Archival Quality Writing

Software developers are constantly improving the apps we use to manage our documents and publications. These advances have given us many useful tools to make our efforts easier. However, there is still one major area of concern – how to manage our digital document archives. As word processing applications come and go, we are often left with documents we can no longer view. How many of us are stuck with old WordStar, WordPerfect and even Word documents? There is one format, however, that has survived since the very beginnings of the digital age – plain text. Unfortunately, plain text is exactly that – plain. There are no font choices and you can’t include even the simplest formatting functions like bold or italic text. Who wants to be stuck with that?

Fortunately, software developers have come up with an option that will allow us to have archival quality text files – and have them with style! It’s called Markdown.

Markdown is actually two things. First, it’s a standard that uses certain plain text characters – like asterisks, hashtags and hyphens – to represent format settings. Second, it’s a collection of conversion programs which read the plain text file with these formatting “codes” and convert them into other document formats like rich text, HTML, PDF or even ePUB.

Here is a sample plain text file with Markdown codes:

Plain text with Markdown code.

As you can see in this example, plain text with Markdown coding is quite readable. It’s much easier to read than the same text with equivalent HTML tags. It’s the simplicity and readability of Markdown that make it so interesting. Forty years from now, even if Markdown gets forgotten over the decades, someone can open and read a plain text document that includes Markdown code much easier than we can read this WordPerfect document that’s less than 20 years old.

An old WordPerfect document viewed in a text editor.

No, you don’t have to dump your current apps, but now that you know what Markdown is you can start looking for apps that support it. One good example would be a journaling app and Mac/iOS users will find Day One [Mac – $9.99 & iOS – $4.99] saves your journal entries – and all your formatting – as Markdown text. Also for Mac/iOS users is Byword [Mac – $9.99 and iOS – $4.99], an elegantly simple text editor that supports both Markdown and rich text. The LightPaper [Android – $1.99] app is one of a number of text editors for Android tablets and phones providing Markdown support.

A number of note-taking apps for Mac are also getting updates to include Markdown support. VoodooPad 5 [Mac – $39.99 and iOS – $9.99] is a good example. And, because its native document format is Markdown, the app can easily convert your notes to rich text, Word, PDF, HTML and ePub formats. I found a free Windows app – MarkdownPad – which supports Markdown, and hopefully we’ll soon see more.

Bloggers will find that WordPress, Tumblr and Postagon also support Markdown. Check the Resource Directory for even more apps and platforms supporting it.

You may have noticed that many of the apps mentioned here are for mobile devices – phones and tablets. Mobile devices have limited memory and storage so the apps are more streamlined than their desktop cousins. Markdown editing screens takes a lot less code than traditional editors, making it a good choice for mobile apps. In addition, the screen-based keyboards can be a challenge for serious writing and formatting. Anything that can simplify the formatting process improves its usability.

This article in the Byword editor for Mac.

This example shows what Markdown looks like while editing. As you can see the text is quite readable. Once the document is ready to publish, the program includes functions to save it in the format of your choice (rich text, HTML, PDF, etc.) – with the Markdown codes converted to the appropriate formatting. As technology moves forward, all that’s needed to update this app – or any of the older documents created using it – are new publishing functions to support converting to whatever new format has been developed.

Thanks to Markdown, the future of plain text looks quite bright. And, by supporting the efforts of developers who incorporate Markdown in their applications, we can help influence its acceptance and continued growth. Helping them will help us build an archival standard for digital documents that will insure the future of our research and publishing efforts doesn’t get left behind in the trash bin of old technology.

This article was originally published at The Society Journal.

1Password for Mac Supports One-Time Passwords

If you haven’t heard of two factor authentication – also called one-time passwords – you are missing out on one of the best ways to protect yourself online. Two factor authentication makes logging into a site or platform a two-step process. First there’s your standard user name and password, but then the second step is a one-time code that is generated just for this login and usually sent to you as a text message on your mobile phone.

With two factor authentication, even if someone is able to learn your user name and password, they won’t be able to access your account on that site unless they also have access to your mobile phone. A growing number of online platforms – especially financial and cloud storage services – offer two factor authentication to add an extra level of security to your personal information.

1Password for Mac [$49.99] makes it easier to use two factor authentication. Now you can set up the Mac app to provide the one time passwords to the login process. Once 1Password is set up for your account at a site, 1Password will not only insert your saved username and password into the login field, it will automatically generate and insert the one time password for you too. You won’t have to wait for that text message to arrive. Sweet!

