Learn Emacs and you could totally change how you use your computer

What the heck is Emacs?

Are you ready to get your geek on? Let’s talk about Emacs.

The first thing to understand about Emacs is that it’s not a sandwich. It does sound like it might be a tasty snack, but unfortunately being food is among the small percentage of things Emacs is not.

Emacs is a text editor. No, wait. Emacs is for writing code. Ummm… it’s also for organizing your calendar and using email. You can play games. Here’s the definition from the creators of the most widely-used variant of Emacs:

GNU Emacs, describes it as “the extensible, customizable, self-documenting, real-time display editor.”

It was invented in 1976, and is amazingly still used and being developed today in (mostly) it’s original form. It doesn’t have a pretty, graphical user interface like the software you’re used to in 2021. It looks more like the terminal window that Neo uses in The Matrix.

Rather than navigating with a mouse, you do almost everything using key commands. It takes a little time to learn them but once you do, it becomes second nature. If you use bash (terminal) a lot, you’ll get the hang of it pretty quickly. In fact, you can even use Emacs inside your terminal, but that’s a story for another day.

Like the description says, Emacs is customizable and extensible. There are packages you can download and install (all from within Emacs) that extend the functionality and look of your Emacs. Someone else’s Emacs could look totally different from mine, which is pretty cool.

Emacs is also self-documenting, which means that everything you need to know about using it is built right into the program. If you try it, I highly recommend doing the built-in tutorial.

Another thing to love about Emacs is that it’s cross-platform. You can move your whole Emacs setup between Mac OS, Windows or Linux and pick up right where you left off.

Here’s a screenshot of my Emacs setup (click for a close-up):

screen shot of Mac desktop showing Emacs buffers

I use two monitors and Spaces (Mac OS). So my #4 space is dedicated to Emacs. I’ll give you a quick tour, then I’ll describe what’s going on. There are several windows open, some with one frame and one split into two frames. From the left; Scheme, Projects, Agenda, Notes (below), and a Game. Here’s what they are:

Scheme

This is the reason I started using Emacs in the first place. I write code in a few different languages, but I never really learned computer science itself. I picked up a book called Simply Scheme that teaches computer science and programming from a very basic level. For several days (weeks?), I got wrapped up in learning how Emacs works, and of course I had to find out everything I could do with it beyond running Scheme.

There is even a package that highlights syntax errors in PHP and other languages. While my main code editor is VS Code, I’ll edit some code in Emacs from time-to-time.

Projects

Emacs is a very basic text editor, but it does have some features that allow you to create nicely organized lists and documents. The thing I like about it is that it’s very much distraction-free. Unlike writing in MS Word or even Google Docs, there are no formatting options or little pop-ups that happen while you’re composing something. I use it to get my thoughts down, edit, then paste the final version into Open Office or Google Docs later for formatting. Using Markdown language you can also do some nice formatting in Emacs and export as HTML or a PDF.

One of the things I love using it for is to list projects I’m working on and next actions (similar to David Allen’s Getting Things Done, but me style). I can create To-dos and even manage them with scheduling and completing them with simple key commands.

Agenda

One feature I love is org-mode. I can look at my schedule and to-dos by the week or day. Any to-dos I have added to my other files, like Projects, will sync up with my agenda file. It takes a little setting up, but once it’s done it’s awesome.

Like most people in 2021, I use my phone for almost everything. So it wouldn’t do me a lot of good to set up an agenda if I couldn’t view it or manage tasks when I’m not home. Luckily, there’s an app for that. It’s called beorg and I love it. It syncs via my iCloud acccount (you can also use WebDav or Dropbox).

Notes

Again, as a text editor, Emacs is great. Anytime I want to make quick notes on something, I create a new file/buffer and start tapping away. In my screen shot, I was copying and pasting notes from a chat with tech support about a client’s site. Sure, I could just use TextEdit or a bunch of other word processing apps on my laptop, but the beauty of Emacs is that I can do almost everything right there.

Games

If you used a PC back in the early 1980s like I did, the first thing you wanted to know was what kind of games can I play on this thing? Back then, computer games were mostly text-based unless you had a system like Pong. The games included with Emacs are very similar, although these days there are more graphical-based games like Tetris and even Pac-Man (I haven’t tried that yet). And yes, Pong is there, too.

