Digital index piles with Emacs: Rapid categorization of Org Mode items

Somewhat daunted by the prospect of categorizing more than a hundred sketches and blog posts for my monthly review, I spent some time figuring out how to create the digital equivalent of sorting index cards into various piles.

2015-02-01 Digital piles of index card -- index card #indexing #organization #pkm

2015-02-01 Digital piles of index cards – index card #indexing #organization #pkm

In fact, wouldn’t it be super-cool if the items could automatically guess which category they should probably go in, prompting me only if it wasn’t clear?

I wanted to write a function that could take a list structured like this:

  • Keyword A
    • Previous links
  • Keyword B
    • Previous links
  • Link 1 with Keyword A
  • Link 2 with Keyword B
  • Link 3 with Keyword A
  • Link 4

It should file Link 1 and 3 under Keyword A, Link 2 under Keyword B, and prompt me for the category for Link 4. At that prompt, I should be able to select Keyword A or Keyword B, or specify a new category.

Inspired by John Kitchin’s recent post on defining a Helm source, I wanted to get it to work with Helm.

First step: I needed to figure out the structure of the list, maybe including a sample from the category to make it clearer what’s included. org-list.el seemed to have useful functions for this. org-list-struct gave me the structure of the current list. Let’s say that a category is anything whose text does not match org-bracket-link-regexp.

(defun sacha/org-get-list-categories ()
  "Return a list of (category indent matching-regexp sample).
List categories are items that don't contain links."
  (let ((list (org-list-struct)) last-category results)
       (lambda (x)
         (goto-char (car x))
         (let ((current-item
                 (+ (point)
                    (elt x 1)
                    (length (elt x 2)))
           (if (string-match
               ;; Link - update the last category
               (when last-category
                 (if (< (elt x 1) (elt last-category 1))
                     (setq results
                           (cons (append last-category
                                 (cdr results))))
                 (setq last-category nil))
             ;; Category
             (setq results
                      (setq last-category
                             (elt x 1)
                             (concat "^"
                                     (make-string (elt x 1) ?\ )
                                      (concat (elt x 2)

The next step was to write a function that guessed the list category based on the item text, and moved the item there.

(defvar sacha/helm-org-list-candidates nil)
(defun sacha/helm-org-list-categories-init-candidates ()
  "Return a list of categories from this list in a form ready for Helm."
  (setq sacha/helm-org-list-candidates
        (mapcar (lambda (x)
                  (cons (if (elt x 3)
                            (format "%s - %s" (car x) (elt x 3))
                          (car x))

(defun sacha/org-move-current-item-to-category (category)
  (when category
    (let* ((beg (line-beginning-position))
           (end (line-end-position))
           (string (buffer-substring-no-properties beg end)))
        (when (re-search-backward (elt category 2) nil t)
          (delete-region beg (min (1+ end) (point-max)))
          (forward-line 1)
          (insert (make-string (+ 2 (elt category 1)) ?\ )
                  string "\n")))) t))

(defun sacha/org-guess-list-category (&optional categories)
  (require 'cl-lib)
  (unless categories
    (setq categories
  (let* ((beg (line-beginning-position))
         (end (line-end-position))
         (string (buffer-substring-no-properties beg end))
          (cl-member string
                     (lambda (string cat-entry)
                       (string-match (regexp-quote (downcase (car cat-entry)))
    (when (car found)
       (cdr (car found)))

After that, I wrote a function that used Helm to prompt me for a category in case it couldn’t guess the category. It took me a while to figure out that I needed to use :init instead of :candidates because I wanted to read information from the buffer before Helm kicked in.

(setq sacha/helm-org-list-category-source
          "Non-link categories in the current list"
        :init 'sacha/helm-org-list-categories-init-candidates
        :candidates 'sacha/helm-org-list-candidates
        :action 'sacha/org-move-current-item-to-category
        :fuzzy-match t))

(defun sacha/org-guess-uncategorized ()
  (let (done)
    (while (not done)
        (unless (sacha/org-guess-list-category sacha/helm-org-list-candidates)
              (helm :sources
            (setq done t))))
      (unless done
        (setq done (not (looking-at "^[-+] \\[")))))))

The :action above refers to this function, which creates a category if it doesn’t exist yet.

(setq sacha/helm-org-list-category-create-source
          "Create category"
        :action (helm-make-actions
                 "Create category"
                 (lambda (candidate)
                     (let* ((beg (line-beginning-position))
                            (end (line-end-position))
                            (string (buffer-substring beg end)))
                       (delete-region beg (min (1+ end) (point-max)))
                       (insert "- " candidate "\n  " string "\n")))

I’m new to fiddling with Helm, so this implementation is not the best it could be. But it’s nifty and it works the way I want it to, hooray! Now I can generate a list of blog posts and unblogged sketches, categorize them quickly, and then tweak the categorizations afterwards.

2015-02-01 Index card sketches and monthly reviews -- index card #organization #pkm #indexing

2015-02-01 Index card sketches and monthly reviews – index card #organization #pkm #indexing

You can see the results in my January 2015 review, or check my config to see if the code has changed.

My next step for learning more about Helm sources is probably to write a Helm command that creates a montage of selected images. John Kitchin has a post about handling multiple selection in Helm, so I just need to combine that with my code for using Imagemagick to create a montage of images. Whee!

  • JohnKitchin

    This is a very cool synergy with the posts I have been writing on helm! I learned a few new things reading yours myself. I did not know about those helm-build-*-sources. I have been making them all manually. Thanks for sharing!