wax banks

second-best since Cantor

Category: personal

Futher on difficult meditation.

Note: The post isn’t really about what its opening sentence might suggest, to the sane and normal reader, that it’s about; I didn’t make even the most halfassed attempt to maintain such smallmind-hobgoblin-consistency. It’s all — really all of it; this is how much of a degenerate wordcel I am — it’s all about getting to write and so hear the phrase ‘misery-fuckery’ in the trip-o-let rhythm of ‘jiggery-pokery.’

Thinking this morning about the notion of the ’emotional journey’: spatiotemporal metaphor for a shift in your inner landscape.

A couple of years ago I wrote a book ostensibly or pretextually about the major arcana of the tarot, working through the cards in order — starting and ending with the zeroth trump, the Fool — as if they recorded or allegorized a trip or transformation. I decided over the course of the project that the traditional image of the ‘Fool’s Journey’ was the wrong organizing metaphor, and it was more fertile for me to think of the Fool/querent/seeker/human undertaking errands with the intention of returning each time, if not to where she started, then to the next starting point. The ‘Fool’s Errand’ makes fractal sense to me: coming home changed — and so to a changed home — in order to set out on the next errand in a series, which together make up a deeper project of…y’know, whatever.

This shift — from thinking of the Journey as delivery mechanism for transformative psychic reward, to seeing the Errand as a recurring/ongoing project of engagement with change and uncertainty within and without — played out textually in that book as, if I’m being frank, a maddening fucking inconsistency of tone and viewpoint. Well, it is what it is. But the book was about midlife transition, really, and I’m pleased with the way tone and topic shifted together. Or so I console myself.

A friend who shared a little of what she knows about contemplative pathwork once told me her goal in meditative practice was to ‘realize nonseparateness,’ a phrase and concept which echoes throughout the present work. She was admirably clearheaded about a concept I found intellectually intuitive but at times emotionally forbidding: it was the realization itself, opening and maintaining connection itself, that was of value — not the specific emotional colour/content of the connection or of the thing connected to. ‘Nonseparateness’ was, in the terms of yesterday’s post, a peaceful dynamic of which (inner) conflict is always a part. ‘Peace isn’t quiet’; peace is ongoing resolution and restoration. Conflict can get you there (‘winning the peace’) and in any case conflict is coming.

This seems to me a vital distinction with both obvious and subtle political implications. You ‘realize nonseparateness’ even when what you’re connected to is difficult or painful; there’s a surface analogy to, say, democratic pluralism — which we might call a (possibly doomed) politics of willful nonseparateness, i.e. endless negotiation and compromise — but we should be careful not to stop at the superficial ‘stay connected to people who suck in order to improve/surpass them.’ It seems to me, a disintegrated and basically fucked person, that ‘nonseparateness’ isn’t tolerance. You tolerate someone because it won’t last forever, but I think real connection is undertaken without selfish hope of reprieve: it’s your responsibility to maintain a sense of the Other as fully itself, exactly as real as ‘you,’ even when the Other is a painful imagining or a difficult experience or (say) a dipshit ideologue. Relationship built on outlasting the unwanted will encode a dangerous destructive tension — cold war, so to speak. ‘Uneasy coexistence,’ and incidentally ‘unease’ translates as dukkha

Authentic engagement is both means and end, because — I guess this is one of my foundational assumptions — no one is an island; human minds and bodies being what they are, we realize our full humanity only in ongoing relation with others, and find peace only in peaceful relation (to circumstance, interactor, self, etc.). ‘Not all those who wander are lost’: an invitation not to tolerance but to an affirmative relation to inbetweenness, transit, search, the Errand as its own reason and reward. I have such a hard stupid time recognizing a process or transformation as a reward in itself, and I can hear echoes of this failure in so much misery-fuckery in my own life—

When I can remember that I’m not out to purify my own state or activity, but rather to be more authentic in my participation in ongoing processes at a scale I can’t easily/always perceive, I know I’m happier and closer to peace and ease — irrespective of the difficulty of my work.

It’s certainly possible this is an optical illusion, or One Neat Trick to pull on my easily manipulable consciousness. Any Fool knows that.


On difficult meditation.

Recently I’ve experienced a series of challenging, frustrating breath meditations.1 In the past I’ve come away from such sessions disappointed, hopeless, but these ones have, so to speak, sat differently with me.

My notes from the most recent sit read, in part:

5/10/23 — 15-20m sit (turned off timer) … caffeinated, head full of attractive fantasy, pulled repeatedly out of restful focus. after ~10min some words entered my noisy head: ‘i can’t manage my concentration — i can — i am.‘ process not result. then relaxed into the difficulty; the rest of that time felt like surfing, or floating down a crowded sidewalk: effortful, mental muscles working, grateful acceptance of chaotic oscillation

Experienced meditators doubtless recognize this as a 101-level realization, a knight’s-move expressed in ‘legacy’ egoic terms: first the lateral shift from despairing of ever attaining some outcome (successfully ‘managed’ concentration), to accepting both its possibility and the limits of my own perception/projection, and then a step further in, to a (temporary) new relationship to the meditative work which responds to the realness of the process rather than the desirability of the outcome. No sign of breaking the doomed imagine/desire/satisfy cycle here, just a local detachment of a certain imagining from a certain experience.

What’s interesting to me this morning, as a semi-experienced but very low-skill meditator, is the mindset — the mind-as-process — which opened up after I turned this corner several minutes into a sit. ‘Effortful…acceptance of chaotic oscillation.’ In other words: ‘surrender to the (turbulent) flow.’

One of the purposes of breath meditation is to realize (not ‘understand’) freedom from identification with the endless stream of mental activity, the burbling polyglot discourse of what my old professor Marvin Minsky called the ‘society of mind’ and Buddhist tradition calls ‘monkey mind.’ Heads are noisy places, the concerted work of mind emerges from a noisy knotty crosshatch of contradictory and coincidental impulses, and peaceful clarity or ‘awakening’ is both a natural state and a fleeting, rare one — e.g. look at everyone who’s ever lived. One of the states (processes) that open up in ‘successful’ breath meditations is a calm ego-detached awareness of the contingency and transience of such mental activity; the popular view mistakes this peaceful resolve for quiet, a standard dumb fuckup for human beings across experiential domains,2 but the ‘content’ of my sitting realization can be reduced/expressed as, ‘Whether or not this experience is “managed” isn’t a matter of quiet output but of persistent undertaking.’ Once I imagined myself participating in the activity, rather than imagining myself failing to ‘succeed’ at it, I was able to embody a new mode of relation between self and act, and between act and circumstance and outcome.

Again: yes, the fictional self-provision remains. But after all it was only 20 minutes of sitting down in an unused office at my workplace; we shouldn’t expect miracles in that setting, at that rate.

This is akin to going ‘off the grid,’ psychologically speaking, if only for a few minutes: after that moment of reframing, I was still working hard without satisfaction, still conscious of the fact that my mind would not quiet the hell down. (Yes, sitting down to meditate is hard work.) But that awareness and lack of satisfaction temporarily stopped generating that familiar emotional cocktail of self-loathing and despair — instead of the meditative work being a pretext for going into a tailspin, it felt like its own reward; it was real in itself.

Of course this echoes the Buddhist practice of referring to seated meditation as ‘sitting’ per se.

From that point in the session onward — and here I’m conscious of, but can’t be bothered to avoid, certain tiresome therapeutic/’productive’ connotations of the word session — I experienced the same ‘failed’ submergence/surfacing cycle that’d been pissing me off previously, the rise and fall of attentional waveform and whatever others. But instead of judging this oscillation, I was simply there for it. What ‘quiet’ occurred was a quality not of the mental ‘stream’ (which never quieted at all) but of the observing/judging faculty, the egoic ‘I.’ That relinquishing of judgment/control was unconscious despite my Beckettian internal utterance (‘I can’t, I can, I am’), but afterward I was no less aware of what was going on. Nothing like no-mind or no-self here, only a clearer sight of my set, setting, volition, activity.

