Welcome to another edition of Eight Questions For …, where I where I pick the brains of plain text enthusiasts from around the world and around the web.
In this edition, I talk to Russ Sharek, who describes himself as:
a classically-trained theatrical clown, variety performer, circus artist, show runner, troupe director, and most recently teacher of human silliness as part of a physical theater residency program.
In addition to that, Russ drinks a lot of coffee and makes a tasty bowl of hummus. Oh, he’s also embraced the plain text lifestyle.
Let’s hear from Russ:
Note: This interview was conducted at the end of 2019. Due to COVID-19, Russ and his troupe currently aren’t out and about in the world. Here’s hoping that changes soon.
When did you start using plain text?
At the turn of the century, I had professional-grade geeks working deep in the trenches of the dot-com industry as close personal friends. For them it was the boom times, and these server-hacking visionaries spent hours extolling the virtues of Linux and the greater Unix philosophy to me.
Despite my protests, they eventually wore me down. To sate my curiosity, I took a few test drives on the live CDs they offered.
Perhaps it was the artistic idealist in me, but I could legitimately see the magic they were hinting at. The notion that my tools could really be under my control was exciting, even if it meant burning everything to the ground a couple of times in the process of learning how it all worked.
It was here I first encountered the concept of configuring a computer using nothing more than a text editor. That idea in particular was a conceptual revolution for me.
Previously, I had been stuck in the same boat as anyone else operating a computer as a creative tool: fighting a dominance battle with a proprietary operating system which never wanted me to look behind the metaphoric curtain.
The idea that a computer would do exactly what I wanted, even if it was a relatively suicidal request, gave me a respect for the power of both free software and text files which commanded it.
By the end of those heady days, I found myself planning a slow and orderly migration to Linux as my new-and-improved computing platform of choice.
Fate has a funny way of intervening.
My calmly-crafted migration plan was rather emotionally accelerated by the discovery of an impending hard drive failure. A failure which my previous proprietary operating system, despite its many shiny and candy-colored widgets, could not detect.
By comparison, my new platform was ugly and weird. It’s widgets were poorly matched, like the spots on an indeterminably mixed breed of dog. Fortunately, a mutt-like lineage tends to make a creature smart and scrappy, and it could clearly see my problem.
It barked loudly, and I listened.
As a result I managed to rescue something on the order of a decade’s worth of creative design work, project notes, writing, and adorable kitten pictures from a drive that committed the functional equivalent of Seppuku on it’s next power cycle.
Why did you start using plain text?
Whether I’m exploring a juggling pattern or a paradigm for manipulating information, I’ve found the most effective way for an old dog like me to learn a new trick is to give over to my obsessive nature. If I really want to learn something, I have to take a deep breath and dive fully into the problem.
Conveniently, my sudden washing up on the shores of free software had me absolutely sodden with text files to serve as both teachable moments and cautionary tales.
By that point in software history, Linux had managed to evolve into something more-or-less usable. It was surprisingly well-behaved for something held together by good ideals and software patches. What could not be said about Linux at the time was it being in possession of more than a veneer of user friendliness.
If I more than casually poked at an issue, I’d soon find myself forced to roll up my sleeves, fire up a text editor, and tweak some essential “under the hood” configuration file to fix it … Right after I read the documentation on how to install the hood for the problem to hide under.
Having the almighty power of root made me feel a bit like a mad scientist piloting a homegrown airship in a world known for hastily-codified laws of gravity. The learning process was rife with equal parts wonder, satisfaction, and anxiety. In retrospect, I forgave many frustrations because I knew both the ship and its captain were at least well-intentioned fools.
At some point in the back and forth between clicking around cumbersome desktop programs to perform work-related tasks and this bizarrely efficient underworld commanded by manipulating text files, I noticed a growing bit of cognitive dissonance in my workflow.
The tools I was using to operate my computer seemed ridiculously powerful in contrast to the supposedly efficient and professional ones I was using to run the rest of my life. Once that idea got in my head I couldn’t shake it. From there, it was a relatively small intellectual leap to consider the possibility that I could use these quantifiably better tools to sort out some of my real world, day-to-day tasks.
One day, my fingers danced excitedly on my keyboard. They helpfully created a plain text file called todo.txt, and my entire life started getting simpler.
What do you use plain text for?
