Working With Emacs: First Week

My first day with OrgMode after two weeks of intense learning. Overall, it wasn’t as messy as I thought it would be.

<2018-06-11 Mon>

 
My first day with Org Mode after two weeks of intense learning. All things considered, it wasn’t as messy as I thought it would be. I was lucky not to have too much on my plate today, taking care of only four different cases.
 
Due to Dropbox syncing issues between beorg and WorkMac, I lost time trying to improvise. This was especially frustrating because it happened when I was working away from WorkMac, and I didn’t have the information I need. I am not sure if the problem is with the app or not, Emacs does save fine to Dropbox.
 
Another conclusion from today: learn how to build a template for Capture. Right now I’m typing headers manually (by typing ** since M-RTN doesn’t seem to work, not sure why). I can see this will get out of hand soon. Org-mode has Capture exactly for that: to enter a note quickly, from a template, and then continue to do other things. Templates are in LISP though, and LISP was what got me stuck this weekend. I should learn from more simple examples.
 
Finally, I should look into properties. Seems like these could be very useful, especially when I want to search later. Things like computer names, clients, the problem category, etc. could be fantastic. Again, something to use in Capture templates.
 
The weird issue of today: I changed the ellipses Org-mode comes with to down arrow. This works fine at home on Linux. But on WorkMac, there’s an underline under the arrow down symbol. Not sure why. When I change back from string to default, the ellipses do not have this problem.

<2018-06-13 Wed>

 
I have a new format and it works well. Each project I’m working on (each ticket in my work day) gets a header with a title that is meaningful to me. I then add sub-headers using a datestamp (C-u C-c .) and describe what I did in reverse chronological order. Org-mode is smart: pressing M-RTN at the end of the line (completely at the end, after the ellipses), will open a new header directly under the one I’m on. Do the same thing at the very beginning of the line, it creates a new header on top. This last thing allows me to work in reverse order as I mentioned. The newest timestamp is always the first header. It’s like a short micro-blog taking place during my workday.
 
Before Org-mode, attachments worried me. Coming from Onenote at work, I’m used to the iPhone app: snap pictures and add them into the note. In Org-mode, this is a non-issue with Dropbox and Office Lens. After “sharing” into “save to Dropbox” on the iPhone (it makes sense if you’re an iPhone user), I upload images to Dropbox. Later, it’s pretty simple to attach (C-c C-a) images to the time-stamp header I mentioned earlier. I don’t bother changing the names of the images, which is something I’ve done before. The files are named by date and hour by default, making it very easy to locate and attach in Org-mode later. The only annoyance with attachments: Emacs opens them inside a window, not the system default. I much prefer Preview on WorkMac, where I can annotate right away if I need to. The picture in the window is 100% zoomed in, which is not very convenient. A workaround, for now, is to open the folder for the attachment, and double-click the file. It works for now, even though feels somewhat “ugly.”

<2018-06-14 Thu>

 
Time to test Helm again (at home) and Ivy (at work). Immediately, I noticed a change in my ability to find commands (M-x) and looking stuff up. I spend much less time inside the browser reading through the Emacs Wiki or the Manual. Browsing through files makes more sense now. Opening recent files is my newest favorite command since I can auto-complete now thanks to Helm and Ivy.
 
As I’m writing these lines, I’m thinking to myself, this is fun. I can really get used to writing posts in Emacs. It never accrued to me how much visual clutter is in the way, even with the so-called “minimalist” apps. The problem is that there’s a particular app for every thing. Emacs is a powerhouse which I can use for many things, so the interface is the same. This helps with focus and flow in a way I didn’t think of before. It’s starting to be comforting to be in an environment I’m spending more and more time in.

<2018-06-15 Fri>

 
This is the conclusion of my first week with Emacs (and Org-mode) at work. As if by queue, today was a good example of a high-volume day. A test to see if my new system holds in place in face of improvisation and fast thinking.
 
Working in helpdesk environment means potential for constant interruptions. There are several people on the team who need my attention for different things. There are different managers who have can have conflicting instructions. There are clients (users) coming through the door asking for help. It doesn’t matter if you’re on the phone, working on a project, or trying to have lunch: the next interruption is a heart bit away.
 
Our workflow requires we use a web interface to work with tickets constantly. In a way, out entire workday depends on that single unyielding tab in a browser. With the first client coming up, I had to use the website to search for details in ticket tab. I updated a few details and made a mental note to add the information in my new Org-mode work journal. But as I was working on the laptop, a co-worker came up with questions which required my attention. That co-worker was shadowed by another client who answered one of my emails for a follow-up. All these cases required that I look into tickets and update them, away from Org-mode.
 
I didn’t like fact that I couldn’t use my new tool to do work, at least not at the moment. I had the information for some of the tickets in front of me, but not those I needed to work on at the moment. The web interface is limited both by design and lack of configurations. It’s a tool that supposed to help me stay organized, but instead, it’s another task of its own. Some manager at some point decided to get this platform. This decision, which must be at least a few years old, dictates what productivity means to me today. How odd.

<2018-06-16 Sat>

 
Finally, a couple of thoughts about how to improve my experience next week, based on notes I took at work and at home.
 
