In The Clouds

While I was in LA my laptop started acting funky; it would basically take it five minutes to perform even the simplest of functions. After several hours fiddling with it in safe mode and out of it, I said “screw this,” cracked open the recovery disc and reformatted the entire drive. And just like that my laptop was once again cruft free and runs a treat. I understand Unix partisans may moan and groan that I did not use this opportunity to release myself from the shackles of that hateful Microsoft Vista, but look, it was midnight when it all went down and I wanted to sleep at some point, and the recovery disc was already there. Sue me for taking the easy way out.

That said, I did decide to abandon Microsoft in one arena, which is that I’ve made the executive decision that my default word processor going forward is going to be Google Documents. There are a few reasons for this: Google Documents exists out there on Teh Internets, which means that I can access it from anywhere and it’s independent from any one computer, which is frankly useful since I switch out between my desktop and laptop with frequency. It’s platform agnostic; as long as I have a recent browser I don’t have a problem. And, importantly, Google has finally gotten around to making a few user interface tweaks that make all the difference: Maybe no one else finds “word count” or the ability not to have text go across the full length of the browser window dealbreakers, but those are precisely the two things that kept me from using it regularly. As a final nice touch, in those terrifying instances where one is (horrors!) away from connectivity, Google Gears allows you to work offline and then sync up. And of course, it’s free. Done and done.

I recognize there is the issue of whether I can trust Google with my data. But, you know, last year I switched my e-mail over to GMail so I could access it from anywhere while I was on my book tour, and I never switched it back and at no point since then have I been particularly concerned that someone at Google is gleefully traipsing through my mail, reading all my secrets. Yes, they have a program looking at keywords, the better to serve me up ads. So what. At the end of the day, unless I own my mail server (and I don’t), someone somewhere can access my e-mail. If I was really worried about it, I would own my own server, and I’d encrypt every damn e-mail I send. I don’t. A year of GMail suggests that Google, in fact, does not plan to invade my privacy every time I use one of its services. And, you know. Anything I don’t want to risk Google or anyone else seeing, I won’t use Google Documents for. I still have Microsoft Word, after all.

This does mark a certain evolution in my conception of online privacy, I’ll admit. Believe it or not, I am a fairly private person, and I’m not especially inclined to hang out every little thing I write or do in the online data cloud, especially work that’s in process. Even a year ago I wouldn’t be inclined to make an online app my default word processor. But at the end of the day my experience suggests the theoretical erosion of my privacy for what I would this application for is balanced out rather handily by the actual, practical advantages it provides me in getting my work done. I could be wrong. I guess I’ll find out.

But in the meantime it means my laptop will run faster, unencumbered as it is with piles and piles of crap. And if I start having performance issues again, well. Then I guess I will switch over to Linux after all.

32 thoughts on “In The Clouds

  1. Google seems to have a 500MB document limit, which crimps my ability to upload the 1.4GB Word doc of my current novel in progress. How have you coped with this?

  2. I haven’t done a novel in it yet, but if I were I would do what I do in Word anyway, which is create a folder and have each chapter be its own individual file (it makes it easier to pull up earlier chapters when needed). At the end, I merge all the documents into one.

  3. Hey, in the long run, your adopting Google Documents now will make it easier to switch to Linux later, as you won’t have to reinstall your word processor or back up and restore your documents. Just saying, is all; not trying to force you to switch OSs before you’re ready….

    I’ve stuck with a local word processor for now, but I use OpenOffice.org and save all my documents in the OpenDocument format (except when MS Office formats are required for interoperability). For now, that works for me, but I’ll have to keep a better eye on Google Docs.

  4. “…upload the 1.4GB Word doc…”

    Holy Crap! Perhaps I am revealing myself as an inferior user of MSWord but I’m astonished at that file size. I’m looking at the file size of my 117K word memoir and it’s 1.07MB. Where do the other 1.399GB in your novel come from?

  5. The next step is to have a little USB thumb drive that contains a minimal OS that you can use. Stross did that a while ago, I think.

  6. Jay@1: Take it from a Word expert, you do NOT want 1.4GB documents, unless you’re extremely fastidious on your use of styles, lists and tables. Documents over about 1.5MB (not GB, MB) have the reputation of crapping out at a moment’s notice. Note, it got that reputation with Word 2002, and Word 2003 is better, 2007 may be safer still, but a GB word doc is too many eggs in one basket.

