January 13, 2008

Bulk view

Weekly review: Week ending January 13, 2008

This week was a week for catching up with coworkers. Aaron Kim got back from his vacation and took off again for another trip spreading the good news about IBM and Web 2.0 in London. Fortunately, I caught him at 120 Bloor on Monday. I also chatted with Bernie Michalik about writing (apparently, I say “Good stuff” just about every post on our team blog, The Orange Chair). And I welcomed Jen Nolan back from mat leave by treating her to lunch and thanking her for the career advice she gave me last year. =) Good times.

I’ve also made a lot of progress on the wiki that I’m building for a financial services company. I’m proud of the way it’s shaping up: a guide for internal consultants, a guide for community core team members, and a guide for other employees using these social media tools (blogs, wikis, forums). I like the way that it’s not just about how to use these tools – click this, type in that – but also how people can use the tools together to do what they want to do.

I joined another IBMer for an interview with a reporter from a major business magazine who was writing an article on these “water-cooler technologies”. I’m thrilled every time I get an opportunity to tell people about some of the cool stuff we’re doingbeing. And last Friday, another person got in touch with me to ask permission to quote me in the annual report of a project I love. Wow! There’s something powerful about being vocal about appreciation.

On the personal side, I went to the dentist and had a lot of fun
chatting with the person who scrubbed my teeth. =) It turns out that
my wisdom teeth will probably need to be removed, as they’re growing
all funny. In other news, the glasses that I ordered from
Zenni Optical have left Hong Kong and
should be on their way to Canada.

More progress on the book. I’ve started on the chapter on taking notes, and I have about 3000 words so far. My target is 12,000 words, or about 35 pages. I plan to finish it by January 31, according to my original schedule. I’m averaging about 1000 words a day, but I should find a way to resist the temptations of Lego Star Wars DS. It’ll be easier to write when J-‘s distracted by other things! I have 9 writing days, if I alternate writing with editing and other things I need to do. This is doable. Fun, even. =)

(See, I’m getting the hang of this! Next step: graphs…)

W- and J- are doing fine. W-‘s been cooking up a storm, and he’s now baking some egg tarts. (Home-made egg tarts! I’m so spoiled.) I made up for a little of it by exercising earlier, but I really need to keep it up, considering how fun food is around here…

I was glad to have had the opportunity to talk to one of my best friends when she was feeling really really homesick. She’s studying at Purdue right now, and she really misses home. Her advisor is open to her working from the Philippines, and I hope everything works out with her department.

It was fun chatting with my parents, too. W-, J-, and I are planning
to fly to the Philippines for two weeks this March, and we’re starting
to plan what to see. I hope we’re not too late to book flights to

Oh, and I’ve overcontributed to my RRSP, but I haven’t gone over the lifetime limit yet (whew!). Now I have to figure out the best non-registered way to save for my retirement so that I can gradually push my retirement age further and further back. (I should put together some kind of spreadsheet that calculates this for me…) I suppose I _could_ find a financial advisor, but he or she would have to be able to tell me stuff that I haven’t read in the dozens of books I’ve read on personal finance. Good stuff, mind you, not things like “Go into daytrading” or “Pick this high-MER loaded mutual fund that’ll give me plenty of commissions.” Oh, and a financial advisor who’s used
to dealing with people who aren’t panicking about debt, and who are interested in planning long-term.

Or maybe I should just learn to do everything myself, because financial planning is, after all, a lifelong skill. My books are all nicely balanced, although I had to create a slide deck to remind
myself exactly how my budgeting system works. That’s _probably_ a sign that it can be simplified further. It seems to work. I just have to trust it. Actually, the next step would be to use invariants (thank you, Problem Solving and Methods of Proof, and numerous other computer science and math courses!) to _prove_ that it’s correct. I will explain this in another post. =)

So that’s where I am in terms of work, health, book, family and friends, and money. There are lots of other stories to tell, but this is just a quick overview of where I am.

Next week: More wiki work. It would be great if I could find other people to contribute to it, as I get lots of great ideas by bouncing them off others. I also need to start on my US visa paperwork for a
conference I want to attend in April, and I need to do some more work
on my permanent residency application (applying for clearances
everywhere I’ve ever lived, and following up on employment
confirmation with my old department).

Life is good.

Random Emacs symbol: w3m-add-local-hook – Function: Add to the buffer-local value of HOOK the function FUNCTION.