For years I’ve told writing students and mentees, ‘All edits are clarity edits.’

Sometimes I’ll walk down a bustling sidewalk and experience an intoxicating stillness, keeping my head still relative to the sidewalk (like a camera on a dolly) while moving my body ‘around’ it to compensate. My subjective experience — not just in its visual aspect, the camera-eye, but in terms of the kinesthetic music of my whole mind/body system — remains smoothly and pleasurably continuous even while something akin to automatic error-correction goes on handling navigation duties. You can see the same effect in the flight of a bird whose body continually adjusts its movement so that its head can remain still enough to pick out prey on the ground far below, or indeed in surfers whose centers of mass move smoothly across wavetops while their legs pump irregularly to compensate for the dynamic curvature of the water below. Stillness not motionlessness — peace not quiet. The air and water and the madding crowd don’t stop flowing by in their chaotic turbulence; these bodily practices seeking stillness do not quiet the world’s noise. But in each event, the body that makes the mind — remember that the Spanish for ‘to make,’ hacer, also translates as ‘to do’ — ‘rests transparently’ in its moment, it experiences a reconciliation of set and setting.

Sometimes the V7 chord is exactly how you feel and not just a tool for getting back to the superegoic I.3

An altered relation to effort, and thus between effort and its output, isn’t a precursor to this experience of clarity — it’s it. In Alcoholics Anonymous they say you can’t think your way to right action, only act your way to right thinking; this is a pragmatic and sober articulation of our perhaps more abstract, fanciful notion that they’re the same thing.

  1. The proximate causes of the difficulty are irrelevant here. 
  2. See also the democratic realization, ‘Peace is not the absence of conflict but its resolvability.’ 
  3. This use of ‘I’ is one of those jokes that probably incurs a clarity-cost but I can’t bring myself to cut it. ‘Superegoic I’ is meant to play ironically after the earlier ‘egoic “I”‘; the idea here is that prefab psychological resolution is a social convention, etc., etc., and we come back to ego-pattern partly because there’s no room for other shit. But as primed by the notation ‘V7’ earlier in the sentence, ‘I’ also means the tonic major chord — harmonic ‘homebase’ so to speak, the resolution of the V7 and, in Western music, the fulfilling contrast-move that gives V7 its meaning, makes it OK. In jazz and other 20C western musics you’re surrounded by unresolved seventh chords, internal tritones allowed to both embody and signify ambivalence, i.e. those musics open up a new unconventional subjectivity that doesn’t just collapse mindlessly to the (egoic) I. See?! I went to graduate school, motherfucker!! This is way, way, way too much pressure on what’s ultimately just a coincidence of notation, and I’ll stop here. Thank you for reading this footnote. I went to graduate school. 

Zen in the art of not being great at anything in particular.

Today I saw a once-‘notable’ blogger refer to his ‘one-on-one coaching practice’ — basically productivity tips and some Marie Kondo shit — and was forcefully reminded that I subconsciously choose to fail…then comfort myself with the idea that I’m an unusually talented failure.

‘Gifted and talented,’ as they used to say.

I wonder what my life would be like if I spent the next year of it trying to become not a good writer but a rich one. I wonder whether I could enjoy that pursuit.

Irreal life top 10, late January 2023.

  1. Still Mastodon. It’s quieted down as the panicked #TwitterMigration has slowed, leaving people wondering what the hell they’re doing on a service that provides none of the twitch-speed algorithmic coercion of Twitter and all of the one-to-one accountability of an old-school BBS. What remains turns out to be its own thing — a ‘social’ media network that honestly doesn’t deserve those scare quotes. Clicking the Donate button on our server’s webpage I felt a rush of affectionate nostalgia, reminded so strongly of using Plastic and Metafilter back during GWBush’s first term in office. Mastodon has that energy and that potential, not least because its open and still-evolving platform makes room for innovation (how about choosing your own recommendation algorithm?). If it fails it’ll be fondly remembered as a beautiful experiment. Same if it succeeds, I hope.
  2. ‘You have to be with other people, he thought. In order to live at all.’ (Philip K Dick, Do Androids…?)
  3. What We Do in the Shadows. I never saw the film, and checked out the TV show just to see Matt Berry — only to discover (after the usual, slightly stilted pilot) the most perfectly balanced ensemble comedy in years and years, a sweetly humane study of a semifunctional Staten Island vampire family with a poisoned edge befitting its odd mix of Kiwi, UK, and USA sensibilities. (It’s one of the most sexually progressive shows on TV too, maybe in mainstream TV history.) All five leads could carry their own shows; Berry and Natasia Demetriou, as Laszlo and Nadja, are my favourite onscreen couple ever. And the expansive, empathetic love story of Nandor the Relentless and his familiar Guillermo is as compelling as Sam and Diane. I’m rewatching it, this time with my wife, grateful for its irresponsible lightness and unexpected emotional weight; we laugh embarrassingly loudly several times each episode. A gift.
  4. Hawaii. ‘Island time’ is real. For an East Coast neurotic like me there’s a couple-day adjustment period, but by your fifth or sixth mai tai it all starts to make sense. Preposterously expensive and necessarily parochial in certain ways, for reasons of geography — and with the usual dark colonial history — but the complexly, matter-of-factly integrated present-day culture of the islands gives me hope.
  5. VALIS. PKD’s career was spent exploring themes that eventually (predictably?) overwhelmed him late in life. His hallucinatory/visionary experiences of Feb/Mar 1974 drove him to write his 9,000-page ‘Exegesis,’ from which several novels partially (never fully) escape; after his publisher asked for edits to his first concerted attempt to fictionalize those experiences (published posthumously as Radio Free Albemuth), he instead poured out this first draft in two weeks. Less a novel than an obsessive elaboration and criticism of his own breakdown and reconstruction in the wake of the ‘2-3-74’ events, VALIS splits PKD in two to stage a confrontation and then collaboration between more and less skeptical parts of his psyche. Which is to say it’s a spiritual confession — genre with unanswerable question mark at the center — a funny one at that, and gets away with being monumentally, monomaniacally boring by being incomparably brave in its self-inquiry. Everyone should regularly experience art where there’s no way of determining what it would mean for it to be ‘good.’
  6. Clash Royale. One important but poorly understood bit of Terrible News this terrible decade is that for many many people, ‘video games’ increasingly means mobile games — a commercial sector of very nearly pure and perfect exploitation and mindless sugar-snack pleasure. Because mobile-gaming time is budgeted in 5- and 10-minute increments and largely happens during brief moments of ‘downtime,’ deep thinking doesn’t come into it, indeed can’t. Clash Royale looks like a thinking game (there are ‘cards’) but what scares me is the realization that, for most good players, ‘strategy’ means spending their 3-minute games in a more or less threatening holding pattern until they can pop off a combo. Indeed, that’s all ‘strategy’ means in a broad range of games. Which makes sense, since that’s how typical players spend their workdays and schooldays too — waiting anxiously for a chance to really live. I hate this pay-to-win game with a screaming hatred, and have poured years of my life into it over the last two months. No more.
  7. Bob Marley and the Wailers, Sausalito, Halloween 1973 on KSAN. Because of the incredible reach of Island’s ubiquitous Legend compilation (25M copies sold!), when casual listeners think of Marley they hear the refined sound of his mid/late-70s band, with the I-threes on vocals sweetening the mix and psych-blues guitar washing over or through. No shame in that — the post-1974 Wailers were among the great bands of that decade. But Marley was a hit even before white audiences and stoners picked up on what was going on, and stayed real even after they did. This crew (minus Bunny Livingston) is tight-loose from the gun, with impossibly fluid chemistry and a percussive funk sound sweetened only by Wire Lindo’s organ. Marley’s incredible charisma comes through as always, but without guitar solos or the ladies’ gorgeous vocal harmonies the group ‘merely’ sounds like an all-timer party band — their connection to the source still unmediated. Timeless somatic intelligence.
  8. ‘Outside the cars are beeping / Out a song just in your honor / And thought they do not know it / All mankind are now your brothers’ (Regina Spektor, ‘Human of the Year’) A nice idea, maybe the nicest idea — ‘you are not alone’ — and the first episode of the astonishing Mike White/Laura Dern collaboration Enlightened climaxes with Dern striding with rediscovered purpose toward an uncertain fate as Spektor’s voice broadens and grows, her left hand’s own rising stride matches Dern’s; the actress’s face betrays just a moment of uncertainty and then she looks up past the camera into private light, ‘Hallelujah’ sings the young woman and means it, and Laura Dern’s smile is everything and wise like daybreak; she looks beyond us into herself and sees—
  9. Drafts folder. Museum of you, no wall text, each room an unrecoverable moment. Please step this way, here we have an untitled work dated late 2022: ‘Your eyes will be drawn to what represents life for you (though not only that)’ — no punctuation in the original. But we’re not able to be so free, are we, ladies and gentlemen.
  10. DC charging. The reduced range of electric cars relative to gas, and the sparse availability of charging stations in parts of the country, makes travel with an EV weirdly old fashioned. Planning a drive down the coast with friends quickly turns into a search for waystations, like old Pony Express. Puts a certain kind of idiot nerd in mind of Star Wars of course; in that fictional universe the fastest way to send information across the galaxy is by courier, and news spreads slowly. Ugh, why do I know this shit.

