In Praise of Plain Text

A recent blog post by John August (here) got me thinking again about my own recent appreciation for working in plain text. When did it start? For me it was getting back into web design and an awesome text editor, Sublime Text 2.  For decades most computer users have relied on word processors for all their needs, whether a simple to-do list or a long novel manuscript.  Yet for as long as computers have been around, so has the text editor.

Text editors

With the example of the to-do list, a word processor is obviously overkill. It should have been a bigger deal in the past, when hard drive space was so much smaller; using a word processor inflates the file size of all documents, even a simple list. Comparatively, a text editor adds none or very little overhead to saved text files. Of course, for things such as a to-do list I may still suggest using pencil and paper (yes really).

While for me it was web design and Sublime Text 2 that got me interested in the power and simplicity of plain text, I would be remiss if I didn’t give an honorable mention to a few other text editors that I used before settling into Sublime Text 2. The first would be Window’s Notepad. This program is about as simple as you can get: open, type, save. Not much else, and easy to use. An equivalent was Apple’s TextEdit; however, it includes the choice of either plain-text or rich-text, so in a way it’s a combination of Windows Notepad and Wordpad. Both TextEdit and WordPad are fine as a poor man’s word processor, but I digress…

When I got back into programming and designing websites, these simple text editors were my home. I could type, save and not worry about any excess features or a cluttered interface. But, I also couldn’t easily see what I needed to. In other words, I needed text highlighting. There were some features in Mozilla/Netscape for it, and there were big programs such as Dreamweaver, but none of those were what I wanted. This was before I dabbled in Linux, so I knew nothing of those options. But I did want something free, something easy. The first thing I found, since I was mostly using a Windows desktop system, was Notepad++. It had what I wanted, and something I didn’t know I needed: tabs. Just like tabbed browsing, introduced first by Opera but popularized by Mozilla, tabs in a text editor was a god-send. It wasn’t a nice feature, it was now a requirement. I couldn’t live without it now.  Notepad++ had a lot of features I never needed, but luckily they stayed out of the way.  And when once in a blue moon I needed to print something, Notepad++ could do that (something Sublime can’t do, but not as crucial as my need to print goes even further down).

So why didn’t I just stick to Notepad++, instead of moving on to Sublime Text 2 where I am today?  It was something superficial: appearance.  There were plenty of themes in Notepad++, and the colors could be customized, but I just never found something I really liked.  Also, the theme wasn’t consistent from file to file, or even in the same file when re-opened later.  I could never figure out if it was a fault of my own or not, but it became a big enough deal that I started searching again, and that’s when I discovered the buzz building up around Sublime.  Once I had downloaded the beta and opened it the first time I knew my search was over.  It looked clean and simple and the default font was easy to read. It had the simplicity of Notepad and the tabs and text highlighting of Notepad++. I also really liked that it ran on all 3 major OS’s, so no matter what system I might be running Sublime is always an option.

What language/markup would you like to use today?

Using a text editor, you have the option of simply typing in words and save to a .txt file, or you can dive into a language and save with that appropriate extension, bringing text highlighting into the mix. While I’m not a heavy programmer, there’s quite a few areas I dabble in: HTML, CSS, JavaScript, Python, C, and Fountain. In regards to “simply typing in words”, whenever I work on a novel or script I prefer to start in a text editor, so that I can immediately get words down. I don’t want to worry about formatting or anything else. Of course if I’m writing a script in Fountain I will have a little bit to worry about, but nowhere near what I’d be dealing with in Final Draft. And again, I can work in this format on any system, while Final Draft is tied to both an OS and being activated. Normally that’s not an issue for me (at least at home), but still. The same thing applies to any web work or light programming I do. I don’t want to fire up some huge, slow, costly design suite or IDE just to run a few dozen lines of code. I type it into Sublime, save with the correct extension, and then open with the appropriate command, etc.

The door is never locked

The greatest strength of plain text is that it is readable on any system: any OS, any device. With my files backed up, I can access a script I worked on on my phone, let alone a computer with no chance of getting Final Draft installed on.  I can keep working on a novel idea, even on a computer that only has Notepad installed (and I may not have rights to install Sublime).  Just like an open web allows the user a choice in browser, plain text allows me to choose from so many programs.  I don’t know about you, but I like choice.

Goodbye to the Frenzy

I recently received an email with some bad news: Script Frenzy will no longer be held.

