I write an awful lot of words each year, and I’m always looking for my perfect writing environment. Much of what I do ends up in plain text, since Word is rather clumsy in many situations, and LaTeX is too intrusive/hard work.

So I’m fascinated by things like John Gruber’s new Markdown, a Perl script and Movable Type plugin that generates XHTML from the sort of plain-text email shorthand most of us geeks have settled on. That is, surrounding words with asterisks for emphasis, using angle-brackets to denote links, quoting text by adding ‘> ‘ at the start of each line, that sort of thing. Here’s a full list of the (modest, manageable) Markdown Syntax. The key idea is that text intended to be parsed by Markdown should still be perfectly readable as plain text.

This isn’t the first such attempt: Setext and Textile have similar goals, amongst others. But Markdown looks like it might be simple enough to use without getting in the way. In fact, I can see only two problems:

First, my own personal email/newsgroup posting style seems to have evolved into using square brackets to denote something akin to stage directions. Which is unusual, but works well enough for me. Unfortunately, Markdown uses square brackets for its link syntax, so all of that breaks. As my friend Conor observed twelve years ago, while writing his own programming language, “Oh, shit! I’ve run out of bracket types!”

The second problem is more serious: I need to find an editor that handles text as I want it to. BBEdit behaves like a code editor, indenting lines only when asked – so an indented line does not wrap to the same indentation level. JEdit will do that beautifully, but it’s a massive, clunky app with a slightly nasty Java interface and far too many options pleasing far too many people in far too many places. Pepper did exactly what I wanted… but it’s never been entirely happy under Mac OS X, and development seems to have ground to a halt. Pretty much everything else seems to work either like BBEdit, or like the standard TextEdit. As a result, I find myself writing more and more in OmniOutliner, which has its own annoyances. Perhaps I’ll just have to write my own editor.

Strange, isn’t it? The personal computer revolution is getting on for thirty years old, and we’re still finding new ways of handling that basic commodity, text.


Geek post warning

I’m repeatedly astonished at how fragile Windows is, even XP. My CDROM drive appears to be on the fritz – it sometimes works, but usually can’t be bothered to read the disc it has loaded. OK, so this is an unfortunate situation for an OS to cope with – but how does WinXP handle it?

It locks the Explorer filesystem thingy (the application I’d call ‘The Finder’ on a Mac); it never seems to take the hint that the (removable) filesystem has stuffed off and simply will not talk to it. I can bring up the Task Manager and attempt to kill the ‘Not Responding’ Application (disconcertingly called ‘My Computer’). That presents a handy dialogue box offering to send a report to Microsoft about the problem, but will not actually kill the process! ‘Shut Down -> Restart’ causes an endless lock during ‘Logging out’: so far as I can tell, my only option here is to hit the big red switch. Ugh!

Then there’s the entirely random manner in which the beast offers up its ‘shares’ on my LAN… or doesn’t, usually, whatever the (buried, arcane) dialogue boxes say. Not to mention the fact that no amount of persuasion will coerce it into firewalling the Ethernet connection, which as the only active network port is the only one I care about. I suspect it’d be happier if it wasn’t confused by the USB ADSL modem, but since that’s (a.) unplugged and (b.) ‘not installed’ according to Windows XP (despite the tray icon and heap of other stuff), it won’t let me do anything.

So… Windows bitrot. It still happens, it seems. It takes longer than in the days of Win98 – this has been about six months – but eventually even a lightly-used Windows box can render itself unusable, all on its own. Looks like I’ll have to reinstall. Give me strength.