Building Emacs on OS X using homebrew

I’ve recently switched to using Homebrew as my source for Emacs on OS X  after seeing this blog post by Philip Ingram.

It’s a simple way to install a current Emacs once or twice a year. I don’t use beta versions or other pre-release versions on “productivity” machines, only released versions. My editor is too important a tool for me to risk using pre-release versions.

Scheduling WordPress posts with org2blog

Another metablogging post, but this may come in handy for people who like to produce blog posts in bulk and schedule them for publication in WordPress at a later date.

In my case, my ability to find time to blog is directly correlated to my workload in my day job. That’s why you see regular gaps in my posting that may last for a few weeks to a month or two.

To counteract this, I try to write multiple blog posts in one sitting when I’ve got both the time and am inspired to write, then schedule them such that WordPress pushes them out automatically over the next few days or weeks. My normal workflow for this was:

  • Write post in org2blog
  • Publish post to WordPress, adjust the publication date
  • Edit the post in org2blog again, push in and then remember to tweak the publication date because org2blog overwrote the publication date

The last two steps of course are unnecessary. See the #+DATE: line in the first line of the screenshot?

org2blog highlighted date entry
Date section in an org2blog post during editing

When you create a new blog post using org2blog/wp-new-entry, just edit the date that org2blog automatically inserts to your desired post schedule and the setting will carry over into WordPress. Easy if you know how.

TLS issues with Emacs and Git for Windows

I’ve recently blogged about adding TLS support to Emacs 24.5 on Windows and improving git performance on Windows by installing an alternative git command line client. The reason I ended up investigating how to add SSL and TLS support to Emacs is that when I originally upgraded from the official git Windows client to the Git for Windows build, I ended up with non-working TLS support in Emacs.

The TLS issues only occur if you tell the git installer to add git and all supporting Unix utilities to the path, which is not the default setting for a git installation on Windows.

However if you do install git with this setting, Emacs ends up finding the openssl libraries on the path. This works fine with the older versions packaged with the installer from git-scm.com but results in TLS issues with SSL/TLS connections failing with the newer binaries shipped with Git for Windows. I didn’t dig deeper into why I was seeing the issue as I was in a hurry to get Emacs working again, so I looked for the quickest way to resolve it.

tl;dr – if you’re running into TLS issues with Emacs on Windows and just installed Git for Windows, follow the instructions in Adding TLS Support to Emacs 24.5 on Windows to get SSL/TLS connection from inside Emacs working again.

Adding TLS support to Emacs 24.5 on Windows

The Windows build of Emacs 24.5 doesn’t ship with SSL and TLS support out of the box. Normally that’s not that much of a problem until you are trying to access marmalade-repo or have org2blog talk to your own blog via SSL/TLS.

Adding SSL and TLS support to the Windows builds of Emacs is easy. SSL/TLS support in the official Emacs build for Windows isn’t enabled because it doesn’t ship with the necessary support libraries, but you can get pre-built binaries from the ezwinports project on Sourceforge. Installation is simple – grab the desired binaries (I used gnutls, but there’s also an older openssl build available) and extract them into the root directory of your Emacs install. The directory layout is the same and mimics the standard Unix directory layout so everything ends up in the correct place.

After the next restart of Emacs, a quick

M-: (gnutls-available-p)

should result in ‘t’, showing you that Emacs has found the gnutls binaries. All of a sudden, org2blog can talk to my blog again and I’m finally set up the same way I am on the other OSs I use.

ezwinports has a whole bunch of other useful libraries available as well, like libpng, so check it out.

One caveat – the ezwinports libraries are 32 bit libraries so they work fine with the official 32 bit build of Emacs for Windows, but you need to look into alternatives if you use a 64 bit build.

Setting up Emacs spell checking on OS X

As I mentioned in yesterday’s post, I’m trying to improve my blogging workflow by using org2blog to draft my posts before pushing them to my WordPress blog. When I posted yesterday I had the basic workflow going, could edit posts in Emacs, save them, update drafts and push them to WordPress. The last piece that was missing was getting spell checking to work.

I’ve actually never spent much time thinking about spell checkers until I discovered that OS X doesn’t come with a spell checker that ispell recognises. A little research led me to Joel Kuiper’s blog post on spell checking in Emacs on Mac OS X. I decided to install Hunspell as it seemed to be modern, supported and able to do the job. Plus, it’s available via Homebrew which I’m already using to install other Unix software on my OS X machine. A quick

brew install hunspell

followed by me grabbing the German and English dictionaries from OpenOffice.org and I was in the spelling business. Just make sure that you unzip the .oxt files containing the dictionaries, copy/move the .dic and .aff files into either ~/Library/Spelling or /Library/Spelling (I prefer the first one) and run hunspell -D to check that it’s picking up the files. Oh, and don’t forget to set up soft links from default.dic and default.aff to your default language’s dictionary files.

