Markdown Cheat Sheet

If you've listened to Ministry Bits for any amount of time and you have read anything about how I like to handle text, you'll know that I love to write in Markdown. And Beegit has an excellent little cheat sheet I saw today for help in writing simpler and better.

Markdown is a simple way of styling plain text. So instead of having a .txt file, you will have a .md file that can be styled yet still be opened with any app, virtually forever. The short story is that I write in plain text/markdown because I can open the same files ten years from now. All the things I've written in MS Word in high school are completely inaccessible now, and I don't like that.

Markdwon is easy. For example, putting a single hashtag (#) before a heading makes it an H1 heading, the biggest heading. Putting two hashtags makes it an H2, a slightly smaller heading that can be used as a subheading. One asterisk indicates italics while two asterisks tells you it's bold.

Go ahead and check out Beegit's Markdown Cheat Sheet and fire up your favorite text editor (I love Brackets for Mac) and get started with Markdown today. Write simpler, write better.

Ten Years with the Mac: My Most Valuable Tool in Ministry

My first Mac - a Mac mini desktop. 2005.

My first Mac - a Mac mini desktop. 2005.

People are always asking me: "why should I use a Mac?" I get calls from youth ministers, ministers, and church workers of all types about why they should go to a Mac. There's no really simple answer to this question.

10 years ago, I decided that I wanted to purchase a Mac. My first Mac computer of my own was a Mac Mini with a half a gig of RAM, which, in hindsight, wouldn't run anything today. I was able to get it used for about $450, got my own keyboard, mouse, and monitor and set out into the great undiscovered country. And I've never looked back.

There's no simple answer to why you should move to a Mac because there are many answers.

Apple's design is unmatched. Even hardcore Windows users will agree with that. The current aluminum designs have evolved over the last ten years to produce sleek and powerful computers. Yes, Apple may be obsessed with thinness, but can't argue that they have the best designed hardware in the biz.

It doesn't run Windows. When I left Windows a decade ago, XP was going on six years old. Microsoft was clearly riding the coattails and not innovating. I know some Windows users will scoff at my supposed shot over the bow, but the Microsoft ecosystem was seriously lacking in 2005. Office was confusing, XP was old. One of the biggest advantages for the Mac was that it didn't run Windows. When you control the hardware and the software on your machines, there's a lot you can do to maximize the experience. At this point 10 years ago, Apple was iterating and innovating on OSX, and I came in at OSX 10.3 Panther. That was seven versions ago. Safari was brand new. Wow.

In my humble opinion, OSX is far superior to Windows, even the new(ish) Windows 8. Although, I must admit that Windows is coming up again, not in market share, but in public opinion. Why is OSX superior in my mind? The sleekness. The speed. The stability. The only time OSX has crashed on me was when I did something I wasn't supposed to do on the machine.

The premium price tag is an illusion. You buy $9 shoes at Target and your feet are going to hurt. You get what you pay for. Same for computers. You may buy one Apple laptop for $1200, but how long will you keep that machine in the same time frame that you would have have two Windows machines? Or three?

Macs aren't as likely to get viruses. This isn't a myth, and this isn't something touted by Apple either. At the time of this writing, Windows holds a firm 85% market share in personal computers. That means that only 13-15% of the rest of the computers on the planet are Macs. So if you were writing a virus, which platform would you write for? The one who's odds are 8 out of 10 or 2 out of 10? Simple math will tell you that's why more viruses are on Windows.

High-quality software and apps. I haven't been on the Windows side of computing since I graduated from college, so I can't speak to the quality of Windows apps. But I can for Mac and iOS apps. The Mac App Store may not get the press that the iOS App Store does, but it has had as a huge an impact on how I work just as iOS has. Apps like TextExpander and 1Password, apps that I couldn't imagine working without, aren't available on Windows. Plus, where else are you going to find a Word Processor (Pages), a phenomenal PowerPoint replacement (Keynote), and a powerful spreadsheet app (Numbers) - all for FREE? These apps, along with GarageBand (audio editing) and iMovie (video editing that borders on professional-grade) are also made available for free.

