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For a long time I had looked for a way to write on a computer with a distraction-free set up. I started writing in composition books, and still prefer the single-use feeling of a paper notebook—the only distraction there is the temptation to go back and read earlier entries. But on a computer there’s so much more to waste my time. There’s the entire world of the web, pointless games, and, in the word processor itself, myriad useless tools to click. When I’m just getting ideas down, or even spending a long time looking at drafts, I can waste a lot of time playing with fonts and formatting and spellcheck, instead of actually writing. I’ve always liked using text editors over full blown word processors like LibreOffice, Google Docs, and MS Word, at least for the early stages of writing, when all I’ve ever wanted was a clean screen with nothing but letters on it.

This likely goes back to the first computer my family had—an Epson with a black screen with green pixels. It had three inch floppy disks and a dot matrix printer. There was no mouse or modem, just a keyboard with a basic word processing program that was more like most of today’s basic text editor programs than Word. That computer, a hand me down from a family member who had moved on to a flashier and better machine, was a godsend to me. I was in fourth grade, and interested in writing as long as I could type. Until that moment, I wrote almost exclusively with typewriters. Every adult in my life had told me my handwriting was terrible, so the only way I could exercise my creativity without feeling self-conscious was with a keyboard. But typewriters were too finicky and broke my concentration. Every time I made a typo, I had to erase or white it out. By the time I had fixed the error, the original idea had gone from my mind, and I couldn’t write much more than a page. When that Epson came, I could finally focus on writing because I wasn’t wasting time with corrections. The backspace key and spellcheck solved all that. And I didn’t have to worry about my horrible handwriting anymore. I spent hours in front of that computer through middle and high school. It was that computer that made me a writer. All it took was a bare bones word processor for my imagination to be unleashed.

When I got to college, my email was through a Telnet program that looked identical to that old Epson screen. I loved it so much that I would spend hours reading and writing emails. I joined campus activist listservs and typed some of my greatest screeds on politics and society in that black and white Telnet window. But at that point, I hadn’t carried my love for plain text into writing and research. I typed everything in Word for classes. It was cumbersome, with dozens of fonts, headings, headers, and compatibility issues. I tried Wordpad for a while but never fell in love with it. I did try Notepad, but it was a little too basic, with no extra tools like search and find, or spellcheck. So I stuck with Word, then Open Office and LibreOffice once I switched over to Linux. Eventually I tried Gedit, the default editor in Ubuntu, and I really liked it. But I couldn’t get it to work as well as I wanted. Eventually, I discovered the functions and plugins for Gedit, and came to love the tabs, spellcheck, find and replace, document statistics, and the file browser side panel. Finally, I can customize and resize the font, but without ever having to see the font dropdown menus. With this set up, there’s almost no need to leave the program, making Gedit in fullscreen as close to distraction-free as possible.

Around the time I was discovering all of this about Gedit, I came across Cory Doctorow’s essay, “Writing in the Age of Distraction,” which evangelizes for writers to use basic text editors instead of feature heavy word processing programs. I also picked up an iPod Touch around the same time, partially to experiment with digital tools for writing. I came across the PlainText iOS app which synchs .txt files to Dropbox. I figured out that I could edit those files on my laptop, then sync them right back to my iPod.

Here is how my set up works:

PlainText syncs seamlessly with Dropbox, which syncs with my Lubuntu Linux netbook, on which I installed Gedit.

I can create a text file on my iPod Touch, then open it in Gedit the next moment. Any change shows up almost immediately on either device. It’s not quite as synchronous as watching a Google Doc with multiple contributors fill up with text before my eyes, but it’s darn close.

When I create a document in PlainText, it asks for a file name before you start typing in the document, so it shows up in Dropbox, and then on my netbook right away.

Linux text editors don’t need it, so don’t automatically add it. When I create a document in Gedit, I have to make sure to give it the .txt extension or else it doesn’t show up in the PlainText app. Other apps may treat this differently, but after using this set up for a week or so, I got into the habit of adding the file extension and now I do it without thinking about it.

If you want to adapt this set up for your own writing, I recommend making sure it’s an editor that supports spellcheck, find and replace, document statistics, and resizable font, but that all of these functions are nicely hidden away into menus, and not shouting at you with annoying icons at the top of the screen. I recommend Gedit, but search for reviews of text editors for your operating system and see which one suits your own needs the best. I also recommend using a mobile .txt editing app and some cloud syncing service.

As Doctorow points out in the essay above, text files are at the center of computer programming, which makes them one of the basic building blocks of information, and, I would say, of creativity in the digital age. Viva .txt!

In my last English composition class, the question came up how to configure margins in APA style. Like most organization’s guidelines, APA asks for a header. But the question always comes up, which is supposed to be one inch from the top: the header, or the first line of prose? I’m not as familiar with APA so I had to check, and this is what I found from the APA Style blog:

The APA Publication Manual (6th ed.) does direct authors to use a 1-in. margin (p. 229), but it also directs them to “use the automatic functions of your word-processing program to generate headers” (p. 230). That means there’s no need to adjust the spacing around the header—it’s automatic!

Just set your margins at 1 in. (2.54 cm) and use the default setting for headers in your word-processing program. Voila! Your paper is correctly formatted in APA Style.

