Monthly Archives: March 2013

Collaborative online writing–some personal experience notes

I am currently spending a lot of my time in a collaborative writing project with my friend and colleague Bill Schiano – the details are not important at this point, but it is a book-length, somewhat complicated piece of text, and involves an editor. Bill is in Boston and I am in Oslo, usually a six-hour time difference. A relatively short deadline has necessitated finding a way to work together which is faster than the time-honored method of e-mailing drafts back and forth. Shouldn’t be hard in this day and age, with cloud-based software and 60-megabit Internet connections, right?

Well, it is. We started out with Google Docs, which is great for quickly setting up shared documents fast and handles multiple concurrent editors (you can actually see the other person writing almost in real time.) However, it turns out it lacks some of the nicer interface details of good old Word, such as comments in bubbles and a lot of the keyboard shortcuts. It also quickly gets very unwieldy as the document gets longer.

We then tried out Scrivener, an authoring (as opposed to word processing) tool which recently has become available for Windows and is touted as the best thing since sliced bread by a number of authors. We found it to be fantastic for authoring – if you are a single author. For two or more people working together (over a DropBox-shared directory) it lacks the version tracking and commenting features, meaning that we would have to be very disciplined about who wrote what where and have lots of supporting documents a la “Unifinished issues”. After a few screw-ups, we decided to try something else.

We then came up a with solution that really works, which we have been using for a few months now and gives us nearly everything we want: The venerable and much-maligned Microsoft Word. The difference is that the document we work with (which currently stands at 157 pages, nearly 63000 words, just over a megabyte storage) is stored on Microsoft OneDrive, and we can both edit it using Word on our computers. I will leave the actual setup of this as an exercise for the reader, but the short version is that you set up a OneDrive account at onedrive.live.com, open a new document in Word (must be at least the 2010 version) and save it to OneDrive. You then share by sending a link to your co-author, who opens the link and can then choose to edit it online (i.e., through a browser) or in Word on his or her own machine.

This gives us the best of both worlds. We can edit the document on our own machines, see the changes the other has made and accept them, write comments in the text that the other person can respond to. We do Skype meetings (with Skype Premium, so we can share screens) about twice per week to discuss things we cannot fix simply by shared editing, and the whole thing is progressing quite nicely.

As usual when you start using an old tool for something new, you learn a few tricks you hadn’t thought about – the best way to learn new tricks is always to watch someone else using the software: I learned that you can control-click on an item in the TOC to go directly to it by seeing Bill do it, and he learned that you can grab selected text pieces and drag them to new places (without doing Ctrl-x Ctrl-v.) That’s why I think every group working together should have an occasional “Tips and tricks swap meet.”

We have found that working with a large (at least 27”) screen as your primary tool is immensely useful. That allows a full-page view with two full pages and a navigation pane, like this:

image

If you are disciplined about heading styles (i.e., chapter headings being “Heading 1” etc.,) then the navigation pane works more or less like the outline or slide sorter in PowerPoint, allowing you to drag and drop chapters and sub-chapters around and promote or demote them, which is extremely useful when your work approach is to bung in a lot of text in sub-chapters and then sort out the structure later. (Word is a bit irritating in its use of styles, though – it should be easier to enforce a standard style set, unchanged when text is clipped in from other sources.)

Another useful trick is to go to the File>Recent screen, locate the shared draft, and press the little push-pin to the left of it. This places the document permanently at the top of your Recent files list – making it very easy to open without having to go to OneDrive etc. (Note 2014-01-9: This seems to only work on the Windows version of Office, not on the Mac. Another reason to get Parallels.)

When working together like this, you also need to come up with a shared notation for work – how to you mark some text as tentative, for instance. The standard comment and track changes settings are OK (but change the standard for Track Changes so it does not track changes in formatting) but you need more than that. We have defaulted to marking spurious text with {curly brackets} and reference points with “zzzz”. (I have heard other writers, such as Cory Doctorow, use “tk” because that particular letter combination does not appear often in the English language, unless you write about the Atkins diet.) The idea is that even with a large document, you can search through it until you have fixed all issues, i.e., gotten rid of all the curlies and zzzz’s.

