Tuesday, 14 July 2009

Expanding the Omniverse

Anybody who's worked with me in about the last 25 years knows that I've been preaching the idea that software craftfolk should never stop learning. Further, I've always believed that learning new languages or tools is one of the easiest ways to accomplish this, keeping the mind supple and open to new ways of doing things. And by and large, I've kept this up, learning enough of a new or long-neglected language to at least be able to read and patch code every two or three months. (You do the math.)

One of the languages that I learned rather early on in its lifecycle is Ruby. (Wikipedia has a rather good article summarizing the history, if you're unfamiliar with it.) Early 1.0-1.4 or thereabouts releases were interesting — they showed the power and promise of the concepts that Ruby is built on, without the bloated inscrutability of, say, perl. As so often has happened, I'd learned just enough to be dangerous, and then got sucked back into the charnel house that is Microsoft Windows development. By the time I had the time and inclination to start messing with Ruby again, an unfortunate thing happened.

Ruby on Rails.

Not that Rails isn't a great tool for building 37signals-type Websites; it clearly is. But it became a victim of its own hype and started being used for everything imaginable — famously including Twitter (a hype explosion in its own right.) Rails was enough to push me — and apparently a good number of other folks — away from Ruby and onto other languages, notably Python. And so I spent the bulk of the next couple of years in PHP, Python, C++, Objective-C, D (another bit of unsung genius), and managed to keep busy.

We developers have a well-known cliché for what drives us to do new things or participate in development projects; "scratching an itch". To scratch an itch in this context is to solve a problem that we ourselves are facing, or to do something that otherwise interests us. What got me motivated to get back up to speed in Ruby wasn't the Rails hype, or even seeing all the nice APIs that Twitter and Repertoire had made available. My problem was a bit simpler and more immediate.

Apple's Mail app started crashing under the load I was giving it. For about a year, I'd had a mail store that averaged about 2 GB and I was getting on the order of 600 to 800 emails a day. I don't mean to be critical of the app; it just wasn't designed to do what I was asking it to, certainly not when sharing 2 GB of RAM with the rest of the system. By the time I migrated away from Mail, I had over 400 filtering rules defined, to slice and dice incoming emails into appropriate folders where I could deal with them as I chose.

In late May, 2009, I up and migrated my email from Apple Mail to Microsoft Entourage. For those of you whose only exposure to Microsoft email software has been Exchange or Lookout! ("Outlook") Express, you're in for a pleasant shock. Entourage runs quite happily in the system as it is (even if I can't run certain other apps at the same time without upgrading RAM), and doesn't give me the maddening ten-minute freezes that were common with Apple Mail as it tried to figure out what to do next. Importing my existing mail store was a breeze. The filtering rules even came along for the ride, and Microsoft's rules editor is a real treat. There was, however, one small problem.

Somehow, the ordering of rules had become scrambled during the import, and after a few weeks of hand-editing to fix the biggest problems, I started looking for a program that would let me import, export, reorder and bulk-edit Entourage's rules. So far, I haven't been able to find one. (If anybody knows of anything useful, please add a comment or email me.) OK, I thought, no problem; nearly everything on the Mac is scriptable. I should just need to learn how to access Entourage's rule set from AppleScript or something similar, then I can write the tool I want. Not trivial, but certainly something that seemed conceptually quite practical.

So I started learning AppleScript, and casting about for tools and sample code that talked to Entourage from AppleScript. While searching, I ran across Matt Neuberg's site. Dr. Neuberg wrote the definitive guide on AppleScript — and then found something that worked better for him: rb-appscript. He's written an online book about it (eventually to be published on dead trees). At this point, I said "ok, let's get started with Ruby again and see what we can do."

If anybody has any pointers or suggestions, please comment. Thanks for reading.

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