Jeff Duntemann's Contrapositive Diary Rotating Header Image

software

In Search of the Great Unifier

I’ve been in book publishing since long before there were ebooks. Print was always primary, and you saw to print first. Once ebooks became practical, ebooks were derived from print book content. The tools were dicey, and the renderers (in ebook readers and apps) were very dicey. (I think they still are. Will any common ebook reader render a drop-cap correctly? If so, let me know. I have yet to see one that does.) The way publishing is currently evolving, this has to change. Ebooks are becoming the afterthought that wags the industry, and print, where it survives at all, looks to become an extra-cost option.

I’ve been watching for that change for some time, while continuing to use the same system I learned in the 1990s. I write and edit in Word, and then do layout and print image generation in InDesign, which I’ve used since V1.0. I’m willing to change the apps I use to generate books of both kinds, but it’s got to be worth my while.

So far, it hasn’t been. I do intuit that we may be getting close.

What rubbed my nose in all this is my recent project to clean up and re-issue my novel The Cunning Blood in ebook format. Although it was published in late 2005, I actually wrote the book in 1998 and 1999. Even when you’re 62, sixteen years is a long time. I’ve become a better writer since then, and beyond a list of typos I’ve accumulated some good feedback from readers about booboos and awkwardnesses in the story that should be addressed in any reissue. So the adventure begins.

There’s a common gotcha in the way I create books: Final corrections to the text in a layout need to be recaptured when you return to manuscript to prepare a new edition. I was in a hurry and careless back in 2005. I made literally dozens of changes to the layout text but not to the Word file. To recapture those changes to the manuscript I’ve had to go from the layout back to a Word file, which with InDesign, at least, is not easy. I don’t intend to make that mistake again.

That said, avoiding the mistake may be difficult. Word processors are marginal layout programs, and layout programs are marginal word processors. The distinction is really artificial in this era of eight-core desktops. There’s no reason that one program can’t maintain two views into a document, one for editing and one for layout. The marvel is that nobody’s succeeded in doing this. My only guess is that until very recently, publishing drew a fairly bright line between editing and layout, with separate practitioners on each side of the line. Few individuals did both. What attempts I’ve seen are shaped by that line.

Consider InCopy. Adobe introduced InCopy with CS1. It’s a sort of allied word processor for InDesign. It never caught on and is no longer part of CS. (Only one book was ever published about InCopy CS2, which is the surest measure of failure on the part of an app from a major vendor.) I have CS2 and can guess why: InCopy requires a great deal of what my Irish grandmother would call kafeutherin’ to transfer copy between the two apps. InCopy was designed for newspaper work, where a lot of different writers and editors contribute to a single project. I consider it it a multiuser word processor, for which I have no need at all. For very small press and self-publishing, we need to go in the opposite direction, toward unification of layout and editing.

There is a commercial plug-in for InCopy called CrossTalk that sets up InDesign and InCopy for single practictioner use, but the damned thing costs $269 and may no longer support CS2.

I’m still looking. A couple of my correspondents recommended I try Serif’s PagePlus. I might have done so already, but the firm’s free version installs crapware toolbars that most people consider malware. The paid version does not; however, I’ll be damned if I’ll drop $100 on spec just to test something.

I know a number of people who have laid out whole books entirely in Word, and I could probably do that. With Acrobat CS2, I could generate page image PDFs from a Word file. Atlantis edits Word files and generates good-quality .epub and .mobi files from .docx. That’s not a bad toolchain, if what you want is a chain. I already have a chain. What I want is a single edit/layout app that generates page images, .epubs, and .mobis.

Etc. The tools are definitely getting better. Solutions exist, and one of these days soon I’m going to have to choose one. As I said, I’m still looking. I’ll certainly hear suggestions if you have some.

Odd Lots

Stapling the Correct Battery to a Dead Horse

In the wake of Heartbleed there’s a whole lotta password changin’ going on, reawakening the always-lively discussion of what constitutes a strong password. Xkcd has a legendary answer to that as well: Correct horse battery staple. In other words, four randomly chosen words beats g0B!deEG00kk. The information theory explanation is that there is more entropy in those four random words than in a quirky misspelling of “gobbledegook.” Xkcd reminds us that if you can picture a horse asking if that’s a battery staple, those four words are also hugely easier to remember.

