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Moldable Emacs: vision, basic concepts and design

Too long; didn't read

This is the vision statement of my efforts to make Emacs a moldable environment. I share the design ideas guiding me. Also a bit of code to have a glimpse of what I got so far.

The vision

The ambition is to make Emacs a moldable environment. My guide is the vision behind GlamorousToolkit: we want to handle our system complexity by letting the system explain itself. Bret Victor makes the rationale for this clear: today we can achieve marvellous things by trial and error, but we lack the tools to understand in depth the things we created. We create a thing, then time passes and somebody else (even us!) has no clue how the thing we created works. This same destiny will befall upon your smartphone and your bank's "ancient" COBOL system.

The turning point is to create a system to explain systems. This must explain itself to the user.

Emacs has good roots because its creators were wise to require to provide self documentation. That is only part of it though. For example, GlamorousToolkit focuses on telling stories, because that is the way people understand the world around them. This is why you will see a lot of given-when-then notation in the current implementation of the moldable-emacs mode: I want to give Emacs a story telling spin.

So again, our system needs to be able to explain systems. The explanation changes according to the context. This means that our system needs to be malleable. It must allow to tell the same story in the best way for the system at hand. For instance, we need different ways to explain how software like Pandoc, Org Mode or Datomic work. And we would need different ways for each of these if the audience changes.

This is why we will work with views: we have some structured text and we want to produce quickly the best view to extract meaning from that. The meaning depends on what we are looking for. That also changes, so we need highly customizable views. We need to make up views on the fly!

Our Emacs extension must let us explain the system at hand. The explanation we come up with should ease us in understanding the part of the system we care about at this moment. Our mode needs to facilitate this so that we spend minimal effort in automating the explanation.

Essentially the vision of this mode is to make you a better story teller. I aim to make you (and myself) focus on making better tools to explain the systems we create or stumbled into. That way we will surely make it easier for ourselves and our future generations to understand what great and useful things we made.

The design

The whole extension I am proposing revolves around the concept of views. In this mode I call views "molds". I made this up inspired by moldable development. Molds let you take a buffer (data) and transform it into another buffer (other data). For example, I want to transform an Org Mode buffer into a buffer containing its first Org table. The story for this mold is as simple as: "given a document, then I want to focus on the first table". Again a mold takes a buffer and produces another buffer. We define how to transform things via Elisp. This is important because we can change Emacs with it. Changing Emacs you can change our extension. This makes our system fractal and powerful.

There is more. Bret Victor's has great ideas on how to define a programming environment:

  1. read the vocabulary
  2. follow the flow
  3. see the state
  4. create by reacting
  5. start concrete (abstraction)

And a programming language:

  • identity and metaphor (to understand environment concepts by similitude)
  • decomposition
  • recomposition
  • readability (explaining the vocabulary)

I tried to give an answer to these in my extension (I am a novice of these ideas, so don't tell Bret Victor what I am doing otherwise I may end up being told off as Khan Academy). (By the way, learning from GlamorousToolkit and playing with Bret Victor's ideas made me pretty excited about this side project.)

"Read the vocabulary" is about the system's self explanation, so we will need a mold that explains how moldable-emacs works. Since all code of moldable-emacs shows in buffers, we can make a mold for that.

"Follow the flow" is about knowing what is happening while you are using the system. Any mold you run has a before and after buffer, and I already made some utility to navigate this history. You could even make a mold to make the history easy to observe (and replay?).

"See the state" is about knowing what our system is doing. You can think of debugging here, where you can peek into the variables that your program is using. The fun fact is that I am following a pretty functional (as in programming) approach. You could have a mold that shows the parameters used by the mold you are using!

"Create by reacting" is about starting making something cool by just some initial scratches. Think of a story teller that sees a cloud in the sky and starts building up a fabulous adventure from a shape she saw. Using a mold should inspire the usage of more molds. By the way, each mold checks that the context is right for its usage, so you cannot go wrong with composition here. For example the mold that finds the first table can run only in an Org Mode buffer that contains at least a table. You cannot use it in all other cases.

"Start concrete" then generalize is about abstraction. Our system has to ease the making of molds to the point that we can throw them away without remorse. If we find out we keep creating the same made-on-the-fly mold, we can register it and give it a name.

Although Bret Victor meant the next set of design principles for a programming language, I will give it a go anyway!

