Writing Tools

Science Just Settled One of Type Design’s Oldest Debates

22 April 2019

From Fast Company:

Ever since the invention of movable type, the debate has raged: Are two spaces after a period better than one? The French said “Non!” from the beginning, using one space only. The British said “Aye!” and established their own two-space rule.

Now, three psychology researchers at Skidmore College are settling the debate with a study published in the journal Attention, Perception, & Psychophysics. Their study demonstrates that using two spaces makes reading “smoother.” In other words, your eyes spend a few milliseconds less on a period if it’s followed by two spaces rather than one. But before all you two-spacers out there start gloating like the annoying pestiferous bunch you are, here’s the caveat: The study also shows that it doesn’t actually make overall reading faster or your comprehension any better–unless you are a two-spacer to begin with.

The war of sentence spacing has been a long and tortuous one. Back in the 18th century, some printers used French-style single-spaced sentences and others the English double-space rule. It wasn’t until the mass printing era after World War II that most American books turned to single-spaced sentences to reduce costs and speed up production. The 1941 IBM Executive typewriter also introduced proportional spacing–which meant that each letter took only the horizontal space it needed instead of being monospaced. Things looked much better that way when using a typewriter, since it effectively eliminated the need for two spaces after every period. Today, computers and proportional fonts make the two-space rule absolutely useless–even while recalcitrant two-spacers continue to write eye-twitching emails using the English rule, claiming the rest of us rational people are wrong.

. . . .

The results are pretty conclusive: Reading speed wasn’t slowed down with either single or double space after a period. The two-spacers experienced a marginal speed improvement while reading double-spaced sentences.  Reading and comprehension was completely unaffected no matter the spacing rule they used. The paper argues, however, that readers spend “fewer milliseconds” looking at periods when there are two spaces after them, which they claim makes for a “smoother” reading experience. On the other hand, when they added an extra space after a comma, the reading speed diminished across the board.

Link to the rest at Fast Company

The ghosts of Mr. Schrupp’s high school typing class (hands-down, the most useful class PG ever took in high school, college or law school) still haunt PG’s relationship with the space bar.

Once in a while, he can master his thumb long enough to generate a single space after a period, but thumbs have a mind of their own and he’s back to two spaces a couple of lines later.

He hasn’t paid attention to what Word Autocorrect does with periods preceded by two spaces lately, so he may be either fashion-forward or out-of-date with respect to most of his punctuation.

The Thesaurus Is Good, Valuable, Commendable, Superb, Actually

15 April 2019

From The Outline:

As reference books go, the thesaurus, these days, is one step up in respectability from the rhyming dictionary. To use one is to betray something embarrassing about yourself. To be accused of using one is to be accused both of pretentiousness and of using words whose meaning you don’t really know. (For instance: I originally wrote “accused of malapropism” in that previous sentence, but then checked the dictionary and discovered this refers to mistakes based on sound.) One goes to the thesaurus to find, as they say, a “ten-dollar word.”

Perhaps the best example of this sort of condemnation comes from Simon Winchester, the author of a book about the Oxford English Dictionary, who once wrote in The Atlantic that Roget’s Thesaurus “should be roundly condemned as a crucial part of the engine work that has transported us to our current state of linguistic and intellectual mediocrity” and concludes that it provides “quick and easy solutions for the making of the middlebrow, the mindless, and the mundane.” Or, by way of a more recent (and certainly more mild) example, from The Morning News’s “Tournament of Books”: “Milkman seems to be overly occupied with its own style, its difference, and its reliance on a thesaurus…to notice that the poetry to justify that stylistic occupation is simply absent.”

. . . .

As originally conceived, Roget’s Thesaurus was a slightly different sort of book than the kind of online thesaurus one might consult today. It was instead a fairly rigorous if idiosyncratic taxonomy of language. And it was not a book of synonyms, such books already existed. Synonyms, in terms of words that can be completely substituted for each other, are fairly rare. “Inferiority,” “minority,” and “subordinacy” might all be related words, but they carry slightly different meanings. “Sunset,” “dusk,” and “twilight” all encompass roughly the same time of day, but each has a different tone. So Roget called his book a “thesaurus,” or treasury. He was showcasing and organizing language, not simply providing lists of matching words.

