Crazy People is a 1990 comedy starring Dudley Moore as an advertising executive who experiences a nervous breakdown. He designs a series of “truthful” advertisements, including this classic: “Buy Volvos. They’re Boxy But They’re Good.”
A friend asked me to discuss the Jaguar ad from the movie. This is a “G” rated newsletter, so I’ll skip that.
Also, I’d be remiss if I didn’t point out that it’s a comedy and not a thoughtful take on the serious issue of mental illness. But, I like the gimmick, so… let’s move on.
- Volvos and Technology? What?
- Photo Editors
- Vector Graphics
- 3D Modeling
- Flowcharts and Diagrams
- Media Players
- Office Suite
- Text Editors
- Mapping Software
- A spoonful of sugar – some humor as a reward for reading all this.
Volvos and Technology? What?
I’m tech-focused and future-looking. It’s easy to be distracted by the latest shiny technology. However, in my career, I’ve found many of the “Boxy But Good” technologies are better than shiny ones. They aren’t flashy. They aren’t Jaguars. They are solid, reliable, and incredibly useful. Here are some of my favorites.
Really Simple Syndication (RSS) is a way for websites to publish a simple syndication feed of their latest articles. Millions of websites, including this one, have this tech built-in. If you want to subscribe to the Beyond Technology newsletter via RSS instead of email, add the RSS feed to your RSS reader software. The feed page isn’t designed for humans, it’s machine-readable XML code that your RSS reader will format into a nice newsfeed.
Most websites have RSS feeds, but it may be tucked away. All the major news sites such as CNN and BBC have them. Online magazines do also. Many shopping sites like Amazon have RSS feeds of daily specials. Any WordPress site will normally have it turned on for the blog. Look for the icon to the right, or look in the footer of the site for the words “RSS” or (rarely) “XML”, then add that link to your RSS reader.
RSS is similar to a Facebook feed but has several advantages.
- No algorithm decides what you see. The stories are in date order.
- Many RSS feeds aren’t available on Facebook or Twitter.
- No “likes” or comments to distract.
- RSS is not a “bottomless feed”, which is a Facebook “Dark UX” (User Experience). You can catch up on the important news of the day in a few minutes without being sucked into endless scrolling.
RSS readers are available on all platforms. Popular options include Feedreader, Feedly, Flipboard, Innoreader, and The Old Reader. My personal favorite is Innoreader, but check out a few before you decide. If you’d like to explore RSS further, here’s more information.
Podcasting is a special form of RSS that has become very popular. Many radio shows and even some cable TV programs are distributed via podcast. In addition to major network shows, anyone with a microphone and the desire to talk can make their own show. You can subscribe to podcasts on your phone, tablet or PC.
You can buy Photoshop, but most people don’t need that much power or expense. On the other hand, the built-in Paint software on most computers is pretty weak. In between these two extremes are some really good options.
If you want something like Paint, but much more powerful, I’d suggest Paint.Net. It’s supported by voluntary donations, so you can download it for free or send a few bucks if you like it. It feels pretty familiar to most people.
Paint.Net is a Windows-only program. If you are on Mac or Linux, or just want a more powerful program closer to Adobe Photoshop, check out (unfortunate acronym) GIMP.
The GNU Image Manipulation Program, or GIMP, began life as an open-source program for Linux. It’s now also available for Windows and Mac. An active developer community contributes to plugins. It has a learning curve, it’s not a complete replacement for Photoshop, and the user interface is a little… Boxy. But it’s good.
If you need to do vector-based drawing but don’t have Adobe Illustrator, I recommend Inkscape. It’s excellent. I use it often for logo design and print layouts. I’ve used it to vectorize and “cartoonify” photographs. It’s quite nice. Being open-source and cross-platform, there are a couple of user interface quirks now and then. So, again… Boxy but Good.
Blender is a beast for 3D and video production. It has a steep learning curve, like most 3D modeling software. It’s used professionally in TV commercials and films. It was used during production of Spiderman 2 for instance. And it’s free. From the official website:
Blender is the free and open source 3D creation suite. It supports the entirety of the 3D pipeline—modeling, rigging, animation, simulation, rendering, compositing and motion tracking, video editing and 2D animation pipeline.