For professors who, unlike me, pull out the ruler, this may not be pleasing to hear. There are many word processing programs, and they surely don’t all format headers the same way—not that I’ve ever confirmed anyway. But the only time this really becomes an issue is if you’re publishing a collection of papers and you want them all the be formatted identically. Or if you’re just a stickler for conformity. The good news for students who don’t have the patience to tweak their margins is they don’t have to, as long as their prof isn’t the ruler type.

T, E. D. is an art installation that renders text from social media to voice, spoken through 80 Teddy Ruxpin dolls. Here’s more detailed info from the artist Sean Hathaway’s site, including a synopsis and explanation of the set up and programming. You have to see this video:


When I saw on Twitter that Apple silently released their podcast app before iOS 6, I got psyched. I didn’t expect it to beat Downcast, my favorite iOS podcast player, but I was excited to try it out. My excitement didn’t last long.

The first thing I noticed was the skeuomorphism, that is, graphical imitation of old technology. It usually shows up in apps with leather-looking borders, but it sticks out really bad in Apple’s Podcasts app. When you hit play, it appears that the digital show you are listening to is playing from tape (See my embedded tweet below for a picture — apologies to the wonderful Tech News Today for being the show I was playing in the screenshot). Podcasts have never played from tape; they are digital by definition (There may be some podcasters who record on tape first, but when they convert it to a digital file and upload it to the web, it is no longer stored on or played from tape). Jony Ive, Apple’s chief designer, has made his feelings about skeuomorphism well known, and he’s no fan

A dedicated podcast app from Apple is a great idea. It gives podcasts more attention, it is now possible to subscribe to podcasts, and you can stream episodes. These are all good things. But this app pretends it’s a tape player…or a radio; it’s not really sure. There’s a “Top Stations” button on the bottom of the home screen (as if there ever was such a thing as podcast “stations”), which takes you to a tuner knob that pages through categories like “News & Politics,” “Religion & Spirituality,” and “Science & Medicine.” 

Apple would do well to go back to the drawing board in the UI, and try something like the iTunesU or Music apps. Also, listen to Jony. Please! 

Besides being plain ugly, it freezes and crashes more than plays on my iPod Touch. I might just have too many apps on my measly 8GB device, or it could be the app. If the performance can improve, I can tolerate ugliness. Even then, I;m pretty sure I’ll stick with Downcast. 

Here’s the tweet I mentioned above, carbon copied to Tom Merritt of Tech News Today:

As an iPod Touch user without an iPhone or iPad, it’s easy to feel like the stepchild who is there but not given as much attention love, either by Apple or by iOS fans. If you use an iPod Touch and wonder what you’ll get this fall when iOS 6 is released, here’s the breakdown, in order of how excited I am about them (Hopefully you have a 4th gen iPod Touch. Anything earlier won’t be getting any of this.):

UPDATE: You have to read the fine print, which I missed on a few items below. I’ve updated the post to reflect what the footnotes on the bottom of Apple’s iOS 6 preview page say.

What iPod Touch 4th gen will get:

    • Do Not Disturb to temporarily turn off notifications. You still have to go into Settings to enable it, but at least it’s there.
    • Better social network integration:
    • -Tap to Tweet & Tap to post on Facebook in Notification Center
      -Contacts will integrate with Facebook friends.
      -Post photos to Twitter & Facebook right from the Camera Roll
      -It will be nice to share to Faceook without opening the clunky FB app.
      -Meh: Like buttons for apps and songs.
    • Better media integration into email messages.
  • Swipe down to refresh email and check for new messages.
  • Photo & video uploading from Camera Roll within Safari.
  • Fullscreen Safri webpage viewing, only in landscape.
  • New Maps app, but iPod Touch will not include turn-by-turn directions or flyover.
  • Improved stores (AppStore, iTunes)
  • Lost Mode, that places a phone number for someone who finds your device to call you.
  • Passbook app. This app collects all of your tickets, gift cards, and loyalty cards in one place. I don’t go to a lot of ticketed events or fly a lot, so I’d mostly use this for gift cards. Somewhat helpful. It doesn’t really bother me to open an app when I need it. This app will likely go on the last home screen on my iPod Touch.
  • Accessiblity update. I’m assuming all of the accessibility options will work for the iPod Touch. I don’t have any need for them, but it’ll be nice for those who do.
  • Extra functions in Find My Friends. I’ve never used this app, and isn’t as helpful on the iPod Touch.

What iPod Touch 4g won’t get:

  • Shared Photo Streams, with comments and notifications:
    • -This would be useful if I had a bunch of friends & family on iOS, but most of the people I know use Android. This could be cool if I ever taught in an iPad equipped classroom.
      -Web albums would be very cool, especially since they can be shared with people without Apple IDs. 
  • VIP folder in Email app, including SMS-like notifications for messages from people in your VIP list.
  • Siri, sadly. I’m not sure why.
  • Flyover and Turn by Turn in Maps.
  • FaceTime over cellular, obviously.
  • Upgraded Reading List in Safari that caches webpages, not just links.

What I wish the iPod Touch could do:

  • iPhoto
  • Voice calls over native Phone app via VOIP.
  • Flyover and Turn by Turn in Maps via caching.
  • Siri

See more about what’s coming to iOS 6 on Apple’s website.