You can’t say what you are, but you should try anyhow.

I say ‘I consider myself a feminist,’ because I really do. But I always feel like I’m taking a big risk when I say ‘I AM a feminist,’ because there is always, always some other feminist out there who will show you that you’re wrong. Usually they’ll also show you that you’re awful for it.
— Someone somewhere I visit regularly

Another feminist here. That’s an understandable sentiment.

Personally, I hate calling myself anything at all, ever. I spent four years trying to reconcile what I thought I was, what I wanted to say to people I was, what I wanted people to think I was underneath, and what I wanted to be with what I was being every single day by just waking up where I was waking up and doing what I was doing.

I spent even more years after that trying to work through whether I’d ever known or could ever know what I was: Maybe I’d stopped listening to my better angels. Maybe the better angels had never been real. Gandhi had suggested that nonviolent behavior could be motivated (and tainted) by cowardice, so I wondered to myself if what I’d thought had been a nonviolent worldview hadn’t actually been a sort of cowardice, and that by enlisting maybe I’d just embraced what I’d always been.

Some understandings about myself and the world around me crystallized, some things just got more complicated:

Could I jump out of an airplane at night? Yes. And for the last year I was jumping out of airplanes, it’s fair to say I was frightened every time. By the time I got to that point, I’d healed up a lot. I wasn’t who I’d been when I walked into the recruiter’s office: If the controlled environment of the army had been a splint or a cast, it ended up setting my bones into shapes they hadn’t been before I enlisted. So I gained some understanding of what it is to be deeply afraid and yet still do the thing you set out to do. For a period, living that pattern allowed me to say to myself that I wasn’t a coward, that I had a core I could depend on. So I started looking beyond where I was, and having thoughts about what could be next, and wanting it. I didn’t want to give up and disappear into the army.

Then I was out, and rather than going back to be near the people who had cared about me and supported me while I was in, I chose somewhere else. I couldn’t just go back to where I had been, among people who might have been tempted to say, “well, that’s all over now and you’re back.”

I was loved and cared for, but not a lot of people knew me. They just had the biography, and that question of cowardice was still very real, and was suddenly unresolved again because I figured out that physical courage isn’t moral courage. So, I wanted the new people in my life to know something more about me than where I’d been, but I was still struggling with what it was I’d want them to know, and if it was possible for there to be anything more to know. After all, there was what I thought I was, what I wanted to say to people I was, what I wanted people to think I was underneath, and what I wanted to be, but there was what I had been every single day for four years by just waking up where I was waking up and doing what I was doing:

I’d been the guy who got sent to the chaplain because he wouldn’t sing the baby-killing cadences, and then invited to declare himself a conscientious objector. Didn’t do it, though, because I wasn’t. I just didn’t like baby-killing cadences.

I’d been the guy whose boss told him he should seriously consider taking a subordinate into the woods to beat him up, and briefly wondered if it would need to come to that, then learned how to make anger and its energy palpable; maybe to help avoid taking that step and maybe to make it easier if I had to.

I’d been the guy who told a barracks bully that I’d take an eye or an ear, and needed to believe it.

I’d been everything that environment demanded of me, and I chose to stay in it.

I nearly started typing, “but in the end,” because that would allow this to be narrativized and resolved. But there’s no end because I’m still sitting here typing. There’s an ever-unfolding now that I needed to learn about.

There were all the moments where I looked back on some of the things I said and did and hated them. When I’d tell stories about things I’d seen or done and I’d realize people were repelled by the mere fact that I’d been there to see them. There was the year where I needed to get help because I’d see a picture of a maimed child in an Iraqi marketplace bombing, or read about a murder-suicide on an army post from some solider who’d come back from the wars changed, and I’d think about how I’d wanted to be some part of that, and that’d be it for the day, stopped by anger and grief. I’m so glad I worked at home: I don’t know what I would have done with people around when those moments came. Maybe I would have just swallowed it whole instead of composing some polite fiction of a status message and going to sit in my room.

Then there was just more life, and a slowly growing recognition that I couldn’t ever un-be those things. When he was little, Ben thought I’d once been a knight. It was heartbreaking to explain that I hadn’t been. But it was strengthening to realize that the more truthful I could make myself be with him, the better a parent I could be to him.

I figured out that I had to start being the person I wanted to be in that ever-unfolding now. I had to accept that some people would see the biography and think things they’d be justified to think, and that I had to set that aside: There’s no erasing it, and to erase it would be to erase me. Instead, I had to learn how to be open to the things that I can hear and feel are right, and accept that they might be incongruous with what I’ve been.

Because of all that, because I once set aside everything I said I was and became something else, and because I then spent years trying to make all of that make sense, I’ve got a deep aversion to saying I’m anything at all. To the extent it’s any of my business how people talk about themselves or what they are — and it almost never is — I wish there’d be less “speaking as a …” and more “because I live my life thus.”