Online presence.

I’m waxbanks most everywhere online:

Twitter: @waxbanks.

Mastodon: waxbanks@heads.social.

And here.

I don’t use Facebook.

Some hints for the new or prospective Emacs user.

Emacs is enormously complex — but not complicated. There aren’t a lot of moving parts to learn about, but they interact in fantastically rich and complex ways, and it can be hard to know where to start.

I wish I’d had a ‘here are the standard components of a good Emacs setup’ guide when I started. There are distribution packages that handle such setup for you — Doom, Spacemacs, et al. — but if you actually want to be an expert Emacs user, you’re far better off getting comfortable with vanilla Emacs and then (if ever) switching to a prepackaged distro once you know what you want. The value of Emacs is lost when you hide its inner workings behind such ‘sugar.’

Emacs might be the most impressive single piece of software ever written for personal computing (not counting operating systems etc.). With great power comes great responsibility; here are some tips for absolute beginners, to help you claim them both.

My imagined reader is an interested non-programmer wondering about this weird and supposedly powerful tool. Experienced programmers should rely on other guides to get started, though newbies might learn something.

Learn about M-x

Start Emacs, then type Meta-x — on a Mac this should be Option-x, on Windows Alt-x. The cursor will move to a one-line text area (the ‘minibuffer’) at the bottom of the screen. This is a place to talk directly to Emacs. It awaits your input.

Type kill-emacs, hit Return, and congratulate yourself on a job well done.

Meta-X, abbreviated M-x, is the standard ‘invoke a command’ key combination. After invoking M-x, you type the name of a function — a small piece of computer code defined within Emacs — and hit Return. Emacs tries to run the code.

There’s a lot of functions available. Emacs exposes its guts to the user; that’s the source of its astounding power, the feeling of weird freedom it grants.

But don’t type M-x kill-emacs anymore — C-x C-c will do from now on.

Learn about C-g

Type M-x kill again, but don’t hit Return — we’ve changed our mind, we want to live!

Hit Ctrl-g (abbreviated C-g).

Nice work, you just canceled a command, or more precisely you just executed the keyboard-quit command.

C-g is bound, by default, to the universal ‘cancel and escape’ command in Emacs. Get used to it. (I’ve got that command remapped to the actual Escape key, for reasons.)

Swap Caps Lock and Control

Caps Lock is nigh useless and Emacs will wear out your Ctrl key real fast. Figure out how to swap them on your computer/keyboard, and enjoy knock-on benefits from consigning Caps Lock to the bin where it belongs. Better yet, sell your car and buy a ZSA Moonlander keyboard instead, then set up homerow modifiers. I’m not joking — the ergonomic benefits are huge, beyond even the major ergonomic upgrade from moving to a split/tented configuration. (No one with normal hands/arms should ever use a ‘normal’ keyboard again.)

Learn about online help

Hit C-h, then k. (In emacs documentation this is written ‘C-h k,’ get used to that nomenclature.) You’re now in help mode, specifically executing the describe-key function, and you are prompted to type a key command. Type M-x and look what pops up: the name of the function ‘bound’ to M-x, and a description of that function.

Now hit C-g, or hit Escape three times (these are basically equivalent). The popup help area is dismissed.

Emacs has extraordinarily rich help of this kind: describe-function and describe-face (as in ‘typeface’) and describe-bindings, but also an excellent built-in tutorial and a famous batch of very long manuals whose first editions date back several decades.

Knowing how to get help with and from Emacs will make the experience much much smoother.

Learn about your init files (like .emacs)

You’ll spend a lot of time tweaking your ‘init files’ later — e.g. your .emacs file in your home folder. What you need to know right now is this: they’re not just preference files. Your init files are themselves computer programs, executed line by line every time Emacs launches, written in a language called Emacs Lisp or elisp. To configure Emacs, you’ll write code — arbitrary code — and this is one of the most badass things about Emacs. Normal settings/preferences files specify adverbs, and the software sticks to its standard verbs; your init files let you provide the verbs directly.

See, Emacs is an umbrella for running other pieces of software. It’s like a word processor, but it’s even more like the operating system a word processor runs on.

There are good tutorials online and loads of sample init files to browse, as well as the excellent Emacs Manual.

Learn about buffers, windows, and frames

In Emacs, ‘everything is a buffer.’


  • What you call a ‘window,’ Emacs calls a ‘frame.’
  • What you’d call a ‘pane’ or equivalent — half of a split screen, say — Emacs calls a ‘window.’
  • And a buffer is an area containing text, sometimes — but not always — connected to a file, i.e. ‘visiting’ a file.

When you start up Emacs and get kicked to the *scratch* buffer, you see *scratch*, the minibuffer, and the modeline (which isn’t a buffer, actually; rather it’s a feature of the window it’s in).

When you open the calendar (M-x calendar), up comes a read-only calendar-mode buffer. In calendar-mode — a ‘major mode’ — pressing ‘o’ brings up a prompt to enter a new calendar year, i.e. ‘o’ is bound to a calendar-specific function in that major mode. (Hitting ‘q’ exits the calendar program…but doesn’t kill the buffer, per se. Don’t worry about it.)

Each buffer has a current major-mode, and any number of minor-modes (including global ones which apply to all buffers). Understanding how these work and interact is essential to navigating Emacs, and a huge help when it comes to learning commands and keystrokes.

Learn about modes

Way beyond the scope of this document, but you need to be able to answer a few questions:

  • What major-mode is currently active?
  • What minor-modes is currently active?
  • What’re the keymaps for these modes?
  • How do I change these things?
  • How and when do modes get invoked?

Thinking of a ‘mode’ as a ‘syntax’ will get you a lot of the way there, but not all the way.

Print a movement cheatsheet

I like this one. Getting around Emacs buffers can be weird, and the commands you’re probably used to probably don’t work ‘right.’ Learn the Emacs commands, even if they seem weird or stupid. Weird doesn’t matter if you’re fast and accurate. You should put in the time to master moving quickly around the buffer.

Learn how to execute elisp code anywhere

In the *scratch* buffer that opens when you launch Emacs, type (+ 2 3) and, with the cursor just after the closing parenthesis, type C-x C-e. Check out the minibuffer: it should say ‘5’ and you just executed a bit of Lisp code, which should be easy to decipher even if you’ve never seen it before.

Remember how your init files are computer programs? And now you’ve just run a very short program in the middle of a random textfile. Understand: Emacs gives you access to its own guts, all the time, no matter what you’re doing at the time.

You’ve never had this degree of control over a piece of software before, this level of introspection available. You interact with the program by altering it… If you’re thinking it through, that should be a head trip, the kind that’s good for you.

OK, so much for the ultra-simple stuff. Now for the ‘…but how do I make Emacs more normal?’-type advice.

