Tuesday, October 28, 2008

File under: I wish I'd thought of that

I'm officially in love with fivethirtyeight.com, the presidential election website run by baseball statistician Nate Silver. Operating under the tagline "political polling done right," he has applied a fantasy sports enthusiast's love of number-crunching to the upcoming ballot, examining the various polls and statistics, and arriving at some interesting conclusions.

In particular, his thoughtful, intelligent analysis of why the various polls are wrong (and let's not forget that to a greater or lesser degree they are all wrong) makes you wonder why we pay attention to any of them in the first place. For example, there's the simple fact that most modern polling companies don't call cell phone numbers, despite the increasing numbers of voters who don't have a landline.

Even better, the site is about much more than mere stats, and includes some excellent on-the-ground first-person reports from campaign battlegrounds around the country. Because these stories aren't the site's main feature (and because this isn't a traditional news website), they tend to be more anecdotal, subjective, and, frankly, interesting than much of the coverage coming out of the traditional news media that I've seen. Just read this provocative story about a racist couple who say they are voting for Obama if you don't believe me.

Best of all, it's all put together by just a handful of people (there are only two credited writers -- even if there are more "backroom" people involved now, I'm guessing there's probably no more than about five total). Note to self: must come up with an idea like this one...

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Blacking out Microsoft Word

I hate Microsoft Word. It is fussy and irritating, and too often tries to do "helpful" things you don't want it to - unless you spend ages working out how to turn off all of its irritating automated functionality. Also, as a Mac user, it is the most unstable piece of software I use on a regular basis, and has been over many years and updates.

So thank god for Hog Bay Software's WriteRoom text editor. I was initially attracted by its retro green-screen user interface, which blacks out your entire monitor, leaving only a column of green text in the centre and NOTHING ELSE. Bliss! It is sold as a "distraction free writing" environment and it is that: a blank slate to scribble on when you need to write something that actually requires some thought, all rendered in soothingly muted colours.

But more than that, it is a really simple and effective text editor. I thought it was all about aesthetics, but when you're writing the last things you want to worry about are fonts, paragraph formatting, spelling, tiresome talking paperclips and all that other automated shite MS Word tries to force on you.

It's what a word processor should be: like a typewriter with a screen, or like a pen and paper that creates something legible. And, of course, you can always use Word to tart it up into a nice-looking letter or formatted document afterwards if you want to.

(There is also a version for PC users, called Dark Room.)