Old and Reliable

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Editor's Note: This post, which I noticed in my reserve queue this morning, will probably be it for Emacs-centric posts for a while. Interested readers can find a layman's introduction to the text editor here, and a caution about delving into potentially murky projects in the first comment here. Learning Emacs is hard, and, although I recommend it, I also recommend being sure about why you are doing so. That said, I am quite happy with my decision over a year ago to start using it, but recognize that there may be a limited audience for such enthusiasm here. Oh, and I do like some of the comments about computing in general within...

Back in late October/early November last year, we moved from St. Louis to Baltimore. Naturally, my desktop's motherboard died a week or so before we began the move and my netbook's case cracked during the move. I could thus no longer take the netbook anywhere. (I would have risked making it inoperable by closing it. It now lives up high, away from the kids and serves as an upstairs terminal in addition to automatically creating news digests for me.) So I had computer shopping to do, and that entailed carefully researching potential purchases to make sure I could turn them into productive machines by installing Linux. (Microsoft is working overtime to make this difficult. Too bad they can't put half of this energy into making decent, unbloated, and unobtrusive software.) It is at such times that I become almost nauseatingly aware of how different my approach to computing is from that of the vast majority of people.

Most people want something that is easy to use and adequate for the job, and maybe some further capabilities once they master a given tool. There is nothing inherently wrong with that, but this approach comes with several costs: One of them is that one must adjust to the software, which means (at least initially) doing things the way the least computer-adept people in the general population do things. This can allow a novice to start working productively right away, but, unless there are good ways to get around the hand-holding, click-to-do-anything-at-all, modern desktop interface, there is a low ceiling on how efficiently one can work. (Often, there are shortcuts, but "upgrades" can obviate these or even break backwards compatibility. That's a related, but different problem.)

I have spoken before of my different approach to computing, but Irreal blogger "jcs" puts it better than I ever have:

... People often say that they have to use an editor for a while so they can adjust to it. [Vivek] Haldar says that's backwards. Your editor should adjust to you, not the other way around.

Finally he says that editors are like fine wine: the older the better. If you want a good editor, choose one that's been around long enough that all the quirks have been worked out and that every conceivable way of manipulating text has been considered and reified into workable code.
One could argue that Microsoft Word has been around for a long time, but has it? Microsoft makes big enough changes to its interface and even its file format from time to time, that it's more like a succession of products than one, continually improving suite. By contrast, Emacs, of which jcs and Haldar speak, has undergone steady development, and for longer than anything called "Word" has been around, but without major changes to its interface and no changes to its basic file format. Since an "Emacs file" from 1970 (or 2016) is text, it is completely compatible with any version.

This is a screen shot of my Emacs+Pale Moon custom editing environment during a blogging session. (In the upper right is part of another instance of Pale Moon being used for research.) A script periodically updates the web page on the right from the markup code I am editing.

One thing is worth noting: Saying that one needn't adjust to an editor is not the same thing as saying there is no learning curve. It took me a few months of using Emacs for blog posts each morning to become comfortable using it, but once I did, I ended up being able to customize it to create the writing work flow I had only dreamed of before. I stripped the interface of everything I didn't need, created my own shortcuts for things I did often, and learned that decades of computer hacker users had already thought of how to do a few things (like split-screen views of different parts of the same document) I had always wanted to do without all the clumsiness of GUI-based office suites.

For more up-front effort, I now have something I need only think about when I want to do something with even more convenience or speed. Oh, and my wrists are quite happy, too.

-- CAV

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