Select a package manager

Emacs loads extensions or ‘packages’ on launch. You download a package (M-x package-install, then specify name), and load it up. Doing this manually is a pain in the ass — and it makes your setup/config much less portable, since you can sit down at a new computer with the same init files and not have the packages you need to make them work.

Use the use-package or straight.el package-management tools. I use and recommend the former.

Get a narrowing-completion framework

Now we go into the weeds just a little bit.

Every Emacs user relies on a tool like Ido (interactive-do), Ivy, Avy, Helm, et al.: programs that let you narrow a list of choices, select quickly and smoothly, and do smart things with your selection. For instance, you wanna be able to type M-x packinst and have Emacs figure out that you mean package-install — this is ‘fuzzy finding’ and the vanilla alternative is terrible. When you run find-file (C-x C-f, i.e. ‘open’), factory-fresh Emacs behaves like the command line, where you’re expected to type exactly what you mean and get only tab-completion to save trouble. But look up Ivy and Helm online and see what else is possible.

Same with searching in a buffer. Emacs’s built-in incremental search function is good — try C-s * in a buffer full of text — but a jump-to-match tool like *avy is insanely good. Once you’ve tried it, you won’t want to go back to the mundane world.

Get in-buffer completion

Distinct from list-completion is a tool like Company (‘complete anything’), which autosuggests and does code completion. When I’m typing in my personal wiki, if I pause mid-word for a fraction of a second, company’ll pop up an ‘are you trying to link to this file?’ suggestion; I hit return to get a properly formatted link right there, boom. You need a tool in this class, which leapfrogs the whole pack of ‘minimalist text editors’ which so fascinate dabblers and dilettantes. (If you’re after that hipster typing experience, pick a classy font and turn on writeroom-mode or darkroom-mode or olivetti-mode.)

Pick a nice theme

Stock Emacs doesn’t look like anything, unless ‘old’ is a look. But it’s got loads of themes available, some (e.g. Zenburn, Monokai, Gruvbox) really very nice. There are even packages to enable live theme previews. Add commands to your init file to download and enable the theme you like, then…

Sync your init files

Dropbox, Github, Syncthing, whatever. (Github might be best because no overhead: anywhere you have a command line and an Internet connection, you have your files.) Pick a service, sync your init files between machines, and carry your Emacs everywhere you go. You don’t realize how empowering this is until you do it, then you can’t not do it.

Learn about keymaps

There is a logic to Emacs key commands, and there is an implicit keystroke ‘composition’ happening behind the scenes — learn about mode-specific keymaps and the subtle mnemonics will start to reveal themselves. When I’m in markdown-mode, say, C-c C-s is a prefix to nearly 30 markup commands, e.g. C-c C-s b for boldface. The logic is sane: C-c for user/mode commands, C-s for insssert(!), b for bold. On an ergonomic keyboard this is quick and, crucially, discoverable.

And you should install which-key ASAP, to prompt you when you’re not sure of a command.

Emacs’s commands lack the tight focus of vim’s bespoke fingertip-interface, but so does everything; vim is a hyperoptimized, narrowly focused tool, Emacs is a cosmos. Yet once you get that there’s an implicit modality to Emacs’s keyboard UI, you can start tailoring individual shortcuts to your preferences without having to worry about colliding with some other definition. And of course, C-h k is your friend.

Tighten the modeline

Use diminish/delight to remove unwanted minor-modes from your modeline, grab a useful theme (I use spaceline), and get the program working (and looking) exactly the way you want it.

Get markdown-mode or whatever

The target audience for this article probably writes in Markdown a fair amount. Jason Blevins’s markdown-mode is really good; set it up to auto-engage when you open a .md/.mdown file, get comfy with the shortcuts, and you’re just about ready for md-roam (q.v. ‘org-mode’ below)…

Consider evil-mode

One of Emacs’s dirty open secrets is that its keybindings are borderline insane. Even something as simple as ‘C-g to cancel’ — seriously, not just Escape? You have to engage your stupid pinky finger hundreds of extra times a day? (Assuming Ctrl is in its usual place, that is…)

I use Escape in place of C-g, but that doesn’t help with ugliness like ‘M-} to go down a paragraph.’ And I use a frankly expensive Moonlander keyboard that gives me homerow modifiers — but I only have so many fingers and don’t love stretching for chords all the time.

Consider evil-mode, which is not just the best but the best possible vim emulator in the business: a full-on modal editor with all of vim’s famously terse, ergonomic, and composable key commands, atop Emacs’s fantastic extensibility and power (and using elisp for extensions, instead of the widely disliked vimscript). Imagine floating on vim’s interface, and being able to dive into Emacs whenever you like.

If you can get comfortable with modal editing (where hitting Escape pops you out of typing mode into navigation/command mode, freeing up your basic single-stroke alphanumeric keys for stuff other than typing), then evil-mode is one of the hidden killer apps for Emacs — a ‘better vim’ built in to the editor that’s supposed to be vim’s, I dunno, nemesis or something.

Notice some minor tools

Try M-x calendar and M-x calculator. Pretty nifty, eh? And each is just a buffer, meaning all the ways of manipulating a text buffer’s contents are available to you inside these ‘minor’ tools.

Consider org-mode

Holy shit, org-mode.

Along with evil-mode, org-mode is Emacs’s secret weapon — but where evil-mode is there to bridge the vim/Emacs gap to make Emacs a better pure text editor, org-mode is a whole ecosystem of unique software tools. And org-mode is not just Emacs-native but basically Emacs-only. At its heart, it’s a task-manager, outliner, and personal productivity tool; it does things like automatically gather to-do items from every file in a project into an agenda, that kind of thing. It is, and yes I know this sounds crazy, easily the best tool of its kind — get your setup Just Right and it’s the last productivity software you’ll ever need. And it’s deeply integrated into Emacs, down to the bones. Capture a to-do item from inside any buffer. Insert a link to an org outline item (node) into any file, along with dynamic to-do status tracking. Track overall project status in futureproof portable plaintext using tools that automate all the clerical work. Export to a million formats. (People write entire scholarly books in org-mode w/bibtex on the backend and spit out gorgeous LaTeX with a keystroke.)

I use an org extension called org-roam (which began as a Roam Research emulator) to maintain a slowly growing ‘zettelkasten’ or ‘personal knowledge management’ setup. It’s great — but org alone is insanely powerful.1 Indeed, if you’re on the fence about whether to try Emacs at all, org might be what pushes you over to this side. (It’s one of the biggest Emacs/vim differentiators, certainly.)

(Mac users: there are tools to connect org-mode to programs like Drafts, to move you toward ‘ubiquitous capture.’)

Check out magit

Magit is the best frontend for git. There’s just no serious competition in GUI-land or at the command line. You think I’m being hyperbolic, but for God’s sake go have a look.

Check out GNU hyperbole

This one you’ll have to see for yourself: an all-purpose ‘turn textual features into buttons’ machine. You don’t need this software — I don’t use it — but it’s one of the most outlandish achievements in the Emacs sphere, just a terribly impressive and useful piece of software. It’ll change how you think about text editors, which is sort of the point of this whole exercise.

Quality of life

From here you can start making quality-of-life improvements of varying scope:

  • dogears to supplement Emacs’s persistent bookmarks with quick per-session bookmarks
  • marginalia or equivalent (e.g. ivy-rich) to display useful information during interactions w/Emacs
  • org-roam or deft for managing libraries of notes
  • flyspell (with aspell behind it) for strong spellchecking, and flyspell-correct for the right interface for your completion framework
  • avy, because it’s a different paradigm from the ‘standard’ helm/ivy approach and it’ll help wean you off those pesky non-ergonomic arrow keys, which are killing you
  • crux, though you’ll soon end up replacing all its handy constituent functions with features of other packages
  • dirvish for a way better file-nav experience, and either dirvish-side or neotree or equivalent for a folder-hierarchy sidebar
  • all-the-icons for all the icons
  • org-bullets and org-ql and oh there’s so damned much you can do with org-mode
  • yasnippet, which brings snippets over from textmate/sublimetext and makes them way more powerful (you can execute elisp code in a yasnippet)
  • projectile, obviously, for usefully restricting search to a project and integrating nicely with loads of other tools
  • visual-regexp-steroids, if you want realtime previews of regular expression substitutions plus freedom from Emacs’s indescribably irritating regex syntax (all those escaped parentheses!)