At the same time, self-identification helps people, right? It helps us hold each other — and ourselves — accountable.

I read bell hooks’ Feminism is for Everybody where she writes “the soul of our politics is the commitment to ending domination,” and I thought to myself “yes, that’s right, I want to live that and teach my son that.” I put down the book and thought “I agree with her, and other people who call themselves feminists,” and then I felt okay saying “I’m a feminist.”

Despite my aversion to saying “I’m this” or “I’m that,” I think “I’m a feminist” is a thing worth saying.

Because I’m a man, steeped in this culture and taught habits of thought that are anti-feminist, I’ll sometimes do things that aren’t feminist things to do. I’ve been lucky to have people in my life who have been gentle and patient with me when I’ve done this. Some day I’ll meet someone who won’t be as kind, or who will want to prove that I’m not a feminist at all. Depending on who that comes from, that could be upsetting or embarrassing.

The alternative, my heart tells me, is to be less supportive than I could be; to be an “ally” who can still maybe slip back and forth, maybe never having to own being wrong or hypocritical ever again because I remember how hard it was to put a sense of self together again after being something besides what I wanted to be.

All we can do is be what we are in the ever-unfolding now. We can open ourselves to hearing what’s right, and we can try to choose what’s right, or at least choose what’s less wrong. We can accept that we’ll sometimes fail at that. We can allow ourselves to be held accountable. We can try again.

Docs Decomposer Week 7

This weekend I solved a problem I’ve been bothered by for weeks: Given a list of pages with a dynamic priority or risk button on each row, the sortable tables didn’t reflect changes in priority or risk until I reloaded the page. It felt good to see that one go down, and it felt good to drop a bunch of lines of code in the process.

So, I think we’re done here. Or at least, we’re in a place where I can do everything with this tool I wanted to do, plus a few things I hadn’t thought of at the time.

I didn’t keep very close track of my time. If I had to guess, I think I spent somewhere around 40-50 hours, or an average of an hour a day from my first commit on February 13. The vast majority of that time was here and there on weekends, but I put in a few lunches, too. It occupied a funny space: I didn’t want to devote work work to it in case I got stuck and couldn’t see it through. So it felt better to file it under “hobby that may prove useful.”

Other stuff I finished up this weekend:

  • Some rake automation, which makes setting everything up pretty quick.
  • A HTML reimport button, to refresh the contents of a page if the underlying content in the git repo hasn’t been recently refreshed.
  • User pages, so it’s possible to look up a user and all their commented or flagged pages.
  • Sortable tables that work.
  • Unicorn/nginx, which was ops’ recommended approach to get this thing onto an internal box.

Stuff I’d like to do next:

  • Connecting Devise, which I’m using for authentication, with LDAP.
  • An “export new metadata” gadget, to make it easier for writers to quickly generate new YAML frontmatter that includes their tags and risk assessment, for copy and paste into documentation.
  • Revising the importers to understand our pre-release content repository and internal preview servers.
  • Write some tests. I’ve never really done much with testing, and I’d like to learn how. That’d make my friend in ops, who’s been helping me get this ready to deploy somewhere, a little happier with the whole affair.

Docs Decomposer #4

Tags ended up going in pretty easily with acts-as-taggable-on. It allows for mutltiple kinds of tags, which means with judicious use of forms you can pretty much create any kind of taxonomy you want. I’m just using keywords for now, in a classic free-tagging setup. With judicious use of forms to control input, I’ll be able to add risk and priority tags.

Docs Decomposer

Which means, I guess, that the thing is pretty much “done” in terms of the basic features I’d like it to have:

  1. Individual user accounts.
  2. The ability to quickly reduce a given page to just the steps and CLI instructions.
  3. The ability to flag a page with a click.
  4. The ability to comment on a page.
  5. The ability to tag a page.

Over lunch, I broke my “don’t do this in the office” rule briefly to add some markup to our Jekyll templates to make it easier to grab the rendered content for import. The importer became a little simpler as a result, and the pages lose a little bit of extra nav cruft from our templates.

So, as it stands, I could pretty much run an inventory session for the team from this thing running on my laptop. The one thing that’s still vexing me about it is the notion of unique and trackable page elements (ordered lists and code blocks, mostly).

In my Padrino prototype, each page showed the rendered content, plus a tab that showed only ordered lists and pre-blocks. Each <ol> and <pre> was checksummed, and the “elements” tab showed which other pages in the docs corpus had the exact same content.

What I really, really want is something like this:

  • You look at the page and see a <pre> block that concerns you, either because it looks very perishable or could be harmful if the information has aged out.
  • You hover over the element to expose a flag or comment button, plus a little stats box that tells you where else that element appears.
  • Once you flag that element, it’s flagged everywhere it appears in the corpus, receiving a special visual treatment.

