Toward plain text

Some time ago, I got tired of file formats. Really tired. I decided to see how far I could go.

Pretty far, as it turns out. This is where I’m keeping track.

State of play: August 14, 2016

Word processors


I haven’t written anything in Microsoft Word (or equivalents) in ages. This makes me unreasonably happy.

The newsroom has switched to Google Apps, so I do use Google Docs sometimes when I’m working on a story in real time with an editor and/or other reporters. But I rarely, if ever, begin composing in Google Docs, and unless I need rich formatting in a real hurry, most or all of my non-collaborative writing and rewriting is done in plain text files with MultiMarkdown (Wikipedia) and CriticMarkup.



Very good.

For quick reference notes, logs, random ideas and the like, I use individual text notes (using Markdown when it’s useful) stored in a Dropbox directory.

On my Mac, I create and edit them in Brett Terpstra’s remarkable nvALT, with a little help from TextExpander and (increasingly) Keyboard Maestro. I use a probably overly complicated naming convention that I’ll get into at some point.

On my phone, I use a variety of apps. I start just about everything on Drafts 4, because it’s so easy. Most of the time, I’ll look up or edit existing notes with 1Writer; sometimes I’ll use Editorial for iOS, especially for to-do lists, since it handles the Taskpaper format so well.


To-do lists


I’ve never been good at sticking to a single to-do list format. More on that another time. At the moment, I’m mostly using Taskpaper on my Mac, which saves everything in plain text (with the .taskpaper file extension); and on my phone, it’s Editorial (see above).

But I still use Apple’s built-in Reminders app for long-running checklists. Project-base task lists — work, taxes, whatever — go into Taskpaper, but most shopping lists (hardware store, for example) and long-running to-do lists, plus those where I need reminders (recurring or otherwise).

Plain-text fail: The grocery list is on the Amazon Echo and its atrocious Alexa app for my phone. It’s very handy in the kitchen, and it’s easy to share.

Another: I just recently started using Trello again, to keep track of intermittent projects; coding, for example. I get short blocks of time to work these purely extracurricular side projects, and I need some way to keep track of what I intend to get done next.




Yes, it’s possible to create complex tables with Markdown and its variants. Yes, you can even now turn CSV into tables pretty easily. No, this isn’t going to replace spreadsheets any time soon, at least not for me.

That said, I’ve found a decent work-around: Python. (Hey, it’s just text! Kind of…) And, more specifically, a great package called agate, which works for a lot of what I need from spreadsheets, especially when it’s a lot of data someone else created.. Calca - The Text Editor that Loves Math is useful when I need more than a calculator but less than a spreadsheet.

But Google Sheets is still the default when I need to work with someone else, which is often, or when I need to make quick-and-dirty charts. I still haven’t mastered matplotlib (or made any progress, really).



Not bad.

Python and agate for the lots-of-data use-cases, with data stored as CSV in between (or when I need to send it to Google Sheets for charts).

For the apps I write, though, I’m using plain text most of the time — either CSV, in a few cases JSON, and in others just a text file. I just used a python shelf for the first time (simplified pickling, I’m pretty sure). I suppose that isn’t really plain text, but the script that creates, saves retrieves, and modifies it is, so I’ll count it.


Photos, videos & so on

No. I’m not that crazy yet. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯




This is on Blot. It works.