gold Rush (1896–1899). This, for me, has always conjured up an image of solitary prospectors stuck in primitive miner’s cabins during fierce winters, playing solitaire in what little light was available, but the sources suggest otherwise. The game seems more likely to have evolved as a gambling game to be played in the gambling establishments in Dawson City, Yukon. It was also popular in the gambling spots in Skagway, Alaska, where fortune hunters arrived from and departed for the gold fields.2

As a parlour card game, Klondike has been a pastime for thousands, possibly millions, of card-playing North Americans.

But Klondike Solitaire received its greatest boost in popularity when Microsoft included it in Windows 3.0 (released in May, 1990) as a way to train users new to graphical user interfaces how to drag and drop selected items with a mouse. The impact of this was significant because it became one of the most-used Windows programs and it spread the game as a pastime to millions of computer users.3

Later, it generated another gold rush of sorts when software developers vied for creating the most popular Solitaire app for the iPad, iPhone, and other mobile devices. Computer versions of Solitaire, along with Sudoku, crossword puzzles, jigsaw puzzles, and other such games remain highly popular with users. I find solace in Solitaire when sitting in the waiting room for a medical appointment and the doctor is running far behind schedule. (The Solitaire app I use most of the time is Real Solitaire, produced by EdgeRift, Inc. because I like its design and interface. Microsoft Solitaire is also excellent.)

The Twist

The variant of Solitaire I always play is 3-card Klondike. I find it satisfactorily challenging, but I found I seldom won, despite the source that that puts the upward odds of winning at 3-card Klondike at 82%.4 However, a different study came up with the more realistic odds of 43% of winning.5 By this standard you should win at a nearly 50% rate.

The problem is that this just isn’t so. I may not be a great solitaire player, but I’m not bad, and my actual winning percentage was much lower (6%). This is so much lower that I came up with a twist to make the game more enjoyable. I decided to set a winning number (according to the traditional scoring rules) based on points. After some experimentation, I found what, for me, was the Goldilocks number: 150.

DALL-E 3, requested by the author

So, if my score reaches 150, that’s a win. If I attain what is a traditional win, I call that a “sweep.”

A simple twist, but it made the game much more equitable.

I’ve now played 3-card Klondike with this twist for a few years and it occurred to me that it would be interesting to keep track of my scores over several weeks and then take a look at the numbers.

Because none of my Solitaire apps is set up to record each game’s score, I used QuickNotes on my iPad to manually enter each game’s score in a comma-separated file. Every Sunday I would transfer this file to my laptop, then erase the contents of QuickNotes to prepare for the next week’s numbers. On my laptop I wrote a Bash script to concatenate the weekly files into a long working dataset that I could then analyze with a few Python scripts.

For this experiment I collected 14 weeks of game scores, from October 1st to December 31st, 2023.

The Results

First, the overall stats:

Items in full_list: 5854
Items in short_list: 5529
Items in sweep_list: 325
Items in win_list: 2553
Win percentage: 49 %
Sweep percentage: 6 %

In 14 weeks of playing Solitaire, I played 5854 games and recorded their scores. Of those 325 games resulted in “sweeps,” which is “wins” in traditional scoring. This means that, in traditional scoring, I won 6% of my games. No wonder I needed a new target for winning. When I add all my new “win” stats — 150 or better–I have a 49% chance of winning, though as we shall see, this is a bit misleading due to the high scores of a sweep.

The numbers came out like this:

{0: 14, 5: 24, 10: 48, 15: 41, 20: 60, 25: 64, 30: 70, 35: 77, 40: 96, 45: 101, 50: 110, 55: 119, 60: 140, 65: 133, 70: 145, 75: 152, 80: 163, 85: 137, 90: 149, 95: 146, 100: 153, 105: 144, 110: 141, 115: 159, 120: 132, 125: 121, 130: 124, 135: 110, 140: 113, 145: 115, 150: 134, 155: 170, 160: 147, 165: 114, 170: 131, 175: 96, 180: 91, 185: 74, 190: 68, 195: 97, 200: 79, 205: 72, 210: 57, 215: 60, 220: 61, 225: 59, 230: 52, 235: 64, 240: 36, 245: 62, 250: 32, 255: 38, 260: 32, 265: 23, 270: 20, 275: 37, 280: 22, 285: 21, 290: 20, 295: 17, 300: 27, 305: 15, 310: 18, 315: 19, 320: 15, 325: 14, 330: 13, 335: 8, 340: 10, 345: 10, 350: 11, 355: 8, 360: 5, 365: 10, 370: 4, 375: 8, 380: 3, 385: 9, 390: 2, 395: 4, 405: 3, 410: 5, 415: 2, 420: 2, 425: 1, 430: 3, 435: 3, 440: 3, 470: 1, 485: 2, 490: 1, 495: 1, 505: 1, 550: 1, 615: 1, 635: 1, 650: 4, 655: 1, 660: 3, 665: 3, 670: 6, 675: 12, 680: 14, 685: 17, 690: 31, 695: 47, 700: 49, 705: 47, 710: 38, 715: 23, 720: 15, 725: 2, 730: 7, 735: 4}

