Turning a laptop into a Dropbox-synced typewriter

There are a few tips around the web for turning an old laptop into a distraction-free typewriter. You could go back to some of the very earliest laptops that ran DOS, but they are big and clunky and had poor battery life, and that was back when you could find batteries for them. Also, it’s handy to have at least one USB connector for moving text into the modern world.

The best guide I’ve seen ran on pcworld.com back in 2012. (when the photos were intact). It recommends using a ThinkPad 600 for its profile and excellent keyboard and has a reasonable walkthrough for how to set things up using Ubuntu Server. But why can’t someone create this as a disk image to make it even easier for folks?  A Linux-derived TypewriterOS? (No, not this.)


Book Review: Indistractable: How to Control Your Attention and Choose Your Life

Note: This review refers to the audiobook edition.

Perhaps Nir Eyal feels as if he has to right the wrongs that were enabled by companies taking the concepts in his book Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products too far. Or perhaps he sees the value in playing the mercenary in the epic battle for attention between companies’ and consumers’ interests. In either case, his latest book, Indistractable: How to Control Your Attention and Choose Your Life leverages five years of reviewed research and personal experience to help adults, organizations, and kids defeat distraction. I focused mostly on the first cohort.

A few defining early points lay the groundwork for Eyal’s process. First, while I tend to think of the opposite of distraction as “focus,” Eyal defines it literally as “traction,” referring to the original word root. Much of the book then lays out how we must make time for traction with techniques such as time blocks and prevent distraction with techniques such as pacts (Many of Eyal’s tips for preventing distraction will be familiar to those who have read Nudge by Thaler and Sunstein, who curiously are not among the many credited authors and researchers.) In addition, he discusses how to master internal triggers and hack back external triggers, be they the latest Facebook notification or a chatty coworker.

Second, we tend to think of distracting behavior as fun pursuits when we are trying to get work done, but Eyal points out that what is distracting depends on what we’re trying to accomplish. In other words, if we have blocked out time to play video games because that’s how we want to spend our time, then tending to a work email may actually be the distraction.

The discussion on external triggers discusses many of the kinds of tools that this website is devoted to; many will be discussed in future posts. However, Eyal is careful not to blame technology for distraction. Indeed, early in the book, he describes several failed experiments he undertook in technological prior restraint, such as switching to a flip phone; these were either too restrictive or ineffective without the other parts of Eyal’s framework. Rather, he is focused on achieving balance using tech to your advantage. Some of the methods he discusses involve, for example, circumventing ads, which is ethically gray and could break down the line if publishers see them as a threat.

Many audiobooks have companion downloads to, for example, illustrate concepts that can’t be conveyed via audio, but Eyal has done his listeners a great service with an 80-page PDF workbook at his website that summarizes key points in the book, an especially thoughtful aid for books like these where it can be tough to remember.

Indistractable is a trove of well-presented research and techniques that elevate the quest for focus beyond crossing off the next to-do item to a skill critical for achieving the kind of life you want. It’s definitely worth a read or listen.

Mudita builds a 21st Century feature phone

The Mudita Pure takes an approach that falls somewhere between the Light Phone 2 and the Punkt 02, two other distraction-minimizing handsets with E-Ink displays. Like the Light device, it has a handful of apps that the creators have deemed essential, including a few apps that Light has not been able to deliver in some time such as a music player. (The screenshot shows off some thematic song choices.) In fact, the Mudita team has even developed a custom OS, an effort that leads one to think the team has ambitions far beyond the current hardware.

Like the Punkt device, though, the Pure is keypad-based, and that seems out of place when you’re planning to support messaging apps such as Signal. The Mudita campaign doesn’t mention T9, offering only that its keypad lets you “write a message without looking (with some practice).” Regardless, nobody wants to go back to those days, and Light’s software keyboard used for SMS and contacts seems like a better approach. That said, the Pure’s form factor is a very familiar update of 1990s Nokia design.

While its Indiegogo campaign, which included a well-done campaign video, ended with raising over $260,000, Mudita is still accepting pre-orders. The Pure is now available for just under $300 and is expected to arrive in October after missing its initial April target.


Prompt aims to promptly defeat smartwatch distraction

Those who have hopped on the smartwatch bandwagon don’t seem particularly concerned about distraction. After all, one of their key benefits is moving notifications off your phone toward something easier to glance at with the corner of your eye. Traditional watches, on the other hand, are a practically perfect distraction-free device, that is, unless you go in for a slew of complications and activate features such as hourly chimes.

