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Perhaps as a spark to discussion, this was presented with the note on Twitter, “when people say plain text, they really mean the Unix ecosystem. ‘plain text’ only seems ‘natural’ when you have kilotons of tooling for it.”

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    While I agree with the general sentiment of the post, I don’t see how a plain text statistics book is going to be the future, especially for a field that relies on mathematical notation. There is more to a textbook than just information (e.g., typesetting, graphics). Maybe a better idea would be to have open-source textbooks (maybe in LaTeX or some other typesetting language) that can be edited/peer-reviewed/updated by the community and compiled to pdf, html, or whatever.

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      when people say plain text […] have kilotons of tooling for it.

      This tweet is plain text.

      This post was written with a keyboard and a mouse, with no other tooling. It is plain text (a stream of ASCII characters).

      Mail is close to plain text: you can read a raw mail with headers (From:, Subject:). You can also write a mail with a keyboard a mouse and notepad.exe.

      POP3 syntax is easy to write. You can talk to a POP server directly without other intermediate than TCP, and read your mail this way, which are already plain text to some extent.

      iCal format is quite plain text: it looks like a table, or a web form. It is not very readable, but you can still get your data from it and write one event.

      If I tell you 3rd row, 4th column, and I give you a CSV, you can give me the value even if the csv is printed on paper.

      You can read, and edit all these with notepad.exe. And even with a pen and paper. Every student able to write on a keyboard and with a computer or even a typewriter can type plain text.

      Not really a kiloton of tooling.

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        What did you do to get a tweet in plain text form?

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          I mean the content of the tweet is plain text. There are hashtags that is a ‘#’ the non-blank chars, mentions with a ‘@’ and user name, and of you want pagination, you can write something like this: [1/3].

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        This same argument comes up every time someone mentions “plain text” and the argument is based on the idea that everyone is very ignorant of all these tooling and character sets and such.

        “Plain text” is a figure of speech, nothing more.

        It’s useful to talk about “plain text” as opposed to a Word document or a PDF where if you run it through another text editor then you’re likely going to see a bunch of garbage characters.

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          Even PDF have support for plain text streams. :)

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          I am a plain text fan. However, I think OP is trying to rationalize some decisions but I don’t agree at all with the conclusions.

          2000+ years of education history have shown us that, even when plain text was available, people still preferred to learn via academic classes.

          Books/text are a great learning resource, I agree with that, but the future of education is the natural evolution of a class: video.

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            The advantage of classes isn’t the visuals, it’s the interactivity - being able to ask questions when things are unclear - and the collaboration of learning in a group. Video is the worst of both worlds - fixed-pace, no searchability, but without the advantages of class-based learning.

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              I think it might be more domain/individual dependent than you’re letting on here. For example, I completely agree with you about videos being challenging to learn from in computer science or perhaps in most or all academic topics. But video is invaluable for other types of learning. Going on to YouTube and watching videos on how to service a lawnmower conveys some very dense physical information very quickly. I’ve tried reading about it—which is maybe occasionally useful because it tends to be more explanatory—but there’s nothing quite like actually seeing it done. Especially when you’re new to the task and don’t understand the vernacular or idioms used in the plain text materials.

              Here’s another example. When I was learning how to build a PC many moons ago, the videos on YouTube caused me to learn a lot more quickly (and more cheaply). These days, I don’t need to watch videos any more because I can understand plain text. But getting over that initial hump was made much easier by videos.

              Here’s another one. I recently purchased a basketball hoop and set out to put it together. The plain text directions with static images were pretty good, but each section of the manual included a QR code to open a video showing someone else performing that particular step. Spending 30 seconds or so watching that video gave me almost instant comprehension. Without it, I’d have to stare at the text directions and maybe fiddle with the parts a bit before I got it right.

              To clarify again: I don’t outright disagree with you or @skade on this. My broader point is that if we consider all types of learning, video all of a sudden doesn’t look so bad in some areas. :-) Although, perhaps my examples demonstrate that video is only good as a supplemental tool rather than as a primary vehicle.

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              Books/text are a great learning resource, I agree with that, but the future of education is the natural evolution of a class: video.

              I know a lot of people that struggle with video (me included). It’s inaccessible, hard to produce, hard to remix, hard to search, linear and needs constant concentration to consume (you even have to remember to pause when there’s an interruption, instead of just coming back after wandering of). Many of these things are inherent, I can far easier bash out or read two paragraphs of wisdom anywhere, for video, I need a full setup. That’s doesn’t mean video doesn’t have its time and place. It’s just no evolution.

              I once heard a great interview with a podcaster where he dispelled the notion that his medium is inferior to video. He used the image of a news show: most news show pictures are interchangable. War, bombs, some politician walking towards the senate, some people coming out of a court. Repeat an hour later, perhaps with other commentary. But yet, we choose to clog our visual channel with that. It needs concentration of all our primary channels.

              Audio, on the other hand, can still transport the message, but loosing the ability to transport visual information. This means we can listen to it while doing something else, which for some people consumes better. It also doesn’t consume much energy.

              I’m wandering off. The point is: video is not the evolution of written text, it’s also not the evolution of audio. They are seperate mediums.

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              This does not seem like a good solution. People mostly need more than just text, linking to external images is not a solution its a hack.

              The real solution is to use an open format like odt and ods although csv is often quite suitable for most data