Helen of Troy might have had a face that launched a thousand ships but the Trojan war pales in comparison to the flame wars developer wage today over their favorite editor.
As a developer, a lot of time is spent inside an editor writing code. Editors have changed much in the past fifty years, evolving from simple line editors like qed to rich Integrated development environments (IDE). IDE’s bear as much resemblance to simple text editors as iPhone’s do to flip phones.
The accumulation of features was spurred not just by better technology but also by the increasing complexity of both programming languages and programs written in said languages. The Java programming language is so verbose that writing it outside an IDE (or at least with auto completion) classifies as masochism of the first order. And as far as programs go, whereas the original version of Unix(1.0) was written with ~15,000 lines of code (LOC), the windows vista operating system is over 50 million LOC.
Today’s technologies are many orders of magnitude more complex than what came before - the editor is where developers go to battle this complexity. Like a Nascar race car, every setting needs to be tuned to a fine hairs precision. Spending time in an editor is like spending time with a loved one - it requires commitment and deep understanding of the other to make it work.
This writer has chosen Vim as his editor.
Vim was created by Bram Moolenaar during the start of the 90’s as a major upgrade to the vi editor (Vim stands for vi improved). Vim is a simple line based editor that is available by default on all Unix based operating systems and works on all platforms. It is a modal text editor infamous for its steep learning curve.
In typical text editors, one can just start typing and have key presses map directly to the characters appearing on screen. In Vim, one needs to first enter “insert mode” before this happens. Vim by default starts in normal mode where each key press maps instead to a command. There is a third mode known as visual mode which applies commands to highlighted blocks of text.
Vim is extremely powerful once you get your head around its modal editing modes (and endless key mappings) but the real icing of this metaphorical cake is the inexhaustible number of ways it can be extended. This is done via Vimscript, a custom scripting language that ships with Vim which gives developers control of every aspect of the editor, from changing the background color to custom commands that activate only if the current word under the cursor matches a specific regex. The way I like to think of Vimscript is as a meta programming language to the coding process.
Meta programming is writing a program that is able to treat other programs as data, giving the developer the power to change the very laws of said programming language. This is a very powerful feature (just ask a lisper); in the real world, you can think of this as being able to change the laws of physics at whim. Want to explore other galaxies? Simply enable the “faster-than-speed-of-light” travel option and it’s done. Popular web frameworks like rails and django make extensive use of meta programming to radically simplify the web development process.
Coming back to Vimscript, if you think of an editor as the world in which code is crafted, Vimscript is the means to change the laws of said world. And that is precisely the case today as Vim plugins which enable fuzzy file search, multiple cursors and intelligent auto completion bring this over two decade old editor on par with the newest IDEs of the day.
If we step out one abstraction level and see editors like Vim as a tool to extend human capabilities, Vimscript becomes a means of continual tool refinement. You can create an incredibly powerful feedback loop when you can continuously improve the tools that you use and in fact, use the very tool you’re refining to make the next version of said tool.
And at the end of the day, building better tools is not just a fun past time but something essential to the continual evolution of the human race. Humans are completely dependent on the tools we make. This was true in the past when we worked in groups to take down large predators with spears and knifes and it’s true today where every aspect of our lives, from banks to hospitals, is managed by the tools we have build.
Better tools are the rising tide that raises all ships - by ship I mean the collective capabilities of the human race. The popular proverb “a bad workman always blames his tools” is true to an extent but I would argue that a workman who doesn’t invest in their tooling might deserve the blame. The world today is moving in a trend of ever increasing complexity. Gone are the days of using electrical tape and solder to fix household electronics; these devices have evolved from simple one way radios to smart phones that require specialized screws just to pop open the casing and electron microscopes to see the circuits. The only way we can reign in this complexity is to do what we’ve been doing since the dawn of our species - create better tools. My tool of choice in this eternal struggle is Vim.