Here’s a look at how 1Password puts one time passwords to work on the Mac. Hope it’s not too long before it’s also available on the iOS, Android and Windows versions too.

Vellum for Ebook Building

One of my projects for this year is to update Future of Memories with new technology and new projects. When the first edition was published, there were few applications to support custom book layout for ebooks. I found the booksellers’ automated conversion results very disappointing – especially for a book with lots of graphics. Since then we’ve seen a lot of improvements to both book conversion and reader apps. Although PDF remains the best option for custom layouts with lots of graphics and images, there are a lot more options available for ebook formats today.

Recently I stumbled onto a lovely app called Vellum [Mac – free]. Its purpose is to provide a visual method to work on your book’s layout and preview the results. It is NOT a writing platform although you can add and edit content in the app. Once your manuscript is finished, the text is imported into Vellum and you begin styling. Using Vellum, you can assign headings, block quotes and alignment. You can also add images, ornamental breaks and links. At any time, you can use the preview panel to see what your project will look like on an iPad, iPhone, Kindle Paperwhite and Simple NOOK (see the gallery below for examples).

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When inserting images, Vellum provides a panel for selecting options and will warn you if your image is too small for the display size you’ve chosen. You can also assign a link to the image.

Image Panel in Vellum

In addition to your manuscript and any added images, Vellum includes a title page form where you input the title, author and other needed information. You can also add additional elements like forward, copyright, dedication, about the author and more.

Once everything is ready, click the Purchase icon at the top of the screen to begin the build process. Although the app is free, Vellum charges $29.95 to make the generation process accessible. Once your in-app purchase is completed, the generation feature is activated for this book. You can use it to create book packages for Kindle, NOOK and iBooks. (Note: you will need to install the Kindlegen app from Amazon before generating the Kindle version with Vellum. See Vellum instructions for details.) You can proof your books, make corrections and regenerate as needed. When everything is the way you want it, you upload your book packages to your author accounts at Amazon, NOOK and Apple.

Vellum is a gorgeous app and quite easy to use. It gives me control over the conversion process – especially proofing the conversion results – and I can insure that my book will look great before I send it to the booksellers. My manuscript is still has a long way to go before I’m ready to start working on the layout, but Vellum will definitely be part of that process.

Telling Stories with Keynote and Scribd

My favorite layout tool is Keynote – Apple’s presentation graphics app. It gives me the flexibility to build publications that are part story and part scrapbook – my favorite format. Keynote is not a writing tool and it doesn’t handle the linked text boxes that flow from one page to another like Pages – Apple’s word processing app. It does make it easy to place and arrange photos and other graphical elements and I can create some interesting text effects. In this particular publication, most of the stories come from blog articles I’ve written over the years, so I’m taking that “finished” text and styling it with layout, fonts, graphic effects and photos to get the look I want.

The Scribd online library and publishing platform makes it possible to publish my stories in this unconventional format, letting others read it online or even download a PDF if I choose to make that feature available. The built-in revision system makes it easy to upload a new version when I have more stories to add. One of my family history projects, Behind the Alligator Farm, is posted at Scribd. You can view it via the embed below. Like most family histories, this is a work in progress. As new stories are completed, a new version replaces the previous edition. Currently, you are looking at the second edition.

Update: Both Lulu and Smashwords support distribution to Scribd’s membership service where members can read as many books as they want for a single monthly fee. Author/publishers earn royalties for each time their book is read by a member.

Start a Writing Project with Ulysses

Ulysses [Mac – $49.99, iPad – $19.99] is an impressive writing platform yet quite easy to master. Instead of creating individual files for each story element, it creates a library package for your writing projects – much like the library used to manage photos in iPhotos. When a project package is saved in iCloud and you have the companion iPad app, you can easily write just about anywhere.

Another thing Ulysses does to keep you focused on writing is reduce your formatting options to a minimum. Sure you can assign text as headings, include block quotes, images, bulleted or numbered lists and citations, but you aren’t concerned with font choices or pages sizes – things that distract you from writing. Those are dealt with when you export your finished project to the format (or formats) you choose.

The project setup is really quite simple. Content is organized into groups and sheets – the library equivalent of folders and files. Ulysses supports groups and sub-groups and gives you the ability to reorganize them any time you wish.

The example above shows my Future of Memories project – currently displaying all three panels as they appear on my iPad. At the left is the library panel showing the groups and sub-groups I currently have in this project. There are two major sub-groups: Research and Manuscript. The Research group contains sub-groups for my notes and reminders of the things I need to do. What you see now is the early stages of the project. Before this manuscript is ready for export, I imagine both the Research and Manuscript groups will look quite different.

