Complex and powerful software has its place, in my working life and in my heart. Why else would I have loved wrestling with a long sequence of "interesting" programs, from KnowledgeMan to Paradox to Agenda to Ecco to Zoot to Chandler to Tinderbox to ...
But programs that barely exist, except to do the few things that you want, also have their charm. They are fast, light, and so easy to learn that, if you're looking for hidden crannies and variations, you may end up asking, Peggy Lee-style, "Is that all there is?" Then, with resilience similar that of Peggy Lee herself, you stop thinking about the program and concentrate instead on the work it is supposedly helping you do.
Philippe Kahn's old Sidekick, shown above, was one of the original "barely there, but does everything you want" program. My long-time favorite InfoSelect was another. Here are two others in that tradition.
1) Notational Velocity, or nvALT, is an open-source Mac-only program that I've come to find very handy for quick on-the-fly capture of info that you can later sort-out, recall, or decide to dump. The slightly tweaked current version I use is here; you can find out more about the developer here; and there's a primer on its use here. Nothing fancy about the program, but it does the job. Evernote, of course, is also a wonderful quick-capture tool, with lots of other functions and virtues, and I use it every day. But unlike nvALT it stores its notes in a proprietary format rather than in plain text.
2) Fargo, the latest entry from the longtime software innovator Dave Winer, is a minimalist browser-based outlining, blog-writing, and collaboration tool. It's an outgrowth of Winer's "Little Outliner," whose debut I mentioned a few months ago. So far I find it more interesting to think about than actually to use, since it intentionally omits many of the formatting features needed for structured blog work like ours here at the Atlantic. But it is worth checking out.
And if, on the other hand, you find a stroll through essentials-only software reawakening your appetite for the complex and the rococo, you will enjoy this paper, by the philosophy professor David Kolb of Bates College, on some of the visual layout possibilities at your disposal with modern hypertext programs. Here's a sample illustration from his paper, this one created with Tinderbox; you'll find lots more. Seriously, this is an intriguing paper.
Speaking of minimalism, time for a procedural note. Through the rest of this week I will be out of the country, in circumstances that involve very slow and often-timing-out internet connections. I would not have used the illustration above if I had realized it would take so damned long (and so many connection attempts) to load it up to the server! Will try to check in with brief mainly-text posts through the week.
James Fallows is a staff writer for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. He and his wife, Deborah Fallows, are the authors of the new book Our Towns: A 100,000-Mile Journey Into the Heart of America, which has been a New York Times best seller and is the basis of a forthcoming HBO documentary.