HomeBlogEmacs, my Wife and my Muse

Emacs, my Wife and my Muse

Wait a minute...  Emacs is not my wife.  I'm spending too much time with Emacs.  If you used Emacs (or VIM for that matter, same thing) for more than a few years, then you know how frustrating it is to try to convince other people about the true genious that rests in your editor.  In 10 years of using Emacs I convinced many frieds to try it and some were quite successful and agreed that Emacs is "The Shit".  However, half a year later, they kept telling me how Emacs sucks and .Net studio rules.  Oh well.

This story is about Emacs and about my wife.  My wife knows so little about computers, that to her, the difference between Emacs and Notepad is not obvious.  You see, she has to write a few papers for her university degree (God I'm so glad for I never finished one).  She did these with OpenOffice.

Open office / Microsoft Word

In fact she's using OpenOffice because she has an old iBook G4.  I don't have M$ Office for this platform.  In fact I don't have it at all.  And you see, OpenOffice on MacOSX starts in 4 minutes, and after it starts, if you're lucky, you're going to see the first keystroke served within another 3 minutes.

7 minutes is a long way.

Not only this, but—like any other Word/OpenOffice (and more generally, WYSIWYG) documents I saw, documents written in these applications look plain bad.  Spacing is not the same.  Fonts are not the same.  Alignment is not the same either.  This lies in the very nature of people—they invent styles as they write the document; the problem is that they RE-invent the styles too.  Which is why a level 1 headline on page 1 would look centered, bold and using Times New Roman, while the same level 1 headline on page 4 would look left-aligned and in Verdana because "oh my, I just thought it looks better".

In fact, there's no headline.  And there's no alignment.  And there's no style.  People just click in the toolbar to make it look the way they feel it should look at that particular point.  But it's far, far from consistent.

Watch a document written in Word/OpenOffice.  Just look at those lists and see how some items are pushed more to the right, while others are more in the left.  Just look at how some paragraphs have more indent (in fact, it's "spaces"), while others have less.  Finally, "headlines" are simply strings with a different (bigger) font and in bold.  But they never look the same, even through the same document, let alone disparate documents.  And people call that crap easy to use!

So when my friends came to me with documents that looked like crap, my decision was to save them as plain text, then open them in Emacs and add the needed LaTeX bits to make them look right.  As they watched my Emacs window they thought "ouch, it's becoming absolutely horrible"—but then I'd run pdflatex and in a matter of seconds they'd be enlightened.  Never in their life could they make something to look as good with Word/OpenOffice.

I hate LaTeX from the bottom of my heart.  It has a horrible syntax.  You even have to escape underscores!  Really, it's ugly to say the least.  But you know what, its output make it deserves its reputation.  It's impossible to get something that looks as good with an WYSIWYG editor.

My wife and LaTeX

So I thought, I just need to teach my wife to write plain text.  That was important.  It's easy to make plain text look good with LaTeX, because LaTeX is plain text.  I'd just need to teach her to write \section{title} in order to include a title... or \subsection{sub title} to include a subtitle.  Or, \emph{italic text} in order to include italic text.

After thinking of it for a while, I thought that the amount of commands that she needs to remember is quite big so I said "ok, no problem, I'll just have her write a simplified format and I'll make a Perl script that generates LaTeX commands of it".  Such as, start a line with an asterisk in order to define a title.  Or, start with two asterisks in order to define a subtitle.  Or, put "[1]" in order to define a footnote.  OR, write **something** if you want something (I mean bold).  OR, write:

  1. foo
  2. bar

in order to define a list.  People always do that.  Word/OpenOffice try to be smart about it and actually start a list when it sees that you started a line with "1.".  But (and you have to agree with me on that) most of the times they're wrong and you have to Undo in order to have your damn text the way you intended.

The MUSE

All seemed like a pretty big project so I kept delaying it undefinitely, until I learned (a couple of days ago) that someone else already did it.  The MUSE is an Emacs package that does exactly what I needed, and a lot more.  It took one hour to train my wife to use Emacs with this package.  One single hour.  The very next day, she wrote around 10 pages in Emacs.  And she types slowly and she hardly makes a difference between Emacs and Notepad.

