The case for bland markdown

Jun 22, 2014

Markdown was designed as a simple method of adding HTML markup to a document that also was readable as plain text. Jeff McNiell feels that it’s getting too complicated and suggests adopting bland markdown syntax as a kind of markdown standard.

He had me interested until his suggestion of using a single hash (#) at the beginning of a line to indicate a header. I find that headers underlined using equal signs (for main heading) and dashes (for subheadings) reads better in plain text than headers set off with hash symbols, even though it requires more keystrokes.

Since one of John Gruber’s original criteria was to have the plain text “as readable as possible”, it only makes sense to use the version that has the greater impact.

Handwriting notes may be better than typing

May 24, 2014

A study published in Psychological Science shows that students retained more information when taking handwritten rather than computer-typed notes. Students who used laptops had worse retention than the scribblers after a week even when allowed to review the notes prior to being tested on the content.

Lucky then that there is a Digital Writing Revolution under way which allows users the option to write longhand using special pens or writing tablets and save the results on the computer.

Another hybrid method is handwriting notes in an ‘ultimate’ notebook using the Cornell Method then scanning them for long term storage and research on the computer.

Yet another manual method for getting the info into your head is Sketchnotes , where a combination of pictures and arrows work along with the written text to anchor the stuff in your grey matter. Once complete, these too are scanned into the computer for later review and storage.

Update: Another cool sketcher showing how to use it for school notes.

In praise of Optimizers

May 4, 2014

Scott Adams has written a piece on Boing Boing in which he talks about Simplifiers and Optimizers, the difference between the two he summarizes thusly:

Some people are what I call simplifiers and some are optimizers. A simplifier will prefer the easy way to accomplish a task, while knowing that some amount of extra effort might have produced a better outcome. An optimizer looks for the very best solution even if the extra complexity increases the odds of unexpected problems. I have a bias for simplification, but surely there are situations in which optimizing is the better play.

I find it interesting that at the beginning of this piece I’m all “he’s so right” but after a while I start chafing at the idea of everything being simple because I start thinking of software that aims to be ‘simple’ which often means creating something that only caters to the lowest common user. Useful features are stripped and assumptions are made, all of which means that the abilty for making it work efficiently for me is lost.

I don’t accept that ‘simple’ has to mean feature or option free. There is often an attempt to make software accessible to the new user at the expense of making it configurable for the more experienced user. A user is a new user for only a brief percentage of the time that they’ll use your software (hopefully) and it seems to me that finding a way to balance the needs of the two users is more prudent than creating only a single a half naked version.

More options can definitely making troubleshooting more complex on occasion and adding new features can be more challenging but it also makes for a more personalized and rich user experience for those that want it.

A distinction has to be made between the Everything-but-the-kitchen-sink programs that try to be all things to all people with a scatter-gun feature set and the feature-rich One-thing-well applications which try to enhance the experience for a specific group of people.

Plain text for long term storage

Apr 27, 2014

Eric Potter wrote on the Business 2 Community website about the power of plain text.

Because your data is not dependent on another application or library, it is less likely to become obsolete. In my career I have seen multiple instances of data being stored in database backups, but at some later date when the data is needed the backup format is incompatible with the latest version of the database. The older version of the database has to be found and installed in order to get the data. If the data is in plain text, I know that I’ll be able to read it many years from now.

Although, he’s not completely convinced:

I’m certainly not saying that all data should be stored in plain text. In most cases, data belongs in a database. But for some data, particularly data that can have a long lifetime. Plain text is the best option.

Word vs Markdown

Apr 27, 2014

Ben Balter has written a piece contrasting Word to plain text using Markdown.

He makes the point that writing in a word processor is more about appearance where using Markdown for the web is more about content and intent.

My favourite part of the post was comparing the file sizes for the same content:

No more .doc for Google Apps users

Oct 7, 2012

Time waits for no proprietary format and now, perhaps, is the beginning of the end of the venerable .doc Word and .xls Excel formats. Google announced that as of October 1st, 2012, users will will no longer be able to export their Google Apps documents into .doc or .xls formats. They can still export to new Office formats but will require a plugin to read these documents in older versions of Word and Excel.

I’m surprised by this, actually. I’ve thought of the .doc format as the workhorse, the stalwart, the one format that was going to connect the Word users in the future with those from the past. It would have been logical to assume that eventually support would wane and at some point it would be abandoned, but not so soon. True, it’s only one companies application (and only exporting at the moment) but, it IS Google doing this, not Fred’s Online Office Suite And Discount Pharmacy.

The thin edge of the wedge, I say!

Oh, I also say: long live plain text. Which, by the way, is a format you can still export your Google Documents to. ;)

UPDATE: Google announced on October 10th that they’re extending support for exporting .doc files until the end of January 2013. Still, it IS coming!

How I used Knowsynotes to organize our trip

Jul 15, 2012

Our trip this year was ambitious: visit 4 countries in two and a half weeks. This involved 8 flights, one bus trip, a week long car rental and a variety of hotels and B&B’s. We had to organize cat sitters and offsite data storage; set up automatic garden watering and monitoring.

All of the booking was done online and via email or through Queries went out and responses came back as confirmation pages on websites, emails, pdf files or plain text. Lists were needed to organize the expenses and what to pack.

I used Knowsynotes to keep track of it all.

