Published by James Gallagher on .
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Plain text is my preferred method of storing information on my computer. I was debating yesterday whether I should create a command line tool that stores my appointments. I decided not to because I could just use a plain text file. The tool would have been plain text anyway but I know that there is a simpler way to solve my problem. All I need is a plain text document.
As a programmer, I have a tendency to overengineer. It is in these moments that I give up on a project and move on. When I notice that I am making a project needlessly complex, I get bored. I cannot convince myself to work on a project for fun when that project does not have some meaning. I’ve come to realize that a lot of my problems can be solved with plain old text. No apps; no command lines. Just plain text.
The True Accessible Medium
Plain text is as accessible as the written word. The only barrier for accessing plain text is that you own some device that is capable of rendering plain text. That could be a cheap cell phone that can run the internet. It could be a public library computer. It could be a Raspberry Pi. I would argue that you do not need technology to benefit from plain text. Plain text can be printed and shared on paper.
Whereas other formats like .doc have their own proprietary standards, plain text is ubiquitious. Every platform knows how to deal with plain text because it is standardized. ASCII and UNICODE have been around for decades. There’s no way that a modern computer could not support these standards. Most modern software depends on these standards. Standardization protects the integrity of information stored in plain text.
I like writing in plain text on my computer because it is like having a high-tech notepad. I am presently writing this blog post in markdown. I am using a tool called Typora which renders my styles on-the-fly. I can see my document evolve as I go. Even in a plain text editor, I can add markdown semantics to my posts. Those will be visible whenever I open my document in a markdown-compatible reader. With that said, I do not need a markdown reader to interpret markdown. Markdown is written in plain text.
I do not often write notes on paper. I journal but that is different. I write my notes on my computer because they change so often. I keep a markdown document open at all times when I am using my computer which acts as my second mind. I note down everything important that I need to do. All of my work tasks are arranged nicely into a list. My personal tasks are at the top.
The thing about downloading apps to solve my problems is that they rarely do actually solve my problems. Like most people, I spent years downloading apps for everything. It turns out that I do not need apps for most things. I am presently debating whether I need the internet to do most things other than work. I could download a copy of the Python manual, a few modules, and I’d have a lot to do for quite some time.
Plain text is the ultimate medium. Plain text can be read by any plain text reader. There are plenty of them so there is no chance that I will wake up one day only to find some of my documents are no longer accessible. What’s more, proprietary applications like to pin you into their way of doing things. When I create a document from a CSV in Numbers, it saves the document in its proprietary
.numbers format. If Numbers can render a CSV file, surely it can edit it. I use Numbers because it is convenient for taxes. I would use an open source tool if I didn’t already have my documents in Numbers.
Plain text is the medium of the internet. A website can be plain text. No images are needed. Styles are optional. The internet was designed to be, and still is, a medium for sharing information. Plain text needs to be at the center. HTML has evolved to keep this purpose in mind. Today, the internet has become a collective mind for the world. I can download a web page and save it for later. I do not presently do this but it is something I am thinking about.
I’m about to create a document to keep track of my appointments. I prefer that than to download an application to manage a calendar when the only feature I really need is to take note of an event. I use plain text to keep track of my to-dos. I use plain text when I write code. I try as hard as I can to use plain text because I know that it’s accessible and standardized. It’s hard to go wrong with a plain text document.