Emacs and the curious case of customizing editors

emacs, editors, religion, customization

Since writing about my new todo+logging ‘system’, I’ve been reading up on Emacs. Gathering how-tos, trying one, reading up on tips and tricks. Org mode is a powerful tool, and even if I don’t need things like a calendar replacement or contact management, its awesome to see what one can do with text files and an advanced editor. In an interview with FLOSS Weekly, Carsten Dominik (creator of Org mode) mentioned that Emacs is an application platform, rather than an editor, neatly confirming the Emacs-is-a-nice-OS-but-it-needs-an-editor jokes.

Its however not easy to pick up. Emacs key-bindings typically require three or four key combos, each might depend on context. I also found it fairly unforgiving: press a wrong combo? Anything might happen. Press one again? Perhaps you’ve just changed important parts of your files or configuration. Emacs also optionally has sub-windows, which seem to be used for example for the agenda-view of org mode, or just to open and view multiple files, or a filesystem pane, etc. etc. How to open or close them is not at all clear to me; I suppose this is the point where I should RTFM. I suppose I am not convinced (yet?) that learning all that baggage is something necessary for something as simple as editing code.

Someone wrote that some coders configure their editors, while others customize it. That’s basically the idea of Emacs: using its included ELisp interpreter, you can basically change anything. Today I tried using Spacemacs, an application that happens to use Emacs that supposedly is easier to use and easier to adapt/maintain. I immediately ran in key-combo troubles again. Also, Spacemacs removes the Menu bar, so all is lost when you don’t know the right hot-keys. All this configurability equates to freedom, which of course humans cope with by forming groups, following leader. To use or even just see an Emacs-wizards init.el is an honor for some. It’s easy to see where the comparison to religion comes from when Emacs and Vim are discussed.

Suddenly I realized: I’m just not the kind of guy that likes to customize his editor. I don’t even like to config it. Never have. I always judged editors, or any application really, on the basis of how well it works out of the box. Customization I view as a crudge, not a benefit. OK, that’s a bit strong, but I am the kind of guy that uses as few add-ons for Firefox for example. Even the fact that I need some plugins for Sublime doesn’t make me happy. I dread the day I am in front of someone else’s machine and I at a total loss on how to use it. Quick and simple setups are one of the most important features to me. Its for good reason that I use ‘portable apps’ as much as possible under Windows, and use Ninite and have my ‘home’ in a folder that is continuously synched through BTSync.

I recognize the powers of customization, but I just don’t want to fuse my brain with .emacs.d or any set of preferences or even programs and OSes like that. I’m happy that it is of little importance whether I am in front of Linux, OSX, Windows, or even ChromeOS. Sure, if it’s my own machine, my first order of business is to setup my minimal set of tools, and on Windows I simply must have Cygwin. But I like to travel light, and relearning and customizing editors is just not part of that. I think. I still consider giving Org mode a shot, but ignore Emacs for other coding duties.