How Random Babbling Becomes Corporate Policy (t3knomanser) wrote,
How Random Babbling Becomes Corporate Policy

Email to Notational Velocity : an Idea Mining Solution

I've discussed Idea Mining before: every idea that pops into your head, jot it down. When you're looking for inspiration, or have some time to develop some idea, poke around in your mine and see what grabs you.

I started using Evernote, which had the advantage of syncing, but recently switched to Notational Velocity. It lacks syncing, but is much more lightweight. When I'm sitting at my computer, the amount of friction in jotting down new notes is minimized. It's a great tool, but by switching to it, I gave up syncing. This means, for example, I can't jot ideas on my phone and have them show up on my computer.

At least, not by default. But I'm not going to be thwarted by such details. So, I sat down, banged out some settings and scripts that let you sync emails in your GMail account to Notational Velocity.

What follows is a high level overview of the steps. It's not hard to do, although it took a little doing to figure out.

You're going to need the following things:
  • OSX Leopard or later
  • Developer tools installed (on your OSX install disk, or downloaded from Apple)
  • Notational Velocity
  • A Gmail account with IMAP enabled

Configure Notational Velocity

Once you have Notational Velocity installed, you're going to need to make one settings change: on the Notes tab of the Preferences window, change "Store and read notes on disk as:" to Plain Text Files. Note also the Folder that you store your notes in on this pane.

Configure Gmail

You need to enable IMAP from the settings pane.

You also need to configure a filter for a pseudo-address. In the filter section of settings, create a filter along these lines:
Matches: to:([your email]
Do this: Skip Inbox, Apply label "Notes"

This means that, every time you send an email to [your address], it's actually going to come to your account, but get labeled with Notes (which is a folder in IMAP).

Get SSH Prepared

This step, sadly, does involve a little command-lineage. You can only connect to Gmail's IMAP interface over SSH, and fetchmail needs the certificates where it can find them for this to work.

From /Applications/Utilities fire up Terminal, and type the following:
openssl s_client -connect -showcerts

This command will output a big pile of of text, but up at the top, you'll see a large block of output that starts with:
(a big bunch of characters here)
(there are two of these blocks, you want the first one, which is actually for

Copy that text (including the BEGIN and END lines) and save it to a file called ~/.ssl/certs/gmailimap.pem. You will likely need to create those directories before you can save it.

You need one more certificate, which you can download from here (where it says "Equifax Secure Certificate Authority (Base-64 encoded X.509"), and save it as ~/.ssl/certs/equifax.pem.

To make these certs usable by fetchmail, you have to run one last command at the command line:
c_rehash ~/.ssl/certs.

This step is a lot easier if you know your way around the command line. The bulk of this SSH section was adapted from here.

Download this file and save it in ~/Scripts (a directory you'll need to create). You'll also need to make it executable, which involves another command-line bit:
chmod +x ~/Scripts/

Open that file in a text editor and change the first two lines per the instructions in the file. Basically, you need to tell it where to find your mail (/var/mail/[your mac username]) and your Notes folder (remember I told you to keep track of that).

This script parses your local Unix mail (deep inside OSX, it has nothing to do with or Thunderbird or anything you normally use for email) and turns what's there into notes in Notational Velocity.

We're almost done. The last step is to…

Configure Fetchmail

If you're using Snow Leopard or Leopard, fetchmail is already installed. It's a powerful tool for one task: downloading email from remote systems and putting them on yours. Specifically, into the local Unix mail.

Fetchmail works off of a configuration file. Create a file called ~/.fetchmailrc. In this file, you'll need to paste these settings:
set daemon 1300 #the number is the number of seconds between polling attempts

poll proto IMAP port 993 user "" password "yourpassword" keep folder "Notes" ssl mda "/usr/bin/procmail -d %T" postconnect "~/Scripts/ && > /var/mail/yourmacusername"

Change "youraddress" and "yourpassword" to your Gmail username and password. Change "yourmacusername" to whatever your username on your Mac is. It may contain spaces, in which case you'll need to escape them like so: /var/mail/Remy\ Porter. Note, that is a "\" followed by a space.

To test this much, send yourself some emails that should be turned into notes (don't forget the +mine!), and then, at the command prompt, simply type the command:

Once it works, we want to make sure it runs every time you log on, so download this file and put it in your scripts folder. From the command line, type:
chmod +x ~/Scripts/fetchmail.command.

Now, in your OSX System Preferences, go to Accounts, select yours, and add a Login Item that runs fetchmail.command.


Using It

Now that you've got it set up, send an email to The subject line is the note title, in Notational Velocity, and the body is the content of the note. It'll sync however frequently you want it to, by modifying the indicated line in your .fetchmailrc.

Also, if you want to be able to read notes on your phone, you could use something like Dropbox, which is what I do. Also, the way this works is to append to an existing note. There's no real way to edit.


I'm not super sure how this will work if you have multiple accounts on your Mac that you want to use this. You may need to instead configure fetchmail.command to run as a system startup item, and then there may be issues with using "~/Scripts"- you may need to use an absolute path. The Googles are your friend, if that's what you decide you want to do.
Tags: geek, ideamine, osx, programming

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