Put simply: your first days with Emacs will be interesting but difficult. But one day you’ll find yourself doing something that’s simply impossible with literally any other text editor ever written, and something down deep will awaken — it’s not a text editor, it’s a Lisp runtime that edits text — and you’ll spend the next however many years dealing with, and figuring out for yourself how to take advantage of, that knowledge.

  1. I’m switching away from org-roam for non-org reasons, beyond the scope of this article. 

M-x midlife-mode.

(written about a month ago)

A few months ago I made an abortive attempt to learn vim. Well, one hits midlife and wants to shake things up, it’s natural. But one mustn’t go to extremes.

I quickly realized that while I admire vim’s ergonomically sound modal editing approach — wherein you type awhile in Insert mode, hit Escape to remap all the keys to navigation/manipulation commands, then hit I to return to typing — and while it’s handy to command a tool that’s preinstalled on every unix machine, vim doesn’t feel to me like a step-change in capability. I already have a perfectly good standard-issue text editor (Sublime Text), and my layer-centric keyboard already picks up some of the ergonomic advantages of vim’s modal approach.

So lately I’ve been learning emacs instead. I haven’t used it since college, when I learned Scheme using Edwin (an emacs clone).

I was/am tempted by org-mode, though I have my task- and knowledge-management tools (Things 3, lots of Markdown docs, etc.) and don’t particularly feel like switching (yet?). But after a couple of days I’ve experienced something profound, and suddenly feel like I grok emacs (and realize I never have before).

Here’s the secret, I think: LISP everywhere.

The first time you extend the most basic functioning of the editor by writing/evaluating a line of LISP in whatever textfile you’re working in — the moment you understand what LISP’s ‘”data” is code’ paradigm means not only for configuring but for operating this program in the moment — you realize how limited your idea of a text editor has theretofore been. To my eye, vim is an interesting/impressive computer program, like Sublime Text or VSCode or Xcode, and emacs is a philosophy (as well as an operating system, as the semiserious line goes, lacking only a decent text editor).

(Others seem to experience the same phenomenon from, as it were, the opposite direction, seeing vim as intentionally conceptually unified and emacs as a horrifying mishmash. My response is tentative, and its first draft is: ‘That’s what I said.’)

Today I added a simple markdown-mode-hook to my .emacs file, setting font colours for bold/italic text irrespective of theme (I’m a disgusting ape). Writing LISP to dynamically set the face attributes on load feels fundamentally different from changing a value in a static settings doc; instead of tossing nouns into the verb-machine, you’re altering the machine itself. This is such a profound change that talking about it is embarrassing — so different from the norm that it sounds like conspiracism or religious blather. Maybe real programmers already interact with their tools like this; I’m an utter novice again, could be I’m independently ‘discovering’ the wheel. But this is giving me a vertiginous feeling that I recognize from, say, the first time I created a site in Rails. Categories being overwritten entirely.

Ugh, please ignore me.

I periodically delete my Twitter account.

It’s not a big deal, it’s just that Twitter is bad for humans and I periodically remember that I am one.

At the moment I’m listening to Valium Aggelein while working from home, like so many losers. Everything’s adequate. See you later.

Irreal Life Top Ten, D-Day 2022.

  1. Phish, Spring Tour 2022. I didn’t notice until the eighth and final show of this mini-tour, when they played their second ‘Sigma Oasis’ of the run, that the band was avoiding any song repeats. They do this regularly, most memorably on the 13-show ‘Baker’s Dozen’ stand at Madison Square Garden, such that it’s now almost unremarkable; you can’t imagine how challenging it is to remember 150 songs until you’ve tried learning three — never mind improvising on them, never mind doing so compellingly. Pianist Page McConnell turned 59 a week before the tour started; what other musicians approach 60 in anything remotely approaching Phish’s condition? No other band in American history, in or out of ‘rock and roll,’ has consistently engaged in the kind of musical risk-taking that’s long been Phish’s basic approach to their art. That’s the positive read; the negative is that this was an unexceptional tour in ‘purely musical’ terms, if those exist, on Phish’s terms. The other positive read is that the rare show-opening ‘Character Zero’ from Orange Beach on 5/29 is instantly one of the two or three best versions of that tune, featuring perfectly seamless transitions in and out of an extended open jam, and the other other positive read is that a ‘bad’ Phish show is still one of the best times in American popular music — and they didn’t play any bad shows this tour, not even close. You might not like their music, I get it, but you’re obligated at this point to understand that in 2022 Phish are a miracle.
  2. Mass shootings and matter. We’re at the point where you can accurately predict demographic information about the shooter based solely on whether and how the national ‘news’ outlets cover the event — corporations like CNN are only interested in ‘motive’ when it suits a political agenda they don’t even realize they have, which is only to say that Capital never changes but changes colour. It’s worth asking yourself whether you’re more scared by stories about one lone nutjob going uptown with ten guns, or ten ordinary sociopaths going downtown with one gun each. It’s worth asking why.
  3. ‘AI alignment risk.’ Doomsday cults, like bugs in open-source software, don’t go away just because they’re publicized. Sane people have to fix them. Because the real risk from AI, already being realized (cf. your Twitter feed), seems to be the slow ruin of functional if inefficient social controls, it’s a lot more satisfying for socially disengaged pseuds who did better in Math class than English class to spin nerdfic about murderous superintelligences than to, say, reckon with the real (social) world, its boring politics and unmanageable actual people. See also ‘Effective Altruism,’ a form of fantasy football for people too annoying to play D&D with.
  4. 16″ Macbook Pro. After using a 15″ Retina model at home for years, I got a 16″ lappy from work — last year’s M1 (‘Apple Silicon’) model. This laptop is a proper chonky boi as the awful wankers say, unexpectedly bulky: nearly a pound heavier than the 15″ machine I already thought was unwieldy at just 4lbs. What does that weight buy, though, in addition to the massive gorgeous screen? It is blinding fast and gets wild battery life…not to mention the eerie silence, which I noticed because I noticed I wasn’t noticing fan noise. I’m reminded of Steve Jobs’s weary, shrugging insistence, when questioned about the ‘Apple premium’ at a conference: ‘We don’t ship junk.’ A difficult thing to hold onto, in a world where junk is what everyone’s used to.
  5. Thunder. A Fortnite streamer on Youtube, presumably an intolerable late teenager or early 20something. When he teams up with his buddies to play group games he has no charisma, nothing to say, no evident sense of humour; his solo gameplay videos are mercifully silent. But he plays like a fucking demon, a goddamn avatar of death — no gimmicks or trick shots, no comedy, no leaning on dull rote strategy, just the lunatic intensity of a boy in his sensory-integrative prime, perfectly in command of a complex instrument and manifestly addicted to the headlong rush of virtual motion. This kid plays Fortnite like pure poetry; it’s hard to imagine anyone being consistently better. Yet in the competitive scene he appears to be a nonentity — which for me is like being awed by an NBA player and then finding out there’s a human city somewhere, deep in some jungle, where everyone’s twelve feet tall. Put it this way, I check Youtube every day just to find out whether Thunder has posted a gameplay video that day. Best of all: the (rare) videos where he comes in 2nd or 3rd out of 100, and posts the clip anyway.
  6. Sweeney Todd. My son can’t stop listening to the beloved 2005 small-stage Broadway revival with Cerveris and LuPone, neither of whom could do an English accent to save a dying relative — LuPone’s is fucking atrocious, embarrassing, which colours the whole cast album for me (same with Dinklage’s mongrel accent as Tyrion Lannister — though he’s an immeasurably better actor in the role of a lifetime). The leads are very good overall, as they’d better be, and Sondheim’s fantastically complex score is the peak of Broadway composition. But there’s something irritating about the production, perhaps linked to the brilliant and daft cast-as-orchestra staging — a weirdly clumsy artificiality of phrasing, e.g. Anthony’s seemingly arbitrary accents during ‘Johanna.’ I bet it was hell to play. The best single performance of the 2005 revival might be Donna Lynne Champlin as Pirelli; she just kills it on her big number, plays flute and accordion too(!). Alas, the cast album suffers from ‘nearby movie’ syndrome: Tim Burton’s film (w/Depp, Rickman, Helena Bonham Carter, and Sacha Baron Cohen as Pirelli) is musically far weaker — marred by ham-handed score redactions and simplifications, e.g. goodbye to Sondheim’s infernal dissonances in ‘A Little Priest’ — but beautifully acted by expert screen performers free to play to the camera and mic instead of the back row. The 2005 recording has its sublime high points (the quartet!) but it’s too wired or something. It’s come to sound…pleased with itself, with its cleverness? Somehow, this all-time classic production lost me.
  7. Renewal. We got an email from The Economist saying the cost of our 12-week autorenewing subscription was going up to $80 — I’ll let you do the annual-cost math on that. Lunacy. Three-year subscriptions cost $210 annually, a savings of 40%. I completely forgot that we were on the ‘gullible idiots who mistake hesitancy for caution’ plan, pissing away money for several years now. Of course, because the whole mad concept of ‘money’ is just a plaque in my brain, I immediately started thinking of ways to piss away the savings on something else. Can’t wait.
  8. Star Wars novels. You have to actually try reading them to remember what you’d tried to forget, all those years ago: they’re almost all just terrible. What a thinly, lazily imagined universe. What a waste of story. The haunting Youtube video ‘Obi-Wan Has PTSD’ is better than any Star Wars novel except maybe Timothy Zahn’s breakthrough Thrawn trilogy — and that’s grading generously.
  9. After the moonlanding. A little more than a month into the grand split/tented/mechanical/programmable keyboard experiment, the haunting realization that my layout — designed for efficiency and sustainability — is a grotesque misshapen waste, with an underutilized left hand on several layers and a couple of dead keys on the primary layer. Right there! Embarrassing, amateur-hour stuff. Why did I even go to college, why do I even breathe.
  10. Community, Season Six. Years 2 and 3 of Dan Harmon’s show were one long delirious dissonant crescendo, a work of sustained self-lacerating genius — one of the most complexly emotionally intelligent shows in TV history. But Harmon was an abusive alcoholic pill addict and an asshole, so they fired him. I suspect it saved him creatively and personally. He went off to do Harmontown, got unhappily married, and came back to do the excellent but uneven Season 5. Then it was off to Yahoo TV or some bullshit for the beautiful Season 6 — stretches of which are the deepest, strangest, darkest, wisest work of Community‘s whole run, culminating in the simple perfection of the finale, one of TV’s surest landings, a rich (self-)reflection on relinquishing and departure more mature than fans of Harmon’s earlier work might’ve thought possible. Harmon’s writing, here and on the impossibly complex and demanding Rick & Morty, deserves not just ‘an Emmy’ but all the Emmys — but so does his heartbreaking performance of Community‘s final monologue, which can stand with The Singing Detective‘s word game or the eulogy for Wild Bill on Deadwood: the highest compliment I can give. I expected to enjoy (again) this valedictory season; I didn’t expect to end up thinking it was some of Harmon’s best work.

