Tag Archives: emacs

Emacs #3: More on org-mode

This is third in a series on Emacs and org-mode.

Todo tracking and keywords

When using org-mode to track your TODOs, it can have multiple states. You can press C-c C-t for a quick shift between states. I have set this:

(setq org-todo-keywords '(
  (sequence "TODO(t!)" "NEXT(n!)" "STARTED(a!)" "WAIT(w@/!)" "OTHERS(o!)" "|" "DONE(d)" "CANCELLED(c)")

Here, I set up 5 states that are for a task that is not yet done: TODO, NEXT, STARTED, WAIT, and OTHERS. Each has a single-character shortcut (t, n, a, etc). The states after the pipe symbol are ones that are considered “done”. I have two: DONE (for things that I have done) and CANCELED (for things that I haven’t done, but for whatever reason, won’t).

The exclamation mark means to log the time when an item was changed to a state. I don’t add this to the done states because those are already logged anyhow. The @ sign means to prompt for a reason; so when switching to WAIT, org-mode will ask me why and add this to the note.

Here’s an example of an entry that has had some state changes:

** DONE This is a test
   CLOSED: [2018-03-02 Fri 03:05]
   - State "DONE"       from "WAIT"       [2018-03-02 Fri 03:05]
   - State "WAIT"       from "TODO"       [2018-03-02 Fri 03:05] \\
     waiting for pigs to fly
   - State "TODO"       from "NEXT"       [2018-03-02 Fri 03:05]
   - State "NEXT"       from "TODO"       [2018-03-02 Fri 03:05]

Here, the most recent items are on top.

Agenda mode, schedules, and deadlines

When you’re in a todo item, C-c C-s or C-c C-d can set a schedule or a deadline for it, respectively. These show up in agenda mode. The difference is in intent and presentation. A schedule is something that you expect to work on at around a time, while a deadline is something that is due at a specific time. By default, the agenda view will start warning you about deadline items in advance.

And while we’re at it, the agenda view will show you the items that you have coming up, offers a nice way to search for items based on plain text or tags, and handles bulk manipulation of items even across multiple files. I covered setting the files for agenda mode in part 2 of this series.


Of course org-mode has tags. You can quickly set them with C-c C-q.

You can set shortcuts for tags you might like to use often. Perhaps something like this:

  (setq org-tag-persistent-alist 
        '(("@phone" . ?p) 
          ("@computer" . ?c) 
          ("@websurfing" . ?w)
          ("@errands" . ?e)
          ("@outdoors" . ?o)
          ("MIT" . ?m)
          ("BIGROCK" . ?b)
          ("CONTACTS" . ?C)
          ("INBOX" . ?i)

You can also add tags to this list on a per-file basis, and also set tags for something on a per-file basis. I use that for my inbox.org and email.org files to set an INBOX tag. I can then review all items tagged INBOX from the agenda view each day, and the simple act of refiling them into other files will cause them to lost the INBOX tag.


“Refiling” is moving things around, either within a file or elsewhere. It has completion using your headlines. C-c C-w does this. I like these settings:

(setq org-outline-path-complete-in-steps nil)         ; Refile in a single go
(setq org-refile-use-outline-path 'file)


After awhile, you’ll get your files all cluttered with things that are done. org-mode has an archive feature to move things out of your main .org files and into some other files for future reference. If you have your org files in git or something, you may wish to delete these other files since you’d have things in history anyhow, but I find them handy for grepping and searching.

I periodically want to go through and archive everything in my files. Based on a stackoverflow discussion, I have this code:

(defun org-archive-done-tasks ()
   (lambda ()
     (setq org-map-continue-from (outline-previous-heading)))
   "/DONE" 'file)
   (lambda ()
     (setq org-map-continue-from (outline-previous-heading)))
   "/CANCELLED" 'file)

This is based on a particular answer — see the comments there for some additional hints. Now you can run M-x org-archive-done-tasks and everything in the current file marked DONE or CANCELED will be pulled out into a different file.

Up next

I’ll wrap up org-mode with a discussion of automatically receiving emails into org, and syncing org between machines.

