Technology: Todo.txt, PowerShell, and OneNote

26 07 2007

So this is pretty geeky of me. I read the description of people who keep their list of things to do in just a plain text file, and then use computer scripts to process it. You can read more here: http://todotxt.com/. To quote the website:

Plain text is software and operating system agnostic. It’s searchable, portable, lightweight and easily manipulated. It’s unstructured. It works when someone else’s web server is down or your Outlook .PST file is corrupt. Since it’s been around since the dawn of computing, it’s safe to say it’s completely future-proof. There’s no exporting and importing, no databases or tags or flags or stars or prioritizing or [Insert company name here]-induced rules on what you can and can’t do with it.

Todo.txt is a flat text file that contains one task per line, each optionally associated with a context, project and priority for slicing, dicing and sorting.

The website then refers readers to a shell script that manipulates the contents of todo.txt (you know, when you just can’t fire up emacs). Well, I figured, why should the Unix users have all of the fun? So for us Windows users, I wrote a series of PowerShell scripts that can be used to manipulate a todo.txt file. You can find the scripts here: TodoTxtPowerShell.zip. These scripts are provided under the Microsoft Community License. In the package, the file about_TodoTxt.help.txt gives more information about the scripts.

While these scripts are certainly useful, if you’re going to keep all your todo items in a text file, I don’t think the scripts make things any easier than just editing the file in Notepad. These scripts are probably more useful as an example of how to use PowerShell for text processing. The scripts are pretty straightforward and make reasonable sample code for PowerShell. When I have more time, I might dissect the scripts in this blog.

One bonus of moving to a PowerShell world for scripting is that I’m not confined to storing these lines of text in a text file. Thanks to the OneNote PowerShell Provider, my PowerShell scripts can manipulate text on OneNote pages as well as in text files. So if you live out of OneNote and want to bring the simplicity of a todo.txt-style todo list to the place you keep the rest of your notes, well, now you have a set of scripts that can help you manipulate those todo items.

As an aside, the OneNote integration came (mostly) for free, and I think it really shows off the long-term potential that PowerShell’s provider model brings. It becomes quite easy to stitch data together from multiple sources.





Completely pointless iPhone observation

19 07 2007

The iPhone is polluting how I interact with other technology. I was just reading through a Word document on my laptop and I was confused for several seconds because the document wasn’t scrolling properly. Then I realized it was because I was flicking the laptop touchpad like an iPhone screen, which of course works in exactly the opposite way.

No wonder most people get confused by technology.





I Bought an iPhone

18 07 2007

My wife tells me this is because I have no ability to resist buying gadgets. Looking at the smartphones I’ve owned in the past two years, there might be something to it.

Parade of Smartphones

And if I still had my non-phone PDAs, the collection of personal gadgets would be even longer. (Palm III in 1998, HP Jornada 540, Compaq iPaq 3630, HP Jornada 567, iPaq 2200 series.)

So in spite of changing my PDA on average once a year, there are a few things about this purchase that did make me a little queasy. First, it’s the first time since my Palm III that I’ve used a device that doesn’t run a Microsoft operating system. Second, I had the device that immediately preceeded my iPhone (the Treo 750 in the picture) for less than two months. I had the device before it (the Cingular 3125 flip phone) for about eight months. Why have I been compelled to fly through devices so fast recently? Finally, I’ve had to put down more money for the iPhone than I have for any PDA. (I can’t recall the details, but the HP Jornada 540 might have been close in price.)

So what made me do it? Why did I go from flip phone to keyboard phone to iPhone in less than a year? Why have I abandoned Microsoft in my pocket?

There are two main reasons. The first is the simply stunning form factor of the iPhone. It’s half the thickness of the Treo, and the screen is amazing. I haven’t seen another portable screen like it. Browsing through photos on the iPhone is a great experience. I can show off baby pictures on this phone, and it will be as good or better as carrying a stack of 4×6 prints.

Second, the iPhone gives a great experience browsing the web. Much better than I’ve been able to do with any other portable device.

