Monthly Archives: February 2018

Emacs #2: Introducing org-mode

In my first post in my series on Emacs, I described returning to Emacs after over a decade of vim, and org-mode being the reason why.

I really am astounded at the usefulness, and simplicity, of org-mode. It is really a killer app.

So what exactly is org-mode?

I wrote yesterday:

It’s an information organization platform. Its website says “Your life in plain text: Org mode is for keeping notes, maintaining TODO lists, planning projects, and authoring documents with a fast and effective plain-text system.”

That’s true, but doesn’t quite capture it. org-mode is a toolkit for you to organize things. It has reasonable out-of-the-box defaults, but it’s designed throughout for you to customize.

To highlight a few things:

  • Maintaining TODO lists: items can be scattered across org-mode files, contain attachments, have tags, deadlines, schedules. There is a convenient “agenda” view to show you what needs to be done. Items can repeat.
  • Authoring documents: org-mode has special features for generating HTML, LaTeX, slides (with LaTeX beamer), and all sorts of other formats. It also supports direct evaluation of code in-buffer and literate programming in virtually any Emacs-supported language. If you want to bend your mind on this stuff, read this article on literate devops. The entire Worg website
    is made with org-mode.
  • Keeping notes: yep, it can do that too. With full-text search, cross-referencing by file (as a wiki), by UUID, and even into other systems (into mu4e by Message-ID, into ERC logs, etc, etc.)

Getting started

I highly recommend watching Carsten Dominik’s excellent Google Talk on org-mode. It is an excellent introduction.

org-mode is included with Emacs, but you’ll often want a more recent version. Debian users can apt-get install org-mode, or it comes with the Emacs packaging system; M-x package-install RET org-mode RET may do it for you.

Now, you’ll probably want to start with the org-mode compact guide’s introduction section, noting in particular to set the keybindings mentioned in the activation section.

A good tutorial…

I’ve linked to a number of excellent tutorials and introductory items; this post is not going to serve as a tutorial. There are two good videos linked at the end of this post, in particular.

Some of my configuration

I’ll document some of my configuration here, and go into a bit of what it does. This isn’t necessarily because you’ll want to copy all of this verbatim — but just to give you a bit of an idea of some of what can be configured, an idea of what to look up in the manual, and maybe a reference for “now how do I do that?”

First, I set up Emacs to work in UTF-8 by default.

(prefer-coding-system 'utf-8)
(set-language-environment "UTF-8")

org-mode can follow URLs. By default, it opens in Firefox, but I use Chromium.

(setq browse-url-browser-function 'browse-url-chromium)

I set the basic key bindings as documented in the Guide, plus configure the M-RET behavior.

(global-set-key "\C-cl" 'org-store-link)
(global-set-key "\C-ca" 'org-agenda)
(global-set-key "\C-cc" 'org-capture)
(global-set-key "\C-cb" 'org-iswitchb)

(setq org-M-RET-may-split-line nil)

Configuration: Capturing

I can press C-c c from anywhere in Emacs. It will capture something for me, and include a link back to whatever I was working on.

You can define capture templates to set how this will work. I am going to keep two journal files for general notes about meetings, phone calls, etc. One for personal, one for work items. If I press C-c c j, then it will capture a personal item. The %a in all of these includes the link to where I was (or a link I had stored with C-c l).

(setq org-default-notes-file "~/org/")
(setq org-capture-templates
        ("t" "Todo" entry (file+headline "" "Tasks")
         "* TODO %?\n  %i\n  %u\n  %a")
        ("n" "Note/Data" entry (file+headline "" "Notes/Data")
         "* %?   \n  %i\n  %u\n  %a")
        ("j" "Journal" entry (file+datetree "~/org/")
         "* %?\nEntered on %U\n %i\n %a")
        ("J" "Work-Journal" entry (file+datetree "~/org/")
         "* %?\nEntered on %U\n %i\n %a")
(setq org-irc-link-to-logs t)

I like to link by UUIDs, which lets me move things between files without breaking locations. This helps generate UUIDs when I ask Org to store a link target for future insertion.

