Why Emacs?

Why Emacs?

After watching a recent video from DistroTube, I wanted to write down some of my thoughts about Emacs. While I don't want discussion of the video to dominate this post, it does provide some context for my thoughts. The title of the video is "Three HUGE Mistakes New Emacs Users Make," and the "HUGE" mistakes, framed as suggestions for improvement, are 1) "always have the Emacs daemon running and always launch Emacs as emacsclient," 2) "don't navigate in a terminal or file manager just to open files in Emacs," and 3) "don't use the terminal version of Emacs." I actually agree with the second of these points as it basically defeats the point of using Emacs, but I disagree with the other two.

First of all, I find the second point to be almost directly contradictory to the first point, especially given the way DT uses Emacs in his videos. The only reason to always keep an Emacs daemon running and to launch Emacs using emacsclient is if you are constantly opening and closing Emacs instances since the client/server setup helps to shorten the startup time of opening a new instance. If you are constantly opening and closing Emacs instances, how are you doing that? Probably from your terminal or file manager after locating the file you want to edit through one of them. In the video, he demonstrates that he has keybindings set to quickly open Emacs, which somewhat counters my point about opening his clients from the terminal as he says not to do. However, for many new users (myself included), especially those coming from Vim, emacsclient is a crutch to continue using Emacs like they used to use Vim: navigate around in the terminal until you get to a file you want to edit, type emacs <file> to work on it, and then close Emacs when you finish. In my view, this completely nullifies any benefit of using Emacs and leads to the "Emacs is an OS lacking a good editor" meme. As DT uses it, or at least shows in his videos, to give him the benefit of the doubt, Emacs looks like a weird and bloated replacement for tools like Vim, a terminal emulator, a file manager, or even an image viewer.

The beauty of Emacs to me is its extensibility and the integration you can achieve between different parts. My go-to example of the integration aspect is my workflow for receiving an email with a task I want to complete or an event I need to schedule. Since I read my email in Emacs using mu4e and because I have a keybinding to open it, when I see an email notification in my status bar, I hit C-c m to open mu4e, b u to open the unread mail and then RET to select the new message. All of this is in muscle memory at this point so it happens basically instantaneously. If it's unimportant, I just mash q until I quit the mu4e windows and am dropped back into the same window configuration I started with. If it is important, I can do things like run org-store-link to save a link to the email, which I can then either integrate into my TODO list, which is always open in another Emacs buffer, or I can use an Org capture template to quickly add an event to my Org agenda and also add a link back to the email there as well. This is particularly handy for things like Zoom calls since I can just link back to the original email in my agenda instead of trying to extract the actual Zoom link. This may not sound too impressive if you're used to something like Google calendar, but now instead of relying on Google for my calendar, I can keep my agenda in a plaintext format and sync it with my other files in a git repo. As plaintext, I can also process it however I want, which allows me to use things like org-alert that I recently started helping to maintain to check on upcoming events and notify me when they are close to starting.

When I was using Vim and the terminal for these tasks, I had NeoMutt as an email client, calcurse for my calendar, and Vim for editing TODO files. This means that my workflow was more like open a terminal for email, open a terminal for the calendar, copy something from the email into the calendar and probably also into Vim in a third terminal. While I still had keybindings for opening my email and calendar, the lack of integration between them was a huge hassle. Some people reading this could probably point me to some documentation for improving that integration, but the point is that using many tools within Emacs sets up that kind of tight interaction without having to modify three different configuration files, not counting the bindings you have to create within your window manager.

To circle back to something that really bothered me about Emacs initially, the fact that files you visit stay open as buffers in the background actually turns out to be very handy. I know Vim has the same functionality, but I never used it when I primarily used Vim and when I've tried it seems much clunkier. As a result, the way I would typically handle multiple files in Vim was constantly to open and close Vim and move between files and directories using the terminal. In Emacs, every file I open just stays open when I go on to do something else, so when I need to revisit a file even days later I can just use the buffer switching commands to call it back up. This is far more convenient than reopening Emacs and freshly finding a file every time you want to access it. I think the Emacs server does keep the buffers open between Emacs client sessions, but I still don't understand the reason for closing the Emacs frame instead of just keeping it open on a different workspace (or tag in my case on dwm). DT addresses this indirectly in the video by saying he likes to have separate Emacs frames managed by his tiling window manager, but the way Emacs manages windows is also tiling and after a little tweaking it has some very sensible defaults. As such, I much prefer opening horizontal and vertical splits to view multiple files in Emacs instead of spawning multiple instances of Emacs managed by my window manager. Again, this is the way most people use Vim in multiple terminals rather than how I think people typically use Emacs.

