November 15, 2003

From 0 to Geek in Ten Seconds

So last week I went out and got a copy of the new version of Mac OS X, code-named Panther. I was all prepared to install it on my PowerBook and experience the joy of faster code and prettier windows.

And then, before I installed it, I discovered that my Emacs wasn't going to work properly on Panther.

You clearly do not appreciate the gravity of that statement. Let me repeat it.

My Emacs wasn't going to work properly on Panther!

Well, OK, let me explain. It's like this: I'm a programmer. I write software for a living. I write software for fun. And for a working programming, the one essential tool is his text editor. It's like the drill sergeant says to the recruits at Marine boot camp: "This is your weapon. You will eat with it, you will sleep with it, it will be your best friend." Except that in my case, that tool is a text editor.

And my text editor of choice is called Emacs. I can do amazing things with Emacs without conscious thought that would take ten times as long with any other editor. I've got Emacs on every computer I use regularly (at present that's my PowerBook, my old Windows laptop, my Windows desktop at work, and two Sun workstations, also at work). It works pretty much the same on all of them, and it makes my life ever so much smoother.

So the danger of being bereft of Emacs is serious enough that Panther is still in its box.

Today, though, things are going better; I've worked out an alternative.

See, the Emacs I've been using is a binary I downloaded of an old build of Gnu Emacs only partially made over to use the native Mac windowing system. It's out of date, which is why it won't run on Panther. A much better version is available, but the guy who's been porting and maintaining it has consistently refused to make any binary or source distribution available (possibly because it isn't officially released yet) and has been telling everyone to just download the latest code from SourceForge and build it. I've been unwilling to do that; the latest code might be stable, and it might not. On top of that, for it to run on Panther I'd have to build it on Panther, which means that there'd be a hiatus in the availability of Emacs.

(If there are any other diehard OS X users out there reading this, they are no doubt thinking that OS X comes with Emacs pre-installed. They are right, but it's a non-GUI version that only runs in a terminal window and doesn't support the mouse. Not good enough.)

But today I realized that there was another alternative. In addition to Aqua, the native windowing system, Mac OS X also supports X11, the windowing system used on most Unix computers. And Emacs has run perfectly well on X11 for years. And there's a group of people called the Fink Project (Fink is German for "Finch", i.e., the bird, so you can stop snickering) who've been packaging lots and lots of Unix software for use on the Mac. And one of the packages they provide is the X11 version of Emacs.

So I spent the day first downloading Fink and installing it, and then (via Fink) downloading and building and installing Emacs for X11. I had to do a little fooling around, but now I've got it configured just the way I like it, and I think it'll do the trick.

I'll spend a few days using the X11 version to make sure it really works for me...and then the Panther can prowl freely.

Posted by Will Duquette at November 15, 2003 06:00 PM

Craig Clarke said:

My Emacs wasn't going to work properly on Panther!

I think you've hit upon the new hit movie catchphrase. You don't have to know what it means, because it sounds really cool.

I picture it being yelled into a phone before it's slammed down. Maybe with some tape reels spinning in the background.

(I'm more of a film geek than a computer geek, although they often overlap...)