Jim Brown's Home Page

McGrath Course

If you are looking for the class page of a course I teach at the McGrath Computer Learning Center at USCA, use these links: Windows 10 class and workshop or File Management workshop or PowerPoint workshop. Updated: 2016-08-29 08:35

Ad Blockers

I use a hosts file to block domains from which ads are served. (If you want to know how to do this, go to this page.) In the past few weeks I've seen a new response from some web sites that pop-up a window that asks to be white-listed or to pay a fee to continue to read. Guess the site owners are tired of not getting their ad revenue. Can't blame them.Posted: 2016-12-02 09:14

Presidential Election

The 2016 presidential election is a few months away. What a choice we Americans have. A conniving, dishonest liberal in Hillary Clinton or a conniving, dishonest, shallow thinker in Donald Trump, who I am not sure even knows what a conservative or liberal is. I'll probably sit this election out. I hate the fact the Clinton may get to appoint several Supreme Court justices, but I think Trump would lead us into war, either internal or world. He really does have the temperament of a 5-year old. UPDATE: Trump won. God help the U.S.A.Posted: 2016-08-29 08:40 Updated: 2016-11-09 08:23

Notes Today

This is an update to the post below entitled Notes and Posts. Since that post was written, I had some problems with reliable syncing with SimpleNote. I still write my notes with ResophNotes, but now the text files are kept in Dropbox, which provides both backup and syncing. Posted: 2015-05-12 18:48

Book on Markdown

I have a short tutorial about Markdown on this site. It's about 10 screens of information with a comfortable layout with lots of whitespace. I thought it was a relatively complete description of Markdown. Now I find a McSparky book on Markdown that has 130 pages (!) and 27 screencasts to discuss Markdown and how to use it. How do you write that much about a tool as simple and straight forward as Markdown? I don't know yet and haven't decided if I'll spend the $10 to find out. But it comes highly recommended. My curiosity may get the best of me. Posted: 2015-01-29 17:34


I write the posts for this page in Markdown, a system of markup for a plain text document that can be converted to valid HTML content for the web. I learned Markdown by writing a tutorial about it. By writing the tutorial in Markdown itself, I quickly learned all the features of the markup. Using a tool fixes it more securely in your mind than just reading about it—at least it does in mine. There is more than one version of both the markup and the converter. You can find the tutorial here.Posted: 2015-05-12 18:41

Note: The links to Daring Fireball in the post above are to the original Markdown written by John Gruber. His converter from Markdown to HTML is a Perl script. The Python version, for which the tutorial is written, has some differences from the original. The major difference is covered in the first paragraph of the tutorial.

Batch Files

Batch files are command-line scripts for Windows. They can be used to automate tasks on your computer. Batch files or scripts can be used for backup, moving to a project-related directory, cleaning up your hard drive, and almost any other task you can do from within Windows.

The Windows batch scripting "language" is not as fully capable as *nix shell scripting. Microsoft has provided a new tool, PowerShell, to improve Windows scripting capability. PowerShell gets good reviews, but it is a completely new language that I haven't gotten into yet, so you will not see much about it here.

Batch files, with the file extension .bat, have been around since DOS. The commands available for scripting have increased significantly since Windows NT and scripts that take advantage of those additional commands may have a file extension of either .bat or .cmd, the latter indicating that NT and later commands have been used and the script likely will not run under DOS or Windows 9x. I'll be writing more about specific batch scripts that I use, but here is an article on batch file basics that is more complete than I would ever provide. I have not read the book from which the article is taken, but it gets good reviews and the same author has written an update entitled Windows 7 and Vista Guide to Scripting, Automation, and Command Line Tools that covers Windows 7 and PowerShell. But the linked article will get you started on the basics of batch files.Posted: 2014-12-10 16:03

Is There Really Such a Thing as Plain Text?

This article says no, plain text is a lie. I don't see it that way. The article is really talking about making sure you have your encoding correct and it does a great job of explaining why. To me, however, plain text in English is ASCII. It's been around for over 50 years. It will render correctly in all cases. I recognize that the Internet has made it necessary to provide for other languages and that is where Unicode comes in. For that, you definitely have to make sure you announce your encoding, as the article says. The article also recommends that you read Spolsky's article about encoding. I second that recommendation.Posted: 2014-12-09 14:42

Notes and Posts

UPDATE: The workflow below was written in early 2013. I have since changed the tools that I use for notes. See the post Notes Today. I also no longer maintain the Wordpress blog referred to below. All posts are now to this page.Posted: 2015-08-18 06:57

I keep all my notes and write all my web posts in plain text. First, the notes. This workflow has been built over the past several years. It recently changed significantly with my purchase of an Android phone. I use two computers and the phone regularly, so I wanted a way to have my notes synced on all of them. My primary note-taking software is ResophNotes. It has four advantages:

  1. a clean, simple interface for recording and writing notes in plain text,
  2. internal conversion of Markdown to HTML and display of the HTML document,
  3. the ability to save the notes as separate text files in a folder, and
  4. the ability to automatically sync with Simplenote.

The fourth advantage is the big one. Simplenote is a web-based editor that allows other software to sync all the notes in its database. Using ResophNotes on both of my computers allows the notes on Simplenote and the copies on both computers to be up-to-date all the time. I don’t even have to save the files. ResophNotes automatically saves with each change to the file and syncs it with Simplenote. Automatic backup and seamless copies of all the notes all the time.

That leaves the Android phone. Simplenote actually started life as an app for the iPhone. So it’s not surprising that there are several Android apps that can take advantage of Simplenote’s syncing. I use Notational Acceleration. It’s available in the Android app store. The name is a takeoff on Notational Velocity, a Mac editor after which ResophNotes was patterned. UPDATE 1/27/13: Notational Acceleration developed some syncing issues with SimpleNote. May have been related to a change in SimpleNote's API. In any event, NA lost a few notes and several times just would not display all the notes that were in SimpleNote. So I changed to Glance Note, which has an update since SimpleNote changed its API. Glance Note has not suffered from any syncing problems since I began using it three weeks ago.