There are, of course, a few issues you need to deal with. That a document is shared does not mean it is backed up, so we both do local, dated backups every now and then, just to stay on the safe side. The more users are editing the document, the slower it updates, so we try to be disciplined about a) saving often, and b) exiting the document when we are not editing it. If not (as Bill found when Espen had done a lot of small edits and then, in Norway, gone off to bed while leaving the unsaved document on his workstation,) the edited paragraphs become inaccessible to the other author. So, save and exit whenever you can.

And that’s it so far – just sharing experiences here, but this approach really works. Our next challenge is bringing our editor on board – so far we have been sending him chapters as they have become ready. I am now going to set this up for collaboratively writing with a couple of other colleagues, on shorter pieces, and we’ll see how that goes.

Keep you posted – and tips and tricks are appreciated!

Update 2014/4/30: SkyDrive has become OneDrive, so I have adjusted for that.
UPdate 2016/7/18: You can now open a document in Word using Google Chrome.

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A day in the life of a Computer Expert

(Julie linked to this article, which made me remember that I actually wrote something similar in 1989 or thereabouts, when I was running user support for the Norwegian Business School)

Report from the trenches: Scenes from the life of a computer expert

The onslaught of user-friendly personal computers, where the user points and clicks his or her way to computational satisfaction, is hailed by many as the beginning to the end of the in-house computer expert (also known as the Local Guru). As this field report will show, there is no reason to look at the classifieds yet. Relax, guys.

The dominant source of computer problems is finger trouble. Finger trouble is the term computer experts (loosely defined as anyone who knows the approximate location of the power switch) have coined for problems inexperienced users get themselves into by way of the keyboard. While this source of job security and discretionary income may be reduced due to graphical user interfaces, there are still plenty of hardware errors to keep us occupied. Hardware errors are part of the everyday life of all computer experts, and show no sign of abating.

Let us examine a typical case, in order to gain an appreciation of the current state of things: The setting is a medium-sized company with high ambitions, a ubiquity of PCs and a Computer Expert (hereafter called E.). E. is sitting in his office, consumed with the difficulty of reaching level 42 in the 486 version of the “The Hitch-Hikers Guide to the Galaxy” when the telephone rings. Having recently cleared his office, E. manages to find the telephone before the caller gives up. The voice in the other end informs him, with audible consternation, how that darned printer, again, won’t do what it’s supposed to. Can E., with his long-standing reputation as a technical wizard, do something about it? The Voice (hereafter dubbed V.) assures E. that the matter isn’t pressing – but if he has the time…. (Somehow V. manages to convey a message of great need, sort of “you just take your time, we don’t mind sitting here rolling our thumbs and wasting the company’s money etc.”). E., when airing a suspicion that the equipment in question probably isn’t switched on, is informed by V. (with audible consternation) that they have in fact been using computers for several years now etc.

The setting 10 minutes later: E. arrives in the manner and style of a 20th century doctor making a house call on a farm far away from civilization (or like a veterinarian in Yorkshire). From every nook and cranny the office personnel come running to witness an Expert’s modus operandi (please bear with me if I’m carried away a bit here). E. eyes the printer and sees that the cable between it and the PC is present – and that the switch, indeed, is turned to ON. Still, the thing is as dead as a post- Format C: hard disk.

With a supreme air of confidence E. grasps the power cord and begins to pull. A veritable birds’ nest of cables appears (the premises were constructed long before information technology made its cheerful appearance in organizational life). Dangling inside the cable web is a power plug, its prongs conspicuously devoid of physical contact with anything electric. E., with an air of quiet achievement, lifts it high in the air for examination in a gesture reminiscent of a surgeon in a 1950’s war movie (the scene where the bullet has just been removed from the young soldier’s chest).

