Tuesday, October 25, 2005

Distractions

In this article, Paul Ford expounds on his new-found techniques for avoiding the innumerable distractions that crowd in to our modern lives; I hadn't seen the AlphaSmart Neo (and Dana) before his mention, and was amazed at how closely the concept, as executed by AlphaSmart, matched the requirements my brother and I had set out in a discussion a few nights ago. We recognized the need for a rugged (bordering bomb-proof), reliable, simple device with great text-entry usability for warlespondence, adventure travel, and similarly rugged duties. We further noted the utility of such a device for those interested in distilling their daily exposure to technology and media down to a more manageale, less distracting level, focused on the creative process. We spec'd out the basic requirements for a great keyboard, reasonable display of text (but much less than the usual laptop screen), network connectivity including modem, loooong battery life, and removable flash memory... imagine my surprise to find *almost exactly that device* already being made by AlphaSmart.

But Ford's broader premise rings true for me, also -- I increasingly find myself using retro-tech software to accomplish the tasks I value most. A case in point: writing technical papers. I've pretty much given up on MS Word (although I still hold out hope for the complete redesign of the UI promised by the next release of Office; call me a sucker.) Every time I try to take advantage of the supposedly time- and effort-saving features in Word, I get burned. So, after years of threatening to do so, I finally bit the bullet and switched (back) to LaTeX. The learning curve's a bit steep in some areas, but I think I'll only have to deal with it once, and I'm finding (as I hoped) that I end up with a much (MUCH) more reliable process to get a print-ready document than with Word, and that translates directly into time savings, less stress, and an increased focus on document content rather than appearance.

I'm happy to have a modern machine on which to work, and the nuances a modern text editor brings to the party, but it's also satisfying to know that the basic ASCII text documents I'm writing could be used on any of a huge variety of hardware and software to re-create the finished product, and I can always go back to writing/editing using good 'ol vi.

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