Some things just last longer than others
Those comfortable old sweaters, housecoats, a few pants and shirts worn to threadbare, and even beyond as they get relegated to gardening work, the 91 Buick Regal we kept till last year, and traded in before it was really finished with life, the forty year old rototiller, the house the Spy built in 1992 (the one before that was 1972), this old column he started in 1983, the Church he’s been involved in since 1973, the same job since 1983, the same profession since 1971, a few books he reads again every few years (Lewis’ Narnia, Moon’s Paksenarrion, Henty’s historical novels, O’Henry’s short stories), the videos he and the wife rewatch time and again (Austin, Bronte, Dickens, etc), and in another category altogether, his good wife of 51 years and counting. He does have a stick-to-it-ness to him all right.
In this space a few months ago, he regaled his reader with tales of elderly hardware resuscitated for modern purposes, such as the 2008-2012 MacPros he will soon upgrade tot Big Sur. Now, it’s time for another review of his oldie but goodie software, with a few comments on some of the newer stuff he is also using–in some cases more because he has to than wants to.
is something it seems the Spy has been doing most of his life. He wrote his first story at thirteen, a fanciful little yarn about a mathematically challenged fellow who conjures up the devil upon whom to impress his will, only to horribly realize too late that he has enclosed him in a very penetrable hexagon rather than the classical imprisoning pentagon. Two years later the Spy became a columnist for a morning newspaper, and in subsequent years wrote other columns and articles for many magazines, including this little set of rants on technology, significant quantities of code, two textbooks, one hymn, ten novels (more coming?) a couple of short stories, academic papers, sets of constitutions and by-laws, innumerable position papers, budgets, job descriptions and proposals, etc. The sheer volume of all this blah, blah, blah could never have been produced but for modern writing tools, each an adjunct to its own speciality.
For general word processing such as the initial drafts of these columns, day-to-day routine word around the university, letters, receipts for the church (mail merge, don’t you know) and the production of documents, his workhouse word processor is the venerable Nisus Writer Pro–also available in an economy version as NisusWriter Express. The Spy has used or reviewed some forty to fifty word and text processors over the decades, but the Nisus product is the most elegant, fastest, intuitive on of them all. To be sure, for a while the Spy maintained its unofficial bug list on the net for the product, but that ceased to be needed more than a decade back. NWP is a comfortable old shoe, optimized for the busy writer of small documents, but more than capable of putting the finishing touches on a 500 000 word book. Its native file format is .rtf, but it can save several others for document transportability, and do so better sometimes than the MS flagship Word, which the Spy finds non-intuitive and hard to work with, especially when trying to put text around pictures (yikes!).
For writing code including websites, some people can be satisfied with drag-and-drop editors. Sorry, but that’s not good enough for the more discriminating. A fine website needs an HTML and CSS editor, and the writing of code in other languages is little different. There is nothing comparable to the venerable old BBEdit for these tasks. Moreover, for light work, it has a free mode, so if one’s coding necessities are not onerous, it costs nothing, and even for professionals it is relatively inexpensive, and returns its value many times over in time saved. No need to go into details, but the Spy is unlikely to recommend anything else for such tasks in the foreseeable future. Bare Bones’s editor is pre-eminent in its field, and like Nisus. Writer, is Mac only. It seems fitting that the best OS is the exclusive playground for some of the best software ever produced.
Another program that may be worth considering is the open source editor Alpha. It is reputed to be excellent for editing Tex and LaTex, though for those purposes, the Spy prefers Pierre Chatelier’s LaTeXIT (a graphical interface over one’s install of the LaTeX engine, as his needs are rather modest and there can build even the most elaborate mathematical expressions he may require quickly and easily, then past them into either Nisus Writer or Moodle (some modification needed in the latter).
For getting the code to the site (FTP+), the Spy could use BBEdit itself, but has gravitated to Cyberduck. It replaces the venerable Interarchy, which died a few years back. Nice, compact, easy to set up and use, cross-platform, and fast. What else do you need?
