Rice University history prof W. Caleb McDaniel wrote an academic book all in plain text. As an evangelist of plain text for academics, he does a better job than I could explaining why you should get off Word when you’re making serious ideas: the risk is just too darn high that you’ll lose something, be stuck on a single platform, or get distracted by heavy software.
To his list, I want to add two more ideas: searchability and versatility. Among the 117 plain text files currently sitting in my installation of nvALT (of which this post is number 117) sits essentially a corpus of every good idea I’ve had over the last four or five years: class notes, brainstormed ideas, conference articles, an aborted book, lectures and memos. Anytime I think of something, it can go here, and I know I’ll be able to find it again. It’s basically effortless to copy out of these files to send an e-mail to a colleague or open them in a program like FoldingText to brainstorm more deliberately.
The notes expand and contract and, somewhere in the middle of them, good ideas sit. When I need to think, write or solve a problem, I hit a hotkey on my computer and I type. To me, that’s a far more efficient (and elegant) way to make idea work more like idea craft.
My favorite Mac app you’ve probably never heard of is Skim, an open source PDF reader and annotator. Skim beats every other reader out there at taking notes: it keeps your highlights and anchored notes in a separate XML file and a side panel, which can be easily exported to plaintext or Rich Text. The power hidden deep within the app is pretty amazing.
For instance: want to export notes in a specifically formatted Markdown list? Drop this file in Library/Application Support/Skim/Templates. Need to keep part of the PDF on the screen? Run the PDF in split screen, or take a screenshot that sits in a separate window? Full support for trackpad gestures? It does that too.
Skim is one of the awesome apps I don’t need, precisely, but is such a pleasure to use, that it’s an asset to my day to day academic work
“Have nothing in your house,” rather infamously argues William Morris, “that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful.” Those of us who are nerds about these things - and you know who you are - have taken the doctrine to heart. The road to finding the one thing that does a task perfectly is a long and, at times, arduous one, pacing the aisles at Target and dropping bag after bag off at the Goodwill. While I’m not an expert, I’d like to think I’ve developed some rules along the way. Among them: don’t only buy the best you can afford, buy the best kind you can afford.
I’ve long enjoyed, for example, my luggage from Frost River, an amazing hand-crafted canvas bag maker from Minnesota. Sure, for the $100 or so I spent on a messenger bag, I could have gotten leather instead of canvas. But the leather, almost surely, would have been terrible. $100 buys terrible leather, but it can buy some pretty awesome canvas. A lesson you learn when you step back from what you think you need, take stock of all that’s out there, and make a careful final choice.
I fail to take my own advice plenty. I’d been getting pretty fed up with my vacuum lately, a $20 cheapo Hand Vac that didn’t pick up much of anything. So, time to get something different. I wasn’t particularly excited about dropping more money than I had on a giant floor vac I didn’t have a place for. Ambiguity well in hand on my way to the hardware store, I ended up coming home without a vacuum at all, but with Bissell’s Swift Sweep Sweeper.
When I brought home my new steel contraption, I was still a little uneasy: how, after all, could I survive without a real vacuum? Doesn’t everyone need a real vacuum? One full dustpan and five minutes later, I was sold: I had finally figured out the best, most appropriate tool for my needs, even if it wasn’t the one I imagined.