The vi religion

Every age has it’s tools. Many, many years ago, in 1976 to be exact, squinty-eyed nerds with a social deficiency ruled the computer world. They talked to eachother in a secret code, wore geeky clothes and made sure that everybody thought that computers were magic. To make sure that nobody could ever use a computer to edit a file, they all swore to never ever use another editor than… <scary music> vi </scary music>.

To make sure nobody understood how to work with vi, they had the editor behave like 4 different programs. To switch between the modes, you had to ritually punch the right combination of keys while singing the imaginary theme song of NetHack. Backwards. To make it all look as a good thing, they even came up with a techy sounding term for all this: “modal editor”

For good measure, the SONAU (Secret Organization of Nerds Against Usability) even came up with a devious name for the editor. With a reference to the world “visual”, nobody was going to believe you were using an editor even if they were looking at your screen full of green text.

Vi even has a”camouflage” mode where it starts up showing a column of “~” characters. Ha! Now the mortal user will be really lost! Nobody will be able to edit a file, ever again! MUHAHAHAHAAAAAA

ok sorry. lost myself a bit there.

While the SONAU people were in charge,they made sure that every computer shipped with vi. No other editors were allowed. A few brave people at the University of Washington secretly wrote a nice editor called pico. They had to come up with a way to get this editor onto many systems without the SONAU people noticing. So they wrapped pico into what probably is the first Trojan Horse on a computer: pine. Cleverly disquised as a hard to use email client, pine was approved by the SONAU High Concil and before anybody realized, pico was on many computers around the world.

With pico, some people where actually able to edit documents and even programs, and the SONAU lost quite a bit of it’s powers. Now, after 30+ years, computers are actually usable, and editors are actually “visual”. Because SONAU still has an active underground organization, the term “visual” is still being avoided, and the strange term “WYSIWYG” is used. Actually, the term WYSIWYG also applies to vi in combination with a 9-needle dot matrix printer, but nobody dares to say that out loud. You also didn’t read this on this blog, capiche?

Many SONAU members became infurtile by the green screen radiation. An even bigger group thought that women were creatures whose only purpose in life is yell (g)EEEK, turn around and run away. Still, some SONAU members managed to avoid getting a Darwin Award and had children. These children were subtelly brainwashed, and are now scattered over the internet, posting messages about how good their life is with vi.

Painfully desoriented and unable to see the big picture, these children would rather count the atoms in the plastic molecules of their red bike helmet than see the big truck that’s comming their way.

I had a collegue like this once. At first, he thought I had supernatural powers for being able to refactor multiple files with code within 5 seconds. In weeks of therapeutic talks, healing and training sessions, I finally got him to see that it was Eclipse, not me, who was doing the refactoring he could not get done in vi. Shortly after he realized I was a mere mortal, and not even exceptionally bright, it dawned: All the work he’d done in the past 10 years could have been done in 2 weeks with a better suited tool. He left the company, and nobody saw him since…

Example of a bad editorToday I found another poor soul. Even while doing a screencast, typing in vi and telling about what he is doing, he can’t see that using the letters “h”,”j”,”k”, and “l” for navigation is very strange while your keyboard has had arrow keys for the past 20 years, and a mouse for the past 15 years or so. The flashing text in the film like “Esc is bad, Ctrl-[ is good” shows how big the psychiatric problems of vi users is. No sane persion today will press a cryptic 2-key combination while being able to use the much more intuitive “Esc” key to escape from a certain mode.

See the screencast and by your reaction, I will tell if you are a SONAU member.

For people without patience, here are a few absolutely hilarious texts in the screencast which will make you wonder why people are still using vi:

  • Insert mode: don’t use the arrow keys
  • Block cursor is “normal mode”, thin cursor is “insert mode”
  • Esc (bad) ^[ (good)
  • Visual mode is like holding “Shift” to select stuff
  • Arrow keys bad!

vi is the editor which in “normal mode” can not edit text, and uses a seperate “append” mode to add text to the end of a line, while using “insert” mode to insert text inside a line. It’s users are misguided members of their own sect, firmly helping eachother to keep up vi’s name, while ignoring reality and other people’s belief or needs.


4 Responses to The vi religion

  1. rolfje says:

    Aditional note: You will find many cleverly disquised vi evangelists hidden in subcultures with a strange fascination of dressing up as an imaginary character and being painfully serious and scientific about it:

    Although the problem is painfully obvious at times, victims of the vi religion are not hostile or aggresive unless provoked. Although it will be hard, try to avoid any science-fiction or computer related topics. Smile and don’t feed the conversation. You’ll be safe.


  2. Sybren says:

    A very pleasant and funny read. However, you seem to miss a certain context. Believe it or not, VI used to be the program that “just works”, just like Apple fans love so much these days.

    Of course there were keyboards with arrow keys back in the seventies, but every terminal sent different codes for those keys. And different programs expected different codes. Those arrow keys worked just fine, if you got the correct configuration of your terminal, server you’re connecting to, and software you’re running there.

    However, the letter keys were always sent the same way, By offering the ability to navigate your file with only letter keys, you could skip the whole terminal configuration magic and just get your work done.

    And then there was the connection speed. Try squeezing Eclipse through a 400 baud modem 🙂 If you wanted to delete 4 lines of text you didn’t have to delete one, wait for your screen to update, and do that three more times. You could just tell VI to delete four lines in one command, and you’d only have to wait for one screen update. That means you could work even faster than your colleague.

    Yes, VI now sucks, but it used to be a different world back then.

    PS: VI is not VIM. The latter is in active development, and does allow you to use ESC, arrow keys, and all those other nice and simple keys. VIM also has several features that Eclipse still seems to lack, even though java refactoring is still Eclipse’s forte 😉

  3. rolfje says:

    I always see VIM as an extremely souped up, luxurious, 1823 steam tractor. It looks nice, but it’s still an 1823 tractor (albeit in mint collectors edition 😉 )

    VIM may cater for the need of a vocal 2% of the world population, but the rest of us mere mortals expect something more along the lines of TextWrangler, Notepad++, PSPad, or what have you.

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