It's about the output, not the tool.

You may recall hearing some people say, "oh, I could never switch to an ebook reader! I love books too much." They're in love with the container of the book, not the content.

Same with creation. I came up with an idea for a novel (I've done this before, many times, and actually written a few of them) and just dumped it into a text file.

Whenever I hear people asking, "what should I use for writing my novel?" I know they don't get it. It doesn't matter what tool you use to type your text. It's about the text that you've created, not about the tool you use to create the text. When I see authors bragging about writing an entire novel on the iPad, I wonder if it actually made a difference on the output, or if it was just a publicity stunt.

It doesn't matter if your GUI's minimalist, or if your computer is pretty. What matters is what you make with your tools.

Minimalism is not a state, but an action

Calling a physical object minimalist is erroneous, because things change. States are temporary. Just because it is minimalist now doesn't mean it will be in ten minutes, or a day, or two seconds. A clean desk is never a clean desk forever.

Minimalism is an action, a collection of verbs that describes how we do things and why. It says that we reject the prescribed notions of complexity and the burden of the rat race in search for a more personal, focused experience.

The verbs with which you choose to fill your minimalism bucket are your own, not mine, not some other blogger's, but your own.

Here's mine:

-Use Linux (surprise!)
-Eliminate for the sake of focus
-Rarely, if ever, buy new technology-related products
-Pride function over form, but realize that the two can be harmonious*
-Create rather than consume
-Learn more, constantly and forever
-Help others around me learn more, constantly and forever

*A good example of this principle is how the only thing I have plugged into sockets in my room is my alarm clock and a single power strip, which is stuck out at an easy-to-reach position in the floor. If I want to charge something or use my CD player, turn on the strip. It's all easy to access, easy to turn off, and saves electricity. Sure, it looks kind of ugly, having cables all over the place, unhidden, but it makes my life tremendously easier.

Usability is subjective

I can't tell you how many times I've heard Gnome or KDE insulted by some militant user of a competing GUI, usually in the framework of "usability is pretty terrible."

It's not that "usability" as a concept is already nebulous to begin with, but that it is presented as this objective score that one can actively compare to other scores. Usability means something different to everyone. K Mandla once said that there is no such thing as a bad interface. I have to agree with him here.

I mean, just look at the word. "Usability" means, the ability to be used, or in our example militant's use, how easy it is to get things done. The fundamental flaw in thinking that usability can be understood objectively is that assumes everyone uses a computer in the exact same way, which we all know is not true. Furthermore, this also assumes that even a single person will use a computer in the same way they always do it, 100% of the time, for the rest of their lives, which is also false.

I'll use myself as an example. My computer needs change daily, or at the very least, weekly. Sometimes I need a web browser and nothing else. Sometimes I'm doing heavy photo editing. Sometimes I'm writing code or a piece of fiction. Sometimes I'm reorganizing files, deleting cruft and reordering the rest. And sometimes I'm not interested in using the computer at all, and just want to check my e-mail.

Naturally, these are very minor, tiny examples of just a week of computer using in my life. But even these few things need drastically different programs and interfaces to work just right, and even then there's always room for improvement.

But who is to say that Firefox is better than Chrome for my use? One and only one: Me. Who is to say that Gnome is better than Windows XP for managing my files? Me. These are subjective, imperfect, vague and utterly personal judgements to make, and ones that cannot be forced on to others easily, if at all.

A minimalist perspective review of the Amazon Kindle 3

An updated supplement to this review is here.

I saved up some dollars and bought a Kindle from my local Target store, after thinking about it and debating the wisdom of doing so for several months.

As tends to be the case with items I research heavily before purchase, I'm enamored with it; the eInk screen effortlessly and gracefully destroys any desire to use an LCD screen for more than a few minutes. The Kindle I purchased, the third generation with wi-fi only, has a very quick screen refresh rate and excellent contrast, allowing me to read an entire novel without any eye strain (which I managed this weekend).

Amazon, in their overly joyous Kindle welcome letter, described their thesis behind the device as one that allows you to get lost in the text, and forget you're reading on an electronic display rather than a paperback novel. They have succeeded. What I love about this is a willingness to be more about the content and less about the container, something I've discussed before.

When I'm reading a book, I don't want all of that tablet crap with video and music and fancy effects. I want to get lost in a book. That's why I read. And the Kindle succeeds. The occasional image assists in the text, but the text itself is displayed clearly and beautifully, better than any other device before it. This is what makes it stand apart from tablets and smartphones, which are designed to repackage a smaller screen rather than a superior one.

I've mostly filled my Kindle with books that were on Project Gutenberg, Baen's Free Library, and Baen's CD's, though I will admit to downloading a few books that I either own physically or borrowed from the library and never finished or got around to. I'm moving out this summer and I intend to take as little as possible with me, because I won't have a very big room, so this helps. I wish there was an official way to re-format things though.

The biggest problem is finding books that are well formatted, because there's a large quality gap between the best and the worst. I also sampled a few free books from Amazon, but their formatting is nowhere near the best and their DRM is too much to handle. I don't expect to buy many books from them, aside from the occasional free or dollar download - there are enough places to buy or download DRM-free ebooks for me to not waste my time. (12-19-11 EDIT: I have since found ways in which to strip out the DRM using Calibre and various plugins. Thus, the Kindle store is more open to me.)

The Kindle does one thing well: it lets you read books. It's probably the best device I've ever seen on such a level, and this is why I love it so much. I'm very impressed, and I believe the benefits will allow me to focus on what I love to do - reading books - even more.

Whether or not it's minimalist to you is simply a matter of necessity. But I consider it a triumph.