Plain text, pain text

(This was first posted on the discontinued blog at

It is fair to say there is a good number of things in this world that I am ambivalent about.
But there is one thing has a special place in my heart gut: Working in plaintext.

I played with LaTeX, much like everyone else – on Slackware, my old companion for a long time, it is even included as part of the standard installation. I have also experimented with AsciiDoc, and I am writing this using Markdown.
I obviously love the essential principle: Working from some basic templates, I write with a bit ot markup and press the make it so-button to have the system generate something pretty. Excellent. Also, because you can turn it into whatever. I was quite fascinated with Publican, a tool to create documentation used by the Red Hat tribe, which I was introduced to by Klaatu on Hacker Public Radio episode 0866. You write your document and tell the system “I want this in docbook, PDF and ePub, please” – and just wait. Awesome. David Collins-Rivera (Lostnbronx) tells about using txt2tags to generate various document types.
And of course, there is the great Org Mode, which some people use to keep their lives together in organised text format; and you will find a lot of people who found salvation in Todo.txt (see examples at a recent HowToGeek article on todo.txt).
In more recent times, I have been going through a lot of these tools and thoughts again, inspired by Scott Nesbitt’s Plain Text Project.

It is, however, usually a pain in the assets. So shoot me.
To be fairly, this is partly because I am Danish and Unicode is still a challenge. Most of the GUI apps can handle that, but when you get into plaintext territory, a lot of software basically expects you to be in the US. Which also becomes clear when you look at the keyboard shortcuts in some apps. But when you are writing, it usually means you need to escape characters or be quite specific about what kind of character set I just might be talking about.
But the idea that this is all plain text files… well, let us look at that. I mentioned the Todo.txt article before. Let’s just see:

Plain text, right? Well.
When I was starting to use LaTeX, it was obviously for the 1337 geek factor of it, because you do, I was 800 years younger and difficult was not an obstacle. But I am becoming increasingly less fascinated with the thought of doing this stuff by hand – writing a letter should take less than a day, I have come to feel – and more attracted to seeing these formats as exchange formats. For instance, I like using LyX to write documents. It has the advantages of writing LaTeX while still presenting something I can work with. It still has heavy forced templating. I also like to use JabRef for bibliography files, and it exports BibTeX. And as for just banging out text, I love using Focuswriter, which at least puts out OpenDocument, even if it would be the most obvious tool for making Markdown!
I like to use Nextcloud Notes for shorter notes, but the Markdown tool is actually quite good – and the Nextcloud Notes Android app is better, because it illustrates my point: It lets me write in Markdown, but toggle between showing the Markdown and the actual text with rendered markup. That is all we wanted in the first place, right?

Obviously, literally minutes afterafter I wrote this, I looked around for some other articles and found my opinions better expressed in Adam Hyde: What’s wrong with Markdown.

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