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---
timestamp: Thu Oct 24 17:19:01 2008
title: in which a subject is attempted to be approached objectively, though such a thing is actually impossible
tags: emacs, ruby
id: 115
content: |-
<p>In the past few weeks an odd trend has come across my radar: I've
seen
<a href='http://twitter.com/technoweenie/status/972740768'>a</a>
<a href='http://www.al3x.net/2008/10/on-flight-to-old-text-editors.html'>number</a>
of <a href='http://twitter.com/gilesgoatboy/status/954572275'>hardcore</a> <a href='http://livollmers.net/index.php/2008/10/06/back-to-myemacs/'>Mac</a> <a href='http://github.com/defunkt/emacs/tree/master'>geeks</a>
<a href='http://weblog.jamisbuck.org/2008/10/10/coming-home-to-vim'>experiment</a>
with the classic editors, and I've seen others who wonder why
people would give up the comfort of a "modern program" for them. I
hesitate to write on the topic because posts that do so often up
as flame-bait, but it actually sounds like some folks are
genuinely curious and want to learn rather than just repeat the
same holy wars of the past, so I will try to stay in the same
frame of mind.</p>
<a href='http://m.assetbar.com/achewood/uua3cZ7cb'>
<img src='/i/ray.gif' alt='ray' title='smug' class='right' /></a>
<p>One of the complaints you see leveled over and over is that Emacs
on OS X doesn't feel "Mac-like". This is asserted as if it's a
tragic shortcoming of Emacs, and the person stating it never
specifies what advantages would arise if it were "fixed"; it's
assumed to be obvious. This usually comes across as cultural
elitism, but I don't think that's the intent, any more than Ray
Smuckles intends to offend the Russian people when he
<a href='http://raysmuckles.blogspot.com/2005_06_01_archive.html'>observes
that the Cyrillic alphabet "looks like they commissioned a
smartass to make fun of our letters,"</a>&mdash;he's
just <a href='http://m.assetbar.com/achewood/uua5HJJnB'>being
Ray</a>. That is to say, there are some deeply-held assumptions at
work here that are never questioned. It's pretty easy to explain
why a buffer list is more effective than a tabbed interface, (an
explanation is given below) but I've never heard the reasoning why
supposedly a modal file open dialog box is better for text files
than reading a location unobtrusively from the minibuffer. It's
always just set forth as something the user will grudgingly put up
with, even though it has many advantages over what they're used
to.</p>
<p>I agree that there are some advantages to a standardized set of
conventions for user interfaces that apply across a whole
operating system. Lowering the number of context switches involved
in day-to-day usage is a definite win. But the problem with
standards like these is that they can turn restrictive. If
something comes along that is objectively better and the standard
doesn't allow for it, the standard is acting as a hindrance.</p>
<h3>Conventions Compared</h3>
<p>The most obvious example is to compare the modern convention of
multi-document tab-switching to the buffer-switching mechanisms
you see in Emacs. Once you start opening a significant number of
tabs, the number of documents you can open and see at the same
time is limited by the width of your screen. For Firefox on this
machine, the number is twelve[<a href='#115-1'>1</a>] when it's
running full-screen. Even if you can see every document, the title
of each will need to be sharply truncated to fit on the small
visible tab, making it harder to identify a tab without switching
to it. To find the tab you want, you need to just press
control-pageup over and over again.</p>
<p>When the <code>ido</code> buffer switcher that comes with Emacs
is invoked, it shows a limited number of targets to switch to,
just like the tab system. So far the only difference is that the
buffers are in order of when they were used last, so it's much
more likely that the one you want is at the front of the list. But
the big win is that you can just start typing a few letters, and
the list will narrow down to only the options that match what
you've typed. So once you invoke the buffer switcher it rarely
takes more than five keystrokes to find what you want even when
you have a large list of open buffers, whereas with tabs you'd
have to search linearly for your target.</p>
<p>With predictable frequency we get folks dropping by the #emacs
freenode channel asking things like "can I get a tabbed interface
in Emacs?", and the answer is always "of course you can, but you
don't want to; try this instead". This probably comes off as
cultural elitism too when the enquirer insists that he really does
want a tab bar, but I think the motivation is more "we don't
want to spend the time explaining in painstaking detail the
advantages of this way to someone who doesn't want to listen" than
