Direct Manipulation, and Text Editors

Hat-tip to Giles Bowkett for mentioning Bret Victor’s talk, Stop Drawing Dead Fish, about direct manipulation and computer interaction as a tool for illustrators and animators.

I paused this video part-way through, so I could Get Down to Work. I paused it around 34:30, right after Bret Victor mentioned David Hestenes‘ idea that algebra and geometry help us model the world in similar ways, but that algebra uses our linguistic ability, while geometry uses our visual/spatial perception. Victor went on to say that tools for visual artists should use our visual/spatial abilities (direct manipulation), rather than our linguistic ones (code).

Like I said, it was time to Get Down to Work. I flipped over to Sublime Text 2, where I happened to have a block of text selected. Warming up, I idly hit command-I to search for a bit of text, only to realize that Sublime was only searching in that selected text. This is handy! I’ve been wanting something like this lately, when a method or variable name shows up all over the file, but I’m only working on one method.

Using the trackpad to select a bunch of text, and then working on it, feels a lot like I’m holding the text in one hand, and working on it with Sublime in the other. I discovered this accidentally, too – I’ve felt pretty productive with Sublime after the (tiny) initial bump, and I occasionally, gradually, get better as I learn new tricks.

I switched to Sublime after trying to learn Vim for a month or so. I’d been an emacs user for a few years, but I was under-using it, and didn’t need all the extra machinery. Vim seemed lighter, so I tried it out. But it felt like learning emacs all over again, but with different incantations: everything forced into the keyboard. And I get that! I’m a home-row Dvorak typist! But I still felt like emacs and vim were a step back from humbler tools like Programmer’s Notepad.

Bret Victor’s talk suggests an interesting explanation for that. He points out that some animations are a pain to create manually, and some behaviors are hard to code into the tool: so you divide and allocate tasks to the computer and the artist according to their abilities, and their cooperation produces the best effect.

Maybe this explains the appeal of these less-hardcore text editors. Sure, using the mouse and buttons for everything, a la Microsoft Word, is tedious, but so is forcing all interaction through the keyboard. Maybe a better allocation of tasks, a better balance of responsibilities between typist and tool, is what’s needed.

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One thought on “Direct Manipulation, and Text Editors

  1. I use the AquaMacs Emacs variant, which neatly combines mac UI conventions and shortcuts (using the command key) and conventional emacs ones (using option for meta and control for control). I mix and match the UI conventions as they occur to me, having more than one means I have larger targets to hit, in a sense.

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