Heretical Confessions of an Emacs Addict – Joy of the Vim Text Editor

Context

As an experiment, I have recently started using Vim as my primary text editor. While I have been an Emacs aficionado for a very, very long time – clocking in at almost 16 years – Vim is something that I have always been curious about, and tinkered with from time to time, while ending up going back to Emacs. This time however, I intend to stick around for a while, and try to get a feel of the Zen of Vim.

The Emacs and Vim Icons

The experience with Vim has been rather pleasant so far. While  configuration is definitely a must (just like Emacs), out of the box experience is not bare bones either. In fact, the default settings are rather good, and one can get a lot of mileage from the vanilla setup.

The USP of Vim is that it is first and foremost a text editor, and does not attempt to be THE kitchen sink. In other words, its core focus is to provide the best and most functions to manipulate text; it is not to provide a universal platform where one of the applications happens to be an editor.

The Editing Model

The very first experience the user gets on launching Vim is that it is a modal editor, with distinct modes for entering text, and editing it.

This is in stark contrast to most other editors, which provide the editing functions via other mechanisms, such as menus or key chords (à la Emacs). While this might seem odd at first glance, it is definitely a key component of Vim’s power, and arguably its success as a text editor.

In addition, the second key distinguishing factor of Vim is that its editing is based on a “noun-adjective-count-movement-verb” model of editing. Nearly every editing command is a sequence of one or more of these primitives, where the intent of the edit operation is usually fully mapped to the encoding offered by various combinations of these primitives.

As an example, to move 5 lines down, and then 3 words forward, to delete the next two words, the following “primitive encoding” can be used:

      5j 3w 2de 

While this is a rather trivial example, it illustrates a key principle of using Vim – the editing model is based on MOVEMENT and MANIPULATION, explicitly and succinctly made via the modal key-chords which apply the same basic foundational model at all scales.

To a large extent, this underlying pair is what the user usually is thinking about, when an editing operation is being thought of. The primitives are just the vocabulary to tell Vim to execute the intent.

The movement itself can be further separated into raw movements (i.e., lines and characters), or be semantic oriented (words, sentences, paragraphs, functions, etc.) This can sometimes be further refined using “adjectives” such as “begin”, “end”, “between”, or “surrounded”. In addition, the count represents multiples of the movement unit being specified, and allows velocity of the movement to be increased significantly.

The verb is of course where the “real action” happens. In a general sense, every verb is really a “change” verb, with specializations of “delete”, “replace”, “convert”, etc.

Conveniences

In essence, the core feature set of Vim (and certainly its spiritual ancestor – Vi) can be adequately expressed by the core model described above.

However, a basic feature does not make a competent editor. This requires other user comforts such as multi-file edits, windowing mechanisms (including split windows), language syntax, external tool integration (spell checks, compilers, shell interaction), extensive customization to fit the user’s need, an usable in-built help system, and many more such features that make regular usage comfortable and transparent. And Vim does have all of these in abundance, with parity with Emacs in most of these areas in terms of feature completeness, and power.

Granted, Vim does not yet have an inbuilt News Reader, or an email client, but the core editing functions are very much there, or easily added via plug-ins.

Conclusions

The feeling I get from using Vim is really about efficiency and focus, while Emacs seems to exude more a sense of power. Both can be frustrating at times, often from over-abundance of features than anything else, and hidden functionality that takes years to internalize before returns are gained.

Vim and Emacs are both excellent editors, and share a lot in common. The complexity, feature-richness, and the high learning curve are the ones that stand out the most. Also, the vibrant community around both editors is a shared characteristic.

Editor wars aside, both are very competent and complex pieces of software, and will serve the user well, provided an investment is made in learning the unique interfaces that both exhibit.

As for me, I do not anticipate leaving the Emacs bandwagon any time soon — especially with significant investments now in the Orgmode work-flow that I have built up over the past few years. However, I do see Vim as another pro-tool in my toolbox, which is definitely going to get a lot more love and use in the days ahead.