After the Moonlanding.

Note: This meandering, at times uncomfortably personal article overlaps in places with the much shorter, more straightforward Tips for creating a Moonlander keyboard layout post. If you just want advice on getting started with a Moonlander, go read that one. If you’re on the fence about trying one, try this:

I’ve been using a ZSA Moonlander keyboard as my ‘daily driver’ since a couple of days after it arrived in the mail — what, six weeks ago? I love working with it. Like my Baltz and Karas Kustoms pens, Hobonichi Techno planner, and Apple Airpods Max headphones, the Moonlander affords me the unique sensual/cognitive pleasure of using a thoughtfully designed tool that’s better at its task than anything I could have imagined. The concept of ‘a pen that’s a joy to write with’ simply didn’t exist for me before I was given the Baltz; now I have a handful of gorgeous pens and writing by hand is an opportunity to experience a tiny sort of music. The pages of the Hobonichi Techo aren’t just thin and nice to write on, they’re impossibly thin and unspeakably nice to write on. The Airpods Max’s built-in Transparency Mode isn’t just a good idea, it’s a minor miracle — as is their effortless, automatic switching between Apple devices; they provide beautiful solutions to what I hadn’t even realized were problems.

The Moonlander is like that. It is unnecessary, and it is incredible.

The first computer I used was probably a Commodore 64 at my elementary School in the mid/late-80s. I played a lot of Zork in the late 80s, and consequently became a fast hunt’n’peck typist in elementary school. In middle/high school we had a typing class, where I learned to touch-type with high accuracy at 80+ wpm. In college I spent a hell of a lot of time on my computer, and was up above 100 wpm by the time I wrote my Masters thesis. All of which is to say, I’ve beeen typing fast for a long time.

Recently I topped out at 140 wpm and 98% accuracy on a split/tented mechanical keyboard (the Kinesis Freestyle Edge RGB, my previous ‘daily driver’ and quite a fine piece of ordinary equipment). For a while I was using a really serious tenting angle — 45° or so. Challenging to learn but potentially excellent if you can solve certain setup problems,1 and I had.

All of which is to say: until a month ago I had a decent setup at home, I was an expert user of my writing/typing tools, and strictly speaking, I didn’t need a new keyboard, much less a Luxury Keyboard.

Well-made tools tend to be expensive

Permit me to talk briefly about money, before we talk about homerow modifiers.

The Apple Airpods Max are probably the best noise-canceling nonprofessional headphones you can buy, but they’re $500. My Baltz pen was a Christmas gift, from their first Kickstarter — $200. For a goddamn pen! A Hobonichi Techno A6 planner runs, what, $40? $50? And until recently you had to have it shipped from Japan.

The ZSA Moonlander keyboard costs about $350 all told. That’s an enormous amount of money — nearly as much as a cheap iPad, if I remember correctly.

When I was in elementary school we bought an Apple IIgs with 512kb of RAM, and it was the only best-of-its-kind item in our home — a joy to use; everything else was Good Enough for Now. In middle/high school money was really tight, and our shopping got even stingier. For a long time I understood belt-tightening to be not only necessary but morally correct behaviour, less about saving for the future (which might not happen, and anyway it’d take a miracle to save enoough) than about denying the present: you resign yourself to never owning anything really well made, and to replacing your junk painfully often; you console yourself with the idea that you did the Virtuous Thing, always and only optimizing for ‘making it through the month’ even when a longer play is possible. There’s a sad sort of ‘honour’ in being downtrodden in this way, with no good choices. You adapt to it, and start to think it’s inevitable if not natural.

This is poverty logic, though at the time I didn’t understand that.

Now my wife and I can afford well made things. In our early 40s we’ve passed through a socioeconomic phase-boundary or thermocline: on one side, the cycle of buying shitty things to replace the shitty things that wore out too soon; on this side, a quite different cycle of saving in the long term because you can afford to buy good things when you need them. We’ve moved, in other words, from constantly spending in a trickle punctuated by larger catch-up expenses, to spending in big but rare bursts. The amortized cost of sane buying at ‘higher prices’ ends up lower, if you put some thought into it, than the cheap’n’cheerful ‘low cost’ solution.

Put another way: if you walk through three pairs of Payless shoes a year, you’re spending more than if you buy a decent pair that lasts a couple of years. Same for buying a crap laptop instead of a Macbook, etc. This is ‘privilege’ and luck among other things, and it’s one of many reasons why the rich get richer while everyone else gets poorer. The system is built to reward money with more money.

