Archive for October, 2005

October 31st, 2005

Apple Fixes Mail, Annoys Author

In late September, I mentioned that I’d no sooner finished a draft of an ebook about .Mac than Apple went and changed the service, updated their Backup utility, and generally wreaked havoc on my schedule by forcing me to spend days rewriting. Specifically, they fixed a number of issues I’d complained about, so I had to take out my complaints and even add a compliment or two.

Incredibly, that’s just happened again. Today, while I was in the process of reviewing my editor’s first round of corrections to my forthcoming Take Control of Apple Mail in Tiger, Apple released Mac OS X 10.4.3. This update includes about a dozen changes to Mail, which will cost me a morning of experimentation and rewrites. And yes, in all probability, the deletion of a few gripes. I hate it when they do that.

One thing I noticed right away after applying the update is that my rules no longer worked—at all. After a few panicked minutes of tests, I found the source of the problem: the MailTags plug-in, which enables you to add Spotlight-searchable metadata to your messages. Disabling the plug-in resolves the problem. I reported this to the developer, and hope that an update will be forthcoming. (Update: Just a few hours after my initial post, MailTags 1.1 was released; it fixes this problem and adds a long list of new features. Excellent.)

I will say this, though: When this new ebook comes out in a couple of weeks, it will be shockingly up-to-date!

October 31st, 2005

National Novel Writing Month

A few months ago, I stumbled upon a Web site describing National Novel Writing Month (or NaNoWriMo, as it is known in the trade), which is held annually in November. Initially, I thought this might make a good Interesting Thing of the Day article, but the more I read, the more I became convinced that I should be a participant, rather than just an observer. And so, during the month of November, I’ll be writing a novel.

I will be one of roughly 50,000 participants this year. Since NaNoWriMo began in 1999, the numbers have steadily grown to the point where it’s a worldwide phenomenon. NaNoWriMo novelists are looking for quantity, not necessarily quality. The event’s founder, Chris Baty, arbitrarily declared 50,000 words to be the threshold for success. The point of this exercise is not to win the Pulitzer prize or even to get published; it’s to make good on that promise most of us have made to ourselves at some point in our lives: “One of these days, I’m going to write a novel.”

The rules are simple: You must not write even a single word before 12:00:01 a.m. on November 1, and you must stop by 11:59:59 on November 30. You can write in whatever genre, and on whatever topic, you wish—as long as it’s fiction. NaNoWriMo’s servers will validate your word count, but as to what you write, you’re on the honor system—you could “win” by writing “a” 50,000 times. Of course, there are no prizes; it’s all about personal achievement. So participants have little incentive to cheat. Local and regional groups meet during the month at cafés and pubs for “write-ins”; participants also offer each other support and encouragement virtually in online discussion forums.

In order to reach 50,000 words (about 160 pages) in a month, one needs to write, on average, just under 1,700 words per day. Because I make my living writing, it’s a rare day when I write fewer words than that, so I’m not particularly concerned about sheer quantity. But I’ve never written fiction, so that will be the challenge.

Needless to say, it’s not as though I had nothing else to do in November. I have articles and ebooks to edit, programming to do for Interesting Thing of the Day, and a long list of personal projects I’ve been putting off since June. In the grand scheme of things, writing the short, first draft of a first novel that will probably never be published is not among my top priorities in life right now. And yet, somehow, it seems like the right thing to do. Some of the best decisions I’ve made in life were ostensibly irrational but just felt right, and I’m expecting this to turn out the same way.

October 27th, 2005

Pronunciation and Pasta

Ordinarily, I’m not much of an autograph enthusiast. Or, rather, I’ll enthusiastically sign autographs, but I don’t collect them. I made exceptions for Douglas Adams and Umberto Eco, and a few other geeky types whose names most people wouldn’t recognize. Earlier this week, I made another exception. I went to a presentation and book signing at a local Sur La Table, where two legendary food scientists (if food scientists can be legendary) came to share their expertise with the small assembled crowd.

The celebrities were Shirley O. Corriher and Harold McGee. I knew of Shirley mainly from her frequent guest appearances on Good Eats with Alton Brown. Alton himself is no slouch when it comes to cooking science, but he likes to bring in specialists from time to time, and Shirley happens to be an expert who is also a colorful TV personality. She is the author of CookWise: The Secrets of Cooking Revealed and has a new DVD called Shirley O. Corriher’s Kitchen Secrets Revealed!