I got totally skunked (score: 0) 14 times, I scored 5 points 24 times, and I scored 10 points 48 times.

When the numbers are sorted by frequency, they look like this:

{425: 1, 470: 1, 490: 1, 495: 1, 505: 1, 550: 1, 615: 1, 635: 1, 655: 1, 390: 2, 415: 2, 420: 2, 485: 2, 725: 2, 380: 3, 405: 3, 430: 3, 435: 3, 440: 3, 660: 3, 665: 3, 370: 4, 395: 4, 650: 4, 735: 4, 360: 5, 410: 5, 670: 6, 730: 7, 335: 8, 355: 8, 375: 8, 385: 9, 340: 10, 345: 10, 365: 10, 350: 11, 675: 12, 330: 13, 0: 14, 325: 14, 680: 14, 305: 15, 320: 15, 720: 15, 295: 17, 685: 17, 310: 18, 315: 19, 270: 20, 290: 20, 285: 21, 280: 22, 265: 23, 715: 23, 5: 24, 300: 27, 690: 31, 250: 32, 260: 32, 240: 36, 275: 37, 255: 38, 710: 38, 15: 41, 695: 47, 705: 47, 10: 48, 700: 49, 230: 52, 210: 57, 225: 59, 20: 60, 215: 60, 220: 61, 245: 62, 25: 64, 235: 64, 190: 68, 30: 70, 205: 72, 185: 74, 35: 77, 200: 79, 180: 91, 40: 96, 175: 96, 195: 97, 45: 101, 50: 110, 135: 110, 140: 113, 165: 114, 145: 115, 55: 119, 125: 121, 130: 124, 170: 131, 120: 132, 65: 133, 150: 134, 85: 137, 60: 140, 110: 141, 105: 144, 70: 145, 95: 146, 160: 147, 90: 149, 75: 152, 100: 153, 115: 159, 80: 163, 155: 170}

Here’s what a histogram of all the scores look like in terms of their frequency:

This clearly shows that the stats are imbalanced by the sweep scores which which have a much greater value than non-sweep scores. If we remove the sweeps from the data, the histogram looks like this:

You can see that the scores are clustered around the 150 mark. In terms of 150-point and above wins, excluding the rarer sweeps, the percentage of winning drops to 43%. That makes my choice of “150” as a win just right for me. You might choose to use a slightly higher score, like “200”.

More Stats

Matching Sequences

One of the oddities is that as you play, you sometimes get the same score twice or even three times in a row. It feels almost spooky, especially when the game play is very different but leads to the same score as before. I wrote another Python script to see how often this happened and if any numbers dominated.

{10: ‘o’, 25: ‘o’, 110: ‘o’, 140: ‘o’, 145: ‘o’, 170: ‘o’, 180: ‘o’, 190: ‘o’, 200: ‘o’, 210: ‘o’, 220: ‘o’, 235: ‘o’, 300: ‘o’, 20: ‘oo’, 55: ‘o|o’, 70: ‘o|o’, 85: ‘o|o’, 90: ‘o|o’, 120: ‘o|o’, 125: ‘o|o’, 135: ‘o|o’, 160: ‘o|o’, 205: ‘o|o’, 710: ‘o|o’, 115: ‘o|oo|o|o’, 40: ‘o|o|o’, 65: ‘o|o|o’, 80: ‘o|o|o’, 95: ‘o|o|o’, 100: ‘o|o|o’, 130: ‘o|o|o’, 175: ‘o|o|o’, 45: ‘o|o|o|o’, 60: ‘o|o|o|o’, 75: ‘o|o|o|o’, 150: ‘o|o|o|o|o’, 165: ‘o|o|o|o|o’, 195: ‘o|o|o|o|o|o’, 105: ‘o|o|o|o|o|o|o’, 155: ‘o|o|o|o|o|o|o’}

An “o” by itself indicates a pair of sequences back to back. A double “o” indicates where this happened three times in a row. The vertical bars (pipes) between the “o’s” indicate that it happened again, but later, in another sequence. The only triples I got were the numbers “20” and “115”. The others were all pairs, but some of the pairs happened more frequently. The number “155” paired seven times, with the number “105” happening six times. If I were superstitious I might specify those numbers in a lottery ticket, but I won’t. I know the odds are against me.