Flowcharts and Diagrams
In the corporate world, Visio is the go-to for charts and diagrams, and for good reason. It’s excellent. But, it’s also more than $500 per user. If you use it every day for a living, it’s easy to justify the expense. If you only make a few charts a year… not so much.
Fortunately, we have some options. Dia is open source, but a little too boxy for me. It hasn’t been updated since 2013. You might like it, so take a look.
My favorite desktop software right now is yEd. It’s extremely boxy. I really want to hate it because it’s written in Java and I tend to resist all things Java. But, it’s actually really good software. I’ve used it on several professional projects, and it’s my go-to right now.
Another good option is online at https://www.draw.io/. It’s web-based. I find it easy to use and might be the best choice for beginners.
All things being equal though, I’d love to have a copy of Visio if someone gave me one. For this category, the boxy options are just barely okay.
VLC Media Player may look a little plain, but it’s a powerhouse. It plays any format media file you can find. It understands subtitles, can stream over a network and it’s available for an amazing number of platforms.
MusicBee is my favorite music player for Windows. It’s actually not boxy at all, it’s really slick. It’s also free, so I’ll include it in the list.
If you feel like user interfaces peaked with Windows 95 and you hate the look of the new Microsoft Office, then you’ll love LibreOffice. It’s good software, but it looks and feels a lot like MS Office 2000, before they started with the Ribbon UI.
Sometimes you just need a text editor, not a word processor. I write a little software now and then and I use text editors frequently. One popular choice is Visual Studio Code. It’s a free code editor from Microsoft with hundreds (not exaggerating) of plug-ins available. It’s Good, but far from Boxy – it actually tries to be sexy. It’s pretty, but despite the huge number of plug-ins, there isn’t a single decent macro recorder.
Macro recorders are a must for me. The concept is simple – I press “Record”, then do something to the text file, then press “Stop”. Now, play that back multiple times. With a macro recorder, you can quickly slice and dice a text file in ways that are impossible with a simple search and replace.
Fortunately, Notepad++ has an excellent macro recorder. I use often, and I’d be lost without it. It’s missing some of the other features of Visual Studio Code, but neither program completely replaces the other. To make an analogy: Visual Studio Code is a knife, while Notepad++ is my fork. It’s not unusual for me to switch between programs while editing the same file.
Any serious cartographer will likely be using the industry leader, ArcGIS Pro by ESRI. It’s extremely expensive. Government entities publish all manner of mapping information as ArcGIS shapefiles. For example, my county publishes maps on the website that show the location of every fireplug and storm sewer in the county.
These files can be really useful sometimes, but most people can’t afford to buy a copy of the ESRI software. Fortunately, QGIS is a free and open-source alternative. ArcGIS files are compatible with QGIS, so you can open maps from thousands of sources, including NASA, the US Census, US Geographic Survey, the FCC and more.
Once you get comfortable with QGIS, you can combine ArcGIS data with other data sets to make all sorts of amazing maps. For example, this is a map I made of the median age of voters for the entire state of Florida down to the voting precinct. Here are three other maps I made showing various demographic breakdowns for Florida’s Congressional District 17.
And now, a little fun.
It’s hard to write an interesting article about boring technology. It’s a lot easier to get excited about shiny new toys. Don’t get me wrong – if someone wants to give me a free copy of Photoshop, Visio or ArcGIS, I’ll use them. But, as a practical manner, I just need a reliable Volvo that won’t break the bank.
So, as a reward to you, the reader, for making it this far… I’ve assembled a few slogans in the style from Crazy People.
If companies today had honest slogans, what would they be?
- 1 800 Flowers: The cheapest way to say you remembered your anniversary an hour ago.
- Adobe: An update is available.
- AOL: We still exist.
- Yahoo: Trying to outlast AOL.
- Applebee’s: When you’re too lazy to prepare your own frozen food.
- Best Buy: Amazon’s showroom.
- Google: We know more about you than you do.
- Facebook: We know more about you than Google.
- Firefox: Our popularity isn’t waning; our appeal is becoming more selective.
- Hot Pockets: A different temperature in every bite.
- Internet Explorer: The #1 way to download other browsers.
- Norton Antivirus: Good luck trying to uninstall, we are the “anti-virus” virus.
- Yamaha: We’re not sure what motorcycles and pianos have to do with each other either.
Have more slogans or boxy technology tips? Email firstname.lastname@example.org and I’ll add them to the list.