Snow Leopard – First Impressions

I finally bit the bullet and installed Snow Leopard over last weekend. I did a clean install (i.e., reformat and install afresh) – considering the significant under-the-hood changes that this OS revision has.

The basic steps I followed are:

  1. Cleaned up the existing Leopard install to remove applications, preference panes and documents I did not need
  2. Reviewed the preferences under ~/Library/Preferences as well as the application support items under ~/Library/Application Support and removed the items which were out of date or detritus from old installs
  3. Took an image backup using SuperDuper! of the Leopard install
  4. Took a backup of the disk using Time Machine to allow easier data restore during the installation
  5. De-authorized my iTunes to prevent increment of the install counter after reinstall of the OS
  6. Popped in the Snow Leopard DVD and started the install
  7. During installation, I used the Disk Utility to reformat the Mac OS partition
  8. I also did a custom install to prevent the printer drivers (over 2 GB) being installed. In addition, I selected the optional Rosetta and Quicktime 7 components (seriously Apple, these take less than 10 MB – why the optional tag?)
  9. Waited for around 20 minutes to have the base image installed, and then used the migration assistant to restore data from my Time Machine backup

The install was relatively smooth, and restoring the data from my Time Machine backup also went without any issues. However, post-install, some of the glitches started appearing:

  1. The default font for Safari as well as Firefox went crazy – with large bold fonts appearing. It turned out to be a font substitution issue with the Arial font, which for some reason was missing the “Regular” type. Restored the font from the old image backup and every thing was back to normal. It appears a lot of people are facing this issue
  2. Adobe’s Photoshop Elements 6 refused to start, stating expiry of the license. This also is a known issue, and a restore of the /Library/Application Support/FLEXnet Publisher/ folder from the image backup made things normal again
  3. The key chain was not allowing storage of any new passwords, and was also not allowing viewing of the stored passwords. This is a known issue and my solution was to simply change the login keychain password once and reset it back again to the original password
  4. Emacs 23 was not compiling under Snow Leopard. There is already a patch available in CVS. However, there are incompatibilities with the 64 bit GCC – hence you need to pass a CC=“gcc -arch i386” as part of the ./configure invocation. The compilation succeeded with this. Note that a recompile of some of the user installed lisp packages was required (notably Icicles)

Other than the issues listed. rest of the experience seems OK so far. The look and feel is not too different and most of the user visible changes are subtle – except for the new QuickTime Player – which is a dumbed down and dressed up version of the venerable QT Player.

In summary, this is an OS upgrade that does have the potential to break some of the old applications, though most of the issues do seem to have work arounds – it is also going to become a required update pretty soon – given the internals changes that Apple has made. No need to rush out right now (mea culpa!) to upgrade – but do be prepared to do the update in the near future.


Replacing Mail.app with Gmail on OSX

Off late the Mail.app email client on OSX has been acting up on me. It often stalls or displays the spinning beach ball of death till a forced quit is required. Also, it seems to have display rendering issues when a mail classified incorrectly as junk is moved back to the inbox.

I tend to use the Mail.app as a local email client for three main purposes:

  1. Offline mode for reading my emails when there is no Internet connection available
  2. Easy desktop search for the mails via Spotlight, and
  3. Easy archival of important mail in my project workspaces (either in Devonthink or plain text export)

The other features (TODO and Notes) are nice, but not really useful for me as I use other tools for these items. The mail itself is served out via gmail accounts and IMAP synchronization.

However, Mail.app is one of the few (only?) Apple provided applications that I have a love-hate relationship with. I love the fact that it integrates seamlessly with iCal and Address Book, and the other features such as support for multiple signatures, digital signing and encryption via the GPG plugin and the smart quote while responding are quite good. the threading is also functional.

