Thursday, March 15, 2007

The Formula One Writing Machine

When I first started in journalism, I worked in a newsroom equipped with green screen terminals that did just two things: write words and send them off. Even deleting what had been written was a bit of a hassle. Copying and pasting could be done but it was a major operation, for seasoned experts only. All you could really do was write - bang, bang, bang - and send your stuff off to the newsdesk for the ritualistic ridicule of your efforts.

I have hankered after one of those stripped down, Formula One cars of the writing world ever since. Nothing extraneous. No headlights. No rear windscreen wiper. No web browser to procrastinate on. No RSS feeds. No instant messaging to gossip on. No games. Nothing but writing and sending.

Now I have one:

The Writing Machine, otherwise known as The Browserless Computer.

I'll admit it justified a day's procrastination but I think it was worth it. I salvaged A.'s old laptop, which had to be abandoned because its Windows Me operating system was so unstable that it had become completely unusable. I installed the Ubuntu Linux operating system on it (the very earliest version, Warty 4.10. I had the disk lying around from some computer magazine I once bought). The interface is basically the same as Windows but the operating system is super stable now. No crashes at all. I had a major problem trying to get the thing to communicate with the outside world. For a while, my extraordinarily stable computer was completely autistic. I eventually gave up on getting the wireless internet card to work and went back to square one. I plugged an internet connection wire in the back of the computer and reinstalled the operating system completely from scratch. Hey presto, it automatically picked up the ethernet internet connection (still not the wireless) and I had an internet able computer. Ubuntu has a pretty comprehensive package of open source software already installed - Firefox browser, Gimp image software, OpenOffice word processing, Gaim instant messaging etc. etc. - so I could have gone on to run a perfectly decent normal computer. But no! I had to have that Writing Machine I had always dreamed about.

First, I installed a new Thunderbird email program because Ubuntu's existing email client seemed a bit rubbish. I set up the client so it could access and send email from my gmail account. Then I removed everything other than this email system and the OpenOffice word processor. Most importantly, the browser was uninstalled, thus removing the main cause of procrastination. Admittedly, I have decided to allow myself to check my main email account through the email client. My initial thought was to set up a separate secret account to service my writing machine thus sealing myself off completely from the distractions of the internet. However, I decided to be a little indulgent on this point because I am not one of those people who is snowed under by distracting email and I thought the supposed necessity of checking my email "just in case someone is urgently trying to contact me" might work as a good excuse to turn on my main computer in the mornings, thus negating the anti-procrastination powers of the Writing Machine. Of course, because I have no browser, I can only read the email and cannot set off on some internet goose chase prompted by a link in a message.

All I can really do on the Writing Machine is write my words and send them off. Where to? I found out there is a special email address that allows me to send documents directly to my Google word processor account. All I have to do is either attach a document to an email or simply copy and paste text into the body of a message and send it to this address. It is automatically stored online in my Google word processor (which incidentally works as a kind of safety net because I also have the documents locally on the Linux computer and I can subsequently download them onto my main Windows computer, creating a triple backup.) The Google word processor account is kind of like the newsdesk in that first newsroom of mine - the place where I send my words for critical appraisal, editing and ridicule. I can access the Google word processing account from my Windows computer when I want to put on my editing hat. But these two worlds are separate. Writing and editing don't mix in my experience.

Don't you wish you had a Writing Machine? Or maybe your will power is not quite so non-existent as mine.


Susan said...

I've got a typewriter up my attic if you really want to go back to basics. Trouble is... can you buy ribbons any more??
Love to A and G
former diaryed

buyo said...

Or perhaps I should go the whole hog and get a quill and parchment

Susan said...

or a finger and some mud?

buyo said...

I like it.
Maybe a chisel and some marble.

Bill said...

I want exactly this type of machine! I've been looking into buying a used laptop with a removable wireless card, so that I could effectively separate myself from the internets, but I never thought of setting it up in this manner, using Google Docs (I never even realized it existed!). If I got hold of a basic laptop, could you walk me through the process of setting it up in the same way you have yours set?

buyo said...

I am not sure I have enough expertise to walk you through the Linux thing. I could not get a wireless card to work, which was not a problem because in my case plug in was just as convenient. In general, be careful before installing Linux. If it is an old laptop you will probably need an old distribution of Linux. The new ones will be too heavy. And the old ones are difficult to get things running on. I would say that once it is working it is super stable. My laptop was crashing all the time under windows but now is uncrashable. But it does not have wireless internet and no printer. No nothing except plug in internet connection and wordprocessor and an email package.

buyo said...

I would say this, in lieu of walking you through it: if your old laptop is working fine, there is nothing about making a writing machine that requires linux. Just remove everything but the word processor, the email and the internet connection.