Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Nerd Food: A Prelude of Things to Come

Nerd Food: A Prelude of Things to Come

This sprint I found myself making one of those historical transitions: moving my entire Emacs infrastructure from a old, creaking at the seams approach, to the new all-singing-all-dancing way of doing things. This post documents the start of this transition.

The Road to Cunene

I have been using Emacs since around 1998. One of the biggest reasons to use the great old editor is its infinite configurability. Really, to call Emacs "configurable" is rather like saying that Euler wasn't bad with numbers. In truth - and it takes you a while to really grok this - Emacs is just a lisp platform with a giant editing library built on top; a library that keeps on getting extended on a daily basis by a large number of Emacs users. And, of course, you configure Emacs using lisp, so that the lines between "configuration" and "development" are, at best, blurry.

But lets go back to the beginning. Like every other Emacs newbie in those days, I too started with a plain (i.e. non-configured) Emacs and soon evolved to a very simple .emacs - this file being one of the possible places in which to store its configuration. The reason why almost all Emacs users start configuring Emacs very early on is because its defaults are astonishingly atrocious. It still amazes me to the day that some people are able to use plain Emacs and come out at the other end as Emacs users. In some ways, I guess it is a test of fire: do you really want to use Emacs? There are two responses to this test: most give up, but a few persist and soon start changing the editor to behave in a slightly saner manner.

The .emacs starts small, especially if you are not familiar with lisp. Sooner or later it occurs to you that, surely, someone must have already done one of these before, and then you find the amazing world of .emacs "development". This opens up entire new vistas of the Emacs landscape, because with each .emacs you find, you discover untold numbers of configuration knobs and - much more importantly - many new modes to install. In Emacs lingo, a mode is kind of like a "plug-in" for Eclipse or Visual Studio users. But this is just an approximation; as with everything "Emacs", there is actually no real equivalent way of describing Emacs terminology with analogies outside of Emacs. The problem with IDEs and most other editors is that they can only be extended in ways that their designers thought useful. In Emacs, everything is extensible. And I do mean everything. I remember the day I realised that a key press was really just the invocation of the self-insert-command function and, like any other function, it too could be changed in a myriad of ways.

But I digress. As with most users, my .emacs evolved over the years as I found more and more modes. I soon found that it was very painful to keep all my machines with the same setup; invariably I would change something at work but forget to change it at home or Uni or vice-versa. To make matters worse, some machines were on Windows. And in those days, there was no Emacs package management support, so you ended up copying lots of modes around. Life was painful and brute in my first decade of Emacs.

Around six years ago, things got a lot better: I started to use git in anger, refactored my .emacs into something slightly saner and called it Cunene - after the river in Southern Angola. Eventually I put it on GitHub. I believe - but don't recall exactly - that most of the refactoring ideas were stolen from Phil Hagelberg's Starter Kit and Alex Ott's .emacs.

Whatever the source of ideas, the improvements were undeniable. Cunene offered a all-in-one place to go to for my .emacs, and it combined all the experience I had in seeing other people's .emacs. At over twenty megs it wasn't exactly svelte, but my objective was to have a "zero-conf" setup; given a new machine, all I wanted to do was to git clone cunene, start Emacs and have exactly the same environment as everywhere else.

Further, I could update Cunene from any machine and push it back to GitHub. Cunene contained all the modes I needed, all byte-compiled, and all at trusted versions and with some (very minor) patches. I could easily upgrade one or more modes from one machine and then just git pull from all other machines. It also handled any Windows-specific workarounds, ensuring things worked well out of the box there too.

