by Gary R. Moser
Director of Institutional Research and Planning
The California Maritime Academy
I recently contacted Joseph Rickert about inviting Vim guru Drew Niel (web: vimcasts.org, book: “Practical Vim: Edit Text at the Speed of Thought”) to speak at the Bay Area R User Group group. Due to Drew's living in Great Britain that might not be easily achieved, so Joe generously extended an invitation for me to share a bit about why I like Vim here.
When it comes to text editors, there are a number of strong contenders to choose from (…lots and lots of them). if you've found a tool with a rich feature set that makes you more productive (and more importantly, is something you like) you should probably stick with that. Given that editing text of various types is such a big part of our lives, however, it's worth turning a critical eye toward how well our tools facilitate this specific activity.
Do you spend a lot of time editing text? Yeah, me too. Personally this includes R code, Markdown, Latex, as well as notes and outlines (including this article). When I rediscovered Vim fairly recently, it was from the perspective of being a proficient R user. Therefore, my values and beliefs about what constitutes good software are framed by my experience with R. That includes being OK with an initial learning curve.
I have been using RStudio as my primary IDE for R since it was offered. It's great software; they did something not too long ago that I really appreciate – they added a stripped-down Vim editing mode. Vim pushes users to the documentation pretty quickly (usually as the result of accidentally deleting large chunks of work), and as I dug in and began to discover its full functionality, I came to realize how much I was missing out on by using the emulator. The ability to set and jump to marks in a document, or utilizing multiple registers for copy/paste are two good examples of essential but missing features in RStudio.
Vim has been described as “a language for text editing,” which I think is a useful way to view it. At the risk of sounding snotty, I would compare the experiences of using Vim (or another good editor) versus a plain-jane text editor to that of playing chess versus checkers. That is, there's an element of strategic and intentional action compared to simply playing one of a limited set of moves over and over again.
One of the things that makes Vim so interesting and different from other editors stems from its origins. As the result of being developed in the context of severe constraints (slow networks, no digital displays, limited system resources, and no mouse), Vim – then “ed” – had to accomplish the greatest amount of work with the least number of keystrokes. This requirement led to the development of a vast number of very specific commands that can be combined in useful ways. Drew Neil artfully compares this to playing notes, chords, and melodies on a piano. It's also an appropriate comparison for setting one's expectations toward becoming a skilled Vim user! Michael Mrozekon's humorous plot cleverly suggests that, not unlike R, Vim doesn't hold your hand.
It also speaks to my point about specificity. Emacs, for example, can be extended to be a web client or music player, hence the rabbit-hole learning curve, but isn't that getting away from the primary task of text editing?
The fundamental way that Vim differs from most other text editors is that it is explicitly modal; all software is technically modal in certain ways (that is, the same keys do different things under different circumstances), but with Vim it is a central design feature. Essentially, what this means is that by switching modes, a different keyboard comes into existence under your fingers. Because Vim has four modes, and a very rich and terse set of key-bindings, it's like having four+ keyboards in one. The keyboard cheat sheet is a useful reference, especially in the beginning.
Warning: after becoming familiar with Vim's basic functionality, going back to a typical text editor feels rather clumsy.
Vim as an interface to R using the Vim-R-plugin is mostly good for how I use it, but I expect to be dialing-in Vim for a long time before it's got all the features I want. I don't mind this, but I can see how someone else might. I encourage you consider your own tools and how well they facilitate your most frequent tasks. If you're an RStudio user, try giving Vim mode a go. A visit to www.vim.org will connect you to the resources you'll need.