As for Harold, he’s the author of the encyclopedic On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen. Originally published in 1984 and known among the cooking intelligentsia as “the blue book,” it was massively revised and updated last year, and is now “the red book.” It runs to nearly 900 pages and contains not a single recipe—my kind of cookbook. Instead, it describes (in a very friendly, readable style) the history, chemical and physical properties, and cooking methods for virtually everything edible. It is amazing, and I don’t use that term lightly. If its subject matter were English, it would be Bryan A. Garner’s A Dictionary of Modern American Usage. Those who know, know what I mean.

Anyway, I went with a desire to have two burning questions answered. First was: How do you pronounce “Corriher”? The staff person who introduced the authors just said “Shirley,” so I asked Shirley myself after the presentation. She replied, “It rhymes with sorrier.” Excellent. I never would have guessed that.

The other question has been bugging me for years: Why should I salt the water used to boil pasta? Every recipe, and every cooking show, says you must do this. But I’ve boiled hundreds of pots of pasta in my day and have seldom bothered with the salt, yet this has never diminished the final product in any way I could discern. I know enough about chemistry to realize that a teaspoon or two per gallon is not going to raise the water’s boiling point enough to make any difference. The other rationale I’ve heard a few times is that salting the water seasons the pasta, because some of the salt soaks right into the noodles. That’s fair enough, but if you serve your pasta with a sauce—especially a salty sauce—you’ll almost certainly be unable to taste the salt in the pasta itself. So I find that reasoning unconvincing.

Courtesy of Harold McGee, I now have two other crucial pieces of information. First, according to the red book (p. 576), salt can help prevent noodles from sticking together during cooking. It “limits starch gelation and so reduces cooking losses and stickiness.” That’s something I can get behind, although the book also mentions that you can reduce stickiness in other ways, including stirring during the first few minutes.

During the presentation, though, someone was asking about cooking dried beans. Harold mentioned that what takes the longest when cooking beans is for water to penetrate all the way to the bean’s interior so that it can soften. And salt, he said, inhibits the osmotic process by which this occurs. So salting the water in which you cook beans can increase the time it takes for the beans to get soft in the middle (or make them less soft with the same amount of cooking time). After the presentation, I asked if the same principle holds for pasta, and he said that it did. I asked whether that could be an argument for not salting the water—whether it outweighed the advantages. He replied that it depends somewhat on the thickness of the noodle, but if you have a thicker noodle and you’re more concerned about the fastest possible cooking time than its absorbed flavor, definitely skip the salt. In other words, rather than reducing cooking time by increasing the boiling point, salt can actually increase cooking time by slowing water absorption into thick noodles.

That’s cool. If I’d known there was such an occupation as food scientist when I was a kid, that’s what I would have wanted to be when I grew up.

October 26th, 2005

The Four-Editor Milestone

At a party a few days ago, someone asked me what I do for a living. When I told him that I get the bulk of my income from freelance writing, he asked whether I found it nerve-wracking to wonder if or when the next writing assignment would come in. I said that was the least of my worries—I have far more writing jobs than I have time for, and that’s been true for nearly a year now. Most writers, consultants, and other freelancers are happiest when jobs line up sequentially, with as few gaps as possible. For the past many months, I’ve had the dubious fortune of having as many as half a dozen jobs stacked up at the same time. This is my very least favorite work state, because I don’t believe in multitasking. But that’s another story.

I’ve been making my way through this long list, which included four different new or updated ebooks in the 140-plus page range, some smaller updates, and a bunch of longish Macworld articles. Today, I reached an interesting milestone. Counting the article I sent in today, I now have the first drafts of four different manuscripts sitting on four different editors’ desks—three different Take Control editors and a Macworld editor. (If they’re all really slow, I might get as high as six manuscripts out to five editors, but I’m not counting on that.)

All of these, of course, will come back to me marked up with all sorts of edits and queries, and will have to be rewritten to some extent. (Generally, there are two or more iterations of that process, and then the manuscripts go on to technical reviewers and copy editors.) But rewrites of this sort are, for me, a far easier and quicker task than the initial draft.

I’m not saying I’ve been an especially fast writer, or that my editors have been especially slow. This is just the way things happened to pan out right now. Still, I’m feeling pretty good about the fact that my current list is down to just a couple of not-so-huge projects, and then, after the rewrites, I have at least a slight shot at returning to my ideal situation of working on just one project at a time.

For those of you keeping track, the manuscripts that are now well on their way to ebookhood (ebookdom?) are Take Control of .Mac, Take Control of Apple Mail in Tiger, and a fairly significant update to Take Control of Mac OS X Backups. Next on my list: a minor update to Take Control of Spam with Apple Mail, mainly to address some changes in Tiger. Later (as in, early next year), there’ll be a larger rewrite of that ebook to cover spam management in all Mac OS X email clients. Last but not least, look for a minor update to Take Control of Now Up-to-Date & Contact around the time Now Software ships version 5.1.