To be fair, for the last 6 years, this setup has served me well, but time also revealed its limitations:

  • package management support was limited. I tried using Elpa but, at the time, not many packages were available. Package management has evolved in leaps and bounds - Melpa, Marmelade, etc - but Cunene was still stuck with the old Elpa support.
  • the accumulation of modes over such a long period meant that starting Emacs took quite a long time. And to make matters worse, only a small percentage of the modes were truly useful.
  • most of the modes were at stale versions. Since things worked for me, I had no incentive to keep up with latest and greatest - and for all the easiness, it was still not exactly trivial to upgrade modes. This meant that I ended up having to put up with bugs that had long been fixed in HEAD, and worse, whenever I upgraded to latest, I saw massive changes in behaviour.
  • I was stuck on Emacs 23. For whatever reason, some parts of Cunene did not work with Emacs 24 properly and I was never able to get to the bottom of this. Being on an old version of Emacs has been a problem because I make use of C++-11 but Emacs 23 doesn't really indent it properly. And of course, Emacs 24 is just improved all around.
  • Cunene had a lot of boilerplate code. Since I never really learnt how to code in Emacs lisp, I was most likely writing a lot of non-idiomatic code. Also, the Emacs API has moved on considerably in fifteen years, so certain things were not being done in the best way possible.
  • Cedet and Org-mode are now part of Emacs but we were still carrying our own copies. I never managed to get Cedet to work properly either.
  • many new modes have appeared of late that provide much better solutions to some of the problems I had, but Cunene insulated me from these developments. In addition, adding new modes would only add to the complexity so I had no incentive to do so.

There had to be a better way of doing things; something that combined the advantages of Cunene but fixed its shortcomings.

Then I heard of Prelude.

The Road to Prelude

According to the official documentation:

Prelude is an Emacs distribution that aims to enhance the default Emacs experience. Prelude alters a lot of the default settings, bundles a plethora of additional packages and adds its own core library to the mix. The final product offers an easy to use Emacs configuration for Emacs newcomers and lots of additional power for Emacs power users.

I am still finding my way around - so don't quote me - but from what I have seen, it seems to me that Prelude is like the Cunene "framework" but done by people that know what they are doing. It covers all of the advantages described above, but shares none of its disadvantages. In particular:

  • it provides a sensible set of baseline defaults that "we all can agree on". I found it quite surprising that a plain Prelude looked almost like Cunene. Of course, no two Emacs users agree on anything, really, so there is still a lot to be tweaked. Having said that, the great thing is you can start by seeing what Prelude says and giving it a good go using it; if the baseline default does not work for you, you can always override it. Just because you have been doing something in a certain way for a long time does not mean its the best way, and the move to Prelude provides an opportunity to reevaluate a lot of "beliefs".
  • all the framework code is now shared by a large number of Emacs users. This means it is well designed and maintained, and all you have to worry about is your small extensibility points. With over 1k forks in GitHub, you can rest assured that Prelude will be around for a long time. In addition, if you find yourself changing something that is useful to the Prelude community, you can always submit a pull request and have that code shared with the community. You no longer have to worry about staleness or non-idiomatic code.
  • Prelude integrates nicely with several package managers and handles updates for you.
  • There are lots of examples of Prelude users - you just need to follow the GitHub forks. It would be nice to have a list of "good examples" though, because at 1K forks its not easy to locate those.
  • If you fork Prelude the right way, you should be able to update from upstream frequently without having too many conflicts. I am still getting my head around this, but the model seems sound at first blush.

But to know if it worked required using it in anger, and that's what will cover in the next few sections.

From Cunene to Prelude

Emacs users are creatures of habit and changing your entire workflow is not something to take lightly. Having said that, I always find that the best way to do it is to just go for it. After all, you can always go back to how you did things before. In addition, I did not want to do a wholesale port of Cunene for two reasons:

  • I didn't want to bring across any bad habits when Prelude was already solving a problem properly.
  • I wanted to get rid of all of the accumulated cruft that was no longer useful.

What follows are my notes on the porting work. This is a snapshot of the work, a few days into it. If there is a reason, I may do further write-ups to cover any new developments.

Initial Setup

Prelude recommends you to create a fork and then add to it your personal configuration. I decided to create a branch in which to store the personal configuration rather than pollute master. This has two advantages:

  • pulling from upstream will always be conflictless;
  • if I do decide to submit a pull request in the future, I can have a clean feature branch off of master that doesn't have any of the personal cruft in it.