Capturing Notes with Remember

Ideas come from everywhere. While reading this blog, you might come across interesting snippets that you’d like to save. While writing code, you might be hit by an idea for something you want to do with the program. While on a phone call, you might need to write down what you need to prepare for a meeting the next day.

How do you take notes now? Do you jot your notes on a scrap of paper or into a leather notebook? Do you copy and paste what you’re looking at into a plain text file or document? Do you scribble things into a personal digital assistant?

I’ve tried different note-taking strategies: colorful mindmaps, outlined text files, even voice recordings. I felt frustrated every time I had to write down whose e-mail or which webpage prompted the note (shouldn’t the computer do that automatically?), but I was even more frustrated when I’d come across a note and not remember why I wrote it.

Remember changed all that for me. The key ideas behind Remember are that you should be able to write notes with minimal distraction, and that as the context should be automatically picked up so that you don’t have to write it down. If you’re writing a note based on a mail message, Remember will pick up the details of the message and create a hyperlink so that you can view the original message when reviewing your notes. If you’re working on a file, Remember will link to it so that you can jump back to it. If you’re browsing a web page (in Emacs, of course), Remember will remember the title and URL, so that you can go back to the page when you want to clarify something in your notes. After you save the note, you’ll be back in the same environment you were: no need to switch applications and no need to remember different keyboard shortcuts.

You might think that Remember’s only worth it if you do _everything_ in Emacs. For me, it worked the other way around. I started by using Remember to take notes in Planner, a personal information manager available for Emacs. As I got accustomed to the way Remember and Planner just automatically hyperlinked to whatever I was looking at, I thought: Why doesn’t my mail client do this? Why doesn’t my web browser do this? Why doesn’t my chat client do this? So I ended up reading through the manuals, figuring out how to do all these things in Emacs—and I loved it, eventually doing most of my work (and play!) within an Emacs frame. Although I use other applications now, like Lotus Notes for work mail and Mozilla Firefox for browsing, I still switch back to Emacs for my notes.

In this section, you’ll learn how to set up Remember and take quick notes in Emacs. We’ll start by configuring Remember to save your notes to a file, and how to configure Remember to save to different places depending on the content. You’ll also learn how to quickly search your notes file for entries.

You can also integrate Remember into other note-taking systems in Emacs. The sections that cover those systems will also show you how to configure Remember to save your notes there.

Setting Up Remember

Remember is a separate package, which you can download from https://gna.org/projects/remember-el . As of this writing, the latest stable release is Remember 1.9. Download the latest version and unpack it into your ~/elisp directory. You should end up with a new directory, ~/elisp/remember-1.9 .

To configure Remember to save to plain text files, add this code to your ~/.emacs and evaluate it:

(add-to-list 'load-path "~/elisp/remember-1.9") ;; (1)
(require 'remember-autoloads)
(setq remember-data-file "~/notes.txt")  ;; (2)
(global-set-key (kbd "C-c r") 'remember) ;; (3)

(defun wicked/remember-review-file ()
 "Open `remember-data-file'."
 (find-file-other-window remember-data-file))
(global-set-key (kbd "C-c R") 'wicked/remember-review-file) ;; (4)
;; Not (global-set-key (kbd "C-c r")... as originally written... Thanks for catching that, Seth!

  • 1: Change this to the directory that contains remember.el
  • 2: Notes will be saved to this file. You can change this if you want; just keep in mind that this section refers to ~/notes.txt.
  • 3: C-c r (remember) is a handy shortcut key for remember. You can also bind it to other shortcut keys such as F9 r.
  • 4: This shortcut makes it easy to check your remembered notes.

After you’ve configured Remember, try it out by typing C-c r (remember). Your Emacs frame will be split in two, and one of the windows will be a *Remember* buffer. Type your note. The first line will be the headline, and the rest of the buffer will be the body of the note. If you call C-c r (remember) from a file, the filename will automatically be included at the end of the buffer. Type C-c C-c (remember-buffer) to save the note.

Try it now by typing C-c r (remember) to bring up the buffer, typing in a short note, and using C-c c (remember-buffer) to save it. If you open ~/notes.txt to review your note, you’ll find something like this:

 ** Sat Jan 12 14:43:02 2008 (Your headline goes here)

 Your note body goes here


You can even save yourself some copying and pasting. Mark a region of text and use C-u C-c r (remember). The selected text will be included in the buffer, so all you have to do is comment on it.

Make a habit of typing C-c C-r or C-u C-c C-r (remember) when you need to remember something. Type C-c C-c (remember-buffer) to get back to work, knowing that your notes have been safely saved in your ~/notes.txt file.

