Low-Tech: Use the Most Basic Effective Solution

Ever find yourself wondering whether you should use the latest app or buy the latest fancy device to replace a simpler, lower-tech tool? Here’s a rule I recently came up with to help decide. Simply put: One should use the lowest-tech solution that meets one’s needs.

This may seem strange in the modern world with all our fancy gadgets and innovative smartphone apps: Why would you prefer the low-tech solution unless it was perceptibly better? By way of answering, I’ll ask a hopefully easier question: why wouldn’t you pick the high-tech solution?

  • Simplicity. You’ve probably heard the acronym KISS (“Keep it simple stupid”). If a sheet of paper works just fine, why should you use a computer system or a tablet? Unless it’s actually more useful that way, you’re only adding needless complexity. This is not to say that the simpler solution is always better; rather, the simpler solution is better if it also does everything you need it to. If the tablet truly is more useful, then by all means go with it—the key is that at equal levels of utility, the simpler system is better.
  • Fragility. In nearly all situations, the more complex a system gets, the more likely it is to fail. (You could argue that some complex systems are complex because of all the checks and failsafes in them, but in the end there is still more to go wrong than in a simpler system. No matter how good your battery charging and warning system is, it’s still going to be harder to run out of battery life on your paper.) If there is no difference in utility, it makes sense to choose the system that’s less likely to fail.
  • Flexibility. The simplest systems are often easier to adapt to other purposes, and they’re often easier to fix when something goes wrong or turns out not to work the way you intended.
  • Cost. I don’t really mean financial cost; while low-tech methods are sometimes cheaper, it can go either way (if you already have a computer or a smartphone that is capable of duplicating the function of another system, needing a separate device or piece of equipment will cost you more). However, the more complex your system gets, the more time and energy you must put into learning it. Sometimes this is totally worth it (if you’ve found a new computer program that can help you do your job in half the time, for instance), but other times it proves to be a waste of effort.

Here are two test cases I’ve run into:

  • Anki. Anki is a flashcard system that manages your studying for maximum efficiency. I have 17,525 cards in Anki at the moment and can expect to see about 300 of them on any given day (if I’m studying every day, as I’m supposed to), getting maybe 260 of those correct on the first shot. Imagine for a moment that I instead had chosen to implement this with paper flashcards instead.A 1000-count of plain white 3×5 index cards costs me around $10 on Amazon, making around $180 just for the paper to date (plus probably another $20 for ones I spoiled initially or chose to delete at some point). Anki is completely free (assuming you already have a computer) and even if you want to buy the paid mobile version, that’s only $25. Then we have the space that 18,000 index cards takes up: a stack of 100 index cards is about 3x5x0.875 inches. Stacked all together, those index cards would be over 13 feet tall! And from this stack, I would somehow have to figure out which 300 to study.This isn’t quite as impossible as it might seem; there are reasonably efficient algorithms for handling this kind of study, even by hand. But the point is that it would be a huge pain. In this case, the low-tech solution does not meet my needs in any way, so I move to a more complicated and high-tech system.
  • Notes. On the other hand, if I just need to sketch something out or write down a note quickly, I reach for a sheet of paper, a sticky note, or an index card. Writing the note on the computer does not make sense: I could talk about the ways in which paper is more flexible, but it’s easier to describe the ways in which using a computer doesn’t make sense: if I’m making a list of things I’m trying to remember to do in the next 20 minutes, I don’t need the storage or searching capabilities that a computer or phone can provide (in fact, it’s more likely to never get deleted and junk up my notes collection or filesystem). If I’m writing in Notepad and suddenly realize I need to include a diagram, I have to open up a different program or app to do that (and if I tried to avoid that by going with a drawing app from the start, I’d probably lose the organizational abilities of a more text-oriented notes program). Additionally, there is significant overhead in opening an extra app or program (and getting the appropriate device if not already using it).

    The flexibility and simplicity of paper won out here: it can be used for nearly anything and is nearly always available.

If you ever feel like you’ve been drawn into using new software or tools that sounded like they were useful but turned out to be more of a burden or useless than anything else, give the simplicity test a shot next time: Is the new system legitimately more useful (and significantly enough so to cover the cost of learning it)? Or does it only add more complexity with little to show for it?

Website Reorganization

Today I’m announcing the reorganization of The Technical Geekery.

What does this mean? I’m going to be moving some things around and adding some
things, but more importantly, I’m going to be clarifying my mission statement
and the purpose of having my website. That has always been somewhat tenuous. The
site has, to me, felt split between two personalities: the Computer Tips
personality (in the blog) and the Random Crap personality (in many of the other
pages). Not that I feel that the Random Crap is, well, crap—it’s me, it’s
stuff I want to share and I think other people might appreciate, and it’s stuff
that belongs on my website, but the way it’s done right now just doesn’t *feel*
right, at least to me.