As it happens, I later found out that other Prelude users also use this approach such as Daniel Wu, as you can see here. I ended up using Daniel's approach in quite a few cases.

I created my prelude fork in GitHub using the web interface. Once the fork was ready, I moved Cunene out of the way by renaming the existing .emacs.d directory and performed the following setup:

$ curl -L https://github.com/bbatsov/prelude/raw/master/utils/installer.sh -o installer.sh
$ chmod +x installer.sh
$ ./installer.sh -s git@github.com:mcraveiro/prelude.git

This created a Prelude-based ~/.emacs.d, cloned off of my fork. I then setup upstream:

$ cd ~/.emacs.d
$ git remote add upstream git@github.com:bbatsov/prelude.git

This means I can now get latest from upstream by simply doing:

$ git checkout master
$ git pull upstream master
$ git push origin master

I then setup the personal branch:

 $ git branch --track personal origin/personal
 $ git branch
 * personal

For good measure, I also setup personal to be the default branch in GitHub. This hopefully means there is one less configuration step when setting up new machines. Once all of that was done, I got ready to start Emacs 24. The version in Debian Testing at present is 24.4.1 - not quite the latest (24.5 is out) but recent enough for those of us stuck in 23.

The start-up was a bit slow; Prelude downloaded a number of packages, taking perhaps a couple of minutes and eventually was ready. For good measure I closed Emacs and started it again; the restart took a few seconds, which was quite pleasing. I was ready to start exploring Prelude.

The "Editor" Configuration

My first step in configuration was to create a init.el file under .emacs.d/personal and add prelude-personal-editor.el. I decided to follow this naming convention by looking at the Prelude core directory; seems vaguely in keeping. This file will be used for a number of minor tweaks that are not directly related to an obvious major mode (at least from a layman's perspective).

  • Fonts, Colours and Related Cosmetics

    The first thing I found myself tweaking was the default colour theme. Whilst I actually quite like Zenburn, I find I need a black background and my font of choice. After consulting a number of articles such as Emacs Prelude: Background Color and the Emacs Wiki, I decided to go with this approach:

    ;; set the current frame background and font.
    (set-background-color "black")
    (set-frame-font "Inconsolata Bold 16" nil t)
    ;; set the font and background for all other frames.
    (add-to-list 'default-frame-alist
                 '(background-color . "black")
                 '(font .  "Inconsolata Bold 16"))

    The font works like a charm, but for some reason the colour gets reset during start-up. On the plus side, new frames are setup correctly. I have raised an issue with Prelude: What is the correct way to update the background colour in personal configuration? For now there is nothing for it but to update the colour manually. Since I don't restart Emacs very often this is not an urgent problem.

    One nice touch was that font-lock is already global so there is no need for additional configuration there.

  • Widgets and Related Cosmetics

    Pleasantly, Prelude already excludes a lot of annoying screen artefacts and it comes with mouse wheel support out of the box - which is nice. All and all, a large number of options where already setup the way I like it:

    • no splash screen;
    • no menu-bars or tool-bars;
    • good frame title format with the buffer name;
    • no annoying visible bell;
    • displaying of column and line numbers, as well as size of buffers out of the box;
    • not only search had highlight, but the all shiny Anzu mode is even niftier!
    • no need for hacks like fontify-frame.

    However, Preludes includes scroll-bars and tool-tips - things I do not use since I like to stick to the keyboard. It also didn't have date and time in the mode line; and for good measure, I disabled clever window splitting as I found it a pain in the past. Having said that, I am still not 100% happy with time and date since it consumes a lot of screen real estate. This will be revisited at some point in the context of diminish and other mode line helpers.

