Neal Stephenson on Emacs


News: Neal Stephenson on Emacs

  1. Neal Stephenson on Emacs (19 messages)

    Someone on twitter pointed out Neal Stephenson's statement on emacs this morning. He had high praise for it. It's ridiculous. Emacs and vi are great for... what?

    Here's the statement quoted:

    I use emacs, which might be thought of as a thermonuclear word processor. It was created by Richard Stallman; enough said. It is written in Lisp, which is the only computer language that is beautiful. It is colossal, and yet it only edits straight ASCII text files, which is to say, no fonts, no boldface, no underlining. In other words, the engineer-hours that, in the case of Microsoft Word, were devoted to features like mail merge, and the ability to embed feature-length motion pictures in corporate memoranda, were, in the case of emacs, focused with maniacal intensity on the deceptively simple-seeming problem of editing text. If you are a professional writer—i.e., if someone else is getting paid to worry about how your words are formatted and printed—emacs outshines all other editing software in approximately the same way that the noonday sun does the stars. It is not just bigger and brighter; it simply makes everything else vanish.

    He lost me at "I use emacs," had me back at "thermonuclear word processor," lost me at "created by Richard Stallman." (Thought Bill Joy had something to do with it, though.)

    Look, I get that emacs doesn't do everything Word does, and probably 90% of Word focuses on features nobody uses; I turn off some of the things that annoy me like that damned autocorrcet stuff. And the ribbon, don't get me started.

    Actually, yeah, get me started. Look: emacs and vi might make you feel like you've nine inches in your pants, but in the real world, we have these common user interface things, where we know that the "File" menu has a "Save" menu option in it. Sit a monkey in front of a computer and ask him to crank up Word and Emacs. In Word, he'll have Hamlet long before he even figures out how to exit Emacs. Same for vi. Sure, all they do is edit text... and require you to learn a wired set of commands that make no mnemonic sense.

    Sure, you bring up XEmacs. But the Emacs purists see XEmacs as being less good than Emacs. So what that tells me is that Emacs people like having a cathedral they can live in. You can't come in unless you memorize the secret codes, right? ^X ^S, or ^K ^Y, or meta-m 412 meta-c c c 7. Then comes the secret handshake and you're in, unless you get caught by the dogs in the yard.

    Vi isn't any better.

    Look, if you're using one of these editors, more power to you. But have the courtesy to save your praise: it only means you're waving your superiority flag as hard as you can, because otherwise you'd have wasted the time you took to learn how to, like, SAVE FILES.

    Threaded Messages (19)

  2. Neal Stephenson on Emacs[ Go to top ]

    Seems like a heavy handed statement on your part.  Neal is excited about Emacs and the functionality that it provides to him.  What's wrong with him tweeting that?  Your post amounts to telling him "So what, Emacs is complicated, shut up about it."  That could be said for almost any editor worth using.

    It's simply his preference.  Let him sing it to the world if he so chooses.  Nothing wrong with that.  You're post makes it look like you have a grudge.  Maybe you're jealous that he figured out Emacs and the power it has and you haven't?

  3. lowest common denominator[ Go to top ]

    What you are saying is that you like the "lowest common denominator" editors... the ones that have been dumbed down so that anybody can use them. That's fair enough, nothing wrong with that, but if you had seen a true emacs power user in action, you would understand why it's special. 

    I can't stand emacs myself, I use vi (and I'm certainly no power user), but I can appreciate a truly powerful tool when I see it.

  4. submitter is clueless[ Go to top ]

    Emacs is an operating system pretending to be an editor.

    You youngsters have no clue what you are talking about, if you are actually comparing Word with Emacs.

    And if you can't remember shortcuts: Every modern version of Emacs has a file menu.

    And all the commands are self-describable and can be found using a single shorcut: M-x

    You even get completion.

    And now get off my lawn, newb.


    PS: VI fans, this time we are on the same side in this eternal struggle :)

  5. Mayhew on Emacs[ Go to top ]

    You sound like a kid trying to rake up a fight in the school yard.  Halfway through your post I'm wondering what point it has.  Then, at the end you say, basically:  "Use emacs, good for you, but don't tell anyone why you find it useful."  Huh?  What kind of childishness is that?

  6. Mayhew on Emacs[ Go to top ]

    Man.  And you also neglect to mention that Stephenson wrote those words in 1999, a world away from the current tools that are available.  I'm not taking anything away from emacs and vi, but what is your motivation to put up an argument against these words that were written 11 years ago?

  7. Why?[ Go to top ]

    Someone found it relevant on Twitter, brought it back to my attention. Plus, I know emacs and vi supporters who'll be glad to scream at you about what a dumbass you are for not liking vi or emacs over Eclipse. (real men use emacs, except they're schoolgirls compared to vi users, etc.)

    emacs is a sacred cow. So is vi. Neat thing about sacred cows? when you grill them, they taste good.

    I've used emacs. I used to like it. But one commenter had a good point: "you can look up every thing it does with ^M or whatever." See, with the whole GUI thing, I don't have to look any thing up. I don't mind doing something I need to do, but right now, emacs and vi have no point besides supporting their little cliques, the people who get off on using them.

    Nano's just as functional when it comes to doing what you want to use emacs for - editing files. And it's easier. My goal in using a computer, and programming, isn't to impress myself with how cool it is that i know how to use emacs witht he other Ashleys. My goal is to get stuff done. and I'm tired of people praising emacs to the stars.

    Its ironic though - in java-land, people use jedit to edit files, and it's got the same 'eighty megs and constantly swapping' thing going on, a vm just to edit stuff. but jedit doesn't have the same set of worshippers emacs does, does it?