Resources to accompany this article

Emacs #2: Introducing org-mode

In my first post in my series on Emacs, I described returning to Emacs after over a decade of vim, and org-mode being the reason why.

I really am astounded at the usefulness, and simplicity, of org-mode. It is really a killer app.

So what exactly is org-mode?

I wrote yesterday:

It’s an information organization platform. Its website says “Your life in plain text: Org mode is for keeping notes, maintaining TODO lists, planning projects, and authoring documents with a fast and effective plain-text system.”

That’s true, but doesn’t quite capture it. org-mode is a toolkit for you to organize things. It has reasonable out-of-the-box defaults, but it’s designed throughout for you to customize.

To highlight a few things:

  • Maintaining TODO lists: items can be scattered across org-mode files, contain attachments, have tags, deadlines, schedules. There is a convenient “agenda” view to show you what needs to be done. Items can repeat.
  • Authoring documents: org-mode has special features for generating HTML, LaTeX, slides (with LaTeX beamer), and all sorts of other formats. It also supports direct evaluation of code in-buffer and literate programming in virtually any Emacs-supported language. If you want to bend your mind on this stuff, read this article on literate devops. The entire Worg website
    is made with org-mode.
  • Keeping notes: yep, it can do that too. With full-text search, cross-referencing by file (as a wiki), by UUID, and even into other systems (into mu4e by Message-ID, into ERC logs, etc, etc.)

Getting started

I highly recommend watching Carsten Dominik’s excellent Google Talk on org-mode. It is an excellent introduction.

org-mode is included with Emacs, but you’ll often want a more recent version. Debian users can apt-get install org-mode, or it comes with the Emacs packaging system; M-x package-install RET org-mode RET may do it for you.

Now, you’ll probably want to start with the org-mode compact guide’s introduction section, noting in particular to set the keybindings mentioned in the activation section.

A good tutorial…

I’ve linked to a number of excellent tutorials and introductory items; this post is not going to serve as a tutorial. There are two good videos linked at the end of this post, in particular.

Some of my configuration

I’ll document some of my configuration here, and go into a bit of what it does. This isn’t necessarily because you’ll want to copy all of this verbatim — but just to give you a bit of an idea of some of what can be configured, an idea of what to look up in the manual, and maybe a reference for “now how do I do that?”

First, I set up Emacs to work in UTF-8 by default.

(prefer-coding-system 'utf-8)
(set-language-environment "UTF-8")

org-mode can follow URLs. By default, it opens in Firefox, but I use Chromium.

(setq browse-url-browser-function 'browse-url-chromium)

I set the basic key bindings as documented in the Guide, plus configure the M-RET behavior.

(global-set-key "\C-cl" 'org-store-link)
(global-set-key "\C-ca" 'org-agenda)
(global-set-key "\C-cc" 'org-capture)
(global-set-key "\C-cb" 'org-iswitchb)

(setq org-M-RET-may-split-line nil)

Configuration: Capturing

I can press C-c c from anywhere in Emacs. It will capture something for me, and include a link back to whatever I was working on.

You can define capture templates to set how this will work. I am going to keep two journal files for general notes about meetings, phone calls, etc. One for personal, one for work items. If I press C-c c j, then it will capture a personal item. The %a in all of these includes the link to where I was (or a link I had stored with C-c l).

(setq org-default-notes-file "~/org/tasks.org")
(setq org-capture-templates
        ("t" "Todo" entry (file+headline "inbox.org" "Tasks")
         "* TODO %?\n  %i\n  %u\n  %a")
        ("n" "Note/Data" entry (file+headline "inbox.org" "Notes/Data")
         "* %?   \n  %i\n  %u\n  %a")
        ("j" "Journal" entry (file+datetree "~/org/journal.org")
         "* %?\nEntered on %U\n %i\n %a")
        ("J" "Work-Journal" entry (file+datetree "~/org/wjournal.org")
         "* %?\nEntered on %U\n %i\n %a")
(setq org-irc-link-to-logs t)

I like to link by UUIDs, which lets me move things between files without breaking locations. This helps generate UUIDs when I ask Org to store a link target for future insertion.