. . . .

In Winchester’s article, he notes that one student changed “his earthly fingers” into “his chthonic digits,” which I’d agree is pretty dreadful. But that error is easily corrected, and that student presumably gained the word “chthonic,” which if nothing else is a fun word to know. Just look at it there, announcing itself with an improbable collection of consonants. And if a thesaurus can be a trap for the unwary, who don’t realize the next step after browsing a collection of words is to go look those words up in a dictionary, this, again, seems like a problem with a one-time solution.

But the alternate problem is that people are too afraid to test new words — even words that are correct, but obscure — because they are afraid of seeming foolish and they either stay within the bounds of a safe vocabulary or (if they are a certain business-managerial type) cope by inventing hideous new words. Fear of the thesaurus has unleashed horrors a Chthonic god could only dream of, like synergy and incentivize.

This seems to me to be a worse problem, not only because people do learn by making mistakes, but because the sphere of “correct,” accessible English will only get smaller and smaller.

. . . .

The decline of the thesaurus is similar to the kind of loss that you experience when you visit a digital resource rather than the library. Browsing the stacks, you are struck with the multitude of books within a particular category. You go looking for one thing and come out with the book you didn’t know you were looking for. Much like a thesaurus, somebody often has to teach you how to use the classification system in the library for you to get the most out of browsing there. But what you get out of browsing really is something qualitatively different than you get from searching a library catalog.

Link to the rest at The Outline

Gmail’s New ‘Smart Compose for Lawyers’ Uses Ai to Add Legalese to Emails

1 April 2019

From Lawsites:

One of the most popular recent enhancements to Google’s Gmail has been the feature called Smart Compose, first introduced in May 2018 and given several enhancements since. Powered by machine learning, Smart Compose offers suggestions as you type for completing sentences. Google says the feature has saved people from typing “over 1 billion characters each week.”

. . . .

LawSites has been given an advance look at another soon-to-be-released enhancement — Smart Compose for Lawyers.

Developed specifically for use by legal professionals, Smart Compose for Lawyers uses machine learning to suggest language that will make your emails sound more like those of a lawyer. Specifically, it suggests phrases based on esoteric and obscure legalese. It uses an algorithm that was trained to suggest abstruse legal phrases and boilerplate as well as arcane Latin words and phrases.

In testing the new feature, I was drafting an email responding to a friend who invited me to a movie. As I began to type, “I’d be happy to join you  …,” Gmail’s Smart Compose suggested I complete the sentence with this:

… provided, however, that should I be unable to attend because of acts of God, strikes, failure of carrier or utilities, explosions, war, terrorism or a similar occurrence, I shall not be liable for damages to our friendship.

Ray Guidicata, Google’s chief engineer on the project, said that the algorithm was trained using cases and law review articles in Google Scholar. In addition, Google worked with a major Silicon Valley law firm, which assigned a team of commercial contract associates to QC the training process and ensure the legalese was at once “obscure but conversational.”

. . . .

Using this feature, I found that even the simplest email could be made dense and incomprehensible.

Link to the rest at Lawsites

Lawsites is published by an old friend of PG’s.

Based in part on that long acquaintance, PG suggests you note the date of the post.

9 Lesser-Known Word Features

22 March 2019

From TheFormTool:

One thing that makes Word stand out is its simplicity. The ability to just open a tab and start writing like you would in a book is impressive. It needs no training. But this ease of use is often overlooked by the professional text-editing market. When it comes to more complex tasks (e.g. handling data, tables and equations), users tend to drift towards other programs. They don’t always realize how versatile MS Word is.

From 2007 to 2016, Microsoft made Word appreciably more productive and easier to use with every update. New features were constantly added. In some cases, features that people thought to be new were there before.

. . . .

1. Customization

Whatever industry you work in, you can set Word preferences to reflect the output you need. For example, you can add exceptions to the dictionary so they don’t show as typos every time you write them. You can alter the Quick Access Toolbar (QAT) so it displays the commands you feel are most handy. That way, you don’t have to dig around for the tools you need (e.g. quick print, email, draw table).

