Evangelizing Emacs (in terms of economics)

As may have become apparent, I harbour somewhat fanatically evangelical feelings about Emacs, though i’m very aware of its failings and idiosyncracies too.

Let me try my pitch for why you should learn Emacs in terms of economics. As a computer user, you want the biggest bang for your buck, the most reward for effort spent mastering a tool – one way to ensure this is for that tool to be useful in a variety of situations. Keyboard shortcuts, customizations, regular expressions and the like all provide enormous economies of scale. That is, they provide value, but they have a high marginal cost initially. However, the more you use them, that cost gets amortized, and so the more you profit from them.

Anyway, Emacs has a huge huge barrier to entry. Getting the hang of it is a pain, mainly because it has a huge amount of jargon and all of its keyboard shortcuts seem to involve 3 keys. The good news is that with a little effort, you can change them all to something a little more reasonable. Furthermore, once you’ve got the hang of a few, then you get to reuse them for almost everything you do.

Perhaps I should just quote Neal Stephenson, who said it best a long time ago:

“I use Emacs, which might be thought of as a thermonuclear word processor. It was created by Richard Stallman; enough said. It is written in Lisp, which is the only computer language that is beautiful. It is colossal, and yet it only edits straight ASCII text files, which is to say, no fonts, no boldface, no underlining. In other words, the engineer-hours that, in the case of Microsoft Word, were devoted to features like mail merge, and the ability to embed feature-length motion pictures in corporate memoranda, were, in the case of Emacs, focused with maniacal intensity on the deceptively simple-seeming problem of editing text. If you are a professional writer–i.e., if someone else is getting paid to worry about how your words are formatted and printed–Emacs outshines all other editing software in approximately the same way that the noonday sun does the stars. It is not just bigger and brighter; it simply makes everything else vanish. For page layout and printing you can use TeX: a vast corpus of typesetting lore written in C and also available on the Net for free.”

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