Tag Archives: technology

Monday Musings: A Paean to the “Shuffle” Command

Let’s begin with the obvious: Everything that’s old is great, and new stuff sucks. It’s important to get that out of the way before we move on. I mean who are we kidding? The way things were when we were young — well, not so much “we” as “I” — the way things were when I was young? That’s how it should all be now. Progress is bad. Innovation is bad. Technology ruins everything and the world was a better place before people invented all that stuff. By which I mean, anything that hadn’t yet been invented when I turned 21.

Sticky Fingers, by The Rolling StonesMusic isn’t meant to be sold song by song. We’re supposed to buy albums. We’re supposed to put up with the bad songs in order to enjoy the good ones. That makes the listening experience better. For every “Eleanor Rigby” and “For No One” we should have to endure a “Doctor Robert.” For every “Brown Sugar” and “Can’t You Hear Me Knockin’?” we should have to suffer through a “You Gotta Move.” It’s only fair. No one is entitled to a perfect listening experience, and songwriters deserve the chance to have their crappy songs heard alongside the good ones. This is America, damnit!

And don’t get me started on CDs versus LPs. What ever happened to the art of piecing together a two-sided album, of figuring out the proper song order so as to make those horrible, vinyl-wasting tunes that we hated as hard to avoid as possible? I mean sure LPs warped and skipped, and got scratched, making them all but unbearable after a year or two of solid use, but that’s a small price to pay for the inconvenience of having to interrupt a pot-induced haze to get up, walk to the stereo, and turn the record over.

Songs are meant to occur in a certain order. That’s how God intended it. And by God, I mean Mick Jagger. Or John Lennon. Or Joni Mitchell. Or David Crosby. Or Aretha Franklin. Or James Taylor. You know. God. As day follows night and spring follows winter, “You Can Call Me Al” is meant to come after “Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes.” Except not really, because that album came out after my twenty-first birthday. But never mind that.

The point is, albums set the order of songs and never shall they exist in any other configuration.

Except for mix tapes.

Okay, I confess. Back when I still listened to LPs (Kids, ask your parents. And get the hell off my lawn…) I made mix tapes all the time. I loved the idea of cutting out those songs I didn’t enjoy. I loved the idea of putting my favorite songs from any number of artists and any number of albums in one collection and being able to listen to all of them together. I loved listening to a new mix tape, of savoring the lingering surprise of the next tune from a completely different source.

Sadly, even in my pot-smoking days that surprise lasted for all of two or three listens. After that, the mix tapes became too familiar, taking on the wearisome predictability of the albums from which I’d culled the songs in the first place. As Rob Gordon (the John Cusack character in High Fidelity) says, “the making of a good compilation tape is a very subtle art.” But even the best made mix can’t save us from the fact that we remember and anticipate.

Enter the “shuffle” command on our phones and computers.

That stuff I said before, about everything new sucking? I didn’t mean this. And that part about all technology after the mid 1980s ruining the world? I might not have meant that, either. And the stuff I said about how great LPs were — that was total bullshit. Not that a case can’t be made. I mean, cell phones and computers and the constant presence of social media and “connectivity” in our daily lives — there’s a lot there to dislike.

But the shuffle command makes all of it worthwhile. Hitting “shuffle” is like putting in the ultimate mix tape. Every song is one we want to hear. Every transition is a surprise. Every listening experience is destined to be different.

Nirvana.

The state of being. Not the band. They definitely came on the scene after my twenty-first birthday…

The other night, Nancy and I were cooking dinner, and we had my iPhone on shuffle. (iPhones are okay. They were invented way before I turned 21. Really. I promise. Same with Bluetooth speakers like the one we were using. I swear.) And, quite seriously, I was struck that evening, after the fourth or fifth excellent song in a row, by the absurd amount of pleasure I derive from the shuffle feature. Ridiculous, I know. The world is in the midst of a pandemic. The planet is melting. American democracy is on life-support. But I can listen to a collection of Eagles tunes without fear of hearing “Chug All Night.”

It doesn’t get better than that.

Professional Wednesday: Rethinking the Digital Revolution

I’m a dinosaur. I have been in this business for more than a quarter century. My first book was published during the Clinton Administration. I could list for you all the celebrities born since that first publication, but I’ve never heard of any of them…

To state the obvious, the business has changed in the time I’ve been a professional writer. Hell, the entire world has changed. Some of the transitions specific to publishing have been for the better, some have not. And, to make all of this a bit stranger, many of the biggest changes fall into both those categories.

