Notes from a Linguistic Mystic

First, a very important disclosure: The Rollermouse reviewed here was sent to me by Contour Designs as a “review unit”, after they read my enthusiastic review of the previous generation Rollermouse. They made no demands regarding the content or tone of the review I wrote, and, luckily, I actually liked the mouse, so it didn’t come up. So, although I’ve tried to approach this objectively and honestly, caveat lector.

A Rollermouse is an odd-yet-wonderful device. It’s a mouse which moves a cursor around your screen which you control by moving a hollow tube around on a metal bar. If you want the cursor to move up, you rotate the tube away from you, and down goes the opposite. If you want it to move side-to-side, you move the tube side-to-side on the bar. If you want to click, you can push down on the bar, or use a physical button. It’s ambidextrous, can work with any surface of your hand, and can be operated rather effectively with your hands still on the keyboard. They’re odd, they’re expensive, they’re not well suited to FPS gaming, and they’re confusing for the first 30 seconds of any new user’s life. But after those 30 seconds, they’re awesome.

At this point, I swear by my Rollermouse Free 2. Every time I’ve tried something else for mousing, my wrists have rather loudly objected, and several keyboards have been returned because they haven’t played nicely with it. But, the Free2 is not without it’s faults. It has a nasty habit of freezing up when subjected to static shock. The bar gets grimy and unpleasant. You spend altogether too much time waiting for the cursor to catch up to the side of the screen on a widescreen monitor. The Copy and Paste buttons don’t work on a Mac. So, although it’s better for my body than any mouse I’ve used, it still had room to grow.

Today, we’re going to talk about its evolution, the Rollermouse Red. This is Contour Designs’ new flagship Rollermouse, and they graciously sent me one to review. So, review it I shall, with a nod to Ars Technica’s Good, Bad and Ugly review style.

Rollermouse Red: The Good

The first good thing to note is that unlike many manufacturers who can’t leave well-enough alone, they haven’t screwed up what made the Free2 great. The adjustment period was around an hour, and after that, I like it as much as I liked the Free2, and more. No glaring design faults were introduced, there are no “Well, if only they hadn’t…” thoughts, and as near as I can tell, there’s no reason (aside from cost) not to buy the Red if you’re in the Rollermouse market. But a few new niceties jump out.

Rollermouse Red

First, it’s thicker, and this is a good thing. The Free2 is thin enough that most keyboards tower above it, and the Red is just a bit thicker. This means that, for instance, the Kinesis FreeStyle 1 would be just the right height, and with the FreeStyle II, wrist posture would be nice and neutral. They’ve also released a “Plus” size model which has a longer palm support, for those who use the device deeper on their desk. As I’m very firmly an edge-of-the-desk guy, this wasn’t needed, but for some, I imagine it’d be pleasant.

Second, it’s smoother. The bar is now plastic, or carbon-fiber, or something, and is now completely dry. The tube, which is thicker, and nicely textured, now slides even more nicely over the bar than my old Free2. The click mechanism is smooth, the scroll wheel is smoother, and the whole device just feels smoother under the hand, particularly when at the edge of a desk (as the rounded edge of the Free2 was a bit sharp when hanging off).

The Red is also more Mac friendly. Their little “getting started” guide allows the Copy and Paste buttons to work like a charm on a Mac, which is pleasant, and I’m hoping desperately that my muscle memory will realize that someday. There’s also now an option to use the (long-neglected) “Double Click” button for the middle mouse button, to open new tabs while browsing.

Perhaps most impressive is that it handles edge-detection better than the Free2. On the Free2, if you ran out of rod before you hit the side of the screen, you’d use the sliding tube to press a button of sorts at the edge of the rod, which moved the mouse quickly to that side. The Red uses some other mechanism entirely, doing away with these buttons entirely. Yet, it’s done so transparently that I didn’t even notice that change until I sat down to write this review. It’s a very small change, but it’s also very nice.

