[I wrote this for my personal website, but as I finished it, I realized I was talking about a lot of software listed on freshmeat. I hope it's of interest here.]
I'm sitting in shelter #92 in Patapso State Park on a glorious cool Spring day. The sunlight makes the leaves glow as the breeze tosses them, and the pair of does grazing the hillside next to us have finally wandered off. The picnic remains are back in the trunk, and Glenn sits across from me, reading the paper.
It's a simple outing, but, until recently, one that would have been hard for me to take. At the very least, I would have been sitting here anxious about getting home, instead of committed and engaged in being here. The woods would have been wasted on a mind full of all the work left undone.
The culprit, as I've gradually realized this year, is the computer. Last year, I would have brought my laptop with me. I would have done what I could here, then hurried home and put it online. For my day in the city Saturday, I would have broken my back lugging it onto the light rail, where I would have brought it out of suspension to get 15 minutes with it before I had to close it down to take it over to the subway, repeating the process all across the day. Last year, I either had my fingers on my laptop, or I wasn't working.
The problem is that a computer, especially the big computer we call the Internet, is infinite. I can turn on a computer at 7:00 AM, and it instantly becomes 11:30 PM, and I'm looking back on a day of YouTube and Wikipedia and chasing this which reminds me of that which makes you stop and wonder whatever became of those and what was I doing and why does my back ache? Enough days like that, and you're looking back on a life of wandering the electronic Sinai.
I was spending long hours each day glued to a screen and brief, almost guilty ones in the physical world. The world is better and healthier, and I've worked for the last few months to flip the time I spend in each. I'd like to share some of the ideas and tools in my arsenal and invite your suggestions and your own experience.
Millions of people today still go through lives untouched by LCD screens and laser mice, and all the Bachs and Shakespeares of history did reasonably good work without them, so it must be possible. Is it preferable? I hit techno burnout recently and took a nine-day no-computer break to recover. What I noticed most by midweek was that the days had become much longer. They expanded and opened to me as they hadn't for years, until they reached a natural length I'd forgotten they held, and there was plenty of time to be spontaneous, cook a good meal, listen to some music, sit on the deck awhile. Reminded of what I was missing, it was painful to go back to staring at the screen and waiting for a webpage to load or an overloaded machine to start responding again. I'd like to spend as many days as I can with no computers in them.
How can a person enjoy the undeniable advantages of computers without getting sucked down the time drain? What are the ways and means of a Neo-Luddite life? I've identified two strategies. I'll call them computer agnosticism and computer freedom.
Computer agnosticism is disbelief in the doctrine of the One True Computer. For a long time, my laptop was the only computer I used. It had all my files and was configured just as I wanted. It's still my most comfortable workplace, but now any reasonably new Net-connected computer is as good as any other. This gives two advantages. First, I can step out of the house anytime or travel to another city with worrying that something I'll need is left behind. Everything's available wherever I can get online. Secondly, trusting the world to provide a computer for me means getting a situation that is workable but not overly pleasant. I can sit with my laptop forever. If I'm stuck with illegible fonts, an unfavored operating system, an uncomfortable chair, and a room of boisterous library or hotel patrons, I'll do what I need to do and get out of there. Libraries are especially good, with a timer counting down and the next person on the waiting list hovering in the background.
Online services are the key here. Here are some tools I like for making any computer "my computer":
When I began implementing the ideas in Getting Things Done, I wrote my own GTD script for managing my projects and todos. Over the following years, I regularly enhanced and refined it. By the end, it had a powerful, good-looking interface for manipulating tasks. Tasks could be scripts in different languages, launching complex repetitive jobs with a couple of keystrokes. It handled repeating and scheduled tasks. It attached and detached screen sessions associated with various categories of work so jobs could continue in the background while I was off to something else. It integrated with a scriptable window manager and switched to a different virtual desktop each time I moved to another work category. It managed time devoted to different projects, work categories, and other things to do, counting down remaining time on a taskbar and changing the color of all the windows when I should do something else or take a break. It was beautiful.
Surprisingly, it was not only efficient, but effective. I really did get a lot of good work done through it and accomplished things that otherwise would have stalled. So why did I let it go? It was a fine way to work on my computer, but I no longer wanted to be tied to my computer. It was still the right answer, but the question changed.
I looked at several online todo list/project management applications and settled on Toodledo as the most open and flexible. The development team frequently extends and bugfixes it, and I'm generally happy with it as long as I actually do the tasks on my lists instead of tweaking and pushing them around (not Toodledo's fault). One dealmaking feature was the ability to print a PocketMod-style todo list, so wherever I'm working, I can print my current open tasks, stick them in my pocket, and walk away from computers for as long as I like with a clear conscience.
The no-brainer replacement for mutt + procmail + Postfix. The spam filtering alone makes it a winner. The interface is great, and when I'm on my laptop, IMAP and mutt let me burn through my email even more quickly.
For a time, I synchronized this with the datebook on my palm PDA. Since I can't do that from any available computer, I now print a one-month calendar on one side of a sheet of paper and a ten-day agenda on the other (the agenda includes my notes about events, addresses of places to be, etc.).
A pattern seems to be forming. This is another winner for Google and the home of my spreadsheets and the documents I need to share with others.
The Firefox extension lets me use bookmarks as I normally would at home and have them available anywhere.
