Feb 14

I Miss Emacs

I miss Emacs1. Emacs was awe­some and fun and every­thing that I ever need­ed in an editor–at least that is what I thought.

For those who don’t know, Emacs is an edi­tor that is writ­ten in a form of Lisp called eLisp (it’s close enough to just con­sid­er it Lisp) which has been enhanced to include text manip­u­la­tion prim­i­tives. There is a Lisp engine that is writ­ten in C, but except for the text prim­i­tives every­thing else is writ­ten in Lisp. And I mean every­thing. This makes it extreme­ly easy to con­fig­ure and mod­i­fy to make it real­ly yours.

I spent years using Emacs and devel­oped a large body of cus­tomiza­tion and pack­ages to sup­port my work. I once worked for a guy who lit­er­al­ly did not need code to be for­mat­ted to read it so he would cram as much as he could onto the screen with­out any con­sid­er­a­tion for mod­ern ideas of read­abil­i­ty. I on the oth­er hand could not read this jum­ble of char­ac­ters. It was so bad that the code for­mat­ters that exist­ed could not han­dle his code, so I wrote a com­plex Emacs macro that would parse the file (this was C code) and refor­mat it to some­thing that the for­mat­ters could han­dle. To make him hap­py I also wrote the con­verse which would mash the code back into its com­pressed form (hey he was the boss).

There is no way I could do this with most of today’s edi­tors. On the oth­er hand, Emacs has not been able to keep up with the progress of most IDEs. Large scale refac­tor­ing is not real­ly pos­si­ble with Emacs. There are pack­ages to do some sim­ple refac­tor­ing but they are lim­it­ed. So gave up some years ago and moved to and IDE (at the time it was Eclipse but I’ve moved on to IntelliJ IDEA and friends). With all of the code com­pre­hen­sion tools built in to it I just can­not be as pro­duc­tive while using Emacs (or any straight edi­tor) any more.

But I still miss being able to look at a prob­lem and say “I can write a macro for that.” There is some­thing mag­i­cal about know­ing that you can bend the tool to your will rather that hav­ing to bend to its design. And you haven’t lived until you work with an edi­tor that some­one said “you know, this is Turing com­plete so I think I’ll add a new mode that sup­ports Vi inside of Emacs2.” One edi­tor inside of anoth­er just using the macro language–that is power.

I still fire it up some­time when I need to work on a few files from the com­mand line and Vi/​Vim is not enough and I feel a bit of nos­tal­gia when my fin­gers auto­mat­i­cal­ly fall into famil­iar pat­ters: Ctrl‑S (incre­men­tal search), C‑X,C‑S (file save), Ctrl‑K (kill), Ctrl‑Y (yank), and all of the oth­er eso­teric key­strokes. Even after all of these years they are ingrained in my mus­cle memory–unfortunately, the mod­i­fi­er keys have moved around which slows me down. Why do we need a gigan­tic Caps lock but­ton in one of the prime loca­tions on the key­board? Seriously, do peo­ple real­ly need the Caps lock key?

I love IntelliJ and will have a hard time chang­ing if some­thing bet­ter man­ages to be cre­at­ed but it’s just not as fun as Emacs. Need to do a sequence of steps mul­ti­ple times? Just record it as a tem­po­rary macro and exe­cute it as often as nec­es­sary. Need to keep it? Just save it. Need to make it more robust, con­vert it to a code macro and edit it. And do this mul­ti­ple times a day because it is so easy.

I will always have a spe­cial place in my heart for Emacs.