Thursday, August 29, 2013

Dealing with Digital Distractions, pt. 2

In Which I Review, At Length, a Ten-Year-Old Gadget.

Yesterday, I shared my frustration with the constant dings, buzzes, notifications, alarms, reminders, IMs, texts, and e-mails that constantly use the very same device on which you're trying to be productive to distract you and keep you from any real productivity. I promised that today I'd tell you about my new (old) gizmo that has me less distracted than ever when I sit down to write. (Don't worry; it's not a typewriter).

First, a little background on me and my preferences, technologically speaking. I'm still rocking my Palm Pilot from 2003. I don't like learning new devices or transferring all my info and I get very attached to the status quo. Plus, you can get outdated technology on eBay for a song, which is awesome, and all of its bugs are already known and usually fixed, and you deal with almost no learning curve. I was recently told that this is "hipster" of me (collecting outdated tech), to which I replied that I was into obsolete electronics long before the latest incarnation of hipsterism existed. But then I remembered that claiming to have been into things before everyone else is just another sign of being a hipster.

Anyway, for a good ten years, I was getting around any and all laptop-related annoyances by doing 90% of my writing (including seminary papers, etc.) on my palm with an infrared collapsible keyboard, which was very easy to transport (one in each pants pocket), requiring no case, no cords, nothing. But then my keyboard broke and the only one I could find to replace it wouldn't lay flat on my lap and kept wanting to fold in half over my leg. Besides, while the backlight on a palm works fine inside, it's very difficult to read out in the sun (and let's not forget that staring into a blue light for extended periods was helping to cause mine--and everyone else's--insomnia). It was getting to the point where these distractions were more annoying than the Internet itself.

Then, a couple months ago, I happened upon this device:

It's called the AlphaSmart Dana and it reminds me a bit of the old word processor I had my freshman year of college (before laptops were affordable). That thing was a monster keyboard/display/printer combo with no battery, which sat permanently on my desk in my dorm room. It was the opposite of convenience, but I remember getting into the zone on that beast: minimal formatting (italics, bold, three font choices and three font sizes) and no graphics to fiddle with. I was just concerned with the content of the paper. 

Then I think about the challenge of writing papers in seminary on a desktop computer with a T1, four diferent kinds of Bible software, nineteen different windows open at a time. Facebook wasn't huge yet, but there were plenty of other websites and message boards calling to me (IMDb, anyone?), bringing us back to the problem I described yesterday.

Here's why the Dana works for me: it's as much about the neural pathways in my brain as anything else. As I mentioned earlier, I struggle with insomnia. One of the things experts advise is to avoid working, reading, e-mailing, watching TV, etc. while in bed--so that your brain has just one (okay, two) activities associated with that place and isn't all amped up and confused when you lie down at night. Ideally, your mind and body immediately associate laying head on pillow with sleep. Well, my mind associates my Dana with writing...not wasting time screen-sucking, e-mailing, playing games, editing pictures ,etc.  Just writing.

You can get one of these bad boys cheap. Originally about $400, they're being unloaded in lots as part of school surplus sales on eBay for about $25 a piece (a little goo gone and mine was in like-new condition.) Despite being a decade old (which, in tech years, may as well be a century), the Dana has a loyal following among writers and journalists, which is why its Amazon ranking is still so high.

Because I'm me, I made a list of pros and cons, as if it were 2003 and these devices were just hitting the market, and as if there weren't already a hundred such lists floating around tech site archives everywhere.

  • Simplicity. There are different levels of simple from which you can choose. From the completely bare (memo pad, with one font, one size, just text) to a little more complicated (Word to Go, with the ability to set margins, rich text formatting, tables, etc.; one can even import true type fonts through a conduit). I prefer to keep it simple.
  • Accessibility. There are several options for how to save and open docs. You can write directly to an SD card (there are two slots), working with native Word and Excel files, or you can plug into your computer's USB port and have the Dana "type" your text into whatever program you like.
  • Generates no heat. Unlike a laptop (and much like a tablet), the Dana is cool on your lap. Unlike a tablet, it's natural to actually use it on your lap.
  • Fairly large display. I'm typing this blog post on my Dana and I can see nine lines of text at a time.
  • Great battery life. As in, twenty-five hours on a single charge.
  • Touch screen. Another shared feature with your uber-expensive (and rather distracting) iPad. But when it comes to ease of use when writing, the Dana has some advantages. For example:
  • Very Rugged. AlphaSmart devices were originally designed for teaching kids typing in the classroom, which means they can survive many drops from four feet off the ground and come off unscathed. Try that with your tablet.
  • Outdoors-friendly. I love to work outside, but if the sun is out, it's almost impossible to see your laptop or tablet screen through the glare and reflection. Not an issue with the simple display on the Dana. (This is also why I prefer my black and white Kindle e-ink device with no FB, movies, etc. over a tablet or Kindle Fire.) The Dana's screen is not in the same league as e-ink when it comes to non-reflectiveness and readability outside, but it's worlds better than a laptop screen or similar backlit color LCD display. Unlike e-ink, you have to get the sun at the right angle to the glass surface of the Dana's screen, but after a minimum of shifting, the big light in the sky is illuminating your text, not obscuring it.
  • Optional Backlight.  Remember "indiglo watches?" Well, the Dana has the same thing going on: a gentle green light that glows behind your text, allowing you to easily read what you're typing in low-light conditions. While writing in bed (yeah, I know; the insomnia), this has the two-fold benefit of not waking my wife with a harsh white light and not jacking up my Circadian rhythm by telling my brain it's time to get up when I'm actually about to turn in for the night.
  • Two SD card slots. And automatic scheduled back-ups so you don't lose anything.
  • Can print directly to most any printer.  Using either USB cable or wireless capability.
  • Super light. Weighs way less than a laptop.
  • No bootup time. Hit the power button and there you are where you left it. You can store eight of your documents in eight quick-load positions that can be brought up with the touch of a single button. This allows you to work on that annual report or short story during the five-minute wait in the doctor's office, whereas your laptop would barely boot up and load your document before you had to turn it back off.