But the incessant crashes and freeze ups are getting to be more than annoying. I have tried the various cures such as re-synching the entire mailbox, rebuilding the mailbox, trashing preferences, changing the cache setting and a ton of other voodoo. These seem to be temporary solutions however, and the problems come back pretty fast. Apparently I am not alone in my suffering though – Apple’s discussion and support forums are full of unhappy Mail.app users.

So I am now on the hunt for an alternative offline/local client solution. I have already tried Mozilla Thunderbird, and it looks too ugly for my tastes (though an excellent client on the Windows platform). In addition, two more deal-breakers exist right now:

  1. Getting Spotlight to work with Thunderbird requires a third party indexer which seems to be a hack. It looks like an experimental mdimporter plugin does come with version 2.0 but is flacky
  2. Missing integration with the system provided AddressBook.app application (I need to sync the addresses with my Blackberry, and AddressBook.app is a core part of the synchronization workflow)

Another promising solution seems to be using Gmail directly as the primary email client. This requires a few additional steps to enable a seamless offline operation:

  1. Installation of the Google Gears extension for the browser (no support yet for the latest Safari 4.x version) – this enables a copy of the emails to be stored on the local disk and allows access and usage of the gmail interface when offline – note that the first-time sync takes a long time as last 6 months worth of emails are downloaded to your computer – it is pretty peppy from then on
  2. Installation of the Gmail Notifier application which provides notifications on receipt of new emailgooglenotifiersignin.png
  3. Setting up Gmail as the default mail handler from URLs by using an option on the Gmail notifiergooglenotifierpreferences1.png
  4. Using a Site Specific Browser such as Fluid.app or Mozilla Prism and creation of a Gmail SSB application (remember to set a nice icon)fluid1.png
  5. Setting up the Gmail SSB as the default mail application by setting the “Default Mail Reader” option from Mail.app’s general preferencesmail-appgeneralpreferences1.png
  6. Synchronizing the addresses between Addressbook.app and Gmail using iSyncaddressbookpreferences.png
  7. Using Google Desktop for searching the mails on Gmail

Whew! Quite a bit of setup here to do – and it is still not perfect. Lets look at the pros and cons:

Pros:

  1. Can use the excellent Gmail UI everywhere, online or offline – on all platforms. Hurray for Web apps!
  2. Great keyboard shortcuts – much better than Mail.app
  3. Using the SSB allows a smooth integration of the mail experience with rest of the desktop
  4. No more waiting for the local client to download the mails before accessing – it is near instantaneous after the first offline synchronization
  5. No more crashes!

Cons:

  1. It is a hack right now – definitely not a “download and start using” solution
  2. Google Desktop is duplicating search functionality that already exists via Spotlight
  3. Synchronization of the addresses between Gmail and AddressBook is not reliable
  4. No support for multiple signatures (can get around with a auto-typing solution such as Typinator or TextExpander)
  5. Cannot export the emails (not the contacts) from Gmail to the local computer

I intend to use this setup for the next couple of weeks to get a better feel of the system. Will follow up with a post on the findings. Do let me know what you think.


Musings on my Inbox Zero and GTD workflow

My time-management revolves around email, Calendar and to-do lists. While tools definitely help, it is more important to understand that we are processing information and acting on them, and it is just managing or tracking the items. A few pointers on what I use for Emails:

Email

The newest computer can merely compound, at speed, the oldest problem in the relations between human beings, and in the end the communicator will be confronted with the old problem, of what to say and how to say it.

- Edward R. Murrow

Most of us are inundated with a lot of emails everyday, and the inbox keeps piling up with mails that need to be read and processed. Many of us keep these emails that have not been followed up with an action yet in our default inboxes – or squirrel them away in a maze of folders and sub-folders. Very soon, you land up with hundreds of emails competing for your precious time – and prioritization becomes difficult. This is compounded by the fact that your email inbox is now stuffed with tons of emails – which need to be re-read again before you can decide what to do with them.

However, there is a technique to handle this mess.