Those are my answers for why I use a Mac. I'm not an Apple elitist, I just want to use the best tools for the job that I'm doing - and ministry is the most important job there is. Other than the Word of God itself and the people in the church, my Mac is the most important tool I use in my ministry to communicate, design, and move.

Preaching from a 5.5-inch iPhone

The supposed 4.7- and 5.5-inch iPhone 6 to be announced next week. Source

If the overwhelming rumors hold true, Apple will announce not one, but two new iPhones next week at their special event in California: an newly-designed iPhone 6, one with a 4.7-inch display and one with a 5.5-inch display.

If you take a ruler to your current iPhone, it's just 4 inches diagonally. Now expand that out to 4.7 and 5.5 inches. You'll see that the 5.5-inch phone is much bigger. You get a whole lot more screen real estate with 5.5 inches.

Which brings up an interesting question - if you use an iPad mini to preach from, would you consider using a 5.5-inch iPhone to do the same thing?

I would. And I'm planning to. And here's why.

1) One device, not two. Right now I have the trifecta - the iPhone, iPad mini and my Macbook Pro. But I would love to trim that down to just two devices - my iPhone and Macbook. I use the three devices I have now for very different things. I use the phone for taking pictures, checking Twitter, taking down quick notes, and oh - texting and talking on the phone. I use the iPad mini to preach from, and I've found myself not using the iPad mini as much as I've wanted to. I surf the web and read a lot on my laptop versus my iPad. I write and watch videos on my laptop. I'm not much of a digital reader so I don't use the iPad for that (plus I do most of my reading right before bed, and they say that looking at screens before bed leads to sleep problems).

2) It won't be a 'blown-up' iPhone. Apple wouldn't do that (or at least I hope they wouldn't). They didn't just blow up iOS to fit on an iPad, they made a different interface for it. The 5.5-inch iPhone, whether it comes out 10 days after the announcement or not until 2015, will have a different kind of OS. In my opinion, it will still run on iOS of course, but it will be some kind of hybrid between iPad and iPhone views. Don't ask me to explain all of that, I just think that's what Apple will do with it.

3) The resolution will be crazy high. And that will lead to great looking text - at any size. Whether you're looking at Evernote, Simplenote, or a PDF in Goodreader, it's going to look fantastic. Text will be able to be resized to whatever you want it to be.

Are there trade-offs to a huge iPhone? Why sure. For one, you look wacky with the thing on your ear talking on the phone. Like holding small Bible to your head. Another thing would be how portable it is - will it fit in your pocket?

But to me, having one device that has everything I need and is big enough so that I can preach and teach from it will be invaluable to me.

What do you think? Sound off in the comments.

Maybe One Solution Isn't The One Solution

For the last year, I have been looking, searching, researching, trying out, and tweaking what I thought might have been the one solution to my workflow woes. You see, what I want isn't hard - a simple synching solution for me to be able to compose classes and sermons on my computer (or iPad mini) and have them sync to my two other devices. I had some criteria when I began this mission:

1. It must sync to my iPad mini, because I do all my teaching and preaching from it. Additionally, it must look great and I must be able to format it in a way that I can easily glance at my notes when presenting. 

2. It must be on iOS. A companion Mac app would be helpful, but not essential. iPhone app is also not optional as I do a lot of tweaking on the go. 

3. It must be simple. No crazy layouts or unnecessary button on the app - just...simple. 

So, I narrowed my list down to three applications for my workflow: Evernote, Simplenote, and Plain Text. 

 

Evernote

Evernote seems like it's been around a long time, and that's because it has. It is a service that has never been accused of standing still. Evernote continually pushes new designs, additions, and features to its suite of apps which now include Penultimate and Skitch

Pros: Evernote is very well designed. The iPad app is beautiful on a retina iPad mini screen (and on the iPad Air as well). The apps are designed to easily do what you want to do: capture anything and everything. Evernote can capture text, pictures, voice memos, and even has embedded To-Do lists. It allows rich-text editing (bold, italics and such). It syncs fast across all devices, has a Mac and Windows app, and is also cross-platform on Android and Windows Phone as well. 