The part of me that had previously found comfort in shiny, candy-like user interfaces seemed to suffer from something akin to trust issues. Like most people, I began my grown up computing experience clicking and pointing. It took a while to retrain those battle-hardened reflexes to understand that this new way of working was a good thing.
Eventually, my itchy mouse-finger calmed itself and I embraced my new life as a digital Luddite. I settled into a happy rhythm where almost everything I work on ends up in plain text at some point.
Being a guest star in other people’s creative vision means quickly interfacing with their crew’s existing methods of getting things done. Having our logistical information in a lingua franca that can easily be massaged into different formats has proven to be a (sometimes literal) life saver.
At it’s heart, my job is really about the skill of communicating effectively.
During a performance, I use that talent to ensure my audience understands what’s happening. A confused audience is a bored audience, and that’s disaster for a show.
Behind the scenes, the stakes are even higher. It’s my job to communicate what is needed in order to make an act work on a technical level. A misunderstanding there can create the potential for someone to get injured, or worse.
No one wants an aerialist to not have their rosin, or a dancing clown with a gluten allergy to get the wrong sandwich. The devil is always in the details, and those details matter. Doubly so on deadline, so we take a lot of notes.
I also write notes about things that happen in the clown theater workshops and circus arts classes I teach. Being able to effectively search those notes has helped me find new connections, ideas, and directions for my work.
In our development process, improbable and hilarious things are constantly happening. We document the best of them, so we can reliably recreate them for our audiences. While there’s often video of technical tricks and finished performance pieces, the textual notes describing the idea reliably end up serving as the best explanation of how we got there.
Clown theater is more than choreography. We need to know what the clown is thinking, feeling, and doing in every moment of their time on stage.
In workshops, I use my Hat Rack juggling routine as an example. I once wrote it out line by line in plain text. There ended up being over 150 pieces of story-critical information in the three minutes and thirty-one seconds of performance.
Doing this helped me really understand every moment of the “Hat Rack” better, and I now recommend the same process to my students. Hopefully, some of them decide to use a text editor too.
Acts, once polished, get strung together into scripts for entire shows.
After a few excruciating attempts to wrangle these collaborative documents into being using more sophisticated solutions, I learned something critical about our creative process. Given the opportunity, we will waste a surprising amount of time reformatting and prettying-up a document that only exists for our performers and crew.
We decided that this inspired energy could be better used to improve our shows, and got everyone in our troupe comfortable enough with a text editor to contribute to our creative ensemble process without the headache-inducing typographical choices you might expect from having clowns at the writer’s table.
What keeps you using plain text?
As this rambling interview might indicate, I’m easily distracted and prone to going down weird rabbit holes just for the sake of exploring what might be down there. As a countermeasure to my easily-fascinated nature, I’ve learned to appreciate the beauty of efficiency and minimalism. Having a simple interface to my world is a bit of zen meditation for me, and it helps keep me focused on my creative goals.
The possibility of Zen mastery aside, there’s a number of imminently practical reasons plain text appeals to me.
I’ve read so many horror stories about artists losing access to their work because of a broken file format rendering their work unreadable, or their beloved creative tool becoming suddenly abandoned by whomever developed it.
Remember that tinkering nature of mine? Early on, I put my faith in a few software products that weren’t the most reliable because they seemed shiny and interesting. When they ultimately failed me, it took a lot of work to reconstruct everything I had given over to them.
It also further entrenched my skeptical and arguably curmudgeonly view towards commercial software in general, but that’s a rabbit hole to explore in another interview. Suffice it to say, I deeply appreciate the freedom (in all its forms) to use whatever tool I’d like to manipulate the closest thing the digital age has to a cuneiform tablet.
That I can quickly sift through those virtual bits of clay to find exactly what’s needed in the moment feels a bit like magic, often produces some amount of poetry, and functions in exactly the same way improvisation is performed on stage.
Do you use any markup or formatting languages? If so, which ones and why?
Like a lot of people who’ve gone down similar roads, I seem to live in some perversely-mixed flavor of Markdown for everyday writing tasks like note taking, list making, and short form writing. It’s just enough formatting glue to give my words some structure without my having to actually think about it.
After a long (and at times tumultuous) relationship with WordPress, our troupe’s website was recently rebuilt from the ground up using a static site generator called Hugo. Hugo speaks Markdown more or less fluently, and so my web writing process is now happily free of the write-swear-reformat-copy-paste tango that came before it.
