life with Emacs


At the tantalising climax of the last episode, I was invited by Steve for a whistle-stop tour of Emacs.

Steve explained that the main reason he used Emacs was pure laziness. Naturally, this immediately got my attention. He explained:

‘I’m lazy. It’s not a fault. It’s a fact. Most decent programmers are lazy. You’re lazy’.

‘Hang on, just a minute ! What do you mean - I’m lazy ?’

‘Andy - you alias ‘cd ..’ to ‘up’ and ‘l’ to ‘ls -ltr’. Just to save five characters typing. So don’t tell me you’re not lazy. Anyway, it’s not a criticism’.

‘I used to work just like you. xterm open. Edit some C code. Compile the code. Fix the compilation errors. Repeat. Or search for a string a set of files using grep. Identify the file of interest. Goto line 723. Edit the file. That’s what most programmers do. But when you think about it, it’s a very inefficient process. All that typing, all that mouse movement, all that context switching. You may think having multiple xterm windows open solves it but it doesn’t’.

‘In Emacs, we can do all of that processing within Emacs. Look.’

Steve then showed me the edit-compile-fix cycle in Emacs. This was fantastic. Edit the source code. Invoke make using ’M-x compile’. Review the errors in a separate buffer. Hit the compilation error and you’re immediately positioned on the offending line in the source file.

Similarly, for grep. Invoke search for ‘parser’ within all C and header files within Emacs. Then select the occurrence of interest and you’re immediately taken to the source file at the right place. No more ‘grep -n’ and jotting down the line number.

The other biggest advantage Steve showed me was perhaps more basic and fundamental; simply the use of multiple buffers and ‘C-x C-b’ to manage the buffer list.

Previously, I would use multiple ‘vi’ sessions or ‘:n’ to edit the next file in the list or toggle between two files using ‘:e #‘. Worse, I thought that was advanced wizardry.

Steve also showed me the Emacs directory editor (dired) whch was impressive and a very quick way of navigating around the Unix file system.


And thus, my life using Emacs started in 1992. Initially, I was delighted enough with just this basic Emacs functionality as a great improvement over my previous approach.

However, I wasn’t converted into an evangelist preacher from day one. I still used the ‘elm’ email client in a terminal window and ‘rn’ to read Usenet.

Also, I can admit this now. I would frequently fire up ‘vi’; specifically for any global search and replace operations as it was just simpler and quicker than me trying to learn and master the Emacs equivalent.

Then I got moved to an OS/2 project but, Emacs was available for that now dead IBM platform so I copied my .emacs file and was happy.

Once, I got sent to Boston (America not Lincolnshire) to fix a tricky, long-standing problem. I was instructed to take the source code with me, given an open return ticket and was told to stay onsite until it was resolved. Fortunately, it transpired to be a one-liner involving a subtle race condition. Unfortunately, I fixed it on a Saturday and it was a public holiday weekend which meant I now had a lot of free time on my hands.

I remember sitting in the client’s empty offices, revisiting the Emacs tutorial and really taking the time to read and understand it fully. I spent a lot of time experimenting and trying out all the features including stuff I never used, failed to understand or had simply forgotten about.

Even now, I still enjoy reading or watching Emacs tutorials to see how other people use it. Or maybe I’m just weird.

teenage years

In 1996, I took a job at Sequent who produced high end, expensive, fast, parallel processing, NUMA based Unix servers. Although I was now working in a Unix environment again, the DYNIX/ptx operating system wasn’t the ideal development environment as a lot of my preferred tools, packages and utilities either weren’t available or hopelessly out-dated and buggy.

However, the GNU C compiler was available so I embarked on building a lot of the GNU packages. This was a useful and instructive exercise as, occasionally, changes to the source code were needed to build cleanly - normally the addition of a ‘#ifdef ptx’ macro.

