March 8, 2022
QB 005: Plain Text Format
Derek Sivers preaches the benefits of living in text files. His arguments in favor of text files include:
- Free as in price.
- Free as in independent.
- Malleable as in easy to convert.
I live in text files. Everything I write is in plain text. Markdown formatted plain text. But plain text.
Plain text, for me, has the added advantages of:
- Easy and quick search.
- Less distractions. Not being distracted by formatting options, styles and rulers makes the act of writing easier for me.
- Versatility of plain text.
Listing out the advantages leads to a long list. I am going to elaborate on this one of these days.
Proven – Rhoneisms echoes the benefits of text files through the conception of text files as a proven format.
The Detractor - CJ Chilvers
Is plain text best? — CJ Chilvers
Chilvers makes the following argument:
When I switched to the Mac in 2008, all of my text file notes got corrupted in the move. I didn’t notice for a while because work occupied most of my time, and (non-developer) corporate work never happens in text files. By the time I went back to my notes, all of the titles and meta data had been replaced with gibberish. Luckily, the internal copy wasn’t corrupted, and I didn’t care enough at the time to dip into my backups, so it wasn’t a huge deal.
Chilvers doesn’t provide an analysis of the reasons behind this event. It is a sample size of one. It is an example without much context, so I cannot explore the antecedents to the event. I find it interesting that the title and the meta-data was corrupted but the internal content wasn’t. My inclination is to blame the event on user error, but I am going to hold back on that assertion. What was the OS he was switching from? What was the form of the meta-data? What happened to his non-text files?
This is the problem with anecdotal evidence. It doesn’t prove anything.
The meta data of a note/file is critical to me now. It gives valuable context the internal text usually doesn’t.
If your meta data of a note/file is maintained by the file-system, you are tied to that particular file-system. That is what seems to have happened to your files. If you had the meta-data included in the internal text of your file, you wouldn’t have this problem. Front matter for your notes/files is the solution to this problem.
Based on this one event, Chilvers gets prescriptive.
I wouldn’t worry too much about your archive, though. Nothing digital is of archival quality. There hasn’t been enough time to test any format or storage method. When it all shakes out in 400 years or so, I doubt anything we use now will be the preferred format. I’m not even sure humans will be a preferred biological format.
This is in the realm of pablum. I am not looking for a preferred format. I am interested in an accessible format. Accessible in the future without too much trouble. Words on a page or words on a screen. That is my goal. Plaintext is the better solution to that problem.
If chimpanzee’s are the preferred biological format 400 years from now, then you might be right, it doesn’t matter at all.
Also, none of this really matters. Legacy is a sales tool. No one is likely to dig through your thoughts in any file format.
It’s important to think of your captured thoughts as fleeting bits of information across all formats and uses. Maybe you’ll get back to them. Maybe you’ll use them. But investing everything in one, stable format doesn’t take away their fleeting nature. Thoughts will exist here and there for a while, then be gone and forgotten. Just like you.
This is the assertion that everything is fleeting. Why bother?
I find that very humbling, but comforting as well.
Oh, fuck off.
Okay, that was not nice.
We are all here for a minuscule amount of time and we are all insignificant in the grand scheme of things. I get that. Still doesn’t solve my problem. I want to work in a format which will outlast me. In case anyone gives a shit. They might not, but I want to make it as easy as possible for them, if they do. Plain text is a better solution for that goal than the alternatives.
I’m sure Derek and Patrick agree with most of this, and choose the text file as the best candidate for them, given all the above. It’s just not for everyone.
More pablum. Nothing is the right solution for everyone. Except orgasms. Have as many as you can.
Plain text can’t save you if you lose the files – Jack Baty
Jack doesn’t disagree with the assertion that plain text is a good format. He prescribes good backups. That is good advice.
macosxguru at the gmail thingie.
Thanks to: Photo by Suzy Hazelwood from Pexels
February 27, 2022
Product: KeyCue - find, remember, and learn menu shortcuts
Price: Eur 19.99
KeyCue 10 Adds/Changes Keyboard Commands
I have written about KeyCue before. It has been updated to version 10. Most of what I wrote about KeyCue is still applicable. KeyCue is the best program to help you learn keyboard commands while you use applications. I find it critical to my workflow to achieve familiarity with the programs I rely on. It works. Efficiently and reliably.
KeyCue 10 Adds Shortcuts to Menu Commands
KeyCue lets you add/change keyboard commands to menu items in applications.
To add/change a keyboard command to a menu item in an application, you had to go to the Keyboard pane of System Preferences. Click on the Shortcuts tab, choose the App Shortcuts item and go through the process of adding/changing keyboard commands.
With KeyCue 10, you can point at the menu item in the application, press and hold down the desired keyboard command. There is an animation to show you that the command is assigned. You are done. If there is a conflict with some other menu command, it is removed from the original item and assigned to your chosen menu item.
You can assign commands to any visible menu command, including those which are currently unavailable (dimmed). Some applications, BBEdit for example, use icon menus at the right end of the menu bar. You cannot add keyboard commands to those.
This feature alone is worth the upgrade price. Makes adding/changing keyboard commands easy. I love it.
More KeyCue Features
KeyCue ships with an extensive manual. Go through it to learn the intricacies of the product. I am not going to repeat the details. There are a couple of things it does which I want to highlight.
- You get to omit keyboard commands you already know automatically. Makes the list that KeyCue shows you easier to skim through.
- You can make your own cheat sheet for applications which do not have all of the commands shown in the menu. For example, Sublime Text and Obsidian.
KeyCue 10 is a worthwhile upgrade. It gives you the tools to be better at using your applications. I love this program.
It is recommended heartily.
macosxguru at the gmail thingie.
February 20, 2022
OutlineEdit 3 Icon
Product: OutlineEdit 3
OutlineEdit 3 Evolves
I have written about OutlineEdit before. OutlineEdit Is Perfect for Sketching Ideas & Making Lists - Bicycle For Your Mind. OutlineEdit has been updated to version 3.
Developers seem to be rediscovering the need for outliners and there are a slew of products entering this category. Zavala and Electric Drummer, are two new entrants. There is also a product in beta from Jesse Grosjean, of TaskPaper fame. OutlineEdit 3 is an evolving competitor in this space. Electric Drummer is an Electron application and that has some downsides. Zavala and OutlineEdit 3 are native macOS products. That brings along with it some clear advantages. You can use macOS technologies in Zavala and OutlineEdit 3: Services and System text replacements to name a couple.
Note: In a previous version of the article I had inaccurately classified Zavala as an Electron product. Sorry. Zavala is a native macOS application built using Mac Catalyst.
- OutlineEdit is a great outliner with all the features that you expect of an outliner.
- It is a native macOS application. Which means it supports system features like Services and “lazy typing.”
- Extensive keyboard command support. OutlineEdit 3 does this well. Every useful command has a keyboard command assigned to it and you can work in the program without having to reach for the mouse. I am going to enjoy learning the commands and using OutlineEdit 3.
- Drafts, Home Window and Menubar Access to provide instant access to your outlines, templates, and drafts. I would have liked a keyboard command to access this drop down menu bar item.
New features in OutlineEdit 3
- Editor themes and dark mode. The program ships with a collection of light and dark themes. They are not customizable. The user can’t create themes either. I would have liked the ability to customize and create my own themes.
- Custom Outline Templates are available in OutlineEdit 3. If you create outlines with a particular structure, you can define the structure as a template and build outlines using that template.
- Images can be added to the outlines. Coming from the world of text based outliners, this is an interesting addition to the abilities of an outliner. I am going to find out how much I use this feature.
- You can fold and unfold the outline and have minute control over that action. You can hoist, zoom in, to a section of the outline and focus on that section. You have an option to create a new outline from the hoisted section, if you need that. This is well thought out and designed. Makes OutlineEdit 3 a pleasure to use.
- You can provide more structure to the content of the outline with ten color-coded category tags per document. Adds an added level of annotation to the structure of your document. You can filter the contents of the document through categories. That lets you both analyze the content of your document and work on sections that make sense to you.
- Copy as text to clipboard is a great feature for me. I work in a text editor. Rich text is not that useful to me, but OutlineEdit 3 has the ability to copy the text to the clipboard with a menu item choice. I can paste the content into a text editor. This is a feature in OutlineEdit 3 which I use all the time. I can use the outlining features in OutlineEdit 3 to help me think through something and move the content over to a text editor to revise and rewrite. This is what I did for this article.
- I love the implementation of the full screen mode. Makes it possible to concentrate on the document and not get distracted.
- Export to Markdown.
- Let me use my own fonts.
- Let me make my own themes and customize the default themes.
- Typewriter scrolling.
- I want typographical controls. Line spacing within an item. Line spacing between items in the outline.
I am impressed with OutlineEdit 3. It is a great addition to the outliner category. It does outlines well. It is well designed software. OutlineEdit 3 is a pleasure to use.
I recommend it heartily.
macosxguru at the gmail thingie.
Note: A promo code was provided by the developer when I asked for one.