"we don't need the likes of you around here".</p>
<p>The other big under-appreciated advantage is the capability to
redefine or add functionality on the fly. I'm fairly sure this
can't really be understood until you try
it[<a href='#115-2'>2</a>], but the thought of going back to apps
that don't allow self-modification is usually met with a
grimace.</p>
<h3>In Action</h3>
<p>Take the example of the version control interface. It's got a bit
of historic baggage, being designed around a single-file-at-a-time
mindset encouraged by the version control systems of yore. It's
recently been rewritten to work better with multiple files at a
time, but since it provides a uniform interface over all the
different backends it supports, I noticed a problem with working
with git repositories. When you add a file to the repository, it
checks to make sure it hasn't been registered yet. This is pretty
reasonable with most VCSes, but with git re-registering a file is
a common operation when you want to add a single change to the
staging area.</p>
<p>If you didn't have the ability to modify functionality on the
fly, you'd probably just bite the context-switching bullet and
drop into the shell for this (or worse, just quit using git's
ability to build up a patch chunk by chunk and just commit with
the "-a" option) since it doesn't seem like it's worth fixing. But
it's really trivial to fix in Emacs:</p>
<pre class='code'>
<span class="paren">(</span><span class="keyword">defun</span> <span class="function-name">my-vc-add-or-register</span> <span class="paren">()</span>
<span class="doc">"Register the file if it hasn't been registered, otherwise git add it."</span>
<span class="paren">(</span>interactive<span class="paren">)</span>
<span class="paren">(</span><span class="keyword">if</span> <span class="paren">(</span>eq 'Git <span class="paren">(</span>vc-backend buffer-file-name<span class="paren">))</span>
<span class="paren">(</span>vc-git-register buffer-file-name<span class="paren">)</span>
<span class="paren">(</span>vc-register<span class="paren">)))</span>
<span class="paren">(</span>global-set-key <span class="paren">(</span>kbd <span class="string">"C-x v i"</span><span class="paren">)</span> 'my-vc-add-or-register<span class="paren">)</span>
</pre>
<p>This took less than two minutes to write, and I was actually able
to use the functionality I just wrote to add the change to my
dotfiles repository instantly[<a href='#115-3'>3</a>],
bootstrapping-style.</p>
<p>If you have to use some tacked-on "plugin mechanism" to customize
it, then you’re going to be limited at the very least by the
imagination of the author of the plugin mechanism; only the things
he thought you would want to do with it are doable. But if you’re
using the exact same tools as the original authors were using to
write the program in the first place, you can bet they put all
their effort into making that a seamless, powerful experience, and
you'll be able to access things on an entirely new level.</p>
<h3>However</h3>
<p>I don't want to say that there aren't any problems with the
system I use. The default key bindings are more an accident of
history without much advantage from the more standard
conventions. The <kbd>M-x customize</kbd> interface is frankly
pretty embarrassing and comes across as an attempt to shield users
from the act of writing and reading code, but this is easy to
avoid. The lack of concurrency is a very real problem,
though <a href='http://article.gmane.org/gmane.emacs.devel/96339'>not
one that's going unnoticed</a> by the
developers.[<a href='#115-4'>4</a>] The rendering engine is very
text-centric; it's hard to get it display other things. But these
are problems that people are working together to address, and it's
remarkable how approachable some of them are to someone who knows
a little elisp. And the capability to examine and change running
code on the fly makes them much easier to deal with.</p>
<div class='footnotes'>
<p>[<a name='115-1'>1</a>] - Perhaps this is intentional; keeping
too many tabs open at a time in Firefox can cause performance
issues. But that's another issue entirely.</p>
<p>[<a name='115-2'>2</a>] - The ex-Smalltalkers never have a hard
time understanding it.</p>
<p>[<a name='115-3'>3</a>] - Of course, it doesn't stop here; the
decent thing to do
is <a href='http://article.gmane.org/gmane.emacs.devel/104793'>send
the fix upstream</a>. Unfortunately there's a feature-freeze
right now, so this specific feature will probably have to wait
for the next release.</p>
<p>[<a name='115-4'>4</a>] - The <code>lexbind</code> branch of
development provides optional lexical binding, the current lack
thereof being the greatest hindrance towards adding concurrency
features. The current plan is to merge it and add coroutines
after the release of version 23 in December.</p>
</div>