The game open on my screen is Dunnet, which is a version of an interactive adventure game called Zork. I keep that buffer open and jump into it every now and then.

There’s a fantastic list of games you can play at https://www.masteringemacs.org/article/fun-games-in-emacs.

Try some Emacs!

If you’re even slightly geeky about computers, you should give Emacs a try. Maybe it won’t be as useful to you in your day-today like it is for me, but it’s fun to try it out. There’s a bit of a learning curve, but there are tons of resources online to help you figure stuff out.

Do you use Emacs? Have you ever tried it? I’d love to hear your experience!

Jooon

Reading until my eyes are bleeding:

Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet, Jamie Ford

True Believer: Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements, Eric Hoffer

Simply Scheme: Introducing Computer Science, Brian Harvey and Matthew Wright

Black Holes and Baby Universes, Steven Hawking

Work & Projects & Stuff

Jenni and I are thinking about making our front yard more sustainable with desert plants. When we moved in here, it was a golf course-type lawn, but over the years we’ve seen the exorbitant costs involved in keeping that up. It also seems silly since we live in a desert. We’ll transplant some lavender and rosemary from other areas of our yard and maybe find some cool desert plants that don’t need much water. I also love the idea of having useful plants around. We use the rosemary in food, the lavender and aloe for hair and skin stuff.

My movie catalog web app is a couple sneezes away from becoming reality! I’m not sure what involuntary nasal excretions have to do with movies, but I’d be interested to hear your thoughts on that. I’m using PHP to connect to a simple MySQL database. I want to make it easy for us to find the movies we already own, see what we haven’t watched, if it’s a DVD or on our shared drive. I’ve completed Phase II, which is creating user account and sessions using cookies. Yay!

In case you missed it above, I’m studying computer science on my own. It’s funny because I already know 4 programming languages. I’m just really interested in stepping back in time and relearning some of the stuff I messed around with in the ’80s. I think that becoming a better programmer involves learning about all aspects of data science and computing, not just the structure and syntax of a particular language. I even borrowed my son’s LEGO EV3 brick to test out and learn Python. Fun. For me, anyway. I know, you probably skipped to the B-52s video a few sentences ago.

Quote of the Moment

“I’m not superstitious, but I am a little stitious.” — Michael Scott

Mood: Lobster

The Catastrophic Boba Shortage of 2021

No, not that Boba.

I read the headline, then I read it again. Yep, it really does say that, I thought. It’s not just that it’s 3:00 am and I’m sitting on the toilet in the dark. I’m mostly awake and it’s right there: “Boba Shortage to Last Throughout Summer.”

There was nothing I could do in that moment but take slow, deep breaths and try to process the horrific news.

Wait a minute. What am I saying? I don’t even drink boba. In fact, it kind of grosses me out. All those little gelatinous orbs floating around in a drink make me think of eyeballs and I don’t even want to contemplate what it would be like to bite down on – ugh. “Excuse me, Waiter, there’s an eye in my soup.”

I’m not usually squeamish about these things; no, wait. Yes, I am. I’m very squeamish. I still do a side eye at baked goods with raisins in them. Don’t even get me started on foods inappropriately described as “gooey.” Can we just say “melty?” Similarly, boba really makes my tummy rumble, and not like I’m hungry.

This news headline, with its dire prediction of the coming Bobacolypse, gave me an odd sense of relief. Don’t get me wrong, I genuinely weep for the rest of the population that loves their boba tea. If I saw one of those behemoth pickups driving down the freeway filled with boba and toilet paper, I would call 911 and pursue them until the fiend was captured. So no, I wasn’t relieved about the drastic boba shortage itself, but at the headline.

I was relieved because the fact that these are the stories making the news ticker means a short break from stories about mass shootings and uber-conservative political nuttiness. Maybe it’s only a tiny break, but it helps. The more headlines I see like “Do Squirrels Damage Power Lines More Than Weather?,” the easier it is to scroll past the doom.

