Author Topic: Thoughts on Synergy  (Read 7820 times)

hardyat

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Thoughts on Synergy
« on: August 22, 2010, 10:16:46 AM »
Another paperless related item – I’ve been asked about a million times over the last month for my thoughts on Debate Synergy.  Finally decided to just collect my responses here.

Short version – Synergy is great software.  If you like the way it works, you should use it.  It does several things Whitman’s template doesn’t do, and it lacks some features from our system, especially the newest version.  Which you use is largely a matter of taste.  Most importantly – these aren’t mutually exclusive options.  Synergy is designed to work with any template – so if you find yourself missing features in either platform, you can probably find a way to combine them.  The new version of Whitman’s template also owes a big debt to Alex Gulakov and Synergy – I liberally borrowed concepts and ideas in designing our new system.  Figuring out how to use the ‘  key alone was way smart.

However, if any of the following three things are true:

1)  You need to run paperless natively on a Mac (using Mac Word 2004) and can’t use boot camp or parallels to run a new version of Word
2)  You need paperless to work in older versions of Word like Word 2003
3)  You really want to run paperless on Linux using WINE

Then you should stick with the previous version (2.0) of Whitman’s macros.  It’s cross-platform – not much else is.  Whitman 3.0 will hopefully be native Mac compatible sometime this fall when the new version of Mac Word comes out – we’ll see when it gets released.  No idea if Alex is planning to port Synergy or not.

Longer discussion for the nerds interested in the technical differences between the two platforms follows.

A few advantages to Whitman’s newest template (3.0):

1)  Portability – the new template has been designed with portability in mind, since most people probably won’t want to use it “out of the box.”   There’s even a version of the template with a custom user interface without reference to shortcut keys to make it easier for you to customize yourself.  In addition, the code has been written to try and be accessible to non-programmers.  It’s a little less computer programmer friendly in some spots, by design – but it has the advantage of a certain kind of simplicity.  If object-oriented programming and the difference between a function and a subroutine are lost on you, this could be an advantage to figuring out what’s going on under the hood.  The only exception is the custom ribbon – that’s gonna take a working knowledge of XML.  

2)  I like the interface better – but probably only because I designed it.  It’s designed to be as streamlined as possible, ensuring everything you need is always visible, with as little extraneous stuff to muddy up the ribbon as possible.  I’ve purposefully left out several of the smaller features found in Synergy, because I can’t envision ever using them.  The idea was to have everything we needed and nothing we didn’t.

3)  Self contained – Doesn’t require changes to your Normal template, and doesn’t rely on any external configuration files, etc…Since Synergy is designed to replace your whole Normal template, it means that Synergy is ALWAYS installed, even for non-debate work in Word.  For those of us that frequently need to use Word for non-debate applications, this can be irritating.  Un-installing Synergy is relatively simple – but you shouldn’t have to install and reinstall just to switch between using a Debate template and not.  This can also be a significant problem on computers without Administrator access – if you’re using a school computer, you might not be able to easily install/uninstall Synergy without administrator rights to run the .msi package.

4)  Document Structure – Whitman’s new template is designed with a specific set of heading levels to make navigation and paperless assembly as easy as possible using the new Word 2010 Navigation Pane.  Synergy doesn’t use a “Tag” style, and I’m pretty sure it has Hats and Block Titles both set to be Heading 1.  It’s a little hard to explain why this matters if you haven’t used Word 2010.  But, trust me when I say that when you eventually upgrade, you’ll want Headings 1-3 assigned to Hats, Blocks, and Tags in that order.

As much as I like most of what Synergy does, I do have a few reservations about adopting it as the sole platform.  This is not related to Synergy’s paperless macro base or interface, which works fine.  Mostly, I’m just not personally a huge fan of the Virtual Tub system.  While I conceptually understand the advantages of being able to insert blocks into a Speech without opening the parent file, I don’t think it’s very workable in practice.  Granted, you don’t have to use the Virtual Tub to use Synergy – but I get asked about this feature often enough to comment on it.

1)  Most importantly, I think it encourages too block-centric thinking.  It’s very rare that my students will ever read a 2AC block “as-is.”  Instead, I want them to be trained to think as modularly as possible – selecting the relevant cards for each argument by physically looking at each card as they transfer it to their Speech.  When you’re inserting blocks directly from a virtual tub, you’re flying blind – you have to know exactly which cards are on that block in advance.  I worry that this would encourage kids (especially at the high school level) to think less about what cards to read and more about which block was labeled “AT:  Disad.”  Basically, I think this feature would be great for a debater who was hyper-organized – and knew every card in their files.  For the huge percentage of my students, who tend to be an organizational mess, a block-centric Virtual Tub seems like a disaster waiting to happen.