How’s that work?

Everything is parsed by Nokogiri, so I can just write a little checksumming service in my Elements controller that will be seeing the same HTML whether it’s getting it during the content import phase, or the presentation/review phase. So:

  1. User loads a page.
  2. JavaScript finds each element of interest on the page (each <pre> and <ol>) and sends it over to the checksumming service.
  3. The checksumming service returns a unique i.d. for the element.
  4. The element gets wrapped in a div with that i.d. (in case it already has an i.d.)
  5. The comment/flag widget for that element is just AJAX calls to the controller against the i.d. of the wrapper, which gets a class to reflect its flagged status.
  6. Each flagged element gets either a modal/lightbox or a page with the comment history.

Now that I write it all out, though, it seems pretty doable. I should probably write more stuff out.

Flaws in the plan? Mostly that it’s going to add some load time as each page is pulled in, dissected, and checksummed. Fortunately, there are advanced GIF technologies to make that seem almost pleasant:

712

It’s something I could do at import time, too, I guess. There’s nothing sacred about the underlying markup.

Oh, the other problem is “what about when that element changes, even if it’s for the better?” At that point, the checksum changes and the flag/comment history disappears because it becomes a “new” element. There goes the inventory. Which means the inventory might become something less about the literal content and more about what/where it is, e.g. “ordered list on page #{foo} under the heading #{bar}.” So when a flag gets thrown on an element, the existence and “coordinates” of the thing are logged somewhere, along with a snapshot of what it looked like at the time. That’s probably going to be enough to find it again.

Hm.

So we could go either way here. I think writing the checksumming service and coding up the process sounds interesting and fun. I think deciding that flagging elements and leaving comments on them as a one-time process with no expectation of permanence might be okay. I think automating a log based on “there’s a fishy set of instructions on the page called #{foo} under the heading #{bar}” sounds like a useful middle ground. I’ve also already figured out the xpath needed to do just that: “Show me a thing plus the most recent heading that occurred before it,” which has proven great for explaining what some of the lists and pre blocks are trying to tell you at a glance.

Well … something to think about.

Docs Decomposer Weekend 3

Okay!

I added a Comment model to the project this weekend, then wired it up to a modal form. Useful things I learned to use this weekend:

  • simple_form, which makes it a little easier to write forms in Rails, and which understands Bootstrap.
  • markdownizer, which can take a text column and render it to Markdown on creation, which will help make the comments a little more expressive.

And since I’m using twitter-bootstrap-rails, I got some handy freebies for styling the flash with Bootstrap text styles.

A few things I didn’t get to:

  • Making it possible for users to delete their own comments.
  • Making it possible for users to edit their own comments.
    In other words, the comments feature sort of sucks, but at least you can suffer in Markdown.

  • Connecting the act of flagging to invoking the comments form.

And to replace the spreadsheet we came up with to review the upstream platform docs last week, I probably need to add a tags field of some kind. I think that’s a solved problem.

One more weekend?

Docs Decomposer

Menubar and Docs Decomposer and CSS Bootstrap

Docs Decomposer Weekend 2

Last week I left off with a gnawing sense of unhappiness because the flagging buttons weren’t dynamic: When Rails dropped Prototype.js, it dropped pretty much all the stuff I knew about AJAX and Rails. I could have left well enough alone, but it bothered me; and we’re doing this in the name of (re)learning.

I had fun working on it. Last weekend’s time involved a lot of re-orientation on the basics. This week felt pretty fluid as stuff I’d forgotten came back, and as I got used to a few of the tweaks I added to Emacs last week (including flymake and Projectile).

In the process of rewriting the flagging code into something a little easier to work with, I learned about acts_as_votable, and that encouraged me to just toss the flagging code I’d written altogether. Yay, cargo culting. That didn’t make the dynamic flagging button situation any better, but it did make a few other features fall down much more quickly.

So this weekend I added:

  • Flag status indicators to the page lists. You can tell if you’re the one who flagged the page, and if someone else also flagged it along with
  • A toggle to hide all the unflagged pages
  • A little list of who flagged a page on the page itself, along with next/previous buttons for each page, to make it easier to run through review without going back and forth to the master page list:

Next up, I guess, is commenting. I was hoping to get to it this weekend, but once I had acts_as_votable in place, it was a lot easier to run through a bunch of flag-related things and implement them, and I was ready for some easy stuff once I’d finally managed to make the flagging buttons dynamic.

Once I’ve got commenting in place, it’ll be time to go back through and do a lot of housekeeping. I’ve got view code that probably ought to go into partials, controllers that could probably stand to have some logic moved out into the models, and a lot of code that … well … it’s optimistic is what it is!