Lately, I find myself thinking about the democratization of the arts facilitated by the digital revolution, trying to balance the good with the not-so-good.

Example 1: A dear friend of mine, one of my musical partners from college, has been recording and performing music for years. He does covers, he writes his own material. Prior to the pandemic, he performed regularly in the area around his home in the Northeast. Since the onset of COVID, he has done a series of online concerts and has also produced videos of himself playing — again, his own tunes and covers of songs by others. His music always — ALWAYS — sounds amazing. Not only is he incredibly talented, he has also mastered the technology at his disposal. The result is great music with astonishing production values.

Without digital technology, without the ability to turn his basement into both a recording studio and a performance space, he couldn’t manage to do any of this. Of course, he is hardly alone in this regard. Musicians around the world can now record and produce their own music, reaching audiences that they never would have found twenty years ago. And it is hard for me to look at this as anything but an unalloyed good. Major recording studios should not be the only arbiters of what you and I get to hear. Once upon a time, they were, but not anymore. As a musician myself, and as a fan of music in general, I’m pleased by this.

Example 2: As most of you know, I am an avid photographer. I specialize in nature photography — landscapes and close-up work — but I also have done a good deal of urban photography. I am, I believe, a very good photographer. I have also been, for years and years, a collector of photography books, and I have a small collection of photo prints by other artists, as well as many of my own enlarged images, framed, and hung on the walls of my home.

I have a high quality digital camera and I have several applications on my computer that allow me to process my photos to a fine degree. Once upon a time, when I first got into this hobby and was still shooting film, I was very much at the mercy of the photo labs that developed my pictures. I couldn’t control the production of each image the way, say, Ansel Adams did in his darkroom. Only with the advent of digital technology, have I gained access to the tools I need to develop my photos precisely as I wish to. At this point, I can produce professional quality images. My best photos, the ones on my walls as well as those in the one coffee table photography book I have created, can stand alongside the best images by some of my favorite professional photographers.

As with the musical example, given how much joy I derive from my photography and my ability to produce images with such quality results, I have a hard time seeing this as anything but a positive historical development.

Except…

Example 3: In my capacity as a writer, I have seen the impact of the digital revolution on my own profession. Yes, more and more authors can now reach readers. Authors who might otherwise have never had a chance to get past the gatekeepers at major publishing houses, can now put their stories within reach of audiences that crave what they offer. This means that unconventional, risk-taking stories can now be told and sold. It means that diverse voices now have an outlet for their work. Authors of any race, of any gender identity, of any sexual orientation, of any religious or cultural background, now have an easier time making themselves heard. I welcome all of these changes.

But those of us who are familiar with the publishing business also know that the democratization of publishing has not been an unalloyed good. Yes, eloquent voices who for too long were excluded from mainstream publishing are now reaching audiences. But there are also too many books being produced that require substantial editing, but aren’t getting any. There are too many authors now being published who weren’t excluded from the field because they were innovative or speaking from underrepresented groups — they were excluded because they had not yet mastered the rudiments of writing prose and creating narrative.

I know lots of young, talented authors — of different genders, races, cultural traditions — who are deserving of success in publishing, but who can’t make themselves heard in the new marketplace, because that market is already flooded with stories, many of them of questionable quality. Because I know the publishing world so well, I understand the nuances of these new dynamics, the good and the bad.

And I find myself reconsidering all that I said before about music and photography. I don’t know those industries the way I know the literary world, but I have to imagine that musicians and photographers face the same struggles and frustrations writers do. I do have a friend who is a professional photographer. He is successful, having worked for years for National Geographic and other prestigious publications. I know the fact that amateur photographers like me can now make our work look “professional” has made his business harder to maintain. I have no doubt that many professional musicians face similar challenges. So all the confidence I expressed earlier in this piece, about how the opening up of technologies in music and photography to everyone is nothing but good — that now strikes me as ill-considered, a reflection of my ignorance.

I have no answers. To be honest, I’m not entirely certain what questions I’m asking. I simply know that the artistic world has changed thanks to digital technology and the opening of artistic industries to everyone from the most advanced professional to the laziest weekend hobbyist. Lots of good has come of this. But for those who make their livings in the arts, these changes, taking place on a historic scale, present new and daunting challenges as well.