2)  I dislike the “expando” function turning a file into a large set of Word documents.  For anyone that has tried to maintain a centralized digital tub, the quantity of Word files involved seems like a nightmare to me.  In particular, I think it also makes Version control and file sharing more difficult.  If you wanted to send a highlighted version of a section of the file to a teammate, then there’s a lot of Word docs to keep track of, instead of one larger file.  Personally, I like a digital tub with Word files in the hundreds – not the thousands.

3)  I also worry that the virtual tub wouldn’t work very well for very large tubs – too many files and directories would quickly make navigating the drop-down menus a headache.  Or at least, would offset any time advantage gained by not needing to open the original file.  If I coached a high school team – where the number of files/blocks was smaller and the debaters would be more likely to read static blocks all year long, I think the Virtual Tub could be a lot more useful.

Synergy does have several features that Whitman’s template doesn’t – if any of the following things are important to you, you should use Synergy – or find a way to port those features into a combo Template.

1)  Virtual Tub – If you like this, it’s unlikely to show up in Whitman’s template, at least for awhile.

2)  Integration with Excel – If you want to flow on your computer, Synergy has some neat tools for working with your Speech document.  Some of those can be used with the new Whitman system – but it’s not designed to be an “integrated” solution for flowing.  This is mostly because I discourage my students from flowing on the computer.  I think they tend to lose some of the big picture perspective gained by looking at multiple sheets at the same time or seeing more of the gameboard.  Plus, they tend to write too much.

3)  Auto-open folder – Synergy integrates with Dropbox and an Auto-Open folder so you can quickly open files on a viewing computer.  Since we don’t always use Dropbox, internet is spotty at tournaments, and Dropbox doesn’t tend to sync as well as we’d like, I didn’t bother including this feature.

4)  Search function – Synergy integrates with the Everything search engine, right from Word.

5)  Cite maker – Synergy has a rough “Auto-Cite” macro.  In my experience, it works sometimes, but not always.  It tends to work best with Lexis.

6)  Paste URL – Synergy has a macro which grabs the URL from firefox when you paste.  This could be integrated pretty easily to your own template, but I’ve left it out because it relies on some file system functions which aren’t likely to work on Mac in the future.

7)  Auto-Underline – Synergy’s version of this macro is WAY better.  It also relies on PC specific file system stuff, which I’ve avoided at the cost of making the Whitman version of this a bit hacked together.

8 )  A few other formatting macros, and a function for adding a page header and TOC – neither of which Whitman uses anymore.

Closing thoughts – Both the Whitman template and Synergy are probably capable of meeting most needs for a team debating paperless.  Which you choose is pretty much down to personal preference, and which feature set/design philosophy appeals to you most.  If you have specific questions about which platform I think would work best for your particular situation or needs, feel free to drop me a line.

Best,

hardy

« Last Edit: August 22, 2010, 08:15:16 PM by hardyat »

izak

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Re: Thoughts on Synergy
« Reply #1 on: August 22, 2010, 07:13:59 PM »
...the cost savings of paperless aim to make things less exclusionary, but that goal is undermined when Macs have to get Office and an OS to use this software.

let's not forget that even someone with linux and wine will still have to buy Office as well.  moving template implementation to open office is a sort of pet project of mine that i clearly will never have the time to finish; if anyone is interested in creating a genuinely free implementation of the template, let me know.

hardyat

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Re: Thoughts on Synergy
« Reply #2 on: August 22, 2010, 08:14:59 PM »
Alex -- Agreed on the Mac.  It's frustrating to know that Mac Word will continue to be a crippled version without support for things like ribbon customizations.  I tried to minimize use of the File System Object in the new Whitman template for the reason you describe -- that it won't work on Mac.  Obviously several macros pretty much can't work without it, and unfortunately even the ones where I used a workaround made those macros much worse.  Which is why Synergy's auto-underliner is so much better than mine...the Caps Lock hack is stupid...

Co-authoring DOES work for live use, though -- have confirmed tested it.  Not always easy to get working, but is doable.

