Writing Tools

Happy new year! I did entertain the idea of writing on Dec. 31st so that I would have one article for 2015. Alas, it didn’t happen. But I have been writing. Since Oct. 2014 I’ve contributed a chapter for a book and in between moving and having a baby with my partner, I’ve managed to squeeze out a solid third of my dissertation. During the past year I’ve tested many approaches and programs to help me, so perhaps this would be a blog topic to begin 2016, in case you are writing a large document and are considering what software to use.

Here’s a list of what I am currently using, in no particular order. Some are Mac-only but I’ll mention alternatives. Then I will critique the apps I rejected and give reasons why I like the following:

Until last week I was using a different document processor, Lyx, and I really enjoyed it until I upgraded my MacBook’s operating system to El Capitan. (The problem has to do with LyX using a part of the computer’s directory that Apple decided to cordon off, for security reasons, so any program that uses /usr/local/ becomes dysfunctional.) Otherwise I really like Lyx and am grateful to my partner for introducing it to me. I will probably use it still when I create tables, then copy & paste into Texpad, which requires you to hand-code tables, ugh!

(Texpad is for Mac, but Lyx also works on Windows and Linux systems.)

In case you’re wondering, Texpad and Lyx are document processors, not word processors. They use the LaTeX typesetting language to make structured documents (click for more on the original TeX), which is most often used in science and academia. Among other benefits this makes auto-numbering of sections, figures and tables painless no matter how I move things around. Additional (free) packages are also available for various scientific fields that allow one to easily write equations or, in my case, musical harmony symbols. You can whet your appetite at the CTAN website to see what’s on offer.

If I were to use a word processor I would use Nisus Pro but then my reference manager would have to change too, probably to Bookends (both are for Mac), to make the transition less like rubbing my face against a brick wall. In general I prefer commercial apps that save in open source format, that way I get a good user interface and my data is safe in the long-term, being accessible and not encrypted in a company’s binary format, in case I ever switch programs.

I tried a few reference managers but settled on BibDesk. (For Mac, but JabRef might is probably the equivalent for Windows and Linux users, also avail. for Mac.) It’s simple and it saves as a bibtex file, integrating with Lyx or Texpad. I tried ColWiz but it broke a library for a very important music program which I use often (Scala). Zotero has a handy button for your browser, but it’s too tempting to simply press the button and not check if your reference is properly saved and organized. There were others that I tried, Papers and something else, but BibDesk gets the job done without also trying to be the best article browser and pdf reader/highlighter.

Speaking of pdf readers I use Apple’s default Preview. I don’t make notes here (see next paragraph). I had tried something else but the notes that I actually made would not copy & paste or otherwise transfer satisfyingly to my writing software.

I may as well mention DevonThink too. The most exciting feature of this pdf organizer was its auto-sorting, supposedly using artificial intelligence to build a concordance. Then you can see which words are most frequent. Guess which word comes up most often in all of my pdfs: “The”. The first fifty to a hundred words are ubiquitous and useless, then there’s a wide grey area before your topic-specific words start coming up, but so what? And the auto-sort feature was dumb: it sorted my pdfs based on their cover page so, e.g., all the articles from JSTOR were put into the same folder, no matter what their subjects were. It’s a big program, so maybe I’ll try it again. Mac only, but for Windows there’s a lot of buzz for Microsoft OneNote, which would also do the job mentioned in the next paragraph.

For note-taking I use Circus Ponies Notebook (CPN). It’s for Mac only but Windows users can try EverNote or OneNote, they are very good. I was really averse to trying something with such a silly name and logo but I instantly liked Circus Ponies and use it often (and, yes, you can change the cute cover picture to something else). It has a strong indexing feature and a way to make links between disparate texts. Basically I make a page for each article and then write an annotated bibliography. This way I have a record of what I’ve read, with page numbers so I can find the original text easily, something general enough to jog my memory and be useful for any future writing or presenting endeavour.

Before CPN I was using Scrivener, but over a year or so my document got out of control, growing in all directions. I still love Scrivener and will use it for other things, as an idea- or note-taking assistant. In the end, however, I couldn’t really export my text to a robust processor, and to be fair Scrivener doesn’t claim to be a word processor. I even tried writing in Multimarkdown style to make the transition to LaTeX easier, but it never quite worked and all the preambling with supplementary files and classes was an eternal headache without resolution. I finally asked, Why bother? This was when my partner urged me to write straight into Lyx. I’ll conclude by saying that Scrivener’s word count feature, broken up into chapters and sections as I organized my dissertation, was a great motivator. The progress bars allowed me to see how much I had written for each chunk, and that put my mind at ease. Also a delight was its index card sorting ability which really helped me organize the sections and subsections of my work. I will continue to use Scrivener with joy but on other, newer projects. (For Mac and Windows)

I had read often of a classic technique for the literature review, of making a literature matrix, so finally I tried one and never looked back. Using any spreadsheet (I prefer OpenOffice over LibreOffice) all one has to do is make rows and columns of articles and topics, then fill in the intersecting boxes with the author’s info and your reactions. I list articles down the left column, by (lead) author’s name, and use the top row for about 15 topics found within the articles that are relevant to my own research. So, rows are topics within each article and columns are articles that touch on each topic. Cells are short descriptions (with page numbers!) and my thoughts on the matter, connections to other cells etc. I read article by article (INPUT) but, later, write topic by topic (OUTPUT), gathered into groups. Lit review: done.