Finally, the build quality is great. It’s stiffer than the Free2, the wrist rest is comfier to rest your hands on while typing, and the whole thing just feels better designed. On the Free2, if all the feet weren’t perfectly on the level, the mouse would tend to click itself when you put weight on the wrist rest. This has been fixed with the thick-feeling aluminum base on the Red. And, although it’s completely meaningless, the box was really nice, and clearly, somebody in their packaging department has opened a lot of Apple Products.

Although the susceptibility to gunk remains to be seen, and I now live in a state humid enough that I’ve forgotten what “static electricity” means, it appears that they’ve basically made an improved version of the Free2, which fixes a few small issues, and raises the bar in places where it wasn’t even lacking.

However, this doesn’t mean that this is the perfect mouse.

Rollermouse Red: The Bad

The Rollermouse Red’s biggest problems are, sadly, all inherited from the Free2.

The biggest issue with the Red is that they still haven’t addressed the problem of thick keyboards. Keyboards like the Kinesis Advantage, which sit above your desktop, simply will not work with the Rollermouse. In order to slide the bar around, the bar needs to be just slightly higher than the keyboard, so that your flattened palm can roll the ball forward, without your fingers catching on keys, as shown below:

Rollermouse Red Side

Contour Designs helpfully includes adapters to make thin keyboards line up with the mouse. But, the problem is that most mechanical keyboards are thicker, not thinner, than the RED. The stiffer structure of the Red makes this process easier, but if you’re using a thicker keyboard like the Matias ErgoPro pictured below, you’re forced to resort to ugly hacks, like the below, to raise the mouse:

mouse on a piece of particle board

I had very much hoped that the Red would include screw-in feet or lifters, or something to raise or adjust the height of the mouse relative to the keyboard, but sadly, like with the Free2, no such method is included, and before you know it, you’re attacking an old shelf with a hand saw on your apartment’s deck, and sticking the whole affair together with foam tape.

My second biggest gripe, again inherited from the Free2, is the lack of a dual-axis scroll wheel. Most mice these days offer some method of horizontal scrolling, and the fact that a Rollermouse, which is effectively the world’s largest 2-axis scroll wheel, lacks the ability to scroll on two axes is frustrating, bordering on silly. Even something as simple as “Hold this button and move the bar to scroll” would be a revelation, but alas, no. They offer some workarounds if you install their drivers, and you can always hold shift while scrolling vertically with the built in wheel, but this is one of few modern mice lacking this feature.

It’s still not going to work for Call of Duty, or any other game which depends on twitchy, speedy rotation around you. It’s great for Diablo, or Planetary Annihilation, or other games requiring speedy and accurate clicking, but if you need to make quick and large mouse gestures, no Rollermouse, Red or otherwise, will do the trick.

And, there are a few other minor annoyances. The USB cable is permanently attached to the unit (rather than using something like a Micro-USB plug), making cleaning difficult with cable routing. There’s still no easy way to securely mount it to the edge of a desk, leaving you in the land of foam tape. And like the Free2 before it, the Red is just full of nooks and crannies for dust and desk-gunk. Keep your canned-air close, and your cookies distant, because those beautifully sculptured contours are going to catch some crumbs.

Rollermouse Red: The Ugly

Finally, we arrive at the ugly part: The Rollermouse Red costs $265.

This is a mouse which costs more than decent laptop. This is a mouse whose price could buy my favorite keyboard ever and a very nice gaming mouse on top. The price is the only intractable problem with the Rollermice, and is the sole reason I’m not giving them to friends and family for Christmas.

Yet, for me, it’s completely worth it. If somebody broke into my house (and now, my office) and stole my Rollermouse, I’d be on the phone with Contour Design the next day, angrily ordering a new one. This is truly the best mouse I’ve ever used, and given that I use a mouse, now pain free, for 5-8 hours each day, where only a few hours with a conventional mouse is a pain-fest, the price is well spent for me. But for you, it might not be.