Of course, inevitably there was a modicum of yak shaving involved here. For example, I had successfully built Emacs from source but it didn’t interact properly with the brain-dead ptx version of ‘grep’. So then I had to go and build grep which needed flex which needed…

honeymoon period

During this time, I was being slightly more inquisitive about extending my use of Emacs. I converted to ViewMail (VM) within Emacs to read my email and Gnus for reading Usenet news groups. I remember thinking that VM wasn’t too far removed from ‘elm’ on an xterm.

I liked Gnus. A lot. I simply loved the Gnus manual which is undoubtedly the best software manual ever written. I was using adaptive scoring, threading and marks but still, I suspect I was (and am) merely scratching the surface of what Gnus is capable of.

I used the Insidious Big Brother Database (BBDB) as an address book for both VM and Gnus and I started to realise that ‘ange-ftp’ was much better than remotely logging into various Unix servers where ‘vi’ was the only option for editing files.

I discovered XEmacs looked prettier and had more packages available so I turned to that. Plus I liked Jamie Zawinski’s style,.

Then I was forced to leave the comfort of my office based job, was given a Windows laptop and told to go and work in London on an Oracle data warehouse project. I might have done something awful or insulted my manager at the Christmas office party. I can’t quite recall.

mid-life crisis

Naturally, Emacs on Windows was available but it wasn’t like the real thing. Without a Unix environment, even Emacs couldn’t mask the many deficiencies and limitations of using a Windows laptop as a, err, development environment although I later discovered Cygwin which eased the pain (just a little).

To compound the agony, I was now reading and writing a lot of documents in Microsoft Word and I needed to accept meeting invitations in Microsoft Outlook.

It was now 1999 and the dot com boom was well underway so I decided to join a small startup as an Oracle DBA/developer. This was a slightly unusual environment; well, in fact, there was no development environment. It was my job to create one without spending any money (if possible). That was great so we soon had Oracle databases running on Linux servers which doubled as our development machines.

This happy state of affairs lasted for four years until I moved on to a technical consultancy where I enjoyed some challenging work, troubleshooting tricky (and some trivial) problems at call centres located across Europe. My modus operandi now was (don’t laugh here) was to make copious jottings in Notepad during meetings, phone calls and while I worked. When I returned home, I collated the notes into a lengthy Word document.

During this period, I talked to a lot of taxi drivers, visited a lot of sports bars and sat in countless anonymous airport lounges but I didn’t even install Emacs, let alone celebrate of the arrival of a long-awaited package manager.


In 2011, after some enforced sick leave, I returned to work and transferred to a role in product development. This was great because my enlightened employer allows me to use Linux on my work computer. OK - it’s Oracle Linux and you may scoff - but it’s Linux and I can run the latest version of Gnome, the email client of my choice and am able to install all my favourite packages. And still get support from IT.

Why - now I’ve got WebEx working and my enlightened colleagues use Wikis, I don’t even have to fire up my contingency Windows Virtual Machine any more.

Bizarrely, history repeated itself and I found myself firing up a lot of terminal windows and multiple ‘vi’ sessions which was where this story originated.

Funnily enough, when I realised I was spending an increasing amount of time editing source code, I looked at what editors were out there. I looked at Sublime Text (commercial) and then at Atom (GitHub’s excellent offering) which included many (over 5,000) plugins to support language formatting, colouring, compilation, search, ssh…

But wait, hang on a minute. I had invested a lot of time and acquired a lot of knowledge about a powerful text editor that could do all of this and more.

That’s when I revisited Emacs. This time, I endeavoured to go even further and attempted to use Emacs for everything. Well, everything apart from a Web browser, SQL developer and LibreOffice.

Now I use the Prelude starter kit which is excellent coupled with the stylish monokai theme. I use Gnus and BBDB for email, news and RSS feeds. I use Python and the SQL modes extensively.

However, the biggest and most interesting addition to Emacs since my departure is the much lauded (and deservedly so) org-mode package. After a few false starts, I am now using org-mode for note taking, blogging, managing my calendar and ToDo’s (my work and Google calendars are sync’ed using vdirsyncer). I recently ditched Pidgin in favour of the Emacs Jabber package.


Finally, I configured $EDITOR and alias’ed ‘vi’ as ‘emacsclient’.