It was hard for me to to digest, though somewhat ironic: every year that I’ve tried it I never wrote anywhere near the required number of pages.  But still, it was easy to get excited to be starting on a script with many other people in the same situation.

Apparently that number wasn’t very high.  According to their website, far more people participate each year in NaNoWriMo, the annual contest for writing a 30,000-word novel in 30 days.  To me, it’s hard to imagine that so many more people would attempt to write a novel rather than a script in a month, let alone in any amount of time.

Why do I think that?

First off, simply the length.  It’s really not that hard to write a screenplay (at least to me).  The structure is more defined than a novel, and the formatting is far more rigid as well, but the fact is there’s far more whitespace on each page of a script, and the total length (both pages and words) is far less than a novel (normally 1 page = 1 minute of screentime).  So for so many eager novice writers, shouldn’t attempting a script be far more tempting?

Second, consider the era that we live in.  Movies are as popular as ever (although video games seem to be on the cusp of edging it out).  Nobody really reads novels anymore (for the most part), and those that do seem to be taking up eReaders and leaving behind the dead-tree form (please note the slight sarcasm I inject into this sentence).  With so many people going to the movies (and even now the advent of online streaming), shouldn’t they be far more motivated to try to write one?  In the past everyone had a great idea for the next Great American Novel; aren’t we now in the time of looking for the next Great Hollywood Blockbuster?

I don’t know if any other website or community will pick up where Script Frenzy left off. I do think there’s plenty of aspiring screenwriters out there. Maybe it really is the structure and formatting that kept alot of people from trying. Even though some software is still expensive (Final Draft) there are far more cheaper and free alternatives available now (Scrivener, Celtx, Trelby, etc.) that can allow people to get into writing. The increasing popularity of streaming services (Netflix, Hulu, Amazon and Apple) and the rise of the indie pictures should surely encourage writers, as well as trying to break into the traditional Hollywood system. If and when an alternative does turn up, I’ll gladly become a part of it.

At the Mouth of the Labyrinth

It’s been a long time since I’ve played an RPG.  Back in middle school we played Rifts and Star Wars, but as time progressed and people moved away I never tried to find another group to play those with.  I had a friend in my church’s youth group that was obsessed with AD&D, but we never really played.  Since then I have followed the forums at and read about the new releases of Star Wars and D&D, the stagnation of Palladium Books, and discovered other RPG’s that I now wish I had known about all those years ago.

The biggest trends in the past few years have been the birth and growth of both Pathfinder and Retroclones, otherwise called the OSR (Old-School Revival) movement.  Both are very different paths under the D&D umbrella, but both maintain the Gygaxian spirit of fantasy adventure.

Paizo Publishing’s Pathfinder is built upon D&D 3.5 edition, using Wizard of the Coast’s OGL license for those rules to create a foundation for their RPG.  Many who were fans of D&D 3.5 have continued playing that ruleset through Pathfinder, instead of moving on to D&D 4.  Paizo Publishing has also set the standard for digital distribution, selling PDF copies of every one of their titles on their website.  Since Wizards of the Coast offers no PDF copies of current or past releases, many attribute Pathfinder’s success partially due to their amazing webstore.  It also helps that the costs of the PDF releases are far cheaper than paper copies (most rulebooks are only $10!).  I have already purchased the Core Rulebook and Gamemastery Guide, even though I don’t plan on using that ruleset.  Paizo now also offers a Beginner Box, which received far better reviews than the newest Red Box from Wizards of the Coast.

The two first retroclones to come about were Basic Fantasy RPG and OSRIC.  Basic Fantasy RPG focuses on the Basic/Advanced D&D ruleset from the Early 80s.  It is not a “pure” retroclone as it makes some changes to armor class (Ascending AC instead of Descending) and other things (separation of Race and Class).  Basic Fantasy is unique in that it is developed in an “open source” way.  The original documents (in .ODF format) can be downloaded from the website, as well as additional supplements and adventures.  The PDF is also free to download from the site, and the author maintains he prefers interested players do so before considering purchasing a printed copy through Lulu.  I have purchased a hardcover copy from Lulu and am very happy with it.  This will likely be the ruleset that I will use for my game, even as I draw on things from all the other systems.

OSRIC is as straightforward a representation of the AD&D 1E rules as is legally possible.  Expanded in the second edition to include monsters and more, OSRIC has evolved from being a ruleset intended for writers/publishers to anyone who wishes to play without access to the original 1E rulebooks, or even those who simply wish to not subject their original 1E books to further damage.  I have purchased a hardcover copy from Lulu as there is alot of great info in this gigantic book, even if I won’t be using the rulseset.