Wrapping up

There are three types of people who might google “Rollermouse Red Review” and land here, so I’ll talk to each below:

If you’re just looking at new mice, and you have no wrist pain or ergonomic woes, well, this is a great mouse. It’s accurate, it’s quick, and it’s unusual. It’ll keep your coworkers guessing, and you’ll be wrist pain free. But, you’ll lose choices for keyboards, your desk layout will follow the whims of your mouse, and you just spent $265 on a way to move an arrow across the screen. So, if you don’t play twitchy FPS games, you don’t scroll horizontally for a living, your keyboard is thin-ish, and you’ve got $265 to spend, do the 30 day trial. If you fall in love, great. If you don’t, nothing lost.

If you’re in pain from conventional mousing, and looking for ergonomic choices, try your options. Try a trackball. Try a fancy ergonomic mouse. Try a stylus and tablet, if you’d like. But at the end of it all, if you’re like me, you’ll just get out the damned credit card and buy the damned Rollermouse. This is a lot of money, but for me, it’s saved me from a lot of pain. And if you’re buying your first Rollermouse, buy the Red. It’s absolutely $30 nicer than the Free2, and you’d as might as well go big.

If you’re a Rollermouse Free2 user, or you’re trying to compare the Rollermouse Red vs. the Free2, the big question is whether it’s worthwhile to upgrade to the Red. The Red is nicer in pretty much every way while still acting pretty much identically, so if you love the Free2, I can pretty much guarantee you’ll love the Red. If you’ve been looking at getting a second Rollermouse, for work or something, then definitely upgrade.

But, if you’ve already got a Free2 on your desk, I’m not sure that the Red is worth laying out $265 more, as you’ve already got 90% of the awesome right there in front of you. If you’ve got the cash, it’s a great upgrade, and I most certainly miss the Red when I’m using the Free2 at work. But if the upgrade price is a bit rich for your blood, given that the “Free” became the “Free2”, you can always just wait for the Red21.

So, wrapping up, the Rollermouse Red is awesome. It’s an even better version of the Free2, fixing some of the annoyances, without adding new ones. It’s a great mouse, it’s an incredible ergonomic mouse, and it’s an excellent upgrade from the prior models. As far as I’m concerned, it’s the best ergonomic mouse money can buy.

Your body may vary, but if you’re hurting, give it a try.

  1. If the “Red2” doesn’t include some reference to Wedge Antilles, I’ll be very disappointed. I know you’re reading this, Contour Design Marketing. Make it happen.

~ ə ~

I recently stumbled upon a wonderful list of 34 CSS “puns”, which deserve both a visit and a comment.

What’s CSS?

CSS, short for “cascading style sheets”, is a markup language which allows you to style your website by assigning types to various objects, and then assigning styles to types.

For instance, the title at the top of this post is given the type “H2”, and in the CSS file associated with the site, it’s given the following attributes:

These specifications dictate things like “How large is the font on the page?” (font-size), how much spacing is there between the header and the start of the post (margin-bottom and padding-bottom), and the size and color of the border (border-bottom) below the header.

CSS is used by nearly every site on the web today to specify format and styling, but I’d never seen it used for punning.

What was particularly interesting to me as a pun enthusiast is that there were actually three different kinds of pun here.

Monolingual English Puns

Some rely on the fact that terms used in CSS also have meaning in English, and are effectively monolingual, relying only on English:

This is my least favorite because, putting aside the vaguely sophomoric “lol women” punchline, it doesn’t mean anything in CSS. right: 100% means “This element is all the way to right of the screen”, and margin: 0 means “there’s no spacing between this element and the surrounding ones”.

So, although English speakers “get the joke”, it doesn’t make sense in another language. It’s the CSS humor equivalent to pointing at an Afrikaans-speaking cook’s business card and giggling while saying “LOL! His business card says “Kok”!!!”.

