September 13, 2007

Preproduction and Software

I call this: computers,mac,theatre — Posted by KP @ 10:13 pm

Ooh, great, another one of those posts where I actually cover the full span of what this blog is about — theatre and technology, and how I use them together. We’ve been in meetings all week for Frankenstein, and I’m having a great time. As the ASM, my contract doesn’t start for another day or two, but I’ve been happily attending all the meetings with the PSM, as being in the loop is much more important to me than being paid, and quite frankly I didn’t have a lick of work last week and was bored out of my mind. So sitting in formatting meetings every day has been great fun, as we work through the show with the various design elements.

Monday and Tuesday were focused mostly on the set, with the director, choreographer and set designer, and us two stage managers. Wednesday was our sound day, with our two sound designers and the musical director. This is definitely a show where the sound design will contribute a lot, and I can’t wait to hear more about that. Today and tomorrow are all about projections, which will also be a key part of the show, and then we do lights and everybody together on the weekend.

It’s been very helpful for me to see the show take shape as everyone decides together how things will go. I have been taking notes on everything (using Pages), and have been using the very attractive comments feature to mark events that will likely be cues for me on the deck. See the drawing to the right for a sample page. I’m very happy that we haven’t even started rehearsal and already I’m thinking about what I need to be doing on the deck at any moment, and can look at the groundplan and plot my backstage traffic and ask the designer questions as they come up.

Some of the more artistic stuff is something I’ll probably never need to know as part of my job, but having grown up and gone to college wanting to be a director, I still find it really interesting to be in the room as the basic vision of the show takes shape and is altered through collaboration. The creative team is really great, and the mood in meetings is very positive and fun. It’s definitely one of those moments where I have realized how lucky we are that we get to put on shows for a living. Sure it’s serious business and all our jobs and rent depend on not screwing this up, but it’s got to be more fun than the vast majority of other professions.

A Clean Slate
Since I’ve been back from Reagle and lacking any kind of seriously demanding employment for the first month, I’ve taken this time to experiment with some technological toys that I wouldn’t risk playing around with if I was in the middle of production. Getting confirmation of the Frankenstein job with a couple weeks notice before beginning rehearsal, I have seen this as something of a clean slate to try a few things I’ve been wanting to.

I think I mentioned in my review of Pages that I see this latest edition of iWork as a possible precursor to me effectively removing Microsoft Office from my life. The big thing holding me back was Entourage, which I much preferred over the combination of Mail, Address Book and iCal. I shouldn’t say I much preferred, just that I stuck with the power of it, despite the vaguely Windows-esque feel of it.

Another part of this decision, less obvious at first, but lurking in the shadows, is the iPhone. I don’t want one now. I want a smartphone, and a phone that can’t open and edit a Word document or spreadsheet, or open an image file in its native resolution, or cut and paste, is not very smart. There is a litany of things Palm devices have been doing for five years that the iPhone can’t do. Third party hacked software has been helping this, but I’m not yet at a level of comfort where the iPhone is something I want. I’m definitely not jumping on the bandwagon until the second version, and I’m not too thrilled about AT&T on top of that. But I see that especially given how embarrassingly Palm has stagnated in recent years, there will be an iPhone in my future. And when that day comes, I’ll want it integrated as nicely as possible into my Mac. And that means using Mail and Address Book and iCal to get the full effect of the Mac experience. So being able to make this transition at a convenient time will save me trouble later, if and when I get an iPhone.

I also have been depending more and more on having access to my e-mail on my Treo. For years I have used SnapperMail, which is a very mature Palm mail client, but the version I own is only for POP mail. I am something of a pack rat, in real life and in my digital life. My goal is to keep every e-mail I ever send and receive in my life (excluding spam and advertisements and the like). Somewhere along the line I lost my earlier mail, but my current archives go back to the end of 2002. For this reason, IMAP mail has always turned me off. The idea of my mail residing on a server and maybe or maybe not being saved to my desktop client scared the hell out of me. But handling POP mail on my Treo while trying to keep complete records on my main computer was somewhat frustrating. I was willing to give IMAP another try, which meant using my .Mac account, which offered a perfect opportunity to give Apple’s Mail app another try.

I have been a member of .Mac for a few years now. I think it’s a bit overpriced and underdeveloped, and their servers are usually slow, but I use it mostly for iDisk storage and the ease of use and integration into OS X. I’m fully capable of doing things the hard way, but for what amounts to $8 a month, I don’t mind having Apple take care of most of it for me. With that of course comes an @mac.com e-mail address, which I have never bothered to use because I was never sure I wanted to keep the service.