This last point highlights the interesting tradeoff I’ve made as a Microsoft employee. The Treo is the pinnacle of the business phone. It’s just as pleasant to hold as the iPhone (actually, I think the Treo feels better in my hand, while the thinner iPhone feels better in my pocket). The Treo plugged in seamlessly and effortlessly into our corporate Exchange servers. With it and its keyboard, I was mind-melded with the corporate information grid. But the Treo’s connection to the rest of the web is weak.

The iPhone is the opposite. With the iPhone, my connection to the Corporate Grid is tenuous (email on the iPhone is unpleasant, and my calendar is no longer always-up-to-date). But my connection to the rest of the Internet — to Google, to Facebook, to Flickr, to YouTube, to Amazon, etc., etc.  — is incredible.

That’s the about-face I decided to make. After nine years of buying devices that brought me increasingly in touch with the corporate world, I decided I’d rather have something in my pocket that would better connect me to the rest of the world.

Now that I have this fancy phone, though, I guess I better use it to call people!

PC and Mac





OneNote PowerShell Provider

18 07 2007

Worlds collide — up until now, I’ve been writing about my personal life. But I also have some things to share about work and technology. I thought about creating a separate website to publish that information, but finally decided that because I’m a combination of geekiness, and proud fatherhood, and other odd interests stuck together, then it’s OK to have this site be a combination of odd things stuck together. So, if you’re here for the baby pictures, then you should just skip the technology posts. And if you’re here for technology, then you should skip the baby pictures.

This is a technology post.

There are two pieces of Microsoft technology that I’ve been using recently and I love. The first is OneNote, which is the first program that I think can replace my cherished paper notebooks. Not only is OneNote a great place to write down all of those thoughts I don’t want to forget, it’s also turning into a wonderful tool for collaboration. Starting in OneNote 2007, OneNote has incredible “shared notebook” functionality. With OneNote 2007, you can have a team of people all contributing information to a single notebook. It’s a great way to build a common repository of knowledge.

The second piece of Microsoft technology I love is PowerShell. This is the ultimate geek-chic tool. It’s a powerful command line / scripting environment.

I now use these programs all the time. And like a Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup, I wondered if these two great technologies would be even better if brought together? So I’ve tried to bring them together in the form of a OneNote PowerShell provider. This is a PowerShell extension that lets you create and manipulate OneNote notebooks, sections, and pages from PowerShell. You can use provider to do some interesting automation using OneNote.

Here’s an example: One thing I wanted was a tool that sends email when pages in a shared OneNote notebook change. This turned out to be pretty easy to do in PowerShell. With the OneNote PowerShell provider, the following lines of script get all of the pages that have changed after a particular time — I use this line in the script to find all pages that have changed since the last time I ran the script.

$changedPages = dir $Notebook -recurse | 
    where-object { ([datetime]$_.lastModifiedTime -gt $targetDate) -and (!$_.PSIsContainer) }

The dir -recurse command gets me a listing of all of the pages, sections, and section groups in the notebook. The where-object clause is then used to whittle the list down to only pages (that’s the !$_.PSIsContainer bit) and only pages that have changed after $targetDate.

Then, I can use the following pipeline to export the changed OneNote pages to MHT format and remember the resulting filenames.

$exportedFileNames = $changedPages | 
    export-onenote -output $outputDirectory -format mht | get-propertyvalue ExportedFile

Finally, I use the Send-SMTPMail cmdlet from the PowerShell Community Extensions to send the email containing all of the changed pages.

While the core of the script is just those three pipelines, there’s a lot more to the script (217 lines more, to be exact) to do things like parameter validation, formatting, etc. But still, writing and maintaining 220 lines of script was a lot easier than maintaining the couple of thousands of lines of code it would otherwise take to accomplish the same task.

If you want to play with the OneNote PowerShell extension, I’m making it publicly available under the Microsoft Community License. You can find the binary files here: OneNotePowershell.msi. The source files are here: OnPsProvider-1158.zip.

If you install the provider, it will install several sample scripts as well, including the script I’ve been discussing here (Get-OneNoteDigest.ps1).

If you just want to read the documentation that comes with the provider and the scripts, it exists in OneNote format: OneNote PowerShell Documentation.

If you want to use PowerShell with OneNote to build useful tools, let me know. I’ll be curious to see how you use it.