Winning Streaks and Losing Streaks

Remembering that “150” and above is a win, and “149” and down is a loss, it’s instructive to compare winning streaks and losing streaks. My definition of winning and losing streaks is the same as for many sports: “3”. Three or more wins in a row is a winning streak. Three or more losses in a row is a losing streak.

This in some ways is the heart of gambling. When you’re on a roll, you feel you can score anything. Then comes the reality.

The Winning Streaks look like this:

While the Losing Streaks look like this:

As the numbers show, I once had a 10-game winning streak, but I also once had a 16-game losing streak.

The moral of these particular stats are that even when you’re on a roll, you shouldn’t feel too confident. Losing streaks solidly outnumber winning streaks.

Bottom Line

I enjoy Solitaire. I use the game partly the way some people finger worry beads: it gives me a mental break from writing and other mental activities and I find it calming. By setting “150” as a win, the game has more immediacy for me.

Try it out yourself, if this interests you, and let me know how you fare. See if you, too, find the game more enjoyable with a better chance to win.

1 “Solitaire,” Britannica.

2 Gamblers and Dreamers: Women, Men, and Community in the Klondike, UBC Press

3 “The History of Solitaire”, Solitaire-Palace.com

4 “Solitaire”, Wikipedia

5 Ibid.

My Mind Is Copernican, but My Heart Is Ptolemaic: Perception Is Reality

By Gene Wilburn

1660 or 1708 by Pieter

“The Sun Also Rises” — Ecclesiastes 1:5

The Ptolemaic System

For over a millennium the science of astronomy subscribed to the Ptolemaic System, formulated by the Greek philosopher and astronomer Claudius Ptolemy of Alexandria around 150 CE. It described a cosmos with the earth as the centre of the universe while the sun, moon, stars, and planets (and the Zodiac) revolved around it, in perfect circles. We now call this the geocentric view of the heavens.

We shouldn’t dismiss Ptolemy and subsequent astronomers out of hand, for they were excellent observers and recorders of the night sky which, in their time, wasn’t obscured by city lights. Their observations were as accurate as they could make them without telescopes. What they could see with their naked eyes was their reality.

To account for the apparent retrograde motion of the planets, they developed a set of complex, but circular, epicycles to explain these motions.

The Ptolemaic view of the heavens held sway for the next 1300 years. It had staying power, and, moreover, it was also accepted and approved by the early and medieval Church.

Near the end of the Middle Ages when new learning started spreading across Europe in the Renaissance, a new theory turned the cosmos upside down. The Polish astronomer, Nicolaus Copernicus, published De revolutionibus orbium coelestium in 1543. To say its publication caused an uproar is an understatement. It totally flipped our understanding of the cosmos.

The Copernican Revolution

What Copernicus brilliantly proposed, using only his naked eyes, was that the sun was the centre of our solar system, and that all the planets, including earth, circled around the sun. The Church didn’t much like this, nor did many of the astronomers of the time, but the Copernican system prevailed because it fit better with later observations of the night sky, after the invention of the telescope.

The Copernican Revolution shifted us from a geocentric to a heliocentric view of our solar system. As an existential side effect, it displaced mankind from the centre of the cosmos.

But as successful as the Copernican system was, it still had a few scientific rough edges and it, too, used the concept of epicycles to explain some of the retrograde movement of the planets.

English astronomer and mathematician Edmund Halley, bothered by these discrepancies, coaxed Isaac Newton to publish his ideas and his newly invented mathematics to assist with refining the Copernican model. This resulted in Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica, 1687, in which Newton’s laws of motion and law of universal gravitation were presented, along with the mathematical framework of early calculus.

Finally the problematic epicycles were eliminated from the Copernican view, based on Newton’s physical forces and the ability to calculate orbits that turned out to be ellipses rather than perfect circles.

