Posts tagged emacs

Bye bye Address Book, welcome BBDB

About two years ago I wrote a post about why and how I abandoned Apple's iCal for my agenda management and moved to Emacs org-mode instead. Now I am in the process of making the second step in the same direction: I am abandoning Apple's Address Book and starting to use the "Big Brother DataBase", the most popular contact management system from the Emacs universe.

What started to annoy me seriously about Address Book is a bug that makes the database and its backups grow over time, even if no contacts are added, because the images for the contacts keep getting copied and never deleted under certain circumstances. I ended up having address book backups of 200 MB for just 500 contacts, which is ridiculous. A quick Web search shows that the problem has been known for years but has not yet been fixed.

When I upgraded from MacOS 10.6 to 10.7 about a year ago (I am certainly not an early adopter of new MacOS versions), I had a second reason to dislike Address Book: the user interface had been completely re-designed and become a mess in the process. Every time I use it I have to figure out again how to navigate groups and contacts.

I had been considering moving to BBDB for a while, but I hadn't found any good solution for synchronizing contacts with my Android phone. That changed when I discovered ASynK, which does a bi-directional synchronization between a BBDB database and a Google Contacts account. That setup actually works better than anything I ever tried to synchronize Address Book with Google Contacts, so I gained more than I expected in the transition.

At first glance, it may seem weird to move from technology of the 2000's to technology of the 1970's. But the progress over that period in managing rather simple data such as contact information has been negligible. The big advantage of the Emacs platform over the MacOS platform is that it doesn't try to take control over my data. A BBDB database is just a plain text file whose structure is apparent after five minutes of study, whereas an Address Book database is stored in a proprietary format. A second advantage is that the Emacs developer community fixes bugs a lot faster than Apple does. A less shiny (but perfectly usable) user interface is a small price to pay.

Bye bye iCal, welcome org-mode

I have been using Macintosh computers since 2003, and overall I have been happy with the personal information management (PIM) tools provided by Apple: AddressBook, Mail, Safari (for bookmark management). The one tool I have never liked is iCal. Its user interface is fine for consulting my agenda, but entering information is too complicated and the todo-list management is particularly clumsy. But more importantly, I regularly found myself wanting to add information for which no entry field was provided. I ended up putting it into the "notes" section, or leave it out. Another unplesant feature of iCal is that all the information is stored in a complex proprietary database, making synchronization between several computers impossible except through cloud-based server solutions such as Apple's MobileMe (quite expensive) or fruux (much nicer in my opinion, but it still requires trusting your data to a cloud service).

Being unhappy with a tool for an important task implies looking for better options, but I didn't find anything that I liked. Until one day I discovered, mostly by accident, the org-mode package that has been distributed with Emacs for a while. org-mode is one of those pieces of software that is so powerful that it is difficult to describe to someone who has never used it. Basically, org-mode uses plain text files with a special lightweight markup syntax for things like todo items or time stamps (but there is a lot more), and then provides sophisticated and very configurable functions for working with this data. It can be used for keeping agendas, todo lists, journals, simple databases such as bookmark lists, spreadsheets, and much more. Most importantly, all of these can coexist in a single text file if you want, and the contents of this file can be structured in any way you like. You can even add pieces of executable code and thus use org-mode for literal programming, but that's a topic for another post.

To be more concrete, my personal information database in org-mode consists of several files at the top level: for organizing my workday, for tasks and appointments related to private life, for notes about research projects, for notes (mostly bookmarks) about software development, etc. Inside my, there is a section on research projects, one on teaching, one on my editorial work for CiSE, one for refereeing, etc. Inside each of these sections, there are agenda entries (seminars, meetings, courses etc.) and todo entries with three priority levels and optional deadlines. Any of them can be accompanied by notes of any kind, including links, references to files on my disk, and even executable shell commands. There is no limit to what you store there.

In October 2010 I started the transition from iCal to org-mode. Initially I entered all data twice, to make sure I could continue to rely on iCal. After a week I was confident enough to enter everything just once, using org-mode. I then transferred all agenda items for 2011 to org-mode and decided to stop using iCal on Januray 1, 2011. That day has arrived, and the iCal icon has disappeared from my dock. Without any regrets.

Conclusion: If you need a powerful PIM system and you don't fear Emacs, have a look at org-mode.

Tags: computational science, computer-aided research, emacs, mmtk, mobile computing, programming, proteins, python, rants, reproducible research, science, scientific computing, scientific software, social networks, software, source code repositories, sustainable software

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