Eight Questions For Scott Bicknell

by: Scott Nesbitt | 16 October 2018

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 Scott Bicknell, a transit bus driver for King County Metro Transit in Seattle, Washington.

Scott, in his own words, enjoys roasting coffee at home and writing bash shell scripts to automate tasks and enhance the desktop environment on my computer. He’s also has a very interesting philosophy about using plain text in the digital age, a philosophy I wholeheartedly agree with.

Let’s hear from Scott:

When did you start using plain text?

I started using plain text around 1994.

Why did you start using plain text?

From late 1994 until mid-1998 I was an OS/2 user. Before that, I used Microsoft Works on MS-DOS to keep a personal journal and archived it on floppy disks.

When I started using OS/2, I had a copy of Microsoft Word for Windows 6.0 and decided to migrate my journal into that program. The problem was that Word couldn’t read the Works word processor file format. I didn’t have the Works program install disks anymore and I had no program that could easily separate the text of my journal entries from the binary baggage of the file format. I found no way to get the text out of my journal files, so my data was inaccessible.

It dawned on me at that point that proprietary file formats held my data hostage in the control of software vendors. To regain control over my data, I needed a universal file format. The only format I found that I could count on was plain text.

What do you use plain text for?

I do all text composition and editing in plain text, and I keep my todo lists as a flat text file.

What keeps you using plain text?

Plain text is flexible, portable, and malleable. I can easily search it and filter it when I need to find something that I wrote or mentioned and don’t remember where I stored it.

If I want to print it, I can import it into a word processor and share it with others as a PDF. And if I want to re-use it in other ways I can turn it into various formats with Pandoc or paste it into a web page.

Plain text works everywhere. Whether I am using my Linux desktop, my wife’s Windows laptop, or my phone, plain text files work seamlessly. And I can use any program to create, view, or edit them.

It’s small. I never worry about text files filling the space on a thumb drive or my Dropbox folder and seldom need to worry about them being too big to fit into my computer’s memory when opening them.

People used to write letters and send them through the mail, and many people kept shoe boxes full of them from years past. Those were often source material for historians when the people who wrote and received them were important, but they were also important to family members who wanted to know more about their ancestors. We don’t do that anymore. Everything we write is electronic, whether it is letters, as in email, or journals, which more often than not means Facebook posts for most people.

If we don’t preserve our perspectives in a way that is accessible in the future, then what we say and think today will be lost. Only one side of the story, that of public figures and the news media, will be preserved. The perspectives of ordinary people going about their lives will be lost.

I don’t pretend that what I write is important somehow, but it might satisfy someone’s curiosity about this time and place at some point in the future if they can access what I write. And they will be able to do that if I write it using plain text. I think we have a responsibility to future generations to preserve what we say and think so that they can get some perspective on the past that is not filtered by the media.

Do you use any markup or formatting languages? If so, which ones and why?

I use Markdown regularly because it’s supported almost everywhere online and is easy to use, and Pandoc uses it as a basis for creating other file formats.

What are your favourite plain text tools or applications?

Vim, Pandoc, Todotxt, SimpleTask, QuickEdit Pro. Although not strictly a plain text tool, I also rely on KDE Connect for syncing the clipboards of my desktop and phone. It makes copy and paste seamless between devices.

Is there one tool that you can’t do without?

Vim. It’s the first thing I install and the first thing I open when I want to get anything done.

Is there anything you can’t do with plain text?

Number crunching and graphics. I could use Links for web browsing, but too much of the web relies on graphics and visual presentation for that to be practical. And I could use something like Mutt for email, but why? Plain text is great as a base data format, but graphical interfaces can make plain text look good; it doesn’t have to be ugly or retro.

I also wouldn’t do spreadsheets with it. Some things just don’t work well in plain text. That said, you can use it without having to give up presentation and style.