On the extensibility front, what finally made me ridiculously excited about Emacs was realizing that you can evaluate Emacs Lisp expressions anywhere. This is the real reason why you shouldn't stop and start Emacs constantly: Emacs is a living, breathing Emacs Lisp interpreter. You can continuously tune your environment exactly to your needs and desires. You can write and run snippets of Emacs Lisp in the comments of a program in a different language, and then you can save the useful ones into your config file for later use. I also never really understood the "self-documenting" aspect that is often touted as a benefit of Emacs until I actually started reading documentation frequently. Most library authors generate fantastic documentation within the docstrings of their code, which becomes accessible to you with a quick press of C-h v on a variable name or C-h f on a function. Once you combine these two observations, writing Lisp everywhere and getting documentation for it literally at the press of a button, you can truly take advantage of living in Emacs.

Some of this benefit has been captured by Neovim, which uses Lua to provide a much better extension language than Vimscript. I'm not really familiar enough with Neovim to really contrast it with Emacs, but I did want to acknowledge its existence and the fact that it also strives to improve extensibility by embedding a serious programming language in its configuration system. Such a configuration system is contrasted by that of VSCode, another editor that is probably more popular than any of these others (probably combined) that I am also not very familiar with. However, my limited experience, and the results of a quick Google, indicates that VSCode pretty strictly limits you to a set list of configuration options. This list is pretty extensive, but you can't do things like define new functions or even string multiple existing functions together into one action like you can in Emacs Lisp or presumably in Lua.

All of this is not to say you should do everything in Emacs. As an example, I do know about TRAMP and occasionally use it for editing remote files, but most of the time when I'm logging into a supercomputer or other server over SSH, I stick to the terminal and Vim. However, this brings me to the third point in the video about not using Emacs in the terminal. As several commenters point out, there is no reason not to use Emacs in the terminal, over SSH for example, if you want to take advantage of some of the real features of Emacs. These "real" features are contrasted by the features mentioned in the video like different font sizes in a single buffer and in-line image display that only the GUI version can afford. I think this point is indicative of the way DT uses Emacs, which is much different from how I use it. DT seems to use Emacs primarily for org-mode (where those cool fonts and images come into play) and maybe for magit as well. These are very compelling reasons to use Emacs, but since most of his work is creating and editing videos, which can't be done within Emacs (barring EXWM), he doesn't need or really can't take advantage of most of the power of Emacs. As a bit of a digression, I actually have a similar critique of his demonstration of using eww to browse the web in Emacs, which of course you also can't do in the terminal. I think almost nobody does that and the only reason I actually do use that functionality is for reading the Common Lisp HyperSpec, which leads into my next point.

If instead of video creation and editing your primary work is programming, gathering and analyzing data, and writing papers like mine is, Emacs is a very powerful tool. With that in mind, you may sometimes want to open Emacs, even a vanilla version of Emacs, over SSH within the terminal. When I do that, I want to use some of the aforementioned features like writing Elisp alongside whatever scripting language I'm writing. Or I might want to use the better default automatic indentation for Perl, AWK, and Bash scripts that I see in Emacs compared to Vim. Or I might want to split my screen and open a shell in one side so I can instantly test changes to my script without having to open another terminal or constantly open and close Vim within the same terminal window. Or I may want to use M-x compile to run and rerun the script even more rapidly. Saying never to do something is rarely a good idea, and like the point about using emacsclient, saying never to run Emacs in the terminal seems to reveal the superficial nature of DT's Emacs usage.

To cut DT some slack, in the past he has cleverly (or maybe sarcastically) pointed out how Emacs can actually fit into the Unix philosophy since its one job is being an Emacs Lisp interpreter, and it does that job better than any other program I've seen. However, his own use of Emacs is not particularly reflective of that. I think this is in large part due to the type of work he does, which doesn't seem to lend itself to being highly optimized within Emacs. Anyway, the point of this post really wasn't to bash DT, I just wanted to analyze why his video was so uncompelling even for a serious Emacs user and also write down some of my own thoughts about why Emacs is cool. In summary, Emacs is cool primarily because of its extensibility. The tight integration it can provide between seemingly disparate parts of your workflow stems from this extensibility and the power of Emacs Lisp, which allows you to write virtually anything you can imagine to run in Emacs. It is also cool because it has a GUI and can render different font sizes and in-line images in text files, but these are the icing on the cake rather than substantive reasons to live inside Emacs.