Three Free Cool Tools for Writers

For those of you who – like me – make your living with words, here are three free cool tools I use that have helped me as a writer and a thinker. I want my writing to be more clear and more direct, and these tools make it easier to get there. And all of these are my favorite price: FREE!

The Most Dangerous Writing App

I almost always struggle with Editing when I should be Writing. MDWA solves that eternal struggle in the most psychologically violent manner possible: if you stop writing for more than five seconds, it erases everything you’ve written.

Lemme tell you, with that kind of motivation, I can absolutely pound out the text when I am using MDWA.

(And it kinda sounds like a drug, doesn’t it?)

Hemingway

If you love words, it’s tempting to get addicted to your own vocabulary.

Bad writer! Bad! Bad writer!

Hemingway highlights the words, sentences and phrases that are difficult to comprehend. And it runs a quick Flesch Reading Ease test on the text to give it a readability score.

When I first started using it, almost everything I wrote scored at 12th grade or above. In just a few weeks of practice with Hemingway, I was able to increase the readability of my copy down to about a 6th grade level.

(Lower is better.)

As an aside, Donald Trump is able to speak at about a 4th grade level. This is astonishingly difficult to do. I think it partially explains his success.

Workflowy

I first discovered outliners back in the old MS-DOS days with a tool called ThinkTank.

A good outliners makes it super easy to capture all your thoughts, and then rearrange and sort them in ways that make more sense. ThinkTank did it better than any tool ever, until Workflowy came along.

NOTE: This is not a mind-mapping tool. Mindmaps have their place, but outliners do an entirely different job.

I’ve been using Workflowy almost every day for the last four years. It’s that good. If you’ve never used an outliner, this is the one to try. And if you wish the outliner you used was better, this is the one to try.

Bonus: Scrivener

Scrivener isn’t free, but it is free-ish. (You can download a free trial.)

If you write long, complex documents, then this is the tool you want.

My most profitable work is writing webinars and video sales letters, and it would be waaaaaay harder without Scrivener. The learning curve is a little steep, but it’s a brilliant tool. If you write long documents, you’ll hate MS-Word after using Scrivener.

And if after you try it, you love it, (as I did), the purchase price is very reasonable. (I think I paid around $40.)

Improving Criminal Justice?

This is the Justice Problem

Law enforcement and the criminal justice system treat crime as a profit center, rather than as an obligation to make sure justice is served.

I can hear you exclaim, “You’re nuts!”

Perhaps I am. But consider…

If someone steals my car, gets caught, tried and convicted, what happens?

They go to jail, (at the taxpayers’ expense), and/or pay a fine to the state. This is the “Crime and Punishment” model of Justice.

Winners:
The jailer makes money. (More prisoners = more money.)
The state makes money. (More fines = more money.)
The attorneys make money. (More trials = more money.)

Losers:
Me: I suffer the loss of my car for some time, maybe permanently.
The Perp: He is branded a felon for the rest of his life.

The two parties directly affected by the crime both end up being victims, and the various people who are supposed to be meting out justice end up being enriched by the crime.

Is there a better way?

This is the Justice Solution

There is an older model of dealing with crime: the “Restitution” model.

Under that model, if someone who steals from me is caught, he is required to repay me for what he stole, plus some sort of premium.

I get the full value of my car back, plus some additional to make up for having suffered the loss, however temporary.

In other words, his debt is owed to me, and I am the one he must pay.

He loses because he has to pay back what he stole, plus the premium.

Once I am made whole, the affair is entirely ended. He is not branded for life as a “felon” and the property and time he stole from me is restored.

Under the “Crime & Punishment” model, a person who makes a one-time stupid decision is branded for life as a felon. Even if he spends the rest of his life as an honest, upright citizen. He is permanently in the same class as a career criminal.

Under the “Restitution” model, a person who makes a one-time stupid decision pays for it one time and is then free.

The “Restitution” model views crime as a debt incurred to the victim.

The “Crime & Punishment” model views crime as a debt incurred to “society”, whatever that is.

