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Not So Silver

In the Fall of this year (I think), twenty-five years will have passed since I began keeping a journal. In Jr. High, I headed every entry "J.A.W.'s Journal" followed by the date.1 For the first decade, I composed my entries with pen and paper, after which I shifted to using a word processor because, even then, the versatility of machine-readable text outweighed for me the sentimental value of words written on paper.

As a side project to my book, I uploaded the 869 entries I've accumulated since going digital with my journal to a (password protected) Movabletype weblog. My process, briefly, was to bring all of my entries into WordPerfect 3.5e, export them as HTML, regex-process the resulting file (using BBEdit and PERL) so it could be opened in Tinderbox, and post my journal entries to a Movabletype weblog (somewhat automating this last process using Keyboard Maestro).2

Tinderbox is one of the most versatile pieces of software I've ever used. My present workflow involves gathering and organizing my ideas in Tinderbox, using EndNote to build a database of books and journal articles (in PDF form), and taking notes on that research using the open-source Skim.3 Of the stations in my writing workflow, Tinderbox is the one most intriguing and unconventional. The software is so mind-blowing that despite its failure to use standard Mac OS windowing and widget conventions, I have made it an integral part my writing process. It's difficult to explain, even at length, what is so amazing about Tinderbox, but here's one example.

The image at right is Tinderbox's "Common Words" view of my journal, one of nearly a dozen views available to me (I've inverted the colors for aesthetic reasons). Similar to a tag cloud, the "Common Words" view shows the relative frequency of the 100 most-used words in a note, a note's section, or an entire document.4 The prepositions and adverbs don't present immediately useful information, but the differential relationship between, for example, "days" and "night" provokes my thinking. I'm (not entirely) sheepish about the prominence of "myself" and its suggestion of how much time I spend navel-gazing while writing in my journal. (It is, after all, a journal.)

The sketch provided by this list of the 100 terms I have used most in fifteen years of journal writing says a lot about who I am not. For example, I've lately cultivated a perception of myself as someone obsessed with mortality, but I can't be that morbid if I talk about "life" much more than I do about "death." I am relieved to know that when I write in my journal that I mention no activity more frequently than "writing."

I'm saddened, however, that there are no names in that list, not even yours. end of article

1 This blog is not my journal.
2 WordPerfect 3.5e was the last great wordprocessor for Mac OS. Nothing available for Mac OS today even approaches the polish and usability of that program. Not Mariner Write, not Nisus Writer Express or Pro, not Mellel.

3 Skim puts Adobe Acrobat to shame. It's lightweight, fast, and renders image-based PDFs beautifully. It also is Cocoa-based and takes advantage of OS X functionality like horizontal and vertical multi-touch scrolling.

One of Skim's downsides is that it uses extended attributes to store its note information. Extended attributes are not copied over AFP networks hosted by Mac OS X clients, a(n Apple) bug that cost me half a dozen hours of work in my current article. The workaround is to instruct Skim, in its general preferences tab, to "Automatically save Skim notes backups." If those backups are in the same directory as the PDF file, upon opening the PDF, Skim will ask if you would like to read the notes which have the same name as the file you are opening.

4 In Tinderbox, clicking on a word in the "Common Words" view will open a new search window populated by every note in which the word occurs.