For screenwriting and other large projects like books the incomparable Scrivener from Literature and Latte is the only package worth considering. It would take several columns to describe all it can do, but think of a word processor that has a finder like window with all the folders (chapters) and scenes to the left, and which can be displayed singly or in groups, and reordered for the finished product with drag and drop, then “compiled” to the final book product with, say, different fonts and formats than used on the screen so as to satisfy the pickiest of editors. A fixture on MacOS for many years, it is now also available for iOS and Windows environments. It has a somewhat steep learning curve to master all its capabilities, but for the professional writer there is simply no competition. Since it stores all its files in .rtf format, its compiled output can be polished up in Nisus Writer in a lossless way. (Don’t use Word for large books. It can be painful.)
To insert those unusual characters in textthere is nothing like Ergonis’ PopChar. Click on a tiny marker in the corner of the menu bar and select any character in any font to insert at the current cursor position. It’s been on all the Spy’s Macs for many years and is indispensable for anyone writing Mathematics.
The bottom lineThe Spy owns many saws, hammers, and screwdrivers. Each has its purpose. Likewise programs that wrangle words. One size does not fit all, so use the best tool for each job.
is probably the Spy’s second most common job at the computer, and for this purpose, the Spreadsheet is the quintessential tool. He bought one of the first hundred copies of Visicalc ever sold, later moved to The Spreadsheet from the Call A.P.P.L.E. CO-OP, and eventually went sideways to Excel when it first appeared on the Mac. He still has code in his current sheets that. was written back in the 70s. Spreadsheets are right up there with word and text processors in importance, and the initial popularity of the Apple ][ computer was due to Visicalc. Accountants called that computer “the Visicalc machine”. The Spy keeps his own books there, and also is treasurer for the local Baptist Church, and does all its accounting in his own macro-rich environment now amounting to about 4M in total by the end of a fiscal year. Collecting data, posting to the double entry general ledger by account number, automatically summarizing to the account statements and balancing them against the ones from the Credit Union, then reporting to the church are all done by Excel, as is (in a separate workbook) tracking donations by donor and designation.
The Spy has never been impressed with other products brought out by MS, but Excel may be the most important piece of software ever produced. And, after all these years, it just works for him–except when it doesn’t.
Moreover, Excel still retains the bug that if you do too much, say a log session of data entry, or a shorter session of moving or resizing buttons (which is necessary as they tend to lose their location sometimes) Excel ingloriously crashes, sometimes losing all changes. One must instead limit the length of a session, saving frequently, and after a while close the file and reopen it. Yet with all these flaws, Excel remains indispensable; the best iteration of the most critical class of software yet devised.
CalculatorsApple provides a simple one with its OS, but the really useful one, ineteropable on MacOS, Apple Watch, AppleTV and iOS is PCalc. What can he say? It’s an inexpensive ($10 U.S.) scientific calculator he bought into years ago that works across the Apple ecosystem, is kept up to date and constantly has new features added. What more does one need?
For many years the Spy used Eudora, but alas the program died when Apple went to Intel and he had to find something new. He thought the infant Apple Mail was feature-poor and unreliable at the time, so migrated to Thunderbird, which is now up to version 78. There he reads and organizes mail from a dozen or so mail accounts, keeping track of what’s going on in his various worlds and archiving critical information.
It does everything he needs for these sometimes complex tasks and in general he’s been satisfied. However, in recent times, the Mozilla folk have introduced version control to the program that prevents one from accessing a profile (where absolutely everything is stored) that has been modified by a newer version. Since the Spy carts his files among at least four computers, this may be good, but it is awkwardly implemented, and sometimes messes itself up. Just the other day, it began to look like he had lost access to his mail altogether, and only a most intense and nerve-wracking hacking session was able to restore things. Since this is not the kind of thing an average user could dream of doing, this security feature is problematic, to say the least. Better approach: when an version inconsistency is detected on startup, don’t offer to start a whole new profile as if the old one dies not exist. Rather offer to upgrade the program. Duh.
There is of course Apple’s dock, which does an OK job as far as it goes. But there have for a long time been other drawer or tab programs to assist in organizing one’s shortcuts to apps and/or files. The Spy currently has TabLauncher for this purpose. It has a free version which allows one set of tabs, but he bought a license and has multiple sets in various locations around the screen. Recommended.
A related issue involves the navigation of disks attached to the system. The Spy has several that he uses for system backup or archiving that he does not want cluttering the desktop, so he uses Mountain from Appengineers which puts a little icon in the toolbar that drops down to a menu of all attached volumes, allowing mounting, unmounting, or hiding at boot time with ease.