  1. Agenda: learn how to use it well, especially as a search tool to highlights tags and dates. (examples: look up everything that has to do with ticket number :###:. Look up all the different things I worked on last Tuesday.)
  2. Photos in an external program: have images open in default system app, or better yet, a specific one.
  3. “Archive” system: Copying everything I’ve done during the week + attachments to a different location, off of Dropbox. I purchased an SD and SD readers as an experiment as a cheap location to store information

Post: Writing

My General Writing Process:

Before I get to the beef of it, it goes without saying everyone got their own way of writing. Mine, at least for time being, involves three major phases:

  1. Outline: this is where I write down the general points I want to discuss. I use Dynalist for it, which is a tool that makes it easy to make bullet-point lists

  2. Write the thing: I start writing from a fresh start, using the bullet points as reference. after I said what I wanted to say, I usually take a break. The break can take a few hours to a few days, but usually, if I don’t get back to the post within a week, I don’t at all. If I force myself, I find that what I’m working on is starting to sound artificial and forced. When I get back to a post after a break, I usually discover two things. First, the best introduction is two or three paragraph deep in the post. Second, many times the whole thing reads more like a long rant and I could cut it in a half to have more of a point.

  3. Edit and post: I actually learned to have fun with this part. I use two tools that force me to re-think my post: Hemingway and Grammarly. Hemingway forces me to chop down my sentences as if I was making one of my aggressive salads for lunch. It takes out the “well, you know, actually, what I wanted to say…” voice from my posts. Then comes Grammarly. It saves me from terrible singular/plural verb confusion, there vs their, and a bunch of other horrors. Still, I find several more embarrassing typos after I publish the post. I end up making minor edits several times more after posting and reading my damn post so many times I’m sick of it.

Now, with that in mind, let’s dive into some of the writing tools I’ve been experimenting with in the last two months. Wait. Actually no. There’s another short introduction I have to include here:

Markdown

Markdown has been a big transition in my writing. I used to think of markdown as a tool for “writing snobs” who need “minimalistic tools” to can fart away words of wisdom. But, times change, and now I’m myself one of those annoying farts. That, and the fact that almost all good writing apps these days support Markdown one way or another.

I found that even though I never needed markdown, I grew to like it. Back when I used to use Google Docs for everything. It was easy and simple. I have always logged into my Google account anyway through Gmail and Chrome, so Google Docs was just a click away. As I drifted away toward blog-format friendly apps, I started enjoying markdown despite myself. As it turned out, seeing something in italics or bold, or having a blue underlined texts, was actually distracting. What do you know, I guess I became a writing snob despite really writing anything. Sounds about right.

The Apps I Tried

Typora: Out of all the apps I tried, Typora gave me the smoothest experience. It is a stand-alone app that makes you feel good using it. For starters, it’s Open Source and Free. It’s also minimal and fast to load, but it works with Pandoc, which is a swiss-army of sorts for parsing text. What this means is that you can write in Markdown and export the document in HTML, PDF, RTF, DOC and many more formats. It supports Markdown-on-steroids syntax, which can create tables and even simple diagrams. Typora is available for Linux and Windows but also has a working beta for MacOS.

While Typora is a great writing experience, as a stand-alone app it’s up to you to find a way to sync it. Typora doesn’t come with any organizational tools like tags, which means you need to sort your files manually. This became a hassle when I needed to copy-paste into Grammarly and Hemingway and still worry about file versions.

Simplenote: Simplenote needs no introduction. It’s been around for years and is loved by minimalists worldwide. Simplenote is very reliable. In its most basic form, you can fire up a browser, log into your account and start typing away. Simplenote has stand-alone apps for MacOS, Windows, and Linux. Because of its open API, famed writing apps like Notational Velocity and nvAlt (both for Mac only) sync with Simplenote’s servers. Indeed, many writers swear by these two excellent tools and those like them.

There aren’t many bad to things about Simplenote, except one that has to be mentioned. From all the applications mentioned here, Simplenote is the least private one. Notes in Simplenote are uploaded to Automatic‘s (the company behind WordPress) servers. Their disclaimer clearly states: “We may disclose any information about you to government or law enforcement officials or private parties,” so if this a concern for you, Simplenote might be a problem.

Standard Notes: Standard note’s biggest feature is exactly what Simplenote lack: privacy. The app encrypts all notes. The people behind Standard Note’s cannot read your stuff even if they wanted to. or have your information. From all apps I tried, this is the one I’d trust personal journal notes the most. Standard Note has a premium plan which comes with “extensions.” These give you useful features like different themes, editors (including markdown editor), and attaching files through Google Drive or Dropbox.

Standard Notes also lacks Simplenote’s best feature: smoothness. While the Android app is well polished, I found the way the application handles extension (through the website) to be messy. The notion that I have to pay for something as basic as markdown was somewhat of a setback. I do like the idea of privacy behind the app. But, the basic free version needs to come with a few more features, and the platform as a whole could use fine-tuning. Still, the people behind this app are passionate and hard-working, and I hope they keep it up.

JotterPad: This one is Android only. It is one of the best writing experiences I ever had on the phone. It comes with themes, markdown and sync ability with Dropbox and Google Drive right off the box. It is a good in combination with Typora: one app for your laptop, the other for your phone. JotterPad comes with premium options such as extra themes and fonts, but the basic package here stands well alone.

So…

When I started writing this post, I had a list of apps I wanted to talk about. Looking back at that list though, I realized something. Much of the “why” I use a certain app over another has to do with my writing process, not the other way around. That is, over time the apps shaped how I write as much as I shaped what apps I use.

Back when I used Google Documents, my writing process was simple and less procedural. I was also way less critical of what I had to say. Now, I realize, it’s not just the quality of what I write, or the length, or even what I try to convey. There’s a certain theme to my writing. Definitely, a lot of good stuff to think about here.