    Note that if most of that size is embedded graphics, you’re generally less likely to get in trouble, it’s those ‘structured’ thingies that cause Word grief.
    If I am regularly editing a large document, one way to de-cruft it is to save it to XML, then read it back in and save it to DOC format again — that forces Word to clean up its normally sloppy proprietary file format. That will even often fix a crapped-out doc.

  7. John,

    The symptoms and resolution you’re describing are possibly indicative of a pending hard drive failure. I suggest running any low level hard drive diagnostics your laptop came with to see if any errors turn up.

    Cheers,

    Ben

  8. I love the concept (I’ve been using Gmail for years now), but I’m leery about losing access to my work when I have a loss of connectivity. Since I live in the sticks, it’s satellite Internet or nothing, and 100% uptime is not always a given. It would be nice if it let you automatically sync your stuff in regular intervals, so I wouldn’t be cut off from my work in progress just because Hughesnet craps out again.

    Saving chapters as separate documents…heh. I started doing that about two years ago, and I thought I was brilliant for thinking of it.

  9. Marko:

    I had a problem with it too, but now you can work offline as well via Google Gears. When you reconnect, it syncs up and updates.

  10. Rock on.

    I’ll test-drive it tonight and see how it works out for me. That would eliminate the shuffling of files from the desktop to the laptop…and if the hardware ever goes *frrzzt*, I can just shrug instead of frantically scramble for the backups.

  11. At the end of the day, unless I own my mail server (and I don’t), someone somewhere can access my e-mail.

    [nerdgas]You’d also have to own every mail server between yours and the sender/recipient…[/nerdgas]

  12. Marko:

    Yeah, that’s the other thing: Google Docs automatically saves pretty much every minute or so. Makes losing power or even whole computers a lot less frustrating.

  13. Leaping in — Jay’s 1.4GB manuscript includes at least two sets of “track changes” data. That’s how Word documents get that big. It’ll collapse down when those changes have been merged, accepted or rejected, and the notes deleted.

    I like Google Docs, and Open Office, but I adore Word’s ability to track changes and hold comments in a document. It’s a wizard editing tool.

  14. I really need to get Google Gears up and running.

    John, have you looked into Firefox 3’s new features? One of the new ones is allowing web programs to be set as default protocol handlers, so you’ll be able to set up Firefox such that mailto:blah@blah.com email links will automatically open in Gmail (instead of it trying to open Outlook or Outlook Express).

  15. Sounds like I need to get Google Gears up and going too. I’ve been using Google to write while I’m out and about, but my primary writing computer (which is my laptop, not my primary desktop art/gaming/everything else computer) isn’t hooked up to the nets at all. (Or even the printer.) This is for productivity reasons, and I basically run back and forth with a thumb drive when this gets necessary. So if Gears can sync my stuff and let me work offline, that would be teh Awesomesauce.

  16. I’ve been playing with Google Docs since before Google bought it, back in the Writely days; it’s been nice to use, and fun to watch evolve. But a few missing features (like word count and adjustable field width) prompted me to try writing some stuff in Zoho Writer, and it’s been better than GDocs in some ways. It’s got a seamless offline mode, and it auto-saves every six or ten seconds. Anybody else tried it? Any thoughts?

  17. Beth@14:
    Urgh! That’s even worse. Track changes is eeeevil. Actually, so long as he’s the only one making changes, things can be OK. Track Changes tends to go pear-shaped when multiple users of Word, with different versions — even if it’s only patch levels — add their own changes.

  18. Ha! I’m so technologically incompetent, I don’t understand most of the above conversation. But one thing I *know* to be true: Microsoft Vista is the devil. In disguise as a savior. The WORST kind of evil!!!

  19. 16 Burke, that’s what Thunderbird is for. And — bonus! — Thunderbird works natively with gmail so that one can have multiple accounts on multiple servers and it doesn’t matter which protocol is which! Plus, using Thunderbird, one can use any of several local encryption programs so that the guys at Google never get to see anything except the addresses and subject line…

    Generally, I will not (and cannot) use Google docs. Leaving aside confidentiality issues (some of my work is on the opposite side from Google!), GoogleDocs simply will not handle a lot of necessary cross-referencing and the intricate formats demanded of legal documents without vastly more effort than it’s worth. OpenOffice isn’t perfect, but it’s actually slightly more transparent in some respects than is Word. I still long for the down-and-dirty control of WordPerfect 5.1 for some purposes, but it had faults, too.

