January 12, 2008

Someday like seas

January 12, 2008 - Categories: sketches

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How I got hooked

January 12, 2008 - Categories: emacs, planner, wickedcoolemacs

I fell in love with Emacs because of Planner and Remember. I got hooked. By that, I mean that I discovered the joys of modifying the behavior of other people’s code through hooks. Well-written Emacs code has plenty of entry points so that you can change things without rewriting everything, and both Planner and Remember were well-written. The flexibility that John Wiegley had built into Planner and Remember (in his spare time!) convinced me that I absolutely needed to learn Emacs Lisp. I e-mailed John, singing high praises about Planner and volunteering to help track down any bug reports so that I could learn in the process of helping others.

What did he do? He made me the maintainer for Planner, the go-to person, the buck-stops-here person. Was I terrified? My first time being in charge of an open source project, a language that I had just begun to learn, and schoolwork to do on top of all of that… Of course I was scared. I found a way to make working on Planner part of my final-year project (might as well get academic credit for hacking on it!), made the Emacs Lisp Intro and the Emacs Lisp manuals my weekend, bedtime, and mealtime reading. Back then, Planner.el was one file, which made it a little less intimidating.

At first, I found it hard to think of a way to improve Planner, which was already a great way to track my tasks. Remember was also a good way to jot down short notes that were automatically added to my Planner day page. Both Planner and Remember had some support for picking up hyperlinks to whatever I was looking at when I created the task or note. What was missing? Timestamps so that I could tell when I wrote a note; more link support so that I could automatically link to a file or a mail message or a contact record; private, perhaps even encrypted segments; copying a note to another page; publishing a blog as RSS… For the next few years, I worked with incredible people who had thought
long and hard about how they managed their tasks and their notes, and
who taught me how they did things through their feature requests and
their code. I became more comfortable in Emacs Lisp than in any other computer language I knew (eventually maintaining Remember as well), I had formed a thriving community of about 200 people around the world who also contributed ideas and code, and I was hooked.

Because I could change so much about Emacs, I had so much fun
coming up with creative applications. When a friend and I
were studying Japanese, she wanted to know if I could set up Emacs with
flashcards and example sentences so that we could learn words in
context. I knew that Jim Breen had a huge database of example Japanese
sentences with their English translations and that this was freely
available on the Net. I downloaded the database and–one crazy idea
fueled by another in that natural sugar high that can happen when two
geeks start brainstorming–I made our learning fun by
extracting all the cat- and kitten-related sentences. This is how I
learned about such wonderfully onomatopeic words as “fuwafuwashita”,
which means “fluffy”. We both adored cute little kitties, and reading
example sentences about these furballs would make our studies
delightful. Now, where could we put these sentences so that we’d run
into them often? Aha! Remember! Every time we wrote a blog post or
needed a scratch pad to store some information, we would be rewarded by a
short sentence in Japanese about cute little kittens, and we could look
up the meaning and pronunciation with custom keyboard shortcuts. And
hey, it worked for me–I found myself writing because I wanted to see
what sentence would come up, and I found myself learning because I’d
run into all these cool words. For variety, I switched to sentences
about computers and other topics that I wanted to be able to discuss.
Try getting your blog editor or note manager to reward you each time you share a story or write down a tidbit of information. There is incredible power in customizing your note-taking system to just the way you think, and when you combine that with the delight of a surprise, you have something that is difficult to do with any other system–paper-based or electronic, text-based or graphical, commercial or free.

I turned the projects over to other maintainers when I started with graduate school, but as you can see, I still love working with Emacs. My mind does this little somersault of joy when I pull off a particularly nifty tweak or when I run across a beautiful piece of code. And yes, one of the reasons why I’m writing this book about Emacs is because I’d love to have an opportunity to explore all the nooks and crevices of this piece of software–well, not all, because by the time the book hits press, people will have added even more.

In this chapter on notetaking, I hope to be able to show you the mechanics of note-taking in Emacs–but more than that, I hope to show the sheer joy of having a system that you can play with, of not just filing notes in a database but M-x remember-ing in a system that will make you smile or laugh, of shaping and reshaping things until they fit you like clay fits your hand. Come and have fun.