Keep passing the open windows

That line, ‘keep passing the open windows’, is a quote that wrenches at me from John Irving’s novel, The Hotel New Hampshire. I’ve also used it cheaply as a gag about preferring Macs to PCs. But having now made that same gag and having now also quoted you a quote that I love in context, let me get on with it. Here’s a video that argues in favour of our just staring out of the window.

I tell you, I’m concerned because I see elderly people obsessing about the hundred metres square that they can see from a window and I don’t want to do that. But this quite serene video points out that in looking out of the window, you’re looking at so much more than you can see.

Get more out of that expensive computer of yours

I’m not saying you and I should spend more time in front of our computers. I’m saying that while you’re there, you can make these things work harder for you.

Seriously, how much did that thing cost you? And you’re just switching it on to write in Word, check out Facebook and send the odd email?

Take a minute to just look into it a bit more. You spend a lot of time writing, for one thing: start there. Start with how no matter what word processor you use, I know that it is replete with shortcuts. You know how much, much, much faster it is to open a document by pressing Control-O on PCs or Command-O on Macs? There’s more. Google the name of your word processor and the phrase “keyboard shortcuts”. You will recoil at how many there are, but learn a couple of them now and they will become muscle memory.

This isn’t about teaching yourself something, not really, and it’s not even exactly about getting faster at the repetitive things you have to do on your computer. It’s about removing obstacles. Someone asked me recently about the whole Blank Screen thing and why I prattle on in workshops, books and online. Among many reasons – you know me, I can’t be concise – I remembered that I’d shown someone how to speed up a thing on her website.

I created a button for her which meant to write something on her site, she pressed that instead of schlepping through the most tortuous series of steps to get into where she could right. The result is that, yes, it’s quicker for her, but the real result and the reason I talk to you so much, is that because it’s quicker, she does it.

She does it more. She does it a lot. It is great to see her dusty old blog become this active, sparkling new thing.

My book goes as far into this as you usefully can while keeping you awake and more specific issues have cropped up in most mentoring sessions I do. I wouldn’t want to force you to become as technology dependent as I am – but you already are, you already have that computer, get more out of it.

I wanted to say this to you now because it’s on my mind and it’s part of a project I’m working on for later in the year. But you say something and then you realise it: do take a look at my Blank Screen mentoring service as this is just one thing you’ll find it good for.

What to do when your computer slows down during a job

Buy a Mac. Sorry, couldn’t resist.

Whatever type of computer you have, there comes a moment when you need to quickly do this particular thing or other and it is taking ages. I don’t know what happens now with Windows, but with a Mac it’s when you get that spinning beach ball.

Given that I keep saying you shouldn’t multitask, am I really going to say you should stay looking at that beach ball instead of going off to do something else?

A little bit.

Partly because, yes, multitasking is that bad for you. The time it takes you to switch over to a different task, mentally, is equal to the time it takes you to switch back and both times are huge. Much worse than you imagine.

So I would stare at the beach ball for a fair while before I’d be better off doing something else.

But there is another reason. Very often, if our computer is slow saving a Word document, say, then we’ll nip over to Mail on it. And now that’s slow. So we just open that graphic that we need to tweak in Photoshop. And what do you know, dammit, now Photoshop is slow.

Whatever was causing the original slow down, we are compounding it by turning to different tasks on our computer. So if we’d just stood sitting there, we wouldn’t be distracted, we wouldn’t be slowing down our computer and we wouldn’t therefore be getting frustrated at how everything seems slow now.

I just don’t know how long to give that.

I do know that sometimes I should really restart the whole machine and that if I do, things will work better. Taking the time to restart is hard but it can be worth it, you can repay that time soon.

But in the meantime, here’s a shorter answer to the problem: try a little patience, it’s worth the effort.

More viruses, no more anti-virus

SYM_Vert_RGB-72dpiSo this guy, right, he rings me up to ask what I think of him installing anti-virus software on his PC.

“Have you got the box there?” I asked.


“Read the back to me.”

He did. Rattled off every detail on the back and said: “So what do you think, William?”

“I think you now know ten times more about anti-virus software than I do.”

I’m not blind to the problems of viruses and security on computers but I am on a Mac, it is true that I don’t have to think about it so much. I’ve grappled with the issue when setting up people’s PCs enough that viruses are one reason I stopped ever doing that: I can’t tell whether you’ve got a virus because I did something wrong or because nobody could’ve stopped it.