You might be thinking (because I just did) why don’t you just stop reading the news? And you would be smart to think that. I do take occasional breaks from reading news, but the truth is that I am addicted to knowing what’s going on in the world. In some ways, even gloomy news can be comforting to me – and sometimes the more ridiculously doom-ridden, the better. I realize it’s weird, but hear me out. Take a headline like “Solar Wind Traveling 1,118,468 mph Due to Hit Earth Sunday.” That sounds dangerous, as if by Monday the entire Western hemisphere will be a gooey mess. I mean, melty mess. It also sounds very science fiction-ey, like it’s just ridiculous enough to be the premise of a Netflix series. Since I can’t do anything about it and I clearly can’t take it seriously, it doesn’t affect me emotionally. I can handle it. So I keep reading the news and mentally separate the hard stuff from the laughable stuff.

Here’s another headline to consider: “North Korea warns of ‘crisis beyond control’ in heated statements aimed at US and South Korea.” Okay, let’s quickly brainstorm here. What are we going to do about this? How can we make Kim Jong Un feel less attacked? We could get on a plane to North Korea, sit down with him and help him understand about the old saying “sticks and stones.” If I thought we would come back alive, much less even get there, it might be something to consider. It would be something to do, rather than just sit here and worry about it. So, I won’t worry about it.

But back to boba. We are clearly in a crisis here. And even though there’s probably nothing I can do about it, and it doesn’t affect me due to my revulsion at the very thought of consuming it, in the back of my mind I wonder. Maybe I can do something? Just because I’m not a boba drinker doesn’t mean I can’t help those who love their bubble tea. Maybe I can start cultivating cassava in my yard. And maybe I can gather my neighbors to do the same. Together, we could turn this planetary tapioca ball shortage around.

Still, maybe this will all just be okay. I’ll be okay. We’ll be okay. We will learn to live in a world without boba. I think it’s best summed up in the words of Denise Giraldo-Gordon of Brooklyn, NY:

“I didn’t miss it at all. I just needed to prepare mentally.”

We all do, Denise. We all do.

May

I Can Read!

Blood and Gold, Anne Rice

True Believer: Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements, Eric Hoffer

Simply Scheme: Introducing Computer Science, Brian Harvey and Matthew Wright

Work & Projects & Stuff

I’m working with two WordPress clients on revamping their sites. It’s super interesting work. On one I’ve used Elementor extensively and on the other I’m using plain old Gutenberg blocks and tons of CSS. I’ve also been able to dive into the themes on both and do some custom PHP, which is fun for me. They are both in the final stages and I’ll show them off after they launch.

My movie catalog database project is coming along! I’m using PHP connected to a local MySQL database. I want to make it easy for us to find the movies we already own, see what we haven’t watched, if it’s a DVD or on our shared drive. I know I could do this fast and easy using WordPress, but I want to code it by hand and see what I can do.

Quote of the Moment

“There is a way out of every box, a solution to every puzzle; it’s just a matter of finding it.” — Captain Jean-Luc Picard

It’s Funny

Fractured

You’ve probably stubbed your toe a few times in your life, amiright? Sure you have. Sadly, you will likely never get to the championship-level toe stubbing that I have attained. You need to practice every day. Most people don’t have that kind of drive. I don’t mean to be dismissive, but I am just extremely adept at smashing my feet.

If there’s a box, I will kick it. If there’s a door frame, I will hit it. If there’s something heavy, I will drop it on myself.

I’m not what I would consider a clutz, per se. I just have magnets in my feet that attract injury. They’re average sized feet. They don’t turn out so that snagging them on objects would be easier. Nope. They just get themselves in situations on a regular basis that defy explanation.

I’m a good healer, so typically I’m back up and running (literally) in a week or two. Recently, however, I stubbed my pinky toe so well that I actually broke it.

Back in February (the 3rd to be precise, according to my bullet journal), I kicked a box of t-shirts as I was walking by; the box was minding its own business. Again, these are not things I do on purpose, it’s a natural talent I have developed. I’m not angry, or frustrated, nor do I have anything against boxes or cardboard. Simple happenstance, or what some might call not looking where I’m going. But yes, I jabbed my pinky toe into that box like I was playing in the World Cup. Or at least it felt that way.