(require 'org-id)
(setq org-id-link-to-org-use-id 'create-if-interactive)

Configuration: agenda views

I like my week to start on a Sunday, and for org to note the time when I mark something as done.

(setq org-log-done 'time)
(setq org-agenda-start-on-weekday 0)

Configuration: files and refiling

Here I tell it what files to use in the agenda, and to add a few more to the plain text search. I like to keep a general inbox (from which I can move, or “refile”, content), and then separate tasks, journal, and knowledge base for personal and work items.

  (setq org-agenda-files (list "~/org/inbox.org"
  (setq org-agenda-text-search-extra-files
        (list "~/org/someday.org"

  (setq org-refile-targets '((nil :maxlevel . 2)
                             (org-agenda-files :maxlevel . 2)
                             ("~/org/someday.org" :maxlevel . 2)
                             ("~/org/templates.org" :maxlevel . 2)
(setq org-outline-path-complete-in-steps nil)         ; Refile in a single go
(setq org-refile-use-outline-path 'file)

Configuration: Appearance

I like a pretty screen. After you’ve gotten used to org a bit, you might try this.

(require 'org-bullets)
(add-hook 'org-mode-hook
          (lambda ()
            (org-bullets-mode t)))
(setq org-ellipsis "⤵")

Coming up next…

This hopefully showed a few things that org-mode can do. Coming up next, I’ll cover how to customize TODO keywords and tags, archiving old tasks, forwarding emails to org-mode, and using git to synchronize between machines.

You can also see a list of all articles in this series.

Resources to accompany this article

Emacs #1: Ditching a bunch of stuff and moving to Emacs and org-mode

I’ll admit it. After over a decade of vim, I’m hooked on Emacs.

I’ve long had this frustration over how to organize things. I’ve followed approaches like GTD and ZTD, but things like email or large files are really hard to organize.

I had been using Asana for tasks, Evernote for notes, Thunderbird for email, a combination of ikiwiki and some other items for a personal knowledge base, and various files in an archive directory on my PC. When my new job added Slack to the mix, that was finally the last straw.

A lot of todo-management tools integrate with email — poorly. When you want to do something like “remind me to reply to this in a week”, a lot of times that’s impossible because the tool doesn’t store the email in a fashion you can easily reply to. And that problem is even worse with Slack.

It was right around then that I stumbled onto Carsten Dominik’s Google Talk on org-mode. Carsten was the author of org-mode, and although the talk is 10 years old, it is still highly relevant.

I’d stumbled across org-mode before, but each time I didn’t really dig in because I had the reaction of “an outliner? But I need a todo list.” Turns out I was missing out. org-mode is all that.

Just what IS Emacs? And org-mode?

Emacs grew up as a text editor. It still is, and that heritage is definitely present throughout. But to say Emacs is an editor would be rather unfair.

Emacs is something more like a platform or a toolkit. Not only do you have source code to it, but the very configuration is a program, and there are hooks all over the place. It’s as if it was super easy to write a Firefox plugin. A couple lines, and boom, behavior changed.

org-mode is very similar. Yes, it’s an outliner, but that’s not really what it is. It’s an information organization platform. Its website says “Your life in plain text: Org mode is for keeping notes, maintaining TODO lists, planning projects, and authoring documents with a fast and effective plain-text system.”


If you’ve ever read productivity guides based on GTD, one of the things they stress is effortless capture of items. The idea is that when something pops into your head, get it down into a trusted system quickly so you can get on with what you were doing. org-mode has a capture system for just this. I can press C-c c from anywhere in Emacs, and up pops a spot to type my note. But, critically, automatically embedded in that note is a link back to what I was doing when I pressed C-c c. If I was editing a file, it’ll have a link back to that file and the line I was on. If I was viewing an email, it’ll link back to that email (by Message-Id, no less, so it finds it in any folder). Same for participating in a chat, or even viewing another org-mode entry.

So I can make a note that will remind me in a week to reply to a certain email, and when I click the link in that note, it’ll bring up the email in my mail reader — even if I subsequently archived it out of my inbox.