The next seemingly unrelated event in my life was that my parents moved over the summer, and on the day I returned from Reagle I went to their house and set up their wireless network. In the course of testing it, I noticed they were getting download speeds in the neighborhood of 12mbps. They have Optimum Online, on Long Island. Now I knew I was not getting anything near this from Time Warner/Earthlink. So when I got home I found I was lucky to get about 5mbps. It seems from my research this is the maximum speed of the network that people are reporting in NYC. This did not seem fair to me, and planted the seeds of discontent. However, ditching Earthlink would mean changing my e-mail address. I’m terrified of changing my phone number or e-mail, because I fear that someone I haven’t talked to in five or ten years will suddenly need to get in touch with me and will be unable to. Combine this problem with my interest in switching my e-mail to IMAP, and suddenly a plan was formed: if I used my .Mac account as my primary e-mail I could switch ISPs as often as I need to to get the best service, yet not have to worry about changing my e-mail address. Plus I’d get the cool and easy-to-type @mac.com address, which most importantly has much fewer letters than @earthlink.net.

So it all came together at once and I sent out an e-mail blast to all my friends and former coworkers advising them of the change, and created e-mail aliases for my other three addresses and updated the relevant sites and institutions about the change. And I have been using Mail ever since. The rules are definitely less flexible than Entourage’s, but overall I’m happy with it. Plus, Leopard is coming out in a month or so, and with that an update to Mail which might have some improvements.

On the Palm side, I have switched to Chatter, which is widely regarded as the best IMAP client for Palm OS. The developer has since been hired by Palm, hopefully to design something cool for their next mail client, so development on the current version has pretty much ceased. I’m not thrilled about paying for an app I know is no longer in development, but given the circumstances, I think it’s something I have to do to take advantage of IMAP. I find I’m using my Treo more for responding to e-mail because I’m not worried about it being in sync with my desktop. Just tonight on the train I wrote two e-mails that I normally would have waited until I got home to respond to.

I’m really getting to like Pages, the only dilemma I have is whether it’s appropriate in situations where I may need to share my work with others using Word. I think I’ve been pretty bold about using it for almost all my Frankenstein documents. I have been placed in charge of creating and maintaining the contact sheet, and today decided to go ahead and do it in Pages. I think first of all it will be much better for my sanity as I work with it, and I think the formatting will come out much cleaner and more legible. We have also decided to distribute it in PDF, which means I don’t have to worry about what Word decides to do with it. I will have a Word version, as some people will need to work on it occasionally, and I will keep an eye on the compatibility to make sure it’s not a disaster, but I hope that I will be able to do it in Pages without embarrassing myself. Anyway, so far Macs outnumber PCs in our production team 6-to-1 by my last count, so I doubt I’ll hear too much bashing.

I like the feel of Numbers, but so far in my experience, and from what I’ve been reading, it’s not as sufficient a replacement for Excel as Pages is to Word. I guess this is to be expected, as this is the third version of Pages and only the first for Numbers. There are some things with formulas it can’t do, but for the most part working in show business, and being largely more concerned with the “show” than the “business,” I hardly ever use spreadsheets to crunch numbers. I received Frankenstein‘s prop list in Excel, and have since been editing it in Numbers, as it’s just a list and should export back into Excel easily enough if necessary.

I’m just going to come out and say I love iCal. I always have. I have always preferred iCal to Entourage’s calendar, it was just all the other baggage involved in switching away from Entourage that kept me from it. But now I get to use it every day.

My real work on Frankenstein began last Sunday when I got together with my PSM, Joshua, for a working lunch. One of the biggest things we had to tackle was to make some sense of the very short period of time we have for production and to propose a schedule, taking into account the needs of the production team and all the various Equity rules. I had been putting a rough sketch of the show schedule into iCal for my personal use, in a separate Frankenstein calendar.

Using the very clear and intuitive week view in iCal, we started dragging around rehearsals, dragging them between days, dragging them earlier or later in the day, of longer and shorter duration. It was very easy to see what we were working with and play around with it. While my version is not the official production calendar, it’s what we’ve been using whenever we’re brainstorming schedule changes. I couldn’t be happier with the way it’s working.