Izak -- Will personally do it as soon as Open Office has a normal/draft view.  Until then, not worth it.

hardy

izak

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Re: Thoughts on Synergy
« Reply #3 on: August 22, 2010, 09:02:50 PM »
As a K guy whose cards often run several pages at a time, this is a problem I can sympathize with.  It isn't really a problem for which there is simple to fix in OO--the way the program handles drawing objects in in different layers needs new implementation, and this is far beyond my abilities.  As an utterly poor guy, I still can't see how it isn't worth it.  Creating a template which displays headers in the Document Map (err, Navigator) is simple enough as a foundation for paperless debate. The macros which enable the quick creation of a speech-ready Speech.doc is more complex of course, but I consider that an added feature which you can work around if you're so in love with debate that it doesn't matter how few technological resources you have at your disposal.  I'm just too dumb to make all the formatting backwards compatible with other files and formats (also, I am not quite aware of how OO implements the .doc format, so this probably leads to some of my problems), which makes constructing a backfile for a team without access to office a very very tedious process.  

Though, in all fairness, the money one saves by not having to check a tub (sorry, tubs, for you policy folk) or rent a larger vehicle could probably be used to buy a single copy of Office.  

But I should say one thing before I say anything else about K's--thank you very much, Hardy (and Alex, though I've never used your software) for providing this service to all of the debate community.  It definitely makes life easier for all, despite my griping about (marginal) costs.

(and soon, there will be a real K-land of debate where everyone shares evidence because of how the electronic production of research makes us re-think notions of liberal individualism, ownership, and blah blah blah)
« Last Edit: August 22, 2010, 09:04:48 PM by izak »

ben

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Re: Thoughts on Synergy
« Reply #4 on: August 28, 2010, 04:25:39 PM »
Quote
Izak -- Will personally do it as soon as Open Office has a normal/draft view.  Until then, not worth it.

What about open office's web layout?

hardyat

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Re: Thoughts on Synergy
« Reply #5 on: August 28, 2010, 07:25:24 PM »
Web Layout = Eh.  No margin restriction on the right side is annoying and harder to read, doesn't show page breaks for people that still use them.  Can be partially controlled by docking a pane like Navigator on the right side...But, on balance, just not as full featured as "Draft" view and makes workflow irritating, at least to me.

I have no doubts that with some work a template version could be produced for Open Office that replicated most of the essential functionality available in Word -- It's just personally not super high priority for me.  If I felt like Open Office was a good enough product for me to use as my full time word processor, then I would feel a push towards using an exclusively open source platform.  But as long as it lacks major features and lags behind the overall user experience in Word by such a significant margin, then I (and my students) are stuck using Word for everything else (non-debate) anyway, and there's not much reason to switch.

If someone is seriously considering doing a port in the short term, let me know -- I'm happy to provide what little guidance I can...

jgonzo

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Re: Thoughts on Synergy
« Reply #6 on: August 29, 2010, 10:42:22 AM »
Yes, Office is expensive, but, as a coach for a squad undergoing the transition to paperless as I write, the cost for student licensed versions of Parallels, Windows, and Office is still less than the cost of moving four tubs to and from one tournament. Paperless FTW.


izak

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Re: Thoughts on Synergy
« Reply #7 on: August 30, 2010, 11:58:39 AM »
Web Layout = Eh.  No margin restriction on the right side is annoying and harder to read, doesn't show page breaks for people that still use them.

Well, I have been using Web Layout as a way to make the actual process of debating off of OO more user-friendly, but it has so far required the use of html to set up tables to control the margins.  Being HTML, they scale well from screen to screen, but unfortunately I have no clue how to make this backwards compatible with word templates.  It has been easy enough to write a "converter" (read: really long stupid macro) to "fit" word docs in the template into the OO template.

So the creation of an OO template which deals with the processing end of ev production is simple; compatibility is not.

Quote
I have no doubts that with some work a template version could be produced for Open Office that replicated most of the essential functionality available in Word -- It's just personally not super high priority for me.  If I felt like Open Office was a good enough product for me to use as my full time word processor, then I would feel a push towards using an exclusively open source platform.  But as long as it lacks major features and lags behind the overall user experience in Word by such a significant margin, then I (and my students) are stuck using Word for everything else (non-debate) anyway, and there's not much reason to switch.

If someone is seriously considering doing a port in the short term, let me know -- I'm happy to provide what little guidance I can...

The real problem i'm having right now is the implementation of the Speech.doc construction of paperless debate.  I'm sure as I delve more into the programming, I'll get it, but it's a slog, worse than learning a new language.  In the meantime, I would implore all of you who care to register and vote at http://www.openoffice.org/issues/show_bug.cgi?id=4914 to get something like a "normal" or "draft" view completed (I know that in using OO for writing a long paper with footnotes, not having normal is maddening).

What other "major features" would you like to see OO implement?  What would be necessary to make the OO experience on par with the user-experience of Word?