The Null Device


Cat wanders onto set of German weather forecast; the meteorologist, Joerg Kachelmann, scoops it up and resumes giving the forecast without a pause.

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Cory Doctorow, freelance writer and novelist, has written a short article on how to write productively in the age of ubiquitous distraction. The advice he gives is rather novel; he dismisses the usual advice about switching off one's internet connection, and is also scornful of the idea of ceremony, or of setting the right mood. (And understandably so; acknowledging the idea of there being a right mood or atmosphere for evoking one's inner muse could lead to finding excuses, consciously or subconsciously, for not actually doing anything.)

The single worst piece of writing advice I ever got was to stay away from the Internet because it would only waste my time and wouldn't help my writing. This advice was wrong creatively, professionally, artistically, and personally, but I know where the writer who doled it out was coming from. Every now and again, when I see a new website, game, or service, I sense the tug of an attention black hole: a time-sink that is just waiting to fill my every discretionary moment with distraction. As a co-parenting new father who writes at least a book per year, half-a-dozen columns a month, ten or more blog posts a day, plus assorted novellas and stories and speeches, I know just how short time can be and how dangerous distraction is.
Short, regular work schedule. When I'm working on a story or novel, I set a modest daily goal — usually a page or two — and then I meet it every day, doing nothing else while I'm working on it. It's not plausible or desirable to try to get the world to go away for hours at a time, but it's entirely possible to make it all shut up for 20 minutes. Writing a page every day gets me more than a novel per year — do the math — and there's always 20 minutes to be found in a day, no matter what else is going on. Twenty minutes is a short enough interval that it can be claimed from a sleep or meal-break (though this shouldn't become a habit). The secret is to do it every day, weekends included, to keep the momentum going, and to allow your thoughts to wander to your next day's page between sessions. Try to find one or two vivid sensory details to work into the next page, or a bon mot, so that you've already got some material when you sit down at the keyboard.
Leave yourself a rough edge. When you hit your daily word-goal, stop. Stop even if you're in the middle of a sentence. Especially if you're in the middle of a sentence. That way, when you sit down at the keyboard the next day, your first five or ten words are already ordained, so that you get a little push before you begin your work. Knitters leave a bit of yarn sticking out of the day's knitting so they know where to pick up the next day — they call it the "hint." Potters leave a rough edge on the wet clay before they wrap it in plastic for the night — it's hard to build on a smooth edge.
Realtime communications tools are deadly. The biggest impediment to concentration is your computer's ecosystem of interruption technologies: IM, email alerts, RSS alerts, Skype rings, etc. Anything that requires you to wait for a response, even subconsciously, occupies your attention. Anything that leaps up on your screen to announce something new, occupies your attention. The more you can train your friends and family to use email, message boards, and similar technologies that allow you to save up your conversation for planned sessions instead of demanding your attention right now helps you carve out your 20 minutes. By all means, schedule a chat — voice, text, or video — when it's needed, but leaving your IM running is like sitting down to work after hanging a giant "DISTRACT ME" sign over your desk, one that shines brightly enough to be seen by the entire world.

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Beleaguered PDA maker Palm, who brought us the Pilot/PalmPilot and its descendants, has been having a rough time of things; PDAs have largely gone extinct, and their PalmOS (which, technically speaking, was rather like MacOS 9 in a lot of ways) was looking a bit long in the tooth compared to other phone OSes; Palm acknowledged this and deprecated it in favour of (of all things) Windows Mobile, becoming just another Windows phone vendor. And not a very competitive one, it would seem; their market share all but disappeared, and they looked to be circling the drain, as everyone ditched their Treos for BlackBerries or those Apple things they've been going on about. There were rumours of a new operating system they were working on, but as the months and years passed with no sight of it, a revival of their fortunes started looking much like the mythical second coming of the Amiga.

But now, it's here, or at least on the horizon, and it's looking rather good. Here is the report of the CES press conference. Basically, it's a rather nifty-looking handset with an iPhone-like multitouch screen and a slide-out keyboard and it runs a new system named Palm WebOS, which is based on a Linux core but seems to take a quite interesting data-driven approach. The user interface and other performance appears to be very polished—some would say better than the benchmarks set by Apple, which are indeed high—and, to top things off, it comes with a nifty contactless charger known as the "Touchstone". And, as they made a point of mentioning, it has both a removable battery and cut and paste. The US version is, as always, exclusive to a carrier (Sprint, in this case), though a GSM 3G version for non-US markets has been announced. In general, the commentariat are impressed. Needless to say, Palm's stock is recovering nicely.

Of course, the announcement leaves some questions unanswered. Such as, in what language are apps for Palm WebOS written (surely everything's not a JavaScript widget, is it?); is it C/C++, some Java-like bytecode, or has someone other than Apple decided to go with Objective C? Will unlocked versions be available in Not-America? And does it have any sort of emulation mode for classic PalmOS apps (so that one can run one's copy of Bhajis Loops)? Nonetheless, it looks very tempting.

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