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Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Is There Really Such a Thing as Plain Text?

This article says no, plain text is a lie. I don't see it that way. The article is really talking about making sure you have your encoding correct and it does a great job of explaining why. To me, however, plain text in English is ASCII. It's been around for over 50 years. It will render correctly in all cases. I recognize that the Internet has made it necessary to provide for other languages and that is where Unicode comes in. For that, you definitely have to make sure you announce your encoding, as the article says. The article also recommends that you read Spolsky's article about encoding. I second that recommendation.

posted at: 11:36 | path: /plain_text | permanent link


Thursday, May 23, 2013

130 Pages??!!

I have a page about Markdown. It's about 15 or 20 screens of information with a comfortable layout with lots of whitespace. I thought it was a relatively complete description of Markdown. Now I find a McSparky book on Markdown that has 130 pages and 27 screencasts to discuss Markdown and how to use it. How do you write that much about a tool as simple and straight forward as Markdown? I don't know yet and haven't decided if I'll spend the $10 to find out. But it comes highly recommended. My curiosity may get the best of me. UPDATE 2019-04-29: After I bought my Macbook, I decided to buy the book. Most of it is about tools that you use Markdown with rather than Markdown itself. It's a good book, but the Markdown part is not worth the money; the other parts may be if you need that information.

posted at: 08:44 | path: /plain_text | permanent link


Friday, February 01, 2013

Tools Reviews at ProfHacker

One of the writers at ProfHacker put together a summary of their reviews and comments about tools they use. Here is the lead:

Here's a collection of posts from the archives that focus on the use of plain text editors and alternative word processors.

Good stuff.

posted at: 07:18 | path: /plain_text | permanent link


Friday, January 11, 2013

Markdown

Markdown is a Perl script to convert a readable plain text document to valid HTML content for the web. The plain text document is marked up with simple markup to produce headings, emphasis, links, etc. I wrote a tutorial for Markdown mainly to learn about it. By writing a tutorial in Markdown itself, I could quickly learn all the features of the markup. Using a tool fixes it more securely in your mind than just reading about it--at least it does in mine. You can find the Markdown tutorial on my web site.

posted at: 07:46 | path: /plain_text | permanent link


Thursday, January 10, 2013

What I Know About Using Plain Text

The benefits of using plain text for all the information you want to retain are simplicity, portability, and durability. Almost every application has the capability to import and use plain text. The recent example of Microsoft Word files is a good one to illustrate the barriers created by proprietary file formats. For the 2007 version of Word, Microsoft changed the format of the created documents to one based on XML. The change is an improvement, but older versions of Word cannot open the new format without additional software. In other words, the new format is not forward compatible. Because this is a recent change, the additional software to work around the incompatibilities is readily available. But consider the situation 10 years from now. As this article from Macworld magazine says, sometimes you can't even open your older documents. You never have to worry about that situation with plain text. Or the situation of changing to different software. As noted, almost all software can import plain text so it has ultimate portability.

If that's the case, why doesn't all software simply operate in plain text? Because it's "plain." No formatting, no bold, no italics, no spacing control other than a blank line and spaces or tabs. The plain in plain text results from the fact that the foundation of it is ASCII encoding that included only the upper and lower case English alphabet, numbers 0 - 9, basic punctuation, and a few control characters. Encoding is a code relating the alphanumeric characters to numbers ('cause computers don't speak English). Encoding in ASCII is a basic foundation of plain text. For a full definition, read the Linux Information Project's Plain Text Definition.

The ASCII encoding is one of the earliest, having been established in 1963. Because ASCII is limited to the English alphabet, more recent encodings have been established to encompass more languages. The current trend is toward Unicode encoding, which has the ambitious goal of encoding every character in every language in the world. Unfortunately, there are several versions of Unicode (e.g., UTF-8, UTF-16) as well as other encodings (e.g., ISO-8559, Windows 1252, and many more). Fortunately, the most frequently used ones are a superset of ASCII. In other words, even the most modern encodings, now fifty years from when ASCII was established, can still display ASCII files correctly. Thus, from a durability point of view, it's a good bet that files created in plain text today will be accessible over a lifetime at least.

That does not mean that there might not be some issues. Almost all of us have seen occasions when a web page displays a few characters that do not make any sense. For example, quotation marks may appear as gibberish or a question mark rather than an actual quotation mark. This is almost always the result of the browser using a certain encoding to display the page when the text is actually encoded using a different encoding. Web pages are supposed to inform the browser what encoding is used. Many, however, don't and the browser has to guess. If it guesses wrong, the user suffers by having to figure out what those gibberish characters are.

The bottom line is that if you predominately use the English alphabet for your documents, keeping to plain text will ensure that you can access and use them in the future.

posted at: 17:16 | path: /plain_text | permanent link


Thursday, January 03, 2013

Using Plain Text

UPDATE 2019-05-11. The links in this post to 43folders.com and oreillynet.net are dead. It you have an interest, you may be able to find the articles at web.archive.org.

I have always been fascinated by what tech experts could accomplish with plain text. They could keep notes and articles in plain text for simplicity, portability, and future retrievability, then turn those files into formatted, structured documents through the magic of markup or filters. Years ago, I began to keep my personal notes and information in plain text because files were small and search was fast. I never, however, really learned how to manipulate text. I came out of the corporate environment, a lifelong Windows and Office user. I didn't have the exposure to Unix and the Unix tools to manipulate text. I didn't know how to do the magic I saw others doing. I'm now retired, so I decided to learn more about the foundation of using text.

How I Started with Plain Text: I don't know when I first read Merlin Mann's 43Folders, but I do recall that his post about using plain text was one of the first I read on the subject. Really savvy tech experts, called "alpha geeks" by Danny O'Brien, frequently prefer plain text to get their work done. O'Brien surveyed his tech friends and publicized this preference for simple approaches in 2004. The information from those links got me interested. The links below gave me a feel for what others were doing with plain text.

From there I began to explore the tools I could use for plain text information storage and retrieval. Little did I know that the exploration would continue until now. I'm still working to master using text.

posted at: 09:03 | path: /plain_text | permanent link



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