The “Crime & Punishment” model disregards the loss suffered by the victim, permanently dooms the perpetrator to life as part of an underclass, and enriches third parties from the event.

Conclusion

One of the steps on the road to reducing the power of the state and increasing individual freedom is to embrace the “Restitution” model of justice.

Let’s do that.

Grief: The Irrational Clue to Humanity’s Origins

Grief.

It makes no sense from an evolutionary standpoint.

When we suffer loss, we rage at the cruelty of fate and grieve for an imagined future that will never be.

Why?

When our dreams shatter, when we fail ourselves and each other, when shit happens, when the universe rubs us out like a bug, we grieve.

Why?

People are shitty to each other, and we act like it’s wrong. But when animals prey on one another, it doesn’t bother us in the slightest.

Why do we expect different?

Is it not perfectly normal for the strong to prey on the weak? Doesn’t nature herself – sharp of tooth and red of claw – teach us that this is so?

When the strong devour the weak, why do we not shrug and say, “glad it wasn’t me”? That would be the normal, natural reaction to a creature that was entirely of this planet.

We don’t think that the killer whale is “evil” when it kills a few dolphins for breakfast. We don’t consider wolves “evil” when they run down the weak elk in a herd for lunch.

Strong men who prey on the weak are no different than killer whales or wolves.

Are they?

So why this universal belief that “things should be better”? Why this conviction that “there’s got to be more to life than this”? Why do we expect that “things should be better” when the entirety of human history tells us that better almost never happens?

If we are the result of a cosmic chemical accident, then the whole idea of “should” is meaningless.

Should implies alternatives. Chemical reactions don’t have alternatives.

We act for all the world like we believe we don’t belong here.

We should have no reason to do so, and yet everywhere you go in the world, we believe in good and bad, we believe in justice and fair play and honesty.

These are evolutionarily useless beliefs.

So how to explain the almost universal belief that life is not as it should be?

I think the only reasonable explanation is this:

Because it is true…

I suspect that we as a race are somehow fallen from a great height. Else why would we even have the sense of missing something? There must be some genetic, generational memory at work in us, distant echoes and shadows of a place our race used to live, a place that was paradise – by comparison to now – we used to inhabit.

It is clear that those without conscience and without remorse are far better suited to getting what they want.

So why do we consider it “wrong” to live without conscience and to act without remorse?

The only answer I can find is that we really are descended from a race that was better. I think there is something written into our DNA that we remember.

We know about justice because justice is in us. We sense the difference between good and evil because it is written into our cells.

I don’t know how and I don’t know why, but I am certain we are not mere descendants of our animal cousins.

I doubt we are cousins at all.

Purplevania: A Parable of Tolerance, Dance & Death

The people of Purplevania, more than any country on earth, loved ballroom dance.

The waltz. The tango. The fox-trot and the quick-step. The paso doble and the rumba. Year after year, the greatest ballroom dancers in the world came from Purplevania.

Yet all was not sunshine and roses.

Purplevania endured a minor yet long-running dispute about ballroom dancing lessons.

Some people in Purplevania believed that everyone deserved free ballroom dance lessons. They loved the beauty of ballroom dance, the thrill of competition, the benefits of exercise and the really cool hairstyles.

Others believed that no one deserved free ballroom dance lessons. They were not against ballroom dance lessons. They too loved the beauty of ballroom dance, the thrill of competition, the benefits of exercise and the really cool hairstyles.

They believed that any Purplevanian who wanted ballroom dance lessons should pay for those lessons themselves rather than forcing all Purplevanians to pay for them.

For decades, the two groups of Purplevanians lived in peace with one another. Each group thought the other was wrong, but each group tolerated  the other’s contrary beliefs.

It was a peaceful, happy and beautiful time to be alive.

Until one day, when…

A charismatic, powerful figure rose to a position of power: Fabulous Frederick Flaminco

Fab Fred, (as his supporters called him), was a fiery speaker, aflame with passion for ballroom dance. He believed – passionately – that everyone deserved free ballroom dance lessons. On the strength of that message, he was elected Prime Minister by the narrowest of margins.

