September 26, 2009

'Fun' with M$ Office.2

For ages, I have wrestled with Entourage, which I love. I really do. But, like the people I love, it sometimes does things in a way that's not the way I would have done it if I were them.

Entourage's Tasks list, for example, can be sorted by due date, or priority, or alphabetically. But, given three items of equal importance with the same due date, it won't let you manually move one to the top because it's a prerequisite for another. Or move one to the bottom because it can't be done because some prerequisite piece of the project yet to be recieved from another person or department.

And there's no obvious way to export the Task list as an editable text file.

Well, I finally discovered this article which describes how to get Tasks out of Entourage using BBEdit. Why I never found it before, I can't imagine. Perhaps it's Google page rank wasn't high enough before. I don't know. I'm just glad to finally be able to get my Tasks out of Entourage and into something editable.

The article was written in 2005, but I tried the technique using BBEdit's sibling, TextWrangler, and it worked just as well. Dragging into Word, however, copies only the first item in a group. So you have to drag each task individually. That means if you have 12 tasks, it will take you 12 times as long to copy them into Word as into TextWrangler.

Oddly, while Word only picks up the first item in a grouped list of tasks, Apple's TextEdit only picks up the last. So TextWrangler rules.

Once you get the tasks out of Entourage and into TextWrangler or BBEdit, they can then be imported into OmniOutliner for even more control. Love it.

This simple drag-and-drop export method also works with Notes and Calendar items.

If only the things ON my to-do list could be handled so easily.

September 11, 2009

Google's caboodle of books

Authors and publishers are trying to put a stop to Google's digital library project, which would digitize millions of books now sitting unread on library shelves.

Their complaint is that Google is not first seeking permission from the authors or publishers of those works, which are out of print but still under copyright. Google's proposed settlement, which comes up for judicial review October 7, would pay damages to any author whose rights are shown to be violated by the project. Opponents say Google should get permission to digitize first, not offer apologies after the fact. Google argues that in many cases, the copyright holders cannot be found to give permission.

Either way, I believe authors have more to gain from the project than they have to lose.

Sales driver: While researching journaling as a spiritual practice for my Sunday school students, I found at Google books Ron Klug's How to Keep a Spiritual Journal. This proved so helpful, I went to Amazon and bought a copy. So the searchability of a digital library can direct readers to books they might otherwise never discover. The proposed settlement would allow out-of-print books to be printed and sold by Google, Amazon and others. This could be a great benefit for authors not inclined to self-publish their out-of-print books.

Research tool: I'm developing a character whose mother is Welsh. I perused a map of Wales to pick a euphonious hometown for my fictional Welshwoman. I found Llanavan, a town named for St. Avan, of whom I have never heard. Well -- here is the dark side of reasearch, which leads down trails of cross-references far away from one's point. But I didn't wish to pick this town without learning about its namesake, so of course I turned to Google, which helpfully found Our Sunday Visitor's Encyclopedia of Saints by Matthew Bunson and Margaret Bunson, and even dumped me onto the relevant page, which tells me Avan was a sixth-century Welsh bishop and that all that is known of him comes from an inscription in the Llanavan churchyard where he was buried. Ah, well. It would have been much more interesting if he had turned out to be the patron saint of accountants, or something. (Remind me to someday tell you the story of St. Chad, the "patron saint of disputed elections".) Still, in less than five minutes I learned all I needed to know about the origin of Llanavan's name. I couldn't drive to the library in that time, and even if I had, the county library system doesn't have this book anywhere in its collection.

The digital library will bring to light millions of pieces of information just like this. Those who moan about the impropriety of Google having a monopoly are missing a crucial point: Google has a monopoly only because they thought of it first. Rather like Microsoft or the old AT&T. It certainly needn't remain a monopoly. Just as there are multiple physical libraries, there could be multiple digital libraries.

This is fundamentally a debate about adapting existing copyright laws to new technologies. Terence Ross, a copyright lawyer not invoved in the matter, is quoted in a Bloomberg article, saying, "Innovation often poses problems for the law and established bureaucracy.”

