Configuring Emacs is a nightmare

When I started using Emacs a few months ago I went through some effort to configure it to my liking. There were a couple of issues I wasn’t able to resolve back then. I decided that it’s time to get them fixed. That’s how I wasted two days doing something that should take no longer than an hour.

About 90% of my time went to configuring Emacs running under Tmux. While Emacs runs fine under terminal emulator (I’m using Konsole for that) it turned out that running it under Tmux causes numerous problems: some key combinations don’t work and even worse the colours get screwed up. I am using Tmux always when working in console and at first I wanted to blame Tmux for all the problems. Soon I realized that all other applications work correct and only Emacs is causing problems. Problems with key combinations were solved using xterm-extras add-on. I am not exactly sure what is causing issues with colours but this is related to TERM environment variable. Within Tmux this is set to screen, while my terminal emulator sets it to xterm. If I understand correctly Tmux takes care of translating between these two different modes, but it looks that Emacs is still affected by this difference. Of course I tried changing values of TERM in all possible ways, but things only got worse. I tried improving Emacs’ colours by using color-theme but under my terminal emulator this breaks completely. I enabled 256 colours (by default there’s only 8!), but still I mostly got garbage when applying different themes. Oh well, I can live with 8 colours just fine. This was day one.

On the next day, when things were more or less working fine, I decided to upgrade Emacs to version 24.2. I was tempted by Emacs’ built in package management system and a promise of better compatibility with terminal emulators. This was a mistake. I spent another day trying to figure out why configuration that worked fine under 23.2 breaks under 24.2.

I acknowledge the fact that if I had arcane knowledge of Elisp all my issues would be much easier to solve. Without that knowledge I have to resort to googling and voodoo programming. Well, I am just an ordinary user who just wants to use a text editor. I need a text-based editor so I can do almost all of my work using console. Emacs meets that requirement, which makes me more productive but I seriously doubt that this increase in productivity justifies time needed to configure editor to my needs. I guess I would be proud of myself had I managed to solve all the problems. I didn’t and there are still unresolved issues:

  • How can I manage keyboard shortcuts in a sane way? I install some expansion only to realize it is not working because keyboard shortcuts collide with the ones from different expansion. I can remap the keys, but then again I run into risk of colliding with other shortcuts.
  • Can I have a block mode in Emacs similar to one offered by Kate (under KDE)? I found that rect-mark allows me to mark a rectangle area and cut it, but pasting doesn’t work the way it should.
  • Emacs’ undo is clumsy. I managed to improve it by using undo-tree, but still it has rough edges: every delete is seen as a single operation. If I hold backspace and delete 30 characters Emacs sees that as 30 separate operations! Undoing that is a real pain.

Solving these issues would make Emacs a very decent editor to work with Haskell (though not as good as Eclipse is for Java). Perhaps one day I’ll find patience and energy to resolve the remaining problems. Until then I steel myself for using Emacs the way it is.

3 Responses to “Configuring Emacs is a nightmare”

  1. Thierry says:

    I feel your pain. Went through similar problems as you report… my best guess is that emacs is not meant to be run in terminal mode anymore, or at least that significant problems, such as those you encountered, are to be expected in that mode. I hope that you will get more useful replies.

  2. John Wiegley says:

    To manage key bindings sanely, try bind-key found in https://github.com/jwiegley/use-package

  3. Jan Stolarek says:

    Thanks. I’ll take a look at it next time I decide to spend a day or two on configuring Emacs :)

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