A Moonlander keyboard is designed to be a forever device, one that eliminates your all your typing-related problems all at once, even the ones you don’t know you have. It is never bad; everything about it is qualitatively better than what you’re almost certainly just enduring now. After the first two weeks of adapting to the many strange things about it, it’s revealed as obviously correct. Are there better keyboards? Depends on your needs. Could be the intense contours of a Kinesis Advantage2 are right for you, etc. For me, the Moonlander is perfect.

So I sit down to use a perfect device every day, and anticipate doing so every day for at least a decade. For that, $350 is a steal.

Steve Jobs used to describe the first Mac as ‘insanely great.’ I choose to take that to mean: good in ways that defy sense; overflowing the boundaries of the comfortable and familiar. In retrospect, not only obvious but inevitable. A tool that seems ‘magical’ because its makers rejected convention, and so opened up new avenues of possibility. We might say: ‘uncompromising.’ It takes a while for such tools to become affordable for people on both sides of the phase-boundary, that’s one way they keep you in your place. A good keyboard is already worth it.

All of which is to say: if it’s even occurred to you to think about keyboard ergonomics, then you would be a fool not to let your money solve this problem.

Ordinary limits

What’s invisibly bad about ordinary keyboards?

  • Non-split, non-tented (wrist problems). Again, I’m not going to sell you on this, which I now consider a nonnegotiable feature of any keyboard I’ll use in future. (My company paid for the Freestyle Edge, and if I had a software engineer job instead of a tech writer one I’d’ve asked to be reimbursed for the Moonlander — though I do want to own one outright.) Having a single typing device that you have to contort your arms/wrists/hands to use is an ergonomic disaster and you owe it to yourself to switch.
  • Pinky work. On an ordinary keyboard, Enter/Return and Backspace/Delete are right-pinky keys. The left pinky deals with Tab and Escape — and both Shift keys are for pinkies as well. But all these keys involve a shift/stretch: either splaying the hand, rolling the wrist, shifting the arm, or (if you’re mad) actually just stretching out your poor pinky finger. This is lunacy. Your pinky is terrible at these tasks, and even if it weren’t slow it’d be under unnecessary strain.
  • Stretching for modifiers. If you’re like me, you’re constantly hitting Cmd+S to save, Cmd+Z to undo, the various Cut/Copy/Paste commands… Bad enough on a Mac, where Cmd is largely a thumb/index key but on the bottom row; much worse on a Windows/UNIX machine, with the Ctrl key out at the edges of the bottom row. More pinky work. Typical users go through contortions to use these keys. As above, eventually muscle memory makes up for the extra stretching time, but the ergonomic cost is real.
  • Numbers/symbols. Be honest: have you memorized the layout of the number-row symbols? At this point in history you should know that Shift+2 yields the @ symbol; can you hit it without looking? Most can’t — partly because the number row is a two-key stretch from the homerow, which leads to some hand-placement imprecision, and partly because of the next issue.
  • Asymmetry and stagger. Maybe you’ve notice that the rows on a typical keyboard are staggered. That’s a weird historical artifact but you can live with it, obviously. But have you noticed that the stagger is goddamn asymmetrical. In other words: the qwerty row is shifted way left of the homerow, so the left index finger has a short reach to hit T while the right index finger goes much further to land full on the Y key. Never mind why things are this way; think about what it means for touch-typing numbers, and even the zxcv (bottom) row. Then consider: historical typewriter-related questions aside, if staggered rows were good in themselves, why can’t you buy a staggered numpad?
  • Distant arrows. I can’t be unusual in needing to use my arrow keys all the time, all the time. The fact that I need(ed) to reach for the most remote part of my keyboard to navigate through a large piece of text — whether hunting Home/End, PageDn/PageUp, or the arrows themselves — imposes a small but nonnegligible cognitive tax, not to mention slowing my hands themselves. You can find those keys by location in physical space, sure; you can even take your eyes off the screen for a moment if you need to, no harm in it. But what if they were already under your fingers the whole time? What if all arrowkey usage was lightning-quick mode-switching, like in vim?
  • Arbitrary Shift+ assignments. It makes sense, maybe, that square brackets and curly braces share keys. (For non-programmers, it makes no sense that curly braces are even available as first-class characters rather than special chorded ones, oh well.) But why isn’t there a dedicated open/closed parentheses key for prose writers? Why are parentheses way off at top right? Why must you press Shift for both? In God’s name, why are relatively frequently used symbols like % and $ still hidden up in the number row?
  • Every key does only one thing. This is the essential limitation of the standard keyboard: the number of single-stroke commands is limited by the number of physical keys. asdfjkl; occupy billion-dollar real estate beneath your resting fingertips, and in a standard setup those keys serve one purpose each (plus who needs ‘k’ that often?); to get more out of them you have to reach for modifier keys, or foot pedals if you’re one of Those Fascinating People. It needn’t be this way. The keyboard isn’t just a bank of levers now; like the piano,2 it can benefit from smartening up.

Dvorak, Colemak, etc.

There are non-QWERTY layouts, and I’m sold on their advantages. QWERTY is an artifact of the mechanical-typewriter era, I know the history, etc. But at this point I’m not going to switch, and it’s extremely unlikely that you are, either — QWERTY is a common physical device-language, and several mnemonics are built around it (e.g. cut/copy/paste are all adjacent qwerty keystrokes). If you’re serious about absolutely minimizing your finger travel while typing, lemme propose that (1) your energy might be better spent elsewise, finger travel isn’t the only thing that matters, and (2) you probably don’t need this blogpost.

Bring the keys to you

The Moonlander’s marquee features, as I see them:

  • Columnar layout. It’s confusing, then good, then intuitive. (It’s not a strictly ‘ortholinear’ layout — the columns are vertically staggered to account for finger length. This is good, though it looks silly.
  • Split/tented. Yup.
  • Thumb clusters. You have no idea how good these can be until you try them.
  • Extreme programmability. This is the big deal.

One of the mantras of the ergonomic-keyboard community is: Don’t reach for the keys, bring the keys to you. With a programmable keyboard, you can relocate important functions within the 40-50 most commonly used keys and move little-used commands to the fringes, or to another layer. You can implement redundancies (e.g. additional Shift keys to reduce pinky stretching), combine complex chords (e.g. Cmd+Ctrl+Shift) into single keys, and group linked functions (e.g. open and close paren) together instead of scattering them. The goal is ergonomic sanity and sustainability, which is partly ‘efficiency’ and partly comfort. In an ideal world, your fingers would never have to leave the home row; this can be the next best thing.

Note that the beloved/reviled text editor vim is built around this principle: you can pop out of typing mode into navigation mode and the right homerow keys turn into arrow keys instead of letters. Hit space in nav mode, though, and you can start typing an extended command. Escape always takes you to Normal (‘do stuff other than typing’) mode; hit ‘i’ and you go right back into inserting text. Expert vim users are terrifyingly fast at navigating files and manipulating pieces of text/code. A programmable keyboard brings some of the power of that modal editor into systemwide usage. Again, the goal is to fit the work to the body — to bring commands to your hands.

Note that ZSA makes a crafty little 47-key keyboard called the Planck EZ, which also uses ZSA’s brilliant Oryx configurator. It is certainly a neat idea — its sheer portability is impressive, and the idea of ZSA’s fine build quality in a tiny board (with full-sized keys) is appealing, in an ‘expensive novelty’ way. But you absolutely should not be using something like the Planck for your ‘daily driver.’ The keyboard you spend most of your time using should be good for your body and the Planck, its many merits aside, simply isn’t. Your wrists deserve better.

How I’m doing it

My current Moonlander layout tries to take advantage of vim-like modal commands, and includes some major usability improvements over standard keyboard layout.