To complete my arsenal I need to use something specific to my field, a music notation program. For composition work my weapon of choice is Finale but I’ve collected many gripes and I am entitled to criticize it after being a solid user for over a decade. Once again my partner urged me to try something different, MuseScore. I’m starting simply, just a few bars of one to three staves to make musical examples for my dissertation. I can drop them in as PNG files (though I would prefer getting Lyx or Texpad to recognize MuseScore’s SVG files), then label and reference these as figures in my document. MuseScore is open-source but is quite easy to use. I haven’t tried it yet on an ensemble piece with individual extracted parts, but the big attraction for me was the microtonal notation and very handsome output.

Nothing else to report. I always have a little paper notebook in my bag or pocket but, to be honest, though I often scribble down thoughts that come to me when I’m out & about (a co-worker once asked me if I was graphomanic) I seem to rarely transfer these jottings to where they would be useful, i.e. into CP Notebook, Scrivener or wherever. Instead the little notebooks fill up and inevitably crawl to the back of a drawer, only to be unearthed months later with, “Oh yeah! I meant to do something with that” exclamations.

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For a mini-vacation my partner and I went to Amsterdam and heard our colleague Melle Weijters in recital. He’s a fantastic guitarist and specializes in microtonal instruments, and on Sunday he played his 31-tone guitar with the 31-tone organ—handled by Guus Janssen—at the Muziekgebouw. I don’t do reviews but I can point you to one (in Dutch or English). Instead I’ll write a few short thoughts from that afternoon. Continue reading

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I finally saw STOMP and it was fantastic. A production came through Hamburg and I caught the last show, though a little late because of bicycle problems and train problems. As a drummer and someone interested in dance and theatre this was a must-see!

The setting is gritty and urban, like an alley in a big city, near a junkyard. The performers wear grungy clothing oozing with character, like punk or krunk. Are we in London or Los Angeles? New York or Berlin? It doesn’t matter: the scene is familiar to everyone, and the appropriated street-signs plastering the set are in many languages anyway.

There are eight performers in non-speaking roles, meaning there’s no dialogue. There is, however, plenty of interaction between ‘character types,’ especially at the beginning and ending of each scene—or number, or piece. Hard to categorize Stomp and know which vocabulary to use since it is not one art form but many: dance + theatre + music + circus. YouTube has plenty of excerpts so you may see for yourself what they do on stage. Basically a percussion piece using everyday objects, choreographed to dancing (talented performers!) and exceptionally tricky, taking it into the level of circus arts. Mind-blowing, really, and fully deserving of being famous. Continue reading

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84ed2 (2): George Orwell and Microtonality

In part two we will build a tenuous bridge between the composer John Cage and writer George Orwell. I already started with the banner picture of Cage performing on a TV show called Good Morning Mr. Orwell, from 1984. Orwell, of course is most famous for his dystopian book 1984 and the previous article introduced Cage’s late system of composing with microtones derived from adding six new notes between normal semitones, resulting in 84 equally-spaced tones per octave instead of the usual 12.

I doubt there is an International Standardization Organization definition of the semitone but we shall define it as a musical interval with the frequency ratio equal to the 12th root of the 2nd harmonic, and we shall define 1 cent (¢) as 1/100th of this semitone, giving 1200 cents per 2nd harmonic or octave, and 100 cents per semitone.

If we divide 1200¢ by 84 steps we get about 14.3¢ per step, which is quite small, close to the ‘just noticeable difference’ where it’s hard to distinguish one tone from the next. The frequency ratio (which we don’t need now but should know how to calculate) is the 84th root of 2, or 2 to the power of 1/84 ≈ 1.00828589.

Bear with me because things are about to get more interesting. Continue reading

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84ed2 (1): John Cage and Microtonality

Cage’s final period was notable, unsurprisingly, in at least two or three respects: he devised a system of time bracket notation with varying degrees of rigidity and looseness, he entitled his works with a dry, basic numbering system, and three of his last works were microtonal. Continue reading

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Fish Out of Water

__A friend of mine (let’s call him Jimmy) wrote a play which is in rehearsal now. He’s an actor and I was reminded of when we met, when we were both in a play nearly ten years ago. This story concerns music-theatre, which is going to be a focus of mine for a while, and one example of the audition process and of crossing disciplines.
__Jimmy had auditioned for R. Murray Schafer, the composer, for a music-theatre show, probably one of his large-scale outdoor promenade operas. When he finished his monologue, some text from straight-up dramatic theatre, the panel asked him to make some weird sounds and to use his body and voice in a grotesque, expressionistic manner.
__Jimmy dug deeply into his soul and his psyche, to root up those experiences that haunt him when he’s not consciously keeping his demons locked in the cellar of his mind. He uttered forth some expectorant, toxic, gurgling, half-strangled scream that ripped through his shuddering body and spewed into the theatre, leaving him panting and nearly sweating with the effort.
__“That’s fine,” said someone, unseen. “But could you please do that again, only this time louder and longer, and maybe go from some low notes to high, then back again?” Continue reading

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Arduino variable types

Happy New Year, Bonne année, and Frohes neues Jahr!

2014 will see me fooling around with an Arduino microcontroller. I made a rudimentary ‘light organ’ using photosensors and Max/MSP. You play music by covering the sensors with your fingers, and allowing various amounts of light to shine between them. Darkness for low notes, brightness for high notes.

First problem: the Arduino code could be more optimized by using the right type of variable to hold the sensor values. The code that I downloaded uses ‘floats’ for each sensor but I think that that is overkill. Float is the nickname for floating-point number, i.e., a number with a decimal point that can move to the left or right to show more or fewer digits. They are complicated types of numbers in computing and, hence take up more memory and power. On the Arduino, like old-school 8-bit computers of yore, memory and power are precious!

The result was that my organ could only respond to movements of my fingers three times per second. Much too sluggish for a tocatta & fugue. There could be other problems dragging down the code execution too, so if I find them I’ll post ’em here.

Continue reading

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