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Re: "Why is emacs so square?"

From: Jeff Norden
Subject: Re: "Why is emacs so square?"
Date: Tue, 26 May 2020 12:09:48 -0500

Copied below is what I've posted to lwn.net in response to the article "Making
Emacs popular again" (https://lwn.net/Articles/819452/) about this thread.
Some of it, particularly the last part, is in response to that article rather
than anything that anyone has or would say on the emacs-devel list.
I'm late to this party, but as a longtime user of Gnu emacs, I feel obligated
to weigh in.  I've been using emacs on an almost daily basis for 30+ years.  I
use rmail for about 90% of my email.  I use a customized version of TeX mode
for composing documents, which include exams/quizzes/handout for the classes I
teach, research-related work, as well as mundane letters, memos, notes, etc.
I use emacs for all of the software that I write and/or dabble with, mostly
Perl and C.  I use shell-mode about as often as I use a terminal window
(currently mate-terminal, a fork of the pre-gnome-3 gnome-terminal).

To start with, the idea that emacs "needs" to have more users to prevent it
from becoming "extinct" is basically absurd.  Free software, by its very
nature, *can't* become extinct.  Even if current trends/fads mean that there
is a lull in the number of people using Gnu emacs today, the source code will
still be available for future generations to discover and use.  It's about
like saying that we must find a way to make the "Early New English" language
of the 17th century more appealing and widely spoken in order to prevent the
works of Shakespeare from becoming extinct.  Even if, for some reason, people
stopped reading and producing Shakespeare's plays for a number of years, they
would undoubtedly be re-discovered and become popular again.

This all seems to be part of the current insane attitude that software, and
technology in general, is some sort of perishable commodity with the shelf
life of milk.  Somehow, if it isn't updated every month or so, it just isn't
any good any more, even though it still does what it used to and your needs
for it haven't changed.

Emacs has never been an editor for "casual" user.  It doesn't compete with
notepad, any of the various "office" editors (open source or not), or even
vi/vim.  Gnu emacs is for people that want an extensible editor that gives
them complete control over how it operates, and can be easily and freely
customized to accomplish any sort of task that they want it to.  This sort of
freedom comes with a price - you need to invest some time and effort in order
to learn how to use it effectively.  But for many of us, it is an effort that
has been more than worthwhile.

In my opinion, it would be incredibly counterproductive to try to attract
people who don't need the functionality that emacs provides, or who aren't
willing to put forth the effort required to learn how to effectively use that
functionality.  I believe this means that any person who's decision on whether
or not to use an editor is swayed by the appearance of buttons or rounded
corners is someone who should *not* be encouraged to start using emacs.  If
you are not attracted to emacs by the features it provides and the tasks it
can accomplish, then please find an editor that will better suit your needs.

On the other hand, if someone wants to add such features for their own
benefit, perhaps because they feel it will enhance their own aesthetic
experience while using emacs, then by all means do so.  That is the whole
point of free software, after all.  But adding these in an attempt to attract
more users is a bad idea.

My *fear* is that a major effort to increase the "user base" will lead to the
transformation of emacs into something that doesn't serve anybody's needs very
well.  This is happening in many open source projects, where all sorts of
functionality has been deprecated and then removed because of the perception
that it isn't needed or being used by a large enough fraction of users.  The
recent loss of malloc_get_state() and malloc_set_state() are examples that are
particularly relevant to emacs.

Even in emacs, I personally found it a bit annoying to type "M-x count lines
region" only to be told in the mini-buffer that:
  ‘count-lines-region’ is obsolete; use ‘count-words-region’ instead.
But this was easily fixed by adding a single line to my .emacs file.  However,
if large blocks of code start disappearing from the source, or changes are
made that render existing elisp files unusable, then emacs really will run the
risk of becoming extinct.

For example, a package of elisp functions that I wrote 30 years ago for
emacs-18, which I use to record and average student grades, still works just
fine with emacs-26.  TeX is the only other software that I know of with this
level of stability.  It seems that there are very few people today who, like
Knuth and Stallman, take a long-term view of what they are trying to
accomplish.  I could go on along these lines, but this is probably sufficient.


However, I feel that I must respond directly to some of the comments about RMS
that have been made, along the lines of "emacs would be better without him" or
his "signature tantrums."  I'll respond in a way that RMS never would, because
he is far too polite:

   Do you have any idea who the f*** you are talking about!!?

When Richard founded the FSF, which basically started the free software
movement, people tried to write him off as some sort of extremest nutcase.
"Nobody will write software and just give it away" was a common criticism.
Well, history has shown that Stallman was correct, and his critics were the
nutcases.  It's quite possible that there would be almost no free software, no
linux or lwn.net, no gitlab/github, etc, etc, if it had not been for his
unfailing efforts and unwavering belief in free software though the years.  My
own opinion is that, if anything, Richard's opinions and views are a bit too
mild and conservative.

The arrogance of youth is natural.  I was certainly guilty of it when I was
young.  But there is no excuse for disrespecting the people who basically
built the universe that you currently enjoy inhabiting.


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