    ;; disable scroll bar
    (scroll-bar-mode -1)
    ;; disable tool tips
    (when window-system
      (tooltip-mode -1))
    ;; time and date
    (setq display-time-24hr-format t)
    (setq display-time-day-and-date t)

    One note on line highlighting. Whilst I quite like this feature in select places such as grep and dired, I am not a fan of using it globally like Prelude does. However, I decided to give it a try and disable it later if it becomes too annoying.

  • Tabs, Spaces, Newlines and Indentation

    In the realm of "spacing", Prelude scores well:

    • no silly adding of new lines when scrolling down, or asking when adding a new line at save;
    • pasting performs indentation automatically (yank indent etc)- default handling of tabs and spaces is fairly sensible - except for the eight spaces for a tab! A few minor things are missing such as untabify-buffer. These may warrant a pull request at some point in the near future.
    • a nice whitespace mode which is not quite the same as I had it in Cunene but seems to be equally as capable so I'll stick to it.
  • To Prompt or Not to Prompt

    There are a few cases where me and Prelude are at odds when it comes to prompts. First, I seem to try to exit Emacs by mistake and I do that a lot. As any heavy Emacs user will tell you, there is nothing more annoying than exiting Emacs by mistake (in fact, when else do you exit Emacs?). I normally have more than 50 buffers open and not only does it take forever to bring up Emacs with that much state, but it never quite comes back up exactly the way I left it. Anyway, suffices to say that I strongly believe in the "are you sure you want to exit Emacs" prompt, so I had that copied over from Cunene. And, of course, one does not like typing "yes" when "y" suffices:

    ;; Make all "yes or no" prompts show "y or n" instead
    (fset 'yes-or-no-p 'y-or-n-p)
    ;; confirm exit
     (kbd "C-x C-c")
     '(lambda ()
        (if (y-or-n-p-with-timeout "Do you really want to exit Emacs ?" 4 nil)

    There is a nice touch in Prelude enabling a few disabled modes such as upper/down casing of regions - or perhaps the powers that be changed that for Emacs 24. Whoever is responsible, its certainly nice not to have to worry about it.

  • Keybindings

    One of the biggest cultural shocks, inevitably, happened with keybindings. I am giving Prelude the benefit of the doubt - even though my muscle memory is not happy at all. The following has proved annoying:

    • Apparently arrow keys are discouraged. Or so I keep hearing in my minibuffer every time I press one. As it happens, the warnings are making me press them less.
    • C-b was my ido key. However, since I should really not be using the arrow keys, I had to get used to using the slightly more standard C-x b.
    • Eassist include/implementation toggling was mapped to M-o and M-i was my quick way of opening includes in semantic (more on that later). However, these bindings don't seem to work any more.
    • pc-select is a bit screwed in some modes such as C++ and Emacs lisp. But that's alright since you shouldn't be using the arrow keys right? What is annoying is that it works ok'ish in Org-mode so I find that I behave differently depending on the mode I'm on.
    • in addition, win-move is using the default shift-arrow keys and its not setup to handle multiple frames. This is a problem as I always have a few frames. These will have to be changed, if nothing else just to preserve my sanity.
    • talking about pc-select, I still find myself pasting with C-v. I just can't help it, its buried too deeply into the muscle memory. But it must be said, it's rather disconcerting to see your screen move up when you press C-v; it makes you think your paste has totally screwed up the buffer, when in reality its just the good old muscle memory biting again.
    • C-x u now doesn't just undo like it used to. On the plus side, undo-tree just rocks! We'll cover it below.
    • C-backspace doesn't just delete the last word, it seems to kill a whole line. Will take some getting used to.

    All and all, after a few days, the muscle memory seems to have adapted well enough. I'm hoping I'll soon be able to use C-b and C-f without thinking, like a real Emacs user.

Modes From Cunene

Unfortunately, package management was not quite as complete as I had hoped and so, yet again, I ended up with a number of modes that had to be copied into git. Fortunately these are a lot less in number. I decided to place them under personal/vendor as I wasn't sure what the main vendor folder was for.

