FOSS and Plain Text

It’s not unusual for someone writing a blog like this to describe the process they use to write text and get it up on the web. I’m going to do that someday, but I’d like to start with a note about my general approach to technology and computer use. I’m thinking this is the first of an occasional and irregular series of posts about how I use computers and software. I purchased my first PC way back in the early 1980s when I was in graduate school. It was a DEC Rainbow. The only reason I could afford it and knew about it is that I had a one-year teaching gig at a small college that had just installed a DEC mainframe. The terms of the contract included a provision for faculty and staff to purchase DEC PCs at a substantial discount. This, of course, was long before the days of MS Windows and MacOS. One defining characteristic of the Rainbow is that it could run both MS-Dos and CP/M. I confess that I don’t remember now just why one would want the ability to switch between those two; as I recall, I spent virtually all of my time in MS-Dos.

I was interested in the computer primarily as a tool for writing; like most people without a background in computers, worked in proprietary software. I think I started with a program called “Final Word,” though I’m no longer sure about that. At some point I moved to WordPerfect and then, following the crowds, to Microsoft Word.

In the mid-1980s I found other uses for the computer, still using proprietary software. I taught myself to use a spreadsheet by building a program to handle our checkbook and credit cards. It was, to put it mildly, cumbersome. The spreadsheet would recalculate only when I executed a command. After I’d been using it for a year or so, I would enter 3 or 4 transactions, then execute the “recalculate” funtion, and wait what seemed like several minutes while the program recalculated every cell. I eventually moved our finances to Quicken.

So – I was working in proprietary software, and at some point came to the realization that I really wasn’t in control of my data. I won’t rehearse the details of this – the point is that if I wanted to access the text that I had written or generate reports of our spending and income I had to use a program that I found relatively inflexible. I was bothered by the inflexibility, but I was even more bothered by the sense that the program was holding on to my information. This became even more painful when software companies began introducing and even requiring paying for upgrades if I wanted to continue to have access to my data.

Over the course of the next 15 years or so I transitioned out of those proprietary environments into the world of free and open-source software (FOSS) and plain text. While I was still working I lived in two worlds — using programs like Word and Excel to collaborate with others and emacs and other programs to do my own work. Now that I’m retired, I live almost totally in emacs, and use plain text accounting tools to handle our household finances.

One of those posts will be the standard account of the tools I use to write and post this blog. I’ll get into the weeds just a bit — there are many people who know much more about these tools than I do, but I’m thinking that my own struggles to do particular things might be informative for others who are just getting into it. I suspect the general tone of all of these posts will be something like “this is how someone who really doesn’t know what he’s doing does it.” Maybe it will be helpful to someone else who doesn’t know much about these things. It will surely be entertaining to those who know what they’re doing.