The universe was still relatively small in Newton’s time. It took us until the 1920s to realize that many of the nebulae we could see with new, more powerful telescopes were actually galaxies, like our own Milky Way galaxy — not only that, but that there were a large number of them. Through red shift/blue shift spectroscopic analysis, it could also be seen that most of them were receding away from us.

As telescopes became yet more powerful, it became apparent that the number of galaxies in the cosmos numbered in the millions, then billions, and maybe even trillions, and that they were, for the most part, all expanding away from each other.

If they were all expanding, the question arose: “What was their starting point?” This led, through much research and debate, to the Big Bang Theory of the universe, which, by scientific consensus, happened about 13.7 billion years ago. And with better dating methods, it appeared that our earth was formed about 4.5 billion years ago. Most recently, images and measurements from the JWT (James Webb Telescope) space observatory provide a hint that the Big Bang might have even happened further back in time than we currently think, but that is still up for debate.

This is heady stuff, and as a science lover from early childhood I bask in the wonder of it all. But there is one problem: Despite its scientific inaccuracy, I still live Ptolemaically.

Perception is Reality

For most of us, the day starts at sunrise and ends at sunset. Few of us think, or say, “what a beautiful rotation of the earth this evening” instead of “what a beautiful sunset.” Likewise, our perception is that the moon rises and sets, and the stars (including the bright planets) circle overhead during the night. This has been mankind’s perception of reality since probably before we descended from the trees and started living on the savannas.

We may be an insignificant speck in the universe, but most of our perceptions and goals are mundane in the etymological sense of the word: “of the earth.” We don’t wonder about being a speck in the cosmos nearly as much as we wonder who will be the next U.S. President, and if devastating local world conflicts will ever be resolved. In other words, our main focus is on “us” and “now” and “earth.”

As a species we have tried out, and endured, many different ways of organizing ourselves into social units that we call, variously, tribes, counties, cities, countries, coalitions of countries — the building blocks of “civilization.”

On a personal level, once we get beyond the lower levels of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs (Maslow’s Pyramid), and have enough food, shelter, and the absence of immediate threats, we begin to concentrate on personal relationships, education, careers, raising families, and pursuing any number of entertainment, academic, craft, or artistic pursuits. This is the reality most of us live by, from sunrise to sunset, and on moonlit nights.

As more recent neuroscience explains: It’s complex, but the brain is constantly generating predictions about the world, and our perceptions are influenced by our unique expectations and internal narratives. While our perceptions play a significant role in shaping our reality, they are not a perfect reflection of the objective world.

We perceive see the night sky as Ptolemaic. Although we might know that sunsets are misnamed, it’s a perception and a bias that most of us happily live with. Although I love the astronomical accuracy of a Copernican system, I perceive sunrises and sunsets as Ptolemaic.

I wouldn’t have it any other way. As wonderful as science is, it’s a poor poet. And as the poet e.e. cummings wrote: “I’d rather learn from one bird how to sing than teach ten thousand stars how not to dance.”

Write One To Throw Away

By Gene Wilburn


One of the things I like about writing first drafts longhand is the visceral satisfaction I get from tearing a sheet off the pad, crumpling it up, and tossing it across the room when I realize an article or essay isn’t working. You can delete your working draft on a PC or tablet of course, but that’s not as fulfilling unless you heave your device across the room, and few of us can afford that kind of gesture. Besides, it might damage the floor.

The hard truth is that first drafts are often disappointing and that you shouldn’t be reluctant to toss them, literally or virtually. It was Hemingway who opined that all first drafts are crap. In over 50 years of writing published freelance articles and book chapters, I’ve rarely had a piece come together as soon as I started writing or typing it.

Your experience might differ. If your first drafts practically write themselves, bless the writing gods and carry on. I’m envious. I’m more like William Zinsser who said in On Writing Well that writing, for him, was always hard work and that his pieces required many revisions before they were ready to submit.

The best way I’ve heard this expressed was by Frederick P. Brooks, Jr. in The Mythical Man-Month in which he stated the principle “Build one to throw away.” The context of Brooks’s book was different — it was about building an IBM mainframe computer — but I think the same principle holds true for writing.

First Comes the Vetting

Of course you need to give your writing brain a chance to go with the flow on your first draft. It’s important to let creativity and imagination power your writing to see where it leads. This may apply more to fiction writers, but even nonfiction writers are susceptible to the singing of the muses. Don’t judge your first draft until you’ve either written it out or become too bogged down to continue.