  1. Homerow modifiers. My keyboard has four Command keys, four Option, four Control, and (until I winnow my homerow down to what works best) six Shift keys. This is ludicrous, except it’s not: common commands like Cmd+S for Save are now entirely homerow chords, and my strong/fast index finger is enlisted to replace my weak/slow pinky for my most common key combinations.
  2. Enter, Esc, Space, and Backspace to the thumb clusters. Spacebar on the thumb makes intuitive sense, though I’d previously trained myself to hit Space with both thumbs so that took some work; Escape on the Moonlander’s infamous Big Red Button(s) is logical. It even looks like an Escape key. And hitting Enter with your thumb seems sensible, right? It’s not where you’d expect, but given the lack of a dedicated Enter key at far right, you’ve got to put that key somewhere accessible, ideally somewhere visually distinctive. You don’t hit Enter often enough to want it in the main four-finger body of keys, but it should obviously be on the main layer. So: right thumb. And Backspace for the left thumb is easily the most challenging part of the whole layout for me — yet it’s infinitely preferable to the whole-hand stretch for the top right, once you stop stumbling over it mentally. (Honestly, I’m thinking about replacing that key with Opt+Backspace, but let’s leave that aside.)
  3. Arrow layer. Oh, baby. This is the other trickiest part of switching to this keyboard — complicated enough to merit its own section below.
  4. Number pad. It turns out — and I did not expect this — that I can touch-type the number pad very quickly. Probably a combination of Nethack, old-school calculators, and telephones. At any rate, I hit the ‘Layer 3’ key with my left thumb and there’s a number pad directly beneath my fingertips, including arithmetic functions. This feature is always one of two things: totally irrelevant, or indisipensable.
  5. Square brackets to the right thumb. A bit random, you might think — but Cmd+[ is the Back button in a web browser, and Cmd+Shift+] is a standard ‘move to the next tab’ command. My thumbs naturally curl to the space between the thumb clusters and the left Cmd/[ keys, so one of my most commonly used browser/window nav commands is just right there. That might sound ‘handy’ to you, or ‘neat,’ but once you build muscle memory around it, it is revealed as Strictly Better than the previous setup. Honestly, I’ve forgotten where the square brackets are on a normal keyboard. They make sense where I’ve got them.
  6. Open/closed paren together. To make this work, you employ the Moonlander’s — or rather, the QMK firmware’s — astonishing, retrospectively obvious/inevitable quadruple-function keys, known as ‘tap dance.’ Tap the paren key and get (, double-tap it and get ). This takes getting used to, particularly the timing/speed issues — you end up with some accidental (( entries before you get fast enough. But once it’s in your hands, it’s simply strictly preferable to the old setup, which had you reaching for Shift+9 and Shift+0…
  7. Lights. Obviously the layers are indicated w/different lighting schemes — but crucially, individual keys are lit up in their own colours. You start out thinking this is charming but a bit ‘extra,’ as they say, and then for a while you rely on it…not least to indicate visually which ‘mode’ the keyboard is in. (I’ve done a lot of accidental arrowing-about, thinking I was in nav-mode on Layer 1 instead of insert-mode on Layer 0.)

The arrow layer

My arrow-key setup is wild, and it’s the one part of the setup that’s been slow to pay off — ergonomically it’s an instant win, and I’m even faster arrowing around on that inverted-T (like WASD but on the other side) than I was on regular arrow keys, because of my wrist angle. But key combinations are a hassle, because I’m trying to do too many new things at once, and the only solution to that is time and muscle memory (and probably a practice program).

My most frequently used arrow-key combinations are:

  • Opt+Left/Right. Move to the next word-boundary.
  • Opt+Up/Down. Move to the next paragraph.
  • Cmd+Up/Down. Move to the top/bottom of the page or document. In the Finder, pop up and down one level on the directory tree.
  • Shift+various. The hard part: select one of the above three ranges of text.
  • Ctrl+Left/Right. Irritatingly, this is the ‘swipe’ maneuver to move between desktops and fullscreen applications. Right now this chord is S+leftthumb+L, which isn’t bad but I have no muscle memory at all. The trouble here is that either I don’t need this command or I need it frequently, e.g. when moving between an essay and a browser on a single screen.

Note: I use Opt+Backspace a lot, which deletes a word at a time — indeed I normally use this in place of plain Backspace, since I type quickly enough that it’s usually worth it for me to shitcan an entire word and retype it rather than delete one character at a time. Right now this has a nice convenient chord: K (i.e. Option)+leftthumb, basically just striking resting-position keys though the thumb cluster isn’t strictly the ‘homerow.’ There’s a part of me that wonders if I shouldn’t remap Backspace to Opt+Backspace…

The current solution I’ve hit on is groovy — essentially a numpad of navigation commands, with Home/End in a sane place, Opt+Up/Down as single-stroke commands, Opt+Right/Left the same, PgUp in the 9 spot, and PgDn mapped to ‘,’ — but having these oft-used commands on a ‘separate’ layer means mentally remapping one of the most basic elements of my computer interaction model. I’ve had arrow keys in basically the same spot for 35 years! Switching up is very difficult.

This is basically equivalent to learning vim’s interaction model and nav commands — in my case, at the decreasingly neuroplastic age of 43 — but for the entire system, every app, with no way back to the ancient conventions. ‘Tricky.’

Yet in the long run, I’m confident it will be worth it. And here’s why: this mental remapping is also reinforcing little-used commands that are enormously handy in my daily work, like trusty Ctrl+A and Ctrl+E (goto beginning/end of line). With homerow modifiers, Ctrl+A turns into L+A. Think about that for a second, will you? And L+E to hop to the end of the line. Instead of visualizing a layer, which I currently very slowly do, I can be hopping around lines/paragraphs by remembering simple two-letter chords. Now add the semicolon key, which doubles as Shift when held, and ‘Select the paragraph up to the caret’ is L;+A. When I remember to use it, that’s just rad.

Adapting to the new world

How slow is the learning process?

After a month or so, I’m back up above 100 wpm with ~95% accuracy. I’m not quite where I was — the brain/screen connection is no longer seamless, which has definitely affected my productivity and even the nature of my writing work — but I’m back to top-2% typing speeds, i.e. I need to be grateful to have regained expert facility so quickly and I need to practice systematically. When my son practices piano, I remind him that playing scales is boring as hell but you have to do them, have to, because (1) all they take is time, and (2) they make it possible to play actually interesting music without worrying about those low-level mechanics. And the fact is, just playing a passage over and over again won’t do the trick. Instrumentalists all know this: you have to break it down, return to the boring atomic elements. That’s the discipline.

I’ve been a fast typist so long that I’ve forgotten that it ever took discipline. Moving to sane, sound ergonomics and sustainable practices is like…well, it’s like fixing a bad embouchure. You’ve been routing around your own bad habits, and becoming aware of them and deliberately correcting them is worse in the short term — then in the long term you can do things you had convinced yourself were simply impossible. After a while, the ‘impossible’ becomes natural.

But it’s slow, yeah. Compared to some other things anyway.

The first couple weeks were rough. My first extended writing sessions after getting the Moonlander, I packed it away in its (very groovy) neoprene travel case and regressed to the Freestyle Edge for a few hours. My hands were flying — man, it felt liberating. Now I’m experiencing long moments of peak dexterity using this new tool. It’s not quite the same, it doesn’t yet feel like going home, but I’m learning not to misread my intimate familiarity with the old weird staggered single-layer qwerty setup as healthy or preferable.

And honestly, every time I pick up a stupid conventional keyboard I want to tear my hear out — they’re just full of terrible goddamn ideas.

Shoutout: ZSA’s Oryx configuration software has made adapting much much easier than it might be — it’s trivial to swap/remap keys, flash the keyboard firmware, and see how the new layout works. Its search feature, which lets you browse other Moonlander users’ publicly shared layouts, is a great way to comparison shop. Indeed that’s the killer app — and it better be, because the default Moonlander layout is notoriously terrible. My own layout started out as a clone of some other Mac user’s vim-inspired setup; I’m still paring away the unnecessaries, e.g. the mouse-emulator buttons on my Media layer.

OK, enough of this.

  1. I won’t try to sell you on split/tented keyboards; either you understand that they’re straightforwardly better for touch-typing ergonomics or you don’t. If you type a lot and have pain in your neck and upper back, just buy one. 
  2. Acoustic piano is irreplaceable, but for everything else there’s…everything else.