I believe in belt-and-suspender backup. Yes, I’ve had several hard drive failures in my past. Anyone who has is obsessive about backup. So while I have an automatic and virtually constant backup on Simplenote’s web site, I also use Dropbox. As I mentioned above, ResophNotes has the ability to save the notes as separate text files in the file system. By putting my notes in the Dropbox folder on my laptops, they are synced to the Dropbox web site frequently.

To complete the workflow for posts on this blog, I simply display the post in ResophNotes using its “view Markdown” command (any note that may possibly be published on the web is written in Markdown). This opens a mini-browser within ResophNotes, from which I can “view source,” and copy the HTML of the post. Then I paste it into the Wordpress editor—the text editor, not the visual one— and publish the post.Posted: 2013-01-04 18:39

Windows Command Line

I use the command line in Windows a lot. Almost all of my backup and other disk cleanup activities are done through batch files (command line scripts), which are just automated typing of command line commands. For someone like me that likes to use text files for all the important stuff, learning to use the command line in Windows is the key to productivity. Best tutorial I've found for this is Zed Shaw's Command Line Crash Course. Go read it. Posted: 2014-01-21 09:34

What I Know About Plain Text

The benefits of using plain text for all the information you want to retain are simplicity, portability, and durability. Almost every application has the capability to import and use plain text. The recent example of Microsoft Word files is a good one to illustrate the barriers created by proprietary file formats. For the 2007 version of Word, Microsoft changed the format of the created documents to one based on XML. The change is an improvement, but older versions of Word cannot open the new format without additional software. In other words, the new format is not forward compatible. Because this is a recent change, the additional software to work around the incompatibilities is readily available. But consider the situation 10 years from now. As this article from Macworld magazine says, sometimes you can’t even open your older documents. You never have to worry about that situation with plain text. Or the situation of changing to different software. As noted, almost all software can import plain text so it has ultimate portability.

If that’s the case, why doesn’t all software simply operate in plain text? Because it’s “plain.” No formatting, no bold, no italics, no spacing control other than a blank line and spaces or tabs. The plain in plain text results from the fact that the foundation of it is ASCII encoding that included only the upper and lower case English alphabet, numbers 0 – 9, basic punctuation, and a few control characters. Encoding is a code relating the alphanumeric characters to numbers (‘cause computers don’t speak English). Encoding in ASCII is a basic foundation of plain text. For a full definition, read the Linux Information Project’s Plain Text Definition.

The ASCII encoding is one of the earliest, having been established in 1963. Because ASCII is limited to the English alphabet, more recent encodings have been established to encompass more languages. The current trend is toward Unicode encoding, which has the ambitious goal of encoding every character in every language in the world. Unfortunately, there are several versions of Unicode (e.g., UTF-8, UTF-16) as well as other encodings (e.g., ISO-8559, Windows 1252, and many more). Fortunately, the most frequently used ones are a superset of ASCII. In other words, even the most modern encodings, now fifty years from when ASCII was established, can still display ASCII files correctly. Thus, from a durability point of view, it’s a good bet that files created in plain text today will be accessible over a lifetime at least.

That does not mean that there might not be some issues. Almost all of us have seen occasions when a web page displays a few characters that do not make any sense. For example, quotation marks may appear as gibberish or a question mark rather than an actual quotation mark. This is almost always the result of the browser using a certain encoding to display the page when the text is actually encoded using a different encoding. Web pages are supposed to inform the browser what encoding is used. Many, however, don’t and the browser has to guess. If it guesses wrong, the user suffers by having to figure out what those gibberish characters are.

The bottom line is that if you predominately use the English alphabet for your documents, keeping to plain text will ensure that you can access and use them in the future.Posted: 2015-01-29 17:30

Tool Reviews at ProfHacker

Not entirely about plain text, but one of the writers at ProfHacker put together a summary of their reviews and comments about tools they use. Here is the lead:

Here’s a collection of posts from the archives that focus on the use of plain text editors and alternative word processors.

Good stuff.Posted: 2015-01-29 17:33

Why Plain Text Files

Here's the background. I have always been fascinated by what tech experts could accomplish with plain text. They could keep notes and articles in plain text for simplicity, portability, and future retrievability, then turn those files into formatted, structured documents through the magic of markup or filters. Years ago, I began to keep my personal notes and information in plain text because files were small and search was fast. I never, however, really learned how to manipulate text. I came out of the corporate environment, a lifelong Windows and Office user. I didn't have the exposure to Unix and the Unix tools to manipulate text. I didn't know how to do the magic I saw others doing. I'm now retired, so I decided to learn more about the foundation of using text. This post is really a learning tool for me. Perhaps others can benefit from my struggles to learn about encoding, formatting, editing, storing, and searching text.

I have not yet planned what the study program will be. I'll start off by linking to several web pages that got me started down the plain text road. I don't know when I first read Merlin Mann's 43Folders, but I do recall that his post about using plain text was one of the first I read on the subject. Really savvy tech experts, called "alpha geeks" by Danny O'Brien, frequently prefer plain text to get their work done. O'Brien surveyed his tech friends and publicized this preference for simple approaches in 2004. The information from those links got me interested. The links below gave me a feel for what others were doing with plain text.

From there I began to explore the tools I could use for plain text information storage and retrieval. Little did I know that the exploration would continue until now, and I still would not have mastered the foundations of using text. So I now plan to cure that.Posted: 2015-01-29 17:27