After that?

The thing I keep thinking about and sketching out is how being able to flag a given element on a page might work. One of the reasons I decided to just import HTML straight into the app was that it gave me access to the markup. For instance, once you find and checksum an ordered list, it’s pretty easy to wrap it in a div and give it an i.d. At that point, it can be targeted for flagging widgets and such.

Dunno. Bedtime.

Weekend Science Project (Rails After Time Away)

We need to do a documentation inventory at work. We’ve added a lot to the docs over the past year, and we’ve got a few things lurking around in there that need to be flagged for QA or revalidation. The stock answer is “put all the pages in a spreadsheet and start clicking/scrolling and annotating the list,” but I’ve been pining to fiddle around with a tool for a little while, and spreadsheets suck, so I decided to see how quickly I could put something together to make the job a little easier for the team (and reviewers down the road).

I started out with a Padrino app, which was a great way to do a proof of concept on what I was after:

  • Find all the Markdown files in the docs repo.
  • Use the filenames to compose the live URLs of each document.
  • Pull the HTML in from the server and store it for fast retrieval/decomposition
  • Identify all the elements of interest on each page and store them with a checksum.

For that last, “elements of interest” became “ordered lists and things inside pre tags.” They represent the step-by-step instructions in the docs; either in “do this, then this, then this” form, or in “start typing this stuff on the command line” form. They’re the things people gravitate to and start following, and we know that the average technical user is prone to looking for just those things and not looking at the surrounding text.

Putting a checksum on each of them will provide a way to do reports that show when an element appears on multiple pages, and across multiple versions of the docs. You kind of expect things like ordered lists to change a little over time. If one has persisted over four or five releases without changing, you might want to look at it and make sure it hasn’t been overlooked.

So after four or so hours of work, my Padrino app could do all that stuff, wrapped up in Bootstrap. I could fire up the app, get a list of all the documentation pages by product version, and use some widgets to do a few useful things:

  • See all the elements of interest in their own tab.
  • Preview a docs page, then click a button to show only the headings, pre blocks, and ordered lists.

That seemed pretty useful just as a way to help someone rip through a collection of pages and look for just the things most likely to cause a user pain, then maybe enter them in a log.

Once I was home for the weekend, though, I realized that I wasn’t as familiar with Padrino as I once had been with Rails, so I decided to do a quick port. Since I’d used ActiveRecord for the original app, and since I was happy with my db schema, it was pretty simple to set up the models, re-run the migrations, and reuse the importer scripts to repopulate my development db with content.

I spent a few hours on Saturday and a big chunk of Sunday trying to see how far I could get before, well, having enough time to blog about it before ending the long weekend and going to bed. I didn’t want to put any more time in on it at work, because if I ran into a dead end and couldn’t make what I wanted, I didn’t want to feel obligated to try using it.

I had to relearn a few things about Rails that have changed since I last used it much (during v2 times), and I had to learn some new things about jQuery that I’ve never dealt with before. Still, I’m pretty happy with where it’s at now:

First, I implemented flags. For now, all you can do is flag a page if you see something you think might be a problem that needs further review. I’ve got a few ideas about how to flag individual elements. One way is super simple, but doesn’t allow you to flag them in the context of the text. The other is tougher and I’m still working on relearning Rails’ AJAXy stuff to figure out a way to flag an element in place, store it, then have it highlighted as flagged next time you visit that page.

Next, I added a working user authentication model with Devise, so flags can belong to individual people. For now, it just means that if two people look at the same page, they don’t have to agree on its flaggability. Down the road, it’ll mean there’s a way to share the tool with all our technical reviewers so that they can flag things and we can capture all the flag data from them. I’d like to add a way to enter a comment, too, but one thing at a time.

Finally, I got thiiiiis close to making the flag button truly dynamic. All the AJAX stuff I knew from when I built my last Rails app has changed, and I couldn’t figure it all out in time, so for now I just force a page refresh when the user clicks the flag button to get it to change its state from “flag this” to “unflag this.”

There are a few more things I’d like to get to:

  • Report pages, naturally: Every flagged page, how many flags it has. That won’t take much.
  • Flaggable elements (ol, pre): I can already do this the easy way, but I’d love to do it the hard way.
  • Comments to go with flags, with design to accommodate a running list of flag comments down the side of a page preview.
  • Dynamic page import. Right now, we get the map of all the files then suck in their HTML and store it. The advantage is that it’s pretty fast. The disadvantage is that the content will drift from reality over the course of a release cycle. Way better to either suck it in each time the page is viewed or offer a “re-import the HTML” button people can hit.
  • Links straight to the files in the Github repo, so people can quickly fix things from the app if they spot something.