  8. Why?[ Go to top ]

    Ever had to log in to a remote host without X/Windows/whatever? Then you might know why some basic knowledge for non-GUI editiors might be useful...

  9. Why?[ Go to top ]

    Ever had to log in to a remote host without X/Windows/whatever? Then you might know why some basic knowledge for non-GUI editiors might be useful...

    Sure, it's useful. nano. pico. joe. (And yes, I do actually know my way around emacs and vi. I don't consider myself an expert or god or anything, but I can do what I need to do.)

  10. Why?[ Go to top ]


    My goal is to get stuff done. and I'm tired of people praising emacs to the stars.


    It cuts both ways, of course.  I invested my time in emacs 25 years ago and I still find it useful many times.  About two years ago, one of my colleagues responded like I was nuts for having it in my toolbox at all.  "Emacs?  E-macs?!"  He made me feel like an alien.

    He didn't know what he was doing.  He is entitled to his opinion, no matter how poorly he expressed it.  He make progress.  I make progress.  I let it go.  Its not an insult that my colleague does not like my tool.  It does not hurt you that Stephenson really likes his.  I'm grateful there is such diversity in developer's value assessment, and tools to match.

    Stephenson found a tool that matches his use cases beautifully.  Isn't this what we are all striving for?  I think the twitter you received (or the web page you referenced) was expressing joy in that acheivement, not in the specifics of emacs itself.

  11. steve[ Go to top ]

    Bill Joy wrote the first version of vi..James Gosling also worked on emacs and didn't use an IDE until he wrote NetBeans..

    This uneducated incorrect and ignorant non-sense convinces me the server-side is a site for idiots.. vi is the most consise keyboard tool for editing text and was what i was reared on beofre they even had windows.. today my son is at Berkeley double majoring in astro-physics and computer science.. they insist on emacs and lisp in the computer science dept.. also, anyone who would use eclipse when intellij is now open-source is a msachist.. enough siad, moron..

  12. steve[ Go to top ]

    See, this is the drivel that annoys me about emacs.

    Thanks for pointing out why Bill Joy kept popping up in my head, BTW. Gosling worked on emacs, sure, but even he moved on.

    As far as "the most concise keyboard tool", well, that's a subjective opinion - and you are surely smart enough to know that subjective opinions aren't necessarily right. They're subjective. For you, emacs might be the most concise tool. For me, not so much. It's fine for you; it's fine for me if I need it, but I don't ever seem to need it any more.

    Lastly, IntelliJ isn't the only editor out there. Eclipse perspectives can help you get a lot sdone, and the eclipse plugins are better than intellij's, in my opinion. you of course have a right to a different opinion.

    but why are you saying "intellij" when you said that emacs is the most concise tool? I'm a little lost there.


  13. steve[ Go to top ]

    @Steve.  Your comment is self-proving:  "Server-side is a site for idiots".  You had a chance to show otherwise, and blew it.


  14. steve[ Go to top ]

    This uneducated incorrect and ignorant non-sense convinces me the server-side is a site for idiots.. vi is the most consise keyboard tool for editing text and was what i was reared on beofre they even had windows.. 

    I love the smell of geek rage in the morning.

  15. Neal Stephenson on Emacs[ Go to top ]

    Years ago we almost had to get rid of a guy because he was insisting that he use vi to write Java code.  He wasn't some Java guru either.  I knew that he would be much more productive in a real IDE, and it turned out he was.

    I don't write code in vim very much, but my IDEs have vi keybindings.  I use vim as an awesome text editor, not as a development environment.

    One of the appeals of Emacs for some is the ability to write a minimal amount of Elisp code to get an environment up and working.  Compare that to writing plugins for Eclipse.

    But I guess some people didn't get the memo.    Emacs and Vi no longer add to geek machismo.  It's Unix Ed and straight notepad for the hardcore crowd ;)

  16. I can see it[ Go to top ]

    I used to be a heavy Emacs/XEmacs user going back to when I was writing code on Vax machines using VT100 terminals. I stopped using it on a regular basis not long after the first version of IntelliJ was released in 2001. Today, I would have serious reservations about anyone who claimed to be more productive working on a Java project using Emacs (or vi) as opposed to a good IDE.

    Now I don't imagine Neal Stephenson is out there writing EJBs. For heavy duty word processing (e.g. lengthy documents with advanced typesetting requirements), I think there's an argument to be made for using something like LaTex with Emacs. On the other hand, Emacs/XEmacs didn't fit very well with X Windows back in the day. I haven't used it in years so maybe that has improved.

  17. How did the author of this post miss this? I use Emacs for my text processing needs - writing notes and answering emails and keeping track of my tasks in org-mode. And I use a Java IDE for writing and testing Java code.

  18. Neal Stephenson on Emacs[ Go to top ]

    LOL! I know Java developers use vi rather than an IDE!

  19. Neal Stephenson on Emacs[ Go to top ]

    Oops. Meant to say that I know Java developers who still use vi.

  20. Emacs is awesome![ Go to top ]

    A good power text editor is better than a word processor for any technical minded person.

    Among power text editors: I love the official Mac OS emacs and the GUI emacs on Linux. But vim, and things like Atom and Sublime and JEdit and UltraEdit are good too. Emacs really isn't that cryptic once you get passed the initial learning curve.

    I'd argue with Neal Stephenson, that especially when you want formatting, you should use some markup language like Markdown, RST, or even LaTeX over a point-and-click GUI word processor.

    And for programming, I prefer a super fancy JetBrains IDE when it's available for Python/Java/Scala/Ruby/HTML/JavaScript. But most programmers use a power text editor in addition to their IDE. Also for say, Haskell programming, there are no really amazing IDEs and emacs is the best choice. And LaTeX editing, emacs is my favorite.