Welcome to another edition of Eight Questions For …, where I pick the brains of plain text enthusiasts from around the world and around the web.
This time around, I chat with Viktor Boyko, an IT teacher and SF writer (who writes some stories under the name Viktor Voinikoff) from Odessa, UA.
Viktor’s journey to using plain text came about because of his need to be pragmatic. He was working with older hardware and couldn’t run his preferred software on it. He also gets a tip of the hat for using markup of his own devising to format his files.
Let’s hear from Viktor:
When did you start using plain text?
As a whole system, I’ve used plain text files since 2007.
Why did you start using plain text?
From 2004 I was experimenting with different notetaking systems because the GoldenNotes/WinOrganiser software ceased to suit me.
At my first job, I only had access to an older 286 PC (with a horizontal tower and two really big Mitsubishi 40Mb hard disks), so for a few years I was working strictly under DOS.
I got my own computer in about 2002. It was a very old Dell 486 PC. I got it almost free because its BIOS was on a hard drive partition and nobody knew what to do with it. With that computer, I was forced to use frugal and restricted software — Volkov Commander and DOS-Navigator for everyday work, and tools like Nettamer, Lynx, and BobCat for networking. My information system then was a bunch of text files.
So, when WinOrganiser stopped working for me I began experimenting. I decided to return to text files but on a new platform, with a new editor, and with the use of version control.
I was inspired by Merlin Mann’s article “Life inside one big text file,” the Canon Cat computer of Jef Raskin, and an article about Proteus notebook by Thomas Erikson. I learned Vim, started using SVN, and it worked for me.
What do you use plain text for?
I keep almost all of my work and knowledge bases in plain text. I also use plain text for my daily journals — and keep them all in one bit text file.
This system sprouted to encompass all fields of my work — including writing my books and educational resources. At first, it was just writing tutorials and manuals for students, then I began to keep my scientific work in plain text. After that I began to use the Moodle LMS which works well with Markdown and the GIFT format.
What keeps you using plain text?
Simplicity first. Using plain text makes it possible to do many things that I can’t do with PIMs. You can keep very large volume of information and I find it hard to imagine Word or other text processors that can digest such a volume of information and not choke.
Also I can use older hardware, but text still works fast. Utilities like grep, sed, awk are my best friends.
Do you use any markup or formatting languages? If so, which ones and why?
I use a mix of Markdown, bit of Asciidoctor, and my own markup. My markup system grows and changes and evolves. When I was just beginning, Markdown wasn’t that well known, so I was forced to reinvent my own wheels
Now, on the one hand, I strive to work with existing tools. On the other hand, some of my records are built so that it can be easily processed.
For example, the records of my workout have a key line that contains a short record of training (date - distance - time - weather - tag), which makes it easy to filter such lines and build a graph on them. I can also use this setup to track weight, migraines, workflow, and more..
I tried to use tables in LibreOffice Calc several times, but each time I went back to plain text.
What are your favourite plain text tools or applications?
Vim, Mercurial, and Pandoc. I also use Python, bash, and gnuplot for some visualising and for a bit of reflexive data mining. But Vim is what I always turn to.
Is there one tool that you can’t do without?
Vim. This is one of the few editors that can quickly process tons of text. It does highlighting, folding, searching and so on.
I also can’t do without Mercurial, which in addition to its version control functions allows me to combine all my working machines into a single space.
Is there anything you can’t do with plain text?
Graphics. Plus sometimes working with plain text under Android can, sadly, be tricky.
If you want to learn more about Viktor, he blogs (in Russian) at Wordpress.com. He’s also planning migrate to more open platforms (like Mastodon and even gopher). A few of Viktor’s books (in Russian) are available from Flibusta.