The center panel displays the sheets contained in the selected group – Front Matter in this example. It gives you a preview of each sheet’s content. At the far right is the editing panel displaying the sheet selected in the Sheets panel. All I have to do is swipe left to push the Groups and Sheets panels off the screen so I can focus on writing.

Here I have the editor panel filling my iPad’s screen. Note the toolbar at the bottom of the screen. In this example, I am using an external keyboard so the toolbar appears at the bottom of the screen. If I was using the on-screen keyboard, the toolbar would “sit” just above it. Notice that Ulysses is using Markdown for formatting. You have the option to use the toolbar to insert these commands or type them yourself. I find it easier to type the hashtags for headers or asterisks for bold/italics so I don’t have to take my hands off the keyboard. Ulysses gives me the option to work the way I find most comfortable.

Did you notice the Edit option at the bottom of the group panel in the figure at the top of this article? Tap it and a column of drag buttons appear to the right of each group (the boxes with three horizontal lines shown in the figure above). To move a group to a different location in your manuscript, tap and hold the drag box for the item you want to move. When the box pops out, drag it to the locatiion you want and release. It will move the group and any sub-groups to that point. So, if I tap and hold the drag box to the right of the Blogging group and drag it on top of the Journaling group, it will move and the Platforms and Project Ideas sub-groups will move with it.

At any time you can export a sheet, group or your entire manuscript to a number of formats. These include HTML, ePub, PDF and RTF. All you do is tap to select the group you want to export and swipe left to display the More button. Use the “buttons” at the top of the screen to select the format you want and within seconds it will appear on the screen. The gear icon just below those buttons is used to select a style template. In addition to the ones included with the app, you’ll find a growing library of style “sheets” at the Ulysses web site which can be downloaded and imported into your Ulysses app.

Next, tap the Open In item and move your manuscript to the app/platform of your choice. Yes, it really is that easy. When creating an ePub export, you are prompted to enter title, author and cover art. The ePub export does generate a very nice table of contents too.

Ulysses is an impressive writing platform and quite easy to master. It’s use of Markdown combined with a growing number of export options means my work will survive changes in technology. For me, it’s easier and less distracting than Scrivener, but it’s research support is limited to text and images. At the moment I’m maintaining projects in both platforms, but something tells me that Ulysses will soon be my writing environment of choice.

 

 

Flickr for Maps

We already know that Flickr is more than just a photo-sharing platform. It is also an impressive online gallery for a growing number of the world’s prestigious institutions. You can find some truly amazing things here – like these historical maps. If you are looking for historical maps and images to support your research, take a look at the very searchable collections in Flickr Commons.

1783 Map of US Eastern Seaboard

Image taken from page 58 of ‘History of the United States of America: … to the present time by T. P. Shaffner. From the British Library’s collection at Flickr Commons.

Click the map image to view its page at Flickr and you’ll discover even more goodies – including a link back to the library where you can download a PDF copy of book containing this map and others.

Map of Drake's raid.

Baptista Boazio’s Map of Sir Francis Drake’s Raid on St. Augustine (published in 1589) via Florida Memory, on Flickr Commons.

This map is the earliest engraving of any city or territory now part of the United States. Other Flickr collections from Florida Memory include maps of the Spanish land grants in Florida at the time it became an American colony.

The number of institutions using Flickr to display collections continues to grow. The Internet Archive has posted more than 2.5 million illustrations from books in their book images collection and The British Library has more than a million images online with a good number of them maps.

Include Footnotes In Your Posts

Would you like to include footnotes1 in your WordPress posts and pages? If you’re using a self-hosted version of WordPress, you can take advantage of the FD Footnotes plugin. Once installed, this plugin provides a simple shortcode2 which make it easy to add your references right in your text. As you see from these examples, the footnotes are collected at the bottom of the post. The superscripted reference number also serves as a hyperlinked bookmark which will quickly connect you to that citation. Don’t worry about your readers losing their place when they check a citation. The curly arrow icon at the end of each footnote links them right back to the original reference in the text.

How difficult is it to create your footnotes? Here’s what the code looks like in your editor:

Footnotes Example

Type your citation beginning with its reference number, a period and space, and surround the whole thing with square braces. Your citation can include text, hyperlinks and even images. It can’t get much easier than that! And, because the plugin just positions the collected footnotes at the bottom of your post without headings or styling, you can add whatever you want at the bottom of your post to “introduce” your footnotes. In this case, they are being used as simple notes so that is how I’ve titled them.

With this plugin, you can now include formal footnotes, simple source lists or just plain notes quickly and easily within your posts.