Apparently nobody could’ve stopped it. Symantec, long-time maker of anti-virus software, says that there’s no point to it: anti-virus doesn’t work. Brian Dye, Symantec senior vice president for information security told the Wall Street Journal that anti-virus “is dead”. Now, he then went on to say: “We don’t think of anti-virus as a moneymaker in any way.” That’s a significant difference: I’ve no reason to wish Symantec stops making money, but your lack of cash income doesn’t equal my having to give up on anti-virus.

That Journal interview is focused on what the company is doing with its business and it’s true that Symantec is moving away from anti-virus software. It’s also true, unfortunately, that it’s because such software isn’t working any more. Says the Wall Street Journal:

Symantec Corp. SYMC -0.05% invented commercial antivirus software to protect computers from hackers a quarter-century ago. Now the company says such tactics are doomed to failure.

Antivirus products aim to prevent hackers from getting into a computer. But hackers often get in anyway these days. So Mr. Dye is leading a reinvention effort at Symantec that reflects a broader shift in the $70 billion a year cybersecurity industry.

Symantec Develops New Attack on Cyberhacking – Wall Street Journal

Very broadly, anti-virus software works by recognising virus code – and it recognises it by comparing it to a database of existing viruses. That always meant that a brand-new virus would get by because it didn’t match any previous one and this is, again very broadly, why you’d have so many updates to anti-virus software. Now viruses and other malicious code tend to be new. According to the Wall Street Journal, “Mr Dye estimates anti-virus now catches just 45% of cyberattacks”.

What this means for Symantec is that fewer people are buying its software. What this means for users is harder to tell: Symantec, McAfee and Norton are reportedly moving to software that detects suspicious activity more than it does this code-comparison.


It’s a discussion that comes up a lot. I’ve even joked about it in my book, The Blank Screen (UK edition, US edition). Every time it happens, it’s started by someone who dislikes Apple and they always say:

Macs are overpriced

And I or probably anyone who likes Apple, tells a tale something like mine:

My previous Mac lasted me seven years. I still use it for some jobs. Over that same period, X or Y replaced their PCs three times. Tell me what’s the better value.

I’m not sure which disappoints me more: the ease with which I come out with all this stuff or the ease with which people say Macs are overpriced. It’s the word overpriced: if they’d said expensive or just straight out that they cost more than PCs, I’d be nodding along with them. Well, there’s the stuff about MacBook Air knockoffs, how they still aren’t cheaper. But generally, Macs are more expensive than PCs.

It’s just that word overpriced.

That really disappoints me.

You can get a word processor for free now. So people call ones that cost £6.99 overpriced. They mean it costs more, they think it’s expensive – seriously? £6.99 for something you’ll earn your living using? – but they say overpriced. The word is used because it sounds better than calling the cheaper one cheaper. It implies a professional judgement: all things have been considered and that one is overpriced.

Anyone who disagrees has been consumed by the cult of Apple whereas you, the one making this overpriced judgement, are the sole voice of sanity.



Macs are cheaper than PCs therefore Macs are overpriced

Shoes are cheaper than cars therefore cars are overpriced

Hey, they both get you where you’re going, don’t they? But you look at that second one, you think I’m a smartarse, and you know shoes can’t do the same job as a car. That’s actually what I think when I look at the first line: PCs can’t do the same job as a Mac. You can disagree and there is every chance you will, but it doesn’t matter: that’s how I see it when I’m spending the money. All that matters is what you, specifically you, need. You’re thinking money matters too and it surely does, but:

If you love PCs and Windows, you have oodles of choice and you’re going to get a very cheap computer. I can’t see a single thing wrong with that.

If you don’t love PCs and Windows, why would you buy one? When you don’t like them, then the sole reason is price and I can see only wrong things with that. You’re choosing, you are electing to buy a computer you know you won’t like. That’s not a saving over a Mac, it is a waste of money. It’s one of the worst wastes, I think, because you then have to live with it every day you’re working.

I’m sure I’ll buy another Mac some day but when I do, I will be pricing it against what I need it for and what it will do for me. I won’t be comparing it to a PC.

I do thoroughly believe that you need to get the computer that works best for you and if that’s a PC, that’s a PC. I think I’m in a fortunate position that I’ve worked extensively with both so I know what works for me.

Buy a Mac, buy a PC, it’s completely up to you. But can we skip the bollocks about overpriced vs cheap and just get back to work?

Going too far – Mac Desks website

It is far too far. You can like Macs without going within a pixel of how far this site goes. But you’re going to look, aren’t you? There is a now a website that just features photographs of peoples’ desks with Macs on them. It’s – wait, where did you go?

I was going to show you an example! Fine. Run off to, or run away to more sensible people than me. You’ll just never find out that I have mocked and scoffed Mac Desks – and also subscribed to it through RSS.