Bilingual English/CSS Puns

Some make sense in English and in CSS, and work bilingually:

CSS relies heavily on “nesting”, the idea that you put one style (a bold word) inside a larger style (a paragraph) inside a larger style (“the page”). When you use inherit for an attribute (like font-size or position), you’re just saying that “this has the same value as whatever contains it”.

So, here, in addition to the clear English meaning, this is valid CSS: A monarch ends up with the same position as the family they’re born into. Which, as Game of Thrones has told us, is problematic when somebody increases the margin between your father’s <head> and <body>.

CSS Puns

Finally, some only really make sense to CSS speakers, and hinge on some understanding of the second language. They’re not quite monolingual CSS, but they’re getting close:

Sometimes, you want a style which only applies when one style is inside another (so, for instance, a quoted list looks different than a regular list), and to do this, you specify define the styles separately, then specify the style in the format outside.inside. So, in valid CSS, this is stating that Mario gets twice as large when there’s a mushroom inside him.

In case you needed to make punning nerdier…

So, before this post overflows, I just wanted to make clear that there’s surprisingly little margin between these and other sorts of multi-lingual wordplay. So, set your fear to hidden, and feel free to transition to even nerdier forms of humor.

apology {visibility:hidden;}

~ ə ~

Two quick updates!

Doctor Vowels!

I’ve now passed my Doctoral Dissertation defense, and made the revisions requested by my committee, so I’m officially done with graduate school. If you’re curious, I talk more about my dissertation here, and you can read the abstract here. Now, I’m moving on to a new position at the University of Michigan as a Post-Doctoral Research Fellow.

Although I’ve loved my time at the University of Colorado, I’m really thrilled for this next opportunity, and will keep you all in the loop as more fun research comes my way.

Creative Commons License

This site is getting a surprising number of hits (400-500 daily), and I’ve put a lot of effort into some of these posts. So, to avoid any future difficulty, I’ve decided to clarify the license of the content posted here.

As you can see from the bottom of the page, I’ve chosen to put this content under a Creative Commons (4.0) Share-alike license, just as I chose for my Praat guidebook. This license says three important things:

  1. You may share, copy, redistribute, or adapt the content however you see fit. The content belongs to the public, as any academic content should.

  2. If you do re-use or modify this content, you have to credit me for it, link to the license, and show if changes were made.

  3. If you do re-use or modify this content, the resulting content must also be released under the same Creative Commons License.

This last part is the most important. If people are going to put work into a free website, an online guidebook, or even an open textbook, their work should remain free. People trying to make a quick buck should not be able to swoop in, repackage others’ work, and then put it behind a paywall again.

It may seem like a silly thing to think about for a small blog, but these little declarations and our continuing push for open access are the sort of low-level steps that we all can take to ensure that the content we’re producing for education, for science, and for the betterment of the field is, and remains, open to all.

Post Date: March 21, 2015
Categories: site news - personal -
~ ə ~

I’ve been thinking a lot about the tools that allow me to do what I do, and I’m often asked by curious colleagues about what software I recommend for X, Y, or Z.

So, today, I’m going to discuss the software I use to do my work as a linguist and phonetician. All of these are tools which I use regularly, which fill a niche, and which I would be very sad without. I’m not saying that each choice is the best choice for phonetic use, but instead, that each choice is the best for me.

Below are my phonetic programs of choice, organized alphabetically by function. Programs that cost money are listed with their rough prices as of March 2015. All of them run on Mac OS X 10.10 “Yosemite”, and some of them are Mac only.

On Free Software in Academia

I will freely admit (sorry) that I’m biased towards free and open-source software for academic research. Using a widely available and free program to do something makes my work a) less expensive, b) less likely to end up abandoned and obsoleted by some company, and c) much more easily shared with and reproduced by other researchers.

I also refuse to teach my students to use software that they themselves can’t afford, use, or buy. A $50 “student license” for a mega-program is great, but if I’ve given students skills that aren’t useful unless they can buy a $1000+ “private license” every few years once they leave school, I’ve given my students little of use.