"Identity and metaphor" is basically view information in a more effective and resonating way for the context you come from: that is just the aim of molds!

"Decomposition" is about breaking your thoughts in something manageable. Making small on-the-fly molds, or having those already available lets you formulate the story you want to tell in a flow.

"Recomposition" is about take those broken thoughts and compose them in a coherent story. This principle inspired me to do something I am happy with: I made an utility to compose molds from existing one and naming them. This also inspired a way to both testing them, checking their composability and documenting them!

"Readability" is about explaining what our system components are about. In the context of our extension, each mold must come with at least an example. This is the mechanism I mentioned above. An example shows the before and after state of using a mold. It also helps as documentation. You can form an idea of what a mold produces.

Likely all of this is a bit of a stretch of what Bret Victor meant, but I still wanted to try merging his and moldable development ideas. Adding examples to molds inspired me with many useful features. For the records, I got the importance of examples from GlamorousToolkit: Feenk's people changed unit tests to return the objects under tests and use those as examples.

The current implementation

A mold looks like this in Elisp:

 :key "Playground"
 :given (lambda nil 't)
 :then (lambda nil (let (... ...) (with-current-buffer buffer ... ... ... buffer) buffer))
 :docs "You can write any Elisp here. 
Then you can evaluate with `EvalSexp'. 
This mold saves structured data of the previous buffer 
in the local variable `self'."
 :examples ((
             :name "Empty file"
             :given (:type file :name "/tmp/test.txt" :mode text-mode :contents "")
             :then (:type buffer :name ... :mode emacs-lisp-mode :contents ""))))

A mold needs the following.

a key
the unique name of the mold used to find it;
a given clause
this is a predicate for the preconditions needed for this mold;
a then clause
the transformation this mold will apply, this has to return a buffer;
some docs
a line to explain what this does;
some examples
this is a minimal usage of the mold, so users can have an idea of what it does.

Documentation and examples are optional because I am designing/developing a way for making it trivial for the user to provide these while using molds. Examples are fundamental to me because they tell useful stories (and with those I can do very cool things in terms of usability and validation).

The core of the mode is the function that uses this information to execute molds: me/mold.

(defun me/mold ()
  "Propose a list of available molds for the current context."
  (run-hooks 'me/mold-before-hook)
  (let* ((molds (--filter
                 (funcall (plist-get it :given))
         (keys (--map (plist-get it :key) molds)))
    (--> keys
       "Pick the mold you need:"
       (lambda (x)
          (plist-get x :key)
       (lambda (mold)
           (funcall it mold))
      (plist-get it :then)
    (run-hooks 'me/mold-after-hook))

In short, this function does the following.

  1. find molds that satisfy your situation (the :given


  1. let you pick one of these
  2. open the new buffer (generated with the :then clause) on the side.

The hooks allow to integrate some extra functionality. For example I currently support history to jump back and forth in the list of generated buffers. I happen to get my molding wrong and I can quickly return to the previous buffer to try again with a keybinding.

Last thing I want to mention here is that the current implementation already supports composition with me/mold-compose-molds!

For example, I have a mold to produce a graph from the first Org Table in the buffer.

  (me/mold-compose "FirstOrgTable"  "OrgTableToCSV")

Here I transform an Org Mode buffer to an Org Mode buffer with a single table. Then the table to a CSV buffer. Then the CSV to a bar chart. The function me/mold-compose composes existing molds by looking for their key and feeding these to me/mold-compose-molds. Then me/register-mold-by-key assigns a key to this composed mold and adds it to the register. I may provide a macro soon to make composition more readable.

Final thoughts

This is more or less a short summary of the core of what is letting mold my software world (from Emacs).

I have already about 40ish molds that I found so valuable to add to my mold register. I am still looking for a good story about mold contribution: looking at how GlamorousToolkit is evolving I guess I should provide a set of core molds (like Playground) and a set of contributed ones. Some molds that would be cool to have are for maneuvering external APIs (for example the one of Jenkins).

Something that also interests me is integrating Emacs and GlamorousToolkit. Emacs currently focuses mostly on text and molds are most powerful when you get useful information without reading. I looked in the potential of widgets in Emacs, but it seems too expensive for me. I would rather go towards integrating with external tools for getting amazing visual features.

All in all, this mode is just exciting to develop! I feel a bit like a bee that cross-pollinates ideas from various communities: I learn a lot and hopefully I make something valuable for others in the process.