Sunday, December 18, 2011

Part 7: Free and Cheap Office Software for the SOHO Office

Zenware – Simple Writing

Since today we are talking not only about particular software programs, but also of a philosophy of software based on simplicity and minimalist, it seems appropriate to celebrate this movement with composer, Eric Satie, whose most famous work today is Gymnopedie Nr. 1 which combines harmonic, rhythmic and melodic simplicity, almost to the extreme. This was certainly at odds with the ever-growing complexity in 19th century classical music (which would continue through much of the 20th century with works by Richard Strauss, Arnold Schoenberg and Igor Stravinsky, just to name a few). In spite of these trends, Satie sought simplicity.

Satie's Gymnopedies are thought to owe their title to the following poem stanza. (See
Oblique et coupant l'ombre un torrent éclatant
Ruisselait en flots d'or sur la dalle polie
Où les atomes d'ambre au feu se miroitant
Mêlaient leur sarabande à la gymnopédie
Slanting and shadow-cutting a flickering eddy
Trickled in gusts of gold to the shiny flagstone
Where the atoms of amber in the fire mirroring themselves
Mingled their sarabande to the gymnopaedia
from Les Antiques ("The Ancients")
by J.P. Contamine de Latour (1867–1926)

Even 120 years later, this simple piece has been adapted, transcribed, and arranged many times and the philosophy of the music continues to influence both minimalism and ambient music. Zenware tries, through simplicity, to put the emphasis not on software features but back on the writer's muse, where, inevitably, it really needs to rest.

If you've used a lot of high-end software, you've spent time searching through a series of menus or ribbons just to find the command you want. You also may find that you need to go through several steps to accomplish relatively simple tasks. Pop-ups or squiggly lines demand your attention for spell-checking and grammar-checking, and the ubiquitous reminders of the Are-you-really-sure-you-want-to-do-this? nature can be maddening at times. Throw in widgets, wizards and whats-its, docks, system trays, and toolbars and you have so many features to play with you can't do any work. (If you don't believe this, open every toolbar in Microsoft Word or LibreOffice Writer and try to write something.)

There's an entire class of software that strives to end these distractions and have as little as possible get between you and your creative process. Mostly for writing, they strip away all unnecessary commands and menus and options. Collectively, these programs are often called Zenware.

This is, by the way, one of the basic precepts of the Frugal Guidance blog. One which many frugal computer users should appreciate. Aim for simplicity, not the expensive, whiz-bang, complicated programs (unless, of course, those complicated programs can help you produce simple work).

A few Zen writing tools:
Most of these programs present you with a blank or black (or tastefully decorated) screen with few or no menus or other distractions. The work window usually takes up the full screen and you may need to push an F-key to even see a menu.

Some of these programs have the option of using a totally black screen with green or yellow text. Older writers might remember when this was the way most word processors approached writing. (Got DOS?)

Some programs also offer soothing musical or environmental sound backgrounds, handy to block out noise of office machines and other workers -- or just to put the writer into a creative mood.

The idea is to encourage you and your writing inspiration. Even if you like full-featured word-processors, you should try some of these out for your creative and/or journaling projects. (A paper journal may also be a useful option, too.)

A by-product of using these programs is that they tend to use the entire screen, so you can see much more of your writing while you are editing.

Other zen-ish programs:

  • Anxiety (Mac only) Minimalist To Do list manager
  • Ta-da  from 37 Signals (web based) Ta-Da's To Do
  • TeuxDeux  (web based) Yet another simple To Do list app
  • Notational Velocity (Mac only) A bare-bones note-taking program. Simple search and notes, automatically saved.
  • Spirited Away (Mac only) and Swept Away (Windows) simply take all those windows that collect on your desktop during the work day and minimize them if you haven't used them for so many minutes. This keeps your desktop cleaner and, in theory, helps you concentrate on the task at hand. (Unless you were already distracted from the task at hand and lost the window you were supposed to be working on.)
  • DropCloth  (Windows) – turns everything you're NOT working on dark on the screen.
  • BackDrop  works similarly for Macs.

If you know of other Zenware programs, please add them in the comments. (Anybody know of a Zen-like blog HTML editor?

Coming soon: Office software flies to the cloud.

Tags: Zenware, minimalist, simplicity, writing zen Satie