January 30, 2022
Simple and Complex
I have been playing with Emacs for the last month. There is no good reason to do so. I was bored and wanted to tinker. I changed my configuration in Emacs to an Org-mode file. It is an interesting way of configuring Emacs. You can have notes and comments to yourself and use bits of emacs-lisp to generate the required Emacs configuration files.
config in org-mode
Tweaking Emacs is a tinkerers dream. I learn new things from other people’s configuration and incorporate it into Emacs. Everything goes to hell. Nothing works. I spend time troubleshooting the configuration. More often that not, it is something silly that I either left out or included. A couple hours later, I have less hair, and the mistake becomes clear. Fix it, Emacs works, and I feel a sense of relief and accomplishment. It dawns on me, what an absolute waste of time that was. The sense of accomplishment fizzles. I realize that changing how the bullet looks in an org file is not worth two hours of my time. Maybe this is debatable. I understand if the right bullet character is critical to your mental health. We all have our vices.
I wanted to stop myself from this dive into the rabbit hole of Emacs customization.
I opened iA Writer.
iA Writer is simple. Deliberately so. In some ways, Emacs is the antithesis of iA Writer. Emacs is an OS which happens to include a text editor. iA Writer is a Markdown focused text editor. Emacs is fully customizable. You can bend Emacs to provide you with the exact environment you desire. iA Writer is opinionated software, in that it provides you with an environment. The choices are minimal. You can choose between three defined fonts. Light or dark mode. And that is it. There are assorted other choices you can make, but the environment is barely customizable.
Contrast that with Emacs. Sacha Chua, a celebrity in the Emacs world, has a configuration file which runs 13,300+ lines. I am blown away by the detail and the intricacies of that file. Wow!
Back to Simple or The Charm of iA Writer
iA Writer is by design “simple.” What do I mean by “simple?”
If you look at all the functions that a text editor can perform, iA Writer only deals with a subset of the functions. It is geared only towards Markdown. It is not interested in being the program you use to tackle text, it is designed to let you write in text. There is a difference. You don’t get to regex your way to text nirvana, you have find and replace, but it is not as full-featured as using regex patterns.
You get a writing environment out of the box. Full screen mode, typewriter scrolling and a good grammar checker function. iA Writer has the ability to manage your files and folders, but it doesn’t have projects or workspaces. The core function, and the program is obsessive about its focus, is on writing. That is what it does well.
iA Writer handles large files without any problems, but does not provide the ability to fold sections (I wish they would add that). Lists auto-continue. Syntax highlighting of Markdown code is superb. It is designed with the focus on the writer.
As you can tell, I love being in it. I could go on eulogizing about iA Writer but that is not the focus of this article.
The dichotomy between simple and complex is what I want to address.
Complexity Is Not a Panacea
There is power in complexity. Power to tweak every little environmental variable to make sure that you have complete control over your writing environment. Let me give you an example.
Emacs with writeroom-mode
This is how this article looks in my configuration of Emacs, with global-writeroom mode enabled. I love it. But I want the font to be a tad smaller. I went through the site for the plugin at joostkremers/writeroom-mode: Writeroom-mode: distraction-free writing for Emacs.. Couldn’t figure out how to configure writeroom-mode. Didn’t know what the options are, how to tweak them. Got nothing. Tried google searches. Nothing. Now this is not the plugin developer’s fault. It is my lack of knowledge which is the problem, but Emacs being customizable doesn’t mean much to me if I can’t figure out how to customize it.
Complexity assumes that you have knowledge or know how to get the relevant knowledge. That implies a learning curve. To be able to make Emacs provide you an environment to write, you have to give up on writing, and learn how to use Emacs. Every minute you use to learn Emacs is time you could have spent writing. I know that is heresy. It happens to be true.
The same is true of any of the major editors that you care to pick up. BBEdit ships with a manual which is 434 pages long. Sublime Text, VSCode, TextMate or VIM, all have similar learning curves. And they don’t provide the convenient learning resource of a manual which ships with the product.
Scrivener, the pre-eminent writing software, has a whole cottage industry around it with folks selling training on how to use Scrivener. It ships with a manual which is 905 pages long.
Don’t get me wrong. I love that BBEdit and Scrivener ship with manuals. But there is a commitment of time required to learn how to use the software to do what you want. Write.
Complexity is fantastic, once you come to grips with the inner workings of the product.
Org-Mode and Why Doesn’t Everyone Use It?
My foray into Emacs was courtesy of a video, Emacs For Writers - YouTube. I got intrigued by Org-mode and started the journey of trying to figure out how to live in Org-mode and Emacs. For a while there I was dismissive of people who stuck to BBEdit or TextMate for their writing. My reasoning was that there are better solutions available which will let you do everything in text files. Write, manage your life, manage your notes, manage your whole computer life. Why would you settle for text editors which did not let you do that?
The answer was simple. Why would you do that?
The stock Calendar app and the Reminder app in macOS can do a great job of managing your schedule and your life. Programs like Things, or OmniFocus can do that better. Why don’t you use the tool which is designed for the task? Use task management apps to manage your tasks and your text editor to manage your text editing needs.