Address Book
The final piece of this puzzle is Address Book, and it’s probably my least favorite part. While the layout is very simple and easy to navigate and generally Mac-like, I’ve always found it a little too simple at first glance. Syncing contacts from any platform to Palm is always scary. If they don’t quite play nice together all of a sudden you’ll find people missing, duplicated, or all their e-mail addresses listed as phone numbers and all their phone numbers listed as e-mails. I’ve been backing up both ends a lot, just in case something bad happens. One basic thing I don’t like is that the Apple apps don’t deal with “categories” per se, in the way that Palm and the Microsoft apps do. iCal has calendars, and Address Book has groups, but they’re not exactly the same, especially in Address Book. See the problem is that on the Palm side, an item can only be in one category at a time. This is kind of Palm’s fault, since they haven’t innovated anything since about 2002, but in Address Book you can put a contact into multiple groups, and it’s quite difficult to tell you’ve done so, until you notice that on the Palm it’s not where you expected to see it. This is sort of a problem in Entourage as well, where you can assign something to multiple categories, but it’s harder to do accidentally.

Also, Entourage makes a distinction between categories, which are used to organize contacts, and groups, which are lists for e-mail distribution. I can have a Frankenstein category that contains everyone involved in any way in the production, and then separate groups for cast, production team, rehearsal report list, etc. so that when I send e-mails I have various pre-made lists to choose from based on who I want to contact. In Address Book the only form of organization is groups. If I want to send a mass e-mail to a bunch of people, I need to create a separate group with that bunch of people, which is a little confusing and clutters up my categories on the Palm end. I think having an iPhone or any device that behaves more similarly to Address Book would ease my concerns with this.

Overall I’m enjoying the new toys I’ve been playing with, and I have a few more to try out soon.

August 17, 2007

iWork 08 Review – Pages

I call this: computers,mac — Posted by KP @ 10:25 am

While in the five years since I switched to Mac I have grown to love Apple’s style of hardware and software that “just works,” I still like to know that I have control over the way things work and can customize them to my liking. For the most part I haven’t felt that being a Mac user has taken away my ability to customize, but sometimes that means replacing Apple’s built-in apps with 3rd party replacements. Missing Sync instead of iSync, Firefox instead of Safari, and the biggest of all, Office.

I have tried. I have no love for Microsoft, and their Office apps are buggy and slow, especially because they just don’t seem to have gotten around to updating their software for Intel processors like, oh, I don’t know, pretty much every other Mac developer on earth. But still, I don’t seem to be able to tear myself away from Office. But with each release of iWork, I try again.

When Apple first released Pages, I was excited to see what it could do. I became frustrated very quickly. With Word, even when I don’t know exactly where to find a certain function, I usually instinctively look in the right general direction. Every time I try to use Pages I find myself searching the whole app, in menus, preferences, the Inspector, contextual menus, all the while wondering if I’m even going to recognize the name of the option when I find it. And when I do find it, it’s usually somewhere that makes no sense to me and took way too many clicks to get to. I just don’t like the layout of these kind of Apple apps with the Inspector, and the giant Font menu that pops up and gets all in the way just to make a simple change. Having this in an app as important as a word processor was driving me crazy. I never realized how much I’m tied to the Microsoft way of doing things, although it makes perfect sense since I’ve been using MS word processors exclusively pretty much every day since the age of nine. There are certain things I just expect in the UI and the menus, and can’t conceive of doing any other way. Knowing that Apple is often right about these things, I keep trying to get used to their way, but every previous attempt has sent me quickly back to Word.

I worked with a director last year who did everything in Pages 2, and his stuff looked great, and I made another effort to force myself to use it, but when I couldn’t get things to look exactly as I wanted, again I had to give up and do it in Word where I knew exactly what to do.

When 42nd Street started rehearsals last month, there were a lot of changes in the schedule every day, and I needed to produce new and easy-to-read schedules pretty much on the spot. Taking time to format them and make them look pretty was time we didn’t have. And they had to be easy to read as they were being made, so that we could see problems, like time overlaps or too many rehearsals scheduled in one room. Despite being in full anti-Pages mode at the time, I knew that this particular job was perfectly matched for Pages. It can look pretty, and it can look pretty immediately. I made a table, created the right number of columns, and began dragging things around to form our schedule, merging and dividing cells as needed. At right you can see an example. Stuff is just typed in without any thought to formatting, and it looks clean and legible. I would save a copy every day as a PDF to be e-mailed to the cast. Pages can also save in .doc format, but I prefer PDFs more and more as different versions of Office can screw up margins and formatting, and if the document won’t need to be edited by the recipient, I prefer the safety of knowing it will look exactly as I intended.

