Where parallels cross

Interesting bits of life

Moldable Emacs: Vega-Lite, Nyxt and Emacs towards sustainable development

Too long; didn't read

Make plots interactive with Emacs! Merge visualizations, browsing and editing in a unique experience. Here I show how great tools can join hands to give you super powers.

The problem

Moldable development is about letting you create tools good for the job at hand on the fly. It is about empowering you to deal with your complex world. Now reading text is pretty hard. It takes time! And it takes even more time to understand it.

Mathematicians for example train themselves to read formulas, but to understand them they need to demo in their mind (or notepads) how a formula would work with concrete examples. So if I write a formula x + y = ..., a mathematician would replace the x and y with a few numbers to see if my formula holds. Programmers at work have the same issue. They use the machine to deal with testing their formulas (the Lisp REPL ideally!). So reading a program, formula or just text always requires testing it to fully understand.

Bret Victor did majestic work at showing how we need to stop demo things in our minds. For example, in developing a game you should be able to see how your changes affect the gameplay.

I want to move towards that! My tools must be richer than that though and far cheaper to make.

It would be great to start from program execution. But I give priority to data. We are getting more and more data from the world around us. The problem is that we struggle understanding it and acting on it. For example, there is a lot of data about climate change, but we still struggle at extracting meaning from it. Then we struggle taking actions (e.g., what improves more the environment? If I have to choose: should I buy less flight tickets or consume less energy?)!

Following the Lisp principle that everything is data (lol, the author of the guide of re-frame is really into this by the way), how can I "give life to my data"? How can I actually interact with it in a novel way?

It is a problem indeed

Programs are data. The world has data everywhere! If we make our tools better at extract useful meaning from that, well, we got more chance to change things for the better. When somebody tells a lie, it is hard to read all we need to find out the truth.

When we lie to ourselves is even harder! Say that I take notes with Org Roam and I convinced myself that my main interest is Emacs. Could I check my assumption according to my note database?

And there is a solution

Let's try to do just that (or an example of that at least)! The question is: what notes attract my attention most? Let me quantify this question by saying: which notes have the most Org Roam backlinks? This makes sense to me because adding a backlink is an effort. Backlinks show how much I care about a note. So the plan is to take (a portion of -- I got too many notes--) my notes, get how many backlinks they have, and plot this to see which note wins. Also I want to click the plot to open the note in Emacs (and show its backlinks). It sounds complex, but here it is!

Time to explain! First of all the tools I needed for this workflow.

We start from a moldable-emacs Playground that takes the first 100 notes and transforms them into a plist. The list contains the number of backlinks, the size of the file and a :command which tells what to do when you click on a Vega-Lite node.

(--> (org-roam-node-list)
     (-take 100 it)
     (--filter (> (length (org-roam-backlinks-get it)) 0) it)
      (list :file (org-roam-node-file it)
            :backlinks (length (org-roam-backlinks-get it))
            :size (file-attribute-size (file-attributes (org-roam-node-file it)))
            :command (concat "file:///"
                               "(progn (find-file \""
                               (org-roam-node-file it)

Vega-Lite does take data in JSON format. So we translate that plist into JSON with another moldable-emacs mold. The Vega-Lite schema is a hack of the scatterplot with href example. The dimensions I consider are backlinks and size of file (I was curious if there was correlation between size and backlinks).

Anyway, we now get into the pretty cool stuff. Vega-Lite supports hyperlinks to allow you click a node of the plot and navigate the web. I want to run an Emacs action instead (i.e., open the note and open the Org Roam buffer with backlinks)! What to do? Hack the hyperlink!

Nyxt comes with a super-cool feature: it lets you define how to handle links. Recently I modified my Nyxt configuration to open mails with Emacs. You can also tell how to handle file extensions of an hyperlnk. So I made my own file extension and an handler.

(define-configuration buffer
  ((request-resource-hook (reduce #'hooks:add-hook
                                         (match-scheme "mailto")
                                         "/usr/bin/emacsclient --eval '(browse-url-mail \"~a\")'"
                                         (match-file-extension "ag91")
                                         "/usr/bin/emacsclient --eval '(emacs-with-nyxt-decode-command \"~a\")'"
                                  :initial-value %slot-default%))))

Note that when I find that extension, I make Emacs call emacs-with-nyxt-decode-command. The reason is into the Playground we saw before.

:command (concat "file:///"
                               "(progn (find-file \""
                               (org-roam-node-file it)

I put Elisp into my file name!!! I encode my Elisp program in base64 and then add an .ag91 exention.

That is why I need a decode function.

(defun emacs-with-nyxt-decode-command (a)
  (--> a
       (s-split "/" it t)
       (s-split "\\." it t)

This is probably crazy, but it opens humongous possibilities! You can run Elisp from the browser. And you can embed actions as hyperlinks!! I need to design a less hacky way to use this, after which I will add it to moldable-emacs and emacs-with-nyxt.

And with this, I feel closer to have a moldable interface to understand better the world around me.

(Note, this integration is a bit complex because Emacs does not have a good UX story. Otherwise, we could probably have an Emacs Vega-Lite and a simple way to hook actions to nodes. Nyxt embraces HTML and makes that first class. I think GlamorousToolkit has a much better story because the UX is a first class citizen of the IDE: this means I would not need to jump from Emacs to Nyxt and back. In GT you can just program the components of the UX (which are Pharo objects) from within your tool. I hope Emacs will get inspired by that at some point!)


So stay tuned! We are finally getting towards giving a UX to data handled by Emacs. This is just a first experiment. Soon to come a designed way to do this kind of things (at least the file extension mechanism and encoding need to be easier).

Happy vega-liting!