Lack of access to the actual (A)D&D rulebooks is a key selling point for all of the available retroclones, but especially for those that are based on the original D&D ruleset (the Little Brown Books).  The most popular is Swords and Wizardry, written by the original author of OSRIC, Matthew Finch.  This retroclone can be confusing to newcomers as there are 3 different editions: Whitebox (based on the original 3 rulebooks), Core (including some supplemental material) and Complete (all supplements published before TSR moved on to B/X and AD&D).  The Whitebox and Core editions are available for free from the website, and printed editions are available through Lulu.  The PDF and printed version of the Complete Edition are available from Frog God Games.  The look and artwork are fantastic, and Matt’s writing will inspire you in countless ways.

Labyrinth Lord is similar to Basic Fantasy as it also focuses on the Basic/Advanced D&D rules.  Unlike Basic Fantasy however, it maintains the original rules for armor (Descending AC) and other items.  Some people like that Labyrinth Lord maintains these unique quirks and believe it maintains the D&D “feel”, while others would rather take the improvements offered by Basic Fantasy.  I personally prefer those improvements, but there’s no doubt that Labyrinth Lord is dripping with more flavor than a ribeye steak; in fact, I believe out of all the retroclones it has the most by far (and I have to put OSRIC as having the least).  The writing, artwork and overall look of Labyrinth Lord will leave you raring to go dungeon-delving, no doubt about it.

Castles and Crusades is not a true retroclone; like Basic Fantasy it has presented improvements.  The difference is that C&C has overhauled the whole thing to use their Siege Engine.  I have looked at this game and think it’s a great improvement, but it doesn’t quite click for me.  However coming from a small dedicated company C&C is a great game with some amazing artwork, all done by one man (Peter Bradley).

So which ruleset to go with?  In the end you can’t go wrong, as you’ll still be playing D&D, and all of its progenitors (Gygax, Arneson, Holmes, Cook and Marsh) will be smiling down upon you.  Some of these games have major differences, while other items may be similar if not exact.  Also, in the true spirit of RPGs and D&D in particular you should change any rules you don’t like, and if needed mix-and-match from other games.  Personally I will start with Basic Fantasy, and bolt on a few more races, classes and options as needed.  I can’t wait to start playing again after being gone for so long, and I hope you’ll give one or more of these games a try!

When Bands Over-reach

Since the release of Nightwish’s album Dark Passion Play, when their new singer debuted, I’ve been eagerly awaiting their second release with her to see how well she integrated with the band.  But if you go to their website, you’ll see almost more about the companion film than the album itself (this has changed a bit since I first wrote this post’s draft as the album has been released).  I can’t say this is good.  Another band, Within Temptation, also felt the need to have a story(ies) to go along with their latest album, and they’ve released several short films to go along with it.


For decades we’ve had the concept album, where a story is told from song to song.  But it was still an album.  And from the ones I’ve listened, some have been very good.  My personal favorite would be Queensryche’s Operation Mindcrime, followed up by Fear Factory’s Obsolete.  Concept albums can be powerful; hell, they can be absolutely epic.

These albums are good because the music comes first, and provides a strong foundation for a story to go on top of.  The story is the icing on the cake that is the music.  If the music sucks, I don’t care how good the story is (or how good the band may think it is).  I can read a book (or even watch a film) for that.  That isn’t really why I want to sit down with a new album, put on my Grados, close my eyes and be taken away.  That is something neither books nor films can do, and that’s the reason music still has a very important place in today’s world, even with all the “wonderous” advances technology may have provided for films, games, etc.

I have only listended to brief samples of Within Temptation’s new album, and it’s terrible.  It’s nothing like their previous albums, and most of the “metal” has been stripped out and replaced with pop.  I began listening to a preview of Nightwish’s Imaginaerum with the same trepidation.  Unfortunately my fears were confirmed for the most part.  Disjointed would be an understatement.  This is not an album at all, and unless the film is a miraculous splendor it is barely a serviceable soundtrack either.

Each song is completely different.  One track tries to emulate jazz.  As snobby as Europeans can be about “true metal”, as a full-blooded American I must reply about “true jazz”.  This track is not a salute, and is a failed emulation of jazz.  It should have been left off entirely.