Now I should be able run M-x flyspell-mode and we’re in business, correct? Only we weren’t, because my Emacs setup couldn’t find hunspell. Oops. Turns out I had neglected to add the Homebrew installation directory to the exec-path, with predictable results. The following code in my .emacs fixes that:

;; On OS X/Darwin, make sure we add the path to the homebrew installs
(when (string-equal system-type "darwin")
  (setq exec-path (append exec-path '("/usr/local/bin"))))

With the above in place and Emacs being able to find the hunspell executable, it was time to add the following code to my .emacs to ensure that ispell and flyspell use hunspell if it’s available:

(when (executable-find "hunspell")
  (setq-default ispell-program-name "hunspell")
  (setq ispell-really-hunspell t))

Now flyspell-mode is happily running using Hunspell at it’s time to crack open an adult beverage.

Improving my blogging workflow using Emacs (of course)

I try not to post too many metablogging posts. Other people do it better and I’m trying to focus on journalling what I learn as a software engineer and manager, not what tools I use for blogging. However after losing another post to WordPress’s built-in editor I decided Something Must Be Done. I think this is only the second post I lost, but it’s a fairly regular occurrence for a journalist friend of mine and I really don’t have that much time to retype blog entries that ended up in Bit Nirvana.

My first attempt was to resurrect the weblogger-mode setup I used to have a while ago but after switching the admin interface on my WordPress install to https, I couldn’t quite get it to work again. Plus it was a bit of a half hearted attempt as I never quite warmed to this mode in the first place. It’s actually quite odd as I tend to use gnus semi-regularly and the interface is very similar, but it never quite clicked for me for writing blog posts.

If I would exclusively blog on Windows, I’d just use Windows Live Writer, but as I switch between Windows, OS X, Linux and FreeBSD depending on which machine I’m on, Windows only software just isn’t going to cut it.

As everybody raves about org-mode (which I admittedly have never used) I decided to give org2blog a chance. It’s probably not the smartest idea to try to learn too many new tools at the same time but at least Emacs doesn’t occasionally eat my scribblings. Plus, I’ve started using Jekyll for another one of my experimental blogs, so using org mode and having they ability to publish to a Jekyll blog is also very useful.

So far I’ve got the basics up and running and the main blog configured. I’m using visual-line-mode to do automatic line wrapping and now will have to set up flyspell on the machines that haven’t got it installed yet so I can have basic spell checking.

So far, the basic workflow I’m planning is:

  • Sketch the post(s) and write the drafts in Emacs in the comforts of my local machine
  • Publish them as drafts to my standalone WordPress install
  • Do the final editing and spill chucking in WordPress
  • Ignore or heed the recommendations from the WordPress SEO plugin. That’ll be mostly ignore, then
  • Schedule the final publishing on the WordPress admin console

Hopefully that should work better than the “log into WordPress and start typing” approach I’ve used so far.

Using ELPA with pinned packages in GNU Emacs 24.4

Yes, I promise I’ll shut up about Emacs package management via ELPA any minute now.

Based on the feedback I had on my last post about using a combination of melpa and melpa-stable, I looked into using pinned packages via the package-pinned-packages variable that’s new in Emacs 24.4’s package.el. I couldn’t find any simple examples on how to use it, but a quick look at the source code and some playing around in ielm got me there. Well, after I finally upgraded to Emacs 24.4 on my main machine.

Using pinned packages via package-pinned-packages is actually pretty simple. First, you need a list of ELPA package archives to pull packages from. If you’re already using ELPA, you most likely have package-archives set up already. Second, you need to create the list of pinned packages. For me that was the majority of the work and it required a few round trips through the *Packages* buffer. It would have been smarter to uninstall all the base packages, run list-packages once and note which package should be installed from which archive instead of relying on my famously selective memory. Don’t do what I did, just do it once. Either way, I got there. Eventually.

Once you have both variables set up, you’re left with a massively simplified loop that really just takes a list of packages and calls package-install on them if they’re not already present in the system.

For those who like me learn better by looking at code but like me couldn’t find an example on how to use package-pinned-packages, here’s the updated code. It’s Emacs 24.4 only, partially for clarity and partially because I don’t need to support anything older than 24.4 in my .emacs anymore.

 
(require 'package)

(when (>= emacs-major-version 24)
  (setq package-archives '(("ELPA" . "http://tromey.com/elpa/")
                           ("gnu" . "http://elpa.gnu.org/packages/")
                           ("melpa" . "http://melpa.org/packages/"<span">)
                           ("melpa-stable" . "http://stable.melpa.org/packages/")
                           ("marmalade" . "http://marmalade-repo.org/packages/")
                           )))

;; Check if we're on Emacs 24.4 or newer, if so, use the pinned package feature
(when (boundp 'package-pinned-packages)
  (setq package-pinned-packages
                '((bm                 . "marmalade")
                  (smex               . "melpa-stable")
                  (zenburn-theme      . "melpa-stable")
                  (anti-zenburn-theme . "melpa-stable")
                  (zen-and-art-theme  . "marmalade")
                  (cider              . "melpa-stable")
                  (clojure-mode       . "melpa-stable")
                  (htmlize            . "marmalade")
                  (rainbow-delimiters . "melpa-stable")
                  ;; "unstable" package
                  (icicles            . "melpa"))))

(package-initialize t)

(defun install-required-packages (package-list)
  (when (>= emacs-major-version 24)
    (package-refresh-contents)
    (mapc (lambda (package)
            (unless (require package nil t)
              (package-install package)))
          package-list)))

(setq required-package-list '(bm icicles smex zenburn-theme zen-and-art-theme htmlize cider clojure-mode rainbow-delimiters))
 

You can see the whole code is a lot more compact even with the formatting I use and most importantly, it’s a lot more readable. Keep in mind that I stripped out all the code that made the melpa-stable/melpa combination work in Emacs 24.3; the code gets more complicated again when you’re trying to accommodate both versions. For my use, I was happy to just get everything working for Emacs 24.4 after I upgraded the installs on my various machines.