The good thing about customization is that you can turn it off and on. When you need to write a creative text, for instance, you can switch off auto-correct to allow a bit more artistic license. For formal writing, you can make it stricter again.

. . . .

3. Distraction-Free Reading and Editing

The working area of Microsoft Word is customizable. You can create a clean, uncluttered writing environment by collapsing the ribbon. If you want, you can make the whole screen a writing area by switching to “Web Layout”. The view becomes even cleaner in “Read Mode”, with an extra option to hide the reading toolbar if wanted.

. . . .

5. Writing Style and Readability

As well as technical mistakes in spelling and grammar, Word also highlights other possible errors in writing style. For instance, it can show you instances of the passive voice, which is undesirable in excess. It’ll help you avoid wordiness and jargon, too, among many other things. You can even choose whether to favor the Oxford comma.

MS Word also grades your text with a Flesch readability score. This will penalize you for overly long sentences or too many long words. Careful writers often aim for a Flesch rating of 60 or more, though this is not always realistic with technical texts.

. . . .

8. Multiple Clipboard Items

Office work involves a lot of copying, cutting and pasting, which are all standard Word features. However, the clipboard aspect of these features is less well-known. Many people return to the same spot over and over to copy text, and they often lose it when they highlight another section. The Word clipboard holds up to 24 selections for use in different parts of the document.

Link to the rest at TheFormTool

Computer Stories: A.I. Is Beginning to Assist Novelists

4 March 2019

From The New York Times:

Robin Sloan has a collaborator on his new novel: a computer.

The idea that a novelist is someone struggling alone in a room, equipped with nothing more than determination and inspiration, could soon be obsolete. Mr. Sloan is writing his book with the help of home-brewed software that finishes his sentences with the push of a tab key.

It’s probably too early to add “novelist” to the long list of jobs that artificial intelligence will eliminate. But if you watch Mr. Sloan at work, it is quickly clear that programming is on the verge of redefining creativity.

. . . .

Mr. Sloan, who won acclaim for his debut, “Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore,” composes by writing snippets of text, which he sends to himself as messages and then works over into longer passages. His new novel, which is still untitled, is set in a near-future California where nature is resurgent. The other day, the writer made this note: “The bison are back. Herds 50 miles long.”

In his cluttered man-cave of an office in an industrial park here, he is now expanding this slender notion. He writes: The bison are gathered around the canyon. … What comes next? He hits tab. The computer makes a noise like “pock,” analyzes the last few sentences, and adds the phrase “by the bare sky.”

. . . .

Mr. Sloan likes it. “That’s kind of fantastic,” he said. “Would I have written ‘bare sky’ by myself? Maybe, maybe not.”

He moves on: The bison have been traveling for two years back and forth. … Tab, pock. The computer suggests between the main range of the city.

“That wasn’t what I was thinking at all, but it’s interesting,” the writer said. “The lovely language just pops out and I go, ‘Yes.’ ”

. . . .

His software is not labeled anything as grand as artificial intelligence. It’s machine learning, facilitating and extending his own words, his own imagination. At one level, it merely helps him do what fledgling writers have always done — immerse themselves in the works of those they want to emulate. Hunter Thompson, for instance, strived to write in the style of F. Scott Fitzgerald, so he retyped “The Great Gatsby” several times as a shortcut to that objective.

. . . .

A quarter-century ago, an electronic surveillance consultant named Scott French used a supercharged Mac to imitate Jacqueline Susann’s sex-drenched tales. His approach was different from Mr. Sloan’s. Mr. French wrote thousands of computer-coded rules suggesting how certain character types derived from Ms. Susann’s works might plausibly interact.

. . . .

[T]he Alibaba Group, the Chinese e-commerce company, said in January that its software for the first time outperformed humans on a global reading comprehension test. If the machines can read, then they can write.

Mr. Sloan wanted to see for himself. He acquired from the Internet Archive a database of texts: issues of Galaxy and If, two popular science fiction magazines in the 1950s and ’60s. After trial and error, the program came up with a sentence that impressed him: “The slow-sweeping tug moved across the emerald harbor.”

