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#linking-together
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# linking-together
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David Alan Hjelle

08/20/2023, 2:27 AM
I thought this article on why some writers use an old word processor called WordStar was interesting. I wonder if there are any implications here for editing programs? Some of the ideas — like comments — we usually take for granted in programming. But maybe there are some other worth-while take-aways?
Let me speak generally for a moment. I've concluded that there are two basic metaphors for pre-computer writing. One is the long-hand manuscript page. The other is the typewritten page. Most word processors have decided to emulate the second — and, at first glance, that would seem to be the logical one to adopt. But, as a creative writer, I am convinced that the long-hand page is the better metaphor.
Consider: On a long-hand page, you can jump back and forth in your document with ease. You can put in bookmarks, either actual paper ones, or just fingers slipped into the middle of the manuscript stack. You can annotate the manuscript for yourself with comments like "Fix this!" or "Don't forget to check these facts" without there being any possibility of you missing them when you next work on the document. And you can mark a block, either by circling it with your pen, or by physically cutting it out, without necessarily having to do anything with it right away. The entire document is your workspace.
On a typewritten page, on the other hand, you are forced to deal with the next sequential character. Your thoughts are focussed serially on the typing of the document. If you're in the middle of a line halfway down page 7, your only easy option is to continue on that line. To go backwards to check something is difficult, to put in a comment that won't show when your document is read by somebody else is impossible, and so on. Typing is a top-down, linear process, not at all conducive to the intuitive, leaping-here-and-there kind of thought human beings are good at.
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Andrew F

08/20/2023, 2:45 AM
This makes it sound like someone made a deliberate choice to emulate typewriters rather than paper in computers. Computer text looks like typewriter text because it was influenced by the same (very powerful) force: linearity is easier to implement mechanically. With that in mind, while Wordstar's block marking thing sounds cool, it sounds like a far cry from anything I would say resembles a long-hand page. I guess it doesn't take much when the competition is barely trying.
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David Alan Hjelle

08/20/2023, 11:23 AM
while Wordstar's block marking thing sounds cool, it sounds like a far cry from anything I would say resembles a long-hand page. I guess it doesn't take much when the competition is barely trying.
Yeah. I’ve been reading a WordStar manual to see if there is more to it than that, but I’m not too far yet. So far, sounds a lot like a good text editor, but it’s hard to be fair from 40 years apart.
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Jack Rusher

08/20/2023, 11:39 AM
I used WordStar a bit on a CP/M machine in the 80s. It was very well designed given the limitations of those machines. One thing I’d like point out in Sawyer’s discussion is that WordStar has one of the best attributes any piece of software can have: it rewards mastery. One can argue that the keyboard shortcuts are harder to discover than, say, drop down menus actuated with a mouse, but once they’re in your hands you can move faster than in any mouse-y interface.
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guitarvydas

08/20/2023, 12:29 PM
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Grant Forrest

08/20/2023, 2:25 PM
Seems a bit rosy. I use comments and outlines in gdocs to do the kind of thing they talk about and it works for me. Comments that don't show for others is a cool idea but also not exactly emulating traditional longhand (unless you use invisible ink?) And I'm pretty sure you can share a doc without comments, too, or just export to PDF. I've never heard of or had experience with WordStar but I guess I feel modern tools are adaptable enough to cover these use cases. You might not feel your workflow is as privileged in the software, though, which I know matters.
Circling bits visually could be cool in code, though. A nice low-maintenance tool for highlighting potential areas of interest or problems.
Maybe a toggleable whiteboard layer over top of the whole file so you can draw arrows from A to B or sketch pictures in the margin. Would be difficult to align with stuff like tab sizes and fonts though.
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Jason Morris

08/20/2023, 8:58 PM
I'm with Andrew. Text files are a 1-dimensional sequence of characters. We use them because they are easy for computers to use, not because they are easy for people to use. The fact that "code" is synonymous with "sequence of characters" is a problem. 🙃
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David Alan Hjelle

08/20/2023, 9:00 PM
WordStar has one of the best attributes any piece of software can have: it rewards mastery. One can argue that the keyboard shortcuts are harder to discover than, say, drop down menus actuated with a mouse, but once they’re in your hands you can move faster than in any mouse-y interface.
This seems to be surprisingly hard to do with modern software. Part of it is variety: I have a lot of word processors I have immediate access to, and so I haven't mastered any of them. (Nor, I suspect, do they reward master much.) I wonder, though, how much also has to do with our cognitive capacity. Modern software may have the same features, but unless I can get the features "in my hands" (mouse or keyboard or whatever I don't care, but it does need to be able to be muscle memory) the features may be about as distracting from creative thought as they are enabling.
If anyone wants to look at a WordStar manual, here's one: https://eaw.app/Downloads/Manuals/CPM/Wordstar_Training_Guide_2ed_Feb83.pdf
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Konrad Hinsen

08/21/2023, 6:46 AM
I wrote my Master's thesis using WordStar on an Epson PX/8, a portable CP/M machine that was sold off at 300 DEM in 1989 in Germany to students like me. Imagine: I could work on my text right in the university library, with all sources at hand! There was a learning curve to WordStar, but after a week I was as efficient as I ever was later with whatever other software. Today, my main writing tools is Emacs. Its org-mode has a rich choice of informal markup, i.e. markup that is not interpreted by Emacs itself but still relatively easy to process semi-automatically via keyboard macros. That's great for the use cases described in this article. The tough part is being consistent in my own use of this markup. One day I'll write a linter - one day.
The other aspect that Emacs shares with WordStar is what @Jack Rusher has pointed out: rewarding mastery. Much of today's software is designed for low engagement. Worse, engagement is punished by frequent redesigns.
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guitarvydas

08/21/2023, 8:03 AM
Worse, engagement is punished by frequent redesigns.
Good point. Continuous deployment is detrimental to UX.
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