Nate Dickson

What I think.

Writing With the Alphasmart NEO

A thing I once thought would never happen has happened twice: I have been paid for something I wrote by people who actually ponied up their own hard-earned cash to buy a thing I wrote. I can’t even tell you how awesome that is. If you are one of those people I thank you from the bottom of my heart.

But that’s not what this article is about. This article is about what I did with the second royalty check I got from Leanpub a few days ago:

I bought an Alphasmart NEO.

I first became aware of the existence of these little wonders when I was reading Chris Baty’s1 book “No Plot? No Problem!”. Says he:

Some NaNoWriMo participants swear by an affordable machine called an Alphasmart ( This is a battery-powered, word-processing device that looks like a cross between a laptop and a children’s Speak & Spell. The miniscule screen only displays four lines of text or so at a time, which can be helpful in warding off obsessive editing. The keyboard is large and comfortable, and you can work for up to twenty-six hours on a few AA batteries.

– Baty, Chris (2010-07-01). No Plot? No Problem!: A Low-Stress, High-Velocity Guide to Writing a Novel in 30 Days (p. 74). Chronicle Books LLC. Kindle Edition.

“Yes. This is a right thing. This is genius,” I muttered quietly to myself. Here was something that embodied the ideal of “one thing well”. A concept that I’ve always loved, all the more because I’m so terribly bad at sticking to one thing for any length of time.

When I first read this the NEO2 was still a current concern, priced around $200, which was out of my price range, or rather outside of the budget I could concieveably justify on a writing toy. So I shelved the idea of owning one for a while and went on with my life.

And wrote Painless Vim. And got paid for it, twice now. Not a lot, mind you2, but actual cash money. Which means I have a little money to spend on writing toys. But when I went back to the Alphasmart website I discovered that the Neo’s time had come to a close.

The NEO is no longer being manufactured. The company has shut down that arm of their business, and all that’s left is second-hand models that schools are getting rid of, as near as I can tell. But that’s a blessing for someone like me, because the price on a second-hand model on eBay is usually in the $40-$60 range. After a few hours of looking at all the different models that Alphasmart had ever made, comparing them and learning far more about them than I had previously thought possible I found one at the right price and a deal was struck.

About the NEO

The NEO is a device that was designed to fulfill a very specific role: it is for writing. It is not for web surfing, it doesn’t have a browser or even a network interface. It’s not for games, it’s got a very simple display that can show you around six lines of text at a time. It’s not for reading email. It is only for writing.

Being designed for the classroom has other advantages. Alphasmart products are legendarily rugged, built to withstand grade school students long enough to justify the school board’s expenditure on them. They are an instant-on device, because there’s no real OS to load up. Turn it on, write. They are the most energy conscious devices ever: Several owners claim they will run for seven hundred hours on a fresh set of 3 AA batteries. So far I’ve used my device for about 20 hours and I’m at around 98% battery, so that sounds surprisingly accurate.

Granted, the NEO is not a machine with great specs. For starters, it has 512K of RAM, which is charming. My Macbook Pro has roughly 33,000 times that much. But that 512K is enough to hold about 200 pages of text, split out over 8 files. When all you’re doing is writing you don’t need a lot of storage space. Text is small.

Equally charming is the NEO-computer interface: plug the NEO in via USB and the computer will recognize it as a keyboard. So you open Word or Scrivener or your favorite text program on your computer, put the cursor where you want the text and press “send” on the NEO. Suddenly the computer thinks the NEO is a keyboard where someone is typing at around 200 words per minute.

And that is the whole point of the device. It’s focused, so it can do it’s “one thing” well. It’s rugged, so it can go camping. It’s inexpensive, so if it turns out that taking it camping was a bad idea you can replace it without too much heartache. And did I mention that it’s a very focused device? When you are writing on a NEO you can’t be sneaking peeks at your email, or twitter or anything else. All you can do is write. It’s the perfect middle step between a paper notebook and a MacBook.

It also imparts a strange and wonderful sense of detachment from the writing grind. Everything you write disappears off the top of the screen in a matter of moments, leaving you with just your most recent thought and maybe the conclusion of the one before it. More than once I have written for an hour or less, and felt like I got a little bit done, plugged the NEO into my computer and watched as thousands of words pour out across the page. Turns out it’s easier to be productive when you’re not worrying about your productivity.