    For large documents, almost nothing (in any of the currently available word processors) is an adequate substitute for the parent/embedded child model (what Word improperly calls “master documents”). The real problem is that the programs currently on the market don’t clearly and visually flag when one is working in the parent and when one is working solely in a child, which can make global search-and-replace tasks… interesting.

    In any event, if [insert name of deity here] had meant Man to use a GUI, He/She/It wouldn’t have invented punch cards.

  20. I’ve been trying Google Docs for a year or two now, and had given up on it because I couldn’t work with documents offline and it was getting too hectic trying to keep up with self-syncing my files. So thanks for the tip. I didn’t really need permission to start using the CFL bulbs, but evidently I did need permission to start using Google Docs. Heh.

  21. Thanks for mentioning this, John.

    I’ve always done novels using chapters as the file breaks, rather than a single word file (because I hate it when the whole file craps out, and in the early days, long documents would reliably do this).

    But I’m playing with googledocs now as an off-site storage for back-ups, because you mentioned it here.

    At the moment, I’m using Scrivener, which exports into .rtf or .doc formats (either as a single file, or as separate files, depending on when you export), and I like it enough that I tend to import all .doc/.rtf files just to read them.

  22. Here’s something I just happened to be looking over when this post appeared in my rss feed…

    PortableApps Suite – a FREE thumbdrive software suite chock full of OSS goodies including a portable version of the OpenOffice.org suite (or if you choose the ‘lite’ version, AbiWord)

  23. I needed the ability to access my docs from any computer, anywhere, and looked at Google Docs, but I’m not quite convinced of its reliability yet.

    Instead, I invested in a network hard drive, which plugs straight into my router at home. When I’m at home my PC sees it as an ordinary drive, and I can use it as such. When I’m away from home I can access it from any internet-enabled PC or Mac through a browser interface, and it works perfectly. £110 (about $225) for 500Gb.

  24. I been using gmail for domains for awhile and it has worked well. I have a feeling that the way it handles labels/folders if I ever switch servers again I am going to end up with tons of duplicate. And if Apple really does upgrade DotMac to include push for the iphone and OTA sync for address book and contacts, I might switch again. But it is a pretty slick interface and I like having AIM integrated into the inbox on the web interface. I have been seriously considering using Google docs as well. Last time I tried it still needed some polishing and I was worried about the security. But I think it is time to give it another try as well. Thanks for the update on the word count, that was a big issue for me.

  25. I’m down with Google Docs. I’ve been using it for work and personal stuff for a year now and I am very happy with it. Hey, if someone at Google is reading my poems then more power to ‘im.

  26. I’ve used Google Docs occasionally. Mostly for “scene bits” that I haven’t pasted into Scrivener yet. I used MSWord for a novel-length work once. ONCE. My hatred for the thing knew no bounds after that. Word just isn’t designed for novel-length work, even breaking it into one chapter per file, IMO. And of course the benefit of Google Docs being I can access it at home or work without need to overwrite old files on a thumb drive that I inevitably lose somewhere in the depths of my purse.

  27. Messing with Google Docs now and notice that the upload limit is actually 500KB, not 500MB.

    A little small that. Still haven’t figured out how the whole offline synching process works yet. Wish it was some sort of positive act, like telling it to synch in one direction or the other, but it seems to be a spotty behind-the-scenes process.

  28. My only problem with Google Docs is no footnotes. I use footnotes because I’m pretentious like that. Zoho, has footnotes and a complete WYSIWYG interface. So there’s that.

  29. I recently installed Ubuntu via wubi onto my Dell laptop. Had to install the closed-source video drivers and a bunch of media stuff to get it to play mp3s and avi files, and something turned it WAAAY unstable. Like it wouldn’t boot 9 out of ten times.

    Wiped Ubuntu off and the laptop runs like a dream. I dunno what the problem is, but I’m really wary of Linux from here on in.

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