  • Cedet

    After almost losing my mind trying to configure Cedet from Emacs 24, I decided to bite the bullet and upgrade to the latest development version. In the past this was a safe bet; I'm afraid to report it still is the best way to get Cedet up and running. In fact, I got it working within minutes after updating to develop versus a whole day of fighting against the built-in version. Pleasantly, it is now available in git:

    git clone http://git.code.sf.net/p/cedet/git cedet

    Building it was a simple matter of calling make, both at the top-level and in contrib:

    $ cd cedet
    $ make EMACS=emacs24
    $ cd contrib
    $ make EMACS=emacs24

    The setup was directly copied from their INSTALL document, so I recommend reading that.

    Still in terms of Cedet, a very large win was the move to EDE Compilation Database. I really cannot even begin to do justice to the joys of this mode - it is truly wonderful. I did the tiniest of changes to my build process by defining an extra macro:

    cmake ../../../dogen -G Ninja -DCMAKE_EXPORT_COMPILE_COMMANDS=TRUE

    With just that - and a couple of lisp incantations (see the cedet init file) - and suddenly I stopped having to worry about supplying flags to flymake (well, flycheck - but that's another story), semantic, the whole shebang. I haven't quite worked out all of the details just yet, but with very little configuration the compilation database seems to just get everything working magically.

    Because of this, I am now finding myself using Cedet a lot more; the intelisense seems to just work on the majority of cases. The only snag is the annoyance of old: having Emacs block on occasion whilst it builds some semantic database or other. It doesn't happen often but its still a pain when it does. Which gave me the idea of replacing it with a Clang based "semantic database generator". Lets see what the Cedet mailinglist says about it.

    All and all, Cedet is much improved from the olden days; so much so I feel it warrants a proper review after a few months of using it in anger. In fact, I feel so brave I may even setup emacs-refactor or semantic-refactor. It is also high-time to revisit C/C++ Development Environment for Emacs and pick up some new tips.

  • Git-emacs

    Git-emacs makes me a bit sad. In truth, I am a perfectly content magit user (more on that later) except for one feature - the file status "dot". This is something I got used from the svn days and still find it quite useful. Its silly really, especially in these days of git-gutter, but I still like to know if there have been any changes to a file or not, and I haven't found a good way of doing this outside of git-emacs. It provides a nice little red or green dot in the modeline, like so:


    Figure 1: Git-emacs state modeline

    However, there are no packaged versions of git-emacs and since everyone uses magit these days, I can't see it making to Elpa. Also, it is rather annoying having to load the whole of git-emacs for a dot, but there you go.

  • Doxymacs

    Very much in the same vein as git-emacs, doxymacs is also one of those more historical modes that seem a bit unmaintained. And very much like git-emacs, I only use it for the tiniest of reasons: it syntax-highlights my doxygen comments. I know, I know. On the plus side, it seems to do a whole load of other stuff - I just never quite seem to need any other feature besides the nice syntax highlighting of comments.

Modes From Prelude or Emacs 24

In this section we cover modes that are either new/updated for Emacs 24 or available from Prelude via Elpa.

  • Dired

    Dired is configured in a fairly sensible manner out of the box. For example, one no longer has the annoying prompts when deleting/copying directories with files - it never occurred to me you could configure that away for some reason.

    On the down side, it is not configured with dired-single, so the usual proliferation of dired buffers still occurs. I have decided not to setup dired-single for a few days and see how bad it gets.

    The other, much more annoying problem was that hidden files are displayed by default. I first tried solving this problem with dired-omit as per this page:

    (setq-default dired-omit-mode t)
    (setq-default dired-omit-files "^\\.?#\\|^\\.$\\|^\\.\\.$\\|^\\.")

    However, I found that omit with regexes is not that performant. So I ended up going back to the old setup of ls flags:

    (setq dired-listing-switches "-l")
  • Undo-tree and browse-kill-ring

    As mentioned before, C-x u is not just undo, it's undo-tree! Somehow I had missed this mode altogether up til now. Its pretty nifty, as it allows you to navigate the undo-tree - including forks. It is quite cool.