(require 'org-id)
(setq org-id-link-to-org-use-id 'create-if-interactive)

Configuration: agenda views

I like my week to start on a Sunday, and for org to note the time when I mark something as done.

(setq org-log-done 'time)
(setq org-agenda-start-on-weekday 0)

Configuration: files and refiling

Here I tell it what files to use in the agenda, and to add a few more to the plain text search. I like to keep a general inbox (from which I can move, or “refile”, content), and then separate tasks, journal, and knowledge base for personal and work items.

  (setq org-agenda-files (list "~/org/"
  (setq org-agenda-text-search-extra-files
        (list "~/org/"

  (setq org-refile-targets '((nil :maxlevel . 2)
                             (org-agenda-files :maxlevel . 2)
                             ("~/org/" :maxlevel . 2)
                             ("~/org/" :maxlevel . 2)
(setq org-outline-path-complete-in-steps nil)         ; Refile in a single go
(setq org-refile-use-outline-path 'file)

Configuration: Appearance

I like a pretty screen. After you’ve gotten used to org a bit, you might try this.

(require 'org-bullets)
(add-hook 'org-mode-hook
          (lambda ()
            (org-bullets-mode t)))
(setq org-ellipsis "⤵")

Coming up next…

This hopefully showed a few things that org-mode can do. Coming up next, I’ll cover how to customize TODO keywords and tags, archiving old tasks, forwarding emails to org-mode, and using git to synchronize between machines.

You can also see a list of all articles in this series.

Resources to accompany this article

Emacs #1: Ditching a bunch of stuff and moving to Emacs and org-mode

I’ll admit it. After over a decade of vim, I’m hooked on Emacs.

I’ve long had this frustration over how to organize things. I’ve followed approaches like GTD and ZTD, but things like email or large files are really hard to organize.

I had been using Asana for tasks, Evernote for notes, Thunderbird for email, a combination of ikiwiki and some other items for a personal knowledge base, and various files in an archive directory on my PC. When my new job added Slack to the mix, that was finally the last straw.

A lot of todo-management tools integrate with email — poorly. When you want to do something like “remind me to reply to this in a week”, a lot of times that’s impossible because the tool doesn’t store the email in a fashion you can easily reply to. And that problem is even worse with Slack.

It was right around then that I stumbled onto Carsten Dominik’s Google Talk on org-mode. Carsten was the author of org-mode, and although the talk is 10 years old, it is still highly relevant.

I’d stumbled across org-mode before, but each time I didn’t really dig in because I had the reaction of “an outliner? But I need a todo list.” Turns out I was missing out. org-mode is all that.

Just what IS Emacs? And org-mode?

Emacs grew up as a text editor. It still is, and that heritage is definitely present throughout. But to say Emacs is an editor would be rather unfair.

Emacs is something more like a platform or a toolkit. Not only do you have source code to it, but the very configuration is a program, and there are hooks all over the place. It’s as if it was super easy to write a Firefox plugin. A couple lines, and boom, behavior changed.

org-mode is very similar. Yes, it’s an outliner, but that’s not really what it is. It’s an information organization platform. Its website says “Your life in plain text: Org mode is for keeping notes, maintaining TODO lists, planning projects, and authoring documents with a fast and effective plain-text system.”


If you’ve ever read productivity guides based on GTD, one of the things they stress is effortless capture of items. The idea is that when something pops into your head, get it down into a trusted system quickly so you can get on with what you were doing. org-mode has a capture system for just this. I can press C-c c from anywhere in Emacs, and up pops a spot to type my note. But, critically, automatically embedded in that note is a link back to what I was doing when I pressed C-c c. If I was editing a file, it’ll have a link back to that file and the line I was on. If I was viewing an email, it’ll link back to that email (by Message-Id, no less, so it finds it in any folder). Same for participating in a chat, or even viewing another org-mode entry.

