Application writing as example of stretchtext

I have been working on an ERC Starting Grant application over the last months. Besides the usual conceptual/practical challenges of writing funding applications, this particular application also posed the challenge of writing not only one proposal document, but two: one long (15 pages) and one short (5 pages). I am used to writing research papers and applications where you are dealing with three levels:

  • title
  • abstract
  • content

But for the ERC application I had to handle four levels:

  • Title
  • Summary (2000 characters)
  • Synopsis (5 pages)
  • Proposal (15 pages)

While working on the application, I started thinking about my old fascination of hypertext theory. One concept I found (and still find) interesting here is Ted Nelson’s idea of stretchtext. Stretchtext can be seen as text that can literally be “stretched” to any desired length (see, for example, this example). Conceptually this makes sense. After all, we as humans are able to do such stretching fairly easily, always trying to maximize our content to the limitations we may have. For example, I have no problems talking about my current research project for 1 minute, 5 minutes, 20 minutes or 45 minutes, it is just about “interpolating” the content over the required timeframe. The challenge, of course, is to balance the content in such a way that it makes sense for different durations or number of pages.

But how do you go about when having to write 5 and 15 pages about the same thing. Should you write 15 pages first, and then cut it down to 5? Or is it better to start with 5 pages and then “interpolate” it to 15? My approach this time was not particularly structured, and I constantly found myself moving back and forth between the two documents. This was perhaps not the most ideal solution, since I often found myself making the same changes twice.

The strategy I ended up with, and that I would probably start out with If I were to do such a thing again, was to use the commenting function of LaTeX more actively. In regular word processing software (MS Word, OpenOffice, etc.) there is no easy way to include or remove content from the document easily. The text in the document is there, and if you remove it, it is gone. In LaTeX it is possible to comment out blocks of text by just typing the % sign in front of the line. This makes it easy to “turn off” whole blocks of text. As such, my final 5 page synopsis document contained more or less the same stuff as the full 15 page document, but with large parts of the text commented out.

It would have been nice if LaTeX had had the opportunity to define levels of text. Then I could have chosen to write only one document, and defined which parts should be at level 1, 2, 3, etc. This could then have been used to output the different levels more or less automatically. Such an approach could perhaps be done done with a text outliner (e.g., OmniOutliner), and I am curious to test this out at some point.

However, the biggest challenge of writing a stretchtext is probably not the software being used. It is rather to figure out what content to include, and make it work linguistically at the different levels. In the end, you might end up with writing two separate documents after all…

Many applications that do few things or a few applications doing everything?

To follow up on my previous post about the differences between browser plugins, web interfaces and desktop applications, here is another post about my current rethinking of computer habits.

In fact, I started writing this post a couple of months ago, when I decided to move back to using Apple Mail as my main e-mail application again. I had used Mail for a few years when I decided to test out Thunderbird last year. The most important reason for the change was the poor search functionality in Mail. True, the search function is fast, but it is very limited if you are looking for specific things. Thunderbird 3 has an improved search function with a very nice calendar view, so this seemed very tempting. Besides functionality, choosing Thunderbird over Mail was also an ideological one, since I wanted to try out using free software for all my main desktop application needs. More about that another time.

Unfortunately, Thunderbird just didn’t feel snappy enough. I am not sure if the application really is that much slower to work with than Mail, but at least it felt like that. And while I love the search functionality, it also feels too slow to work with. But rather than moving straight back to Mail, I decided to make a detour around Opera. Luckily, switching back and forth between e-mail clients is no hazzle at all when using IMAP, as compared to POP.

I used to use Opera for e-mails back in the days when MS Windows was my main OS, but hadn’t tried it in many years. The really nice thing about Opera is how they manage to put all sorts of things into one single application: browser, e-mail client, RSS reader, web server, ftp, bittorrent, widgets, presentations, etc. Even with all that stuff packed in it feels like a fast application to work with.

But, doing everything with Opera for a few weeks led me to the techno-philosophical question: is it better to use many applications that do few things or few applications that do many things?

In one way I really want to like Opera. But after working with it for a few weeks I am not fully satisfied. While it is certainly compelling to have one program that can do it all, and even sync it all between multiple computers, it is also dangerous.

For example, for a while I have tried to not open my e-mail application before lunch. My brain works best in the morning, so I try to set aside some quality research time in the mornings. For this I often need a web browser, but not an e-mail client. Using Opera for both just doesn’t work.

Another thing that I always think could be very useful, is to read RSS-feeds within the same program that I read e-mails. However, even though this is possible in Opera (and in Mail and Thunderbird), I have never really been comfortable with the combination. I guess it is because reading RSS-feeds is like reading a newspaper or magazine. It is “passive” in the sense that I am only receiving information. Checking e-mail, on the other hand, is an active process where I delete, reply, forward etc. Again, I realize that it is actually quite nice to have separate applications handling these quite different activities. Another reason for this is that I have grown so used to NetNewsWire (which also syncs nicely with the iPhone), a dedicated application that is functionality-rich, yet super-snappy to work with.

The same goes for many other things I am doing during the day, e.g. taking notes (Journler), handling to-do lists (Things), etc.

So my conclusion is that I prefer having separate, dedicated applications for each of the different tasks I am doing.  While, it is possible to get it all in one (e.g. Opera or Firefox loaded up with add-ons), I really prefer my many small programs doing their little things really well.

What to choose: Browser plugin, web interface, desktop application?

Nowadays I have a hard time deciding on what type of application to use. Only a few years back I would use desktop applications for most things, but with the growing amount of decent web 2.0 “applications” I notice that I have slowly moved towards doing more and more online.

Let me use this blog as an example. It is based on WordPress, which now offers a good and efficient web interface. However, it just doesn’t feel as snappy as a desktop application. A few years back I used MarsEdit for all my blog writing, but for some reason (I can’t remember exactly when) I decided to use the WordPress web interface for blog writing instead.

Last year I discovered ScribeFire, a browser plugin available for FireFox, Chrome and Safari. I have been quite happy with ScribeFire, as it is readily available in the browser. The fact that it also allows for editing the static pages, as well as handling image uploads makes it into a really powerful solution.

However, today I opened my old version of MarsEdit by accident, and I actually realized that I have missed having a decent blog editor for the last couple of years. Even though the WordPress web interface, and the ScribeFire plugins both behave well and do (almost) all I want, they still can’t compete with a native desktop application when it comes to snappiness and functionality. So now I am back to MarsEdit, and happy to see that it finally has support for rich text editing in the latest version. I will probably use the other alternatives to, but I realize that desktop applications still have their mission.