  • Accessibility, again. The file syncing software for the main word processor is not compatible with Windows 7 64-bit or Windows 8 (however, there are ways around this, such as the keyboard functionality, infrared beaming, and using SD cards).
  • Built-in word processor doesn't like graphics or hyperlinks, so editing existing documents can be challenging.
  • No built-in music player. On one hand, this means fewer distractions, except that headphones can help drown out chatty Cathies in coffee shops and other public places. But once you start getting into semi-vintage electronics and dedicated devices, carrying extra hardware is expected. Anyway, iPods are tiny.
  • People think you're either a hipster or way behind the times. Not sure which is worse, but I don't really care.
  • Dynamic flash memory. If the battery does completely die (which takes another couple weeks of neglect after it refuses to fire up), you lose all your documents.  However, you can do manual and automatic scheduled backups to the SD card, which removes that danger.
Anyway, that's my current preferred solution to the constant annoyances and distractions of the digital world. I hope you find yours. And for twenty-five bucks, you may want to consider picking up a used Dana.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Dealing With Digital Distractions When Writing

I rarely blog about writing and I very rarely blog about technology (honestly, I rarely blog, to the increasing annoyance of both my agent and my publicist), but today I want to touch on both and where they intersect for me. 

Tell me if this is a familiar scenario:  you sit down to write (whether a novel, a report, a dissertation, a love letter, whatever), you minimize everything but Word and look at that beautiful blank, white space in front of you, just waiting to be filled up by your brilliance. You begin to type, slowly at first, but building momentum. Just as you're about to hit your stride you hear, DOO-doot.  Whoops. Facebook was open in one of those browser windows.

I wonder who wrote on my wall, you think. Doesn't matter, but maybe you should just quick check, so you're not distracted. Ten minutes later, you're trying to get back into writing when an e-mail pops up from your boss. Oh, crud. Does he need me to come in early? Did I forget to use the new job codes on my time card? You read the e-mail, then reply. Then some guy who was apparently sitting at his laptop, mainlining espresso, just WAITING for an e-mail to which he could respond, fires off a reply to your reply. You're in it now, because it's obvious you're still at your computer.

Twenty minutes later, that's resolved. You get a page of writing done before an alarm pops up from Outlook, reminding you that your second quarter estimate tax payments are due in two days. You'd forgotten all about that. How can you focus now?  Maybe you should pop over to failblog for a while and just chill out to calm your mind.

You're just about feeling creative again when your spouse asks if you're coming to bed. Word count for the night: 400.

I don't know about you, but the Internet is a huge distraction for me any time I'm near a computer, particularly when I'm trying to writewhether a sermon, a lesson, an article, or  a novel. Trying to write with the Internet right in front of me is like trying to write with a toddler in the room. It's possible, I suppose, but it takes much more time and energy than it needs to and involves little momentum.

Dealing with (and conquering) that distraction is a big part of being a productive writer. I've found several different tools that work well in overcoming the constant distractions of working on a computer that's connected to e-mail, twitter, facebook, a billion blogs, and my schedule and task list for the day and week ahead . . .   I'll tell you my very favorite method for avoiding such distractions tomorrow, but for now let me suggest two (almost) free pieces of software that can help and ask for your input.

The following programs are very effective, especially when used in tandem:

1. Dark Room. This free program describes itself as " a full screen, distraction free, writing environment." Basically, it's like you're writing on a Commodore 64's word processor (complete with monochrome screen); no features, no bells or whistles, just you and your text. It's a clone of a somewhat pricey (considering what it is) Mac program. You can download Dark Room by clicking here.