Still, for the purist, they require a glance. That’s where Prompt comes in. Prompt dispenses with watch hands and instead just has a ring of white LEDs around its black dish of a face. But if you care to know the time without taking your eyes off whatever is capturing your focus, you can simply hold down your hand on the face and get a series of vibrations to let you know what quadrant of the hour you’re in, almost as if you put the quarterly chimes of a tower clock into vibrate mode. So the choice is yours as to whether to go eyes-free or hands-free.

But the Prompt team clearly believes the probably not da Vinci quote about simplicty being the ultimate sophistication. It has spent years refining the design and been awarded three patents for Prompt, The “anti-watch” is available for just under $200 as it winds down its Kickstarter campaign after raising more than $40,000 and is expected to ship in August of this year..

Color e-readers are coming to China

One could make a strong case that e-readers were the original distraction-free device. Their thin profiles, long battery life, single-purpose functionality, and crisp e-paper displays combined to provide a far more soothing reading experience than the harsh lights and notifications that came with reading on a laptop or, later, a tablet. But e-paper displays have a few disadvantages, one of which has long been a dearth of quality color reproduction. E-reader display leader E-Ink and others have created color displays that showed up in some early smartwatches (such as the Pebble Time) but the color was murky.

More recently, though, E-Ink, and others have developed a new generation of displays that could make color e-readers far more appealing. Good e-Reader, the source for all things about such devices, has the scoop on two new devices sporting these displays from iFlytek and iReader. Both are intended for the Chinese market, but it’s a good bet that these displays will show up stateside in a Kindle at some point.

Unpluq provides a key for locking out distracting apps

iOS and Android have ways for you to monitor how you and your kids are spending your screen time, but rely on your self-control to change the behavior. Sometimes, we need more of a push. Phones such as the Light Phone 2 take a hardline approach, limiting you to the barest minimum of apps. In part because of their E-Ink displays, they can also be pricey considering you’re more apt to use them as a secondary device when you truly want to shut off the world.

Now, a team from the Netherlands has created a device that works with existing Android devices to give you access to distracting apps only when you want to make a conscious decision to use them. Unpluq is a small USB-C dongle that works with a custom launcher. After setting up which apps you’d like to generally exclude from your smartphone time, using the phone without the device plugged in will limit you to the remaining apps you haven’t excluded. To access all the apps on the smartphone, you must plug in the dongle.

Unpluq is reminiscent of the devices needed to run certain copy-protected PC programs back in the day. But instead of providing access to expensive software, it provides access to your own apps. Because it replaces the Android launcher, Unpluq won’t work with iPhones, but the team is considering a version to work with older Android phones that use MicroUSB ports if there is enough demand.

Alas, while Unpluq doesn’t mention this in its campaign, its presence would likely serve as at least a minor inhibitor toward using your phone for the apps you normally exclude. For one, it would probably cause some issues with cases and, more importantly, you can’t charge your phone through USB while you have Unpluq connected (although wireless charging pads should still work for supported phones).

Unpluq is available for $38 (less for early birds) through Indiegogo InDemand after being funded on Kickstarter. It is expected to ship in September.

Rotary-dial cellphone won’t let you dial “M” for “Multitasking”

It’s fun to kick off this website with the story of smartphone-averse engineer Justine Haupt, who was so dissatisfied with the smartphone experience that she decided to build her own cellphone using DIY components, one of which was a rotary dial. The novelty proved irresistible to many and she has made kits available for the technically adept to build their own. Alas, would-be dialers need to furnish their own rotary dial and cellular radio and the lead time for the kit is currently a few months. There are also a few bugs and limitations, such as supporting only one ringtone and the lack of an easy way to add contacts.

On her website, Haupt explains some of her design motivations that reveal her frustrations with modern smartphones. “When I want a phone I don’t have to navigate through menus to get to the phone “application”. That’s bullshit.” She also notes, “The power switch is an actual slide switch. No holding down a stupid button to make it turn off and not being sure it really is turning off or what.”

Not everything is retro on Haupt’s creation. The rotary dial is juxtaposed with a small E-Ink display (a favorite of distraction-minimizing devices) for receiving text messages that she now has a good excuse for not returning. And while she maintains her intent to use the phone as her daily dialer, she acknowledges the inefficiency of its signature interface element as she says, “The point isn’t to use the rotary dial every single time I want to make a call, which would get tiresome for daily use.” That’s why she included literal speed-dial buttons on the 3G device.

If you want to dig deeper into Haupt’s story, Wired interviewed her.

H/T: B.