Prior to the trip there were CSV files for packing lists and expenses lists and text files with embedded images of sights to visit. Capturing text and images from Wikipedia or travel websites gave us plenty of ideas of where to visit when we landed. We had 2 days per city on average and so had to hit the ground running to see everything. ;)

As planning progressed, confirmation web pages, PDF confirmations and screen grabs were saved along with exported email responses in a ‘France Trip 2012’ folder. This folder was in my Dropbox folder so it was all automatically saved online and onto my phone so there was always a copy at hand when we were scurrying around airports searching departure screens for our flights.

As final confirmations came in, I saved them in the folder and renamed the files with the date that they’d be needed. Then, I could sort the list by name and easily see where we’d be when and if I had everything we needed.

Other than Brussels Air losing our luggage on a flight from Tallinn, Estonia to Berlin, Germany and my leaving my hat on the bus everything went very well. We had to organize a few bits and pieces using the netbook and wifi while on the trip and it was very easy to save the new information into the same folder on the USB key and have it integrated with everything else even though we were thousands of miles away from home using a completely different computer. Brilliant, if I do say so myself. ;)

Notes in "The Cloud"

Jun 1, 2012

Yeah, this post is about Dropbox. I’m not the first to mention it, but then if a bunch of people hadn’t stumbled across it and talked about it before, it wouldn’t really be worth mentioning… There is something to be said for being the first to discover something useful but there is even more value in a service that has been around for a while. Long enough to know it’s going to be around for a while yet. Long enough for people to write handy clients for all different platforms, making it dreadfully simple to have copies of your files with you at all times. 2 GB worth anyway. That’s a lot of text files!

I have almost all my Knowsynotes note trees in my Dropbox folder. With simple text files I can fit all my saved notes (often grabbed from websites, graphics and all) , spreadsheets, all my historical notes plus all my current musings and still have plenty of room to grow in the future.

For larger bunches of data (mostly Toronto historical research files), I’m trying out Microsoft’s SkyDrive . I mostly access Knowsynotes from my various computers across my LAN so I have the Skydrive Windows client software running on my server. I’m using FolderSync to copy the data to my Android phone.

There are limitations with SkyDrive compared to Dropbox, however. Two issues in particular affect me: There are no previous versions of non-Office files that have changed and uploaded. And, the programming API apparently doesn’t allow 3rd party applications to automatically write files onto SkyDrive so a true background sync client from Android isn’t possible. Still, since I was an early adopter and got 25GB of free storage, I still think it’s worth giving it a try.

I have tried SugarSync was well but had a problem with it repeatedly deleting some of my files. I was able to restore them from the Deleted Files folder but it spooked me and I’ve removed the software from my system.

There is definitely no lack of choice of cloud services right now but in my opinion Dropbox is the current gold standard. Their own software is simple to configure and runs smoothly in the background. It does consume 50MB of RAM which is a concern, however. Third party apps, like DropSync for Android, work seamlessly with the service as well.

Save the internet

May 2, 2012

I’m not the only one who has experienced this: spend months on google looking for the answer to a particular puzzle; then finally (shazzah!!) find the webpage with the answer to life, the universe and everything. I’m positive I’ll remember it but nonetheless I dutifully make a link to the page and think that life is good.

Month’s later, I’ve (of course) forgotten all the details of the answer to life and … something something. But, I have made a link (and very likely even backed up my bookmarks). I click on the link and … ack … oof … the site is gone. Sold to AOL who promptly shuttered the thing. Or they’ve done a site re-design and that page is now at some other link which I can’t find. Or, they’ve decided that the answer to life and something something is too good to give away for free and now it’s behind a pay-wall.

This why I’ve gotten into the habit of capturing the pertinent details of all answers to life and something something to files on my personal computer. So even if the internet gets re-designed or re-indexed I’ll always know what I know.

I also make my local copy in plain text. (Surprise, surprise.) If there’s a pertinent image, I’ll copy that too as a jpg or png. Now I know it will be there for me when my memory *really* fails in the future even if I’ve abandoned Windows and switched to the latest implantable kBrain OS 9.0 which doesn’t support the kBrain OS 8 apps. It will support some app which will read plain text. Then I can search it at will; I can back it up and know that I have it forever; I can copy it onto my phone and I can taunt people at pubs with the it.

External program

Apr 18, 2012

It’s difficult (nay impossible) when creating a program to include every feature that every user would want. And who would want to wade through the menus of a program which includes every feature request from every person on the planet? (Yes, here I’m assuming that everyone will want at least one copy of Knowsynotes!)

To keep things manageable but still be as useful as possible to as many of the billions of people on the planet as I can, I’ve added the External Program option in version This allows you to right click on a file and send it to an external program to do some other magic that Knowsynotes can’t do.

There are options to include many parts of the file name, the date and time and you can also include a prompt for passwords and other text you don’t want to have stored anywhere.

The example above sends files to a zip program and the argument list includes the filname for constructing the zip name and the full path to the file.

$filepath$filename $request $fullfile

The $request parameter tells Knowsynotes to pop up a little dialog like this

asking for user input which is then sent off the external program.

If the $storetxt variable is used instead of $request, the text will saved in memory and used every time the External Program is run until Knowsynotes is exited. The text is not permanently stored anywhere either way.

Power to the people, er, notes.