When you choose specialized tools, what you are doing is reducing complexity. You are redefining the things your text editor has to deal with to get it to do what it is good at. Giving you the opportunity to write.
Sure BBEdit doesn’t have anything comparable to Org-mode and Org-mode is a fantastic piece of engineering. But it is not imperative that everyone needs to use it. There are other solutions and they work as well, and sometimes, better.
Bonus Tip to Developers: Design a product with the feature set of Org-mode in an environment like iA Writer. Org-mode without Emacs. That would be special.
The Lure of Simplicity
Whenever I am in a full-fledged text editor I get the feeling that I could do things better. Each of these products are feature-rich and have a lot of different ways of achieving tasks which are repeated in the act of writing. Move to the start of a sentence, move to the end of a sentence, move to the start of a paragraph, or the end of one. All these things have keyboard commands you can use. Knowing them is useful. Because the full-fledged editors do more, they have more commands for you to learn.
iA Writer doesn’t do as much. Thus there is less to learn. A lot less to learn.
I learned all the keyboard commands available in iA Writer. I added a few Keyboard Maestro macros for oft repeated tasks and now I know iA Writer.
There is pleasure in that. Knowing everything there is to know about a program and being able to use it with expertise is a revelation. I feel empowered. I don’t have to struggle. I don’t have to beat myself up over my lack of knowledge. I can write. Which is what this exercise was all about.
What Do I Prefer?
Personally I prefer a middle ground. I want to be able to customize some basic things, but not have the customizing effort take up my life.
These are some of the things I need to customize:
- I need to use my own font. iA Writer Mono is good, but I prefer to use my own font. PragmataPro Mono at present.
- I like the Solarized themes. I want to use those.
- I want to control line width (90 characters) and line spacing.
I like the ability to manage my tasks in text files. Org-mode does that. Tasks in Obsidian does that too and I find it easier. The other advantage? Markdown files and not org files. Obsidian through the plug-in system has managed to replicate a lot of the functionality of Org-mode. It is an easier environment to get familiar with and the learning curve is not as steep. I have been living in Obsidian for a while now and am familiar with its nuances enough to be comfortable in it.
I have settled on Obsidian for the time being. It is complicated enough to keep me learning and simple enough for me to get some real work done. iA Writer is used for final edits. But I spend my life in Obsidian.
There is a charm to simple. Complexity is nice but comes at a cost. Find a compromise which suits you, or don’t compromise. It is your environment. Keep writing.
Thanks to Photo by Agnese Lunecka from Pexels
macosxguru at the gmail thingie.
January 26, 2022
QB 004: Rectangle Pro Manages Windows
Rectangle Pro Icon
Product: Rectangle Pro
Price: Purchase for US$9.99
Window management is a popular software category on macOS. There are a ton of competitors in this space.
An incomplete list of the competition includes:
- Moom · Many Tricks
- Magnet – Window manager for Mac
- Split Screen Pro: Complete Window Management App for Mac
- Window Tidy
- Mizage - Divvy
- Amethyst | ianyh
- koekeishiya/yabai: A tiling window manager for macOS based on binary space partitioning
There are both commercial applications and free alternatives.
I have been using an Alfred workflow called Div — a simple Alfred window manager | pawelgrzybek.com.
macOS Monterey has parts of the functionality built into the system.
What Does a Window Manager Do?
Lets you arrange the open windows in your desktop. Not useful on a laptop screen, but if you have your laptop hooked up to an external monitor, or are on an iMac with a big screen, you will benefit from such a program.
My most common use-case is when I am reading a PDF file in PDF Expert and taking notes in a text editor. Having the two windows side by side makes the process easier.
I have my doubts about the efficacy of this arrangement. There are certain advantages to the act of focusing on one window and doing work in that window, but there are also pertinent use-cases for window management of this nature. So a mixture of one window at a time and multiple windows at certain times might be the optimal solution. Window managers let you arrange the windows that you want open in an arrangement you prefer.
Rectangle Pro Does Window Management Right
Window management programs have the ability to define a whole slew of keyboard commands to manage your windows. This level of customizability is fantastic but you are going to be drowning in keyboard commands and it is going to be difficult to remember them. Rectangle Pro lets you use a simple key combo: Hold down the ⌃ and ⌘ keys and move your mouse to where you want the window to be and an overlay appears on your screen. Pick the overlay which you want and let go. The window moves to cover that overlay.
I disabled all the keyboard commands and use this feature to arrange my windows. Admittedly I am not a heavy user of this feature, but it works for me when I need it.
Rectangle Pro is the right solution for me. It is deep, well-designed software which does a great job of managing your windows.
macosxguru at the gmail thingie.
Note: The developer provided a promo code for Hookshot, a previous iteration of this product when I asked for one.