Here’s that example, since you weren’t asking, noooo:


Mixing sound and vision to get the full picture

I’m a very visual kind of man but, awkwardly, what I visualise is text. I can see words. If you and I are talking, I can choose to see your words as text. Squint a bit and there it is, word by word, white text on a black background, right in front of my eyes. It’s great for transcriptions. But text is so much a par of me and I am so much a writer through and through that I have ignored other visual ways of looking at detail. Okay, maybe I can see scenes visually when I’m reading or writing a script, but when faced with a problem, I used to always just think it through. More recently, I’ve written it down and thought it through.

But then last week, I had a meeting that was intentionally nebulous. It was clearly a chance to pitch something, but I didn’t know what and I was fairly sure that there were no specifics behind the invitation either. It would be up to me and what I could bring to the meeting.

And I mind-mapped it.

Slapped down everything I could think of that even considered crossing my mind in the week before the meeting. I used MindNode for iPad (£6.99 UK, $9.99 US) so it was with me wherever I went and by the morning of the meeting, I had a completely useless mess. But it was a big mess. Lots of things on it. And I started dragging bits around. This stuff sorta, kinda belonged with those bits over there. This one was daft. That one was actually part of my shopping list and I’d just put it in the wrong app.

And then I’d find one that ignited another small idea so I’d add that.

After a bit of adding and subtracting and moving around, I had three or four solid blocks of ideas that were related. I exported the lot from MindNode to OmniOutliner for iPad (£20.99 UK, $29.99 US) which picked it all up and showed it to me as a hierarchy of text lines instead of a visual bubble of blogs. I work better with text, I may have mentioned this, so that was perfect for me.

Nearly perfect. I really wanted to then hand the lot on from OmniOutliner to OmniFocus, my To Do manager, (iPad £27.99 UK$39.99 US). I wanted to be able to tick off the ideas as I got through them in the meeting. I wasn’t able to do that on the iPad; I suspect that it’s something that needs me to use OmniOutliner on my Mac (from £34.99 UK, from $49.99 US). I’ve got that and I use it ever increasingly more, but I wasn’t at my office.

So instead I stayed with the text in OmniOutliner. Made some more changes and additions, moved some more things around. And then I worked from that list in the meeting and it went really, really well.

The whole process went well: the mind mapping on to the meeting itself. Enough so that afterwards I tried mind mapping again, this time to figure out what I’m doing with everything, not just this one meeting. I’m still working on it. But it’s proving useful. And while I can’t show you the meeting mind map as it’s naturally confidential, and I obviously can’t show you this new mind map of everything because it’s in progress, I can show you a blurry version. This is what I’m doing now:



‘Mandatory’ applications from a decade ago

I’ve just found a backup CD that looks like it’s from late 2002 and it’s like a time capsule. Then as now, I was devoted to software and I ran my life through various applications. Of course I mean my professional life as a writer but also, frankly, everything. Not a single day goes by that I don’t use a good half dozen applications and in every case they have earned that spot. They are so good or they are so right for what I need that I can neither comprehend how I worked without them nor conceive how I could ever work without them in the future.

But the future is a funny place. You only have to look to the past to find that out.

This CD is labelled Mac Apps. It’s a backup of my most precious and most used software in 2002. There’s folder of system bits I’ve not bothered to look into yet, there’s a folder I’ve called Nice for some reason. But then there is a folder called Mandatory. Wherever I go, whatever Mac I work on, these are the tools I have to have with me. There are eleven.

Corel WordPerfect 3.5 Enhanced

I’m astonished that this was there as late as 2002. I liked WordPerfect for Mac, I was in a minority there but I did, yet it ceased to exist such a long time ago. I think this was me hanging onto it to the bitter end but the bitter end must’ve come pretty soon afterwards because WordPerfect for Mac doesn’t run on Mac OS X.

Desktop Printer Utility

Not one single clue what this is for.

Disc Burner and Disk First Aid

Notice the c and the k endings. I’m just saying. I could work this pair out if I tried, but it’s not going to happen. Except that I did use a descendent of Disk First Aid just yesterday: Disk Utility. Was it truly ever mandatory, though?

DVD Region Switch Autolauncher

I don’t know what the autolauncher bit did now but region coding, I well remember region coding. This commercial decision to block people from buying DVDs outside their own home region. Even if the DVD they want has never and will never be released there. Nobody with any interest ever stood still for that decision, and I didn’t either.

Final Draft 4.1

I still use Final Draft today. I have version but there is a version 9. I’m unlikely to buy that. But I did buy Final Draft for iPad, it’s still useful enough to me to be worth upgrading sometimes and the Mac one does stay in my dock.