YES, this is what I was looking for!

The tool suite

Once you’re using org-mode, pretty soon you want to integrate everything with it. There are browser plugins for capturing things from the web. Multiple Emacs mail or news readers integrate with it. ERC (IRC client) does as well. So I found myself switching from Thunderbird and mairix+mutt (for the mail archives) to mu4e, and from xchat+slack to ERC.

And wouldn’t you know it, I liked each of those Emacs-based tools better than the standalone they replaced.

A small side tidbit: I’m using OfflineIMAP again! I even used it with GNUS way back when.

One Emacs process to rule them

I used to use Emacs extensively, way back. Back then, Emacs was a “large” program. (Now my battery status applet literally uses more RAM than Emacs). There was this problem of startup time back then, so there was a way to connect to a running Emacs process.

I like to spawn programs with Mod-p (an xmonad shortcut to a dzen menubar, but Alt-F2 in more traditional DEs would do the trick). It’s convenient to not run several emacsen with this setup, so you don’t run into issues with trying to capture to a file that’s open in another one. The solution is very simple: I created a script, named it em, and put it on my path. All it does is this:

exec emacsclient -c -a "" "$@"

It creates a new emacs process if one doesn’t already exist; otherwise, it uses what you’ve got. A bonus here: parameters such as -nw work just fine, so it really acts just as if you’d typed emacs at the shell prompt. It’s a suitable setting for EDITOR.

Up next…

I’ll be talking about my use of, and showing off configurations for:

  • org-mode, including syncing between computers, capturing, agenda and todos, files, linking, keywords and tags, various exporting (slideshows), etc.
  • mu4e for email, including multiple accounts, bbdb integration
  • ERC for IRC and IM

You can also see a list of all articles in this series.


Well, now this is quite the experience.

I’ve been trying Viper for the past few days. Viper, for those that don’t know, is usually described as a set of Vi bindings for Emacs.

After reading the nearly 100 pages of documentation and trying it a bit, I have realized that this is not really an accurate description. Viper is a port of vi to Elisp.

But that doesn’t really do it justice. Viper seems to have pretty much everything going for it that Vim does, and then some. It is extensible with Elisp, and works with all the Emacs major modes (indentation and so forth). Yet it also is a very authentic Vi implementation, yet more customizable than Vim. And, in my opinion, more capable than Vim too.

On the one hand, this is a really neat combination: the power of the vi editing commands with the power of Emacs and Elisp for indentation, customization, etc.

On the other hand, it makes my head hurt. While Viper and Vim both are supersets of the vi command set, they don’t always implement extensions (such as multiple windows) the same way or with the same keys. Of course, you could remap them in both, but it’s a bit jarring to run Viper in expert mode, press C-w to start creating a new window, and have it run the Emacs cut command. (You can run Viper in a more limited mode where it does not recognize any regular Emacs keys if you don’t want that)

It’s just weird. It mostly looks like Emacs. It is modal like Vim, and responds to all Vi and most Vim commands. It has an additional mode: the Emacs mode. Also if configured to run in expert configuration, Emacs commands are accepted most places. Yes, you can move with h, j, k, l and C-n, C-p, C-f, C-b all at the same time.

The main drawback I can see is that Viper mode doesn’t work well with Info mode, which has other bindings for keyboard shortcuts… so all of a sudden, hjkl don’t work in info mode.

I don’t know yet if I’ll use viper much, but it is a slick program.

A little more on Vim and Emacs file handling

Yesterday’s post about switching back to Emacs saw quite a few comments from people (most of them useful, even). I learned a few things.

My biggest gripe about Vim was that for the file types I worked with most, its indentation and syntax highlighting was inferior to that of Emacs. I’d like to illustrate that with an example.

Let’s consider one of those file types: XML containing DocBook markup.

