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Plain Text – Dylan Beattie – NDC Oslo 2021

NDC Conferences (15.02.2022)

Software is complicated. Machine learning, microservice architectures, message queues… every few months there’s another revolutionary idea to consider, another framework to learn. And underneath so many of these amazing ideas and abstractions is text. When you work in software, you spend your life working with text. Some of those text files are source code, some are configuration files, some of them are documentation. Editors, revision control systems, programming languages – everything from C# and HTML to Git and VS Code is based on the idea of “plain text files”. But… what if I told you there’s no such thing?

When we say something is a “plain text file”, we’re relying on a huge number of assumptions – about operating systems, editors, file formats, language, culture, history… and, most of the time, that’s OK. But when it goes wrong, “plain text” can lead to some of the weirdest bugs you’ve ever seen… why is there Chinese in the event logs? Why is the city of Aarhus in the wrong place? And why does Magnus Mårtensson always have trouble getting into the USA? Join Dylan Beattie for a fascinating look into the hidden world of text files – from the history of mechanical teletypes to encodings, collations and code pages. We’ll look at some memorable bugs, some golden rules for working with plain text – and we’ll even find out the story behind the mysterious phrase “pike matchbox” and what it has do with driving in Belarus.

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