- 2008.04.22 - Tip Jar
Digital Fossils is an archeological voyage through the rich strata of our recent electronic past. This is not merely an academic trip, however. Like some fevered Jurassic Park dream come true, these fossils are brought to life to roam the earth in their natural habitats once more. While focusing primarily on vintage Macintosh hardware, the occasional side exploration will be made into the evolutionary past of video games, digital cameras, and other denizens of the thrift shop coal beds and yard sale shales which await only some pocket change and a bit of voltage to walk among us again.
I'm easily distracted.
There. I've admitted it. Gotten it out in the open.
I recently had a genius idea for boosting my writing productivity: I would park accessible extension cords or AC power supplies for one of my older Mac laptops in a couple of strategic locations (one that could be reached either from the dining room table or the futon in the living room, and one near the bed) and drag out an older 'Book to use as naught but a writing tool.
My stated excuse for this was exactly what I admitted above: An older Mac would keep me from being distracted by the intarw3b, and this would help my productivity. No more being interrupted by a research check at Wikipedia that turns into a two-hour Wikiwander. No more stopping what I'm doing every 45 minutes for a quick ego check at Sitemeter or Technorati.
But that wasn't the whole truth.
If all I wanted was a distraction-free environment, I'd pay $5 plus $20 shipping on eBay for one of the early Pentium laptops out there that have miraculously escaped the landfill. A bare-bones Win98 installation, delete Solitaire, make sure that it has no wireless card in it, and down the road I'd go - except that zero distractions was only a part of the equation.
The Creative Process
See, I'm not typing business letters here, or entering data into spreadsheets, or whatever; I'm trying to create something, something enjoyable for other people to read, out of whole cloth (or a woolly-headed hangover, whichever). I know that there are gifted writers out there who can compose beautiful essays with crayon on a napkin in the crowd at a hockey game; Zen masters who can contemplate koans in the middle of a busy lunchtime crowd in Tokyo's Ginza district while being mugged. I'm not one of them. I need that pretty gravel trap where somebody's raked everything into serene spirals and curlicues.
I do my best writing on a Mac.
I briefly considered an AlphaSmart Neo, recommended highly by much better writers than I, but it doesn't really fit my own peculiar needs. Yes, the infinite battery life means you can take it anywhere and write when you feel like it, but I usually Sit Down to Write. There's a clear demarcation between "This is me writing" and "This is me futzing around and doing normal stuff". The instant bootup is neat for those who are hit by a thunderbolt of inspiration and need to get it on the screen fast, but I chew stuff in my head for hours, days, or even weeks. That recent anal bleaching comedy bit? I bounced that off the heads of dinner companions almost two weeks before hitting the "publish post" button.
Lastly, this stuff is written on the fly. When it's Time to Write, I sit down at the keyboard and bang out the bit in question live in Blogger's "Create Post" window. It gives me 14 lines of text to play with, and I write from first draft - and then annoy RSS readers by editing from the finished product. If it's a five paragraph post, I do a lot of scrolling. If I'm writing something for the books, I need even more than fourteen lines, because I'm constantly going back over what I just wrote, so the AlphaSmart is out for me, and a word processing program is in.
That word processing program, however, needs to be on something that doesn't annoy the pee out of me. Older Wintel laptops, for the most part, look like a flat black lunchbox on which someone has dumped a tray of Scrabble tiles. We're back to that non-meditative mugging in the Ginza.
Mac laptops, on the other hand, don't annoy me by constantly waving "Look how ugly I am!" signs in my peripheral vision. I could care less about the rest of the thing, the whole "Pentium vs. PowerPC" and "Win98 vs. Mac OS 7/8/9" nonsense; once you're inside the word-processing program itself, who cares what OS you're using or what CPU is under the hood? You type. Words appear on the screen. Everybody's happy.
Luckily I have several old Mac laptops to choose from, and I've been piddling with them and chatting with Marko on the phone and emailing folks geekier than I to help make up my mind. What I have to choose from, I've divided into three rough categories: regular old notebook-type notebooks, mini notebooks, and "newer" notebooks. Here's the breakdown thus far:
Of the Regular Old Notebook-Type Notebooks, I have three "Blackbird" type machines: the PowerBook 520, 520c, and 540c are out because they use different AC power supplies from my other machines. The 540c has a nice keyboard and an active-matrix LCD. It has PCMCIA slots, and I have a PCMCIA WiFi card, but the antique 68040 processor and OS mean I won't be tempted to do much web surfing on it.
I also have two slightly less antique machines in the same category, a 190 and a 1400cs. While both are blessed with adequate keyboards, they also both suffer from a similar problem: dual-scan LCD displays. These bug the heck out of me, because if you're not looking at them at exactly the right angle they wash out to nothing, and the mouse pointer leaves trails like you haven't seen since your last Grateful Dead concert. Not as big a deal when parked on a firm, flat table in a well-lit Starbucks, but a deal breaker for me when perched on my lap curled up in the corner of the futon.
Of the Mini notebooks, there are the two PowerBook Duos, a 270c and a 280c. Teeny and light and easy to balance on a lap, their total absence of built-in media drives or PCMCIA slots means that I couldn't get distracted even if I wanted to. The 280c is the nicer of the two machines, but the keyboard isn't as positive as I like. I frequently find myself missing keystrokes when typing fast by not bottoming out the key completely, but that could probably be improved with practice.
The nicest of the minis is a 2400c. A pretty little machine with a swoopy case that's all gentle arcs and curved corners, it has a crisp active-matrix display and is a joy to use, except for one thing: It's hard to get much keyboard into a laptop with a footprint slightly smaller than an 8.5 x 11 sheet of paper. Again, I don't know how much of that is me not being used to the 7/8ths-scale keyboard and how much of it is the nature of the beast.
The "newer" G3 'books pose a quandary. The iBook SE is an extremely competent machine for being eight years old. It has been my loyal road warrior since fall of '01, and quite a few posts on my blog have come from its keyboard. It's comfortable to type on and has a good screen. And built-in WiFi. But how much discipline do I have with the intarw3bz just a click away?
The other is the WallStreet, which has the biggest screen of any of my laptops as well as what is widely considered to be one of the best keyboards for writing of any laptop ever. Of course, this means it's a hoss, both big in size and weighing in at 7.5 pounds (only two pounds less than a Garand, and how'd you like to have one of those on your lap all afternoon?)
So I've pulled out the 540c, 280c, 1400c, iBook, and WallStreet, and I'm going to put them through their paces this week.
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Recent Digital Fossils Columns
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- Macs: Better by design, 2008.07.11. From the beginning, Macs have stood apart from other computers with their attractive and intelligent design.
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