As the weeks went on, I came to appreciate the ease of Pages more and more, and sometimes would play around a little with settings, and got used to where to look for various options. So I was already in the right frame of mind when Steve Jobs announced the new version of iWork last week (yeah, I’m totally one of those people who sits at home following IRC chats and liveblog updates any time Jobs gives a keynote, and then watches the video of it once it’s available for download). A new version of Pages, plus a brand new (but not at all unexpected) spreadsheet app called Numbers, had me very excited. I use Keynote quite a bit in my career (as discussed here), but nothing in the new version has particularly caught my attention, it’s all been about Pages and Numbers.

The Pros

The big thing that got me all excited while watching the Stevenote was when he mentioned a contextual formatting bar. The best thing possible — all the easy-to-reach formatting goodness I miss from Word (you know, drop-down font menus, font size, alignment buttons), and contextual, to make space for only the options I need at a given moment. So exciting!

One other thing that seems to be improved is that Pages appears to be remembering my preferred settings for default documents. By default it has this maddening setting to add 12 points of blank space every time you press the enter key. It’s some sort of “paragraph break” or whatever, but I’m fully capable of hitting enter twice when I want such a thing, thank you very much. It’s nice to have a style option like that, but it drove me nuts that it was enabled by default and when I finally figured out where the hell to change it, I had to do it every time I opened a blank document. It doesn’t seem to be doing it to me anymore now, so either it’s teasing me, or it has learned that I don’t like it and will remember that from now on.

Pages has always been better than Word at page layout, and one of the new features is a separate page layout mode, which lets you start a document which is totally blank and waiting for you to add text boxes, images, etc. and you don’t have to worry about the regular typing area. It also has a feature I have long loved in Keynote: a line that shows up when you get close to aligning objects to sensible things like horizontal or vertical center of the document, or aligned with an adjacent object. It makes it really easy to arrange things perfectly. I’m not 100% sure this is new to Pages 3, but I think it is, and regardless, it’s something SO much better than Word. Have you ever tried to perfectly align an image or text box in Word? Enough said.

Office 2007 for Windows was released at the beginning of this year and it features new document formats which are supposedly smaller and better. I have been living in 2007 for eight-and-a-half months now, and have never crossed paths with one of these documents. I guess they’re slow to be adopted as many people and businesses haven’t upgraded to the new version of Office, or are using the old formats for the sake of their non-’07-using colleagues. For Mac users who need to open these documents, MS has recently made available a beta version of their conversion tool, which supposedly will be built into a future Office update… someday. In the meantime, while Office cannot presently open documents in the current Office format, there are some other apps that can. Such as Pages and Numbers. (In fairness, so can the open-source office suite OpenOffice, but it’s more fun to point out the irony that Apple’s apps are more Office-compatible than Office.)

The Cons

Two of my favorite things in word processing are tables and comments. I use tables a lot as you can see in my schedule example above. Now imagine I’m making that schedule. As I’m typing I say to myself, “do we need Julian to come to the ‘Go Into Your Dance’ rehearsal?” So now I want to put one of Pages’ oh-so-sexy comments pointing to the cell for that rehearsal and say something like “Julian?” Problem. A comment attached to a table attaches to the entire table, it can’t be used to indicate a particular cell. Bummer. It was a bummer last year when I was trying to get into Pages, and it’s a bummer in this version. In fact, in trying to test this, I find I can’t even get a comment onto a table at all in word processing mode, only in page layout. Not sure what’s up with that.

In Summary

I think the new version of Pages includes enough of the features I want to finally get me over my Word withdrawal so that I might actually be able to make the switch. When I’m old and gray and Office 2008 eventually comes out, I may have to still buy it just in case, but that’s still a long time away. If I can get Word and Excel out of my life, I will look again at getting rid of Entourage, but e-mail and PIM functions are the most important data I work with, and I find Mail + iCal + Address Book very weak in comparison to the power of Entourage. Thankfully, Entourage can be purchased separately if it comes to that. I look forward to seeing what happens to those three built-in apps in Leopard, maybe they will come closer to what I want, and I won’t need to spend hundreds of dollars on Office anymore.

A review of Numbers will be coming soon!