    I also found that the latest version of browse-kill-ring is very nice; so much so that I find myself using it a lot more now. The management of the clipboard will never be the same.

  • Org-mode

    One rather annoying thing was that with the latest Org-mode, the clock-table is a bit broken. I quickly found out I wasn't the only one to notice: Is it possible to remove ' ' from clock report but preserve indentation?

    This link implies the problem is fixed in Emacs 24.4, but I am running it and sadly it doesn't seem to be the case. I also found out that the automatic resizing of clock tables is no longer… well, automatic. Instead, we now have to supply the size. My final setup for the clock-table is as follows:

    #+begin: clocktable :maxlevel 3 :scope subtree :indent nil :emphasize nil :scope file :narrow 75

    This seems to generate a table that is largely like the ones we had prior to upgrading.

    Other than that, Org-mode has behaved - but then again, I'm not exactly a poweruser.

  • Bongo

    I use the amazing Bongo media player to play the few internet radio stations I listen to - mainly SomaFM, to be honest. Its good to see it in Melpa. It's still not quite as straightforward as you'd like to save a playlist - I always find that loading the buffer itself does not trigger bongo mode for some reason - but other than that, it works fine.

    On the downside, I use the venerable mpg123 to play random albums and that hasn't made it to Melpa yet. I've decided to try to use Bongo for this use case too, but if that doesn't work out then I'll have to add it to vendor…

  • Shell

    Prelude comes with eshell configured by default. I must confess I have always been a bash user - simple and easy. I'll persevere with eshell for a couple of days, but I can already see that this may be a bridge too far.

  • Flycheck

    One of the main reasons that made me consider moving to prelude was Flymake. I added it to cunene fairly early on, some 6 years ago, and I was amazed at how I had managed to use Emacs for over a decade without using Flymake. However, after a good 6 years of intensive usage, I can attest that Flymake is showing its age. The main problem is how it locks up Emacs whilst updating. If you combine that with the insane errors one gets in C++, all you need is an angle-bracket out of place and your coding flow is disrupted for potentially several minutes. To be fair, this happens very infrequently, but its still a major nuisance. So I was keen to explore Flycheck.

    All I can say is: wow! The same feeling of amazement I felt for Flymake when I first used has been repeated with Flycheck. Not only its blazingly fast, it supports multiple checkers and the errors buffer is a dream to work with. And with the Compilation Database integration it means there is no configuration required. I can't believe I survived this long without Flycheck!

  • Magit

    One of my favourite modes in Emacs - at least of the new generation of modes - is Magit. So much so that I find that I rarely use git from anywhere else, it's just so easy to do it from Magit. Which makes me extremely sensitive to any changes to Magit's interface.

    The version in Prelude - presumably from Melpa - is a tad different from the legacy one I was using in Cunene. On the plus side, most of the changes are improvements such as having a "running history" in the git process buffer, with font-lock support. The main Magit buffer also looks very nice, with lots of little usability touches. A tiny few changes did result in slow-downs of my workflow, such as a sub-menu on commit. Its not ideal but presumably one will get used to it.

    The only negative change seems to be that Magit is not quite as responsive as it used to be. Hard to put a finger yet, but I was used to having pretty much zero wait time on all operations in Magit, and yet now it seems that a few things are no longer instantaneous. It will require some more analysis to properly point the finger, but its a general feel.


It's still early days, but the move to Emacs 24 and Prelude is already paying off. The transition has not been entirely straightforward, and it certainly has slowed things down for the moment - if not for anything else, just due to the keybinding changes! But one can already see that this is the future for most Emacs users, particularly those that are not power-users like myself but just like the editor.

The future is certainly bright for Emacs. And we haven't yet started covering the latest and greatest modes such as smart-mode-line. But that's a story for another blog post.

Created: 2015-05-27 Wed 00:18

Emacs 24.4.1 (Org mode 8.2.10)


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