It’s in a place where I knock most of that stuff off with another leisure-time sprint, then see about hosting it somewhere relatively secure where I can put it in front of a few people for real feedback.

It also reminds me of all the stuff I wish I knew more about, like testing. I guess if I can get it into a useable state for other people, I can use it as a sandbox for learning about that stuff.

Anyhow, here it is. Hope you had a good Presidents Day weekend. Good night.

On the Quicksilver (and the curious marketing conceit “RV resort”)

IMG 4917

We took our new Quicksilver trailer out on its inaugural camping trip this weekend. A few notes on the whole thing:

We’ve got a Livin’ Lite Quicksilver 8.0. It’s a tent trailer, not a pop-top, so when it folds out it’s sort of like having an old-school canvas tent with a bimini frame sitting up off the ground on a big aluminum box.

Not being a pop-top, and being made of aluminum, it only weighs about 850 pounds, which is well under our Toyota Matrix’s 1,500-pound towing capacity. Driving it out to Mt. Hood this weekend was pretty easy. It was very quiet, and the main thing I noticed about it was how it affected braking: I definitely needed to give myself more time to slow down.

Setting it up is very easy: It has a vinyl cover you unsnap and roll up, a set of four aluminum struts that hold up the bed ends when it’s unfolded, and a bunch of snaps, velcro and bungie loops to hold the tent top in place. Ideally, you’ll want to deploy it with two people, but I’ve managed to put it up and take it down on my own. With two people, it takes well under 10 minutes to get from “completely closed up” to “fully deployed.”

Setup on the inside, once the tent is up, is pretty easy, too. The galley top (with a sink and a cabinet) can be lifted into place by one person. It has a folding table and removable seat cushions that stand up in a minute or two. There are also little light/fan combination units that clip onto the bars next to each bed end and plug in to 12-volt power sockets.

IMG 4909

As RVs go, it’s a pretty simple affair.

Each end of the tent has a double mattress. It’s also possible to collapse the dining table and lay it between the two dinette seats, then put their cushions down to sleep two more people. The mattresses on the beds are a little thin, so next time I think we’ll bring along our Therm-a-Rest pads.

It has an electrical system with three standard household outlets and a 12v adapter. You can run it off its own 12v deep-cycle battery, or you can connect it to shore power. It also has a small sink with a faucet that can either work with city water connected from the outside, or pump water from a plastic, 7-gallon tank in the galley base. It was pretty nice being able to wake up and start the water for the French press with an electric kettle. There’s no built-in stove, but there’s enough counter space to use the two-burner camp stove our dealer threw in. Alternately, there’s a small aluminum table you can mount outside the trailer to use for cooking.

It’s got pretty decent storage. The galley offers three small cabinets with plenty of space to stow cables, hoses, the camp stove, and first aid kit. There’s another cabinet by the door that can hold a few things you might want to grab out even before the trailer is fully deployed. The dinette seats also offer storage compartments. For travel, you can slide a few things under the dining table when it’s folded and placed over the edges of the dinette seats. We were able to fit everything for our trip into the trailer itself (including cooler and folding chairs), and didn’t have anything in the car with us.

We had good weather for our trip. It got down to the low 40s overnight, and we used a small ceramic space heater running off the electrical system to keep the trailer warm. I slept in an unzipped sleeping bag and stayed pretty comfortable.

IMG 4913

I can’t name many downsides. Sleeping with a heater in such cool weather did cause some condensation. We toweled a lot of it off before we packed the tent back down, and since it was sunny and in the high 50s this afternoon when we got home, we just set it back up again to air out and dry out a little more.

The city water pressure from our hookup was a little high and caused a small leak around one of the pipes. We spotted that happening pretty quickly. One of the nice things about the all-aluminum body is that it wasn’t a huge deal to towel up the water without fear of rot setting in.

All in all, though, it’s mainly a big tent on wheels, with plenty of space to sit around if the weather turns (or if you just feel like hanging out in there). It definitely changes your outlook about the weather when you know you’re sleeping four feet off the ground under a waterproof vinyl top. Because it’s a little more weatherproof than a tent, and because it’s easy to heat if need be, it extends our camping season quite a bit. Because it’s a little more comfortable to sleep in than a tent, it also extends our range. We’ll probably do a few more trips to some of the regional parks like Oxbow and Stub Stewart, just to make sure we’ve got the hang of driving a trailer around the metro area, but we’ve already got a spot reserved at Crater Lake this summer, and I’d like to figure out a longer trip somewhere further out before next year.

Where We Stayed

When we bought the trailer, the dealer included a year’s membership in an RV park network. We can stay in any of the parks in the Pacific NW for free for up to 30 nights this year.

