Scrivener, Storyist, Ulysses

Driven, I suppose, by a desire for something new, something different, I tried a couple of alternatives to Scrivener recently. Scrivener has been my go-to writing software since I discovered it in the middle of writing Stealing Light, and the second half of that book was finished using it.

Scrivener essentially collects chapters, notes, synopses, images and research, all into a single document or "project". It has a full-screen view that blocks out distractions; you can do neat stuff like open separate chapters that "float" in size-adjustable boxes next to what you're actually working on, for reference; you can set searchable keywords; have another text box open for notes specific to a chapter, or the manuscript as a whole: make use of a scratch-pad for typing in very quick, rough ideas; label chapters as to whether they're finished, not finished, and so on; add notes and comments into the main text that stay out of the way while you're writing; and a million other little tricks I still haven't tapped into.

Essentially, Scrivener's pretty much awesome. But I got an iPad last year, and found myself wanting to write on that. There's no Scrivener app for iPad, however - at least, not yet. An iPad version's been in development for a couple of years, and the announcement finally came not long after New Year that an internal beta was undergoing testing. Well, excuse me, while I throw my hat in the air and whoop. I know a lot of people are champing at the bit to be able to use Scrivener on a tablet.

But an internal beta is a long way from actually being able to get hold of and use the app itself. I had a halfway solution: Textilus, an iPad word processor that syncs reasonably well with Scrivener. But it's not perfect because, essentially, it's still not Scrivener, and depending on how good your internet connection is there are often document conflicts as it tries to autosave to your documents into Dropbox (through which the two programs automatically sync). So, while an acceptable halfway solution, that's all it is.

But there are other programs like Scrivener which do have iPad apps. One is Storyist. The other is Ulysses. I tried both recently. Storyist looks nice, but isn't nearly as malleable and adjustable as Scrivener. They've aimed for simplicity, which is fine, but coming from Scrivener it merely feels restricted. If I want to make in-document notes, I'm presented with a set of pre-formatted sheets with sections for 'Character Bio' and so forth that don't in any way reflect my working process. And I don't like being forced to make use of someone else's idea of an outline.

Still, the iPad app for Storyist is...okay. I tried a demo of the desktop version, but wound up back with Scrivener. The latter is also, I must add, shockingly expensive at nearly £45. And if you want the iPad app as well, that's most of a tenner on top of that. Scrivener is considerably less expensive, and vastly more flexible.

Ulysses is slightly better, and has a philosophy behind it of keeping things very clean, zen-like and simple...perhaps, I think, too simple. They eschew any kind of toolbar. There's no clickable option for bold, italic and so forth. Instead, they rely on something called Markdown which, I learn, is a form of HTML formatting.

I had no idea what Markdown even was until I downloaded the demo. It's kind of a pain in the ass, because I see no evidence that typing a bunch of hash marks or other symbols before and after a word is in any way simpler than just pressing ctrl-b or crtl-i on your keyboard. Sure, leave a toolbar out, but does anyone who writes seriously still click those little buttons instead of using the standard keyboard shortcuts? Supposedly not having to 'think' about formatting means you can focus on your writing; again, all I see is an opportunity to waste time 'focusing' on figuring Markdown the hell out. Not to mention there are "editable" style sheets which would send anyone who's never hand-coded a web page run screaming into the night.

So: Ulysses tries to sell itself as a simple, clean solution to writing, but my personal feeling is it's anything but. If you're a blogger, or a web page author, sure. But writing a book? Not so sure.  It also has a weird - to me - document storage solution entirely separate from your computer's native folder system. That, I don't get.

And here's the thing that annoyed me most of all: I could not find anywhere any way any means by which I could do something so simple as centre-align a line of text in Ulysses. Put it this way: if I can download free word-processors  capable of centre-aligning text, I feel no great need to spend thirty quid on one that can't, let alone requires the additional learning curve of an unfamiliar, if basic, formatting language.

But, again, there are two advantages Ulysses and Storyist still have over Scrivener: the first is that they have iPad apps, and Scrivener doesn't. Yet. I'd thought about getting one of these other programs to tide me over until that Scrivener app does finally appear, but I've found nothing to persuade me to shell out on either.

The other advantage appears relatively insignificant, but does count for something. Storyist and especially Ulysses have the advantage of being, well, pretty. They look nice. When I went back to Scrivener, it looked kind of...utilitarian and functional by comparison. It looked like a program built in the mid-2000s, rather than the 2010s. The current iteration of Ulysses, by comparison looks very sleek and modern, despite having only a fraction of Scrivener's flexibility.

But pretty isn't enough to make me move away from Scrivener, even temporarily. It's just too powerful and too flexible compared to the competition. In fact, trying other programs has made me dive a bit deeper into Scrivener's settings and change things around in a way that's improved my workflow. I've only ever really used a fraction of its settings, but now I'm trying to learn more, and that's a good  thing because, ultimately - hopefully - it'll make my job easier.

I gather there's going to be a  major update for Scrivener when the iPad app finally appears later in 2015, so maybe there's a chance they'll upgrade the overall look of the program at the same time.

