The Most Potent Prison

The most potent prison is the one where the prisoner doesn’t even realize they’re in it.  It’s relatively rare for a prison to be a room with bars on it.  Much more often, a prison is constructed out of our fears, routines, and culture.  In my life, I find that I’ve build all kinds of patterns of thought that put artificial limits on what I do, with no good reason for them.  These are common prisons in my life:

  • I can’t write a letter to my friend right now, because I don’t have time to write it by hand.
  • I can’t go hiking today because it’s supposed to rain.
  • I can’t start that project because I need this thing before I can start.
  • I can’t go to the thing, because I need to work.
  • I can’t start writing because I haven’t finished the outline.
  • I can’t code this program because I haven’t decided how I’m going to deploy it.

Every one of those is wrong, but far too often they go unchallenged in my brain.  I have literally waited years to do somethings because of flawed reasoning like the above.

As I’ve grown older and more skeptical, it’s very useful to constantly “is that true?”  There is this idea that you should “question everything,” but I we tend to be too limited in what we include in “everything.”  We tend to think that “question everything” is limited to a domain like religion or politics or perhaps business.  But I think it’s most useful in the more mundane and more personal.

When I first moved into an apartment with a dishwasher, I was very happy because I hated doing dishes.  The reality turned out to be different.  I would wait to run the dishwasher until it was full, which might be a few days since I live by myself.  Then it would sit full for a few days, and more dishes stacked up.  This lasted for years through multiple apartments, until one day I realized my life would be much easier if I just washed my dishes after I used them.  It just hadn’t occurred to me to question my dish washing practices, but once I did, I was able to relieve a lot of pain in my life.  I haven’t run a dishwasher in years, and my kitchen is better maintained than it has ever been before.

It might seem weird to call these things “prisons.”  I think of it as being captive to thought patterns, cultures, or customs that are causing you pain that you tolerate because you don’t realize that there might be a different way.

I read a few years ago, though I don’t remember the source and can’t find it now, that the first step to escaping from prison is to recognize when you are in one.  I’m now constantly on the lookout for things that are causing me irritation or pain.  Then I question the assumptions of whatever it is.  I ask myself: what are the things about this I actually have control over. And then I break out of the place I had been.

The Power of Plain Text

One of my most important tools I use daily is a text editor. If you don’t know what a text editor is, it is a piece of software that is for editing text alone. In other words, it’s doesn’t handle formatting, printing, images, tables, or any of the other things you might be used to in a program like Microsoft Word. There are many reasons you might want to use a text editor instead of a full word processor.

  • Fewer Distractions – you don’t need to get the formatting right before you start writing. There’s no stylesheets. Just write.
  • Simpler – since it doesn’t need all that other stuff, it’s not there. Start times are faster, for example.
  • Text Emphasized – the text is really the most important part of anything you write. So when text is the only thing you’re working on, you can really focus on making it the best possible.

There are several different text editors out there. If you’re in windows, then it comes with Notepad, which isn’t all that great of a text editor, but definitely is good enough. Some good free text editors are programmers notepad and notepad++. A newer free text editor is Atom. I’ve been keeping a close eye on this editor, because I think it has a lot of potential. There are also editors that you can purchase. The most popular is probably Sublime Text Editor.

I use text editor for nearly everything I write. Even if a document ends up in Word eventually, it starts out in a text editor. It’s a good place to throw thoughts into words and worry about organization later. If I’m working on something, and I just need to keep notes, it’s a good thing to have open. As I read through code or a paper, I’ll keep my thoughts organized there, tracking todo items, things to bring up with others, and anything else that I really need to remember. It really helps me to always know exactly where I’m at in my work.

The other great thing about a text editor is that it saves files in txt formats, which can be opened by pretty much every piece of technology ever invented and available today. If you’re working in Word, and you want to share that work with other people, then they need to have Word as well. But text files aren’t like that. They can be opened on any platform, on the web, on phones, on tablets, all without extra software.

In the same sense, you don’t have to worry about bit rot as much. Bit rot is where files sit for a long time, and lose their usefulness, because the software used to read and interact with those files doesn’t exist anymore, or work the same way. Text files are so fundamentally important to how computers work that they’re unlikely to go away any time soon.

The biggest benefit is that I find it super helpful to remove as many distractions as possible. Today I bought a bluetooth keyboard and I’m actually writing this post on my iPad. I can set the iPad in Do Not Disturb mode, open up my text editor, and not be distracted by a thousand other things happening. So far, it’s really going well.

BTW, if you have a good text editor for iPad that interfaces with dropbox, please let me know.

If you haven’t really used a text editor before, I really recommend it, especially if you need to spend long stretches of time really focussing on writing. I’ll keep you posted on how my iPad setup turns out.

Creativity and a War on Science

Lifehacker is talking about the benefits of skepticism.

Creativity – The best way to prevent new solutions is to believe you already have the answer. Allowing a gap of doubt can allow creative alternatives to flow in. If you are adamant that advertising will not work for your product, you might cut off hundreds of ideas for improving your business.

Amen to that!  There are several others listed, and I completely agree with what is being said.  Skepticism has been the route to balance in my life, the route to understanding.

There is also an amusing story from The Big Room calling for a government War on Science. I find the idea amusing.