Reviewing Your Notes

Use C-c R (wicked/remember-review-file) to check your notes, or open ~/notes.txt yourself.
To search your notes, use C-c R (wicked/remember-review-file) to open the file, then use C-s (isearch-forward) to search for words interactively, or use M-x occur to find all lines containing a word.

You may notice that the default format that Remember uses is an outline format that is compatible with Org and Allout, both of which have powerful outline-editing tools. I prefer Org’s outline-editing commands, and you’ll learn about them in the “Outline Notes with Org” section. Here’s a quick summary.

First, you need to switch the buffer to Org mode by typing M-x org-mode. To automatically open your notes file in Org mode, add

-*- mode: org -*-

to the first line of your ~/notes.txt. Then, when you open your ~/notes.txt file, it will be in Org mode.

You can quickly collapse or expand all the outline entries by pressing S-TAB (org-shifttab). To collapse or expand a single entry, move the point to the headline (the line beginning with *, **, or any number of asterisks), then press TAB (org-cycle). To move an entry up or down, move the point to the headline and press S-UP (org-shiftup) or S-DOWN (org-shiftdown). To demote or promote a heading, press M-RIGHT (org-metaright) or M-LEFT (org-metaleft).

You can treat ~/notes.txt as your inbox, and keep your organized notes in another file or groups of files. Cut and paste the text between the files to clear your inbox, and use M-x grep to search multiple files. Alternatively, you can keep all of your notes in one large text file, and use C-s (isearch-forward) and M-x occur to search for information.

Now you know the basics of remembering information, saving it into a file, and reviewing the file. By default, Remember annotates your notes with a filename, if you were looking at a file when you called C-c r (remember). As you learn more about Emacs, you may want to configure Remember to add more intelligent annotations and other text to the Remember buffer. The more work Remember does for you, the less work you have to do!

Enabling annotation functions

The easiest way to get Remember to automatically understand mail messages, Web pages, info files, BBDB contact records, and other sources of information in Emacs is to use either Org or Planner. To learn how to integrate Remember with either Org or Planner, read the section on “Outline Your Notes with Org” and “Writing Your Journal with Planner”.

You can also define your own annotation functions. When you call C-c r (remember) from a buffer, Remember goes through each of the functions in remember-annotation-functions, and it uses the first non-nil value returned.

For example, you may work with many temporary buffers that don’t have filenames. To create an annotation function that adds buffer names, add the following code to your ~/.emacs after the basic Remember configuration code:

(eval-after-load 'remember
    (add-to-list 'remember-annotation-functions 'buffer-name t)))

This adds buffer-name to the end of the annotation list, making it a last resort.

What if you want line numbers included with the filename or buffer name? You could replace the previous code with this:

(defun wicked/remember-line-numbers-and-file-names ()
 "Return FILENAME line NUMBER."
   (format " %s line %d"
    (or (buffer-file-name) (buffer-name))
(eval-after-load 'remember
     (add-to-list 'remember-annotation-functions

With that code, C-c r (remember) will automatically pick up the line number from your file or buffer.

By default, Remember saves your notes to a plain-text file, so you’ll have to open the files manually. The command M-x ffap or find-find-file-at-point may be convenient. If you want hyperlinks that you can visit easily, consider saving your notes in an Org or Planner file instead.

Now you’ve got context. What else can you do with the Remember buffer?

Adding Other Text to the Remember Buffer

Remember has plenty of hooks that let you modify the behavior. For example, you might want to insert a random tagline or fortune-cookie saying whenever you create a note. This is a fun way to encourage yourself to write more, because then there’s a little surprise every time you open a Remember buffer.

Here is a totally small-scale way to use random lines from a text file. Let’s say that you have a text file made up of movie quotes, taglines, knock-knock jokes, or short fortune-cookie sayings. When I wrote this code, I used Japanese/English sentence pairs about cats, because I was studying Japanese. You can use whatever tickles your fancy, as long as this text file (~/taglines.txt) has one line per saying.

(defun wicked/random-tagline (&optional file)
  "Return a random tagline."
  (with-current-buffer (find-file-noselect (or file "~/taglines.txt"))
    (goto-char (random (point-max)))
    (let ((string
           (buffer-substring (line-beginning-position)

(eval-after-load 'remember
     (defadvice remember (after wicked activate)
       "Add random tagline."
         (goto-char (point-max))
         (insert "\n\n" (wicked/random-tagline) "\n\n")))))

If you want multi-line sayings, look into the Emacs fortune cookie package, and replace wicked/random-tagline with a function that returns a random string.