I don't want to discredit my wife here, far from me.  On the contrary, I can only notice an interesting aspect: those who don't know computers are the fastest at learning things.  Emacs is a great thing, but there are many people out there (great hackers, even!) that resist to it.  In fact the reason is that is seems hard to learn.  I made the same observation when I first installed Linux to my daughter (she's 10 years now and still using Linux and can do anything she needs with it).

No rocket science!  You can use Linux, and you can use Emacs.  The key thing is to start with a fresh mind, without thinking that "hm, I thought it would close the damn window if I press ALT-F4".  Turns out, if you know nothing, many things are easier to learn.

The result

The result, expectedly, is very good.  I spent one more hour creating a Muse style for my wife's papers.  And she's happy.  She no longer needs to care if the headlines have the same font size, weight or alignment.  She only needs to make sure that they are headlines, and that's easy to do (just prefix the line with an asterisk).  That's the real difference, and it's quite big.  It's easy to change the style of a thousand headlines, but it's almost impossible to change the style of a an arbitrary thousand text lines.  There's no WYSIWYG — this concept is an utopia, although we've been able to push it to a great extent.  There's no silver bullet.

Comments

  • By: my museNov 20 (07:00) 2008RE: Emacs, my Wife and my Muse §

    try this muse. she is waiting to hear from you!

    www.my-muse.com

  • By: Randy WallaceDec 06 (23:47) 2008RE[2]: Emacs, my Wife and my Muse §

    You could try reStructured Text.  docutils has many export options, namely html and latex.  pdflatex works on the latex files that docutils creates.  there's a lot work going into streamlining reST formatted files for PDF output.  Also, the Sphinx project uses reST for creating websites.  It's a very easy to use text format, based on making a text file very easy to read and create.

  • By: nathanJan 23 (23:28) 2009RE: Emacs, my Wife and my Muse §

    Totally.  I started using Emacs a coupla years ago because I was tired of scraping my knuckles when switching between frontend and backend OSes.  But I have to agree with your friends, it does suck.  It's super archaic and weird (even with CUA-mode) an regular users build up some familiarity with the "standard" key bindings and stuff.

    OTOH, I can no longer use Word or OO for the exact same reasons you mentioned, and I'm addicted to weird little emacsisms like meta-b to skip words instead of command-left or whatever.  So, I write anything I need to like, "write" in Emacs and have been using Markdown and a Perl script to output HTML for printing.  But, ewww.  What is this world coming to.  Why, after using computers since I was a little kid, is word processing still such a kludge.  Shouldn't it be a "solved problem" by now.  Sigh.

  • By: UtaMay 11 (17:41) 2010RE: Emacs, my Wife and my Muse §

    Oh, I know what you mean... Especially about stupid Microsoft Word and OpenOffice "smartness". I have no idea how to prevent it. I made a <a href="custom writing
    ">write my essay</a> for my final project in my University where I made a program which is pretty much like office. It has basic elements but I don't really know how to make a lot of them, for example, how to print text...

  • By: UtaMay 11 (17:44) 2010RE: Emacs, my Wife and my Muse §

    Oh, I know what you mean... Especially about stupid Microsoft Word and OpenOffice "smartness". I have no idea how to prevent it. I made a <a href="http://www.bestessays.ca">custom writing
    </a> for my final project in my University where I made a program which is pretty much like office. It has basic elements but I don't really know how to make a lot of them, for example, how to print text...

  • By: datingApr 30 (09:05) 2011RE: Emacs, my Wife and my Muse §

    I can no longer use Word or OO for the exact same reasons you mentioned, and I'm addicted to weird little emacsisms like meta-b to skip words instead of command-left or whatever.  So, I write anything I need to like, "write" in Emacs and have been using Markdown and a Perl script to output HTML for printing.  But, ewww.  What is this world coming to.  Why, after using computers since I was a little kid, is word processing still such a kludge.  Shouldn't it be a "solved problem" by now.  Sigh.

  • By: ChrisDec 07 (21:50) 2011RE: Emacs, my Wife and my Muse §

    For others interested there is always Lyx http://www.lyx.org/