We stayed at Mt. Hood Village. Since our trailer is just 16′ when fully deployed, we opted to stay in what you might call the “rustic” section of the facilities: Dirt sites with water and electricity (but no sewer or cable t.v.)

That was probably for the best: We had the entire area to ourselves. The premium area was packed pretty tightly with really big RVs. Yeah, they had a shorter walk to the (indoor) swimming pool and hot tub, but they also had to deal with all the hooting and yammering of people out under their awnings, drunk on Coors Light and the novelty of just-a-hoodie weather in January.

The vibe was pretty friendly. Our family did get the side-eye from a dude with a pony tail and the most gigantic owl tattoo I have ever seen: It spanned his chest and its eyes encompassed his pecs. He seemed a little miffed we were in the hot tub (which was huge … it could have easily seated 10 people), maybe because he was hoping to maul his girlfriend in there. Al & Ben left to go swimming, and he did get a little nasty with the towel-off once he and his girlfriend decided to climb out. Another couple in the corner looked to be completely fucked up on something that made them squint into the far distance and occasionally slur giggling observations. Oh, and Ben & I shared a sauna with a guy who’d bark “shut-it-shut-it-shut-it-the-heat-the-heat-the-heat” when people came in or out. He was also super worked up about a missing flashlight, and he snarled recriminations at one of his children through the steamed glass.

Still, people did smile and say “hi,” so friendly enough; but I think we’d have been okay just sitting by the fire, too. I also think that perhaps “RV resort” is one of the more interesting bits of branding nomenclature I’ve encountered in a while if that place is an average specimen. Your average state park is doing what it can to make the sites feel a little isolated from each other, and what you lose in the way of a hot tub, gift shop and swimming pool you make up for in relative quiet, hiking trails, twilight ranger shows at a rustic amphitheater, and fewer opportunities to see some dude with a ginormous owl tattoo toweling his lady off all nasty.

The membership is free for a year, though, so really we can live in both worlds if we choose.

IMG 4915

Multimedia

This video is 14 minutes of camper setup competency that I find a little hypnotic. It helps that the Livin’ Lite company is located in Northern Indiana, and so I’m hearing the voice of my people (more or less: I’m about two years more “from Oregon” than I am “from Indiana,” at this point).

Which reminds me of another thing that I enjoyed this weekend:

I worked at an RV plant the summer after I graduated from high school. I was really, really bad at it, but I learned a lot: I installed air conditioners, manufactured step-well covers, routed and secured fiberglass sheets to partition walls, undercoated vans, and did a bit of finishing work here and there.

Sitting at the table enjoying my coffee this morning, knowing the trailer was made in the same town where I helped put together RVs, it was pretty easy to see bits and pieces that looked like things I’d made or assembled that summer. You might see some of that stuff and not think twice about it, assuming a machine did it, but I spotted a few things: A small nick on the crimp on an otherwise perfect aluminum cover; and the thumbnail impression of a screw that had gone in a little off, then got pulled back out a bit and tightened back down a tiny fraction of an inch the other direction. For a second, I could smell routed fiberglass and rolls of carpet in a hot warehouse.

A Few More Org Findings

So, I learned something this week. Rather, I did something that was useful to me, which is stop short of trying to get GNUS working again. Instead, I focused on seeing if I could get comfortable enough with MobileOrg to use it (mostly I did) and I kept on working on making some of the things I like about OmniFocus work in org-mode. I think that slightly more constructive behavior — pulling away from a fit of emacsimalism before going completely toxic on it — made it easier to keep on going with org-mode.

So, here’s some of the stuff I learned this week. It’s mostly about how to use MobileOrg a little better, and how to control how much of your org-mode data you have to see at a time.

Better MobileOrg

I’m learning to trust MobileOrg, but it takes a little effort to make it work smoothly, especially if you’re coming from something like OmniFocus or Things.

Save all your open org mode files from the agenda with C-x C-s

Things has the very best sync I’ve seen in a todo app: It seems to “just happen.” Others require some sort of action on the part of the user, so if you’re the type to spend some time at your desk squaring away your actions for the day, then head into back-to-back meetings, it’s a pain if you don’t remember to sync before heading out.

Org-mode can, depending on your setup, complicate matters even more. If you live in multiple files and org-mobile-push without saving them, you get an imperfect sync. The best answer (without rigging up some kind of auto-sync), is to use the standard Emacs save command (C-x C-s) from an agenda buffer: It saves all your open org-mode files. Then you know it’s safe to push to MobileOrg.