The Evernote iPad app is gorgeous. 

Cons: For me, it seems a bit too much. I don't often need to capture photos and voice memos, only text. So I end up completely ignoring those features, mostly because I refuse to pay for a premium account ($5/month or $45/year). I did have a premium account for six months and didn't use the features. While it's a great app for 90% of people, a power user like myself who wants simplicity above all else isn't going to be using it very much. Still a great app though. 

 

Simplenote

Appropriately named, Simplenote is just what it says it is - simple note syncing across devices. I was just about ready to declare this platform dead when Simplenote relaunched with a new web design and app design as well as an introduction of a dedicated Mac app. I really thought this was going to be my solution. 

Pros: Extremely simple and well designed. Fonts and text look great and a retina MacBook Pro and retina iPad mini. The app is active in development and syncs well with other devices. There is no clutter to deal with in these apps - they simply allow you to compose notes, title them, tag them, export them, and pin them to the top of your list. Composing and writing in these apps (as well as the Mac app) is a joy. 

Simplenote for Mac. 

Cons: It's almost too simple. Simplenote allows no formatting of any type and does not support Markdown editing, so if you want to style your text at all, you are limited to bullet points, numbering, and capitalizations. This sounded great in theory but I've noticed if I can't bold some text or make section headings bigger in my notes then I frequently lose my place while teaching and preaching because all the text looks the same. Tagging is great, and if tagging is your thing, you're going to love this app. If it's not, stay away, because that's the only amount of organization you get from Simplenote. All you have is a long running list of your notes, in order of what was last edited first. There's the option to 'Pin to Top' which comes in very handy.

I've run into some sync issues (as late as Oct-Nov 2013), but most of those seem to have been ironed out. The apps still crash on me frequently (once to twice a week) - I don't think a day or two goes by that the Mac app hasn't quit for no apparent reason and once the iPad app crashed on me while scrolling and preaching in front of hundreds of people (ack!). The iPhone app has a bad bug where it will crash when trying to sort changes in a note. I know developers are active on this app and I love Simplenote, I just cannot afford to use something that's unreliable. If the apps were stable enough, I might have this as my go-to platform. 

 

Plain Text

And here we are, talking about the joys of plain text once again. I really don't know why I migrated away from plain text, but it seems that my search has brought me full circle, back to where I started. 

You may read this and discount the plain text preference as an uber-nerd thing, but, in fact, it's really not. It just works. 

Pros: You can use a variety of text editors on all devices and plain text formats, including regular ol' .txt, Markdown, or Multi-Markdown. Markdown allows you to style your text how you want without changing to rich-text format. It uses simple symbols like asterisks to indicate bold and italics and hashtags to indicate headlines. Comes in handy when you get it down. The app I love to use on the iPad is Editorial, and on the Mac it's Byword. You can usually sync these apps to Dropbox and keep them in nested folders, easily categorizing what you need where you need it. Apps like Editorial, Nebulous Notes, and Byword are minimalistic and usually offer inline Markdown support, so you can see your bold and italics and headlines while writing. Best of all, plain text is future proof and my files are not tied to any platform, so I can move them around as I please. 

Editorial for iPad. 

Cons: No simple "Compose it and forget it" syncing. Syncing is pretty painless, but requires a little bit of file management as well. Syncing isn't instantaneous unless you save your files in the app you're using. So unlike Simplenote and Evernote, you can't just sync and go. Plain text may not appeal to many people because it's not as simple to set up as other services. There's an extra added step when syncing to Dropbox, and you must know where your text repository folder is located. 

So looking at these three platforms, jumping back and forth between using them for the last year, I realized that there really is no "one solution" for capturing all my thoughts, pictures, and text (long or short). One solution is finding a small, precise suite of apps that fit your purposes. I'll use Editorial and Byword for all my writing (70% of the time), Simplenote for lists and occasional text capture (20% of the time), and Evernote for pics and logs (10% of the time). 