That's an understatement. I'm reminded of Peggy Lee and others who provided voices for Disney films, whose contracts with the studio didn't cover royalties to be paid when films were re-released on VHS and DVD, because of course neither medium had been invented at the time.

As a writer, I wish to be paid for my work, so I understand the complaints of those who fear the digital library will prevent their earning proper royalties. But I think those fears are unfounded. An author earns only one royalty payment for a volume sold to a library, no matter how many people subsequently read that copy. Does that mean we don't want our books in libraries at all? I should think not.

Google's plan may not be perfect. The court may call for changes to it. I agree the court needs to ensure that copyrights are honored. But Google's project is at its heart a good one. I find it hard to classify as evil something that brings old or obscure books out of the dark stacks and into the light.

September 7, 2009

Depends on how you define "original"

When I saw Hope Clark's post about the Harlequin Presents writing contest, I almost gave it a miss right off, based on Harlequin's reputation. But Hope noted that with no entry fee, and the prize of editorial services for a year, it was right for "closet romantics."

Since a couple of my back-burner items might be called "romantic," if not capital-R "Romance," I gave it a look.

The publisher claims to want "unique perspectives and ... originality," but:

"At the heart of your novel must be ... the hero ... a powerful, ruthless man ..." and a heroine who is "shy and vulnerable ... also plucky and determined to challenge his arrogant pursuit."

So they want originality, as long as your original story isn't about a vulnerable hero and a ruthless heroine.

It rather takes the joy out of writing to have not only the characters delineated beforehand, but the course of the romantic subplot as well. The publisher only wants stories in which he's pursuing and she's resisting. This leaves out any story about mutual attraction opposed by outside forces. Romeo and Juliet would not be welcome here.

What I find most appalling is that these are not just the guidelines for this contest. They're the guidelines for Harlequin's entire "Mills & Boon Modern Romance" imprint. Harlequin is devoting an entire division to the publication of books in which the type of characters and the course of their relationship is the same in every book. That's not what I call original.

September 3, 2009

Putting a republic to the test

I just finished Michael Lind's book What Lincoln Believed. It's not a biography, it's a philosophical examination. It covers Lincoln's religious, economic, and racial views. For most of his life, he was a deist. He was a Hamiltonian, while most of his Southern opponents were Jeffersonians. And while he belived "all men are created equal," he believed human rights didn't necessarily equate with civil rights.

What stunned me most about this book was how it changed my view of the American Civil War. Common wisdom says the war was about slavery. Confederate sympathizers have said it was about state's rights, but none could pretend that the primary right being argued about was anything other than the right to buy and sell human beings.

Lincoln did not run for office on an abolitionist platform. Like the country's founders, he was willing to allow slavery to remain where it already existed. The point of contention was whether Southern slaveholders would be allowed to export slaves to the new territories in the West.

When, after Lincoln's election, Southerners demanded concessions on threat of secession, Lincoln refused to be blackmailed. In a letter rejecting one compromise proposal, he wrote, "We have just carried an election on principles fairly stated to the people. Now we are told … the government shall be broken up, unless we surrender to those we have beaten…"

The "beaten" pro-slavery minority, tried, as Lincoln put it, "to break up the government." When Lincoln said, in his address at Gettysburg, that the war was testing whether the republic "can long endure," he was not talking about slavery. He was talking about the ability of a democratically elected government to quell an internal rebellion by an angry minority.

In an address to Congress in 1861, Lincoln summed up the matter this way: "When ballots have fairly, and constitutionally, decided, there can be no successful appeal back to bullets…there can be no successful appeal, except to ballots themselves…whatever they cannot take by an election, neither can they take it by a war…"

I have sometimes wondered why the union bothered to fight. If Southern states no longer wished to be part of the Union, why force them to stay in it? Here's why: The Constitution contains no mechanism for a state, once admitted to the union, to later separate from it. That means the Southern states' secession was unconstitutional. Lincoln's duly elected administration was opposed by insurgents who flouted the country's founding principles. As Lind puts it, "The Civil War was about law and order in the service of democracy."

Lind's text is a bit dense at times, but it is worth working through to get at these gems of insight about one of our nation's finest presidents and darkest times.

Photo courtesy of the National Archives.