Recent writing elsewhere

I’ve been publishing a few bits of writing in places other than this blog lately.

Here’s an article I wrote for our local newspaper – the first of what will hopefully be a regular series:

Click to enlarge
Click to enlarge

I’ve also written a couple of articles for the Business Lincolnshire website, which is run by the County Council. One is on avoiding social media pratfalls and the other is on some of the benefits of software as a service. You can read them both via this link.

The cloud article is one of a series I’m writing to promote the conference we are running in Boston on 12 July – more details here.

The joy of plain text

These days, I write pretty much everything in plain text. This is driven by two main things:

  1. Annoyance
  2. Paranoia

How I write pretty much anything of any length (blog posts, reports, proposals, longer emails) is to write them in a text editor – I’ve settled on WriteRoom – using the Markdown markup language.

I then also preview them in Marked so I have an idea of how they look when published – which I do by either copying the HTML into a WordPress post, or exporting a PDF to send on to someone else.

I’m sure you can get equivalents to these tools on other platforms like Windows or Linux, if you need to.

Using Markdown in a plain text document provides the answer to both of my issues I mention above.

My main annoyance with word processors is the lack of control over what they are doing, particularly with regard to formatting. In most cases, complexity gets in the way. Ever been editing a Word document, and find you can’t change the way a bit of text is formatted?

Maybe you’ve found yourself in the wrong section, or maybe the styles are broken from when someone else edited the document before you. Who knows? It’s annoying.

Far better to be able to see the source of all this formatting, which is what MarkDown provides. Obviously I’d much prefer using WordStar under CP/M but that’s probably not possible these days.

Markdown is a super simple markup language that means you can make words italic or bold just by wrapping them in asterisks, or you can set heading levels by using hash symbols. Even inserting links is an easy process with square brackets and parentheses.

Plus, plain text is a super portable file format – it can be opened on any system in pretty much any editor. This answers my paranoia problem. Nobody can stop me opening or sharing my work!

Adrian Short wrote a nice piece a while ago about plain text and how wonderful it is.

You can write plain text in any text editor or word processor. You can read plain text in any text editor or word processor. There’s no formatting to get screwed up. No-one owns the format. It’s completely interoperable. You can send plain text to anyone knowing that they’ll always be able to read it, no matter what computer they’re using or which software they’ve got installed.


How to write an ebook

Seth Godin has put a Squidoo lens together on writing ebooks. It contains some excellent advice:

  • Write something worth reading!
  • Put it into Word or a similar word processor.
  • Change your page layout to wide.
  • Even better, change your page size to eight inches wide and six inches high.
  • Use a legible font for the body copy. Times is fine, but boring. Don’t use something fancy.
  • Use a headline font with bravado!
  • Now, if you have a Mac, just choose, “print to PDF”.
  • If you don’t have a Mac, go buy one and repeat the previous step, or, if you must, figure out how to do that step with a PC or a Commodore 64 or whatever it is you’re using.
  • Your eBook is now basic, but done.
  • If you open it in Adobe Acrobat (not the Reader, but the for sale version) you can add hyperlinks. Recommended.

A Million Penguins

Penguin, the publishers, have unleashed a cool idea: a novel written on a wiki. There’s a blog just for the project, too. Great that they are using open source tools: WordPress and MediaWiki.

The main Penguin blog (Typepad, boo) notes that:

Over the next six weeks we want to see whether a community can really get together, put creative differences aside (or sort them out through discussion) and produce a novel. We honestly don’t know how this is going to turn out – it’s an experiment. Some disciplines rely completely on collaboration, while others – the writing of a novel, for example – have traditionally been the work of an individual working in isolation. But with collaboration, crowdsourcing and the ‘wisdom of the crowds’ being buzz words du jour, we thought we might as well see if these new trends can be applied to a less obvious sphere than, say, software development.

Fair play to them.

[tags]penguin, a million penguins, wiki[/tags]

Living without the Desktop

Here is an article I have written and submitted to the now active-again Living Without Microsoft website, run by John Naughton and Quentin Stafford-Fraser.

