Tech, Writing

1,000+ Microsoft Word docs, plain text, and a file format mess


Over the past couple of days, I’ve been opening 1,000+ Word documents on my computer, one by one, and converting them from a very, very old Word format (“Microsoft Word 1.x-5.x”) to something I’ll actually be able to read and open on my computer. It’s a laborious process. When Microsoft “upgraded” to Office 2008 for the Mac, the company decided it was necessary to make it super-difficult to work with some older Word file formats.

I’ve actually known about this issue for years — I wrote a column touching on it three years ago — but I only decided to tackle it now, in part because I’m trying to weed out documents in old file formats (old Word, old AppleWorks) before I upgrade to Apple OS X Lion.

It’s not fun.

And I’m guessing plenty of writers — or, really, anyone who’s used a computer for writing (uh, like everyone) — have no idea that they may have many, many orphaned documents on their computers. Poems. Love letters. Journals. Whatever.

The longer you wait to convert those documents, the harder it gets — until it’s nearly impossible to retrieve the text.

I have some documents I trashed: I had no idea how to retrieve the information in them. I’m sure it could be done, somehow, but I couldn’t figure out how.

I was thinking about this when I read an excellent article at MacWorld, “Forget fancy formatting: Why plain text is best.”

Writer David Sparks addresses just this issue:

Looking back through my old files, I’m amazed to see how many word processors I’ve used over the years. I’ve got document files in formats ranging from MacWrite to Pages and everything in between. The problem is, a lot of those old files are useless to me now: None of my current word processors can read them. That’s a shame; some of those old words were pretty good.

His solution? Use plain text.

Sensible advice, no doubt, though the mix of tools he uses, for different purposes, seems a bit complex to me. That said, I guess it’s something like my ad-hoc system, using Pages, SimpleNote, Google Docs, and Word (if I must).

And now, as I’m dealing with this mess of old Word files, I’m going to start rethinking how I save documents. Should I use plain text? Or Google Docs? I’m not quite sure.

Photography, Writing

Why do I have three (yes, three) photoblogs?


OK, so maybe you haven’t really been wondering this, but it’s the truth. I now have three separate photography blogs. Not long ago, I wasn’t even blogging, and now I feel like I’m something of a blogging maniac, in part because of the ease of creating and managing a blog with Tumblr. So what are these blogs, and how are they different? Here are quick descriptions:

What I See Now: News and advice about iPhone photography. Learn about iPhone photography contests and exhibits, video tutorials, gadgets, and updates to iPhoneography apps. I also post occasional photos (of my own) at this blog.

Really Great iPhone Photos: Here’s where I post other people’s awesome iPhone photos, either by reblogging them with Tumblr or by contacting and getting permission from Flickr members.

Domestic Tableaux: I just put this up. Tumblr makes it easy to let a blog accept submissions, and I’ve been wanting to try that sort of blog for a while. Domestic Tableaus is all about photos of what’s on your kitchen counter, bedroom bureau, or somewhere else. Those images can be interesting, funny, or even sad or poignant.

So there you have: my photoblogs.

Distracted Living, Writing

David Ulin on the lost art of reading

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Back in 2009, David Ulin of “The Los Angeles Times” wrote a short essay, “The Lost Art of Reading.” The premise was simple: Our lives make it increasingly difficult to focus on reading. (And reading, in this context, doesn’t mean reading your Twitter feed.) Why is this? It’s because our lives are filled with noise, especially the “noise” of the Internet, and so it’s a lot harder to filter out that noise. As he writes: “Such a state is increasingly elusive in our over-networked culture, in which every rumor and mundanity is blogged and tweeted. Today, it seems it is not contemplation we seek but an odd sort of distraction masquerading as being in the know. Why? Because of the illusion that illumination is based on speed, that it is more important to react than to think, that we live in a culture in which something is attached to every bit of time.”

You can read his essay, and now you can read his book on the topic, “The Lost Art of Reading: Why Books Matter in a Distracted Time.”


My anti-Facebook rant in the Star-Ledger

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Here’s how I open today’s column in the Star-Ledger: “Facebook is a big, sprawling mess, and there’s no saving it.” Yes, this is something of a rant, and it was a lot of fun to write. The column was based on a simple idea: Could I figure out Facebook’s privacy settings and other options in about an hour or so? Of course, the answer was no. Facebook is a complicated, privacy-crushing beast, especially now, with so many websites using “Like” buttons (hey, I’ll probably add them to this site soon!) and the Facebook Connect universal login system.


So, the column, which got big play on the front page. Read it now.


The iPhone is my new favorite writing tool


I know this will sound crazy to a lot of people, but I’m really into using my iPhone for writing.

Now, this doesn’t mean I’ve developed some fancy method to use my fingers and thumbs with the virtual keyboard. For writing on my iPhone, I use Apple’s wireless Bluetooth keyboard — my favorite keyboard, ever (yes, it’ll also connect to my MacBook and my iPad). It took a while for Apple to allow you to connect a keyboard to an iPhone, and I love it. The keyboard’s just great, and iPhone screen’s got plenty of space to see your text. For years, I’ve been carting a laptop around, often because I want to have the ability to (a) do some writing, (b) handle email, or (c) take interview notes. But now? Well, I don’t need the laptop, because I can do all of that with my iPhone and a Bluetooth keyboard.

As for apps for writing, that depends on the task — right now I’m typing directly into the iPhone’s WordPress app (this website runs on WordPress) — but I also like the SimpleNote app for notes and general writing. That said, if anyone’s got tips on writing apps for the iPhone, I’d love to know about them.

Tech, Writing

Want to publish a Kindle book?