  1. For those of you who don’t know, Christ Baty is the man who started NaNoWriMo.

  2. yet. But here’s hoping!

Why Oyster Books Isn’t for Me


Last Saturday I opened an account. The next day I closed it.

On the surface Oyster Books looks like a great thing: pay $10 every month and get access to a growing library of books. This, you would think, is basically playing right to my wheelhouse. I love books, I love reading, and I love eBooks on my mobile devices.

But it’s not for me. Why is that?

I mean, $9.95 isn’t bad; it’s kinda-sorta the same price as Netflix, and I read far more than I watch in a given month. I could easily read four or five books every month and it would probably be a good thing, right?


Except what kind of books are on the service? I have a hard enough time finding books I consider “worth reading” on iBooks or Kindle. Anything that is older than the digital age and not über mainstream tends to get forgotten. Anything that has slipped into the public domain is spammed out on the store, thousands of copies, most of them terrible OCR transfers that were never read or reviewed before being shoved onto the store to make a few bucks.

And from what I’ve seen Oyster hasn’t really drawn a different crowd. They have a number of recent best sellers, but a much shallower back bench than the other services, once you remove the Project Gutenburg rips that everyone has. Oyster has a single Bill Bryson book, the other services have most of his catalog. I could keep going, but the odds are my numbers will all be wrong in a day or two. The point is that I spent a few hours searching Oyster’s catalog for things I really wanted to read and came up with a single book.

But “worth reading” can be a dangerous phrase, and it’s one that doesn’t really sound like me to me. I have spent my life reading just about everything I come across. I’m an author myself, and I should therefore want to stoke the fires of my own literary career by pulling in the best of everyone else’s, right?

Well, yeah. But my time is limited. I work eight hours a day and spend six hours trying to build and maintain a relationship with my wife and kiddos. I squeeze in exercise, games and writing around the edges of this by sleeping between five and seven hours a night. So if I’m going to read a book it needs to be worth the precious minutes I give it. And here’s where a lesson I learned years ago comes back into play.

When I was a teenager I got hired by Bookstar, a small bookstore that was a subsidiary of Barnes and Noble. Shortly after I started at Bookstar we moved into a full-fledged Barnes and Noble superstore. It was a flagship store for the region, and was bigger than any two libraries I had ever visited in my young life. During the early days I would walk through the store in sheer wonder, feeling the immensity of the world’s wisdom, collected around me. I was in heaven. I was surrounded by all that was best and brightest in the world of words.

Except…I wasn’t. The world’s greatest books were in there; we had the entire Loeb Classical Library, both Greek and Latin; the works of Proust and cummings Chesterton and Wodehouse and Feynman and Hawking and Picasso and Miles Davis (in our music department, of course) and the upcoming geniuses as well. But they were thin on the ground compared to the romance novels, serial mysteries, spin-off sci-fi, brainless self-help books1…all the books that look very impressive until you realize that they weren’t written to increase the sum total of human knowledge, they were written to increase the publisher’s bottom line. For every masterpiece that was turned out because the author had a story that must be told there were thirty books that were trying to capitalize on the latest blockbuster.

And I read them. As an employee I was allowed to check books out from the shelves with the understanding that if I bent it I bought it2. I picked things up joyfully from just about every shelf and read and read and read…and realized that a lot of what I read wasn’t making my life better. I wasn’t any happier, I wasn’t any smarter or any more connected to my fellow human beings. I was just…older. But reading is addictive; even if you’re not in love with the book you’re reading you can still enjoy the experience. So I kept just reading anything, working my way through series after series of 300-page fantasy titles that had all the intelligence of a sitcom, but slower, or through 1,100 page epics that were anything but.

Finally I told myself that my time was worth more, and I needed to read things that were “worth reading”. I got myself a list of “great books” and started into it. Some resonated with me, some didn’t. Some were amazing and some had aged poorly enough that I couldn’t really follow them and lost interest. I still picked up light fantasy titles now and again, but I was determined to change.

