Category Archives: organization

Maintaining a manual topical index for my blog using Emacs

I’ve been blogging for almost ten years. I started with notes from my university classes and snippets of open source code, and became comfortable enough to share decisions I’m puzzling through and things I’m learning about life. There’s a lot of stuff in my archive, and I want to be able to review things again.

Categories would probably make this easier, but I use categories liberally and sometimes inconsistently. I use them like tags, quick keywords that I add so that people might explore a category and bump into other posts. I probably should split it out so that I assign posts to one category and leave everything else as tags. Someday.

In the meantime, it’s easy enough to maintain a manual topical index of my blog posts, and it’s a good opportunity to review what I’ve been writing as well.

I use Emacs Org Mode to manage a large text file divided into headings. Every month, I copy a list of titles into my topical index. I hacked Org-friendly output into my WordPress theme – you can see April’s blog posts as an example (sachachua.com/blog/2012/04/?org=1). I manually organize the list items under different headings, splitting off new headings when I can see a pattern. Working with two windows viewing the same buffer makes it easy to move information around, and org-refile is handy too. I use a checklist structure so that Org can automatically update the number of posts under each heading (C-u M-x org-update-statistics-cookies). When I’m happy with the structure, I use org-publish-current-file to publish it using the settings I’ve configured. The files are in my public Dropbox folder, so they’re automatically published to the Web. It takes me about 10 minutes to add a month of posts to my index and publish the page.

I like seeing how much I’ve written about different topics, and it encourages me to write and organize more posts. Maybe the index might be handy for other people too!

Digital uncluttering: my backup and clean up plan

I organized my files, weeded out blurry photos, and thought about how I want to improve my workflow for input, processing, and output.

Here’s what I want from my digital filing system:

Easy year-end backups: I’d like to be able to copy a folder onto a DVD and a separate drive, secure in the knowledge that if I really needed to get back to something, I could look it up.

Offline search: I want to be able to search the data even without the physical DVD or disk, so I don’t have to guess what year something happened or pop lots of DVDs into my drive.

Face tagging: I want to quickly retrieve all pictures with a specified combination of people. It would be awesome to get statistics off that, too.

Remove duplicates: I don’t want to wade through duplicate pictures when classifying my files, so I used VisiPics to find and delete images that were identical or of lower resolution.

Review by type: I want to review all of my presentations, drawings, blog posts, or 4×6-printable favourite photos regardless of their year. I want to be able to do this offline, too.

Search by topic: I want to find all of my resources related to a topic.

Map: I want to build a map what I know and what I want to learn. This map might contain hyperlinks to more details.

Quick visual review: I’d love to be able to quickly flip through or view slideshows of my visual book summaries, sketchnotes, and photo highlights. This is a good way to trigger memory. Maybe an “On this Day” reminder, too?

Hmm, planning…

Right now, I back up my data onto a drive weekly, and I use Dropbox for network backups too. I save my sketchnotes and summaries into a folder, and I keep small versions into another folder so that I can easily review them. I use Evernote so that I can search my hand-written notes and images. I use Picasa for images and face recognition, and Bibble 5 for tags. I don’t have offline search of backup DVDs yet, but I haven’t needed it. Besides, I can always search through my blog posts and notes.

Getting there…

Yay more food containers!

When we started cooking in bulk, we standardized on the Rubbermaid Takealongs Sandwich Keepers (7F58RDFCLR). The inexpensive containers were the right size for lunches. They stacked and nested well, too. I picked up 24 or so over several shopping trips, enough to handle a couple of weeks of lunches for W- and me.

Having discovered the success and convenience of this approach, we decided to scale up. Problem: Rubbermaid had apparently discontinued the product! They still sold Takealongs in different sizes, but the only way to get the shallow square containers was to buy them in a set or to pay a much higher price online. We didn’t want to buy a new system and end up with incompatible pieces. We looked all over for them throughout the year: Canadian Tire, Walmart, Zellers, Sears…

Today, W- finally found the Sandwich Keepers at Walmart while looking for some DVDs. Some were pink (cancer fundraising) and the rest were the usual red, so we guessed Walmart was clearing them out. W- brought home 13 packs of 4 pieces each. Yay! Now we can use up the other ingredients from the freezer and experiment with cooking a month of lunches in advance. Wouldn’t that be nifty!

Reducing clutter in the kitchen

I know what January’s experiment will be: reducing clutter in the kitchen.

We’ve started. The kitchen table is the hardest target. We use it everyday for so many different activities. The surface fills up quickly: laptops, power cords, mice, books, plates, glasses. We’re developing the habit of clearing it every night, keeping only the lamp, the power hub, and a bowl full of fruit. Everything else goes into cubbyholes or shelves.

Corollary: Doing one thing at a time, although it’s hard to avoid the temptation to work while eating lunch or to read through dinner.