Vim has a DocBook mode. It doesn’t autodetect DocBook files, so I have this at the top of each one:

<!-- vim: set filetype=docbkxml shiftwidth=2 autoindent expandtab tw=77 : -->

Now, why should Vim need a separate DocBook mode? DocBook is just XML or SGML, and these things have a well-formed nature. Well, part of the reason is that /usr/share/vim/vim71/syntax/docbk.vim has a ton of lines like this:

syn keyword docbkKeyword chapter citation citerefentry citetitle city contained

Yes, they are hard-coding all the DocBook element names into the editing mode. It’s probably used for completion, highlighting, maybe indentation. I’m not sure, really. I remember that editing these files without the DocBook mode was much more painful anyway, but that was 8 months ago and I can’t quite remember why.

Now, what about Emacs? I don’t know if Emacs even has a DocBook mode, mainly because I don’t have to care. The Emacs psgml mode actually parses the DTD for your XML or SGML files. It knows exactly what the valid tags are from doing so. This means it has full functionality not just for DocBook, but for any XML or SGML file with a DTD.

Not only that, but it knows more about the files than Vim does. For instance, both Emacs and Vim can do completion of various things. Vim </ C-x C-o (ooo, sounds like Emacs!) can complete my closing tags. But it can’t autocomplete my opening tags, and it certainly isn’t aware

Not only can Emacs autocomplete opening and closing tags, but it knows exactly what tags are valid at a given place in the document (thanks to the DTD) and will only consider those tags for completion. Moreover, depending on how you have configured it, it could also insert spots for you to add any required attributes. So, for instance, if you’re editing XHTML and autocompletion gives you an <img> tag, it would add src="" in it for you, as a reminder that src is required.

There are a host of other smart things that Emacs can do with XML or SGML documents. For instance, you can get a list of all tags valid at the current point with C-c C-t or Shift-RightClick — useful if you’ve forgotten the name of a tag for a moment.

The difference isn’t as great with everything. But it sure is noticable as I work with XML and Haskell files.

So long, Vim. I’m returning to Emacs

I’d been using Emacs for quite awhile, and about 8 months ago I decided I would try using Vim. I’d only used vi for system emergency work, but knew a number of people that swore by it for regular work. So I decided I would learn Vim and use it for my regular work. I figure that with things like this, I don’t get a real feel for how well they work unless I use them for all my work. So I haven’t really opened Emacs at all in the past 8 months.

Yesterday I finally decided that Vim was not living up to my expectations and I’m in the process of switching back to Emacs. I thought I ought to write down why I’m doing that, for my own future reference… and since nobody has ever written about Emacs vs. Vim, I might as well post it where everyone can see it.

So here we are.

Original Reasons for Using Vim

It would lead to more comfortable typing. Lots of Vim users mention that you don’t have to hold down keys while hitting other keys as much in Vim as in Emacs, and that the movement keys are all on the home row. That’s true, but I didn’t find it to be that big of an improvement, since Esc is a farther reach than anything in Emacs, and let me tell you, you’re hitting Esc all the time in Vim. I found that removing the armrests from my chair made my hands happier than Vim ever did, and swapping Ctrl and CapsLock in Emacs will probably help there too.

It starts faster. I’m not sure if that really was true even when I switched, but it certainly isn’t true on any of my machines today. Both Vim and Emacs have had major version upgrades (v7 and v22, respectively) since I started using Vim. People seem to say that Emacs 22 feels faster, though I don’t know if that’s true. The startup times of the two, if they’re different, are imperceptible.

Vim would use less RAM. Frankly, these days, both Emacs and Vim are way down on the list of things that use up RAM. Heck, kmail has 141MB resident, and each of its two IMAP processes is using more than 30MB. Emacs in X right after start has 16MB resident, 10MB of which is shared, and 25MB VSS. gvim right after start has 8MB resident, 5MB of which is shared, and a 43MB VSS. Emacs tends to use fewer processes for things that vim. So they’re not all that different, and Emacs could come out smaller in certain situations. But the difference is irrelevant on today’s machines, and modern Gnome and KDE apps are many times larger than both of them.

It will make me more comfortable in rescue environments where I have only traditional vi available. Actually, the vi on AIX is so different from modern Vim that this didn’t really help.

It would make me more productive. There are some editing commands that did, but as you’ll see below, it was more than balanced out by other problems.

