Eight Questions For Carl McCabe

by: Scott Nesbitt | 14 January 2020

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 Carl McCabe, a father of three who works in the area of scientific computing support for biomedical research.

Carl has a background in the social sciences, and straddles that world and the world of tech. Thanks to that combination, he pays “a lot of attention to the influence of technology on society,” with an emphasis on “positive alternatives to the addictive and exploitative models used by the big social media companies.”

Let’s hear from Carl:

When did you start using plain text?

I first got hooked on plain text in college, when I started doing data analysis for school projects and web development as a hobby and part-time job. When looking for remote computing services that I could use to do my work, I came across a type of community called Public Access UNIX Systems. You can think of those systems as descendants of the early internet, when plain text was simply how you did computing.

But they’ve persisted as a thriving (yet admittedly geeky) subculture that serves as an alternative to mainstream, web-based and app-based social media. As I spent more time on these systems, I realized that I could do virtually all my computing tasks with just plain text.

Why did you start using plain text?

Many years ago, I read a book called Amusing Ourselves to Death, part of which describes most television content as prioritizing visual addictiveness over information substance. Without going into much detail about the book (other than to highly recommend it!), I’ll just say that it swung my pendulum far in the other direction.

I started paying much more attention to the quality of information presented in media and purposely avoided media that attempts to overwhelm the intellect with visual style. By extension, that really helped me appreciate the fact that plain text forces writers to focus on interesting ideas and creative word choices to describe those ideas.

So I started using plain text for utilitarian reasons, but I’ve stuck with it because it represented to me a refuge from the dumbing-down forces of mass media.

What do you use plain text for?

I do all of my writing in plain text and only convert it to other formats when I need to share or collaborate with people who use other tools. I maintain my to-do lists in plain text, either as a simple text file or using a tool called Taskwarrior.

Outside of work, my main email accounts are text only, both at my website rawtext.club and at sdf.org.

And although I don’t do much blogging, I do use an old protocol called gopher that pre-dates the modern World Wide Web. It is a text-only medium where you can find a thriving plain text community. And on the various public access UNIX (and Linux) systems I use, I do a bit of chatting through IRC or other text-based chat tools.

I don’t play a lot of games these days, but I like to point out that there are many great text-based games available, both recently made and classics from 30+ years ago. Hunt the Wumpus is an unparalleled classic, right?

What keeps you using plain text?

The older I get, the more I aim to follow the KISS principle: Keep It Simple, Stupid. Plain text is simple and gives me the least headaches with everything I do on a computer.

On top of that, I appreciate being a member of many text-only communities online. I find a lot of substance in the interactions I have with others there, and these communities seem like a far superior alternative to Facebook, Reddit or other mixed media online communities.

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

If I am publishing something on the web, I will use HTML. Or I’ll use wiki markup if I’m editing a wiki. Otherwise, I use pure plain text unless I am doing something for work. Oddly I’ve never learned LaTeX, but I probably should.

What are your favourite plain text tools or applications?

This is a really interesting question for me because I spend a lot of time using (and continually learning about) Linux and UNIX-like command line environments.

Userspace in these systems is all about text files, and plain text is how you interact with the system. It’s hard to pick a single favorite because many of the tools are designed to be strung together and used in combination.

So I have to cop out and say that my favorite tool is this Lego-like environment of the GNU/Linux operating.

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

My Achilles heel is my dependency on email. I mainly use text-based email clients, either Mutt or Alpine, depending on the system I’m using at the time.

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

Image editing, viewing videos, and a lot of web browsing. Although there are text-interface editors for images, this is one task I use a graphical user interface for. Although there are great text-based web browsers (like Lynx), they tend to not to work well with most of the web these days. (This is a criticism of the web, by the way, not of text-based browsers.)

Carl runs what he calls a free social club online at https://rawtext.club. It’s for people wanting to learn about and practice skills with Linux. You can log into the site and interact with it using a a text-based, Linux shell.

As Carl says:

Although this may sound intimidating to non-Linux users, one of the points is to support people and give them a positive environment in which to learn. Some users simply log in to socialize, and others are working to build new simple, plain text tools that can be used for socializing.

I’m on the system pretty much every day, and I’m always happy to interact with other users. We have several plaintext social tools: a chat program, a shell blogging program (shlog), email, direct messages, and more. rawtext.club is fairly new and still small, so it has a lot of room for new members.