October 25, 2005

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.

Distractions - October 25, 2005 - chad r. frost