Some time ago I ran across a blog post Al3x’s rules for computing happiness by Alex Payne. I agree with the spirit of the list, though I disagree at least to some extent with most of the points. It seems to me that the underlying idea of the list is to set some boundaries on how you use your computer. Instead of just asking the easiest way to accomplish the immediate task, think of longer term (unintended) consequences.
Here’s Alex’s first rule:
Use as little software as possible.
You could interpret the first rule at least a couple ways. First, don’t use software when a low-tech solution works as well or better. Second, don’t buy or download hundreds of different applications. Learn how to use a few applications well. I agree with both interpretations.
Here are the second and third rules.
Use software that does one thing well. Do not use software that does many things poorly.
If that means having hundreds of little applications, then there’s a tension with the first rule. I suppose it matters how you define a “thing.” If your “thing” is broad enough, such as for example editing images, then there’s no conflict. I don’t think Alex would suggest using thousands of little utilities for image editing rather than using a package like Photoshop or GIMP. I imagine he’s referring to overly ambitious applications, such as software that tries to be word processor, email client, Lisp interpreter, floor wax, and dessert topping.
Here are a few more of the rules I appreciate.
- Use a plain text editor that you know well. Not a word processor, a plain text editor.
- Keep as much as possible in plain text. Not Word or Pages documents, plain text.
- Pay for software that’s worth paying for, but only after evaluating it for no less than two weeks.
- Buy as large an external display as you can afford if you’ll be working on the computer for more than three hours at a time.
The emphasis on plain text files may seem reactionary, but there are still numerous advantages to plain text. Word has its advantages as well. Choose wisely.
I particularly like his advice to pay for software that’s worth paying for. I understand the attraction of software that is “free as in beer,” especially at work. Even though the cost of commercial software doesn’t come out of my pocket, the bureaucratic hassle and delay of corporate purchasing make free software more attractive. But some free software gives a false economy because the software is difficult to use. The software may be free up front, but there’s an opportunity cost for using it, a tax you pay as long as you use it.