Category Archives: E-style

Archival Quality Writing

Software developers are constantly improving the apps we use to manage our documents and publications. These advances have given us many useful tools to make our efforts easier. However, there is still one major area of concern – how to manage our digital document archives. As word processing applications come and go, we are often left with documents we can no longer view. How many of us are stuck with old WordStar, WordPerfect and even Word documents? There is one format, however, that has survived since the very beginnings of the digital age – plain text. Unfortunately, plain text is exactly that – plain. There are no font choices and you can’t include even the simplest formatting functions like bold or italic text. Who wants to be stuck with that?

Fortunately, software developers have come up with an option that will allow us to have archival quality text files – and have them with style! It’s called Markdown.

Markdown is actually two things. First, it’s a standard that uses certain plain text characters – like asterisks, hashtags and hyphens – to represent format settings. Second, it’s a collection of conversion programs which read the plain text file with these formatting “codes” and convert them into other document formats like rich text, HTML, PDF or even ePUB.

Here is a sample plain text file with Markdown codes:

Plain text with Markdown code.

As you can see in this example, plain text with Markdown coding is quite readable. It’s much easier to read than the same text with equivalent HTML tags. It’s the simplicity and readability of Markdown that make it so interesting. Forty years from now, even if Markdown gets forgotten over the decades, someone can open and read a plain text document that includes Markdown code much easier than we can read this WordPerfect document that’s less than 20 years old.

An old WordPerfect document viewed in a text editor.

No, you don’t have to dump your current apps, but now that you know what Markdown is you can start looking for apps that support it. One good example would be a journaling app and Mac/iOS users will find Day One [Mac – $9.99 & iOS – $4.99] saves your journal entries – and all your formatting – as Markdown text. Also for Mac/iOS users is Byword [Mac – $9.99 and iOS – $4.99], an elegantly simple text editor that supports both Markdown and rich text. The LightPaper [Android – $1.99] app is one of a number of text editors for Android tablets and phones providing Markdown support.

A number of note-taking apps for Mac are also getting updates to include Markdown support. VoodooPad 5 [Mac – $39.99 and iOS – $9.99] is a good example. And, because its native document format is Markdown, the app can easily convert your notes to rich text, Word, PDF, HTML and ePub formats. I found a free Windows app – MarkdownPad – which supports Markdown, and hopefully we’ll soon see more.

Bloggers will find that WordPress, Tumblr and Postagon also support Markdown. Check the Resource Directory for even more apps and platforms supporting it.

You may have noticed that many of the apps mentioned here are for mobile devices – phones and tablets. Mobile devices have limited memory and storage so the apps are more streamlined than their desktop cousins. Markdown editing screens takes a lot less code than traditional editors, making it a good choice for mobile apps. In addition, the screen-based keyboards can be a challenge for serious writing and formatting. Anything that can simplify the formatting process improves its usability.

This article in the Byword editor for Mac.

This example shows what Markdown looks like while editing. As you can see the text is quite readable. Once the document is ready to publish, the program includes functions to save it in the format of your choice (rich text, HTML, PDF, etc.) – with the Markdown codes converted to the appropriate formatting. As technology moves forward, all that’s needed to update this app – or any of the older documents created using it – are new publishing functions to support converting to whatever new format has been developed.

Thanks to Markdown, the future of plain text looks quite bright. And, by supporting the efforts of developers who incorporate Markdown in their applications, we can help influence its acceptance and continued growth. Helping them will help us build an archival standard for digital documents that will insure the future of our research and publishing efforts doesn’t get left behind in the trash bin of old technology.

This article was originally published at The Society Journal.

Whole Lotta Updating Going On

It seems like every time I turn around there’s another set of updates to install. With WordPress 4.0, Mac OS X Yosemite and iOS 8 all due to be released soon, app and plugin developers have been busy getting their software ready for them.