Bruce Schneier disagrees, and (as always) he lays out a good case. His password-generation scheme is certainly harder to crack than choosing four shortish random words. However, some scorch spot in my genes makes it hard to use a mnemonic like that. Remembering passwords is key, since a password that’s miserably difficult to remember simply won’t be used. Nonetheless, if you can do it, it’s golden. There are traps, however. Some years ago, when I first had an account that allowed (almost) arbitrarily long passwords, I used a favorite line from Tennyson:

Down along the beach I wandered, cherishing a youth sublime

That was in fact an excellent passphrase for a couple of reasons, one of which was unintentional. (Can you guess? Answer below.) Using Bruce’s method combining the initials of this line and the one that follows gives us:

datbiw,cays-wtftosatlrot

I’ll bet that’s damned hard to crack. However, it took a lot of work to extract that from the text, given that I had to extract it every time I typed it in. I could actually type both lines in full twice in the time it took me to extract the initials once. So as password generators go, it’s not my favorite. Furthermore, I intuit that automating initial-extraction from passphrases findable online (like lines from famous poems) would be trivial.

Once I learned a little more about dictionary-driven password cracking, I stopped using lines memorized out of famous poems. Given the size of modern hard drives, and the boggling number of offline hashes that modern GPUs can calculate per second, having a dictionary of all lines from virtually all famous poems, plays, and novels would be a computational blip. (Text is small.)

That said, the passphrase above is actually stronger than you’d think, because, well…it’s wrong. That’s not how the line goes in Tennyson’s “Locksley Hall.” The correct line is:

Here about the beach I wander’d, nourishing a youth sublime

Assuming I hadn’t spilled the beans here, I might actually have gone back to using it, because, having used it for a couple of years, it got pretty well set in my memory. Alas, consistent misremembrances of this quality are scarce. Poetry can work, however, since structures of rhyme and meter make poems easier to remember. It can work if you write the poems yourself. Your mileage will vary. I’m oddly good at both writing poetry (which doesn’t mean that it’s good poetry) and then remembering it. In fact, bad poetry is lots easier to remember. Just now, this line popped out of nowhere:

“Piffle!” said the Golmodox. “His niffled head is all but rocks.”

This is actually two reasonably strong passwords, or one if you’re paranoid. What makes them strong? Two of the words are made up. Words that don’t actually exist make cracking miserable. Poetry makes phrases easy to memorize. So sit yourself down, my writer friend, read some Lewis Carroll to get your brain revving in the right direction, and write a nonense poem. Read it several times until you can recite it out loud without hesitation, and then encrypt it (strongly). Choose a line from the poem and make it a password. As you need passwords, choose other lines from the poem. When you run out of lines, write a new poem.

Nothing is uncrackable…but when you’re the highest fruit on the tree, you’re not going to get picked any time soon.

Odd Lots

  • Our new concrete gets its sealer coat tomorrow, and once it dries it’ll be (finally!) done. I’ll post a photo. So far we think it’s gorgeous.
  • This article has been shared again and again and again on Facebook, and it caught my attention because it echoes something I wrote about in 2009: That because our stuff is lasting longer, we need less stuff, be it forks or cars. And the cars are piling up…or are they? Alas, the article is nonsense (it did smell a little funny to me) and here’s the point-by-point takedown.
  • Here’s the best detailed article on bacteriophage therapy I’ve seen in quite awhile. It’s a hard read, but a good one. Sooner or later, as antibiotics fail us one by one, we’re going to have to go this way. (Phages look very cool, as well.)
  • The scientific method wins again: We thought we knew the physics behind same-material static electricity. We were wrong. Doubt really does lie at the very heart of science, in that if we don’t doubt what we think we know, we have no chance of finding our mistakes.
  • Now that eggs aren’t evil anymore, it’s worth exploring all the various ways to prepare them. If you like hard-boiled eggs, here’s the best explanation I’ve seen of how to boil them so that they’ll peel easily and without divots.
  • Adobe’s Creative Cloud was down for some time. The issue’s been resolved, but it just confirms my ancient suspicion that putting everything on the cloud is a really bad idea. If I can’t access my software, I can’t work. Pretty much end of story.
  • Blue light keeps you awake. Staying awake shortens your life. So as the day winds down, Turn the Damned Thing Off. Then read a book until you’re sleepy. I recommend any substantial history book, with a special nod to histories of the Byzantine Empire. (Thanks to Dermot Dobson for the link.)
  • This is the company that makes the machines that play the songs on ice cream trucks. Or at least the ones in the UK.

