Writing Tools

Free VPN Services to Stay Anonymous

10 June 2019

PG came across an item about VPN (Virtual Private Network) services during some of his online technology meanderings. He was about to move on when he thought about authors using restaurants, libraries or other places with public wifi for their writing locations.

The same concerns for those sorts of settings would also apply to those who live in apartment buildings or complexes and use wifi there. Those who use wifi in single-family homes in a traditional US neighborhood will likely be able to locate a few of their neighbors’ wifi nodes as well.

If you can “see” others’ wifi router names, they can likely “see” yours as well.

First, some VPN basics from Learning Hub:

Over the past three years, a record 73 percent of all U.S. businesses have had [their] data breached – 67 percent globally.

Some of these breaches – like Equifax, Target, PlayStation Network, and others – have exposed the data of hundreds of millions of customers.

Even more unfortunate is that an estimated 93 percent of these breaches could have been avoided by putting data security fundamentals at the forefront, according to an analysis by Online Trust Alliance (OTA).

. . . .

One of the easiest and most popular ways to secure both you and your customers’ data is through something called a virtual private network, or a VPN.

. . . .

A VPN masks your IP address to prevent outside parties from obtaining your physical location and identifying your internet provider. They can be used in personal browsers, business endpoints, and any other device you can think of.

VPNs protect business users anywhere – even in coffee shops and other locations that are renowned for having unsecured internet connections. A VPN can also facilitate the secure transfer of information across networks, both public and private.

. . . .

For an internet connection to work, there needs to be a mutual transfer of information from your device, to an internet service provider, to the internet itself, and back. This process is constantly in motion.

Users without a VPN run the risk of having personal data exploited by hackers, internet service providers, and even government surveillance agencies. This risk is multiplied when placing trust in unsecured internet connections.

. . . .

Link to the rest at Learning Hub

The Learning Hub lists Ten Free VPN providers with descriptions of each.

Here are a few ways you can use a VPN that you might not have thought about from ReadWrite:

 

2. Access better deals on travel.

Travel sites don’t treat all traffic equally. You could see different prices on your smartphone, your tablet, and your computer for the same flights and hotel rooms. The game of travel savings gets frustrating quickly, but through a VPN, you can mask your intentions from travel sites and gain access to unbiased pricing.

Use your VPN to spoof different locations and see how prices change. The same flight from Dallas to New York might cost far less if the airline website believes the person searching lives in Australia. Over time, VPN travel searches could save your business thousands.

. . . .

4. Protect devices on public Wi-Fi.

Hackers sit on public Wi-Fi to scour data from unsuspecting users. Business users regularly access strange Wi-Fi locations to do their work, which makes them common targets for information thieves. If you want to keep your company’s information safe, don’t let employees use public Wi-Fi without protection.

Make it easy for your employees to use a VPN to create a more secure connection before using public Wi-Fi. Even if hackers manage to view their activity, they won’t be able to learn anything of value or steal passwords. With a VPN on your side, your employees won’t have to wait until they get back to the hotel to finish working.

. . . .

6. Prevent websites from gathering your information.

Do you spend a lot of time on your competitors’ pages? Are you worried that websites are collecting your data and selling it to third parties?

No matter where you browse, a VPN can mask your location from websites and prevent outside parties from collecting data that identifies you or your company. Personal VPN users lean on this function to prevent sites like Amazon and Facebook from tracking them across the web. By hiding behind a VPN, you can spy on your competition as much as you want, and no one will ever know.

Link to the rest at ReadWrite

Typically, when you sign up for a VPN, it will provide you an app or a browser link to access the VPN.

PG has a VPN app sitting on his computer’s desktop. Just like any other app or program, when PG wants to turn on his VPN, he clicks on the link and is connected within a few seconds.

PG uses Nord VPN (but has no relationship with the company other than as a plain-vanilla customer). He has a paid account at the company’s lowest-cost level.