Cheat a little with emacsclient until you can remember to save-and-sync

Emacsclient is able to run elisp from the command line, so if you can ssh into a machine with your org files and emacs on it, you can do an org-mobile-push from the command line without opening Emacs:

~$ emacsclient –eval ‘(org-mobile-push)’~

Set up refiling to more easily move things out of your inbox

Refiling allows you to move a thing from one org file to another. With MobileOrg, where the default capture method dumps you into an inbox file, it’s helpful to set up your refiling targets. With this example:

'(org-refile-targets
  (quote
   (("~/Dropbox/org/work.org" :level . 1)
    ("~/Dropbox/org/personal.org" :level . 1))))

C-c C-w would present you with the level 1 headings from your work.org and personal.org files as targets for refiling, meaning a given org headline will be moved to the last line under the heading you select.

Leveraging the Agenda and Sub-Tree Narrowing for Focus

I really like the way OmniFocus handles its Perspectives and Focus features. It’s easy to quickly narrow down your view to things you need to work on or think about right now. I’ve learned two ways to attain similar constrained views in org-mode.

Narrow focus with the agenda

In a tool like OmniFocus or Things, you might have a few different views into your task lists to better organize what you’re working on and when you’re working on it, but the mouse-driven interface of those tools generally means your experience is one of moving between areas of the UI, or doing one-click state changes.

Custom Agenda Commands to Narrow to Contexts

With org-mode, you can use custom agenda views to pull off something like perspectives or context views, you’ll just be doing it with the keyboard.

When I use OmniFocus, my tendency is to make a lot of people contexts and a few mode contexts, but not a lot of place contexts. With org-mode, I use tags as contexts, and tag items with people. Then I made a few custom agenda commands that make it easy to drill down to specific people (either at my desk, or when I’m using MobileOrg):

    (setq org-agenda-custom-commands
          '(("p" . "People")
            ("pn" "Nick F." tags-todo "nickf")
            ("pm" "Michelle F." tags-todo "michellef")
            ("pl" "Lauren" tags-todo "lauren")
            ("pL" "Larissa" tags-todo "larissa")
            ("pp" "Pete" tags-todo "pete")
            ("pj" "Jean" tags-todo "jean")
            ("pi" "Isaac" tags-todo "isaac")

            ("g" .  "Groups")
            ("gt" "Tech Pubs Team" tags-todo "team")
            ("gl" "Tech Pubs Leads" tags-todo "leads")
            ("gs" "Engineering Staff" tags-todo "staff")

            ("o" tags-todo "office")

            ))

These views make it possible to generate an agenda (C-c a) then tap the p, g or o keys to get pre-built tag searches by people on my team, teams I work on, or items I’ve tagged as “office” (which is my way of saying “things where I need to get up and walk over to someone’s desk to talk face-to-face.”) Those same custom commands appear as agenda views in MobileOrg, so I can walk into a 1:1 and easily see everything tagged with the person I’m speaking to.

Restrict the Agenda to a Single File

You can also restrict the files the agenda uses to generate itself by invoking the agenda (C-c a) then tapping the < key before tapping a to generate the agenda. That will limit the agenda to the file you invoked it from. If you keep your todos in “work” and “personal” files, that means you can effectively filter out one or the other with a single extra keystroke.

Restrict the Agenda to a Single Subtree

You can also restrict the agenda by tapping the < key a second time. That will restrict it to the current subtree. That’s helpful if you keep lists of single-action tasks, or want to focus on the todos for a single project.

Narrowing focus with org-narrow-to-subtree and widen

The agenda has a bunch of single-key commands to cycle todo status, etc. By enabling org speed commands, you can get the same commands in an org-file. s is useful for narrowing to the current headline (great for focusing on a single project or area of concern). Map w to widen to quickly expand the file again:

(setq  org-speed-commands-user (quote (("w" . widen))))

Use TODO label faces

You can customize the way todo faces look by keyword. STUCK, WAITING and DELEGATED each get a special face so that when I’m scanning a file, they stand out a little (white on red, orange and gray, respectively).

If you use the OmniFocus defer date, use a “scheduled” date in org-mode

Like OmniFocus, org-mode has both a start date and a deadline date. Keep the agenda clear by planning start dates for things with “scheduled.”

You can make custom links in org mode really easily

Here’s one for linking to JIRA tickets:

Then use a “jira:” URL scheme in a standard org-mode link, jira:doc-988

Opening that link with C-c C-o will open your default browser and execute the search (which will take you to the ticket).

org-mode Face Lift

Menubar and usr local bin emacs q Dropbox org omnifocus org usr local bin emacs zsh 159×34 and Init File GNU Emacs Manual and Preview of org mode Face Lift

I realized a couple of days ago that part of the reason OmniFocus and Things feel better compared to org-mode is that they’ve got a much more pleasant visual design: There’s way more room, screen elements are better differentiated, and they present with a variable-width font. So I did some poking around in Cocoa Emacs to see if I could clean up org-mode a little. There’s no particular master plan here, just some things that made org-mode look nicer.

