Religious wars (was Re: [Beowulf] A press release)

Robert G. Brown rgb at
Mon Jul 21 17:28:19 PDT 2008

On Mon, 21 Jul 2008, Bob Drzyzgula wrote:

> On Mon, Jul 21, 2008 at 01:47:02PM -0400, Robert G. Brown wrote:
>> On Mon, 21 Jul 2008, Joe Landman wrote:
>> This is the sad truth.  I can survive without using emacs, and besides,
>> I can use it in an emergency.  But nobody can manage systems without
>> knowing vi.  You may use it only long enough to edit /etc/hosts and your
>> firewall and your yum repo data so you can install and rebuild jove, but
>> that much cannot be avoided...
> This, I find, is a strong dividing line. By and large
> (not with exclusivity, but IME there is certainly a trend)
> systems programmers use vi and applications programmers
> use emacs. Systems programmers spend far to much time just
> getting in and out to make quick fixes to things -- and
> for that matter spend far too much time working with broken
> machines -- to ever allow themselves to become dependant
> on anything with as much overhead as Emacs. Some of them
> will master both, and use Emacs for scripting and such.
> But most that I've known just never bother with it.

Fair enough.  At the time I started out with Unix was a physicist first,
a coder second (to program my physics stuff) and a novice unix sysadmin
third (but with a very good guru).  vi (as of the latter 1980's) was not
particularly coder-friendly, no matter what the really old hands would

>> Speaking personally, I'd rather burn off my pre-cancerous old-age spots
>> with a wood-burning kit than use vi for more than two minutes at a time
>> ("... only long enough..." see above) but to each their own, I suppose.
> See, I cut my teeth [1] on a Sun 2/120 with a multibus SCSI
> adapter, with a 71MB hard drive and a QIC tape drive. This
> was running SunOS 1.1 (cf. BSD 4.1), and I can assure you
> that it didn't have no stinkin' Emacs;  Bill Joy ran the

Whew!  I didn't do Suns (or Unix) until the 4/110, which didn't have
much more of a hard drive (two 60's, IIRC) but supported some 16 serial
terminals and several sun 3 and 386i and SGI clients.  None of the
systems "came" with emacs back then.  It was one of the packages one
built from source, once you got it set up and cc installed and working,
if you had room and could get the sources to build.  To be able to set
up the system, to be able to edit the makefiles to be able to do the
build, to be able to hack the sources as needed to be able to complete
the build successfully, you needed vi; minimal competence with vi was
(and really is still not) an option for a sysadmin full or part time.
What you had in /sbin and maybe /bin was it on a new/naked system.

> OS development for Sun and anyway, James Gosling's Unix/C
> port of Emacs was just starting to make the rounds [2].
> The only real choices were ed, ex and vi -- vi of course
> being a mode you entered from ex, which still was important
> and a vast improvement over ed. By the time there were any
> other reasonable editors available to me, the vi command
> set had moved down into my brain stem. The only command
> I ever mastered in Emacs was <Ctrl-x><Ctrl-c>.

Yeah, I've heard people speak of the joys of just using raw ed, and used
QED and a few other editors (edlin?) of that ilk.  Just long enough to
write a front end (in basica) to hide it, in the case of QED.  I was
possibly the only person on the planet to have a fullscreen editor on a
TSO connection to a QED session on a mainframe for several years, with
all its line-at-a-time commands carefully hidden and virtualized on a
local PC display of the sources.  Or, maybe not.  There are a lot of
hackers out there, and QED was slow (and TSO expensive), hence it

But by the time I got to Unix from the mainframes, jove was by far the
way to go for somebody that did both sysadmin and coding, with the
latter marginally dominating.  Emacs had already grown incredibly
bloated, and was the source of some rather famous root exploits (it had
a suid root component in there somewhere) -- got hit by that indirectly
back in maybe 1989.  jove has hardly changed from 1989 on.  A tiny bit
more/better compiler support.  Perhaps a few bugfixes.  But to change
it, one has to write C and do a full recompile.  I've always felt that
emacs bloat resulted from the fact that anybody could bloat the damn
thing via lisp without needing to actually work through the core
interface and insert code that is sufficiently bugfree that it would


> FWIW, with vi being so cryptic and Emacs being even worse,
> for a while we supported the Rand Editor -- in particular
> e19 [3]. Now there was an editor for the masses -- virtually
> the whole thing was driven by function keys.
> --Bob
> [1] Unix teeth, that is. The first machine I programmed --
> with punchcards -- was an IBM 1130...
> [2] We did at one point buy some licenses for Unipress
> Emacs (the commercialized version of Gosling Emacs), but
> only a few hardy souls ever forced themselves to make use
> of it.
> [3]

Robert G. Brown                            Phone(cell): 1-919-280-8443
Duke University Physics Dept, Box 90305
Durham, N.C. 27708-0305
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