(Or any hosting service with shell access. Linode is terrific, and I've been hearing good things about "Nearly Free Speech").
An always-online Linux box gives me a way to connect to other servers as needed and otherwise fills any gaps left by Web-based services. Ajaxterm over SSL gives access from every library computer I've encountered. Unison keeps everything up-to-date so that changes I make online appear on the laptop, and vice versa.
So now I can roam the world freely, treating computing as a public service, like water fountains or buses. That's a big relief to my mind and my backpack-unladen spine. Can I go all the way? What could enable someone who works online to spend days together completely free from computers?
Some of my answers:
When I moved my recurring tasks to Toodledo, I looked at each and asked,
"Does this really need me to be present and active?", and was amazed
that 95% of the time, the answer was no. It can take some sideways
thinking, but even tasks that "clearly" have to be done by you in person
can be automated with a different approach and a bit of Perl. I
enthusiastically expanded the role of my crontab on my always-online
computer, and now I just check the resulting email messages to see that
all went well. Any changes made to my files are pulled down by
unison -batch" cron jobs on my laptop when I'm not
RSS has been a lifesaver for getting out of news-checking quicksand (remember when you went to your favorite sites to see what was new? repeatedly? all day long?). I stick my Google Reader feeds into "monthly", "bi-weekly", and "weekly" folders and check them only when their time comes. For sites without feeds, a netstiff cron job lets me forget them and alerts me to anything new once a week. hpodder downloads my podcasts so they're just there when my MP3 player runs dry.
Irssi + BitlBee + screen running on my always-online machine let me engage in IRC and instant messaging services on my own schedule. Instead of letting them interrupt me, I just attach the screen once a day (or week) to see what's new.
Let me say that again:
This is remarkable technology, flexible, portable, and widely available. As with cron, it may take a new way of thinking, but how many of the things you do on the computer could be done on paper? How many could be 95% completed on paper so that when you go online, you just have to transfer the results or execute the last steps of a paper-outlined plan? Is an offline day stealing from your boss, or are you even more productive when you print your work the day before and worth it with a pen? Which accomplishes more -- 45 minutes work on paper + 15 minutes bringing the computer up-to-date, or two and half hours on the same task online, with side trips to check email and rearrange your Netflix queue? Which leaves you refreshed and ready for work the next day?
This article is an example of paper-based computer work. I'm writing it in an old college composition book, much more portable than my electronic notebook. How it will get online is discussed in the next section.
While on the topic, I should add my plug for the famous Moleskine notebooks. They're pricey, but are things of beauty, simple and elegant and a joy to write in. They fit right in a pocket, and with my Toodledo list and Google calendar in the expanding back pocket, one makes a fine PDA (PPA?).
The Virtual Personal Assistant marketplace is flourishing, and online helpers can help keep you offline. They can be useful on both ends: before fleeing the net, you can hand over a list of online chores. When you connect again, you can send what you did offline for processing. This article is an example. When I'm done, I'll tear the pages from the notebook, scan them to a PDF, and email it to an assistant to type into a reply to me. A little editing and formatting, and it will be ready to post. Lather, rinse, repeat, and you have an invisible staff working alongside you all your offline days. You're taking full advantage of the Net and full advantage of that table in the park, putting out more work and pulling in more fresh air.
Sooner or later on a non-digital day, there's a moment of temptation to boot the laptop just to check the weather report before leaving the house or to get directions to the coffee shop. And since you've sat and waited for it to come on, you may as well make it worthwhile by checking out that site you saw on a billboard. And though you definitely weren't going to check your email today, you're so curious to see how Mike replied to... Wow, you never expected him to say that. How are you and Connie going to fit that into your schedule? It's going to be on your mind all day now...
Phone-based services can give you the limited information you need without exposing you to the danger of spoiling your free day with full Net access. I hope they continue, and don't fall in the face of Web-capable phones. Three I use regularly:
GOOG411 provides the aural equivalent of Google's stripped-down webpage look. It's simple and powerful and lets you quickly get the address of a business, then connects you to them to ask directions or how late they're open. I hope Google adds support for residential listings.
Provides news on various topics. I use it to get the weather report, to decide how to dress for the day.
This one's for putting information in instead getting it out. I have it linked to my Toodledo and Google Calendar accounts so I can call to add an item to my todo list or put an event on my calendar. It's a good way to save some typing, though their voice recognition leaves a lot to be desired. They should license whatever Google uses for GOOG411.
For someone professing to write about computer-free living, I've spent a lot of time discussing computer-based software and services. I have two excuses:
First, many of these tools provide ways of letting work pile up out of sight and mind. Email piles up in your inbox as long as you like while Gmail sends replies with your phone number and the request that people call you if it's urgent (and GrandCentral separates the wheat from the subsequent chaff). Articles wait in your RSS reader until the time you've dedicated for them. Just keep that laptop safely tucked away (a remote shelf in the basement works well), and life becomes less interrupted.
Second, and even better, are the tools that run unattended. cron jobs run even when you've forgotten about them, and VPAs have pleasant surprises waiting when you get around to logging in again. Jott's added a reminder to check out a wine festival next Fall. Services like these uphold the promise of computer automation and let you get on with real life in the real world.
There's another solution, of course -- to drop the halfway measures and just go cold turkey forever. Maybe it's worth stopping by the park office to see if they have any jobs for the summer.