New Year, New Tools

New Year, New Tools

It’s a new year, so I thought it would be a good time to review some new tools I started using over the last year.

Mosh

Mosh is a replacement for SSH that handles intermittent connectivity. It will warn you if your connection drops and automatically reconnect. This handles situations like putting your laptop to sleep or changing between different connections (e.g. switching from Ethernet to Wifi). I’m connected to a bunch of different servers over the course of the day, so being able to put my laptop to sleep and have it wake back up with my remote sessions intact is incredibly useful. It’s hard to believe I used to work without it.

Mosh doesn’t support X11 forwarding or non-interactive uses of SSH, like port forwarding. However, I don’t use these particularly often, so in practice I’m not bothered by this. In any case, regular SSH is still available!

zsh

I had resisted changing shells for a long time. Bash is available pretty much everywhere. I had a nice .bashrc that I could put anywhere and have the environment I was used it. zsh had been recommended to me several times, but I was concerned about the effort needed to get up and running on a new machine. I liked being able to just drop a few dotfiles in my home directory – would I also have to install zsh?

I decided to try the switch after getting fed up with an issue with my bash prompt and long lines – characters would occasionally get doubled. I am really glad I made the switch. Needing to install zsh wasn’t as big of a deal as I had feared. I used oh-my-zsh to get started. This gave me a lot of the configuration I had done manually in my .bashrc out of the box. Plus it provides plugins for just about anything you might use in the shell. My favorite feature of zsh itself is the improved tab completion. It’s hard to explain without experiencing it – just give zsh a try.

tmux

Much like bash, I had used screen for a while and it just worked. I had a configuration I liked and I didn’t need to think about it. When I was switching to zsh, I decided to reevaluate screen as well and give tmux a try. There aren’t a lot of major differences here, but I’m sticking with tmux. The documentation is better, window splitting feels nicer, and the memory usage is lower. The biggest gain from switching is the configuration format. I find tmux’s configuration file much easier to understand and modify. Just compare the status line from my .screenrc to the same status line from my .tmux.conf.

Helm

The scope of customization for Emacs is astoundingly broad. It’s one of my favorite parts of using Emacs – anything I want to do can be made better with the judicious application of some Lisp. The downfall of this is that it can be hard to keep up with all the options. When I first starting using Emacs in 2008, I was looking for a library for completing file names. I tried out two candidates: ido-mode and anything.el. ido was easy to set up and use, so I went with it. I kept using ido because it worked great. I hadn’t even considered switching until I came across this article on Helm. Helm is a fork of anything.el that cleans up the code and makes it more modular.

I read through that article and was immediately sold on using Helm. Switching to Helm has been the best change to my text editing workflow since switching to Emacs! It provides a consistent interface for completing anything. The fuzzy matching is far ahead of anything else I’ve used. Despite this power, it’s still incredibly fast. Even with very large lists of completion candidates there is no noticeable slowdown.

I encourage you to try out Helm rather than just reading about it. It is a bit different than other completion libraries for Emacs, and it did take me a couple of days to really get used to it. It was time well-spent, however.

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