So I can make a note that will remind me in a week to reply to a certain email, and when I click the link in that note, it’ll bring up the email in my mail reader — even if I subsequently archived it out of my inbox.

YES, this is what I was looking for!

The tool suite

Once you’re using org-mode, pretty soon you want to integrate everything with it. There are browser plugins for capturing things from the web. Multiple Emacs mail or news readers integrate with it. ERC (IRC client) does as well. So I found myself switching from Thunderbird and mairix+mutt (for the mail archives) to mu4e, and from xchat+slack to ERC.

And wouldn’t you know it, I liked each of those Emacs-based tools better than the standalone they replaced.

A small side tidbit: I’m using OfflineIMAP again! I even used it with GNUS way back when.

One Emacs process to rule them

I used to use Emacs extensively, way back. Back then, Emacs was a “large” program. (Now my battery status applet literally uses more RAM than Emacs). There was this problem of startup time back then, so there was a way to connect to a running Emacs process.

I like to spawn programs with Mod-p (an xmonad shortcut to a dzen menubar, but Alt-F2 in more traditional DEs would do the trick). It’s convenient to not run several emacsen with this setup, so you don’t run into issues with trying to capture to a file that’s open in another one. The solution is very simple: I created a script, named it em, and put it on my path. All it does is this:

exec emacsclient -c -a "" "$@"

It creates a new emacs process if one doesn’t already exist; otherwise, it uses what you’ve got. A bonus here: parameters such as -nw work just fine, so it really acts just as if you’d typed emacs at the shell prompt. It’s a suitable setting for EDITOR.

Up next…

I’ll be talking about my use of, and showing off configurations for:

  • org-mode, including syncing between computers, capturing, agenda and todos, files, linking, keywords and tags, various exporting (slideshows), etc.
  • mu4e for email, including multiple accounts, bbdb integration
  • ERC for IRC and IM

You can also see a list of all articles in this series.

Remembering Tom Wallis, The System Administrator That Made The World Better

I never asked Tom why he hired me.

I was barely 17 at the time – already a Debian developer, full of more enthusiasm than experience, and Tom offered me a job. It was my first real sysadmin job, and to my delight, I got to work with Unix. For two years, I was the part-time assistant systems administrator for the Computer Science department at Wichita State University. And Tom was my boss, mentor, and old friend. Tom was walking proof that a system administrator can make the world a better place.

That amazing time was two decades ago now. And in the time since, every so often Tom and I would exchange emails. I enjoyed occasionally dropping by his office at work and surprising him.

So it was a shock to get an email this week that Tom had married for the first time at age 54, and passed away four days later due to a boating accident while on his honeymoon.

Tom was a man with a big laugh and an even bigger heart. When I started a Linux Users Group (LUG) on campus, there was Tom – helping to arrange a place to meet, Internet access when we needed it, and gave his evenings to simply be present and a supporter.

I had (and still have) a passion for Free/Open Source software. Linux was just new at the time, and was barely present in the department when I started. I was fortunate that CS was the “little dept. that could” back then, with wonderful people but not a lot of money, so a free operating system helped with a lot of problems. Tom supported me in my enthusiasm to introduce Debian all over the place. His trust meant much, and brought out the best in me.

I learned a lot from Tom, and more than just technology. A state university can be heavily bureaucratic place at times. Tom was friends with every “can-do” person on campus, it seemed, and they all managed to pull through and get things done – sometimes working around policies that were a challenge.

I have sometimes wondered if I am doing enough, making a big enough difference in the world. Does a programmer really make a difference in people’s lives?

Tom Wallis is proof that the answer is yes. From the stories I heard at his funeral today, I can only guess how many other lives he touched.

This week, Tom gave me one final gift: a powerful reminder that sysadmins and developers can make the world a better place, can touch people’s lives. I hope Tom knew how much I appreciated him. If I find a way to make a difference in someone’s life — maybe an intern I’ve hired, or someone I take flying — than I will have found a way to pass on Tom’s gift to another, and I hope I can.