Odd Lots

  • This is where we stayed on Grand Cayman last week. Unless I misrecall, it was about $150 a night. Don’t forget that it was not air conditioned.
  • For deep reading, print may be the way to go, for reasons we don’t yet understand. In looking back a year or so, I realize that I generally read fiction on my Transformer Prime, and nonfiction on paper. It wasn’t a conscious decision–and may simply be due to a reluctance of nonfiction publishers to issue ebooks–but it was probably the correct one.
  • Here’s yet another reason why I’ve decided to let the Sun actually reach my skin.
  • It’s starting to look like diet has little or no effect on cancer risk. This has been my suspicion for a long time. Obesity, yes. Diet itself, no. (Thanks to Bruce Baker for the link.)
  • Ohh, Ancel Key’s beautiful wickedness is all starting to unravel. Saturated fat has nothing to do with heart disease. This has also been a suspicion of mine for some time, along with the suspicion that eating fat will make you lose weight more quickly than simply going low-carb. It certainly worked that way for me. I now weigh only eight pounds more than I did when I was 24, and a good deal of that is probably muscle I put on via ten years of weight training. (Thanks to Trevor Tompkins for the link.)
  • Interesting paper on why the Neanderthals died out. They didn’t necessarily die out becausethey were inferior. (Maybe they didn’t die out at all but are still here, pretending to be ugly Saps.) If I had to guess, I’d say their skulls got so big as to make childbirth problematic. But what were they doing with all that gray matter? (Thanks to Erik Hanson for the link.)
  • I stumbled on a year-old article that pretty much captures my reaction to weather.com. I will add, however, that weather.com beats the living hell out of The Weather Channel.
  • I’m still waiting for reports of cataclysmic pwnage on XP machines. The number “2000″ comes to mind.
  • Speaking of which, I still need XP because my HP S20 slide scanner has no driver that will run on Windows 7. Haven’t tried the VM trick yet, but ultimately that’s the way I’ll have to go.
  • I knew there was a reason I only lived in Baltimore for 23 months.

Odd Lots

  • This exploit isn’t new, but may be the most devilish thing I’ve seen in a couple of years: Using the Unicode “right-to-left override” character in a filename to make a .exe file look like a .pdf, a .jpg, .txt, or anything else. Double-click on that PDF, and you’ll get pwned…because it isn’t a PDF.
  • Working 16-hour days and sleeping a couple of hours under your desk may contribute to the high percentage of failures among startups. Basically, people who short on sleep think dumb thoughts and chase dumb ideas. They seem to wear their wilfull sleeplessness like a badge of honor, even as it kills their startups. Or themselves.
  • Note the near-obligatory Ekirch reference in the above article. I’ve still not found much evidence for his theory of “divided sleep” outside of his own book, but the guy gets citations all over the place.
  • This article on food myths is less interesting than the comments, which generally confirm my conclusion (having seen lots of similar comment sections) that nobody really knows what healthy eating is. (Thanks to Roy Harvey for the link.)
  • My own advice runs like this, with no apologies whatsoever to Michael Pollan: Eat food. Not too much. And sometimes plants.
  • Much activity in this realm recently. Bruce Baker sends this link from the New York Times . Comments section very similar. The whole field, in fact, is a virtual food fight. Proving you’re right by insulting your opponents is very in right now, especially on Facebook.
  • Neil Rest sends a link suggesting that exposure to bright light in the morning lowers BMI. Now, I think BMI itself is bogus–the metric doesn’t differentiate between fat and muscle, sheesh!–but if morning sunlight does indeed goose metabolism, getting out in the sun is a good thing. We should be cautious here: It’s been established that losing sleep does promote weight gain, and it’s mostly night people who lose sleep.
  • Name brand diet soda sales are in free-fall. I think that this is less about health and more about cost: People are probably reacting to price hikes from Big Soda over the past couple of years by moving to house brands from Wal-Mart and the major grocery chains.
  • House brands are a fascinating business, and there’s very little out there on how this titanic but virtually invisible industry operates. Who makes the Cheerios that aren’t Cheerios?
  • Is the Internet taking away religious faith? Hardly. What it’s doing is providing secular religions (like political ideology) to satisfy the tribal hunger of the 50% whose disaffiliation from organized religion can’t be explained in other ways. Tribal ideology is cheap (no churches or clergy to support) and once you’ve given yourself permission to hate others who differ from you, it provides the perfect excuse.

Ask the Man Who Has One. Or Seventeen.

Used Keyboards 500 Wide.jpg

Computers suck. Ask the man who has one. Or seventeen.

You haven’t seen much from me lately because I began the XP rampdown a little too late to be calm and systematic about it. It wasn’t evolution, nor upgrading. It was demolition. I will probably be tinkering with the rubble for a good long while, but the explosions have for the most part occurred where and how I intended them.

