Monday, August 18, 2008

Happiness is a friendly computer

We computer enthusiasts are not hard to please. It's easy to make us happy. All we ask for is a friendly computer. That means, of course, a subtle bag of goodies. To start the ball rolling, the machine itself must be sufficiently powerful, reliable and easy to use. No problems at that level; I'm a Mac user. Next, the Internet connection must be fast and stable enough to make you forget that you're even linked to this planetary behemoth.

[If you're interested in following up the origins of the curious terms Behemoth and Leviathan, evoking chimeric Biblical creatures, click the painting by William Blake to access the Wikipedia article on this subject. I hasten to add that, like Bigfoot, these archaic animals are not described in The Ancestor's Tale by Richard Dawkins.]

One of the basic challenges in the quest for happiness as a computer user consists of finding the ideal software tools for the kind of work that concerns you. These days, in many everyday computing domains, the competing products are much of a muchness. For example, I've got into the habit of using the Firefox browser rather than Apple's much lauded Safari, but I wouldn't attempt to justify my choice objectively. Once upon a time, I used to think that nothing could be better than the Eudora application for email, whereas I now find that Apple's Mail tool suits me fine. Obviously, this "much of a muchness" aspect breaks down if you're reckless enough to start comparing Ferraris with aging pickup trucks. The differences between, say, the latest Mac OS and a veteran Windows system, or even a Linux thing tied together with bits of string and wire, are not purely a matter of taste and familiarity. There are objective tests for determining whether or not one solution is better (more efficient in a friendly way) than another. Above all, the "much of a muchness" judgment is no longer pertinent when Internet users are obliged to devote money and energy to protecting themselves constantly from spam and viruses, or wondering whether such-and-such a service provider is indeed delivering their emails.

The reason I'm rambling on about such things is that I wish to say a few words about one of the time-honored tools of personal computing: word processors.

Over the years, I've used many different kinds of word processors, including one that I built myself, named Irma (Intelligent Rewriting Tool for Authors), with which I produced the conference proceedings, published in 1980, entitled Videotex in Europe. For me, the most exotic wood processing software of all was surely the LaTeX system, implemented on the Macintosh as a tool named Textures. On a high-resolution laser printer, it produces truly beautiful output, like a finely-printed Bible, but it's diabolically complex. About half the author's energy and imagination are used up in determining what the printed output should look like, and only the other half in what it might contain in the way of words. That's to say, it's an esthete's toy for would-be printers. As for Microsoft Word, described in typical French invective as a "gas factory", I've always hated it. I'm convinced that it would have never become widespread were it not for the early business strategy of encouraging (or at least not discouraging) its unpaid acquisition... like distributing free cigarettes and alcohol to teenagers. One of my favorite word processors, up until it went out of existence on the Macintosh, was FrameMaker, which was a truly friendly and well-documented tool for authors. To replace it, I tried my hand at InDesign, but I've never succeeded in mastering it intuitively. Even such an elementary task as inserting half a page of text into a chapter, and moving an illustration, seem to be unnecessarily complicated, particularly when you're not using the tool on a daily basis.

So, why am I happy today? Well, I've just decided to drop InDesign for my genealogical documents and get back to Apple's nice Pages tool, which is amazingly simple to use.

It might sound trite to say so, but I'm convinced that an author who's well-equipped with friendly word processing resources (including on-line access to good dictionaries) finds it so much easier to be inspired, find ideas, and express them optimally.


  1. G'day

    I found you blog a week or so ago and like the eclectic topics and your style of writing - particularly in posts like this one


  2. Hello William.

    Well I have no experience with Macs although my brother, 100% Mac since 1985, like other Mac enthusiasts, seldom misses an opportunity to proselytise...

    There is at present on Techrepublic a splendid debate about Windows versus Linux. Here's the original article but the comments run (at the moment to 381 posts!).

    My contribution was along the lines of "What can Linux do for me that XP cannot?"


  3. I've been a Mac lover since the very first one, the little 512 K, around 1985 (as Paul said about his brother!).

    What a wonderful piece of writing you have done on word processing; you have put into such excellent words so much of what I have been thinking about over these few short years (hah-hah, time flies when you're getting old!). Where can I find Apple's "pages?" Never heard of it, want to try it!

    Great post on your part. So glad I found your blog!

  4. Robbo: I'm happy to see that my happiness might be contagious. Thanks for your kind comment.

    Paul: As you know, there are now three massive sparring partners in the personal computing ring. In the blue corner, Microsoft. In the red corner, Apple. In a yellowy third corner, a fiery young Antarctic antagonist, Linux. Finally, the Mac guy is the only one of the three who doesn't give a damn about how the other two fellows might be boxing.

    Catherine: The Pages tool is part of Apple's iWork package, which sells for 80 euros. I strongly recommend this investment for Mac users who want to write.

  5. William: I was trying to say that over the years there have been many appeals for me to "try this or that", but what more can I say? I made a terrible mistake over Vista (despite the warnings of my copine) but I am entirely happy with XP!

    And I do know that the likes of Google run their servers on Linux etc., but I feel rather that that's up to them!

  6. This comment has been removed by the author.