This code modifies the behavior of C-c r (remember) by inserting a random tagline after the buffer has been prepared. You can use the same idea to insert a timestamp noting the time you started, use a template, or modify the text in other ways.

Saving to Different Places

You can also change how Remember saves its notes. For example, if you want all of the notes that contain the word “:EMACS:” or “:WORK:” to go into separate files, you can add this code to your ~/.emacs:

(defvar wicked/remember-keywords
  '((":EMACS:" . "~/emacs.txt")
    (":WORK:" . "~/work.txt"))
  "*List of (REGEXP . FILENAME).
If an entry matches REGEXP, it will be storied in FILENAME.
The first regular expression that matches is used.")
(eval-after-load 'remember
     (defadvice remember-region (around wicked activate)
       "Save notes matching `wicked/remember-keywords' elsewhere."
       (let* ((b (or beg (min (point) (or (mark) (point-min)))))
	      (e (or end (max (point) (or (mark) (point-max)))))
	      (string (buffer-substring-no-properties b e))
	      (done nil)
	      (keywords wicked/remember-keywords))
	 (while keywords
	   (when (string-match (caar keywords) string)
	     (let ((remember-data-file (cdar keywords)))
	     (setq keywords nil done t))
	   (setq keywords (cdr keywords)))
	 (unless done

You can even configure Remember to use different handler functions. This chapter covers several note-taking systems for Emacs, and you may want to use Remember to save to more than one note-taking system. For example, you can set up C-c r p to start a Remember buffer that saves to Planner, and C-c r o to start a Remember buffer that saves to Org. Here’s the code for your ~/.emacs:

(defun wicked/remember-to-org ()
  "Remember to Org."
  (let ((remember-annotation-functions   ;; (1)
	 (cons 'org-remember-annotation
    (set (make-variable-buffer-local
	 '(org-remember-handler))))      ;; (2)

(defun wicked/remember-to-planner ()
  "Remember to Planner."
  (let ((remember-annotation-functions   ;; (3)
	 (append planner-annotation-functions
    (set (make-variable-buffer-local
	 '(remember-planner-append))))      ;; (4)

(global-unset-key (kbd "C-c r"))  ;; (5)
(global-set-key (kbd "C-c r o") 'wicked/remember-to-org)
(global-set-key (kbd "C-c r p") 'wicked/remember-to-planner)
  • 1: We need to make sure that Org-compatible links are created.
  • 2: This makes C-c C-c save the note to the Org file.
  • 3: Planner uses a list of annotation functions, so we add all of them to the beginning of the list.
  • 4: This makes C-c C-c save the note to the Planner page.
  • 5: We need to unset keyboard shortcuts before we can set longer keyboard shortcuts that start with the same sequence.

To learn more about configuring Remember with the different note-taking systems, read the sections for those systems.

On Technorati: , , ,

Random Emacs symbol: compilation-find-file – Function: Find a buffer for file FILENAME.

Lego Star Wars

I was really going to spend some more time writing today. I’d gotten to 1083 words already. Then we discovered the joys of Lego Star Wars.

Now I have to tell you, it’s interesting playing a Star Wars game with someone who had only watched Episode 3 and who referred to R2-D2 as “the guy who goes beep beep beep”. It was Lego, though, and we were laughing out loud at the cut scenes. Then to work, clearing levels and solving puzzles. We moved with military precision–

“Ack! Stop killing me!”

“I want to be the guy with brown hair!” (J- liked playing Obi-Wan Kenobi.)

“If you shake the plants, you get more studs!” (The game encourages you to destroy everything in sight, and a few things that aren’t.)

–or at least with the precision that blindfolded conscripts would have on their first day of service. But we got through the first few levels, and we eventually got the hang of things.

Much to the detriment of my Emacs-related writing. So much for discipline and organization… but that was fun. I tell myself that it’s an investment–yeah, that’s  right, an investment, helping J- learn how to work quickly and calmly in stressful conditions, tactical planning, and coordination… Riiiight.

Okay, it was just fun. =)

Tomorrow: Chat with people (I’ll be on Skype and Yahoo at 9:00 EST, although I’ll probably be busy catching up with my parents), some more writing (I will finish that article), maybe a trip to the Royal Ontario Museum (J- wants to go), and either more writing or some reading…

And then more play!

<R2-D2 whistle>