In a stunning departure from Purplevanian traditions, he commanded the creation of a special committee charged with collecting money from all Purplevanians to fund free dance lessons for all.

Naturally, the Free Dance Lessons for Everyone crowd loved Fab Fred.

The other crowd – the “if you want it, then pay for it” crowd – was horrified.

“Why are we forced to pay for other people’s dance lessons”, they rightly asked. “It violates our beliefs!”

They two groups of Purplevanians had coexisted for decades with those differing opinions. But now, one group had chosen “progress” over “peaceful coexistence” and was forcing their beliefs on the other group.

Of course, this story ends as all true stories do: with death.

A civil war broke out.

Purplevanians by the thousands were killed, wounded and horribly maimed by the war. Purplevania lost its stature as the ballroom dance capital of the world. The war destroyed all the ballroom dance studios and killed most of the teachers.

No more champions ever came from Purplevania again.

In the end, Fabulous Frederick Flamingo was deposed and fled the country to live out the rest of his life in Argentina, (naturally).

Some people still loved him. Some would forever revile his name.

Purplevania never recovered.

Today, where once there was prosperity, happiness, art, beauty and cooperation, there is only poverty, pain, sickness, destruction and suspicion.

And very few Purplevanians even remember how to dance.


 

Believe whatever you want. But let other people believe whatever they want, too. It’s not okay to force other to pay for your beliefs. Everyone loses in that situation.

 

Artist or Accountant?

Do the Scales Balance?

Portrait of Luca PacioliA guy driving back from a fishing trip is killed when a rock thrown from an overpass crashes through his windshield. Shit happens.

An otherwise-healthy 32-year-old mother of 5 small children contracts breast cancer and dies within 4 months of the diagnosis. Shit happens.

A cab driver steps between a man and the girlfriend he is hitting. The man turns on the cabbie and beats him into a coma. He dies within weeks without regaining consciousness. Shit happens.

Or at least, that’s what some people say.

Other people say that what goes around comes around. Karma’s a bitch. You reap what you sow. The scales must be balanced.

I wonder: Is the universe fundamentally just or not?

If the universe is just…

…then there is an accountant in charge who balances out every debit with an offsetting credit and every extra credit with a debit.

The universe is a zero-sum game. Everything must eventually balance.

But if it is not…

…then there is room in this universe for the unexpected and unbalanced to occur. Not just shit but grace as well. Not just bad luck but gratuitous fortune.

As it happens, we almost never see stuff get balanced. We almost never see a debit offset with a credit. Bad things tend to happen to good people, for no rhyme or reason. Good things happen to bad people, and they get away with it.

If the universe is just, and we don’t see every debit offset with a credit, then we tell ourselves stories to explain why.

Either we project the credit off into the distant future beyond death, (heavenly reward), or we place the debit into the distant past, beyond birth, (karma’s a bitch).

Both explanations require faith because neither is subject to proof.

If the bad stuff  is balancing undeserved fortune, then perhaps the good stuff is balancing undeserved misfortune, right? And vice versa?

Is shit happening to you because something from the distant past is finally catching up with you, (the sins of the fathers are visited on their children), or is the shit something you’ll get a reward for after you’re dead?

How can we know? It’s more than enough to drive you crazy.

Artistry, Not Accountancy

Of course, if the universe is not just, then perhaps it’s because there’s an artist in charge.

We’ve all known artists. They are messy. They are disorganized. They are extreme in their actions and reactions. Often they don’t make sense. They tend to over-indulge their senses and neglect the necessities of life. All for the sake of art.

“Shit happens,” yes – but to me it is just part of the great messy canvas the universal artist paints upon.

Oh, and grace happens on that canvas, too.

So breathe. In and out. In and out.

“Pattern Recognition” by William Gibson

Pattern RecognitionNeuromancer is apparently the William Gibson book I should have read 20 years ago. I didn’t. And still haven’t. But I did just finish his Pattern Recognition.