So, although there’s a role for non-free software, and I do pay for many great programs for general computing (without begrudging the authors), I tend to favor free, and you’ll see that with two exceptions (Marked and iA Writer Pro), every application I recommend and use in my academic life is free.

Audio Conversion - XLD and iTunes - Free

XLD supports weird formats (.wv, .flac, .shn), and is really great at working with lossless file formats that Praat doesn’t read. And iTunes supports other formats, particularly things like .mp3 and .m4a, and allows you (by tweaking the “import settings”) to convert to .wav or .aiff straightforwardly.

Between these two programs, Praat, and Miro Video Converter (for video), I can convert nearly anything into nearly anything else.

Audio Recording - Audacity - Free

Praat can record. But it’s somewhat limited in its ability to record long sound files, it’s finicky in recording from multiple inputs, and it makes it shockingly easy to delete what you just recorded. So, when I’m recording data in bigger chunks, I use Audacity.

There are some other really nice bits of software for recording. Apple’s Garage Band is decent for recording as well. Adobe Audition($150) is well respected, as is Logic Pro ($200), but both are overkill for phonetic recording, and do not come anywhere near justifying their pricetags.

Bibliography and Article Organization - Bibdesk - Free

This program is incredible. It allows you to keep a library of all of your references in the open (and common) BibTeX format. It allows you to tag these references with keywords, and group by those keywords. It allows you to attach PDF copies of articles, and then organizes those PDFs by author on your drive. And, most magical, allows you to select a few references, and then with the click of a button, email them to a colleague.

It integrates (via DropBox) with PocketBib for iOS (which is getting dated, but still good), so you have all your papers with you on the go.

If you’re using LaTeX, this is the absolute best solution, as LaTeX plugs right in. But even if you’re not, seriously consider using BibDesk to sort your bibliography, books, and articles.

A worthy alternative - Papers - $80

Papers is great software, and I used versions 1 and 2 for years. It’s easy, it’s powerful, and it’s got a similar feature set to Bibdesk, with better iOS integration. If you’re struggling with BibDesk, want something easier, or need airtight iOS integration, I do recommend Papers. But BibDesk is as good or better in almost every way, and is $80 cheaper.

Editing Code - Textmate 2 - Free

I’ve used every major editor. I’ve spent time with vim, emacs, BBEdit and SublimeText, but I keep coming back to Textmate. But the choice of a text editor is deeply personal, almost religious. Walk your own path.

A worthy alternative - Sublime Text 3 - $70, free demo

If I spent more time writing code than I do, I would be using SublimeText. It’s great software, and spectacularly written, and although it’s not quite as Mac-like as Textmate, I did enjoy it. But for what I do, it’s overkill, and not worth the full $70.

Experiment Design and Running - PsychoPy - Free

PsychoPy is a free and open source experimental design suite. It has a user interface for building experiments, and lets you write the experiment as python code behind the scenes if you’d like to get fancier. It has all the features I’ve found that I need, and isn’t that complicated, particularly for easy experiments.

Paid alternatives like ePrime ($1000) exist, and do offer some increased power (and certainly better tech support!), but ultimately, $1000 will buy a lot of tutoring in PsychoPy and Python, and will pay a lot of subjects with the cash left over.

A buggy alternative - PsyScope X - Free

This is a modernization of experimental design software written in the 1990’s. It’s free, and it’s workable with modern Macs. It’s also got a decent GUI for programming experiments, and works with many different hardware response boxes. However, it’s also very buggy, and you will spend as much time trying to troubleshoot your project as you did creating it in the first place. If you can’t use PsychoPy, and you can’t afford ePrime, this is an alternative. But, having used this for years and then moved to PsychoPy, I would never go back.

Forced Alignment - P2FA - Free

The Penn Forced Aligner is a great tool for aligning text to recordings of American English speech. I talk a lot about it in this post. For French, I’ve used EasyAlign, which gets reasonable results, and a newer port of P2FA called “SPLAligner” by Peter Milne, which gets really great results.