Apple has an event scheduled for Tuesday, September 9th. It’s probably announcing the iPhone 6, but I’m hoping it’s also the day iOS 8 is released. Yosemite is coming “this fall” and I hope that means it’s sooner rather than later. I’m really looking forward to iCloud Drive although I’m already taking advantage of Dropbox’s space increase and I can’t wait to see how Messages, Face Time and phone calls can be picked up on my Mac as well as my iPhone.

It’s going to be an interesting couple of months.

The Future is HTML

HTML is the language of the web. It is now becoming the language of everything you do online – from email to news to e-books and more. And, although most of us never “touch” the actual code, it’s behind many of the things you see and do online.

Right now we’re watching an HTML revolution in the making. But, like many revolutions, things can get a little messy at times. The online world is in the process of moving to an updated version of HTML called HTML5. It offers a lot of great things for those of us who create content and we are excited about these new opportunities. BUT! We’re not all there yet. And, it will be a while before we do get there. In the meantime, here are some things you can do to insure you enjoy the best browsing experience you can.

  • Make sure you’re using the latest version of your web browser. In order to take advantage of these new HTML capabilities, you need to use a browser that supports them. Older browsers don’t. Even some of the newer browsers don’t support all of the new capabilities – yet. Opera [Win & Mac] and Chrome [Win & Mac] have the best support with Firefox [Win & Mac] and Safari [Mac] close behind. The latest version of Internet Explorer [Win] supports a majority of HTML5 capabilities, but still lags far behind the rest of the field.
  • Remember that you and your browser are in charge. You can override font style and sizes shown on a site by changing settings in your browser. Press CTRL/+ (CMD/+ for Mac) to increase the font size and CTRL/- (CMD/-) to decrease. To change the font style, look in your browser’s options panel. If things look really weird, you might check your “text encoding” settings. The “default” setting is probably the best, but you might also try the Western or Unicode options. This setting defines which alphabet is used to present content.
  • HTML5 makes its biggest impact with media, simplifying the way audio and video are added to a web page. Most sites can identify the browser you are using to visit their site and then display their media using a method supported by your browser. If you visit a site displaying media only in HTML5 and your browser doesn’t support it, you won’t be able to view that media. You might try using another browser that does support HTML5.

Most web developers are doing everything they can to insure you enjoy the best experience possible when you visit their site. At the same time, they are working hard to learn HTML5 while building sites that cover all these constantly changing possibilities. It means an awful lot of work for them and sometimes it doesn’t always work just right. It’s a challenge but one that’s well worth the effort.

Every day we’re seeing new and amazing views of our world thanks to HTML and these hard-working developers, designers, writers, photographers and artists that bring it to us.

e-Style: Special Characters

Badge-eStyle 2A sure sign of a professional publication is the use of appropriate special characters in the text of your project. From copyright and trademarks symbols to appropriate money symbols and even the degree symbol for temperature, each of these can be easily created thanks to your word processing application. You just need to know where to find them.

In Microsoft Word, look for the Insert > Symbol command. This will open a pane showing you several collections of symbols that can be selected and inserted in your document. In Apple’s Pages for Mac it’s the Edit > Special Characters command. The displayed characters pane allows you to browse the various categories of symbols and, once a symbol is selected, view it in the font you are using. This is very handy since a growing number of fonts don’t include many special characters.

Pages Special Characters

Special characters panel in Pages for Mac

 

If you find you are regularly using certain symbols, take advantage of your word processor’s auto-correct feature (in spell-checking) to set up an easy-to-type abbreviation which will be replaced with the symbol. For example, many spell-checkers are already set up to replace (c) with © or 1/2 with ½ so all you have to do is follow their example to add your own.

Bloggers and web publishers have their own set of special character codes for including symbols in web content. You’ll find a great chart for these codes at the Web Design Group. WordPress users can access a special characters panel from the editing toolbar.

WordPress editing toolbar showing icon to display special characters panel.

WordPress editing toolbar showing icon to display special characters panel.

Yes, it takes a bit more effort to include special characters and symbols in your publishing project, but it shows that you are serious about your work. Your readers probably won’t notice that you’ve made the effort to present a professional publication, but they will surely notice when you haven’t.