So now I generally only read things that I feel have a real point or enough artistry to be worth the time. I say generally, but it’s easy to relapse. I fully recognize that some of my favorite books in recent years are entirely devoid of anything resembling substance or style. And that’s where I get back around to why I probably shouldn’t sign (back) up for Oyster, at least not yet:

I would start reading crap again.

If I was paying ten bucks for a service I would make sure I was getting “my money’s worth” out of the service by ploughing through at least two or three books each month. And I would love it. But I don’t think it would be good for me.

Instead, I’ll just set aside $10 a month for new books. Buying one every a month is about right, and gives me time to catch up on my huge library at home.

  1. There are many excellent mystery novels and good sci-fi and good self-help books, I know. But for every good one there are two dozen mindless filler titles that were written by committee.

  2. Never a problem for me or most of my coworkers. By and large booksellers are a self-selected group made up of people who would gnaw their own arm off rather than dog-ear a page to mark their place.

Trusting VoodooPad

The VoodooPad Icon I’ve mentioned before that I go through three phases as I get used to a new program: Inquiry, Inquisition and Investment:

The Inquiry phase is the “does it do what I want it to do, without being irritating?” phase. Basically this is like a caveman poking a thing with a sharp stick, hiding behind a rock to see if it tries to bite him, then biting it to see if it’s worth eating.

If a program gets past that, then comes the Inquisition: “Oh yeah, well can you handle this? What about that? And how do you like the comfy chair?”

Anything that makes it past the Inquisition with any level of approval gets my Investment, the phase where I put the time into learning how to use the program to its fullest and really start using it.

I’ve put VoodooPad through the wringer before. Searching through my email reveals that I have a version 2 license1. I liked the idea, the core of VoodooPad back then, but it never got past the Inquisition. I could see that it wanted to do things right, but we never clicked.

Still, when I got the email that VoodooPad had left its original home at Flying Meat I was kinda saddened. It may not have been my cup of tea, but it was still an amazing product and it’s cool in a way that is hard to put into words. Don’t get me wrong, I think Gus of Flying Meat made the right choice when he decided to sell VoodooPad. If he doesn’t feel he can maintain it any more nobody would know better than he would.

The new owners at Plausible Labs have promised to make it better and take great care of it, because they love VoodooPad and want to see it grow. That’s great news.

But can I trust it?

There’s two questions there: Can I trust Plausible Labs to keep making VoodooPad better, and can I trust VoodooPad to be good enough to deserve my investment?

For the record I’ve already purchased my license; so we’re not talking about financial investment. I’m talking about investing my time, which is far more valuable these days. (“oh, look at Mr. Moneybags!” Yeah, yeah, you know what I meant.)

So, second question first: Can I trust VoodooPad, the program, to be what I want it to be?

Trusting the Program

This is the bigger of the two questions. After all, if VoodooPad is good enough to use and invest in now it doesn’t need a lot of updates all the time. My beloved Scrivener gets (I would say) Just enough updates: Not every month, but every so often. And even if updates stopped tomorrow I would keep using it until it no longer worked on whatever Mac I was using in the far future.

So I’ve started the process. I would say I’m near the end of the Inquisition phase right now. And what I’ve found is hopeful. Coming to version 5 of VoodooPad from version 2 left me refreshingly free of preconceived notions about the program: I knew it was a “Personal Wiki” and that’s about it.

Markdown support has entered the mix since last I checked the app, and even better, it seems to fully understand MultiMarkdown2, which is a huge win. Simple Markdown like headings, strong, italic, etc. are all handled correctly and shown while you’re editing the text.

The other sine qua non for a personal wiki that I had is inter-page links that just appear without any additional markup/markdown/whatever. When I type the name of another page I want it to be clickable. VoodooPad does that with aplomb.

So, as a personal wiki it’s doing what I want it to do. Check.

And there’s a lot more that I haven’t fully explored yet3, like in-app scripting in Python, JSTalk, Ruby, shell, etc. and other potentially useful things like tagging, collections, built-in todo list collection…it’s basically the kitchen sink.

But there’s one huge dark spot: the iOS version of the app. It’s definitely been lacking in love or attention for years now. It’s not iOS 7-compiled, and most of the UI looks more like iOS 4. It doesn’t seem to open my main document, and it has separate editing/reading modes, thus getting rid of the main good thing I see in the desktop version. But, again, Plausible promises that improvments are coming. Which leads us to the second point: Trusting the company.