(This penguin was sitting out on the table of memorabilia from Tom today. I remember it from a shelf in his office.)

The downfall of… Trump or Democracy?

The future of the United States as a democracy is at risk. That’s plenty scary. More scary is that many Americans know this, but don’t care. And even more astonishing is that this same thing happened 45 years ago.

I remember it clearly. January 30, just a couple weeks ago. On that day, we had the news that FBI deputy director McCabe — a frequent target of apparently-baseless Trump criticism — had been pushed out. The Trump administration refused to enforce the bipartisan set of additional sanctions on Russia. And the House Intelligence Committee voted on party lines to release what we all knew then, and since have seen confirmed, was a memo filled with errors designed to smear people investigating the president, but which nonetheless contained enough classified material to cause an almighty kerfuffle in Washington.

I told my wife that evening, “I think today will be remembered as a turning point. Either to the downfall of Trump, or the downfall of our democracy, but I don’t know which.”

I have not written much about this scandal, because so many quality words have already been written. But it is time to add something.

I was interested in Watergate years ago. Back in middle school, I read All the President’s Men. I wondered what it must have been like to live through those events — corruption at the highest level of government, dirty tricks, not knowing how it would play out. I wished I could have experienced it.

A couple of decades later, I have got my wish and I am not amused. After all:

“If these allegations prove to be true, what they were seeking to steal was not the jewels, money or other property of American citizens, but something much more valuable — their most precious heritage, the right to vote in a free election…

If the allegations… are substantiated, there has been a very serious subversion of the integrity of the electoral process, and the committee will be obliged to consider the manner in which such a subversion affects the continued existence of this nation as a representative democracy, and how, if we are to survive, such subversions may be prevented in the future.”

Sen. Sam Ervin Jr, May 17, 1973

That statement from 45 years ago captures accurately my contemporary fears. If foreign interference in our elections is not only tolerated but embraced, where does that leave us? Are we really a republic anymore?

I have been diving back into Watergate. In One Man Against The World: The Tragedy of Richard Nixon, written by Tim Weiner in 2015, he dives into the Nixon story in unprecedented detail, thanks to the release of many more files from that time. In his very first page, he writes:

[Nixon] made war in pursuit of peace. He committed crimes in the name of the law. He tore the country apart while trying to unite it. He sabotaged his presidency by violating the Constitution. He destroyed himself and damaged the nation through deliberate acts of folly…

He practiced geopolitics without subtlety; he preferred subterfuge and brutality. He dropped bombs and napalm without remorse; he believed they delivered a political message beyond flood and fire. Hr charted the course of the war without a strategy; he delivered victory to his adversaries.

His gravest decisions undermined his allies abroad. His grandest delusions armed his enemies at home…

The truth was not in him; secrecy and deception were his touchstones.

That these words describe another American president, one that I’m sure Weiner had not foreseen, is jarring. The parallels between Nixon and Trump in the pages of Weiner’s book are so strong that one sometimes wonders if Weiner has a more accurate story of Trump than Wolff got – and also if the pages of his book let us see what’s in store for us this year.

Today I started listening to the excellent podcast Slow Burn. If you have time for nothing else, listen to episode 5: True Believers. It discusses the politicization of the Senate Watergate committee, and more ominously, the efforts of reports to understand the people that still supported Nixon — despite all the damning testimony already out there.

Gail Sheehy went to a bar where Nixon supporters gathered, wanting to get their reaction to the Watergate hearings. The supporters didn’t want to watch. They thought the hearings were just an attempt by liberals to take down Nixon. Sheehy found the president’s people to be “angry, demoralized, and disconcertingly comfortable with the idea of a police state run by Richard Nixon.”

These guys felt they were nobodies… except Richard Nixon gave them an identity. He was a tough guy who was “going to get rid of all those anti-war people, anarchists, terrorists… the people that were tearing down our country!”

Art Buchwald’s tongue-in-cheek handy excuses for Nixon backers seems to be copied almost verbatim by Fox News (substitute Hillary’s emails for Chappaquiddick).