  1. Delete Emails! Frankly, a lot of email is never going to be used again, and has dubious value in terms of information content, or are just time-bound communication whose content is going in expire by a certain period. There is absolutely no need to keep these mails lying around and wasting space and time
  2. Never read an email twice. Scan your inbox top to bottom once per read-cycle (more to come on that) and decide the action that this email requires. Most of the time, the action is either:
    • Read and archive (the FYI kind of stuff)
    • Read and respond immediately (anything which requires less than 2 minutes)
    • Read and extract the actionable TODO (e.g. create a report, call some one)
    • Delegate to someone else (you are not the one who should be performing this action)
    • Wait for something else to happen (someone needs to work on an up-stream work item
    • The trick is to ensure that no email slips through the cracks here. You must decide the action and get out of the email reading cycle and actually do what the email triggers as work.
  3. Read email in read-cycles – Turn off the auto-notification every time an email arrives. Set a schedule (say every 45 minutes or an hour) to get into your email client and scan+process your inbox. This will help avoid a lot of distraction and interruption the email system brings
  4. Don’t create more than 5 email folders – Lets be realistic here. How many times were you actually able to retrieve the email you were looking for from the elaborate folder structure you have? Or, think about the frequency of instances where you used the “All Documents/email” view to retrieve that email.
  5. Creating folder structures is really a placebo that feels good while filing away the email but has no other practical value. I use five folders to manage my emails:
    • Action – Emails for which I need to do something that takes longer than 5 minutes
    • Waiting – Emails where someone else is going to provide inputs before I can complete the actionable task
    • Someday – Emails which are really future statements or actions
    • Read/Review – Long announcements, FYIs etc. which take time to read
    • Archive – All my processed emails go here. No hunting around for the right folder to move the email to
  6. Review the Action mail folders at EOD – At end of the day, I scan the action, waiting, someday and the read-review folders to ensure I have NOT missed out on anything for that day
  7. Store the TODO list of actions OUTSIDE the email – An email is a piece of communication, its action should be stored outside – MUAs are not task trackers. A simple text document (with a timestamp and schedule dates) suffices. Your actions and work should be driven via this file, not your inbox

Calendar

How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.
- Annie Dillard

Calendars are meant for tracking your workday – not just meetings and calls. I block some personal time (in chunks of 30 – 60 min.) every day where I do not schedule meetings or calls. Early morning and late evenings are great for this.

You can also use the recurring event feature to setup reminders for yourself (e.g. “I have to send the status report on 12th of every month”).

Scheduling deadlines are also easy (e.g. “I have to complete the coding on this module by next Thursday”).

Note that the TODO file can also help with tracking these entries, as long as you enter a date against the item.

TODOs

If hard work were such a wonderful thing, surely the rich would have kept it all to themselves.
– Lane Kirkland

Todos are the meat of getting the work done. In essence, todos are the actionable next steps to take something forward. The trick is to ensure that the granularity of tasks and their inter-relationships are managed. In a sense, every TODO is also a mini-project with multiple activities.

As an example, creating a report (of any kind) usually involves:

  1. Ensuring the report meta-data is known (e.g. submission date)
  2. Gathering the data
  3. Analyzing and reformatting the data
  4. Updating the report document
  5. Reviewing the document
  6. Sending out the report, and
  7. Confirming receipt of the report

As you can see, this is a multi-activity TODO, with additional level of granularity possible, along with some scheduling in the calendar. For this example, you can have a Parent TODO for the original task, and child TODOs for the next-level activities in your TODO file. For the maximum impact, assign deadlines and schedules for each of the items (nothing fancy, can be as simple as “This Friday”).The advantage this structuring provides is that

(a) the next step is always known, and
(b) you can be sure of all steps being completed and progress is visible

Another important concept around TODOs is context. To put it simply, some activities can only be done in a certain environment, or using certain tools. They are the ‘meta-tags’ which help you classify what you are doing.

For example, a call needs a Phone, reading email needs a computer or some gizmo that can access the mails; attending an in-person meeting means that you have to be physically in a work place etc.

