jb… a weblog by Jonathan Buys

Power Tools

After reading through Matt Gemmell’s latest post on mutt and the good doctor’s response, I fired up my old mutt config and gave it another run through. Well, after being a bit snarky on Twitter, of course.

I’m always of two minds when it comes to using Unix tools on a Mac. On the one hand, I want to live in the future, where everything is beautiful and powerful, simple and easy to use, but functional enough to do everything I want. That future might never come, but sometimes it feels as if its right around the corner. On the other hand, I know Unix. I make my living on the command line, and have for years. I’ve got a customized .vimrc file that’s setup just the way I like it. I know how to zip around mutt. I could even setup mpd to play music instead of iTunes if I felt like it. That constant friction of how I wish things were hits up against how I know things are on a daily basis.

I know how to get things done quickly and efficiently, but sometimes I just don’t want to do it that way. I want to live in the future, not the past. But, once you know how to use the power tools, the knowledge will forever be present in the back of your mind, a quiet voice that says “you know how to do this, you know how to make this better”. However, it’s important to know when to take advantage of a power tool, and to avoid unnecessarily fetishizing the command line.

Living in the Apple ecosystem has benefits. Pictures I put in the Photos app are available everywhere. Likewise with music in iTunes Match. Any document I edit in TextEdit is automatically versioned without my needing to think about it. Apple designs their products to work well together, but they also design them to appeal to the largest audience possible, which may or may not include me.

Take TextEdit as an example. It’s a basic text editor, it can edit a Markdown document just fine, but when I edit Markdown in MacVim I’ve got access to my years of keyboard navigation and key combos for doing things like inserting links and switching between inline links and reference links. As previously mentioned, TextEdit automatically versions it’s documents, but with a couple of modifications, so does MacVim. TextEdit is a general purpose tool, MacVim is a power tool, they are not really in the same category, except they can both edit a text document.

Maybe that’s the differentiation I’ve been searching for. TextEdit can, as it’s name implies, edit text files, but MacVim excels at it. Mail can send and receive email, it’s a general tool best for most people. Mutt is a power tool, best for specific use cases when you already have the background knowledge to be able to take advantage of it.

Knowing how to use the power tools will make you a better computer user. Knowing when to use a particular tool, and knowing which tool is the best one for the job, makes you an expert.

unix hci