And what happened to the scum of Richard Nixon’s era? Yes, some went to jail, but not all.

  • Steve King, one of Nixon’s henchmen that kidnapped Martha Mitchell (wife of Attorney General and Nixon henchman John Mitchell) for a week to keep her from spilling the beans on Watergate, beat her up, and had her drugged — well he was appointed by Trump to be ambassador to the Czech Republic and confirmed by the Senate.
  • The man that said that the Watergate burglars were “not criminal at heart” because “their only aim was to re-elect the president” later got elected president himself, and pardoned one of the burglars. (Ronald Reagan)
  • The man that said “just let the president do his job!” was also elected president (George H. W. Bush)
  • The man that finally carried out Nixon’s order to fire special prosecutor Archibald Cox was nominated to the Supreme Court, but his nomination was blocked in the Senate. (Robert Bork) He was, however, on the United States Court of Appeals for 6 years.
  • And in an odd conspiracy-laden introduction to a reprint of a youth’s history book on Watergate, none other than Roger Stone, wrapped up in Trump’s shenanigans, was trying to defend Nixon. Oh, and he was a business partner with Paul Manafort and lobbyist for Ferdinand Marcos.

One comfort from all of this is the knowledge that we had been there before. We had lived through an era of great progress in civil rights, and right after that elected a dictatorial crook president. We survived the president’s fervent supporters refusing to believe overwhelming evidence of his crookedness. We survived.

And yet, that is no guarantee. After all, as John Dean put it, Nixon “might have survived if there’d been a Fox News.”

The Big Green Weasel Song

One does not normally get into one’s car intending to sing about barfing green weasels to the tune of a Beethoven symphony for a quarter of an hour. And yet, somehow, that’s what I wound up doing today.

Little did I know that when Jacob started band last fall, it would inspire him to sing about weasels to the tune of Beethoven’s 9th. That may come as a surprise to his band teacher, too, who didn’t likely expect that having the kids learn the theme to the Ninth Symphony would inspire them to sing about large weasels.

But tonight, as we were driving, I mentioned that I knew the original German words. He asked me to sing. I did.

Then, of course, Jacob and Oliver tried to sing it back in German. This devolved into gibberish and a fit of laughter pretty quick, and ended with something sounding like “schneezel”. So of course, I had to be silly and added, “I have a big green weasel!”

From then on, they were singing about big green weasels. It wasn’t long before they decided they would sing “the chorus” and I was supposed to improvise verse after verse about these weasels. Improvising to the middle of the 9th Symphony isn’t the easiest thing, but I had verses about giving weasels a hug, about weasels smelling like a bug, about a green weasel on a chair, about a weasel barfing on the stair. And soon, Jacob wanted to record the weasel song to make a CD of it. So we did, before we even got to town. Here it is:

[Youtube link]

I love to hear children delight in making music. And I love to hear them enjoying Beethoven. Especially with weasels.

I just wonder what will happen when they learn about Mozart.

How are you handling building local Debian/Ubuntu packages?

I’m in the middle of some conversations about Debian/Ubuntu repositories, and I’m curious how others are handling this.

How are people maintaining repos for an organization? Are you integrating them with a git/CI (github/gitlab, jenkins/travis, etc) workflow? How do packages propagate into repos? How do you separate prod from testing? Is anyone running buildd locally, or integrating with more common CI tools?

I’m also interested in how people handle local modifications of packages — anything from newer versions of C libraries to newer interpreters. Do you just use the regular Debian toolchain, packaging them up for (potentially) the multiple distros/versions that you have in production? Pin them in apt?

Just curious what’s out there.

Some Googling has so far turned up just one relevant hit: Michael Prokop’s DebConf15 slides, “Continuous Delivery of Debian packages”. Looks very interesting, and discusses jenkins-debian-glue.

Some tangentially-related but interesting items:

Edit 2018-02-02: I should have also mentioned BuildStream