You would have thought that working without desktop applications would be pretty tricky. But there are now a growing number of online tools which can help you get things done online just as, if not more, effectively than by using traditional apps. All you need is a fairly quick internet connection and the will to try something new.

There are loads of different applications out there and it would be nigh-on impossible to list them all. Here’s a selection of some of the better known ones, and no doubt many more will be suggested via the comments.


An easy one this – everyone has a webmail account, right? But these accounts are getting more and more sophisticated, and generous in the provision of space for your emails to be stored in. The two big players, Yahoo! and Microsoft’s Hotmail, were shaken up by the appearance of Google’s Gmail (now Google Mail in parts of Europe including the UK) and are now working on new, more richly featured services. The new Yahoo! Mail looks to offer an online equivalent of desktop mail clients, and Microsoft’s Live Mail is heading the same way.

Word Processing

Why use an online word processor? There are tonnes of reasons, but the main ones are accessibility and collaboration. Writely is the clear leader in online document editing – allowing users to upload Word files and edit and save them online. Other users can be invited to edit the same document. So, no more carrying documents on CD, USB flash drive or (heaven forbid!) floppy disk; or emailing them here, there and everywhere with the inevitable version control problems that result.


Unlike word processing, there isn’t really a standout service for spreadsheets. NumSum is probably the best option, because it works. It offers the basic spreadsheet functions we all know and love, and makes it possible to share access to the file for collaborative working. It doesn’t look all that great, however. You can’t at the moment download your work into a desktop file (as far as I can tell) but you can copy and paste into a desktop spreadsheet application.

The other option for spreadsheeting, where using the sheet as a rudimentary database is the aim, then Jotspot Tracker might be for you. Currently in beta and offering new users a maximum of two trackers (i.e. spreadsheets), this service looks a whole lot better than NumSum but doesn’t do as much. There’s no formulas for example. Instead, the focus is on project management, with a calender view that shows any dates listed in the Tracker in a calendar format.

Personal Information Management

HipCal used to be called MyPimp, before the developers realised that they were getting too popular not to be respectable. This site offers a nice calendar, to-do lists and a quite sophisticated address book. The only problem is that at the moment, those who like their days to come before their months in date formats will find themselves a little confused – though they are working on date representation, apparently.

Web Publishing

These days, personal websites don’t have to be the crapathons they used to be. Easy to use content management systems are everywhere these days, and you don’t need your own domain and hosting account to have an easily-updated, stylish looking website, let alone a hideously expensive HTML editor on your desktop. Google’s Blogger is simple and easy to set-up and use. WordPress is a great customisable CMS and you can sign up for a hosted site at, or BlogSome. There are countless others – TypePad and LiveJournal for example.

Photo Management

The obvious choice here is Yahoo!’s Flickr, which allows the user to upload photographs, which can then be organised into ‘sets’, shared with others and posted to blogs. Great fun.

Google has a kind-of entry in this category with Picasa, which is a desktop application that lets you upload and share photos with a service called Hello. I must admit, however, that I have never actually understood what Hello actually does.

News Aggregators

With the growth of news and information provision on the web, new ways of receiving and reading that information are being developed too. One of the most rapid-growing of these is RSS and its kindred spirits, Atom and RDF, which automatically sends a site’s new content to an application called an aggregator. These can be desktop based, or you can access them wherever you happen to log in with services like Bloglines and Newsgator.

Bookmark management

Why have one set of bookmarks saved in your desktop browser when you can have them available to you wherever you are? Sites such as and Furl (amongst others) allows you to save links to sites and tag them with keywords so that others may find them through a search and benefit from them too.


OK, not exactly a desktop replacement service but useful nonetheless. Create a personalised homepage, accessible from anywhere, containing some favourite links, news and site feeds and other information using services like Google Personalised Homepage or (my favourite) Protopage.