Notes:

  1. Citations commonly found at the bottom of a page.
  2. WordPress-specific codes that perform complex functions.

Wunderlist is Wunderbar

I am a big fan of Wunderlist [Mac, iOS, Windows, Chromebook, Android, Windows Phone and Web] and have it on my desktop and iThings. I use it to keep topic ideas for blogging, manage my presentations, organize writing projects and keep up with mundane things like grocery lists.

Wunderlist does for project management what Evernote does for notes management. They are similar in a number of ways. Like Evernote, your content physically resides online at Wunderlist and is automatically synched to all your computers and devices. There are also similar service levels. The basic level is free and offers more than enough features for most users. The Premium level is $4.99 a month or $49.99 a year and offers more space for existing features as well as several additional ones.

Wunderlist screen

A look at the detail panel for the Evernote item in the Presentation Topics list.

List items can have sub-tasks, notes and you can even attach files to them. This alone makes it a very useful project management system. Add the ability to share lists and assign tasks to others and things get real interesting. Then there are public lists. At first I didn’t appreciate the possibilities a public list offered, but once the light bulb went on I’ve found all kinds of uses for them. Among other things, they are an easy way for speakers to maintain their presentation lists. As you see in the example below, the Presentation Topics list is a public list embedded in a blog page. When I update the list in Wunderlist, the embed is automatically updated.

Wunderlist public list

A public list embedded in a WordPres page.

It gets better! Remember the note added to the Evernote item in the first graphic? When a visitor clicks any item in the embedded list, the contents of the note field are displayed for that item giving visitors a description along with the title.

Not every list is something “to do”. I’ve found reference lists quite handy too. I keep a list of all the presentations I’ve given – with the presentation file attached. This has become a very useful reference. Wunderlist also offers an extension for the Firefox and Chrome browsers. Safari users can set up the Share feature to include Wunderlist. I’m using it to grab “read later” things like interesting articles or recipes I might want to add to my cookbook.

The combination of Evernote and Wunderlist have done wonders for my productivity. Not only do they support my research efforts, they are a great help in managing everyday things too.

Life is good!

Saved Searches Save Time

One of the most amazing features found on today’s computers and apps is the saved search. For the family historian with a growing archive of digitized files and research material, this little jewel is a dream come true. It will save you a tremendous amount of time and effort. No, I am not exaggerating.

I first learned about saved searches in my photo organizer app. iPhoto not only captures metadata embedded in the digital photos I add to my collection, but also makes it easy to bulk edit photos to add more – like keywords. In iPhoto they call their saved searches “smart albums”.  When I create a smart album, iPhoto walks me through a procedure to define the parameters that will be used to determine whether a photo will be added to this smart album. Every new photo added to my iPhoto collection that meets this criteria will be automatically added to this folder. Only one copy of the actual photo file resides on my computer, but it’s possible for that photo to be displayed in any number of smart albums.

saved search in iPhoto

Crafting a saved search to create a smart album in iPhoto.

iPhoto’s smart albums soon became one of my favorite features. I wasn’t having to make multiple copies of a photo just to display it in different albums. And if I decide I want a different set of folders, all I have to do is add, remove and update the smart album properties. iPhoto does all the photo-shuffling for me. Life is good.

When I first began using Evernote, I had notebooks for each of the surnames I’m researching and was copying notes related to multiple families into multiple notebooks. This was almost as tedious as the paper workflow I found so cumbersome. Then I discovered Evernote’s saved search feature and managing my research became a joy. Today I only have one Family Research notebook. When a note or record relates to more than one family, I just add more tags.

Evernote saved search

Creating a saved search in Evernote.

Once an Evernote saved search is created, it’s faster to run the search than it is to navigate to a specific notebook.

Evernote's search panel

To activate a saved search, click in Evernote’s search box. The existing saved searches appear and you click the one you want to execute.

When you mouse over a saved search, the Edit button appears on the right so you can update or remove that search. Drag a selected search to the Shortcuts section of your Evernotes sidebar and it can be accessed with one click. Saved searches appear with the magnifying glass icon.

I’m not sure what’s happening in the Windows world lately, but there used to be File Manager features for smart folders there. I don’t think they called them “smart” folders though. Mac systems now support smart folders and they recently included the ability to add tags to files too. You can even batch edit tags by selecting them and clicking the tag icon in Finder’s toolbar.

Saved searches and smart folders are amazing organizational tools. Yes, it will take some time to learn and time to develop workflows to best use them. This is one example where technology really can make things easier and faster.