Writing, reviews and tutorials by Chris Rosser

The Mac needs Shortcuts →

As much as I like the impetus behind Automator—automation for the masses!—it died on the vine. Apps didn’t support it well, and Apple failed to provide a robust enough library of actions to make it work well on its own. If I ever thought Automator was okay, one glance at Shortcuts (or its predecessor, Workflow) would disabuse me of the notion. Still, I end up using Automator regularly because it allows me to integrate AppleScript and unix/shell scripting directly into the Finder.

I agree it does; Shortcuts on macOS would be a terrific addition for the average user. Better yet, having Shortcuts sync across all devices (Mac, iPad, and iPhone) would be even better. I'd love to write a Shortcut on my MacBook Pro with it's proper keyboard and 13 inch display, then have them sync and be usuable on iOS.

That said, my automation needs are met with a combination of Automator and aText, and in both case I'm using them to wrap Python and Bash scripts. As good as Shortcuts is for Muggles (non-technical users), it is less efficient and clunkier than writing Python.

Want to borrow that e-book from the library? →

This is why I don't publish my book exclusively through Amazon.

You probably think of Amazon as the largest online bookstore. Amazon helped make e-books popular with the Kindle, now the dominant e-reader. Less well known is that since 2009, Amazon has published books and audiobooks under its own brands including Lake Union, Thomas & Mercer and Audible. Amazon is a beast with many tentacles: It’s got the store, the reading devices and, increasingly, the words that go on them.

Librarians have been no match for the beast. When authors sign up with a publisher, it decides how to distribute their work. With other big publishers, selling e-books and audiobooks to libraries is part of the mix — that’s why you’re able to digitally check out bestsellers like Barack Obama’s “A Promised Land.” Amazon is the only big publisher that flat-out blocks library digital collections. Search your local library’s website, and you won’t find recent e-books by Amazon authors Kaling, Dean Koontz or Dr. Ruth Westheimer. Nor will you find downloadable audiobooks for Trevor Noah’s “Born a Crime,” Andy Weir’s “The Martian” and Michael Pollan’s “Caffeine.”

Perspective | Want to borrow that e-book from the library? Sorry, Amazon won’t let you.
Its monopoly is costing public libraries e-books and audiobooks from Mindy Kaling, Dean Koontz, Dr. Ruth Westheimer, Trevor Noah and a whole lot more.

Six Colors on iOS Markdown editors →

I rarely disagree with Jason Snell, but his preference for markdown editors to bare all is not something I like, at least not all the time.

Jason said:

I expect my Markdown editor to show me every single keystroke I enter, which means any attempt to hide hyperlinks will be met with immediate rejection. (Sorry, Ulysses and Craft.) I do appreciate syntax coloring and styling where appropriate—so that bolded text is bolded, and headings are prominent… so long as the app doesn’t swallow the markup that makes them so.

Cluttered markdown syntax is a deal breaker for me, at least when it comes to focussed writing. There's a lot I like about iA Writer, but how it handles markdown is not one of them. Markdown hyperlinks are an eyesore, and their abstraction is one of the reasons why I prefer Ulysses over iA Writer – at least for drafting.

It's a different matter when I need to work on markdown itself, or the subject matter is inherently technical, or when I need less abstraction between the source and output. Working directly on the text is also crucial for automation. However, these activities aren't drafting; they're editing, formatting, pre-press, production. They require a different mindset, and I would argue, a different toolset.

I'm comfortable using different programs and utilities for different purposes or contexts even when working on the same file – in fact I prefer it. Of course, this is easy when working on a desktop operating system with a usable file system, a command line and shell scripting. But, what's easy on a Mac, Linux or Windows box requires a Rube Goldberg machine of Siri Shortcuts and Share Sheet extensions when iPad is your primary device. It's little wonder that some iOS users are fixated with finding the perfect, do-all app. I certainly fell into this trap when I was contemplating a full-time switch to iPad back when it looked like Apple had given up on the Mac. Those were truly dark days...

I've spilt a lot of ink on this website in search of the perfect text/markdown editor, only to come to the conclusion there is no such thing. Ulysses, iA Writer, Drafts, MultiMarkdown Composer, Editorial, Textastic, VSCode, Sublime Text, etc, etc...all have their strengths and weakeness.

'Secret tunnels' near Tintern Abbey →

This landed in my RSS reader today. I modelled Hafran Abbey in my fantasy setting on Tintern Abbey on the English-Welsh border, and since it plays a big role in forthcoming novel The Weaver's Boy I am sorely tempted to add this into the story!

A mysterious network of tunnels has been unearthed accidentally in the Wye Valley in Monmouthshire.
The previously unknown structure was found by a team of electrical technicians close to the 12th Century Tintern Abbey.
BBC Wales

Electricians discover ‘fascinating secret tunnels’
While working in the Wye Valley, Monmouthshire, the team discovered a network of medieval tunnels.

I've visited Tintern several times (the cover photo is one I took about 12 years ago). It's one of the most haunting and picturesque ruins on the British Isles.