Thursday, March 30, 2006


I had to smile when I found this. It contains some things that I absolutely agree with, other things that I completely disagree with and some things that are so totally wacky that I laugh out loud. It is an essay on using the emacs text editor. I use emacs every working day to do my job. I do not like emacs, but I dislike the alternative more, so I have had to come to terms with it.

So what is wrong with emacs? My first complaint, one has me cursing at least once every day is the modal user interface. Emacs is supposed to be non modal, but it has annoying modalities. The most obvious one, and the function that is most difficult to avoid because it is otherwise so useful, is the search function. Emacs is not alone in this area. The find function in Microsoft Word and Notepad have even more annoying behavior.

My second complaint about emacs is that has far and away the worst out-of-the-box experience of any software known to person. The default emacs configuration is unusable, for example backspace brings up help rather than deleting characters as you would expect. Instead of cut and paste there is yank and kill! What yanking and killing have to do with moving text around I do not know and I do not care. Like everyone else who uses emacs, I set up my own key bindings, which I think of as cut and paste, and to this day I do not know which of yank and kill is cut and which is paste.

Of course emacs is highly configurable, but on its own terms. Those terms are the lisp programming language which is extraordinarily ugly to look at. The simple act of assigning a value to a variable is done by the 'setq' function and multiple parens. A more serious criticism is that functional programming gets its power from a lack of side effects which should make it easy to produce correct programs. Emacs completely undoes this by having a huge global state, everything is a side effect and programming it is tedious, difficult and error prone.

There are many other complaints. Emacs keeps changing in what seem to be random and incompatible ways from version to version. Also not all versions work on all systems. I move among different versions of Unix and Linux and I am constantly fiddling with my emacs customization file to keep it working.

Another problem is that as the first free software, emacs drove out all competition. A lack of competition means that it can go on being quirky and unusable and still find an audience. In practice most developers I know use vi because they are not willing to put up with the hassle of using emacs. Vi is an editor designed in the 70's around a design center of people using typewriters, so it is designed to correct like a typewriter does. I find emacs too modal, so I am not going to use vi, and I am stuck with cursing emacs.

No comments: