For the past couple weeks, I’ve been working with Thomas “cmdln” Gideon (host of the fabulously nerdy Command Line podcast) on a free software project for writers called “Flashbake.” This is a set of Python scripts that check your hot files for changes every 15 minutes, and checks in any changed files to a local git repository. Git is a free “source control” program used by programmers to track changes to source-code, but it works equally well on any text file. If you write in a text-editor like I do, then Flashbake can keep track of your changes for you as you go.
I was prompted to do this after discussions with several digital archivists who complained that, prior to the computerized era, writers produced a series complete drafts on the way to publications, complete with erasures, annotations, and so on. These are archival gold, since they illuminate the creative process in a way that often reveals the hidden stories behind the books we care about. By contrast, many writers produce only a single (or a few) digital files that are modified right up to publication time, without any real systematic records of the interim states between the first bit of composition and the final draft.
Enter Flashbake. Every 15 minutes, Flashbake looks at any files that you ask it to check (I have it looking at all my fiction-in-progress, my todo list, my file of useful bits of information, and the completed electronic versions of my recent books), and records any changes made since the last check, annotating them with the current timezone on the system-clock, the weather in that timezone as fetched from Google, and the last three headlines with your by-line under them in your blog’s RSS feed (I’ve been characterizing this as “Where am I, what’s it like there, and what am I thinking about?”). It also records your computer’s uptime. For a future version, I think it’d be fun to have the most recent three songs played by your music player.
The effect of this is to thoroughly — exhaustively — annotate the entire creative process, almost down to the keystroke level. Want to know what day you wrote a particular passage? Flashbake can tell you. Want to know what passage you wrote on a given day? That too. Plus, keeping track of my todo.txt file means that I get a searchable database of all the todo items I’ve ever used, with timestamps for their appearance and erasure.
Additionally, since git repositories are made to replicate, you can publish some or all of your projects to the public web or to a private site. I’m hoping that my publisher will use a public git repo to check out the most recent versions of my in-print books every time they go back to press for a new edition, and use the built-in compare (“diff”) function to find all the typos I’ve fixed since the last edition.
It’s all pretty nerdy, I admit. But if you’re running some kind of Unix variant (I use Ubuntu Intrepid Ibex, but this’d probably do fine on a Mac with OS X, too) and you want to give it a whirl, Thomas has made all the scripts available as free software. He’s working on a new version now with plugin support, which is exciting!
Cory wanted the version to carry prompts, snapshots of where he was at the time an automated commit occurred and what he was thinking. I quickly sketched out a Python script to pull the contextual information he wanted and started hacking together a shell script to drive git, using the Python script’s output for the commit comment when a cron job invoked the shell wrapper.
I added my own idea to the project, borrowing from continuous integration build systems the idea of a quiet period. I could easily imagine Cory actively working on a story, saving continually and a commit happening mechanically in the midst of that writing being less useful than if the script could find a quiet time to commit. This enhancement prompted me to ditch my shell script wrapper and pull that logic all into Python.