Before I get into that, take a look at the photo above. I use the Dell SK-8135 keyboard everywhere I don’t need one of my precious Northgates, and I destroyed one a couple of weeks ago by literally dropping a computer on it. (I don’t know if the SX270 got hurt. It’s now in somebody’s recycle pile, and will not trouble this world again.) That left me with no spares, so I ordered a couple of used ones from a surplus house. Both arrived the other day…with logins and passwords taped to their undersides. Heartbleed? We don’t need no steeking Heartbleed…

So we return to the XP crater. The smoke is clearing. Both of Carol’s machines are now used but spotless Optiplex 780s running Win7. My GX620 USFF upgraded to Win7 without a whole lot of argument. My quadcore now has a newer and much larger SSD, plus a new card reader and four new USB ports on the front panel. My new Dell e6400 laptop was a Win7 slab from the outset. I got rid of four SX270s, plus a couple of old Pentium 3 mini-towers that followed me home years ago and refused to leave. I was about to recycle my dead 2001 Thinkpad X21, then plugged it in, scratched my chin, shoved the hard disk solidly into its slot, and boom! Windows 2000 said hi to me for the first time since early 2005. The X21 remains my favorite laptop of all time. Still not sure what to do about that.

There were driver problems, not that that came as a complete surprise. Both my HP 5370C flatbed scanner and my OpticBook flatbed edge scanner came with drivers that refused to install. (Interestingly, my even older HP PhotoSmart S20 slide scanner installed without any grumbling.) HP’s 5370C driver was an abomination even when it was new. The 5370C is a freaking scanner, for cripe’s sake. Why does it need twenty-five assorted DLLs, OCXs, and other dubious squidlies in order to function? Well, I’m in the thick of scanning a lot of paper records for offsite storage, and I needed that scanner bad. What I ended up doing turned out to be a bit of a wonder: I bought the Pro version of VueScan. It rankled me a little at first to have to spend $80 to reclaim a scanner I paid for twelve years ago. That said, what VueScan gave me was marvelous: A common UI for every scanner in the house. (VueScan supports the S20 as well.) The product is well worth the money. It comes with a reasonably literate 111-page user guide, and there’s a book about it too. The book’s on order, and so far I’ve been able to find my way around by (gasp) reading the manual, with less head-banging than I expected. The list of scanners supported by VueScan is boggling. If I ever need to get another scanner, I won’t have to screw with psychotic vendor drivers, nor learn any needlessly different vendor UIs.

Win a program, lose a program. I have a little utility called Jasc Image Commander that’s been with me since the midlate 90s. All I use it for is to crop, resize, rotate, and adjust color on pictures for Contra. Alas, Win7 will have no part of it. Bummer. I installed FastStone and IrfanView and am trying to decide which to keep. Both are more complex than I need, but I’ve used them both before and the jump won’t be too traumatic. So far, IrfanView has the edge.

Win7 itself wasn’t that big a deal. I still have a couple of head-scratchers on the list. The e6400 simply will not join my homegroup. I’ll come back to that once I study up a little on homegroups. I have a weird impression that Win7 is dropping keystrokes on me when I type quickly–and as most of my friends are aware, I type very quickly. This may in part be due to the PS/2-USB keyboard converter that allows me to use a 1991 Northgate on a machine without a PS/2 keyboard connector. Don’t know. Will continue to research it.

I may put XP in a VM in case I need it for something. I’m also keeping one XP-based SX270, not for the sake of XP but because it’s the only machine in the house that can read floppies and Zip disks. Who still has floppies and Zip disks? I do. And they wander in sometimes carrying interesting things.

Still, for the most part, it’s done. Sure, I should have begun sooner. Yeah, I’ll miss XP a little. I won’t miss the boxloads of old hardware that the switchover finally motivated me to dump. And boy, am I looking forward to moving on to more entertaining projects than this!