Footnotes and Citations in Markdown

If you find you’re spending more time working on your portable devices than on your desktop – especially when it comes to blogging – you need to get acquainted with Markdown. Trying to post even the shortest post from the WordPress app on my iPad was a challenge I only used when I had no other option because trying to type HTML code on the screen keyboard took forever. With Mark down, it’s a breeze. Footnotes and citations are very good examples. Here’s how they work in Markdown.

Markdown Text Example

This example was created in the Day One journal app because it lets me preview the Markdown file right in the app. The example above shows you what I typed. The example below shows what the saved file looks like in Day One.

Markdown Preview Example

How it will look on a blog posting depends on your blog’s theme and style sheet. Day One’s built-in style guide is set up to display a citation right-justified and all in italics. Since footnotes and citations are not a common site on blogs, your theme may not have styles for them. In that case, they will be presented in the default style. Below is the same Markdown text typed in this post from my iPad. I did change the headings to level 2 headings (two hashtags instead of one). The headings appear with the styling set up in the site’s style guide, but the footnote and citation are using HTML default styling.

Creating Footnotes in Markdown

When you create a footnote in Markdown, the reference code 1 appears at the end of the text. The actual citation is entered on a line by itself and appears at the bottom of the page.

Create a Citation in Markdown

Citations in Markdown are really quite simple – all you do is type the citation where you want it to appear and surround it with cite tags as shown here.
Ancestry.com. Texas, Marriage Collection, 1814-1909 and 1966-2011 [database online]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations Inc, 2005.

I’ve created this post in the mobile WordPress app, but I also find I’m using Markdown even when I’m blogging on my desktop. Why? Because entering codes for most formatting and linking options can be done without taking my hands off the keyboard. Posts almost seem to write themselves when I don’t have to grab the mouse so often.


  1. Footnote citation information. 

Building a family network

If you’re like us, you’ve got family spread across the country and maybe even overseas. Although the costs to travel mean we don’t get together as often as we would like, that doesn’t mean we haven’t found creative ways to stay involved with far-away family and friends. Facebook has revolutionized how we can “keep up” with each other, but it does have serious privacy and security issues. I’m not about to share vacation photos on Facebook because that sends an open invitation to crooks that my house is just waiting for them to help themselves to my stuff. Personal news like new babies and deaths in the family can alert con artists of potential marks. I still enjoy Facebook. I’m just not putting much personal stuff out there.

Our family has been building its own family communications network. Some of it was intentionally set up, but a lot of it has just happened. For example, we have used Skype – a lot – to make video calls. It’s great to visually participate in birthday parties and other special events even when we can’t be there. Today, there are a growing number of web-enabled televisions offering both a high-def webcam add-on and Skype access. Imagine that same birthday party on a big screen tv! Skype supports free group calls too. Up to ten users can participate in a group call – audio or video. Skype’s text messenger component can be used in conjunction with an audio or video call to share photos or files while you’re talking.

FaceTime image courtesy Apple.com

As more and more in our family have moved to iThings, Skype is being augmented with FaceTime. We can even FaceTime directly to the grandkids through their iPod Touches. Although FaceTime doesn’t support group calls, the combination of FaceTime and Messages – sort of SMS and IM on steroids – make it easy get “status updates” just about any time. And, while nothing’s totally secure or private, it’s a much better option than Facebook.

We also use Posthaven to maintain a family news service [see article]. It functions as both a mailing list and a family journal and is so easy even the most digitally-challenged can participate. Here’s where birth announcements, family news and vacation pics are shared. Because posting is done via email, it’s a mobile-friendly platform that works well for posting vacation updates. Posthaven will cost $5.00 a month to use, but each account supports up to ten blogs.

For our photo archive, we use Flickr. You can define who can see your photos and Flickr has a group feature that lets a group of Flickr users share selected photos to one or more groups. Flickr supports private groups which are only visible to group members. One of the nice things about using a group is that group members can see all the photos shared to their group regardless of the privacy settings the owner set for them. This means I can post my current vacation photos privately, yet members of our Flickr family group will be able to see any of them that I share with the group. Yahoo has increased the storage limit for free accounts to 1 terabyte (the equivalent of approximately 560,000 photos) making it a good off-site storage option for our photo collection as well.

