I am not very much in tune with the modern world. No car, television, microwave, tumble dryer, not even a mobile phone. But I did have one very useful gadget for many years: the late lamented Psion Organiser.
This lovely gadget was small enough to fit into a shirt pocket, and yet came with a suite of easy-to-use but powerful programs: word processor, agenda, database, spreadsheet, and so on. No booting up; turn it off when you have finished, and when you turn it on again you will be back exactly where you left it. Best of all, it ran for 40 hours on a pair of AA batteries.
Among other things I used it for, I produced most of a book on a single crossing from Hoek van Holland to Harwich on the North Sea Ferry. I had given a course at the Euler Institute in Eindhoven, and at the students’ request had produced written lecture notes. I typed up the notes on my Psion on the ferry. That was the bulk of the work, though I did later add one more chapter and did some editing. That book, Permutation Groups, is the best I have done.
The Psion had two weaknesses. First was connectivity: before the advent of USB, it talked to other computers over a serial line, and anyone my age will know what a black art those things were. A third-party manufacturer produced a disc drive for it, which was fine until computers stopped having disc drives. I did manage to keep going by getting a serial-to-USB converter, but it was necessary to say the right spells before firing it up.
The other problem was that the company making Psions abandoned them and went into mobile phones, so I was very exposed to the chance of a malfunction, which happened from time to time. A wonderful organisation, Pinnock Organiser Services, patched up various Psions of mine. But at a certain point, I could see that the end was nigh.
That point happened to be at the beginning of 2008, just when Asus brought out their first netbook, the EEE-PC. Though it was several times larger than the Psion (and would certainly not fit in my pocket), and made for children, it ran Xandros Linux; once I had found from a user web-page how to get a terminal (Ctrl-Alt-T, if you need to know), I could happily use it for writing. No diary program, but I could at least keep a diary as a plain text file. It saved my bacon several times, especially in New Zealand, as told in my Forder diary.
But this year, a week before my birthday, great-granddaughter of Psion is a reality: the psiXpda, a real computer, running Ubuntu Linux. You can have Windows XP, if you must, but can you really pass up an operating system named after a concept defined like this by Archbishop Desmond Tutu, no less?
A person with ubuntu is open and available to others, affirming of others, does not feel threatened that others are able and good, for he or she has a proper self-assurance that comes from knowing that he or she belongs in a greater whole and is diminished when others are humiliated or diminished, when others are tortured or oppressed.
It is almost exactly the size of the Psion (that is, pocket-size). It has a rechargeable battery lasting for five hours, a gigabyte of RAM and 16 Gigabytes of SSD memory, USB, mini-USB, and micro-SD slots. I am typing this on my new machine.
Positive things: the screen is astonishingly good (a page of 12-point text, rotated, is readable, while pictures are a delight); it comes with goodies like GIMP (and the screen is good enough that simple image manipulation is quite feasible); it has Bluetooth and wi-fi (I haven’t tested these yet); you can listen to music while you work (the music degrades the response a bit but not too badly).
On the negative side: the keys are very stiff and noisy, so it is not a joy to type on; the position of the screen when tilted up makes the top row of keys tricky to access; the relatively small screen height creates problems with fixed-size windows (I have been unable to set up Evolution since the buttons to click fall off the bottom); and I miss the simple but powerful agenda program on the Psion.
I think it will become as indispensible to me as the Psion was; but time will tell.