If you can assign context around your TODOs, you can better utilize those short time-slots that become available throughout the day (e.g. waiting for a meeting to start). To take the earlier example, I would track the context as:

  1. TODO: Create the Report @WORK DEADLINE: This Friday (8/17)
  2. NEXT ACTION Find out the submission date from the boss @ANYWHERE:@CALL (DEADLINE: today)
  3. WAITING Gather the data from my team @EMAIL (DEADLINE: today)
  4. NEXT ACTION Analyse and reformat the data @WORK:@COMPUTER
  5. NEXT ACTION Update the report document @COMPUTER (DEADLINE: tomorrow)
  6. NEXT ACTION Review the document with my boss @WORK (DEADLINE: tomorrow)
  7. NEXT ACTION Send out the report @EMAIL (friday)
  8. NEXT ACTION Confirm receipt of the report @EMAIL or @CALL (friday)

The words prefixed with ‘@’ are the contexts, and help you decide if you can do it right now, or need to wait for the next step. Many of the NEXT ACTIONS can be done parallelly (not in this example though – which is a bit trivial, and too granular). BTW, if you are tracking TODOs at this level, it is better to use a custom tool rather than just plain lists in a spreadsheet. I happen to use the excellent Org-Mode mode for Emacs – though there are quite a few custom applications built for this purpose and more which do just that.

In fact, the task-tracking genre seems to be a a very popular software category on all platforms – with all the bells and whistles you could wish for. Do play around with the tool of your choice for a few days though before locking down on the one that fits your work-cadence. After all, it is one application that will be used the most through out your day.

Conclusion

One man’s religion is another man’s belly laugh.
- Robert A. Heinlein

These are some of the techniques I use on a daily basis to gain control on the constant stream of information and the seemingly chaotic and unplanned work that seems to turn up. It does work for me, though is definitely a custom tailored workflow that may not suit everyone.

Do let me know what you think, and how you bring in sanity to your work day!

Further Reading

  1. http://inboxzero.com – Inspiration for most of the mail related tips and workflow
  2. Getting Things Done – The Art of Stress-free productivityThe book for learning GTD methods
  3. ATPO – A comprehensive list of outliners and to-do trackers for the Mac
  4. Org-Mode – The all-in-one note taking, calendaring and everything-else outliner for Emacs

Hurray! NetNewsWire 3.2b13 has removed Advertisements

The latest beta of NetNewsWire (3.2b13) has removed the annoying advertisements that were a major distraction. Also, they have brought back the clipping feature – which is really one of the most useful functions for storing interesting RSS articles for reading later.

However, the resurrected clippings do not sync with Google Reader, which cripples the function. In my usual use case scenario, I used to use the Newsgator online web interface to store long articles for reading later at leisure at home. Looks like this is not going to be possible.

BTW, my quest for finding an alternative RSS reader client on the Mac is still not fulfilled. I had tried out the following RSS readers:

  1. Vienna – A nice and capable OSS reader, but a little too basic and the chrome of the application seems out of place on the Mac. Also, it seems to crash quite often
  2. NewsFire – I had a license from a Macheist deal from 2007, and the latest version is free. However, the functions are really basic

Looks like NetNewsWIre with its latest warts is still the most capable reader client on the Mac … I guess I could use Firefox’s live RSS feeds as well … they do sync nicely via the Foxmarks extension.


Moving away from NetNewsWire RSS Reader

So today morning I got an email from http://www.newsgator.com, makers of the excellent NetNewsWire RSS Reader for OS X. NetNewsWire was originally a paid for application and a best of the breed at that. It was made a free download last year and has been my primary RSS Reader till date.

The main USP I found in NetNewsWire was the companion http://www.newsgator.com/ngs/subscriber/WebEd2.aspx online RSS feed aggregator site, and the excellent synchronization between the local client and the web edition. This basically meant that I could read RSS feeds where I wanted to – even when away from the OSX laptop, and my reading history would be in sync when I fired up the OSX client. Heck, there was even a iPhone client to do the same sync up.