The next step after writing a first draft is not editing it, but vetting it. Don’t worry about editing at this point — there will be plenty of opportunities to wear your editorial beanie once you get past the vetting stage. Vetting your piece is different.

Here’s how to vet it: Read your first draft in the context of “is this really what I meant to say about this?” “Honestly, is this writing working?” “If not, where did I go astray?” “What might be a better approach?” It’s even okay to ask yourself, “Am I really this boring?” Vetting can be humbling.

But don’t despair!

If you decide your first draft stinks, consider your time well spent. You’ve learned how it shouldn’t be written. Toss it, and with your newly acquired insight start over. This time you’ll envision your piece from a different perspective. Put back in any parts that seemed to work, but recast the framework of your piece so it fits with your new concept of how it should read.

We all hope that our second drafts will express our second thoughts about a piece and that it will develop wings and fly. I’d be dishonest, though, if I said I’d never crumpled and threw away a second draft. I have had, at times, to write a third draft before my writing began to jell. Usually by second draft, though, the writing picks up.

Then Comes the Editing

Just because your piece is now fleshing out the way you had envisioned it doesn’t mean you’re done. Now is the time to edit the dickens out of it.

Watch for sloppy phrasing, clichés, misspelt words, and sections where the piece doesn’t flow well. Tighten up everything. Remove unnecessary words. You want to make reading your work easy for your readers. Above all, you want your writing to be crisp and clear.

This means multiple edits. Be ruthless and be certain to give your piece at least 24 hours rest before its final edit prior to posting.

Quality Over Quantity

I’m assuming here that you want to feature your best writing. This vetting approach doesn’t work well if you’re trying to post 30 articles a month on blog site. To do that you have to dash them off, give them a light editing, and press on to the next piece even if your posting isn’t as good as it could be. We’ve all read too many stories from writers who sacrifice quality for quantity.

The bottom line is this: Writing is hard work. Quality writing is even harder, but it’s an investment in your writing reputation. To quote Calvin’s father (of Calvin and Hobbes fame), “It builds character.” My advice: Strive for quality. Every time. And that means being willing to toss that first draft and refocus your efforts.

Good luck with your writing, and may the muses smile upon you.


This article was originally published in The Writing Cooperative, on Medium.com

In Praise of Perl


Mascot of the Perl Programming Language

By Gene Wilburn

Programming languages rise and fall in popularity. For awhile everyone is keen on C, then C++, followed by languages such as Golang, Rust, Haskell, Python, or [fill in the blank with your favourite language]. Their popularity is frequently driven by need — the desire to find the best tools for highly complex programming projects.

Some languages fall by the wayside. Few programmers still use Algol, Fortran, COBOL, Basic, or Pascal. Though they were widely used in their day, they now appear mainly in legacy programs.

And some languages, while no longer as widely used, still persist among those who appreciate their special qualities. These include Common Lisp and, my favourite, Perl.

What is Perl?

Perl is an interpreted general purpose language similar in some ways to Python. It began life as scripting language, which it still excels at. It doesn’t force any particular programming paradigm on the developer and is well known for its motto: “There’s more than one way to do it.”

Created by Larry Wall in 1987, Perl has, from the start, been used for system scripting and text handling. With a C-like syntax, it combined elements of sed, awk, and shell scripting. It has become known for its extensive and elegant support of regular expressions, also called “regex” and “re”.

Its many built-in structures, such as support for arrays and “associative arrays” (similar to Python “dictionaries”), is augmented by a very large selection of libraries or modules (PerlMods) that can be used for specialized applications, such as reading and traversing hierarchical data structures such as XML or json files. There are thousands of specialized modules available at CPAN, the Comprehensive Perl Archive Network.

Of course Perl supports all widely used database products such as MySQL and Postgres, and in the early days of web development, many interactive websites were developed in PerlCGI.

Practical Programming

Not all programs are big, though. Little programs, too, have their place. Perl is ideal for crafting utilities that you can use at the command line, often as filter programs that take “standard in” (stdin) data, do something with the content, then pipe it out to “standard out” (stdout).

Example of setting up a filter program

while (my $line = <>) {
# Do something to the line from stdin if warranted
# then send the line back out to stdout with
print "$line\n";
}
exit;

There. That’s the skeleton for a Perl filter program. All you need to do is fill in the task(s) you want done on the line. (It can get more elaborate, certainly, but that’s true of all languages.)