Writing-Tip Wednesday: My Favorite Computer Applications

A few weeks ago, in response to another plea on my part for suggestions of things you all would like to see covered in these Writing-Tip Wednesday posts, someone mentioned that they would appreciate my take on various writer tools and resources. This reader had in mind computer applications and the like, and I will cover a few of those today. But I also thought of book resources that I draw upon regularly, and that will be the topic next week’s post.

For this week, let’s begin with a couple of basics. The app on my computer that I use the most – and I mean by a long shot; it’s not even close – is my word processing software. I have always hated Microsoft Word. Always, always, always. And my antipathy for the program goes far beyond my visceral disdain for Clippy. I simply don’t like the way Word looks, the way it works, the way it “feels” when I’m writing. Early on, back when computers still had a sheen of novelty, I used WordPerfect and loved it. Today, I use a word processing software that is, to my mind, the closest thing to WordPerfect that one can find. It’s called Nisus Writer Pro. It has all the things you’d want a word processing app to have – including a dictionary and thesaurus and all the formatting bells and whistles. It saves files in Rich Text Format, but can also save them as .docs to be Microsoft compatible, and exports them as .pdfs to facilitate document sharing. It has Track Changes and Comments and both features are fully compatible with Word, so you can edit with others across platforms.

“How much does it cost?” you ask. This is the amazing part. It’s $65.00 new. The one catch is, it’s only available for Mac users. Sorry. But if you are a Mac user interested in an affordable, professional-level word processing app, this is the one for you.

My other favorite writing app is Scrivener. Scrivener is made by Literature and Latte and it sells for $49. It started as a Mac-only program, but it now comes in a Windows version as well. Same price.

Scrivener is like that amazing Swiss Army Knife you have that has twenty-seven gadgets on it. Chances are, you might only use seven or eight of them, but it’s nice to know that they’re all there if you need them. I use Scrivener for a few things, but I am fully aware that I have barely scratched the surface as to its capabilities. I tend to use it as an organizational tool, a place in which to create and store character sketches, setting descriptions, and general documents that serve as my conceptual framework for each book. I store all of my research in Scrivener – the app allows me to import web pages so that I don’t have to go hunting for them once I’ve found them.

I don’t use the Scrivener word processing feature because I’m picky and I like the look and feel of Nisus Writer Pro. But with Scrivener you can outline your book, write it, and then export it into various formats, including .doc, .rtf, .pdf, OpenOffice, epub, and Kindle format. Better still, you can write the book as a single document, OR you can write each chapter, or even each scene as a separate file. The advantage of that approach is that Scrivener then allows you to shuffle files around until you have found the perfect structure for your project. Pretty cool.

I also use Pages, the word processing app that comes with Mac computers. I don’t think much of it as a straight word processor, but I use it for my newsletter because its graphic features are incredibly easy to use. That would probably be the one place where Nisus falls flat. I know there are fairly strong graphic features in Nisus Writer Pro, but I have never found them intuitive or easy to use. Pages is weak in other ways, but it does make a nice newsletter (or party invitation, or flyer, or… etc.). And it interfaces seamlessly with iPhoto, allowing me to import images of my photographs and book jackets with ease.

As a bonus addition to this post, I would like to recommend an app to the photographers out there. I shoot in RAW format and I used to process my photographs with Adobe Lightroom. Then Adobe went to its monthly subscription payment structure, which totally pissed me off. So I did some research and settled on a new RAW image processor: DxO PhotoLab. I could devote an entire post to describing all that this app does, and perhaps at some point I will. For now, suffice it to say that there is literally nothing I want to do with my photos that I can’t do with PhotoLab. DxO has a comprehensive library of profiles that enable the app to automatically make camera and lens specific adjustments to each image. It literally has a profile for every combination of camera and lens made currently or in the past by most major manufacturers. It is as powerful as Lightroom, and in many ways far better. (For instance, I found that Lightroom washed the color out of my RAW images, forcing me to push the vibrancy and saturation in processing more than I would have liked. PhotoLab does a much better job of preserving the true color of the captured image.) It is not expensive as these things go – $129 for the basic program. $189 for a suite that includes two other useful apps.

So there you go. These are the creative programs I use most. I hope you find them helpful, too. Next week, my favorite book resources for writers!

Keep writing!