For me at least, one solution ends up being three solutions. 

iPad Mini: The Ultimate Preaching & Teaching Tool

Ever since the "big" iPad debuted in 2010, I'm sure that there were a ton of posts (and probably still are) that the iPad was the ultimate tool for preaching and teaching. 

But I haven't read any of those articles, because for a long time, I didn't have an iPad. In 2012, I picked up an iPad, my wife and son fell in love with it, so I used that excuse to get an iPad mini. 

I love the smaller form factor. I love that its the size of my Bible. I love that the screen is the same resolution as the iPad 2, except packed into a smaller size. 

And I haven't used paper ever since. 

My iPad mini coupled with my Bible is all I need to teach a full-length class or preach a standard 30-minute sermon. I've went through many different workflows to perfect my process. And I'd love to share it with you. 

PDF to Dropbox

My first workflow with the iPad involved me styling a pretty document in Pages on the Mac and exporting it to PDF to a specified folder in my Dropbox. With it there, I could use a variety of apps (including the Dropbox app itself) to view the PDF for teaching my class. 

This was a clunky solution. Although pretty, the PDF wasn't editable. I couldn't add or delete content on the go, I would have to open the original document, edit it, re-export the PDF, and sync the changes across my devices. I grew tired of this workflow very quickly. 

Evernote

The second app/workflow I tried was Evernote. Evernote is an excellent all-capture app for things such as text, photos, and even audio. For a while this worked - I was able to write my class notes in the Evernote app for Mac, and after a few seconds the changes would sync to my devices. The problem here though is that I had a WiFi-only iPad mini. Unless the notes are cached and ready to go, it's not possible to pull them up on the go unless you have tethering to your smartphone. (You also run into roadblocks with this in almost every other syncing method, by the way.)

Had I stuck with my Nexus 7 and with Android, I would have stuck with Evernote, and I probably would have been happy. 

Simplenote

Very similar to Evernote in my opinion, except Simplenote is just for text. There's a couple of ways you could compose your material - through the very nice Simplenote interface on the web or through a number of apps such as Brett Terpstra's NV Alt, or with the dedicated iPhone and iPad apps. I didn't have too good of luck with Simplenote, despite loving the service, because I'm a bit too organized for it. Simplenote maintains that you should organize through a tagging system, and while I love tags, I had no need for it in my folder-by-month file structure for all my class and sermon notes. 

Simplenote is excellent for quick notes, and will even sync via my beloved Drafts app, but  that's all I currently use it for. 

.txt to Elements in Dropbox

My current workflow my not seem as simple as some of the others, but it allows me the most flexibility and is, in fact, incredibly simple and automated. I was hesitant to implement this workflow because I thought it may be too complicated, but it turns out that it's right the opposite. 

I compose my lessons in TextEdit on the Mac (or any other text editor that will save as or export to .txt format) and simply save them into the appropriate sub folder in my Elements folder, which is housed in my main Dropbox folder. Writing in plain text (.txt) allows lots of flexibility - namely file size, transfer times, and the ability to edit pretty much anywhere. 

I use the Elements app on my iPad to display my material to teach my classes. Elements will cache that folder's contents on wifi and will allow you pull up the latest version even if the app hasn't connected for a while. If you make changes though, you will have to refresh the file list. But on wifi and even over cell phone signal, this is incredibly quick considering file sizes are a tenth of the size of Pages or Word files. The app will also allow you to create a new text file in the file directory that you wish and will sync that file with Dropbox once a connection becomes available again. 

Elements does allow limited styling of your text through Markdown. If you don't know what Markdown is, it's just a neat HTML-like way to style plain text, with headline sizes, bold, italics, and bullet points. Elements will also allow you to change font sizes as well as pick from many nice fonts to display your text. 

This current workflow seems to be working, because I haven't changed it in the last 12 months. 

I love my iPad and I love the flexibility it gives me to edit my lessons on the go and compose them wherever I want. With 3 apps - Elements, Dropbox, and Drafts - I control my own creativity when and where I want to edit and create new thoughts. 

What about you? What do you use when you preach or teach?