Suppose you frequently write reports, articles, blog entries, or daily entries in a journal and that, being text oriented, use Markdown notation to mark how text should be formatted for display. Along the way you may have used two hyphens to indicate an em-dash (—).

Then you learn that Pandoc, which is widely used to convert Markdown to other formats, follows the TeX typesetting convention of using three hyphens to indicate an em-dash and two hyphens to indicate an en-dash, the shorter than em-dash, longer than hyphen dash that separates number ranges in academic and formal typesetting, e.g., Pages 2–5. How do you easily fix your documents so that Pandoc assigns em-dashes where you intended them?

You could open each document and do a find-and-replace operation. That’s okay for a few documents but suppose you needed a way to check this in multiple documents on a regular basis? Enter a few commands in the Perl script, using Perl’s regular expressions. You can, at the same time, also remove any blank spaces before and after the hyphens, putting the resulting dashes tight against the words — also standard for traditional typesetting. (Why do this? It makes the document look better, especially when the lines of output are justified, as in a report, printed book, or PDF.)

Example of using regexes in a filter program

All we need to do in Perl is inject some if logic and some regular expressions:

# Remove any spaces around " - " or " -- "
$line =~ s/\-\- /\-\-/g;
$line =~ s/ \-\-/\-\-/g;

# Test for " -- " and expand to " --- "
if ($line =~ m/\-\-/ and $line !~ m/\-\-\-/)
{
$line =~ s/\-\-/\-\-\-/g;
}

Note: I had to insert backslash escape characters in this snippet because Medium screws up the formatting otherwise.

Then you can use your filter program, let’s call it em-dash.pl, at the command line using pipes and redirection:

$ cat <filename> | em-dash.pl > <newfilename>

For a routine job you could then call this filter program in a shell script. Here’s an actual example I use to annually groom my monthly journal Markdown text files into Pandoc-ready versions, before turning my journals into an annual ebook:

#!/bin/bash

# Wrapper for em-dash.pl

for i in *.md
do
bname=$(basename "$i" | cut -d. -f1)
echo $bname # Display which file is being checked
em-dash.pl < $i > ./$bname.mmd
done

Converting the entire year’s journal entries with this script takes maybe 2 seconds. You’ll notice that I convert all my files that have the suffix .md and write out files with the same basenane but with an .mmd suffix. This preserves the original file in case something goes wrong. After a positive review, I then delete all the .md files with:

$ rm *.md

These examples were meant simply to give you a slight introduction to Perl, in case it catches your fancy. Perl is open source and free. It is packaged with any *nix-based operating system, including Linux, FreeBSD, and MacOS.

For an in-depth look at the language visit Perl.org. The most popular book on Perl is the “Camel Book”, Programming Perl, an O’Reilly book by Larry Wall and contributors.

Happy Perling!


Gene Wilburn is a retired Canadian IT specialist, writer, photographer, and occasional folksinger. He is the author of Markdown for Writers, 2nd Ed., Rev.

The Joy of BT Hearing Aids


Photo by Sharon Waldron on Unsplash

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.

Toward a Philosophy of Using Writing Apps


Photo by Gene Wilburn

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.

Word Processors

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.

Conclusion

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

Beyond MacOS and Windows: The Linux Alternative


Linux Penguin Mascot and the Logos of Various Linux Distributions

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?

Choice

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.

Software Galore

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.

Security

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.

Community

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.

Satisfaction

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:

Best Linux Distributions That are Most Suitable for Beginners
Brief: It’s easy to get overwhelmed by the list of Linux distributions available. In this article, we mention the best…itsfoss.com

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.

Bottom Line

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.

Linux is a viable alternative for both general and technical users. I’m obviously a big fan of Linux myself and recently purchased a Lenovo ThinkBook just to run Linux Mint, my personal favourite distribution.

Should you decide to give Linux a try, chances are that you’ll be well rewarded.

Good luck, and be brave.


Gene Wilburn is a writer, photographer, and retired IT professional. He has been writing about Linux since the 1990s.

Devolution of the Word “Meme”


By Gene Wilburn

Photo by Peter Lam CH on Unsplash

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.

Dictionaries – A Writer’s Best Friends


by Gene Wilburn

Webster’s New World Dictionary. Photo by the author.

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 the Oxford 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.

Online Dictionaries

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:

Urban Dictionary

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’.”

Oxford English Dictionary

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.

Merriam-Webster Online

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.

Cambridge Dictionary Online

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

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.

Online Etymology Dictionary

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 called Word 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.