The Spy has so much invested in his myriad of files that backup is essential. Typically, he runs both a commercial backup program (Carbon Copy Cloner) and Apple’s time machine independently. TM will backup every hour and allow previous versions of files or folders to be retrieved. In CCC one sets up backup tasks, which can either be automated like those of TM and run on a schedule or triggered manually. The Spy has for many years used Bombich Software’s CCC to back up his files at home in the morning, restore at work an hour later, backs up there before returning home (to a different partition) and restores when he arrives home. Meanwhile CCC is keeping hourly, daily, weekly, and monthly backups consisting of an exact clone of the files partition at both ends. Every once in a while he sets aside a backup stick or SSD and switches to another, so there are always backups of varying dates around. In addition, he has a NAS in both locations, and backs up there nightly.
The difference between the two programs is that TM makes incremental backups in what operates effectively as a sparse database that can be searched backwards in time, while CCC makes exact clones–very useful for backing up the OS to a bootable disk. The program is scriptable, can run pre and post backup scripts, maintain a safety net (all files deleted or changed are archived) and can send mail alerts as needed. The Spy keeps it open on his desktop all the time.
The Net and related issues
BrowsersApple’s Safari is the workhouse browser here, though Chrome is faster and sometimes more reliable, albeit perhaps less secure. There is no easy sharing of history, bookmarks and passwords between the two. He rarely uses Firefox any more.
File Sharingis something everybody needs to do from time to time. The Spy began with Dropbox, and is reluctant to add any more services of this kind, as it does everything he needs.
TeachingTWU employs Moodle on a rather massive scale. The program does a lot of things. The Spy organizes his courses by weeks and then by classes, with one document containing instructions and links, a second with notes or slides, and a third with a recording of the actual class as conducted or as pre-recorded (which depends on the course). He can also use fora, collect and mark assignments, conduct quizzes, and exams, and report progress.
The system is large and very capable, but the documentation is mediocre, and sometimes obscure, the on-screen controls are inconsistent and it takes much time to learn where everything is, plus some functions have confusing names. The LaTeX editor is hidden by default, has to be enabled explicitly, and is neither robust not fully compatible with other LaTeX editors. However, all in all, the whole setup is serviceable, though it has a somewhat retro feel to it, perhaps reflecting its lengthy service.
However, some of his local software does not play well together. Classes are held on Zoom, which had to grow up into mature and secure software very quickly when we shut down the universities for almost all in person classes. It too is serviceable but not fancy, and generally works, except that it does have issues with cameras, especially when it comes to sharing screen captures of secondary or tertiary cameras.
Sometimes (and usually when holding an in-person meeting with our new dean, the Logitech Brio camera output freezes as soon as the other person joins the meeting with video. Solution: open the Logitech Camera Settings utility. The camera output unfreezes at once. The utility then may be quit and the problem will not recur until the next meeting.
Then there is the Elmo MX-P2 camera. This is an overhead device that can stare down at his notes and display them on screen using EIT the Elmo Interactive Toolbox software. This screen can them be shared in Zoom. This too works well, except that when EIT quits, it crashes–not causing the whole system to go down, but generating the little informative crash window and offering to send it to Apple. An inquiry to the Elmo support people elicited the reply that they had heard of this bug from a few other Mac users. That was months ago. The Mac version remains three steps behind the Windows version and crashes on all his computers under Catalina. Gotta give Elmo a Z- for support.
Attempting to run EIT in Windows on Parallels likewise brought no joy. The camera never came up in EIT, and quitting froze the program in a half-quit mode, requiring Windows to be rebooted. It is also worth mentioning that the Elmo camera is finicky about where the USB feed is attached to the computer. A direct connection to a machine port usually works, but a feed through a dock only might work for a while.
Parallels is, BTW, a great way to have Windows running on the Mac, and it comes with a broad spectrum toolbox of utilities. Yes, yes, the Spy needs to wash out his mouth for mentioning that OS, but there are times when some software can only be accessed that way because somebody has material that requires Windows-only program access.