Several expletives later, it bruised and swelled up like a hot dog in a microwave.

I resigned myself to the fact that I wouldn’t be running any time soon. I did do some power walking and hiking, but that’s only because I’m stubborn and kind of dumb. Suffice to say it didn’t get any better under that kind of care. After a couple months of this, Jenni suggested that maybe, just maybe I might want to get it checked out. Okay, sure, fine.

Turns out it’s broken this time. For real. Thankfully, I squeaked by without needing surgery, but it was close. The only thing I have to do now is… wait. Apparently I can even run on it if I want, as long as there’s no pain. But I’m not going to do that (again – yes, I tried it once). I will (sigh) let it heal like a normal person would.

I wish I could say something about lessons being learned, or offer up some kind of zen wisdom about feet. Alas, I only have this dumb story about my toe.

The offending phalange, as seen from the outside. Hey, that would be a good name for a bar.

April

Reading is Fundamental

Walking on Custard & the Meaning of Life, Neil Hughes

Professional WordPress Design & Development, Brad Williams, David Damstra, Hal Stern

Big Sur, Jack Keroac

Work & Projects & Stuff

It’s Spring, and that means Spring cleaning. The screen print studio needs a thorough overhaul. Too many old boxes and useless junk laying around. It’s time to spiff things up again.


[ongoing] I’m creating a movie catalog web app for our family. I’m using PHP connected to a local MySQL database. I want to make it easy for us to find the movies we already own, see what we haven’t watched, if it’s a DVD or on our shared drive. I know I could do this fast and easy using WordPress, but I want to code it by hand and see what I can do.

Quote of the Moment

“Normality is a paved road: It’s comfortable to walk, but no flowers grow on it.” – Vincent Van Gogh

Mood

Easing Off the Pressure

I made two promises to myself in the last couple of years that I have been failing to keep. The first was that I would only write blog posts or newsletters when I really felt like I had something to say. The second was that I would publish on a regular schedule.

Maybe you can see how those two promises are like peanut butter and pickles. They were never meant to go together. So I’ve been over here flailing around, desperately trying to stick to a schedule and also write super meaningful things.

Lately, when the little reminder thingy pops up in my calendar that tells me I need to publish something, I’ve started asking myself, okay, but what? And the more important question, okay, but why? And a more existential question, who is doing all this scheduling in my calendar?

I mean, obviously it’s me. But the overly (annoyingly) optimistic me who creates the schedule and the lazy, easily distracted, pessimistic me who reads the calendar are not on speaking terms. And while I can’t change these two mes very easily, maybe I can get them in a room and help them work out their issues. Maybe the first thing to work on is easing up on all the pressure.

I already have a writing gig where I’m obligated to publish new content each month, and there are other people depending on me. And that’s fine – no, it’s awesome. I have a great editor and other writers who help me with my content, keep me on track and hold me accountable.

Here it’s just me. Or mes. Us? More existential questions and I’m getting off track here.

At one time or another (maybe always), we put so much pressure on ourselves to accomplish goals, be something great, get to a perfect place in our lives. Sometimes I think it’s necessary and good. Otherwise, we would sit around all day in our underwear eating whatever we could easily reach in the cupboard (peanut butter and pickles come to mind). Other times I think we can afford to ease up a little bit on ourselves.

March

I Can Read!

Walking on Custard & the Meaning of Life, Neil Hughes

Professional WordPress Design & Development, Brad Williams, David Damstra, Hal Stern

The Joy of PHP, Alan Forbes

Work & Projects & Stuff

I’m sanding another wooden table rescued from the alley. It’s amazing the perfectly good stuff people throw out.

Creating a movie catalog web app for our family. I’m using PHP connected to a MySQL database. I want to make it easy for us to find the movies we already own, see what we haven’t watched, if it’s a DVD or on our shared drive.

Quote of the Moment

“There is a theory which states that if ever anyone discovers exactly what the Universe is for and why it is here, it will instantly disappear and be replaced by something even more bizarre and inexplicable.There is another theory which states that this has already happened.” – Douglas Adams

Mood