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April 10
2017-04-10 Blog Entry

I'm taking a moment away from writing for Camp NaNoWriMo 2017 to talk about the experience of writing this year's novel. It's special primarily because I'm doing it in MacWrite Pro on my Macintosh Quadra 840av, and other vintage Macintosh computers.

I decided to write it on the system in part because on the literal eve of the event, I had gotten my Macintosh Quadra 840av set up in my primary office area with an Apple Multiple Scan 20 display. The thing to know about this setup is that it's beautiful and if you haven't used System 7 or Mac OS 8 at those kinds of resolutions, you're missing out. It's by no means absolutely necessary to use them, but a different world of productivity opens up above 640x480 that I don't see very often. I've used Mac OS 9 at higher resolutions, but mostly in the context of my early days online. I did not end up doing an awful lot of things like

So I start noodling on some ideas and I come across an old thing I'd like to rewrite and expand upon, and I decide to give it a go. For the first day or so, it was just a single MacWrite Pro file on the 840av, but it quickly grew to include a SimpleText file for notes about the plot, and a Resolve file for word count accounting purposes.

It has been particularly interesting to try all of this out. I have "used" MacWrite Pro and Resolve before, but never for actual work. It's been super instructive and to be honest a little hilarious to look at the juxtaposition of what "work" means and what was productive in the early 1990s compared with what we think of as being needed today.

For reference, I have published two successive articles complaining that my Microsoft Surface RT, a computer with a quad-core CPU, two gigabytes of RAM, a beautiful little display, wireless networking and a contemporarily useful version of Microsoft Office, plus a very long battery life, is too slow for me to use as an actual computer and so I need a new laptop. Doing a real writing project on vintage Mac hardware has, as such, been somewhat humbling. MacWrite Pro's default RAM allocation on both 68k and PowerPC processors is one megabyte. It will run, probably happily, in as little as 640 kilobytes if it must. Claris Resolve's minimum is 750, and its preferred is the same 1024. SimpleText's minimum is 192 and its preferred is 512.

So here I am working with a document that's about to hit 10,000 words (I'm behind, whoops) on a computer with 24 megabytes of memory. The OS is using a bit under 7, MacWrite Pro and Resolve each have 1 megabyte allocated, and of all things, the SSH client I have on here is using 6 megs.

The actual workflow is interesting. This is probably going to sound familiar, because a lot of people still do this particular thing, but with USB flash drives. I have saved my primary copies of all the documents on a floppy diskette which I've named specifically for the project. Every day or so, I make a copy onto a hard disk of one of the machines as a backup. It's very low-tech, but it easily enables me to do this work on any of the computers I set up, even if they aren't networked. And, I have a few different systems I'm using for the work so far. The first is of course the 840av. Then, I have a PowerBook 1400c/166. In my bedroom, I've put a 6100/66 with a 14-inch Macintosh Color Display, and at work, I have a PowerBook 180.

I also have a Macintosh LC520 I could set up somewhere, which would probably be the truest test of this workflow. That system has a generous five megabytes of memory installed. However, it's also using a much older version of the OS than the other machines are, so it should happily run Resolve and MacWrite Pro. The only real limitation there is the fact that I don't have enough keyboard cables and mice to set up that system.

The obvious weaknesses of this system (all of these systems, har har) is that I do not have good backups in place to warrant against failure. I have a large data cartridge drive on the 840av, but not enough media to trust it or to use it if the 840av itself were to get full. I have networking, but I don't have an appropriate file server set up at the moment.

The other concern is in workflow. I don't think I could write my normal daily blogs on this system, because transferring data is a big challenge. Regular NaNoWriMo is also a much higher pressure event and there is a lot more unpredictable travel involved. The PowerBooks 180 and 1400 are portable after a fashion, but neither of them gets good battery life, and although it's not strictly a problem right now, they are both over twenty years old (21 and 24) and certain bits of plastic have weakened over time.

The other thing that I find it important to mention is that a lot of people talk about old computers in terms of their ability to create a distraction-free writing environment. Unfortunately, those people then go and load a bunch of old games and network communication software on the machines. I've long known I would never be any more productive on, say, one of my 68k Macs as I am on one of my normal modern computers. I'm doing this not because I think it will somehow enhance my output or my capacity to write more things. I think that's dictated more by being able to move away from mainstream spaces. The offset created by a 20-inch CRT does actually help, but I can just put a laptop nearby or pull the LCD on my Mac mini forward and suddenly I once again have two computers nearby to deal with. I'm personally convinced that the key to my own productivity revolves more around only having one computer on hand and having the computer be comfortable to use and have tools I like on it, than trying to force specific limits based on having things installed or not installed on the machine. When it comes to my blogging workflow, things that could otherwise force "distraction free" are a huge impediment to productivity. For example, the real problem with the Surface RT is that browsing the web on it is slow. I could do it and gather links, but it would be faster to use some other computer.

Once I'm done with the month, I'll probably re-evaluate the Surface RT. It feels slow in relation to other modern computers, but its advantages in comparison to old Macs are numerous and noteworthy. The disadvantages it has can either be worked around or just offset.


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