Monday, March 24, 2014

Emacspeak Webspace: Glancing At Information On The Audio Desktop

A Web News Ticker For Emacs

1 WebSpace: A Web News Ticker For Emacs

Module Emacspeak-Webspace provides a rolling ticker of information that is automatically retrieved, cached and maintained by Emacspeak. Using this functionality, you can set up specific buffers to have interesting tidbits of information displayed automatically in the header-line; Emacspeak speaks these items of information as you switch contexts. This article explains the usage model and underlying design of Emacspeak Webspaces.

1.1 Background

The Emacspeak Webspace module was originally created in early Interaction Free Information Access (2008) because I wanted the audio equivalent of being able to quickly glance at information. Here are some aspects of visual interaction that I wanted to emulate:

  • You can quickly glance at something while switching contexts, and ignore it if it is not important.
  • The object that you glance at while switching contexts does not become an object of attention ie, the casual task remains casual, as opposed to becoming the primary task. Email is the antithesis to this model — where if you start glancing at email, it's a sufficiently strong distraction that you'll start doing email — as opposed to what you were supposed to be doing.
  • If the item you glanced at deserves further attention, you can come back to it later — and the system gives you sufficient confidence in your ability to come back to it later — note that this is essential to ensure the previous requirement.
  • Items are cached but get pushed out by newer items — this makes sure you dont feel pressured to read everything or have to explicitly catch-up — in prior systems including email and Google Reader, I always found the task of hitting catch-up without reading everything a fairly stressful experience.
  • Applied to information updates, think hallway conversations outside your office — you mostly ignore them, but sometime get drawn because you hear some specific keywords and/or concepts that draw your attention.

1.2 Early Implementation In 2009

I used the WebSpace functionality in Emacspeak for news and weather updates starting 2009; at some time in late 2009, I cut it over to get updates from my Google Reader stream. It was extremely effective for my usage pattern — I typically activated the functionality in all shell buffers. In my work style where I switch among the primary tasks of engineering (writing/reviewing code), writing/reviewing design documents, and doing email to facilitate the previous two tasks, the shell buffer is where I switch to while context-switching e.g., launching a build after writing code as an example. Having the Webspace functionality say something interesting at those times was optimal.

1.3 Initial Implementation And Design

The information to be pulled in the rolling header line is pulled from a cache — in 2009, this cache was populated from my Google Reader stream. The cache was maintained in a ring with older items falling off the end. You could optionally switch to a buffer displaying all of the currently cached items — this functionality assured me that I could always later find an item that had caught my attention while I was in the process of context switching amongst tasks. Notice that if I didn't go back and check for that item within a day, it would fall off the ring-buffer cache — and this usually would mean that it likely wasn't that important after all.

1.4 Life After Google Reader

With the passing of Google Reader last year, I started implementing the feed-reading functionality I needed in Emacspeak independent of Google Reader; see the earlier article in this blog titled Managing And Accessing Feeds On The Emacspeak Audio Desktop. Next, I updated the Emacspeak WebSpace functionality to build its cache from the set of feeds in emacspeakfeeds.

1.5 Usage Pattern

This section details my own usage pattern and set-up — this is by no means the only way to use this functionality.

  1. Emacspeak binds Webspace functionality to Hyper Space as a prefix key.
  2. Hyper Space h invokes command emacspeak-webspace-headlines — this command initializes the feed-store cache, and sets up the header-line in the current buffer to display a rolling ticker. Note that you can invoke this command in multiple buffers; those buffers will share a common headlines cache.
  3. The feed-store is updated during Emacs idle-time; I often invoke the elisp form (emacspeak-webspace-headlines-populate) to populate the cache initially. Note that depending on your network, and the number of feeds you have in emacspeak-feeds, this can block emacs for a couple of minutes.
  4. Command emacspeak-webspace-headlines-browse displays an interactive buffer containing the current set of cached headlines — this is where you go to track down a headline you heard in passing. I bind this to Super h by customizing emacspeak-super-keys.
  5. You can set up other types of information in your rolling header — something I initially used it for was weather — see command emacspeak-webspace-weather personally, I 've not found this as useful in CA given how consistently good the weather is here.
  6. For related work in Emacs, see Emacs package newsticker. That package works well with Emacspeak, but in using it earlier, I found that I could not prevent myself from starting to read content i.e., it failed to meet the glance and continue requirement.

Date: <2014-03-24 Mon>

Author: T.V Raman

Created: 2014-03-24 Mon 18:00

Emacs (Org mode 8.2.5c)