If there’s only one strength on this album, then it is Jukka’s drumming.  One of the first to get me really motivated about playing drums, Jukka has always had fantastic tone and great chops, and that shines through even on this album.  Unfortunately he’s the only one who’s shining on this album.  Emmpu’s guitar playing is boring and monotonous.  There is very little melodic work or soloing; it’s constant chugging.  On one track he does pick up the acoustic, and just like the track “The Islander” on Dark Passion Play, this track is a stand-out.  Perhaps it’s because it harkens back to Nightwish’s origins of acoustic songs.  I would love to hear an entire album of acoustic songs.  The band has gotten as “high-concept” as music can possibly get (or at least that most people can stand).  It’s time for them to come down and sit with us around the fire again.

So how has Anette progressed on her second album with the band?  It’s hard for me to say.  She certainly sings with a bit more range, but still no-where near what Tarja could belt out.  I consider that neither good or bad.  On the “jazz” track, her vocals were not too bad.  On other tracks the notes are just too far apart and strains the definition of what a melody is and should be.  It’s almost more jarring than the constant change in song styles.  On one hand I really now want to say “well let’s wait til the NEXT album to see how she and the band progress”, but you know what?  I’m busy.  There’s far too many other bands worth a listen.  Just as I had to end my aural affair with Within Temptation, I think I’ll have to say the same for Nightwish now.

Web Browsers

Back in the Good Old Days of Computers, you had the choice of Internet Explorer or Netscape Navigator.  While I wasn’t quite a young-un back in those days, I remember I always used Netscape simply because we had Macs in the house and that seemed to be the only choice.  Schools were also quite Mac-centric, though I remember a lab at Rice University that was PC, because we all played Warcraft 3 and Doom 2 (but that’s another post…).

Eventually Internet Explorer became the dominant browser on PCs, and Macs still had Netscape.  Eventually Netscape begat Firefox, which began to slowly climb up even as Internet Explorer continued to reign supreme, depsite its horrid support for Web standards.  Firefox slowly became more popular, and other browsers turned up, including Opera.  But even their total numbers were but a mere shadow in Internet Explorer.  Even though they all had superior security, useabilitiy, etc. it didn’t matter.  All copies of Windows came with Internet Explorer, and most people didn’t care to change that.  Today that’s still the case, but more and more have turned to an alternate browser.

The most current “climax” of the browser wars happened before Internet Explorer 9’s release.  Firefox had gained a huge share of users, Google Chrome was quickly climbing the charts, and Apple’s Safari and Opera still had small but noteworthy numbers.  Most people were now aware of Internet Explorer’s lack of security, slow performance and missing features compared to others.  Microsoft finally made an effort to improve their browser, and the release of Internet Explorer 9 offered improvements.  There’s no doubt its performance far exceeds its previous releases, though it’s still behind Chrome and Firefox due to their rapid releases.

If there’s on area all web browsers need significant work, it’s their download managers.  Previous versions of Internet Explorer didn’t really have one, but as with all their other software Microsoft were compelled to change it for 9, and it’s even worse than before.  Chrome doesn’t get much better.  You can open up a new tab that shows downloads, but the bar at the bottom of your current page remains even after the download finishes.  Why not remove the bottom bar totally and just open the Downloads tab in the background?  Firefox opens a small window, but it can get in the way as well.

For a long time I used Firefox, even though on Macs it was far slower than Safari.  I had the plug-ins I wanted, and it was nice to have the same interface across all 3 major OS’s.  Each release of Firefox would slowly improve performance, but again with Internet Explorer as its only competition there wasn’t much demand for further improvement.

I had tried out Chrome from time to time.  Its minimalistic interface was a nice change, but the program was just TOO minimalist.  Also, I couldn’t change how much hard drive space it used for cookies, etc. and I had to manually delete that stuff.  That hasn’t changed with Chrome 16.

Firefox has now adopted a faster release schedule ala Chrome, and its performance improvements have taken far greater strides.  It may still be behind Chrome, but it is catching up at a faster pace.  Unlike Chrome though, its updates still must be manually applied.  Automatic updating should be coming up in Forefox 10 or 11, and that will be a much-needed improvement, especially at my job.

These days I use both Firefox and Chrome pretty much equally.  They both have excellent security track records, and work on all 3 major OS’s.  I rarely use Safari or Opera, and Internet Explorer only when I have to at work.  Both Forefox and Chrome can sync my bookmarks and settings now.  There may be small things I’d like to see changed on both browsers, and I’m always happy to see other browsers provide innovations and competition.  When that is always happening, it benefits all of us.