Trusting Plausible Labs

This is where I have a bigger problem. It’s not that I think they’re incompetent, or lazy, or bad developers or anything. Just as I believe Gus knew when to get out of VoodooPad, I also believe that he didn’t hand it over to someone who would mess it up. But it’s not their baby.

I’m not saying I think they’ll let it languish, but they need to know that now is a very sensitive period for the product. They shouldn’t rush any bug fixes or new features just for the sake of putting out a new version, but semi-regular updates on the blog about how the work is coming, some notification that they are working on it would go a long way to build confidence.4

That said, I’m going to Invest-with-a-capital-I in VoodooPad. And I great hopes of seeing Plausible Labs do great things with it. I just hope we don’t have to wait too long.

  1. Which means I bought it a long freaking time ago, because all of my software licenses have been stored in 1Password for years.

  2. Meaning: I threw Fletcher T. Penny’s MultiMarkdown sample document into VoodooPad and it renders the entire thing correctly, right down to the header metadata and MathJAX rendering.

  3. Things that will have to wait until this app hits the Investment phase.

  4. Gaslamp Games has handled this brilliantly with their upcoming game Clockwork Empires. They write weekly blog posts about the state of the game, things that include both the progress they’re making, and even better, the problems they’re having (that last link is the best of all possible programming blog posts. Read it. Love it. Try not to laugh too hard.


In 1998 I served an LDS Mission to the Philippines. Those of you who are familiar with how LDS missionaries operate know the drill: you spend ten weeks learning the language in a classroom setting and then you get sent out with a more experienced missionary to try it on your own. And anyone who has ever tried to speak a language they’ve only heard in a classroom setting knows what comes next: you spend a lot of time staring at people who speak a language you thought you were pretty good at, and you have no idea what they’re saying.

So I set myself some goals. I wanted to laugh at a Tagalog joke, because I actually understood it. I wanted to get my accent to be less terrible1, and I wanted to actually think in Tagalog. These were little stepping stones I set for myself, goals I was trying to reach to show that I was actually gaining some actual fluency in the language.

And then, one night a few months after I landed in Manila I had a thought, just three words that came to me as I was walking across the town square: “Kaya ko ito!” That was it. In English2 it’s “I can do this”. But that’s not the point. The point was that I had the thought in Tagalog instead of having it in English and translating it. I had a long way to go, but it was clear that something was happening, and I was learning something. Since then that thought has come back to me from time to time when I’m trying to do something difficult. I’ll start in one something, bang my head against the wall for a while, and all of a sudden there will be a moment of clarity, a brief glimpse of the summit after the first day’s climb, and the words “Kaya ko ito” will come back into my head. I can do this.

One of those difficult things has been learning vim. While I’ve been teaching myself to use it3 I’ve had a lot of moments where it just seemed too hard, too useless, and I had to set myself some goals. They were simpler goals, things like “don’t lose half a file and have to restore it from my git backups again today”, and then more useful goals, like “actually use the search and replace engine,” followed shortly by “actually use vim’s regex engine without the very magic flag”. Litte steps to show that I was making progress.

And one day, just a little while ago, I had a simple task ahead of me: remove the last three arguments from a function declaration. Without really thinking about it I got my cursor inside the parentheses and since my cursor was just before the closing paren I typed


And that was it. In English4 it’s “delete back through the third comma before the cursor”. But that’s not the point. The point is that I just did it, without looking at a cheat sheet, without using help, without standing there for two minutes trying to figure out how to do what I knew I wanted to do. It was the “Kaya kong ito” moment all over again. I know I’ve still got a lot of vim to learn, but it’s clear that something is happening, and I’m learning something.

  1. According a couple of people who knew me early in my mission I was attempting to speak Tagalog with a British accent. Given the fact that I grew up in Boise, Idaho I can only imagine how terrible that sounded.

  2. More or less. It’s not grammatically perfect, but it’s close enough that people would have understood what I meant.

  3. and writing a book about using vim.

  4. More or less. I’m sure there’s a better way to do this, and probably a better way to explain it, but it’s close enough that vim understood what I meant.