2. Cold Turkey. You have to buy this one, but the good news is that you pay whatever the heck you want! This program has been a God-send for me. It will temporarily (you set how long) block whatever websites and programs are a distraction for you.  Want an hour of uninterrupted writing? Open up Cold Turkey, set it up to block social networking and time-sucking humor websites, as well as your e-mail and IM programs, and then click "Go Cold Turkey!" It's like going back to the early '90s, but without the parachute pants. (You'll have to turn off your smart phone too, if you have one.) You can get Cold Turkey at...waaaait for

My newest strategy works even better than these two programs and I will share it on Thursday. But for now, what works for you? How do you keep digital distractions from neutralizing your writing mojo? 

Comment below.

Monday, August 26, 2013

Tough Guys and Public Cries...

"Promise Keepers, eh? Nice. Have a good public cry for me."

That was the response from a friend of mine who wondered if Erin and I wanted to hang out last Saturday. I told him I couldn't because I'd be at Promise Keepers in Battle Creek and he responded with the above barb. I have to admit that it did elicit a genuine guffaw. Because it rings true. There is a certain kind of overly open and emotive guy who seems drawn to PK—the kind of guy for whom everything is cause for a big, fat-roll-maneuvering, tear-and-snot-soaked hug. I'm pretty sure these guys think Jesus was constantly making sobby confessions and praying out earnest blessings on every random thing like God was working on straight commission. Having read the Gospels a couple hundred times, I just don't see it.

As it happens, one of my favorite authors, Cliff Graham just tweeted on this very topic today, saying, "It's a shame that men are pressured so hard to be emotional. It's healthy to have emotions, and men should be encouraged to be emotional in a healthy way, especially in their closest relationships. But some men are simply stoic by nature. They're tough. They get things done and don't weep their way through it. Let them be."

All the same, I love Promise Keepers. My dad brought me to my first event at the Silverdome in 1995 and I've gone now to 15 events, including the Stand In the Gap gathering in Washington DC (apparently the seventh largest religious gathering ever). The format and focus of PK has changed through the years (although this year had kind of a "return to basics" thrust), but I still get the same vibe that I did at the very beginning.

However, having spent a decade entrenched in super-sacred academia and almost another decade after that constantly retreating to my ivory tower of exegesis and systematic theology, I approach preaching a little bit differently than I did when I was seventeen. When I listen to others' preaching, I can't help but analyze. I don't mean that I'm counting verbal ticks and monitoring eye contact; I can let that stuff slide. I mean I've got my heresy radar set to "hyper-sensitive." And, believe me, I've heard plenty of heresies at PK over the years. Everything from a former weatherman encouraging the entire stadium full of men to repeat the words, "My heart is not wicked!" with him (shudder) to a retired football coach equating the Gospel with "telling God you want him to be your daddy."

This year's pretty much relatively heresy-free (although an odd emphasis on the nation of Israel, which just seemed . . . arbitrary). I heard one of the best Gospel messages I've heard in years from a retired NFL player named Derwin Gray and at least two hundred men went forward (yeah, I know the altar call smacks of Finneyism, but who can even hear themselves critiquing the methodsology over the roar of Heaven rejoicing for these precious souls turning to Christ in repentance?). The emcee was Propaganda! (Yes, the guy who did the "Gospel in Four Minutes" video...) And Jeremy Camp led worship and played an amazing concert that blew my mind.

There was some Law/Gospel confusion, but you have that in almost every pulpit in the country. My main critique would be that, had everyone simply redacted the word "personal" each time it was used, not only would their presentations have all been tighter, but we'd have left ninety minutes earlier and I'd have had more time to fine-tune my sermon for Sunday morning. Also, PK's comedian-in-residence seems to have forgotten he was a comedian as he ranted and raved and yelled at the crowd, spouting conspiracy theories and political vitriol that make Glenn Beck look like a moderate.

I know it's weird that I, a theologically conservative, Calvinistic, confessional, Reformed Baptist, still love these ubertestosteroned, trying-too-hard-to-be-relevant, revivalist conferences long after the fad has died and its ashes scattered in the river of pop-Christianity. But so what?

I saw the front of the arena swarmed with men seeking prayer for marriages that were hanging by a thread. I saw a hundred men go forward for prayer because they're struggling with loneliness. I suppose they were perpetuating some PK stereotype by crying, but I couldn't care less. I keep remembering one particular fat, awkward guy, waddling his way back to his seat after that prayer. It was clear that he had come to the event all by himself. But he wasn't alone at all after that. The men around him prayed with him, hugged him, exchanged information. And I keep praying for him. How corny, right? Unless you're that guy. Or unless Jesus died for that guy. Which he did.

Sure, Promise Keepers is somewhat contrived. Sure, it's over-produced. Sure, it's full of shows of emotion that would normally be considered embarrassing (I saw some dancing that made the RNC delegates look like Usher). But,hey, Michal was embarrassed by David's show of emotion before the ark too.

If I could change just one thing, though, I'd have replaced just one speaker. I've heard him four times now, and it's been literally the same thing every year. Cincinnati. Cleveland. Grand Rapids. Same sermon. Same video. Same jokes. Same self-aggrandizing. Same do-it-yourself religion.

Who would I replace him with? Oh, I dunno. How about Kevin DeYoung or Todd Friel. Or if those guys aren't free, how