When he clicks a desktop icon to start the VPN, it opens and automatically connects to one of thousands of Nord nodes in the US (if PG is in the US) after quickly locating the one that’s providing the best speeds when PG signs on.

If PG wants to connect through a VPN note located in a different country, the Nord app lets him pick from a list or click on a map to choose. PG just clicked on Mexico and was connected to a VPN server in that country in less than 10 seconds.

The Lure of the Writing Template: Why Filling in the Blanks Doesn’t Work

9 June 2019

From Anne R. Allen’s Blog:

Template is an ambiguous term in writing. It can refer to a writer’s personal style sheet used when developing a story, tools for brainstorming, or worksheets to figure out various plot and story arcs. However, it can also refer to an exacting form that promises the perfect story by following blindly along.

When templates are used for developing stories or to help keep writers focused, they’re useful. But when they dictate how writers should write their books and tell their stories—especially if they give false hope as to the marketability of those stories—they lead writers down a dangerous path.

. . . .

Cooking is a forgiving skill. If the recipe calls for half a cup of tomatoes and you like tomatoes and put in a whole cup, odds are the meal still turns out yummy. But baking is hardcore. Add too much salt and your dough fails. Whip cream too long and it turns to grainy mush.

Writing is not dissimilar. Great stories contain similar elements, but how we mix them results in completely different tales. When we treat writing like an exact science, with every beat measured to the page and every major turning point exactly the same, the story suffers.

Instead of a delicious mental meal, we get generic packaged cookies. They might not be terrible, but they don’t make you want to eat more than one, and they taste like dozens of other bland, generic cookies on the shelf.

. . . .

The danger of writing templates is that instead of finding the right details for the story we’re trying to tell, we’re looking for details that fit a particular template at a particular time. We think, “This is when something has to die,” and twist ourselves into knots forcing it in. Or we think we need an emotional character arc when no arc is needed. We add mentor characters who have no business in the story, and rely on cliched characters to fill roles a checklist tells us we need.

When we’re cooking a novel, those literary ingredients are mixed to flavor the story in the way we want to tell it. But when we’re baking with a template, we’re adding ingredients exactly as the recipe states, even if the story suffers for it. Templates far too often force us to bake a cake when we really want to make a scone.

When you understand how to tell a compelling story, you know what aspects of storytelling to use to create the desired emotional response from your readers. You pick and choose the details, beats, and turning points that serve your story, and ignore the aspects that don’t.

. . . .
The difference between story structure and a writing template is this:

  • Structure uses proven story constructions that humans have used since stories began.
  • Templates suggest the only way to write a novel is to follow an exact plan to the letter.

Using a structure that suits your personal storytelling style to help keep you focused and give you a foundation on which to build a story is a good thing. It’s a tool, nothing more.

Link to the rest at Anne R. Allen’s Blog

The Mouse

23 April 2019

PG discovered ergonomic keyboards and ergonomic mice a long time ago.

Given how many hours he has spent and continues to spend at his computer, his hands and wrists are grateful for those discoveries.

PG has used the Microsoft Natural Ergonomic Keyboard for a very long time. Although he would still like to combine the refined key clicks of the legendary Northgate OmniKey Keyboard of the distant past with the Microsoft layout, he’ll live with the less assertive feel of the MS keyboard for now.

 

PG is pretty much in love with everything he’s purchased from Anker. He used now-discontinued Logitech Performance MX wireless mouse and the Logitech MX Ergo Wireless Trackball Mouse, but his initial contact with an Anker mouse was love at first touch.

He started with the original (he thinks) Anker vertical mouse and still keeps a couple of his older ones handy as backups. However, when he tried the more recent updated version of the Anker Ergonomic Mouse, he liked the somewhat more palm-filling feel even more.

In addition to feeling better (at least for PG), PG’s keyboard and mouse choices are also made to avoid carpal tunnel problems, which PG most definitely prefers not to experience.

Although he thinks he occupies the best of all present keyboard and mouse worlds, PG would be interested in the experiences of visitors to TPV with various keyboards and mice and their current favorites.

 

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

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