Not During, but Due to NaNoWriMo

This year marks my sixth year participating in NaNoWriMo, and I’ve started wondering if there was really a point to writing a “novel” in a single month. Especially since I haven’t really developed any of them beyond the rough draft I wrote in November.

National Novel Writing Month Winner So, I “won” again this year, writing a book that I have absolutely no desire to pursue further. Which has made me wonder if I’m doing it wrong or if I need to maybe just give up on NaNoWriMo because it’s not helping me grow as a “real” writer. But then I realized something.

I never would have written Painless Vim if I hadn’t been taking part of NaNoWriMo every year. Painless Vim isn’t a novel, it’s not a wild flight of fancy that I pounded out in a month.1 But there are a lot of things I learned from NaNoWriMo that made it possible for me to write Painless Vim. Some of the most important are:

  1. Write every day. This is the first and only secret of writing, of course.
  2. Write your first draft like nobody is going to read it, because nobody is going to read it. You’ll revise it into something better.
  3. Write for yourself. There are others out there who are in the same place as you, and they’ll appreciate what you’ve written.
  4. Use Scrivener. I absolutely love Scrivener, and six years of NaNo’ing has made it as comfortable as a well-worn pair of blue jeans for me. If I get up the energy I’ll write a post about how my Scrivener workflow looks one of these days.

Now, I’m not saying that I’m the world’s best author. But I wrote a book and put it out there where people can buy it, which is something that never would have happened if it hadn’t been for National Novel Writing Month. And that’s enough to keep me coming back year after year.

  1. It’s a tutorial book that was only supposed to take a month and has so far taken me about six.

Excerpt From Pacifica

This is the best study of my main character, the one that I think most accurately captures who she thinks she is.

The roadway sparkles and flows with light, a jeweled strand across the dark landscape. Cylee sat far up on a hill, the fresh, wild wind blowing her hair back.

She used to live in this place, this quiet, dark, outdoor world. Back before Pacifica, before the war…

The strings of lights eventually merge into the cities, connecting the nets of lights that represent civilization, mankind’s crowning jewels shining in the dark. And once you’re caught in that net it can feel like there’s nothing else, no other way to live. You can learn to depend on the Network, constant wireless streams of information flowing into and out of you at all times. You can learn to read the streets as you read the trees, feel the way the social wind is blowing just as you used to know how to read the fitful pre-dawn breezes.

And, in truth, Cylee was caught by that net. If she stayed out here for a few days or weeks her Spine would shut down and go from being an Augmentation to being thirty pounds of stiff dead metal. She’d be essentially blinded and deafened, her limbs left to their own strength. Even now she was half blind, her Spine out of range of the Network and therefore unable to give her the kind of information that made up the background noise of her daily life. Granted, she could still see every living, warm blooded thing that moved in the darkness, every rabbit, every bat, every bird was a blip on her augmented vision, their insane heart rates pounding like miniature thunder in her ears.

But she used to track them unaided. Used to be able to sense the movement of creatures that were string to remain hidden. She could feel the twitch in the grass that didn’t quite match the way the wind was moving. And she would raise her bow quietly, wait for the next movement…and…with a soft twang she would have breakfast.

Out of a sense of irony and frustration she considered raising her flechette thrower and pinning that rabbit to the ground, letting her Spine handle the fine details of getting her hand in the right position, but she stopped, realized she didn’t need the meat, and shouldn’t waste it. Pacifica had made her a perfect soldier, but it hadn’t entirely removed the true hunter she had been.

Writing With My Head in the Sand

There’s a saying about marriage that you should find a spouse with your eyes wide open and stay with a spouse with your eyes half shut.1 I’ve found this to be helpful advice about more than just marriage; when I buy a new computer I spend months reading reviews and write ups on the all the components involved and scouring the world for the best prices. Once I buy my components I all but block those sites on my browser; I don’t want to know that a brand new video card came out the same day my suddenly obsolete one arrives at my door. I just want to be happy with what I bought.