Our network combines easy apps and platforms with a comfortable level of privacy and security. It allows everyone to participate regardless of their digital skills. Best of all, it allows us to stay involved with our families both near and far. No, there won’t be letters handed down to generations to come, but the family web site, photo archives and other cloud-based services will take their place to provide a rich record of our lives.

Ain’t technology great!

Found Ephemera: Keynote Vector Graphics

If you have Keynote for Mac, you can draw your own decorative embellishments using the built-in vector drawing tools. What is vector drawing? It’s is the creation of digital graphics using lines, curves and shapes. Unlike bitmap graphics which are made up of a collection of tiny dots (pixels), vector graphics can easily scale in size (larger or smaller) without affecting its quality. Photographs are bitmap graphics while illustrations such as architectural drawings, logos and most digital art creations are vector drawings.

Keynote’s drawing tools don’t provide the features found in full-blown illustration programs such as Adobe’s Illustrator or CorelDraw. Keynote doesn’t have their learning curve either. You can be creating your own scrapbook-style embellishments in minutes rather than weeks. Here’s how.

Keynote screen

Choose the Draw with Pen option from the Shape panel.

To begin, create a Keynote presentation with a blank slide. Click the Format icon on the toolbar to display the format panel on the right. Now, click on the Shape icon in the top toolbar and choose the Draw with Pen option at the bottom of the shape panel. It doesn’t matter which colors you’re using at this point.

Click anywhere on the slide to start.

Click anywhere on the slide to start.

Click anywhere on the screen to create a starting point. Click somewhere else and you create a straight line between those points. When you click, you create straight lines. To create curved lines, drag your mouse. Double-click to end the line. The dark line you see in the example above shows a number of points along its length. Once a line has been created, each of these points can be dragged to adjust it. The purple squiggle began as a collection of straight lines. Experiment to see how this works.

Now look over at the format panel on the right. When an element is selected, the panel displays the styling options available to you. The selected item is formatted as a “rough pencil” line in black that is 8 points wide. You can change any of those things to create an entirely different look.

Shape editing examples

Standard shapes have options too.

Even standard shapes have some manipulation options you can put to good use. Look at the star on the left in the example above and you’ll see two green points inside the selection area. The outside point can be dragged clockwise to add points to the star – as in the eight-point star on the right. The inside point can be dragged in or out to adjust the thickness of the points. Other shapes can be manipulated in similar ways.

Then there is the option of combining shapes to create new ones. The arrow was layered with the rectangle to make a pointer. Below that, the line was grouped with three diamonds to create a text embellishment. And, on the left a “drawn” box was copied, enlarged and grouped with the original box to create a doodle frame.

You don’t have to create these graphics from scratch each time you want to use it. I’ve created a Keynote file just for my growing graphics library. It contains elements I’ve found as well as those I’ve made myself. When I need one, I just copy/paste it from the library presentation to the working one. Although you can only create these vector drawings in the Mac version of Keynote, you can use the graphics you create in both the iCloud and iOS versions of Keynote and Pages. I keep my library file in iCloud for easy access. And, to make things even easier, I’ll often copy a slide containing the graphics I’ll be using into the working presentation file so I don’t have to keep moving back and forth between files.

Taking advantage of Keynote’s vector drawing capabilities lets me create custom design elements for my family history projects. It’s quick, easy and affordable. It’s just one more reason, Keynote’s my scrapbooking platform of choice.

A Markdown Primer

Markdown is a simple way to include formatting options in plain text files. If you’re wondering why this is useful or even important, take a look at this article on Markdown as an archival standard. For me, Markdown has been fun to play with, but I’m finally seeing some very practical solutions. First, there’s the new Day One blogging feature that let’s me quickly and easily send a journal entry to my Day One blog. A few days ago, Dick Eastman mentioned a new Dropbox collaboration feature developed using a service called Sitedrop. When I checked it out, I noticed there were a number of files using the .md file extension meaning they were Markdown files. When I opened one, I was presented with a “web” page.

