Learning Emacs

Emacs and I have a weird history. It was in fact the first editor I used to learn Java back in 2001 thanks to Michael Kropfberger who suggest it to his first-year students. But after just a week or so and without getting beyond opening, saving and closing files I moved to other tools like Eclipse and VIM.

A couple of weeks ago I wanted to give it another try especially because I wanted to mess around with Lisp-languages and having an application right out of the box is the best way to learn anything ;-) I was also a little bored of my current tool-chain and mixing that up is always fun!


Usually, the first thing you hear when you tell someone you want to learn something like VIM or Emacs is to get a pre-configured distribution like Janus or Prelude respectively. Back when I wanted to learn more about VIM I already ignored Janus and I think it helped me quite a lot. For me it is simply very important to learn stuff like it was originally intended and then slowly move to more modern settings if and only if I see the benefit for me. Your mileage will definitely vary here, though. I’m a bit stubborn and complicated in this regard ;-)

OSX integration

One of the things that prevented me to play around with Emacs again earlier is the keyboard layout Apple created for OSX. The META key in Emacs is extremely important but on OSX it maps onto the alt/option key by default. This is probably fine for the native US keyboard, but in the German and US-International layouts that key is immensely important for things like German umlauts or dead-key combinations when writing something in French.

After a bit of experimenting with various settings I ended up binding the META key onto OSX’s CMD key.

(custom-set-variables
  '(ns-command-modifier (quote meta)))
(setq mac-option-modifier 'none)

This has the big disadvantage that I can no longer CMD+C/V for interacting with the clipboard. Luckily, as with VIM, you can configure Emacs to also use the OS’ clipboard:

(setq x-select-enable-clipboard t)

No, if I copy something in Chrome I can paste it into Emacs with Ctrl+y and copy stuff out with META-w.

Learning …

Since re-learning some Lisp and Emacs play hand in hand for me I picked “An Introduction to Programming in Emacs Lisp” as my tour guide. It’s probably not the best book if you’ve seen Lisp before (yeeeears ago) or know your way around other languages but for my purpose it was good enough.

Over the Xmas holidays I finished the book and can now at least read and to a very limited degree write Emacs’ configuration files, which is pretty much what I wanted to achieve here :-) I’m not sure if I like the language enough to also go beyond that but who knows…

That being said, the documentation available for any function available in Elisp is simply awesome!

The “killer-feature”

Another side-effect of this little adventure was that I could finally play around with the famous OrgMode. I won’t go as far as saying that you should use OrgMode even if you don’t use Emacs for anything else, but it gets very close. This is probably the single best outlining tool I’ve seen so far. I’m not sure if I will use it for some of the more advanced areas like GTD and project management (simply because I like to have those also available on the go) but for outlining I will definitely use it in the future.

So, after 3 weeks do I like Emacs more than VIM? No, simply because I can’t really compare these two tools. VIM feels to me with its motions like the better editor but Emacs seems more powerful outside of that. A killer-feature of VIM is also that it’s available on any server I maintain, so even if I switch to Emacs on my working machine VIM will still see a lot of use whenever I ssh into anything. That being said, I really enjoy using Emacs and can definitely see myself sticking with it at least for a couple more weeks.

A couple of other resources I found useful during the last couple of weeks:

comments powered by Disqus