And, in an odd way it’s turning out to be true about writing Painless Vim. There are two books and a few websites that I used quite a bit while I was starting to learn vim, they are somehow on my “okay” list. But any site or book I haven’t read yet is now the enemy, because I’m afraid they’re all better than the book I’m writing and I’ll have to die now. There are (at least) two other vim books already on; I can’t look at them too directly lest I discover the only thing my book has that the don’t is a whimsical cover.

And, of course, what does it matter? If other books are better that’s fine; I can hope that there are some people out there who will get what they need out of my little book. So I’m keeping my head in the sand a little bit. Some day I’ll be done writing Painless Vim and I’ll be able to read other people’s vim books.

There’s no real point here; just a little note about how my mind seems to work when I’m mid-book like this.

  1. I can’t find the source for this, and I’m sorry. So let’s just pretend its common knowledge.

My NaNoWriMo Cover for This Year

This is a super-short post to show off what I’m going to be working on for NaNoWriMo this year.

I know that Painless Vim isn’t finished yet, although it’s very close, and basically all I’m doing is a little bit of cleanup and formatting. If you’ve been waiting with baited breath for Painless Vim to be finished fear not! I will still be working on the Little Vim Book that Could during the month of November. In fact, my goal is to have it completely finished. By December 1st, even while I’m “winning” NaNoWriMo for the sixth straight year.

In previous years I’ve been doing graduate level classes, having babies1, and changing jobs during NaNoWriMo, and I’ve always found time to make it work. What’s more, the impetus it gives me tends to help me get more done in the rest of my life as well. The saying about giving work to busy people still holds true. If I turn myself into a busy person I tend to be more capable overall. Until I freak out and melt down, of course. So I guess there’s still something to be said for balance.

More About Pacifica

Which is all very nice, but you may possibly be interested in the book cover I’m showing off here. You’ve got questions, no doubt. Questions like “What’s it about?” “Who designed your cover?” “Would you be willing to let me redesign your cover, because it’s pretty bad?”

The answers are “I’ll tell you in a minute”, “I did in about two hours using Pixelmator”, and “Yes” in that order. I like playing with Pixelmator, but I’m not super great with it, and if there’s a graphic designer out there who wants to take a second pass at this I’d be happy to let you.

The book is my first foray into cyberpunk. It’s a near-future look at what’s its like to be on the losing side of a war for independence, and how to keep your pride even when you’ve got nothing left to be proud of.

If I remember (and have time) I’ll probably post excerpts through the month. Wether or not I actually develop Pacifica after November remains to be seen, but if I’ve learned anything from five successful NaNo’s its that even writing an ultimately wasted story isn’t wasted effort. I’ve learned something from every book I’ve written.

  1. Well, not me personally.

Using nvALT as a Personal Wiki

One of the best things about nvALT is that it gives you a lot of tools you can use with little to no friction. You can use tags, or not, you can store your files in dropbox as individual markdown files, or you can keep them all in a single database1. It’s all up to you. It’s very liberal about how you use its powers.

Which means I missed one.

Up until now I’ve been using nvALT as my repository of code and notes on projects, useful tips and hints and things that I tend to forget. You know, all the stuff that makes nvALT great. The praises of nvALT have already been sung, and sung better than I will sing them here. But here’s what I just discovered: the inter-note linking feature.


Okay, those of you who already knew about this can just go ahead and laugh at me. But for those of you who haven’t discovered this yet, it’s very very simple and powerful. Just wrap the name of another note in [[double brackets]] and you have a link to that note. What’s more, once you open the double brackets you can start typing the name of a file and nvALT will autocomplete it for you.

With this addition, nvALT has supplanted VoodooPad, EverNote, and my own home-brew Sublime Text Wiki system. Not only is it more flexible, but it also has one of the best built-in markdown previews ever.

  1. Pro Tip: store them as separate files in Dropbox!

Small World on the iPad Updated!

"Small World 2 App Icon" Just a quick post to happily note that Days of Wonder has finally updated their Small World app on the iPad. Small World was the first game I bought on the original iPad, and it’s been sadly neglected for a quite a while.

But it’s back in business now! It’s beautifully, fully retina, has new content (available through an in app purchase), and now lets you play with up to five people via pass & play, or you can have the one on one experience that you’re used to from the original version. I’ve always loved Days Of Wonder’s games, and they continue to do a great job bringing them to the iPad. Thanks guys!