Simon Griffee

Happier People and Computers in BigOrgName

27 June 2014 · 5 minute read

The following three suggestions should make people using computers happier in BigOrgName.

1. Use plain text format for all written text documents.

Because:

Sustainability. Plain text both ensures transparency and answers the standards of long-term preservation. MS Word may go the way of Word Perfect in the future, but plain text will always remain easy to read, catalog, mine, and transform. Furthermore, plain text enables easy and powerful versioning of the document, which is useful in collaboration and organizing drafts. Your plain text files will be accessible on cell phones, tablets, or, perhaps, on a low-powered terminal in some remote library. Plain text is backwards compatible and future-proof. Whatever software or hardware comes along next, it will be able to understand your plain text files.

Preference for human-readable formats. When writing in Word what you see is not what you get. The .doc file contains hidden, automatically-generated formatting characters, creating an obfuscated typesetting layer that is difficult for the user to troubleshoot. Something as simple as pasting an image or text from the browser can have unpredictable effects on your document’s formatting.

Separation of form and content. Writing and formatting at the same time is distracting. The idea is to write first, and format later, as close as possible to the time of publication. A task like switching from Chicago to MLA formatting should be painless. Journal editors who want to save time on needless formatting and copy editing should be able to provide their authors with a formatting template which takes care of the typesetting minutia.

Support for the academic apparatus. The workflow needs to handle footnotes, figures, international characters, and bibliographies gracefully.

Platform independence. As the vectors of publication multiply, we need to be able to generate a multiplicity of formats including for slide projection, print, web, and mobile. Ideally, we would like to be able to generate the most common formats without breaking bibliographic dependencies. Our workflow needs to be portable as well–it would be nice to be able to copy a folder to a thumbdrive and know that it contains everything needed for publication. Writing in plain text means you can easily share, edit, and archive your documents in virtually any environment. For example, a syllabus written in Markdown can be saved as a PDF, printed as a handout, and converted into HTML for the web, all from the same file. Both web and print documents should be published from the same source and look similar, preserving the logical layout of the material.

And:

Although modern word processing programs can do some amazing things—adding charts, tables, and images, applying sophisticated formatting—there’s one thing they can’t do: Guarantee that the words I write today will be readable ten years from now.

That’s just one of the reasons I prefer to work in plain text: It’s timeless. My grandchildren will be able to read a text file I create today, long after anybody can remember what the heck a .docx file is.”

2. Use Markdown syntax in all written text documents.

Because:

It’s easy: the syntax is so simple you can barely call it “syntax.” If you can use an emoticon, you can write Markdown.

It’s fast: the simple formatting saves a significant amount of time over hand-crafted HTML tags, and is often faster than using a word processor or WYSIWYG editor. It speeds up the workflows of writers of all ilk, from bloggers to novelists.

It’s clean: Markdown translates quickly to perfectly formed HTML: no missing closing tags, no improperly nested tags, no blocks left without containers. You also get 100% less cruft than exporting HTML from Microsoft Word. There’s no styling inline, nothing that will otherwise break a site’s design or mess with the XSLT formatting for PDF output. In short, it’s foolproof.

It’s portable: your documents are cross-platform by nature. You can edit them in any text-capable application on any operating system. Transporting files requires no zipping or archiving, and the filesize is as small as it can possibly get.

It’s flexible: output your documents to a wide array of formats. Convert to HTML for posting on the web, rich text for sending emails or importing into a layout program for final arrangement or any number of other proprietary formats.

It fits any workflow: You can make Markdown work with any workflow. It can speed up just about any writing-related process with very little setup. It can also be scripted all to hell, if you want, because plain text is the most flexible of any format known to computer-kind.

A demo of Markdown is available here.

3. Make free, open source operating systems such as SUSE or Ubuntu Linux BigOrgName’s standard desktop system, but let people use the system they are comfortable with should they wish.

How much money does BigOrgName spend on software licencing? I don’t know the answer, but, for example, volume licenses for Microsoft Office cost somewhere between xxx and xxx USD per computer. Around xxxx computers in BigOrgName multipled by xxx USD per license equals xxx,xxx USD. Would this include extra licensing costs for alternate language packs? And how about the cost of anti-virus software licenses?

BigOrgName should also standardize on free, open source software such as LibreOffice, but still let people use the software they are comfortable with, should they wish.

Further thoughts:

  1. A defining characteristic of human beings is our ability to make and use tools. We should not be required to pay a corporation in order to use (and modify) our digital tools. I.e. For an international organization with a mandate affecting the whole world, paying for software support is a good use of money. Paying for software licenses is not. We already have the hardware — Linux would run very well in BigOrgNames’s current computers.
  2. The City of Munich has saved millions by going with open source (specifically Ubuntu Linux). See also this and this.
  3. A thought experiment: Paying a tomato company in order to grow genetically modified tomatos (with patented seeds that you cannot reproduce) rather than paying small farmers for their help in growing seeds which one can plant, grow and use freely.

In this second machine age hopefully we will be well-equipped to grow our own seeds, in our own soil, in our own gardens, without walls.

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