Archive for November 5th, 2006
I just found something that’s amazing in its simplicity, and yet neatly solves a problem. Maybe you’ve sometimes wondered how to markup your email (perhaps in cases where you want the same text to be reusable) and yet retain its readability. (I have a friend who sometimes writes email in TEX markup, which is just incredibly wrong and annoying.) There is a solution that is as close to perfect as imaginable: Markdown. Its Basics page was itself written in Markdown. The syntax is perfectly readable; it is available on Ubuntu and Debian, and can even be generated from HTML, in case one wants to go in the other direction. It even has a Wikipedia article, and (even without looking!) I’m sure it’s the best “lightweight markup language” there is. There seems to be a markdown mode for Vim, but no “standard” mode for Emacs yet. (But with such good and readable syntax, who needs an Emacs mode, anyway?) There is a comparison here. There are converters from MarkDown to other formats (such as LaTeX), see Pandoc (written in Haskell!) and MultiMarkdown.
Another thing that looks impressive (and even more useful, because it is well-integrated into Emacs) is Emacs Muse, can be published to a lot of formats, including DocBook and LaTeX. Documentation here, and someone’s personal notes here.
I haven’t tried either of them yet.
[Update] Emacs Muse is nice, but it’s really not polished enough yet. (Either that, or if it’s not going to change then I don’t like it.) There are no nested lists yet. (It does now.) Markdown says
The overriding design goal for Markdown’s formatting syntax is to make it as readable as possible. The idea is that a Markdown-formatted document should be publishable as-is, as plain text, without looking like it’s been marked up with tags or formatting instructions. While Markdown’s syntax has been influenced by several existing text-to-HTML filters, the single biggest source of inspiration for Markdown’s syntax is the format of plain text email.
That doesn’t seem to be Emacs Muse’s “overriding design goal” to me (I need to figure out why I feel so, but somehow the syntax feels kludgy and seems to have many bad corner cases).
As I see it, the most powerful and compelling features of Emacs Muse are
- The entire publishing system, where you can take a document and publish to multiple formats based on syntax translation rules, keeping a daily journal, etc. (planner-el depends on Emacs Muse for some of its functionality.)
- Its integration with Emacs
Frankly, IMHO, the actual markup language is not one of its greatest features, and it would be great if they used -- or allowed plugging in -- other existing languages.
More specifically, who contributes to the content of an actual Wikipedia page?
Wikipedia says: lots of things boiling down to nothing.
Jimbo Wales says: something like “The idea that a lot of people have of Wikipedia is that it’s some emergent phenomenon — the wisdom of mobs, swarm intelligence, that sort of thing — thousands and thousands of individual users each adding a little bit of content and out of this emerges a coherent body of work. But the truth is rather different: Wikipedia is actually written by a community … a dedicated group of a few hundred volunteers… I know all of them and they all know each other. Really, it’s much like any traditional organization.” (not his actual words, but somewhat close)
However, Aaron Swartz finds out, and describes in an excellent article, that the truth is that
- most of an article’s content is written by occasional Wikipedia contributors most of whose (very few) edits are probably on just that page (and perhaps related ones), and
- most of an article’s edits are made by regular Wikipedia contributors, who probably make minor changes such as formatting.
[After this, Slashdot says: the usual hodepodge of good, bad and funny, as usual. Also, some responses are collected here.]
This makes sense: people good at one particular subject write on Wikipedia on that topic, and people involved in Wikipedia, and aware of its syntax and conventions, make most of the edits. Which is why, if you use “number of edits” as a metric for contributions to Wikipedia (as Wales did), you will find that most of the edits are made by the regulars, a fact that, although true, obscures the equally true fact that most of the content comes from others.
(I don’t mean to say that the “minor fixes” contributors are less important than the others; in fact I’m one of them. :-) )
Offtopic: A random interview.