IPA Fonts and Keyboarding - This - Free

I’ve maintained (since 2007) a post on installing IPA fonts on the mac. So, obviously, I recommend what I recommend there. Check it out!

Machine Learning - R - Free

I’m increasingly of the mind that phoneticians are going to want to use machine learning to study speech and speech perception.

I’ll talk about R for statistical uses below, but the very same R has some capable libraries for machine learning. In my dissertation, I used Machine Learning (specifically SVMs and RandomForests) to model the perception of acoustical cues in humans, and to test features quickly and cheaply. To do this, I used two libraries, or extensions to R:

  • e1071 - For SVM model training, testing, tuning, and creation
  • RandomForest - For creating RandomForests.
  • Tree - For vanilla decision trees

Those packages made it easy to do machine learning using the same data I used for all my other analyses, and to output my graphs and tables all at once. 10/10, will use again.

A worthy alternative - Scikit-Learn - Free

If you already speak Python, or want more power and flexibility, Scikit-Learn is a great option. It has lots of algorithms, lots of libraries, and good documentation. The only reason I didn’t use this package is because I already know and love R, and because it was easier to work with my data in just one place.

PDF Reading - Skim - Free

OS X includes Preview, which is great, but Skim is just a bit nicer. It shows you a table of contents for files with that data. It lets you jump to a page by entering text. And it plays very nicely with LaTeX, highlighting recent changes. If you’re happy with Preview, stick with it, but if you’re not, use Skim.

Presentation Software - Reveal.js - Free

This is a very nerdy pick. Basically, it allows you to make presentations which are also websites. You can have transitions, a presenter’s display, you can advance the slides with a remote, you can build items in progressively, and you can include images, audio, and video.

The beauty is that all of your presentations are actually html files (with bits of markdown, if you’d like), and that writing them is as easy as making an outline of a paper. You don’t need to worry about adjusting spacing, font size, etc, because that’s all done for you. This, particularly with Markdown, allows you to tap out the next day’s powerpoint in an email to yourself on your phone, if you’d like.

You can also do fancy tricks, like posting your slides online for students, embedding YouTube videos, and styling your presentations using CSS. Students particularly loved being able to go through the slides, complete with sound and video, at home, and even on their smartphones.

The problem with it is that your slides are all websites. Unless you’re content editing bits of HTML, CSS, and tastes of Javascript, this may not be for you. It’s also tougher to do fancy composite images (“I’m going to make a Koala pop up on top of the vowel chart, then slide off to the right!”).

It’s not for everyone, but it’s really powerful. Now that I’ve started using reveal and used it to run a full 27-lecture course, I can’t go back.

Another Great Option - Keynote - $20

For many years, I used Keynote, Apple’s Powerpoint-killer. It’s great, and it’s what I recommend to everyday folks who don’t want to mess around with code.

Speech and Signal Analysis - Praat - Free

Given that I’ve written one of the more popular free textbooks on using Praat, and a large repository of Praat scripts, my affinity for the program should shock roughly nobody.

But the fact is, it’s incredible. For easy speech manipulation, measurement, and visualization, Praat’s the best tool out there. If you’re doing phonetics, you should be using Praat, or at least be familiar enough to teach your students.

An expensive alternative - MATLAB - $500

MATLAB, a proprietary programming language, can be extended to do much of what Praat does, and MATLAB is more powerful for strict signal processing. Unfortunately, it costs $500 (no, that’s not a typo) even for non-student educational use, and even more if you’re outside of academia. This means that students won’t be able to use it after graduation, that colleagues won’t reliably have access to it, and that you will always be just a bit poorer than you otherwise would’ve been.

I’m hoping that, much like R (see below) has replaced expensive and proprietary options like SAS and SPSS for many academics, octave or Python with specific libraries will catch up to signal processing feature parity, and thus, a more powerful tool will come online for widespread use. But until it does, I’m doing my best to get by without MATLAB, and hope plenty of other folks do the same.