If you’re looking for the quickest wins, the first three (picking a better theme, hiding leading stars, and using org-bullets) make a big difference right away and work in both Cocoa and console Emacs. They don’t involve any fiddling with faces. The fourth (opening up the line height) works on Cocoa Emacs and definitely helps a busy file feel a little more scannable; and it’s also fiddle-free.

A Nicer Theme

The flat-ui theme gives Emacs a more muted palette that’s similar to the one OmniFocus uses. Stick it in your .emacs.d/themes and invoke it with:

(load-file "~/.emacs.d/themes/flatui-theme.el")
(load-theme 'flatui t)

Hide Leading Stars to Declutter

You can turn off the display of all the asterisks in a heading but the last one:

(setq org-hide-leading-stars t)

Use org-bullets

org-bullets gives you the ability to change the way the asterisks used in org-mode present on the screen. The defaults aren’t great. I ended up using normal bullets for level 1 and 2 headings (which are equivalent to folders and projects in my own org hierarchy) and open circles for lower levels (which are usually todos for me).

Downplay “DONE” and Similar States

I set the face for org-done to bright black and the weight to thin to help push completed items to the background. I often squirrel notes away under information gathering todos, so I don’t like to completely archive a todo until the project is complete. By muting the display of done items, they’re still there and searchable, but they don’t compete with active TODO items when I’m scanning my list.

Open Up Line Height

It helps to open things up between lines a little:

(setq line-spacing '0.25)

Differentiate With Size and Weight

You don’t need to go bananas. I gave the highest heading levels a small bump in size (:height 1.2 for level 1 headings, :height 1.1 for level 2) and helped them stand out by setting their weight to semi-bold. I sized metadata faces down to :height 0.8 (org-tag, org-date, org-special-keyword) and also made the tags face less dark, which reduces the sense of clutter and makes tags more scannable.

In the process of changing these faces, I learned a new trick I can’t believe I’d missed in the past: Place the cursor over a given element in an org file and use the command customize-face, and Emacs will present the face of the current text you’re on as the default argument. That makes it easy to visually identify what you want to change and quickly jump to its customization page.

Use Variable Width for Headings

… and maybe the body.

I explicitly set the typeface for headings to Helvetica Neue, and I’ve been using this hook for org-mode:

(add-hook 'org-mode-hook (lambda () (variable-pitch-mode t)))

It sets the body type for any org-mode buffer to variable width. The drawback of variable width type is that it breaks some indentation (since Emacs still thinks in terms of fixed-width characters). The advantage is that it’s a little more pleasant to read. I haven’t made up my mind about it yet.

If you do end up using a variable-width font for everything, don’t forget to explicitly set the face for org-table to a fixed-width choice.

All that gets you to here:

Menubar and omnifocus org and usr local bin emacsclient t Dropbox org omnifocus org emacs zsh 159×34 and Emacs Set Line Spacing and org mode Face Lift

Review It in a Terminal Window

Because it ought to be able to work there, too.

Menubar and usr local bin emacsclient t Dropbox org omnifocus org emacs zsh 159×34 and Preview of org mode Face Lift and org mode Face Lift

In a Gist

If you’d like these to play with, I put them in a gist for easy cut-n-paste inside a custom-set-faces block in your own init.el:

Have Some mutt Macros

I ran through Steve Losh’s the Homely Mutt, which I am willing to stand behind as the best guide to setting up mutt on a single-user system, if you’re okay with running server-style stuff on a laptop or desktop machine. Personally, I’m not (for fiddly, neurotic aesthetic reasons). You can run mutt just fine via standard IMAP if you’re okay with giving up really good search via notmuch, but the package Losh puts together (mutt, offlineimap to Maildir, notmuch for search, postfix as a relay) gives you the very best mutt experience and gives you a local backup of all your mail you can access with anything else that groks Maildir. So if you’re in an erratic orbit around Emacs with stuff like GNUS, well, a little investment in offlineimap reaps years of futzing with email clients.

Anyhow, I do have a Linux box running under a desk at home along with mosh, which makes my logins to it from work feel pretty persistent. So given a thing I think of as a “shell box,” I’m fine running offlineimap on a cron job and postfix in dumb satellite mode if it gives me the single best email client on the planet to optimize for keyboard-centric use and versatile view filtering.

Keyboard-centric view versatility is theme number one for these macros. Theme number two is separation of mail personae, which I’ve handled with the creation of mail-account-specific profile files and macros that allow me to switch between work and personal accounts quickly, and without wondering if my signature and other profile-related stuff have been set correctly when I compose a message. So anyhow, here they are:

… and here’s my whole muttrc (Gmail IMAP variant) or offlineimap/Maildir variant. I think the scores and colors (which interact with the scoring I’ve set up) are the most useful things in there.

© Michael Hall, licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 United States license.