“It was a line that made you say, ‘Tell me more,’” Mr. Sloan said.

Those original magazines were too limiting, however, full of clichés and stereotypes. So Mr. Sloan augmented the pool with what he calls “The California Corpus,” which includes the digital text of novels by John Steinbeck, Dashiell Hammett, Joan Didion, Philip K. Dick and others; Johnny Cash’s poems; Silicon Valley oral histories; old Wired articles; the California Department of Fish and Wildlife’s Fish Bulletin; and more. “It’s growing and changing all the time,” he said.

. . . .

He’s restricting the A.I. writing in the novel to an A.I. computer that is a significant character, which means the majority of the story will be his own inspiration. But while he has no urge to commercialize the software, he is intrigued by the possibilities. Megasellers like John Grisham and Stephen King could relatively easily market programs that used their many published works to assist fans in producing authorized imitations.

. . . .

As for the more distant prospects, another San Francisco Bay Area science fiction writer long ago anticipated a time when novelists would turn over the composing to computerized “wordmills.” In Fritz Leiber’s “The Silver Eggheads,” published in 1961, the human “novelists” spend their time polishing the machines and their reputations. When they try to rebel and crush the wordmills, they find they have forgotten how to write.

Link to the rest at The New York Times

Computer-Assisted Authoring Tools Help to Create Complex Interactive Narratives

26 February 2019

From Phys.org:

Visitors to interactive virtual worlds want the ability to significantly affect the outcome of a story, but authoring these digital experiences is extremely complex. A new platform developed by Disney Research will help fulfill the medium’s promise by automating some aspects of the authoring process.

Disney Research has developed a new design paradigm called interactive behavior trees (IBTs), a graphical modeling language that accommodates multiple story arcs. They also have created authoring tools that can automatically detect and resolve narrative inconsistencies that arise as these various story arcs play out or when users interact in unexpected ways.

. . . .

“We want interactive narratives to be an immersive experience in which users can influence the action or even create a storyline, but the complexity of the authoring task has worked against our ambitions,” said Mubbasir Kapadia, who recently left Disney Research to join Rutgers University as an assistant professor of computer science. “Our method of modeling multiple story arcs and resolving conflicts in the storylines makes it feasible to author interactive experiences that are free form, rather than constricted.”

Computer games, for instance, often include isolated interactive segments but all players ultimately experience the same plot. In other cases, interactive narratives may allow different outcomes, but writing these experiences is so complex that the user is given only limited choices and can alter the story only at certain key points.

IBTs address these narrative shortcomings. Like behavior trees, a modeling language used by software engineers to keep track of the mind-boggling number of requirements for large-scale software systems, IBTs help the authors of interactive narratives to spin multiple stories while providing users with great freedom to interact. The hierarchical IBT structure enables each story arc to be defined as its own subtree; at the same time, user interactions are monitored independently, as are those interactions that trigger new story arcs.

“With this structure, increased user interaction does not make the author’s task more complex,” Kapadia said, “so we can now imagine ways of giving the user more freedom to interact freely with the virtual world.”

. . . .

For instance, in a narrative involving two bears at play, if one of the bears lacks the beach ball he was supposed to throw to the other, the tool will detect the inconsistency and offer a narrative fix, such as allowing the bear to ask the user for the ball, or to buy a ball from a vendor with money from a treasure chest.

Link to the rest at Phys.org

This is The Best Work Keyboard

12 January 2019

From Co-op:

After much debate, our readers chose the Microsoft Natural Ergonomic 4000 as their favorite work keyboard. This was a really tight contest with each entry netting over 15% of the vote. In fact, each of the runner-ups are worth checking out.

. . . .

Here’s why our readers picked Microsoft Natural Ergonomic 4000:

. . . .

I have a couple of MS Ergo 4000s sitting on a shelf at home, because I’ve got 3 in use (2x at Home, and 1 at work) and they’re fantastic, until they get grungy. My only complaint is that they are virtually impossible to clean right, so when they get gross, just toss it and deploy another.

