Writers, here’s why you should learn Markdown

As a writer, I’ve become painfully aware that we don’t get many “toys.” Artists have stores devoted to different tools of their trade, while we have… keyboards — maybe some fancy notebooks.

Over the past couple years I’ve come to appreciate Markdown as something that makes my writing more efficient and better for the web. Markdown is a language that parses formatting a lot easier, and makes it simpler to type in code.

Why is this important, you might ask?

Let’s put it this way: the less time you have to worry about how a post is going to look on a site when you’re done with it, the more time you have to work on actually relevant things. Markdown lets you write in plain text to avoid all the stupidity that comes from copy/pasting from a Word or Google Docs document, and lets you control exactly what shows up while being easier to type than HTML.

The other thing about Markdown is that if you use Reddit, you’ve already used it: apart from some syntax that Reddit doesn’t like (namely, inline images), Markdown is the main tool for post formatting.

I simply like it because it minimizes the amount of keystrokes you need to do something, and because it allows me to make posts with confidence, instead of needing to worry about what will copy over.

If you want to make text bold in Markdown, you would surround that texts with two asterisks on either side. In HTML, you would need to type out <strong> tags on each side, and remember to close. Four keystrokes for Markdown (all the same key) versus 17 for HTML.

**Bold text**
vs
<strong>Bold text</strong>

Simple, right?

This gets even better when you either work with a CMS (like Anchor, which this blog uses) that supports Markdown; since the syntax is easy to remember, you can craft a whole post in Notepad and then just copy-paste it over. On CMS’ like WordPress, there are tools (like Showdown & Highlight) that will quickly convert your Markdown to crisp, clean HTML, so you can post it to the source.

The above paragraph, in Markdown.

Limitations

Like any other system, there are going to be some drawbacks with Markdown. The main things for me are images and HTML options.

Images, since they aren’t being integrated into your CMS, need to be added in WordPress, or hosted somewhere beforehand. Since Anchor’s image system doesn’t work very well, I host all the images for this blog on Imgur and reference them with Markdown. However, because of the next problem, I need to make sure they’re the exact dimensions to show up properly on the blog.

HTML options like <a href="http://google.com/" target="blank"></a> or <img src="http://i.imgur.com/008NFf8.gif" width="100%"></img> aren’t possible in Markdown, so you need to go in and manually do them. It’s nice, because any HTML you add to a Markdown document will be translated as normal, but if you’re counting on your CMS to do this stuff for you, you may have to do some memorization.

These shortcomings don’t really keep me from writing every post I do in Markdown, because there’s just a good feeling in knowing that what you write down is what’s going to show up. If you press Enter twice to get to a new paragraph, you will know that it will be surrounded by the proper <p> tags, instead of two <br />‘s.

While that last bit sounds ultra nitpicky, it’s something that tends to matter when you want your blog or site to look consistent and work across multiple platforms.

I’m a big fan of Tinyletter for newsletters, and one of the things a friend brought up to me was that the editor was absolutely terrible for inputting text. Every “Enter” press would be a line break, not a new paragraph, and it could break depending on the platform viewed. With Markdown, I never have to worry about how bad a CMS’ editor is, as long as I can paste HTML somewhere.

This kind of freedom helps so much when it comes to knowing I can write anywhere, and have what I format carry over with no questions asked.

If you’re a writer or blogger, I really urge you to learn Markdown. It will speed up your writing, and give you a degree of control that you probably never knew you valued until it’s taken away. Go nuts.

Word editors that support Markdown:

MarkdownPad is a free Windows program that I use and love. The paid version will even upload images to Imgur for you and fetch the link to use automatically.

Byword for OSX ($5.99) does many of the same things as MarkdownPad, but allows for greater syncing with Dropbox.

Markdown support can be added to Sublime Text for people who use that in their day-to-day.

Showdown & Highlight is a simple Javascript port of Markdown, and is amazing for beginners because the right pane can show you a cheat sheet, a preview of what your text looks like, or the HTML code for easy copy/pasting. Great for converting Markdown to HTML for your blog, if nothing else; doesn’t allow saving, though.

Dillinger.io takes elements of Showdown & Highlight and allows you to save/sync with Dropbox, which might be useful for people on the go. A bit more difficult to get the HTML conversion of a post, though, so I don’t really like it.


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Experiences with the Valve/HTC Vive VR

This past week at The International I managed to get some time with the Valve/HTC virtual reality project, the Vive. I’ve never tried VR before, but tales of friends who have Oculus Rift developer kits and the general progress that the industry has made really got me interested.

The Vive is a combination of a headset/visor and earphones that you wear; it has a “tail” of cables that come out of the back of the visor and really gives the vibe of being plugged into The Matrix; keeping in mind where the cables are when you’re moving around the Vive environment is crucial, not only to break from immersion, but because I wanted to keep from possibly breaking the demo model.

>After signing into a desk for the demo, I was taken into a room alone with the presenter; the room had four laser projectors on poles, which I was told were to coat the activity area with something for the headset to reference. In essence, it was like the Wii, where an IR emitter (the Wii bar) was used with a sensor (in the remote) to determine where you are, what you’re facing, and what to show you. After some research, it looks like these emitters will be mounted on walls in a consumer usecase, because I’d imagine setting them up in a house might be awkward.