The reaction of V. and colleagues at this point depends on a number of variables, chief among them their rank in the organizational hierarchy. The range of reactions varies from “how could I be so stupid (again)” to “who the hell loosened that plug”. Suddenly the preferred topic of conversation is anything but office automation – frantic discussion of the quality of the local cafeteria coffee ensues, accompanied with a noticeable rise in body temperature above the 6th vertebrae.

E.’s reaction depends mainly on the tone of the initial telephone conversation, the distance covered in order to reach the culprit, and what he could have done instead. (The number of times this has happened before might also have some effect, but as V. normally has a choice between several E.s it is not likely that the scene will repeat itself with the same E. very often.).

If E. is a really experienced technical wizard, he will refrain from sarcastic comments, quietly lay down the power plug, and disappear into the sunset. The lonely hero has done it again. He has for the nth time shown who is the boss – who is in command of this omnipresent technology, incomprehensible to mere mortals.

But he knows this cannot last. There will come a day when the users will check for loose power plugs – a day when no carefully choreographed searches beneath desks will be enough to sustain his reputation as a technological superhero.

That will be the day he will have to learn how to change printer paper.

Crowdfunding ME research!

image_thumbME – officially called ME/CFS, often called chronic fatigue syndrome – is a horrible disease: It doesn’t kill you, but it takes your life away. Unfortunately, the causes and symptoms are so vague that both treatment and research is not prioritized, many doctors have unsubstantiated opinions about the illness (“we don’t know what it is, so it is probably psychological”,) and the ME patients cannot themselves fight for their rights, since they are so deadly tired. As a father of a daughter with ME I have many times been distraught by how little is done, and the degree to which the patient (and sometimes the relatives) are treated with indifference and suspicion in a health system that does not know how to nor has any interest in dealing with them.

But things are moving slowly for the better. There are more and more indications that this, at least for a large percent of the sufferers, is an autoimmune disease. Ola Didrik Saugstad, Norway’s most cited pediatrician, says that in a few years, ME will be like stomach ulcers – initially seen as the patient’s fault (too much stress and/or spicy food,) until two physicians, Robin Warren and Barry J. Marshall, showed that it was a bacterial colonization that could be treated with medicines.

Two doctors at the cancer ward of Haukeland research hospital in Bergen has had very interesting results in treating ME patients with Rituximab, a medicine used against certain cancer types, such as leukemia. They now need to do a study of 140 patients. This is, as far as I know, the first real, bona fide research projects on using medicines to fight ME – the medicine is there, the initial results are very promising, and what is needed is a proper double-blind test with enough subjects. Unfortunately, the medicine is expensive, and for inexplicable reasons, this study was not prioritized by the Norwegian Research Board, even though it was deemed very worthy application.

Maria Gjerpe (www.mariasmetode.no), a physician suffering from ME herself, has taken the initiative to crowdfund this project. 7 million NOK ($1.2m) is needed, and you can donate from their home page (via PayPal or bank transfer.)

You can see a video (Norwegian, subtitles) below: Maria explains some of the background, and there are contributions by Ola Didrik Saugstad, MP Erna Solberg (probably Norway’s next Prime Minister) and MP Laila Dåvøy:

ME/CFS has for too long been a disease where quacks of all kinds have been allowed to prey on patients with nowhere else to go. Rituximab and other medicines can be the solution for at least some patients with this disease. Donate today – this is both solid medical research and, if we can get some patients back to a productive life, a very worthwhile investment!

Forrest Gump from Sweden

The 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and DisappearedThe 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared by Jonas Jonasson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is a Swedish Forrest Gump story, and like the movie, it is great fun, though you can’t really put your finger on why.

Allan Karlsson absconds from the nursing home in his slippers a few hours before his 100-year birthday is to be celebrated. Within minutes, he is on the run with a suitcase full of money, chased by gangsters and acquiring a motley assortment of friends (including an elephant) as he goes. Interspersed with this are chapters detailing his life as a global, slack-jawed globetrotter, forever stumbling in on historical figures at opportune moments.

Great fun – and some of the Swedishness of the very understated humor makes it through the translation as well.

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