VERRRRY INTERESTING  . . .

Although I’m getting pretty good at writing (typing) on my iPad, trying to include even the simplest HTML tags in a blog post is a nightmare. WordPress.com supports Markdown for both posts and comments. You’ll find checkboxes in Settings (Writing and Discussion panels) to turn on Markdown. Once activated, you can use it when posting from the WordPress mobile app as well as your desktop browser.

To get started, go find a good Markdown reference (or two) and add them to your Help Desk notebook in Evernote. A quick look shows you how easy it is to use – it’s just a matter of getting in the habit.

WordPress Markdown reference: http://en.support.wordpress.com/markdown-quick-reference/
Day One Markdown reference: https://dayone.zendesk.com/hc/en-us/articles/200265094-Markdown-Guide

Here’s a look at Markdown in a Day One journal entry. In the editor screen you can see the Markdown code hardly impacts the readability of the text (remember it’s still just plain text), but in the reading screen Day One has done the conversion to display formatted text. The journal entry is saved as marked up plain text and converted on the fly for whichever purpose you’ve selected – view, export to PDF or publish to blog. You’ll note that the hashtag in front of the Experiments heading didn’t convert. That’s because I didn’t put a space between it and the text. My bad.

If you’re a “touch typist” you may even find it easier to use Markdown to format text since you don’t have to take your hands off the keyboard to do it. It’s a whole lot easier to add two asterisks before and after text you want bolded than it is to stop, grab the mouse, select the text, click on the bold button then click again to put the cursor back where you left off. However, there is one thing I’ll still do the “standard” way – especially in WordPress – inserting images. I’m still going to have to go through the process of uploading the image so clicking a few options and the insert button is just as easy.

Markdown may not make a big difference here at the Gazette – especially on articles full of examples and other techy things – but I do see it becoming very useful on my personal blogs and in my journaling. Here I’m capturing moments and writing personal stories. Quite often I’m doing this on a mobile device – either my iPhone or iPad. Until now, I would often just add some quick notes and wait until I got to my desktop to write a “proper” story. I still don’t see myself “typing” a thousand-word missive on my iPhone, but that could happen on my iPad – especially with a bluetooth keyboard.

I’m using WordPress and Day One as examples because these platforms are where I spend a lot of my time. There are a growing number of apps and platforms supporting Markdown so this is a topic that won’t be going away anytime soon.

 

Spell-Check is not enough

Whether you’re writing a family history, documenting your research with a blog or creating a family newsletter, you are working as writer, copy editor and publisher. You, the copy editor, need to include plenty of time for proof-reading. Potential problems include:

  • Your spell-checker can do a lot, but it won’t flag you when you typed “fart” and you meant to type “raft”. And, it doesn’t know if you meant “their”, “there” or “they’re”.
  • In addition to typos and grammar issues, you need to insure all your links work – and that they go to the right web pages.
  • Even if you copy/pasted content from another document, check it too. It’s possible you didn’t pick up the first letter or that last period when you made your selection.
  • Speaking of copy/pasting content . . . When copying from a word processing application, you may be copying formatting commands that your blog/email program can’t understand. Often it will try to present that information as text and you may well end up with some very strange characters sprinkled throughout your content.
  • It’s a good idea to proof twice – first within whatever editor you are using and second using your blog’s preview function to see what it will look like once it’s published. This will help insure that images are sized and positioned correctly and that none of those strange characters are trashing your story.

One thing I have learned – the hard way – is that I tend to quickly scan text when I read. I have taken to reading my content aloud when I’m proof-reading since it forces me to look at each word. The dogs are fascinated with my elegant prose while my husband just shakes his head and moves on.

For more good tips on proof-reading content for digital publishing, take a look at the Yahoo! Style Guide. You can visit the online edition or you can keep a print or Kindle copy nearby at all times.