I am an *extremely* heavy user, and I can get 2+ years out of one. I can type at speed, and for a membrane, they are great. If MS could get off their ass and make a high-end version with mechanical (replaceable?) switches, it would be damn near perfect. Also, if you have large hands, it’s wayyyyyyy more comfortable than many other more compact ergos. -ellomdian

Link to the rest at Co-op

PG has been typing for a long time.

His first experiences with a variety of keyboards came when all proper keyboards had their keys lined up in perfectly straight rows.

PG’s mother was a very fast typist, even on the ancient manual typewriter that was the only one available when PG was but a sprout. She provided excellent advice to him on a variety of topics, but one of her best pieces of advice was that he should take a typing course in high school.

That typing course introduced him to Smith-Corona electric typewriters, which were a definite speed improvement, particularly since PG could hit a key for a carriage return instead of lifting his hands from the keyboard and slapping a lever to physically move the carriage to the left so he could start a new line.

While PG was still in high school, he had his first experience with an IBM Selectric, which was a big step up from the Smith-Corona in speed and in the visual appeal of the finished product. The Correcting Selectric was even better. It removed the concern about typos which invariably slowed typing.  You could fix the typos very quickly and easily and Whiteout was banished forever.

With the advent of personal computers, PG quickly became a keyboard snob.  His first upgrade was Northgate keyboard, which add a wonderful mechanical “clicky” feel to it. He used various Northgate keyboards for several years before trying out an early Microsoft ergonomic keyboard.

He’s used Microsoft keyboards ever since. He is on MS Ergo keyboard number five or six at this point.

Bullet Journaling

3 January 2019

From The Wall Street Journal:

Bullet journaling is an organizing strategy developed several years ago by Mr. Carroll [Ryder Carroll, The Bullet Journal Method] that has attracted something of a cult following. It involves writing out tasks and daily events by hand, which helps you think about whether they’re worth doing. A table of contents or index in the front of a bullet journal allows you to include everything from exercise logs to project plans and to find notes quickly. There are different types of “bullets” for events and tasks, and tasks that aren’t completed in one daily log are moved onto the next day’s roster.

All of this can read like “stereo instructions,” as Mr. Carroll jokes. (“When you notice a Master Task is spawning a lot of Subtasks, it can indicate that this Task is growing into a project.”) Yet the point is to de-clutter your mind and make life more organized than it would be with mere to-do lists.

Bullet journaling is a serious system that takes itself a touch too seriously. Mr. Carroll notes that detailing how you spend your time helps you remember that life includes more than daily drudgery: Drinks with old friends, dinners out with spouses and other pleasures are more common than we recall at first. But it’s hard not to laugh when, as an example of the range of bullet journaling, Mr. Carroll tells of a guy who used his journal entries to figure out why things didn’t work out with his girlfriend. (She was distant, apparently.)

A common criticism of bullet journaling is that, with its emphasis on hand-written entries, the journals themselves can begin to look like adult coloring books, and a cursory search online reveals devotees who have spent hours curling bubbly letters and other adornments. What a waste of time for a method aimed at making the most of your time! Credit to Mr. Carroll for assuring his readers that you don’t have to be an artist to reap the benefits of bullet journaling.

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal

PG is engaged in an attempt to become more efficient with his time after realizing that some parts of his working day are extremely efficient, but other parts are inefficient.

He’s pretty certain that he’s not going to write anything down on paper because one of his inefficiencies is not processing the paper which enters his life with any pretense of efficiency. He believes he needs less paper, not more.

A bit of online research disclosed that (surprise!) there are a lot of Bullet Journal apps. However, at the moment, PG is deapping his phone and tablet. His winnowing method is very simple – if he doesn’t immediately know what an app is used for by looking at its icon, he’s not going to use it and it’s going into the bitbucket.

However, during his brief look at bullet journaling, PG discovered a couple of articles about using Evernote for bullet journaling (here and here).

Since PG does use Evernote on a regular basis and has done so since the program was in beta, he’s going to go that route.

He thinks.

At present.


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