Microsoft Outlook

There’s mandatory because I liked something and there’s mandatory because some firm or client demanded it. Surely this is the latter. I don’t remember there being an Outlook for OS 9, I thought the Mac version was called Entourage around this time. But here it is. And there it goes.

Now Up-to-Date and Contact

Oh, now, these I miss. These I’d be using today if I could. It was actually a pair of applications: Now Up-to-Date was a Calendar and Now Contact was an address book. I remember they worked together very well and that every time I’ve tried an calendar or address book since, I’ve been judging it against these two. If I imagine I would’ve held on to WordPerfect for as long as I could, I know I wouldn’t have given up NUDC willingly. But times move on, hardware and operating systems move on, you can neither buy NUDC now nor run it on any current machines. It’s a loss. Mind you, I’m no longer the power user I was for calendars so the one that comes on my Mac is fine enough for me. Especially as OmniFocus, my current beloved To Do manager shows you today’s tasks along with a peek at the calendar for today’s events. So useful. But I’ll raise a mug of tea to NUDC tonight.


And I will sob about this. Weirdly, it’s not six hours since I told someone the tale. Back when I worked on computer magazines, journalists used to blag more than they blogged. Some people got press trips to Vegas, practically everyone got computers on short- and long-term loans. My biggest blah was this. The Oxford English Dictionary on CD-ROM. The original disc is still on my shelf. But neither it nor this backup copy has worked in a long time. I’d have said since the 1990s but presumably I’m wrong. Still, it’s another victim of changing and developing platforms and operating systems. I miss this more than I can say and I don’t believe you can buy an up to date version: you can only subscribe to an online one for more than I can afford or blag.

PageSpinner 4.1

Not a clue.


What? Anti-virus on a Mac in 2002 and I called it Mandatory? Let’s just walk away from that. I was young.

I wonder what hardware I was using then. I think it was a black PowerBook but I’m rubbish with computer names and models, I only remember what I do with them.

I’m feeling all nostalgic for a time not a heartbeat ago. I’m feeling as nostalgic for the OED on CD-ROM as you might be for whatever music was in the top twenty in your school days.

But I look at each of these applications, at least the ones I can remember what they did, and I can see how much better things are today. NUDC would look out of date, I know. Seriously, I know: there was a failed project to bring it back in the 2000s and I was right there using the betas and contributing. OmniFocus plus OS X’s address book and calendar together beat NUDC. I know.

Yet in another ten or twelve years, will I even remember what OmniFocus does? It’s not like there’s a huge clue in the title.

Thanks for letting me tell you all this. It’s been a buzz.

Thirty years of Macintosh

I would not being doing the job I am, I would not be enjoying it the way I am, I would not have had the wide-ranging, bouncy career I have – if it weren't for the Mac.

I'm not kidding.

Apple's Macintosh made such a difference in my life that today, on its thirtieth birthday, I've written about it over on my personal blog, Self Distract.

I'd very much like you to take a look.

Pattern weeks – part 2

I'm still fiddling. Previously on Pattern Weeks… I was working to bring some kind of structure to my typical or pattern week, chiefly because every week was changing and I knew I wasn't getting enough done. For a detailed previously and maybe reasons why you might like to think about it too, see Pattern Weeks.

Now I'm embarrassed to say that I wrote that and was planning all this back on 31 December and we're now a fortnight further on.

But I do have the plan, at last, sort of.

I ripped up lots of versions and settled for working out a list of things that I really have to get done. I used OmniOutliner for that; lots of bashing in things as I thought of them, as a search of my calendar and To Do list brought them up. And then lots of juggling around. A fair bit of realising that this bit or that was quite similar to something else on the list, I could save some time by doing them one after another.

I ended up with tent poles in the week: inviolate times when invoiolate things have to be done inviolately. They won't be. But they will be more than if I weren't looking out for them.

And that's nearly where I am now. I've got the list, the kind of super-list, the overall no-details-but-big-picture list and I have these tent poles. Certain few of these things have to happen at certain times and I know the things, I know the times.

The intention is to end up with wallpaper on my Mac with this pattern in my face. I'm about a quarter of the way through producing that image in Adobe Illustrator and it's a Tetris-like calendar kind of image with big red boxes, little green ones and some yellow 'uns too.

I'm trying to work out how I'll show that to you when it's done and all the boxes have all their text in – without you being able to see that the big red box that stripes across the whole week at the same time is really just breakfast.

But I'm getting there and it's proving useful plotting and pondering. So I wanted to share that with you, even as I can't yet share the plan.