All of this barely scratches the surface of what is available, and there are likely to be further advances making the online experience as close to the desktop as possible. Perhaps one day the desktop will be rendered obsolete – though until all these new services start to tie in together more seamlessly, it is unlikely to happen.

Of course, to make the most of all these exciting web developments, you really need to have a decent browser

Writely recognition

Wasn’t aware of this, but when browsing through the Writely blog, I found this snippet of a press release:

Since its beta launch in August 2005, Writely has enjoyed enthusiastic adoption from users all over the world including businesses, bloggers, editors, students, teachers, poets and playwrights.

Case#3: NaNoWriMo Collective Novel Creation

By midnight on November 30th, a group of seven writers are due to finish a 50,000 word novel as part of National Novel Writing Month: “We are using the Web Word Processor Writely which is ideal for a collaborative project like this, where people from both the U.K. and the U.S. are working on the same document.” (You can view the novel in progress at

Am slightly ashamed that we didn’t get it finished in time. Outside pressures put paid to it. Still, I might knuckle down during the Christmas holidays to get at least my chunk finished. It would be a shame to waste all that effort.


Everyone has heard of NaNoWriMo, the web-organised novel writing sprint, which involves writing 50,000 words to get a novel finished during the month of November. It sounds like madness, and it is.

What’s the point of it? Well, part of the idea is that the quality of what you write isn’t all that important. It’s the very act of getting the words down on paper, or rather onto the screen, in such numbers that the whole thing just won’t seem so daunting any more. Plus, there might be some nuggets of plot or character, or maybe even a chunk of some genuinely good writing that can be salvaged. It also gives you an opportunity to say to people at christmas parties that you are now on your second novel.

Over on Palimpsest, we have set ourselves a different challenge. We are going to try and get the 50,000 words done collectively. With more of us involved, the individual word count goes right down, but complications are added, such as getting the thing to make sense, for example. Have a read of the various deliberations that have taken place over who is involved, how it can be done, and what the plot should be.

The actual document is being collated using the web word processor Writely – which is ideal for a collaborative project like this, where people from both the UK and the US are working on the same document. A copy of the work in progress is published for other Palimpeople to read and keep up-to-date.

It will be interesting to see how things turn out. It looks like there will be a massive editing job at the end.

New Parsnip at last

Yesterday I finally got round to writing another piece of Parsnip, the thoroughly inept fantasy author.

They raced through the arid desert land which was what Zamora was comprised of, mostly. There were some nice bits but they were all on the coast. The two intrepid mercenaries had to go as fast as possible. They weren’t sure just when the news would come through that they were there, but when it did, those orclins and harbingers would be all over them, like a nasty rash you might pick up from a disease-ridden whore in the fetid city of debauchery that is Muckdanton. While Huth drove, he and Pedro exchanged tales of their lives so far.

“So, Pedro, how did you come to be in the service of Bogg-Ryder, the warrior Queen of Zlup?”

“Heh. That’s a tale, believe me. When I left Technocollege, I worked for a while with Blei-dorian, a jester who knows more than he is comfortable with. He was jestering then for Bogg-Ryder’s father, Marsh-Bender, and I used to help out, you know, wiping down the audience and picking up the limbs after each show. When Blei-dorian left to take part in the Eter-Tele show Jester Love Island, I was assigned to be Bogg-Ryder’s bodyguard. It was great work, and she came to really trust me, which is why I am here now. She wants to make sure this job gets done, and that you are safe. Let’s just say she would like to see the Tadotian uprising work.”

“Blimey! Right, well. It’s good to know we have some support. I knew her and Frek Necktuck, the Chancellor of the Blaartian ruling Council, didn’t get on, but that’s pretty amazing news! Hang on, what’s that ahead?”

Pedro engaged his megavision goggles and peered forth through the windscreen.

“Crikey!” he exclaimed. “A huge army of orclins on the horizon! The Praelector, acting on behalf of Gaxor, must be aware of our presence and sent these bastards to try and stop us. You have battled these bad-boys before, Huth, and survived. What should we do?”