Quick impressions: It is – on the one hand – unlike anything I have ever read. On the other, it is a fairly typical but engaging mystery story.

His protagonist, Cayce Pollard, is a “coolhunter” with a bizarro allergic response to American advertising. She inhabits a world at once far cooler, far techier and far more strange than the humdrum one most of us experience. (It’s also a wee bit contrived. But hey, it’s a novel.)

Cayce is part of an online community focused on an underground film which is being released into the world one clip at a time. The mystery to be solved is the identity and motives of the filmmakers. There’s a Russian mafioso, an Italian high-fashionista, an Oklahoma-born Asian-American hacker, a couple of eastern European entrepreneurs, a Belgian advertising genius and lots of jet-setting around the world on unlimited expense accounts.

You know, pretty much like a normal day for any of us.

Things I loved: Gibson does an absolutely masterful job of creating a mystery that kept me completely engaged from beginning to end. He gets the technology world we inhabit now, (or at least the world we inhabited when this was published in 2003.)  The plot clips along at a nice pace throughout and the writing style is quirky but refined.

Things I didn’t love: Super strong plot, super undeveloped characters. I guess I’d describe this book as an internet-age version of a John Grisham novel. Also, the denouement felt, frankly, a bit contrived and a bit rushed. Almost like he looked up at the calendar and realized, “oh crap, this book is due at 5:00 this afternoon”.

I’d give it 3 stars out of 5.

“Made to Stick” makes it sticky

I get a kick out of it when academics spend a zillion years studying something obvious, quantifying it, categorizing it, slicing and dicing it, deconstructing it and then putting it all back together to prove that in fact everything we already knew is demonstrably true.

Book Review: Made to Stick

Made to Stick

The stolen kidney story.

If you’re still converting oxygen to CO2, you’ve probably heard about the guy who meets an attractive woman in a hotel bar and wakes up in a bathtub of ice. (If you haven’t, well… I dunno – start breathing.)

Made to Stick, by The Brothers Heath explains exactly precisely and intricately why such “stories” are more memorable than “jargon”.

Ok, maybe I’m being a tad harsh.

I actually enjoyed the book. It is well-written. The manner is engaging. The examples are plentiful and helpful. And frankly, the rubric they offer as a way to gauge the “stickiness” of any piece of writing is actually quite useful.

“What is that rubric”, you ask? ( I am so in tune with my readers…)

Duct Tape It To Your Brain

In short, if you want people to understand your message and remember your message, it needs to hit as many of these six hot buttons as possible:

  1. Simpleduct tape
  2. Unexpected
  3. Concrete
  4. Credible
  5. Emotional
  6. Stories

That’s pretty much it.

Good, But Not Great

If you’re a writer who wants to make sure people remember your message, it wouldn’t hurt to absorb the lessons of this book.

I’d call it good but not great.

I’m glad I read it.  I’ll keep it close for reference as I write.

 

What’s on Your Shelf

I own too many books, but these are some of those that I keep very close to me, on the shelf just above my monitor. What’s on your shelf? What books do you keep close?

Power CopywritingPower Copywriting – Lewis
I keep this one in memory of my good friend Ken Jessup who passed several years ago. It’s been a while since I read it; I’ll get back to it. (I have a feeling it is not nearly as good as most of the other copywriting books I own, but I will keep it as a memento.)