So what’s the take away here?

Package management is hard. Well, all of us who have worked on medium and large software systems know that from first hand experience. Emacs is no different. I think having package-pinned-packages available is a nice feature in my use case. I only use the above code to bootstrap my various Emacsen and individual Emacs instances usually have a few more packages installed. If I wanted to pin all the packages I use I’d probably be grumpy by the end of the exercise but for the basic set of packages I use, this works better than my previous attempts.

Set up Emacs to use both melpa and melpa-stable

I’ve blogged about a little elisp snippet I use to install my preferred base set of Emacs packages before. Thanks for all the feedback, it definitely helped improve the code.

One issue that kept annoying me is that there is no simple way to tell ELPA to mainly pull packages from melpa-stable and only fall back to melpa for those packages I can’t get on melpa-stable yet. I decided to extend my code to handle that situation with some manual inputs as I know which packages can’t be found on melpa-stable. It proved surprisingly easy to do so after mulling over the problem a little.

First, I updated my function install-required-packages so that it accepts an optional parameter containing a list of packages repositories. When the parameter is non-nil, I make a temporary copy of the existing packages-archives list to preserve my default settings and replace it with the list that’s been passed in. Then the function checks and install the packages as before and then restores the original package-archives variable. The code now looks like this:

 
(defun install-required-packages (package-list &optional package-archive-list)
  (when (>= emacs-major-version 24)
    (if package-archive-list
        (setq temp-package-archives package-archives
              package-archives package-archive-list))
    (package-refresh-contents)

    (mapc (lambda (package)
            (unless (require package nil t)
              (package-install package)))
          package-list)
    (if package-archive-list
        (setq package-archives temp-package-archives))))
 

As you can see, the function is now a just little more complicated thanks to the additional state preservation code. The big bonus  is that it now lets me specify which packages I don’t want to pull from my list of default repositories. To make things easier I also pre-populated the lists of my preferred ELPA repos:

 (setq stable-package-archives '(("ELPA" . "http://tromey.com/elpa/")
                                ("gnu" . "http://elpa.gnu.org/packages/")
                                ("melpa-stable" . "http://stable.melpa.org/packages/")
                                ("marmalade" . "http://marmalade-repo.org/packages/"))
      unstable-package-archives '(("melpa" . "http://melpa.org/packages/")))
 

Now I can simply tell ELPA which packages should be pulled from the default repositories and which ones come from the special repositories:

 
(install-required-packages '(smex zenburn-theme zen-and-art-theme htmlize cider clojure-mode rainbow-delimiters))
(install-required-packages '(bm icicles) unstable-package-archives)
 

Quite simple, isn’t it?

Obviously this is still work in progress. The whole approach feels clunky to me and that suggests there is room for improvement. Yes, it works and there is a lot to be said for that, but ideally I would like to build it out in such a way that I specify with package to pull from which repository and add functionality to semi-automatically update the packages as well. I don’t like the idea of fully automated upgrades – especially not from melpa – as I’ve ended up with broken packages before when I took that approach, but a manually triggered auto-update.

Isn’t it great that we spend hours customizing our tools to save five minutes?

The official GNU Emacs 24.4 build is available for Windows

Looks like the Windows build of Emacs 24.4 has been released to http://ftp.gnu.org/gnu/emacs/windows/ on November 15th. As usual, I appear to be a few days behind the times.

Time to upgrade and see how it compares to the unofficial 64 bit builds I’ve been using recently.

Top new feature in 24.4 for me so far is the new rectangle-mark-mode. I’m doing a bunch of code conversions right now – basically transferring a bunch of manual assignments into a big lookup table – and it’s seeing a lot of use because of it.

Finally trying out a 64 bit Emacs on Windows

I’ve been using the official GNU distribution of Emacs for Windows for the last few years and am very happy with it. Well, usually I am very happy with it until someone sends me a 25GB log file I need to analyse and the 32 bit Emacs refuses to play when faced with the enormity of the file in question.

This happened again recently so I finally decided to go look for a 64 bit Emacs for Windows, which led me to emacs-w64:

emacs-24-64-bit

I haven’t spent a lot of time with it (yet) but first impressions are very favourable. It starts quickly, seems responsive and, well, edits texts. In other words, I like it so far and I’ll keep using it for a while to see if first impressions hold up.

Oh, and there’s also the side benefit of being emacs-w64 already having a 24.4 build available. At the time of writing, the official GNU Windows build still appears to be 24.3.