However, the email communication now states that the online version of the aggregator will no longer be available from 31st August, and the new client version (currently a beta at 3.2b6) will sync with Google Reader. This should be business as usual – right? And Google’s RSS reader is also a very strong web based client, with lots of AJAX goodies to make the browsing experience pleasant.

BUT – the new local client now displays advertisement on the lower left corner – which is very intrusive and annoying. I do understand the need to monetize a free client using occasional and unobtrusive advertisements – but the current implementation seems to be more of “in your face”.

The google sync does work fine and the initial setup is pretty seamless and fast. But the deal breaking advertisements still remain.

Sigh … time to start looking for a replacement client now … Vienna seems to a good candidate.


Blog movement complete!

Finally managed to move over the entries from the old site! Adieu X10Hosting. It was definitely NOT nice knowing you.


Dependency hell with darwinports

I have had the need to produce charts and graphs for my work lately – and wanted to start using gnuplot. Should be easy right?  After all, there is a darwinports port available, and install should have been a breeze, with just a:

sudo port install gnuplot

Or so I thought.  For some unknown &!@^% reason, darwinports with its immense intelligence decided that it needed to download 75 other ports that I did not ask for, including its own version of X11, even though Apple does provide a perfectly decent implementation that I have installed.

And guess what, there is not way to uninstall these 75 at one go either. You will need to uninstall one or a few at a time using the

sudo port uninstall <junk>

command and hope that the dependency hell does not bite you … or else it is multiple rounds of fiddling with the command line and hoping that the current uninstall invocation is the last round. Argh!

The solution (to installing gnuplot, that is) was much simpler. After cleaning out the junk that darwinports installed, I proceeded to download the latest gnuplot source and the excellent Aquaterm for a OSX friendly render terminal.

After installing Aquaterm (which is a simple dmg, drag-to-Applications and you are done install), I untarred the gnuplot source, ran the following standard configure/build commands, and was running gnuplot in less than 5 minutes.

./configure –with-readline=builtin
make
make test
# This launches Aquaterm and runs some nice tests which demonstrate gnuplot’s capabilities
sudo make install

Take that, darwinports!

P.S.:  The bit about using the builtin readline is necessary on my version of OSX (10.5.7) as there is some nasty interplay with the system provided readline version.


Do you Twitter?

Twitter is one of those Web 2.0 applications that at first 
glance seems to beg the question: why? But first, a description of the service 
from its home page:
Twitter is a service for friends, family, and co–workers to communicate and 
stay connected through the exchange of quick, frequent answers to one simple 
question: What are you doing?
In short, it allows you to post a short description of what you are doing right 
now (or in fact, any short phrase at all – the trend seems to be for posting 
witty or funny comments).
The next obvious thing is to track what others are doing – which can be a 
limited set of your friends, or for anyone who has chosen to make their status 
public.
Another interesting use is to use it as a virtual SMS mechanism on the 
web – you can choose to only track your friends, and use the service to keep in 
virtual touch with each other.
Twitter offers tracking and update via the web, IM as well as SMS via a 
cell-phone.
The service has already gained a large following, and many web celebrities such 
as Marlin Mann of 43Folders fame or Cali Lewis from 
GeekBrief TV are on board.
Yours truly is also testing the waters right now, and has the handle evolve75 
on the service.
There are also quite a few tools already available to make the usage easier. A 
Firefox extension called twitbin enables live tracking via 
a side-bar on your browser, and OS X dashboard widget called 
Twadget is available for updating Twitter from your Mac desktop (for 
Vista users, an alternate version for the sidebar is available 
here).
Whether Twitter is just another Web 2.0 meme – or here to stay – remains to be 
seen. The service is useful, but carries the risk of the novelty fading away 
to becoming a chore :-(
~ Anupam


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