As the person tasked to maintain that site, I occasionally end up using a bit of HTML and CSS to accomplish my goals. Using the term abysmal to describe my competency with these languages would be grossly unfair to the vast ranks of intelligent beings who have managed to learn how to be bad at hacking web code.
When it comes to learning new things, I have a weirdly masochistic tendency to gravitate towards steep learning curves and obscure skills. I have suspected that the difficulty of these less traveled paths provides some additional resistance that makes me feel like I’m accomplishing something more important than learning a silly trick.
This predilection for banging my head against problems seems ideally suited to learning inscrutably complex things like LaTeX, which I recently started exploring.
It been a fascinating intellectual toy to fiddle with, and despite my lack of competency I’ve managed to create some gorgeous looking documents. I’m hoping to eventually use it to create handouts for my workshops and other important looking bits of paper.
What are your favourite plain text tools or applications?
This slow shift towards a uncomplicated means of creating has taken me a couple of years. Over that time I’ve often paused to re-evaluate what tools are best for my needs.
Most of my initial choices were driven by familiarity and comfort. I started with tools that tried to simplify my tasks, largely because those tasks were (arguably unnecessarily) complex to me.
As I adopted a simpler way of getting things done, I began to really appreciate more sophisticated tools. The sort of tools that get out of my way and let me focus on what I’m trying to do.
The best of these elegant little helpers seems to share some common traits:
They do one thing really well — Those friends I mentioned at the start of this interview are probably laughing at me, because back in the day I didn’t understand the value of the UNIX philosophy they kept banging on about.
They do that thing well, but play well with others — This goes back to why I love plain text in general. I can send the output of a file from one program to another and do all kinds of things never considered by their creators. I’ve both solved technical issues and written poetry this way.
How they do their thing is consistently well documented — The best tools I’ve seen provide their users with excellent documentation. Then avoid holding their users’ hands, because they assume they’ve read the !@#$%^& manual.
I’ve settled on some programs that likely make me look more like a software developer than a circus professional:
If you go down this path, you’re going to spend a lot of time with your text editor of choice. This isn’t a religious debate or argument about which program is best. More honestly, you need something that feels like an extension of yourself.
In my life as a performer, I sometimes experience moments where I’m not 100% sure where I end and my acro-partner begins. That’s the sort of relationship I’m trying to build with vim, despite its cantankerous learning curve.
todo.txt (and connected tools)
That todo.txt file I created is still in use today, with some improvements.
I found a tool called topydo that’s terrific for wrangling my never-ending list of missed deadlines.
I installed a tool called Simpletask on my phone. It comes with a widget that allows me to quickly add some text to my to-do list. It’s become my universal capture tool for half-baked ideas.
Thanks to a bit of magic called Syncthing, I can enjoy discovering how badly thought-out these ideas are from any of my devices.
Despite countless articles about writers using some sort of version control to inspire me, it wasn’t until last year that I tried adding some to my repertoire.
While I only kind of understand the full potential of git, it has already saved me from my own mistakes a number of times. I really wish I had tried it sooner, and my standing piece of advice to anyone who writes is this:
Stop making weirdly named files like something.backup.original.final.2.doc and learn how to version your damned creativity. Your ideas are important, have value, and deserve to be taken care of properly.
As part of using plain text in collaboration with my troupe, we’ve recently created a shared private git repository for our projects. I believe there’s currently two scripts, a children’s book, and a terrifyingly out-of-date employee handbook in there.
The text-based PIM of doom
It drifts a bit from the purely plain text conversation, but I’ve moved my email, contacts, and calendar to text-based programs as well. Under the hood these bizarre monstrosities store their data in beautiful plain text:
We also have a Nextcloud server, so my phone gets to play too.
Is there one tool that you can’t do without?
Ideologically, part of the point behind moving to plain text is that I’m not bound to a particular set of tools or programs. If something I like to use goes away, at worst I would have to suffer through finding a functional replacement.
Is there anything you can’t do with plain text?
When I first read over this interview, I was going to cheekily say video and be done with this question. However, I recently used some command line tools to archive a YouTube channel in preparation for moving a copy of it the Internet Archive for more permanent storage. A critical part of automating that process was wrangling a massive metadata.csv file which contained information about each video in the collection.
I suppose managing our photo archive is still a largely visual process, though all of the copyright and usage information is in text files.
You can learn more about Russ’ performing troupe (which made the incredibly healthy decision to leave mainstream social media at their website.
You can also (s)talk Russ on Mastodon.