Statistics - R - Free

R is spectacular. It’s great for statistics, for data manipulation, for graphing, for generating tables, and even for machine learning.

In addition, because it’s more or less a programming language, although the learning curve is higher, one can conduct an analysis in such a way that somebody else who has your data and your code can reproduce your analysis exactly in a few keystrokes.

At this point, it has surpassed (in most relevant ways) its non-free competition, and if you’re planning to do statistics (or planning to learn it), you should be using R.

Because R is a programming language, it also makes use of libraries, which add functionality. A few of these merit special mention, and all are downloaded through R:

  • e1071 - This is a package for doing many kinds of machine learning tasks in R, and works really well for SVMs.
  • ggplot2 - This is the package for graphing in R. It’s got a learning curve, but allows for true beauty.
  • lme4 - This is my favorite package for running linear mixed-effects models (and here is a great tutorial for using them).
  • praatr - PraatR is an interface to Praat within R, which allows you to use Praat commands within R for analysis. I haven’t used it much, as I think in Praat scripting, but the author and the concept are both brilliant.
  • stargazer - Allows easy export of tables in R to HTML, LaTeX, plaintext. Nearly every table in my dissertation was generated directly from the data or analysis using Stargazer.
  • vowels - This is strictly for phonetic data. Discussed more below.

Video Conversion - Miro Video Converter - Free

I’m often given a video file, whether from Youtube, field recordings, or otherwise, and asked to do some analysis. When that happens, I use Miro to turn it into a sane format (usually mp4), or to extract the audio (using the “Format” setting).

Vowel Plotting - The ‘vowels’ package for R - Free

Although you have to reformat the data into a very specific column ordering, then import to R, the ‘vowels’ package is great, and produces some really beautiful vowel plots. It’s better than any other approach I’ve found.

Youtube Video Downloading - youtube-dl - Free

This is a free and easy command line utility for downloading videos from YouTube. If you wanted to download a video of Ken Stevens being irradiated for phonetics, you would just install youtube-dl and type the below at a terminal:

youtube-dl "https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DcNMCB-Gsn8"

You can then use Miro (see above) to convert to sound, and next thing you know, you’re good to analyze.

Word Processing and Writing - XeLaTeX or Markdown - Free

I describe my complicated writing workflow in the last post, but I love LaTeX, and XeLaTeX makes it even better, allowing full Unicode support (so, effortless IPA, and more!). There’s a reason that I’ve taught LaTeX for Linguists several times. I’m passionate about it.

If I’m writing something more casual, or using my crazy workflow above, I’ll write using markdown. Markdown is a simple way to mark formatting in text, which can then be transformed into other formats using tools like Pandoc (Free) or Marked ($14). It’s a nice way to write plaintext, and let formatting just get out of my way. I’m partial to iA Writer Pro ($20) for putting markdown text on a page in a pleasant environment, but Textmate 2 (Free) is 80% as good for free.

However, both of these solutions are really geeky. LaTeX has a scary learning curve, and Markdown is kind of finicky, given that you need a second program to print it. Both are unquestionably worth the time to learn, but if you haven’t the time, patience, or geek-tolerance, there’s always…

An expensive alternative - Microsoft Word - $80

If I’m not in Markdown or TeX, or if I’m collaborating with somebody who’s scared of TeX and doesn’t want to use Overleaf (formerly WriteLaTeX) (Free), I’ll use Word. But I won’t be super happy about it.

So, I hope you’ve enjoyed this list of phonetic tools and software, and that somewhere, somebody out there finds something new and wonderful.

~ ə ~

My particular form of procrastination is optimization. You can tell I don’t want to cut two bags of potatoes when I’m sharpening the kitchen knives. You can tell I’m uninterested in laundry when I ‘m cleaning the dryer barrel. And when I didn’t quite know where to go with my dissertation prospectus, well, I decided that I needed to develop a more graceful way to do so.

