Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Distraction-Free Writing


I miss using the simple text green on black background (terminal theme) during my programming days. When I was writing on good old C programming and command line syntax use, I marvel at how a humble 8086 processor can do with 256KB of RAM memory. At that time, the 80386 and 2MB of RAM represents the state of the art computer, affordable only by big corporations. Even then, they easily cost a couple of thousand dollars. Wordperfect was my favourite word processor. Lotus 123 was the champion spreadsheet. I kind of miss those days, where 1 application means I work on one project at a time. It helps me in concentrating. Text based programming software such as BRIEF is my favourite. They are fast, stable and does not strain the eye as much as modern bright and high resolution monitors. I used to laugh at how these software programmers' sense of humour. (The programming editor "Brief" is made by company called "Underware Software" a Canadian company ) I should know. I was one.

Fast forward to the post-Millenium era. I am faced with machines that can open many different windows effectively. Dual-core processors and a few GIGAbytes of RAM. That is a whopping 1000x the amount of memory I used to have. Now I live like an in-between. On my right is my heavyweight Pentium DualCore / 4GB / Windows Vista 64-bit computer loaded with tonnes of Windows applications. The computer I am using now is a lightweight Pentium III / 64MB / Windows 98SE loaded with minimal applications. All my old computers are still with me. While I remain fascinated with new advances in computer hardware and software technology, I am reluctant to part with the oldies but goodies. So I searched. I found out that I can still get my old computers running as new, and to get my newer computers behave the way I like it. Here is what I found. Hopefully, this effort can help my readers achieve a better distraction free writing in a world of multi-tasking, multiple windows and the easily distracted modern mind. Most of these applications were inspired by WriteRoom, a Mac OS application. Let me suggest 4 ways below to help us advance toward a greater distraction-free mode of doing our work.

Make Microsoft word like the venerable Green on Black on a Full Screen mode.
- Start any version of Microsoft Word
- {format}-{background}-{choose black=""}
- {format}--{choose green=""}
- You can adjust the paragraph by 1” if you want
- Press {f11} for full screen effect. You will then get the minimalist Green on Black background, which is easy on the eye and will be distraction free in your writing. You can check out more details here. The picture below shows the end result.

[Photo Credit:]

I am impressed with these few Windows applications that emulate MacOS WriteRoom word processor, a processor that is minimalist and distraction free.

1) WriteMonkey []
2) jDarkRoom [] (java based)
3) Q10 [] (windows)
4) DarkRoom [] (windows / .NET)
5) WestEdit [] (windows / .NET)
7) WhiteSpace [] (Word 2007 plugin)

For offline purposes, I think DarkRoom is excellent and simple. I do not need to worry about the screen getting too bright, and it works excellent for my slower 10 year old computer.

Two deserve special mention.
1) Writer [] (web based)
This application brings you straight to a distraction free page that allows you to type in your words immediately. You can choose to save it, blog it, email it, create a pdf of it, or simply store it. For the latter you can easily register a username and password to ensure that the documents are available to you online when you log in next time. This is my personal favourite. (see below)

2) The Other is Google Docs which you can read in greater detail below.

- Thanks to "Amit Agarwal" who designed this template. Open it, sign into Google Docs and you're all set. It's that simple.

Hope the above helps us all extend the use of our older machines, and at the same time promote distraction-free and more productive use of any of our modern computers. Windows are good. However, when it comes to distraction free writing, and as an aid to learning how to pay attention, a simple text based device beats them hands down.



Rosie Perera said...

Hi Conrade,

I enjoyed this post. Brought back old memories!

Back when I first started at Microsoft, working on the first version of Word for Windows, all we had was MS Word for DOS. That's what came to my mind when I saw the black screen with green letters in your images.

I used BRIEF (Basic Reconfigurable Interactive Editing Facility) for many years after switching from vi. I was one of their first beta testers. UnderWare was not a Canadian company, though. It was founded in Providence, RI, by two friends of mine from Brown University, Dave Nanian and Mike Strickman. They later moved it to Boston. BRIEF got sold to Borland and eventually was discontinued.

Recently I went looking for a basic programmer's editor again to use in a Command window on Vista. Brief is no longer supported and I'm sure the old version I have won't run in 64 bits, so I didn't even try. I went back to my old trusty vi (in a new version called vim)! :-)

Incidentally, none of your suggestions will help with the problem of distraction, because they all involve running something inside a window in Windows, which means you can switch apps at any time and check your email, update your blog, goof around on Facebook, any number of other distracting things...

The solution I have found is to keep one computer that is not Internet enabled at all. Then when I really need to focus on writing, I go use that computer and I'm stuck staring at the word processor. Or finding some other old-fashioned distraction like getting a snack. :-)

YAPdates said...

I remember the older Word for Windows. A former colleague of mine swears by it while I champion Wordperfect. Eventually I had the last laugh as WordPerfect became the corporate choice for word-processing.

I too enjoyed Borland C more than the Microsoft equivalent. Those days, I didn't have a good opinion of Microsoft DOS. Only Dos 3.31 manages some level of respectability. Even then, I got my engineers to move to DR-DOS instead.

I used to laugh at DOS programs being single-tasking apps more so than multi-tasking, despite what the marketing says. With modern Windows, that has changed. With that, we have the problem of distraction and disruption of thought.

I find Distraction-Free writing useful when used on a Full-Screen mode. I guess, for more serious attention deficit users, unplugging completely will be the better alternative. Maybe, a special thin-client alternative that allows just 1 application each time may come in handy.

More usefully, it breathes new life to my older machines. Sigh. The nerd in me simply refuses to let old computers die.

Thanks for sharing and clarifying the details about BRIEF. You know where can I get that?

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