Protesilaos Stavrou
Philosopher. Polymath.

Why I switched to Emacs

In pursuit of an integrated computing environment

Followers of my website’s codelog section are aware that I am an Emacs user since the start of July. They also know that prior to that, I was using a custom desktop session involving bspwm, tmux, vim, and relevant command-line utilities.

While I have already produced a lot of content on Emacs, I have yet to tackle directly the underlying “why” that led to the switch. So let us start from the beginning.

The realisation of heterogeneity

In early July 2019 I published the final version of “Prot’s Dots For Debian”. This is a book detailing the various aspects of my custom desktop session, i.e. my previous computing environment setup. What I learnt through the process of writing PDFD is that it is intrinsically difficult to maintain a heterogeneous, highly customised, system.

Documenting it is hard, because the different components utilise their own language and paradigms. For example, the tmux and vim configs use a key binding notation similar to Emacs. Whereas bspwm’s hotkey daemon (sxhkd) uses its own syntax. This is not to suggest that it is inferior software, just that such disparities introduce friction. There are many cases like this which quickly add up.

Heterogeneity also affects the very definition and implementation of the configurations. Take the placement of the dotfiles as a case in point. Some files must be placed directly at $HOME, others in a subdirectory inside $XDG_CONFIG_HOME (else ~/.config), and others still in their own directory inside $HOME. Without guidance, it can be difficult to place things where they belong. I had to use GNU Stow to keep the dotfiles under control, otherwise the process would be too tedious and prone to error.

To be clear: my previous setup was quite productive. It, nonetheless, lacks the level of integration one expects from a singular computing experience. The combination of disparate tools can offer the impression of an integrated working environment. They can work just fine, but never reach the ultimate potential of a bespoke system that is consistent throughout.

Why integration matters

Consistency is important because it minimises or eliminates the friction of switching contexts. If everything works and looks the same, you can maintain your rhythm, staying “in the flow” for longer.

I am the kind of person who notices minor details in the interface. Inconsistencies distract and bother me. They hamper my productivity. This is no hyperbole. I really need to exert full control over my UI, otherwise I feel the urge to stop what I am doing and fix the perceived problem.

This is, by the by, why I do not care at all about the frivolous customisations people post on the various online fora for *nix enthusiasts—the whole “ricing” thing. Sure, they catch the eye. And that is exactly where the problem lies! Your focus must be on the content, not its surroundings.

But I digress…

Enter Emacs

As I discussed in my latest vlog on the Emacs mindset and Unix philosophy, using Emacs is perfectly in line with the intentions of the terminal/CLI power user. It is, in other words, a continuation of the underlying rationale that went into my bspwm session; an extension of the ideas underpinning PDFD.

Emacs conforms with the notion of optimal performance at a given task: it interprets lisp in splendid fashion. This allows it to be an application platform for everything that is written in elisp. And there is a lot!

Allow me to regale you with a short background story, before stating anew the main thesis of my last vlog. I actually attempted a switch to Emacs as early as mid-March 2018—and I wrote about it shortly thereafter.

That did not go as expected, in large part because of my expectations: I thought of Emacs as a drop-in replacement for Vim, plus a few extras. Big mistake! While it is true that it is a text editor and can be used exclusively in that capacity, Emacs is at the absolute peak of its powers when it is treated as an application platform. At the time, I wanted to finalise my custom desktop session, so I could not commit to the change.

With PDFD out, I feel that cycle was completed successfully. I learnt a lot in the process, including the downsides of a heterogeneous custom desktop session.

Emacs as the epicentre of an Integrated Computing Environment

My renewed interest in Emacs is neither hype nor fancy. I truly believe that using Emacs as an application platform is the way to a consistent computing experience.

Bringing everything into Emacs makes perfect sense:

  • One language to rule them all (elisp). You no longer need to bother with a multitude of configuration formats and practices. To this end, chances are you can configure everything about your system in a single file that is trivial to employ anywhere Emacs can run. My Emacs init file, written using the literate programming paradigm, is a case in point (granted, it is still in its infancy as of this writing).
  • Consistent key bindings. Particularly true with the standard Emacs key or with custom key chords that follow the same principles. Vi emulation can also deliver the desired results, but the process is more involved.
  • Same UI paradigms. For example, killing a line in a buffer is the same as killing a line in an emms playlist, or performing the same action inside of a writable dired or occur buffer.
  • Shared colours and styles (“faces”). A good theme is all you need. My Modus themes ensure a consistent contrast ratio between foreground and background values of 7:1 or higher. This conforms with the loftiest accessibility standard (WCAG AAA). Furthermore, Modus employs colour and typographic elements as a way of conveying the meaning of an interface, such as by highlighting the constructs of a regular expression in a more intense colour than those matched by a wildcard within the same search.

I am taking this to its logical end. I already switched away from my bspwm session because I needed to eliminate all the key chords that the window manager would rely upon. Now I am using Xfce on Debian 10 ‘buster’ with all hotkeys disabled. I need them for Emacs. Especially those that involve Super. There is no such thing as too many modifier keys!

Incremental progress

Do not bother comparing Emacs with Vim. They fulfil a different role. Just use Emacs as the cornerstone of your Integrated Computing Environment. If you cannot live without Vim, then get the packages for that. I do, nonetheless, urge you to make an honest attempt at using just the Emacs keys (I was a Vim user for ~3 years and switched easily in less than a month).

Whatever you do, I recommend you take things slowly. Try to learn one function at a time: use default shortcuts or simply M-x FUNCTION. Every action in Emacs is, in fact, implemented as a function (based on my short experience). Continuous practice will train your mind and muscle memory to the Emacs workflows. You might struggle at first, but things will start making sense very quickly if you nail one thing at a time.

Here is how I am doing it:

  • Go by the official manual. Identify a chapter with information you would like to put to the test. Practice that.
  • Search what others are doing with that workflow or set of commands. Check their tweaks and assess whether they make sense for your setup.
  • If there is something you feel is not good enough, try finding a package for it. Chances are someone out there had the same problem as you and decided to write some elisp for it.
  • When implementing your own key chords, examine whether they conflict with some important function you could potentially need. This task will become easier once you know which modes/workflows you use the most.
  • Learn how to use the built-in documentation. It is an invaluable skill for the entirety of your life as an Emacs user.

The gist is that you should be learning by doing. It takes patience and dedication. Study and reuse other people’s code, but do not blindly copy-paste things: patterns of behaviour you do not understand will quickly accumulate, resulting in a potentially fragmented, frustrating experience.

The key is to not expect instant gratification. I know, this is how most of the world works these days. Thankfully, Emacs runs contrary to the zeitgeist: it caters to the user who cares deeply about the quality and functionality of their tools.