How to Write a Good Advertisement – Schwab

This is one of the classics in the field of copywriting. The examples are dated, but the lessons are timeless. Recommended

The Back of the Napkin – Roam

How to make presentations that don’t suck. Highly RecommendedThe Back of the Napkin

Learned Optimism – Seligman

Turns out that you can train your mind into optimism and out of pessimism. Some fascinating and intensely useful stuff here, especially if you have a melancholy bent. Highest Recommendation

Mike Caro’s Book of Tells, the Body Language of Poker – Caro

When I decided to get serious about poker, I started reading. This book came up constantly. It’s… Well, I’m ambiguous about it now. I think this is probably Poker PhD stuff and I’m still working on my Bachelor’s. The jury is still out

The Theory of PokerThe Theory of Poker – Sklansky

Any new skill requires both practice and theory. The best way to learn is to just do it, but after doing it for a while, a study of the theory will put your experience into context as well as show you where there are holes in your understanding. That’s the purpose of this book. Don’t read it until you’ve played a lot of poker. Recommended

Phil Gordon’s Little Blue Book – Gordon

This is the book that changed my poker experience. It is intensely practical, no fluff, no filler, and a terrific read. Highly recommended

The Elements of StyleThe Elements of Style – Strunk & White

There’s something indescribably appealing about this little book. I think perhaps the fact that it embodies the very qualities it promotes: brevity, clarity, potency. I don’t refer to it often, but when I do, it is always a pleasure. Highest Recommendation

Advanced Mathematics – Saxon

I was not the student I wish I would have been when I had the leisure to actually concentrate on learning. This book is helping me fill those gaps in my advanced math. For those who don’t know the Saxon method, it is by far the best way both to teach and learn math.  Highest Recommendation

Essential Readings for MLK Day

Martin Luther King

Every year on MLK Day, I like to read MLK’s Letter from Birmingham City Jail.  It reminds me of where we’ve been and where we thought we were going.  Where we are is much better than where we were and not nearly as good as where we are going.

In his I Have a Dream speech, he verbalized his hope that one day his children would be judged by “the content of their character” rather than the color of their skin. Who today has the moral courage to stand up and demand that we judge them by the content of their character rather than by their membership in some group or another?

Yeah. No one.

Non-violent civil disobedience was King’s weapon of choice for effecting change in his country. He believed that by provoking moral outrage in average Americans, he could direct their anger and their power towards creating a moral revolution in society.

His recipe for positive, non-violent change as described in his first book, Stride Toward Freedom included these 6 observations:

  1. Nonviolence is not passive, but requires courage
  2. Nonviolence seeks reconciliation, not defeat of an adversary
  3. Nonviolent action is directed at eliminating evil, not destroying an evil-doer
  4. A willingness to accept suffering for the cause, if necessary, but never to inflict it
  5. A rejection of hatred, animosity or violence of the spirit, as well as refusal to commit physical violence
  6. Faith that justice will prevail

The core of King’s message was libertarianism wrapped in a strong faith in the essential goodness of his fellow American citizens. That’s still a potent formula for change.

It is good that we remind ourselves of his words, his deeds and his results.

The Horrific Arrogance of Democracy

(Note: this essay originally appeared in 2011 on this web site with a different title.)

Most people really have no desire to be free — they only want to be taken care of, and will give up almost any freedom in exchange for the promise of security.

I’m one of those people who would rather be hungry and free than a full-bellied slave. There are fewer of us than there are those with the opposite preference.

“Democratic government” means a majority of people imposing their will on the minority. (Or, as someone famously commented, two wolves and a sheep voting on what to have for dinner.) Since those who prefer freedom to security are in the minority, democratic government inevitably becomes tyrannical.

Those who profess to believe that “democracy” and “freedom” mean the same thing are either ignorant, (most people fall into this category ), or else they are disingenuous.

Those who seek power fall into the latter category. You can recognize these people quickly: they’re the ones who are always telling someone else what to do.

Etiene de La Boitie famously observed in the 16th century that a tyrant is able to maintain his power because the people he enslaves allow it. I don’t think people have changed much in five centuries, do you?

Here in the united states, (lower case intentional), our government:

  • robs from the poor and middle class so that rich bankers don’t have to suffer any losses
  • sexually assaults us at airports
  • dictates to us what we they will or will not permit us to put in our own bodies
  • reads our mail
  • taps our phones
  • imprisons us on a whim
  • takes our money because they can

…and on and on ad nauseum.

Why, I ask you, do we have that sort of government? Isn’t ours a democratic government?

{crickets}

The prosecution rests.