The kitchen sink is a good target, too. We used to leave dishes there while waiting for the dishwasher to finish, and sometimes if we didn’t have the time to empty the dishwasher. It wasn’t a bad system – we cleared the dishes before they got crusty – but still, a single dish acted as a nucleus that attracted other dirty dishes, even when the dishwasher was empty and ready for another batch. Now we make a point of emptying the dishwasher before meals, filling it up as much as possible, and washing dishes by hand if needed. W- is looking into fixing the top drawer of the dishwasher so that we can streamline this too.

I’m not going to make any grand year-long resolutions. One experiment at a time, one small and concrete change each month – that’s enough.

Tracking and organizing my clothes: substituting mathematics for fashion sense

Thumbnails of clothes

Inspired by my sister’s photo-assisted organization of her shoes, I decided to tackle my wardrobe. Taking an inventory would make it easier to simplify, replace, or supplement my clothes. Analyzing colour would help me substitute mathematics for a sense of style. Combining the images with the clothes log I’ve been keeping would make it easier to see patterns and maybe do some interesting visualizations. Geek time!

I took pictures of all my clothes against a convenient white wall. I corrected the images using Bibble 5 Pro and renamed the files to match my clothes-tracking database, creating new records as needed. AutoHotkey and Colorette made the task of choosing representative colours much less tedious than it would’ve been otherwise. After I created a spreadsheet of IDs, representative colours, and tags, I imported the data into my Rails-based personal dashboard, programming in new functionality along the way. (Emacs keyboard macros + Rails console = quick and easy data munging.) I used Acts as Taggable On for additional structure.

It turns out that the math for complementary and triadic colour schemes is easy when you convert RGB to HSL (hue, saturation, lightness). I used the Color gem for my RGB-HSL conversions, then calculated the complementary and triadic colours by adding or subtracting degrees as needed (180 for complementary, +/- 120 for triadic).

Here’s what the detailed view looks like now:

image

And the clothing log:

image

Clothing summary, sorted by frequency (30 days of data as of writing)

image

Thoughts:

  • White balance and exposure are a little off in some shots. I tweaked some representative colours to account for that. It would be neat to get that all sorted out, and maybe drop out the background too. It’s fine the way it is. =)
  • Matches are suggested based on tags, and are not yet sorted by colour. Sorting by colour or some kind of relevance factor would be extra cool.
  • Sorting by hue can be tricky. Maybe there’s a better way to do this…
  • My colour combinations don’t quite agree with other color scheme calculators I’ve tried. They’re in the right neighbourhood, at least. Rounding errors?
  • I’ll keep an eye out for accessories that match triadic colours for the clothes I most frequently wear.
  • Quick stats: 28 casual tops, 15 skirts, 12 office-type tops, 8 pairs of pants, 5 pairs of slacks – yes, there’s definitely room to trim. It would be interesting to visualize this further. Graph theory can help me figure out if there are clothing combinations that will help me simplify my wardrobe, and it might be fun to plot colours and perhaps usage. Hmm…

Other resources:

Book: Leading Outside the Lines

zebraI want to get really good at being a fast zebra. The metaphor comes from Leading Outside the Lines, Jon R. Katzenbach and Zia Khan’s book on working with the informal organizational structure. According to Mark Wallace (former US ambassador to the United Nations), fast zebras are people who can absorb information and adapt to challenges quickly. The authors explain, “On the African savannah, it is the fast zebra that survives a visit to the watering hole, drinking quickly and moving on, while the slower herd members fall prey to predators lurking in the shadows. The fast zebra is, in essence, a person who knows how to draw on both the formal and informal organizations with equal facility.”

It seems like a business cliche – who wouldn’t want to absorb information and adapt to challenges quickly? – but Katzenbach and Khan go into more detail. “They help the formal organization get unstuck when surprises come its way, or when it’s time to head in a new direction. They have the ability to understand how the organization works, and the street smarts to figure out how to get around stubborn obstacles. They draw on values and personal relationships to help people make choices that align with overall strategy and get around misguided policy. They draw on networks to form teams that collaborate on problems not owned by any formal structure. They tap into different sources of pride to motivate the behaviors ignored by formal reward systems.”

Like the loneliness facing early adopters, fast zebras can feel isolated. Identifying and connecting fast zebras can help them move faster and make more of a difference.

I can think of many fast zebras in IBM. People like Robi Brunner, John Handy Bosma, and Jean-Francois Chenier work across organizational lines to make things happen. Lotus Connections and other collaboration tools make a big difference in our ability to connect and self-organize around things that need to be done. They also provide informal channels for motivation, which is important because this kind of boundary-spanning work often doesn’t result in formal recognition (at least in the beginning).

The book describes characteristics of organizations that successfully integrate formal and informal structures, and it has practical advice for people at all levels. It also has plenty of stories from organizational role models. My takeaway? Harnessing the informal organization and helping people discover intrinsic motivation for their work can make significant differences in an organization’s ability to react, so it’s worth learning more about that. Recommended reading.

Leading Outside the Lines
Jon R. Katzenbach and Zia Khan
Published by John Wiley and Sons, 2010