Odd Lots

  • Hats off to T. C. Chua, who figured out how to make Zoundry Raven work with IE9+. Raven uses IE’s WYSIWYG editor, and changes made to the editor with IE9 breaks the program completely. Zoundry is open-source and hasn’t been updated since 2008. Mr. Chua traced through the Python code, found the problem, fixed it, and built an .EXE out of the Python code. He’s made it available here. I’ve used Raven to edit and post Contra entries since 2008, and didn’t feel like chasing down some new blog editor now that I’ve moved to Win7. Bravo!
  • Vegetarian diets are not as healthy as we’ve been led to believe. Make sure you scroll down to Table 3 and get a look at the figures for cancer. Now, some thrive on vegetarian diets and many don’t. What the research doesn’t appear to take into account is “lifestyle panic,” which is severe anxiety that some (usually minor) aspect of your life will kill you. If worry about your diet turns your life into a cortisol thrill ride, your diet won’t help you, and it certainly won’t be what killed you.
  • Mars reaches opposition on April 8, and the best day for observing it is April 14. Actually, any time within a week or two of those dates will provide a pretty good show, especially if you have even a smallish telescope. Such opportunities happen roughly every two years, so catch it now or wait until 2016!
  • Wearable computing has never really set the world on fire, and here’s a reasonably honest assessment as to why. I already have one computer in my pocket, and that’s plenty.
  • A GoPro-packing RC flying wing. Makes kites look kind of lame, but lame is what I have on hand, and lame is how I’m going to fly my GoPro this spring. If we ever get a spring. (6″ of sloppy stuff this morning; would have been 15″ had it been ten degrees colder.)
  • Cores (the other kind of cores) like dust.
  • My instance of the Gallery photo server is pretty much dead, and I’ve begun migrating photos to Flickr. Here’s my photostream link, and my three sets so far. I’m not yet an ace at the system by any means, but with some practice I’ll get everything interesting up there.
  • Ok. Precision marshmallow toasting is cool. Just don’t get nuts and melt the mallow into the machinery.
  • I study climate, in general to support a fiction concept I’m working on, but I don’t talk about it here because I don’t like to trigger the sort of slobbering tribal hatred that any such discussion invariably involves. This is an interesting (if depressing) psychological phenomenon all by itself. (Thanks to Trevor Thompkins for the link.)
  • This turned up on April 1, but like all the best hoaxes, it is nowhere clear that it’s actually a hoax. So is it? (Thanks to Esther Schindler for the link.)
  • The world’s smallest volcano was maybe just a little easier to suss out…

Pinging Jeff…

Pong, everybody. Relax. I’m still here. And I’m very glad to say that I’m probably 1200 words from the end of my current book project. If it weren’t for some home repairs and carpet cleaning I’d be done by now, and I expect to be done by EOD Friday. The publisher is still reluctant to say much about the book, for reasons I still don’t understand. I’m puzzled, but in publishing as in so many other realms, those who write the checks make the rules.

Much to do after the last word rattles out of the keyboard. Getting rid of XP is high on the list, given our April 8 deadline. This afternoon I ordered a refurbed Win7 laptop, a Dell e6400. How could such an old laptop be useful to me? Easy: I don’t do much on laptops. It’s a travel computer, for Web, email, and some light word processing–like writing Contra entries on the road. It cost me $240 postpaid, as they used to say. I’ve had very good luck with used Dell machines in the last ten years. Every machine in the house but my quadcore is a Dell refurb. I already have two Win7 Dell 780 USFFs for upstairs, and installed Win7 on my lab machine over a year ago. That leaves the laptop and the quad, basically, and if I didn’t need to use the quad to finish this book, the quad would be running Win7 by now as well.

The SX270s are now all bookends. They make very nice bookends.

Oh, and the computer junk pile is getting impressive.

The list of things to do Post Book is long. We need to replace our driveway slab, which is descending into rubble. Ditto the garage slab, the replacement of which will require putting my lathe, big drill press, tooling, and metal stock in storage somewhere. There’s a lesson here: Soil compaction matters. We spent thirty grand mudjacking the lower level, recarpeting, and repainting. Settling soil pulled our gas meter down so far the pipe cracked and damned near blew us over the top of Cheyenne Mountain. I made a number of mistakes having this house built, and I will never make those mistakes again.

Then there’s 3D. I drew 81 figures by hand for this book project, all of them in Visio. (I actually drew 83, but two of them won’t be used.) I’m very good at Visio. However, Visio is inextricably a 2D CAD program, and every time I’ve tried to use it for 3D, it makes me nuts. I took a lot of drafting and engineering graphics when I was in school and know how to do it. (Sure, it was with a T-square. Ya gotta problem widdat?) I need to be able to draw things in 3D. I downloaded the free version of Sketchup after Google bought it in 2006, but was too busy back then to spend much time with it. I see that Google sold it a year or two ago, and the new owners are positioning it as an architectural CAD system. That’s fine, since I know from earlier tests that Sketchup can do telescope parts, and if it can also design me an observatory, I’m good with that. I need somewhere to put an observatory, obviously, but that’s a separate challenge. So learning Sketchup is another priority.

Fiction, too. I’m going to try finishing Old Catholics. If that doesn’t work, I’ll start The Everything Machine, complete with a 3D scale drawing of a thingmaker, courtesy Sketchup. (I tried that in Visio years ago. Uggh.)

I will also be doing some intensive research on Oscar Wilde, for reasons that only a few people in my inner circle understand.

As I always say, Boredom is a choice. I may be tired, but I am not bored. And in a few days, I suspect I will no longer be tired. Bring it on!

Odd Lots