Things I Liked about Vim

The commands dt, dT, df, dF. Wonderful little things those. Emacs now has M-z (Zap), which is similar to df but can actually go to other lines (a nice addition). And there are easy ways to bind keys to the others as well, though that doesn’t make it a pervasive convention like it is in Vim.

Antialiased fonts. It’s crazy that Emacs doesn’t have this yet. But not a showstopper; I still like good ole 10×20 just fine.

Regexp search-and-replace. Emacs actually has this now, and maybe it had it back then too. M-C-%. Apparently in Emacs22 the replacement expression can also have lisp code in it, which sounds really slick but I can’t see myself using it regularly.

Annoying Things in Vim

Syntax highlighting. The syntax highlighting for most languages in Vim felt like it was about as smart as it was in Emacs about 10 years ago. Strings like "Hello!\"" (in languages where \” inserts a literal “) often confused it. Sometimes quotes within comments confused it. Sometimes it would be confused permanently. Other times, just until I scrolled around in the file or reloaded it.

Indentation. This is much more annoying than the syntax highlighting, really. In many languages — and especially the two modes I’ve used most recently, XML and Haskell — it really, really stinks. The indentation there isn’t aware of syntax, or not very much. Sometimes it is smart enough to know that if an XML line starts with </ that it moves left and if it starts with an opening tag, that the next line moves right. But it’s not smart enough to do this reliably. Not only that, but indentation is not handled with consistent configuration between languages. And even though Vim ships with a ton of language modes, the central docs only cover indentation for C.

I’ve asked Vim experts about this, and have tried all sorts of various tweaks, have read through Vim indentation mode source files, etc. There is just no way to get it anywhere near the intelligence of Emacs for most languages, short of writing my own mode, it appears. This is even worse because when using the backspace key in insert mode, for awhile it deletes individual spaces, and then all of a sudden deletes a big chunk of whitespace back to the beginning of the line. (And no, the insertion of Tab characters is disabled.) Indentation is my #1 complaint about Vim, and something that shows no progress towards being fixed any time soon.

And forget about anything like Emacs M-x reindent-region. This is a syntax-aware indenter. You can write out an entire source file with no indentation whatsoever, and it will indent the entire thing according to the indentation rules you’ve defined and the syntax of the language you’re using. The best I’ve seen in Vim are commands that add or remove space at the beginning of every line in a region.

In short, Emacs seems to “understand” the file format on a much deeper level than Vim, and can automate things to a much better extent because of it.

Too many things disrupt the paste buffer. I can use Y or y to yank some text in Vim, and it’s really, really easy to overwrite that buffer with other things. Yes, I know that I can yank it into a named buffer, but that’s inconvenient and I don’t usually know in advance that I’ll have that need. In Emacs, only C-k and other “large area” commands disrupt it.

Vim doesn’t like you having lots of files open at once. It’s surprisingly convoluted to do this. If you use the basic documented command to edit another file, :e, it closes the file you’re working on. The normal way to open multiple files at once is to use split windows. Well, I don’t like split windows all that well, and often just want to make a quick change in one file — in full screen — and then go back to another. Even though I use set hidden in my ~/.vimrc, it still is annoying and more convoluted than it should be.

Vim can’t create new top-level X windows. In Emacs, I can press C-x 5 2, and poof, I have a second Emacs window in X, and it’s tied to the same editing session and Emacs process. Not a new process, with a different set of files, its own buffers, etc. The same process, same set of files. Just like a split window, but with a new top-level X window instead. gvim simply has no way to do that. This is also a large annoyance.

gqap stinks. This has burned me more than once. I’ll be editing an XML document, and insert some text in the middle of a paragraph. Now I have a really wide line. So I type gqap to reformat the paragraph. My cursor is near the bottom of the screen, so I don’t really see much past the current line. I then save the document and exit. Later I discover that vim considered the entire rest of the document part of the single paragraph, and removed all the different indentation levels at </para> and the like, so it’s completely messed up. Emacs is smart enough to know what is a paragraph in XML mode, and M-q does the right thing. Oh, and Emacs reindent-region can fix the Vim gqap-induced mess.