I also want to add some entirely new stuff to the website. Lately I’ve stopped
writing on the blog except on an irregular basis. I could try various means to
try to make myself do it, but I realize that that’s not the problem—there’s a
deeper one. That problem is, I think, that I’m feeling limited. I have all sorts
of things that I could share with the world, some of which I’m guaranteed to be
very interested in when it comes time to write an article—but I have to write
something in a very specific area, about tips for using a computer.

As a reader, you will continue reading about computers. But you will also hear
about other things related to technology, such as balancing the usage of paper
and computers and storing information using various software and methods. I’m
planning to set up some blog categories so that if you’re only interested in
some of the topics, you can read those and leave out the rest.

I’m keeping the name The Technical Geekery. The site still revolves around
technology; I don’t feel that much has changed. The way I see it, this is much
more of an expansion than anything else. (By the way, for some time the site has
also been accessible at http://sorenbjornstad.com. There’s a chance I’ll change
that into a personal landing page at some point in the future, but The Technical
Geekery will certainly be featured prominently on it if I do.)

If you’re interested in seeing the new mission statement and more about the
changes, read on. If not, I hope you enjoy the new Technical Geekery as it
progresses in the next few weeks.

In reorganizing, I tried an experiment and wrote down all the pages on my site,
then tried to group them into common topics. Here are the categories I came up
with, along with what of my current website is in them:

EFFICIENCY – Anki, Dvorak, some blog posts
SECURITY / SAFETY – blog posts
COOL SOFTWARE / TECHNOLOGY – Anki, NetHack, Interesting and Useful Websites
MY CREATIONS – stuff under Miscellaneous
META – stuff under “About TTG and Me”

And then I wrote down some things that I’d like to add, and made categories for

I feel that everything fits together now, a feeling I’d been totally lacking
before. I have yet to add any new content however, so there’s always the chance
it won’t work—that will have to wait and see.

This is my working new mission statement:
The Technical Geekery is a collection of ideas for improving life through
technology. Those ideas fit into seven major categories:

EFFICIENCY has always been an interest of mine. I firmly believe that attempting
to use all of one’s time in the most “efficient” manner possible is not
intelligent (for instance, there is real value in sitting on a bus “doing
nothing”: using the time for something else isn’t always bad, but resting and
thinking can be one of the best uses of your time). However, I also believe that
one should not spend more time than necessary or useful on tasks. For instance,
I’m a big stickler for using keyboard shortcuts: there is no value whatsoever in
choosing “Edit -> Copy” from a menu every time you need to copy something rather
than pressing Ctrl-C and losing yourself several seconds.

SECURITY / SAFETY while computing is something I’ve been interested in. When I
was about four years old, I discovered the “set password” function in Microsoft
Word and was unreasonably excited about it (I was protecting gibberish text that
I typed by mashing the keyboard with those passwords). These days, I’m a big
advocate for using good passwords, two-factor authentication, and being on the
lookout for phishing attempts, even if I don’t feel the need to encrypt
everything I possibly can.

COOL SOFTWARE / TECHNOLOGY is what I live on on the computer, being the geek
that I am. The stuff that I find the most useful or that has changed the way I
work or my life the most (hopefully) makes its way onto this site.

CREATIONS / UNIQUELY ME covers things like board games, funky poems, and
recordings and things I wrote when I was younger. This has only an indirect
relationship to the rest of the website, but it’s one way that I make my
website, mine, and I post things that I hope other people will enjoy.

RECORD / INFORMATION-KEEPING is something I am somewhat obsessed with. I have tried all sorts of methods for wrangling my thoughts, ideas, to-do items,
appointments, journal entries, and everything else you can think of. In the
process, I’ve had some interesting revelations—and found some methods that work
really, really well for me.

BALANCING TECHNOLOGY is about when you should not use high-tech methods. It’s
about when I shut down my computer and write in a notebook or stop using the
fancy software I started using some time ago because it just wasn’t useful
enough. In a world increasingly dominated by technology, I feel thinking about
this is just as important as thinking about the ways to use more technology to
improve our lives.

CONTROLLING YOURSELF, while it may sound like it belongs on a therapy website,
is about the ultimate in low-tech methods, using only your brain and body. In an
odd way, however, this is also the ultimate in high technology: if you can
calculate in your head, you’ve transcended the need for even the best
calculator you can imagine. Of course, there are also times when the costs
exceed the benefits, so it’s about those times as well.

OTHER includes things that I wrote before having a clear purpose for my website
(and don’t want to delete), as well as anything else that I want to publish
somewhere but doesn’t really fit. Proceed into disorganization at your own risk.