One of these days I’ll publish a Kindle book (or some sort of e-book). For now, I’ve got a column with tips on how to do this. It’s not all that hard, really. A lot of the challenge, it turns out, is in formatting the book properly for the Kindle (or for any other e-book format). There are tools available to do this now, but they’re still evolving, and not quite as easy to use as I’d like. One of the best, though, is the template available from Apple for publishing at the iBookstore (for viewing the iPhone and iPad). You will need Apple’s Pages program to use that template. In any case, I’m hoping the tools will just keep getting better to make it easier to publish e-books.

Here’s a helpful video about publishing Kindle books:


Just helped fund a Kickstarter project for an iPhone tripod

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So I just dropped $20 on an iPhone tripod and “kickstand” that doesn’t even exist yet. Sounds sorta weird? Well, it’s actually part of a project at Kickstarter, a website that’s all about funding innovative and creative projects. The name of this product-to-be is the Glif, and here’s how it’s described:

Glif is a simple iPhone 4 accessory with two primary functions: mounting your iPhone to a standard tripod, and acting as a kickstand to prop your iPhone up at an angle. From these two functions emerge numerous uses: hands-free FaceTiming, watching videos, making movies, using your iPhone as an alarm clock, and many others.

The people behind the Glif, Tom Gerhardt, a software and hardware developer, and Dan Provost, an interaction designer/blogger, say the idea stems from their love of the iPhone camera: “The idea for the Glif was first formed when we realized the iPhone 4 is literally the best camera we’ve ever owned. With the addition of HD video recording and High Dynamic Range photography, it’s clear Apple is positioning the iPhone as a very high quality portable camera.”

Tech, Writing

Sophisticated and powerful tools for email lists and e-newsletters

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In an online world obsessed with viral video and social networking, the simple, functional email list can seem downright dowdy.

What is it, after all, other than a list of email addresses for sending out periodic messages?

In fact, email lists can be a lot more complicated and multifaceted than you might think (and more useful, too). Forget about creating lists with your garden-variety email program and adding or removing names and addresses on your own. Instead, today’s email lists are often powered by sophisticated web-based services to help businesses, freelancers, nonprofits and other organizations send out everything from political action alerts to announcements about sale items to elaborately designed email postcards.

You can do this, even if you’re a technophobe and email marketing neophyte, and you can do it for free (or close to it). That’s true whether you’re hoping to have a newsletter for your kid’s soccer team or you’re thinking your growing businesses demands new ways to connect with customers.

Using a web-based service for managing lists provides a number of advantages over an ad-hoc, do-it-yourself method. Consider these features and tools:

  • the ability for readers to sign up, change email addresses, and unsubscribe on their own
  • automated tools to check for invalid email addresses, send confirmation and welcome emails, and help you comply with anti-spam laws
  • web-based software to help you design your newsletter and provide readers the option of receiving the email as a plain-text email, an email that’s specially designed for mobile devices, or a so-called “HTML email,” allowing for a more elaborate design
  • special charts, reports, and other analytical tools to help you track who’s opening your emails, what links they’re following, and who’s unsubscribing
  • customizable templates that have been tested in a variety of email programs, meaning it’s less likely your readers will run into formatting glitches when reading emails

So what’s the catch? Though plans vary from one service to another, you’ll typically be able to have an inexpensive (or even free) account if your list is rather small, in terms of subscribers or emails sent, but you’ll pay more as your list grows and you send out more frequent emails.

Consider the offerings of MailChimp, a service used by everyone from bloggers and consultants to major companies like Intel, Marriott and Staples. A free account with MailChimp provides access to the service’s features, but you’re limited to 100 subscribers, you can only send mass emails six times per month, and your emails will include a MailChimp logo.

MailChimp’s paid monthly plans vary, depending on the number of subscribers. The least expensive is $10 per month, for up to 500 subscribers, while you’ll pay $150 per month for a list with up to 25,000 subscribers. Another option, a pay-as-you-go plan, lets you spend “email credits” for every email sent.

The MailChimp website is particularly friendly for those who have never experimented with email lists. Videos are provided to explain just about every aspect of creating an email list, from a 30-second overview to more detailed videos on designing templates and reviewing reports.

The ins and outs of email lists can actually get rather complicated, depending on your organization’s needs. After all, big companies have web marketing professionals who specialize in email marketing campaigns. MailChimp offers a free guide for web developers charged with customizing an email newsletter. The guide covers topics such as design, spam filters, and “how to code HTML emails so they won’t break,” among other topics. It’s 64 pages long.

But if you just want a list for your PTA group or consulting firm, you can have that, too. Just search around a bit to see what service suits your needs. Along with MailChimp, the leaders include Constant Contact, iContact and VerticalResponse.



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My e-newsletter includes links to things I’ve written, tweeted, or found interesting. It’s brief, fun, and if you don’t like it, there’s a one-click “unsubscribe” button. I send it out every one or two weeks (or so). Sign up now.


Crowdsourcing your press releases and copywriting

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I’ve been fascinated by the crowdsourcing trend, and I’ve even delved into it, using 99designs, a website for crowdsourced design (logos, business cards, etc.) for the logo for Web100. Now there’s crowdsourced writing. Yep, just as 99designs helps businesses set up contests for logos and whatnot, essentially getting people to contribute without any guarantee they’ll be the winner, crowdedtext sets up writing contests for press releases, slogans, and the like.

“Holding a writing contest is also a great way to find writers you want to hire in more official capacities, as you can see their writing style before investing too much time,” according to the crowdedtext site.

On pricing:

Listing your writing contest on CrowdedText is only $4.95. We also charge 10% of the prize you are offering as a prize handling fee. This is in place so both the contest holder and the winning writer do not have to worry about arranging payment.

Will this work for writing? I’m not so sure.