For the last few years, I’ve written all my large papers in XeLaTeX (using XeLaTeX for unicode support, making IPA much easier). I love LaTeX, love BibTeX, and love not worrying about formatting. But writing long sections of text in LaTeX kind of sucks, because it’s rather clunky and there are no good editors for LaTeX on mobile devices.

In LaTeX, making text bold requires you to wrap the word or phrase in eight characters worth of tags. Section headings are ugly, and also have accompanying tags. Every %, & or _ must be escaped. LaTeX is powerful for doing complex things, but while writing prose, it just gets in the way.

Why Markdown?

I decided that I’d rather write in Markdown. Markdown is an easy syntax for writing, where you can define section headings as easily as:

# This is a section heading 
## Subsection Heading
### Subsubsection heading

Bold, italic, and bold-italic are as easy as:

**bold**, *italic*, ***bold italic***

Most importantly, it’s designed to be quick to use and type using available symbols. So, in short, writing Markdown doesn’t suck, but I wanted to still use the best of LaTeX, for things like dynamic numbering, BibTeX automatic bibliographies, and easy creation of nice tables.

So, I hacked together a solution using Pandoc, the same software I use to generate this site from Markdown.

Turning Markdown into LaTeX

First, I created two documents which had the preamble code for LaTeX in one (everything up until the first section heading), and the footer info in the other (the bibliography).

Then, I created a markdown file for the meat of the paper, which I’ll later convert into LaTeX and stick between the header and footer. I stuck this markdown file in my Dropbox folder and I edit that markdown file to write the paper, whether on a Mac (using TextMate), or on an iPad or iPhone (using Editorial). You can make individual chapter files and concatenate them, if you’d prefer, but I stuck to one mega-file.

The beautiful thing about this approach is that I can write Markdown, which is readable and pleasant, 95% of the time, and then switch into LaTeX in the same file to add something fancy, such as a \cite{Paper Citation}, a \ref{reference} to a \label{labeled section} or a \footnote{}.

I can also include LaTeX tables, throw in \input{} commands to read other tables in, and use \vspace{} where needed. There’s no penalty to going back and forth, and I have the power of LaTeX when needed, and the easy-pretty of markdown when I’m just writing.

This also allows me to use Stargazer, a package for the R Statistics Suite which allows you to directly output data as pretty LaTeX tables. I just have Stargazer output to a .tex file, then \input{} that .tex file. It’s both wonderful and reproducible, because all of my figures, tables, and models are generated directly by R, so no “copy-paste” errors are possible.

How?!

Well, the joy is in the script that creates the data. When I’d like to see a final version, I run a script in the terminal (or hit Cmd+Option+Control+Shift+PageDown, triggering it through KeyboardMaestro.

Although you’ll want to look at the script itself, which is extensively commented, basically, it does the following:

  1. It copies all of the text from Markdown files, and all of the analysis scripts, into a single place.
  2. It turns the Markdown into a LaTeX file using Pandoc.
  3. It cleans up the output a bit.
  4. It tacks a custom header and footer onto the output, which contains all my style information.
  5. It builds the document and bibliography in LaTeX
  6. It opens the PDF copy in a PDF reader, and copies the latest PDF version to my dissertation folder
  7. It builds a .tar.gz archive containing the complete text and analysis scripts, and saves it to a “backups” folder by date.
    • This way, if I mess something up, I can always go back to the last version(s), and I’ve got a way to compare changes if I need to.

It combines the best parts of simple plaintext writing with the best parts of LaTeX, and allows me to be as productive on my phone or iPad as I can be at home (with the exception of rendering a new PDF, and using PocketBib for reading and finding citekeys). In short, it allowed me to write 72,000+ words of dissertation, and not hate my life. I’ve since moved my guide to using Praat to a similar workflow, so I can write it using Markdown too!

Most importantly, though, I’ve found a way to make writing a dissertation geekier than it already was. And that, my friends, is my real accomplishment.

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