Art Kavanagh

Criticism, fiction and other writing

Writing “plain” text

I’m back in the south-west of France after having spent the whole of the last 5 years in Ireland. At the moment, I’m in Pau, which is a couple of hours by train from where my sister and her family live. When I originally went back to Ireland nearly 9 years ago, I left a lot of stuff at my sister’s: a HP LaserJet printer, an amplifier and two speakers, several boxes of books … and an AlphaSmart Neo. I’ve been trying to remember whether the Neo was still working when I left. In principle, I can’t see any reason why it shouldn’t have been.

I like the idea of a device like the AlphaSmart, which just writes text. In practice, though, I’ve never found it all that satisfactory. In the early 00s, years before I bought the Neo on eBay, I had another AlphaSmart, the 3000. At once rugged and lightweight, it was supremely portable. In my imagination, I could just throw it in a backpack and head for the British Library, the Public Records Office or any other congenial spot, and start writing or taking notes. The catch was that while the 3000’s keyboard felt very comfortable to use, it made an unholy racket. Exactly not what you need in a library, particularly the British Library, with its large reading rooms. So instead I started to take a Palm Vx, with a folding keyboard that wasn’t nearly as easy to type on, but was almost silent. Since I finished my thesis, I haven’t been going to libraries nearly as much, so I’ve occasionally found myself thinking that maybe it was time to look again at the AlphaSmart.

Joel Spolsky said there’e no such thing as plain text. Of course there isn’t: whatever you write on a computer necessarily uses some kind of encoding. I can remember (not that long ago) sending a “plain” text document to a Windows user who couldn’t make any sense of it because each subsequent line was superimposed on the first. (Or something like that: I can’t remember the details.) Windows expected a carriage return and a line feed, but was getting only the first of these. Of course, there are many Windows text editors that can fix the line endings, but my correspondent merely double-clicked on an email attachment and it opened by default in Notepad.

Recently, the encoding I’ve been using is UTF-8, and it’s so much better than what we used to have to put up with. Quite apart from accented characters — did I mention that I’m in France? — and diacritics, I can easily type dashes (both em and en), spaces (ditto), curly quotes, ellipses and pretty well anything I want. I’ve never tried to do any of these things on the Neo but I’m fairly sure it won’t cope with Unicode. That in itself is a good enough reason for me to leave it gathering dust in my sister’s house. It’s a pity but … it’s not as if I’m stuck for lightweight, portable means of writing unformatted text. I’m writing this post in Tot on an iPad Air (in portrait orientation) using a Logitech K380 Bluetooth keyboard. The keyboard is quiet and a joy to type on. I could equally have used a MacBook Air but, because I’m writing at dead of night in a hotel room without soundproofing, the keyboard’s quietness is an essential quality. The MacBook (mid 2019, with butterfly keys) makes a noise strongly reminiscent of the AlphaSmart 3000. If I write “plus ça change …”, it’s only so that I can show off my cedilla.

Posted by Art on 01-Aug-2020.