Articles have stated that these emitters will be able to sense where objects are in a room and plan accordingly, so you won’t need to have a specific blank space to interact in. If you do reach a boundary inside the demonstration, a grid of light lines comes up, signalling that you’re hitting a “wall”.

Putting on the visor, I was taken into a test environment that had a lobby of different scenarios. It was kind of like the Wii’s home screen, but closer to an art gallery. I was given two controllers, and tested some buttons: eventually a ballon blew out of my left controller, and I was able to bat it around, watch it float upward, and blow new ones. The left controller also had a wheel to choose balloon colours, which was responsive and gave enough feedback that you felt you were actually there.

A large concern for me coming into this demo (and VR in general) was the immersiveness of it. Things like me wearing glasses caused worries that I would not be able to kind of lose myself in what was being presented; that ended up not being a factor at all (here’s a photo that I snuck of me wearing it).

All in all, I do not hesitate to say it was a life-changing experience.

Numerous demos showed off different things. I explored a sunken ship’s bow where minnows swam away from my “hands”, assembled a sandwich in a kitchen to show off interactivity between objects, painted with light in a 3D space and explored a Secret Shop, straight out of Dota 2.

Despite the environments not looking completely photorealistic, everything just kind of sucked me in. The audio and the resolution of the eyepieces were at such high quality that eventually I kind of forgot what I was doing; I was largely pre-occupied with the demos, but I remember having the biggest grin on my face because one of the most attractive tropes of science fiction was actually here.

The controllers have thumb pads for things like menu selection and fine manipulation, as well as side and bottom triggers for things like grip. There was never any virtualization of arms or legs, but sometimes the implements made a big deal, since menus and options were projected onto them.

With the light painting, I could spin menus on my left implement with my right, dabbing as if I was choosing paint off a palette. In the Secret Shop, I got my own light source, and moving it around the environment cast dynamic shadows and could cause reactions from simulated characters.

These moments just felt… amazing. Discovering new things and fighting the conditioning that you’ve learned from “normal” video games was exhilarating: simple things like reaching into a giant soup pot and realizing that there was no awkward collision mechanics just blew my mind.

In that cooking mini-game, I noticed how much I relied on games to fill in complicated blanks, which I actually had to do here. Reaching deep into a pot instead of waiting for an ingredient to snap to my hand, or just not having a “press A to pick up” prompt just felt alien; this is a good thing, because it signals that this medium will actively change how we approach interaction in a digital space, and from a futurism perspective, it’s crazy to think that it will be available now, instead of twenty years.

I know they were just tech demos, but I couldn’t help but think about the possibilities of using a Google Sketchup open-source marketplace to design and publish models that could be brought into a VR environment and then manipulated, annotated, or studied. I thought about the blue whale I saw on the ship’s deck, and how we could simulate an aquarium without the need to house animals.

I thought about the implications of a virtual reality-influenced existence, where people may get addicted to an ideal, controlled environment.

That last point is obviously a job for more accomplished philosophers than me, and is kind of scary to delve into.

This demo instantly made me a believer that VR could be done right, and has kickstarted a little bit of a fire in me. I want to see where this medium goes, and I want to grow up alongside it, so to speak; depending on the price, I might just be an early adopter, but I can’t wait to see what five or ten years will do for it.

Until then, it’s just a matter of waiting.


I’m Matt Demers, and I write about tech, eSports and more. Follow me on Twitter, Twitch and Instagram for more like the post you just read. Subscribe to Matt dot 808, my weekly newsletter, for recommended reading, streaming schedule and mini-thoughts that don’t make it to my blog.

On comics, and evolving tastes

Today I went to TCAF 2015. Usually, it’s a pretty big event during my calendar year; I really love comics, and seeing a lot of independent voices always felt really good.

However, this year it didn’t do a lot for me. It felt weird. I felt a little more detached than I usually do. I wasn’t as excited to experience new things; I found that there was less of the feeling that I was looking forward to.

It’s hard to explain, but my enjoyment of comics has shrank so much in the past year. Choices made by Marvel and DC have pretty much alienated me from anything superhero-related, and I don’t find myself hooked by anything new in the wide-open land of creator owned, or tier 2 publishers like Image, Dark Horse, etc.

Lauded series (Saga, East of West, Sex Criminals) don’t really hold my attention enough to look forward to new issues, and I rarely find myself wanting to binge-read in order to catch up. I’m finding that I only feel a need to keep up in order to be “with it” with current “good” books, but instead of wanting to take part in a community I’m feeling increasingly insular.

The comics I have enjoyed in the last year tend to be “classics”; I read the entirety of Usagi Yojimbo and Akira, and damn, those are some good books. They remind me of good experiences I had in the past, and the lovely release you get when you close the back cover, exhale, and think “that was some shit.”

With modern comics, I’m feeling that less and less.

I’m at the point where I am content to have comics being something I am completely selfish about. No blogging, no discussion, no speculation, no work. No reading blogs about the latest outrage, no worrying whether if it’s my “fault” when a book I’m not interested in fails.

Instead, I’m content to just read what I want, enjoy it how I want, then not talk about it with anyone. While I still like comics, they are no longer a consuming passion that I want to experience in its entirety.

For now, there are parts that I want to keep and cherish, and I’m content doing just that.


Matt Demers is a Toronto writer who works in eSports. You can follow him on Twitter.