This whole week has been a bit of kilter. I am sleep deprived, already falling behind schedule with my lesson plan and generally distracted. Also, I think I will have some new stories for the mostly true category – but they have to age a bit before I write them up. I originally planned to talk more about Deus Ex or write a short post about Magica but those would actually take time and effort. So I’m falling behind on my old trick – instead of me talking, I will ask a question, pepper it with some archive links and hope that the discussion thread will be entertaining.
One of the things I covered in class recently is the WYSIWYG paradigm the way it pertains to modern word processing. This is always a weird thing for me because unlike most people who teach this class, I have very strong opinions about this particular subject. I know, I know – it is a bit silly thing to be opinionated about. But this one of these things I can passionately preach about for hours – go figure. To put it plainly, I really think that WYSIWYG is a blatant lie. What you see is almost never what you get – there is just too much stuff happening behind the scenes. And I’m not talking about abstraction here – I’m talking about invisible markup that you actually have to work around to get your document to look certain way.
I often feel like we took a wrong turn somewhere on our way here. The whole “word processing must be WYSIWYG” attitude is silly. But unfortunately that’s the world we live in now. Most people don’t even realize you do not have to put up with Microsoft Office annoyances because they don’t know anything else exists. Even very internet savvy people fall into this trap, and end up posting long angry blog rants about it. They are being held back by bad habits ingrained into them by software that was designed to put up a user friendly facade, but unable to keep it up when working with complex documents. They lock up their data in proprietary and/or needlessly bloated file formats without even realizing this is not only suboptimal but also harmful.
We built these monumental software stacks with millions of features, and most of the time it is as if their primary function was to get in the way and keep you from actually getting your work done. And for what? Why on earth would we ever need anything other than a text editor to edit text?
Plain text is universal. You do not need special software to open or edit it. It does not take up much space, it can be easily searched, indexed and categorized. It does not suffer from arbitrary limitations and it won’t become bizarrely corrupted. There is a whole cottage industry built around recovering data from corrupted, unreadable or damaged MS Office files. You just don’t have the same problem with text files. At worst you may run into some encoding issues. But we have decades of experience dealing with these, and most editors have built-in tools that effectively resolve them.
There is ultimately nothing that applications such as MS Word can do, that you wouldn’t be able to top using plain text files, and a little bit of markup. It does not really matter what kind of markup you use. If you go with something feature rich and powerful as LaTex you will almost always end up with superior looking documents. But chances are you don’t need that kind of power all the time.
Personally, when I need to jot down personal notes, make outlines and etc I use plain text files with very simple and organic (ie. human readable) Markdown like markup. Which is not to say I am particularly married to that syntax. I just like Markdown “easy to write, easy to read” philosophy of not putting too much cryptic stuff in text. If you don’t use any inline HTML, a Markdown document looks good both before and after you compile and convert it to some presentation format like HTML. Which works out great, because the only time I would actually convert them was if I was about tho share them.
This sort of thing just makes sense to me. My data is saved in a format that will never become obsolete, never go out of style, never tie me to a specific editor. When I need pretty documents I switch to LaTex.
I only use MS Office when I know I will be collaborating with other people, or if I need to throw something together really quickly. Tools like Word work great for fast and dirty memos, one page letters and creating very short manuals with embedded screenshots. Being able to do Alt+PrtScn and Ctr+V directly into MS Word on Windows is great. But I would not use it for something like my masters thesis. Or even something as trivial as the reference notes for that
post-singularity short story I have been meaning to write super secret project I’m not gonna talk about because I’m not sure if it will ever see the light of day.
So what is your go-to environment for taking notes, creative writing, personal journals and etc? Are you like me and go for plain text and minimalistic markup? Do you use MS Office/Open Office out of habit and/or because of the convenience? Are you somewhere in between using one of these WYSIWYM type tools?
Do any of you extensively use cloud solutions like Google Docs? Being a plain text guy I don’t have that much use for it. I do use a cloud to sync up a lot of my work throughout all my machines – it’s just that my poison of choice happens to be Dropbox. That said, I have been sort of fascinated by services like ScribTex – essentially Google Docs for LaTex, with server side compiling into PDF. I haven’t really used it that extensively, but it is very neat – it lets you tweak and recompile your documents from any machine in the world without having to install a pile of software to get Tex working on Windows.
What’s your favorite editor – not for coding, but for writing prose?