To Vim

I see that Apple has updated its word-processor Pages again. The new version has some sweet features, but if you open a document created in the previous version, you will be asked if you wish to upgrade the file format. On clicking ‘yes’, the previous version of Pages will never again be able to open the file.

That, in itself, is not a problem. But, let’s say, you don’t upgrade your version of Pages immediately. Let’s say you wait until the version after that. Will that version open the files you have right now? Possibly not.

When a file format is updated, you get new features. I understand that and I applaud. But there are disadvantages. Once you’ve been writing for a few years, and you look back for your floppy, your ClarisWorks files, or even your Kindwords files, you realise that file format change is the kryptonite of longetivity.

Check out this article by Charles Stross on Microsoft Word, entitled ‘Why Microsoft Word Must Die’. Now, we all hate Word, don’t we? Come on. You do.

I hate Word from a position of some expertise, because, back in 2003-2005, I used it to write my PhD thesis. That was a single document containing multiple contents tables (some for chapters, sure, but others for psycholinguistic examples), cross-references, a bibliography, and a great deal besides. I learned the hell out of that program. Thus did I learn to hate it. It is buggy, poorly designed, and over-featured.

Going back to the point made by Charles Stross, it is a real shame that the publishing industry relies on Word as its workhorse.

Stross mentioned another program that he sometimes uses. It is called vim. I also use it.

Format Wars: A New Hope

Back in 1976, the year I was born, Bill Joy wrote a text editor for UNIX. That editor was called vi. It was designed to work over a computer terminal (i.e. a text-based interactive interface). It had two modes. In the first mode, whatever the user typed would be entered as text in the current document. In the second mode, the keyboard became a way of navigating around the document. You can read more about the program over at Wikipedia.

The program was updated by Bram Moolenaar for the Commodore Amiga, a computer I used as a kid. Moolenaar called his program vim. This stood for ‘Vi improved’. The year was 1991.

What’s It Like Using Vim?

Where I grew up, we often bought fruit from the village shop. The apples didn’t come from China or South America. They tasted good, but were a bit small and occasionally bruised. Later, we bought fruit from supermarkets. They were never bruised and they all looked the same. Didn’t taste as good, but by then I’d forgotten what non-supermarket apples tasted like. Nowadays I eat ponsy ‘organic’ apples, and they tend to come from Kent, where I live. They’re smaller, more bruised, but the taste real.

Where am I going with this? Is Vim some kind of home-grown product? No, it’s American.

Is it tastier than Microsoft Word or Apple Pages?

Well.

It’s like this. When you write in Vim, it doesn’t pretend that you’re looking at a book. It’s text. The notion of ‘presentation’ is off the table. Layout can take a running jump.

Vim presents you with the text at a much simpler level.

If you—by which I mean ‘me’—write a story in Word, or Pages, and print that bad boy out, the product you hold in your hand is somewhat disingenuous. It masquerades as a finished product. The imperfections and shortfalls of your prose are very slightly obscured by the layout and presentation, both of which are telling you, unconsciously, that the work is already like the work you see in books.

To Vim (verb): To remove superficial presentation in order to reveal substance.

Example: ‘We were larging it at the Time Piece last week until the last tune, Get Lucky. Then the main lights came on, the music turned off, and the bouncers moved in. The place was totally vimmed.’

Every imperfection jumps out. It’s just you, your eyeballs, and your text.

Stop Being So Arty-Farty. What Is It Actually Like To Use?

Vim is Fast

When you’re typing text into the command line, the computer is not rendering graphical gubbins. Letters appear slightly faster. Not so much faster that you notice it in Vim, but fast enough to notice that text rendering is slower in most other places, notably Word and Pages.

Vim as a Learning Curve

Vim has keyboard shortcuts for:

  • Deleting sentences
  • Moving the caret to the start/beginning of a sentence
  • Moving x words forward or back
  • Jumping to the top of the document, to the bottom, to the middle, and so on

These take time to learn. I’m still learning them. But, even after a few minutes, it becomes much faster to navigate a document using the keyboard than using the mouse.

Rock-solid

Vim is used by a lot of geeks (mostly for programming). I’ve never encountered a bug or had it crash.

How Do I Start?

Every journey starts with a single jump, grasshopper. From Engadget, VIM 101: a quick-and-dirty guide to our favorite free file editor.

Happy vimming.

vim