(Edit, October 2015 - this entry has been getting a lot of hits. Indeed, it's had more hits than any single post on my blog, ever. There are several follow-up entries that explain the process through which I ended up almost entirely switching to Ulysses - the first, from July 2015, is here, the second is here, and the third and last, from September 2015, is here.)


Chappie, with Spoilers

I was avoiding going to see Chappie partly because of a series of deeply unflattering reviews, and partly because Neil Blomkamp's previous film Elysium was universally acknowledged to be a car crash - even by its creator. I certainly thought it was a car crash. All that, plus a 30% rating on Rotten Tomatoes and a fairly damning review on i09.com, put me off even further.

Then I saw a series of tweets by William Gibson, of all people, saying the film was unfairly maligned and deserved to be seen. And since there wasn't actually anything else on here in Taipei worth seeing this weekend, I figured what the hell. If Big Bill, the author of Count Zero, digs it, then maybe I'll dig it too.

And you know what? It's much better than the critics say. Is it worth seeing? Yes, it is. More like 80%, than 30%.

But that's not saying it's not a deeply flawed film regardless, and I think it's worth briefly addressing these on behalf of anyone who doesn't mind tripping over a big bunch of SPOILERS from here on in. You have been warned.

The film is set in 2016, unless I misheard the dialogue. Apparently in 2016 we'll be able to build robot armies of sufficient sophistication to patrol the streets of Jo'burg with minimal, if any, human police participation.

I really, really don't think so.

Also, it appears in Jo'burg that if a clearly unbalanced office worker in your weapons firm slams another down on his desk and pushes a pistol against his cheek, no one else in the office will even blink. As opposed to, say, evacuating the office, calling the police, having security manhandle the violent prick to the floor, or any of the other and various strategies that might be employed in a movie with any relationship whatsoever to real life.

The movie also ignores the fact that the bad guy, and we know he's a bad guy because he literally cackles insanely while ripping people apart with the aid of a huge ED209 lookalike (in fairness, this is a point also brought up in the i09 review), actually has a really good point. He's against allowing robots with guns to run around a city taking decisions on whether or not to use them on living human beings: he thinks we'd be safer if cops instead had direct manual control of an alternative technology -  essentially drones with legs.

Further, apparently 'neural helmets' in 2016 are capable of reading the mind of a person with sufficient sophistication to create a complete, working, conscious map of that person. Not only that - not only that - the same helmet will work on the mind of a police robot, despite its lack of anything even remotely resembling a human or organic brain.

Also, waking up in a robot body isn't, apparently, going to drive you insane. Being a machine consciousness hacking whiz apparently makes you immune to going crazy (you'll recall in RoboCop, the previous attempts at machine/human interface resulted in the subjects going immediately berserk - a far more realistic take).

Also, you'll be able to store a complete copy of a human consciousness on a cheap memory stick.

I can't type the word 'no' often enough to express just how much is wrong with the world building here. I'm actually kind of amazed, because Blomkamp has made his name through the use of lifelike CGI, suggesting (unless he's a master delegator, which is always possible) he's pretty handy with a computer. Which would further suggest he knew enough about the whole idea of consciousness-as-data to be able to frame the world building in a more realistic context  than is demonstrated here.

But despite all this, it still is a movie worth seeing. It's not the best movie you'll ever see, and it's sure as hell never going to be the go-to-classic on machine consciousness it might hope to be, but it's fun. In fact, nearly every single one of the problems outlined here could be solved by a single simple strategy: changing the stated date from 2016 to, say, 2036, or even further away.

That's it. That's all they need to do. Because we've no idea how sophisticated such machines might be in even just twenty years. But we've got a really, really good idea how sophisticated they will be in twelve months. Not nearly sophisticated enough for the purposes they're put to here.

And I know it seems like damning with faint praise, but it is an enjoyable movie. It's an action movie some people have clearly been expecting to have something serious to say about machine consciousness. On the contrary, it's an action movie with lots of explosions and running around and a non-human character who's far more identifiable than any of the humans. The 'nature of consciousness' stuff gets a faint nod before someone starts shooting at someone else. It is, essentially, a mid-1980s 2000AD strip brought to cinematic life, which should give you some idea just how deep it gets.

But if you're anything like me, it helps a lot if you press your hands over your ears when somebody says '2016' and just pretend they're saying some other, much further away date. Because when you factor in technology that doesn't yet exist, the whole plot immediately comes together.

In fact, I have a theory why it's 'set' in 2016: because it's a way for the marketing team to pretend it isn't really a science fiction movie and thereby guarantee a greater number of bums on seats. And I'm prepared to bet it's the marketing team who have the most trouble switching on their PC's.

Further, it's perhaps impossible to address the complex issues alluded to in Chappie through the medium of a two-hour film, and it's perhaps unfair to expect it to do so. We live in a world where a movie has to recoup preferably all of its investment in the first weekend of its showing or its regarded as a flop. That means investors are going to want things guaranteed to bring in an audience, and shooting and things blowing up is far likely to result in that return of investment than philosophical treatises on the nature of consciousness. On the other hand, I've been binge-watching Person of Interest over the last several months, and that undoubtedly is the go-to visual drama based around machine consciousness - and it even has room for lots of shooting and things blowing up.