And finally there is OBS (Open Broadcast Software). The Spy installed this, hoping to have an alternative screen share to EIT. It was obscure, difficult to configure, and the documentation obtuse. However, he did get it working, except that like Excel, if you spend more than a few minutes rearranging boxes on the screen, it crashes. Worse, it occasionally crashes the entire video system, leaving the user no recourse but to reboot the Mac.
Who or what to blame? these are all video issues, but there is no easy way to tell whence the problems arise. Moreover neither OBS nor EIT shows a version number when one gets info in Finder, so it is impossible to tell whether one has the latest version of either.
could be said about disk utilities and the like, and there are other programs the Spy uses on a semi-regular basis, but that’s QES (quite enough said) for this month. Hope it sways someone to buy different and better.
Another word on the cancer saga
What was said here last month became inoperative when the oncologist reviewed the current state of side effects and temporarily suspended all treatments. At this writing Joyce is in hospital having a routine lung drain, but the next round of treatment is likely to be a chemo pill, if the side effects can be tolerated. The possible side effects (5%) of the protein treatment mentioned here last month include a puncture of an organ where the cancer has been removed, creating a hole and a serious medical emergency. Perhaps not to that. We’ll see. The outcome is neither ours nor the doctors’ to determine.
See you all again next month–DV.
–The Northern Spy
Opinions expressed here are entirely the author’s own, and no endorsement is implied by any community or organization to which he may be attached. Rick Sutcliffe, (a.k.a. The Northern Spy) is professor of Computing Science and Mathematics and Assistant Dean of Science at Canada’s Trinity Western University. He completed his fiftieth year as a high school and university teacher in 2020. He has been involved as a member of or consultant with the boards of several organizations, and participated in developing industry standards at the national and international level. He is a co-author of the Modula-2 programming language R10 dialect. He is a long time technology author and has written two textbooks and ten alternate history SF novels, one named best ePublished SF novel for 2003. His various columns have appeared in numerous magazines and newspapers (paper and online), since the early 1980s, and he’s been a regular speaker at churches, schools, academic meetings, and conferences. He and his wife Joyce celebrated their fiftieth anniversary in 2019 and have lived in the Aldergrove/Bradner area of B.C. since 1972.
URLs for Rick Sutcliffe’s Arjay Enterprises:
- The Northern Spy Home Page: http://www.TheNorthernSpy.com
- opundo : http://opundo.com
- Sheaves Christian Resources : http://sheaves.org
- WebNameHost : http://www.WebNameHost.net
- WebNameSource : http://www.WebNameSource.net
- nameman : http://nameman.net
General URLs for Rick Sutcliffe’s Books:
- Author Site: http://www.arjay.ca
- Publisher’s Site: http://www.writers-exchange.com/Richard-Sutcliffe.html
- The Fourth Civilization–Ethics, Society, and Technology (4th 2003 ed. ): http://www.arjay.bc.ca/EthTech/Text/index.html
Other URLs of relevant interest:
- BC Government COVID site: http://www.bccdc.ca/health-info/diseases-conditions/covid-19
- TWU COVID Info: https://www.twu.ca/covid-19-information
Links to products mentioned here
- Nisus Writer Pro: https://www.nisus.com
- BBEdit (Bare Bones Software): https://www.barebones.com
- Alpha: https://sourceforge.net/projects/alphacocoa/files/9.2.1/Alpha_9.2.1.dmg.zip/download
- LaTeXiT: https://www.chachatelier.fr/latexit/
- Cyberduck: https://cyberduck.io
- PopChar: https://www.ergonis.com/products/popcharx/
- Scrivener: https://www.literatureandlatte.com
- Excel: https://www.microsoft.com/en-ca/microsoft-365/excel
- PCalc: https://www.pcalc.com
- TabLauncher: https://tablauncher.com
- Mountain: https://appgineers.de/mountain/
- Thunderbird: https://www.thunderbird.net/en-CA/m
- Carbon Copy Cloner: https://bombich.com
- Chrome: https://www.google.ca/chrome/
- Moodle: https://moodle.org
- Dropbox: https://www.dropbox.com/
- EIT: https://www.elmousa.com/software/
- Brio: https://www.logitech.com/en-ca/products/webcams/brio-4k-hdr-webcam.960-001105.html?crid=34
- OBS: https://obsproject.com
- Parallels: https://www.parallels.com/ca/