Complete Computing Environment

Table of Contents

Emacs as a Complete Computing Environment

In Other Words: Why build an OS on top of Emacs?

No other system provides the level of deep integration, customization, and history as Emacs. The fact that it's little more than a GUI system and a Lisp interpreter means you can replace and modify nearly any part you want, and this makes it wildly powerful and wildly dangerous. Make it act like Vim, build your own autocomplete framework. Insert whatever code you'd like to. Want an email client, and IRC client? A publishing system, or a music player? They all behave similarly, you can make far-flung changes that affect the entire system with a single s-expression.

It's by no means perfect. The Emacs code base itself is a mess supporting 9 vastly different platforms, with obsolete support of some 40 others. It doesn't support asynchronous operations. The Emacs Lisp dialect is messy and poorly documented. The default keybindings and chords leave you feeling confused and anxious.

But it's still an incredibly powerful and malleable system. Many shy away from systems like that, but as a craftsman, care for and mastery over my tools is an incredibly important thing to me, and is what leads me to build my own system, a computing environment that works for me and with me.

Not everything is a fucking text though, why should my UI treat it like that? Though everything in Emacs is just a buffer of (sometimes formatted) text, that has some really neat side effects that make programming for it interesting – one simple one is that I can generate editing macros to transform and augment deep dark parts of the system and inject them in in a way that would be otherwise impossible.

More pragmatically though, it stems from a simple goal: To own one, maybe two, computers by the end of 2016: A simple compute and storage core, built around the CHIP computer or an Intel NUC, and a Microserver sitting in my closet where LAN bandwidth is cheap and fast.

I have long held the belief that though they are taking over much of the worlds' computing time smartphones aren't that smart, that you can't and shouldn't do real work on them. That to be even remotely useful modern smartphones require you to push all of your personal data in to 3rd party services that don't, and can't, have your best interests at heart. If you want to review that document you worked on at work while you're on the subway, it probably travels around the fucking world, and gets written to root knows how many harddrives owned by Google and the NSA; it's public record.

Imagine, instead, a single compute and storage core that could contain all of your data and meld to the world around it. A hunk of plastic that can plug in to a 24 inch display and become a workstation. Or it can slot in to the back of a 7 e-ink display and render the aformentioned PDF. Or it can be headless and be communicated with over voice and audio cues. The core, a 40% keyboard, and a 9" screen fit in your purse and fit in your cozy corner of the coffee shop where you write your novel at on the weekends. All of these workflows can accomplish their core task while assuring the user is free from spying, hacked accounts, and 90%-working sync solutions. This is the goal of the complete computing environment – a single hardware/software pairing for the future of my computing and, hopefully, an inspiration to others.

Of course, a single computer by itself is not powerful enough to provide me with all of the functionality I need, and for such things, it would be prudent to act as a thin client for a system with more potential, such as the server sitting in my closet, with terabytes of storage and more RAM and CPU than you can shake a stick at. For such cases, and general integration, I plan to use the Matrix decentralized RPC as the backplane for such things, a unified fabric for my various sub-systems. When I come home, my compute core notifies my homeserver over Matrix, turning on my lights, as a simple example. Using Matrix as the WebRTC signaling plane for things like CIDER REPLs, for example, could prove to be a killer feature, requiring no SSH, no crazy setup, just a simple peer-to-peer encrypted message passing channel.

I dig in to this more in my Future Plans documention.

A Summary: Core Tenants

I pride myself in my workflow and in the experience and knowledge I have of my toolset. The act of writing code is simple, the act of building systems is unrelated. I know how to build a table, but I don't have mastery over that skill because the tools, while simple and accessible, are still foreign to me. That is not the case with my working environment, where I have spent hours honing my experience with the planer, I have sawn more than my share of boards to the right length, I have worked a nailgun without err. I have become a craftsman with and within my environment. Along the way, I have taken some core philosophies in how I use my tools. These are core to my experiences, and should be inherent in all that I design.

  • Context switching is unproductive. Modal editing is not. Those are at odds. What I mean here is that having to learn multiple incompatible systems to get your job done is counter-intuitive, despite the obvious gains. I use Emacs with Evil-Mode to achieve this right now, though it is not a full solution for what I am looking for; other solutions like Modalka-Mode do not provide a simple enough integration to work with my style of computing.
  • Tiling or Tiling-like window managers are the most productive way to move about multiple systems. In an optimal world, everything would run inside of Emacs and be manipulable with Emacs or Emacs-like (vi-like, in my case) bindings. That's not strictly true yet, but we are getting closer. A combination of EXWM1 and Qutebrowser put those bindings in nearly everything; I can treat X11 windows as though they were Emacs buffers, and the same for browser tabs.2
  • An Ergodox or similar ortholinear3 keyboard allows me to achieve optimal typing stance and efficiency, making the act of computing on the whole a more positive experience. I have easy access to my modifiers and my escape, and that means I have little excuse for not using them. I have improved posture, significantly lessening my long term prospects of RSI as well as back and shoulder pain.
  • At its core, the operating system and desktop itself serve as little more than an abstraction layer to my emacs environment and a web browser at this point. Anything that I can use a command line, curses or emacs interface, I will do so, even if that means it is less friendly in a traditional sense. A side effect here is that I have freedom to explore computing paradigms that don't make as much sense to traditional users, such as my combination of Chromebooks, headless servers and text-to-speech systems.
  • The smartphone is a setback for computing as a whole; the interface goes against nearly everything I stand for, they lock users in to unhealthy ecosystems and they encourage the use of proprietary software that regularly proves itself to be spying, cheating and selling the lives of their users. I should be able to wholly do my computing without the use of a smartphone, even if it means being unable to participate in the latest social-media craze until a 3rd party client is developed. Hell, that's probably a win.
  • Computers should not be opaque. Code should be self-documenting, systems should not just make magic decisions without being able to explain them.
  • I value security and privacy, even if that means hosting my own systems and services, or having to minimize the use of others. I will use a web client instead of a mobile application, I will encrypt wherever possible, data-at-rest will be in my control.
  • I should be able to be productive on any device with a hardware keyboard.

Complete Computing Environment Structure

CCE is designed to be modular and portable. More and more, I am trying to unify my computing environment down to a single machine, but until such a time, I have multiple form-factors to deal with and multiple, incompatible computing environments. This sucks, but here we are. Even in such a scenario where I have a single device, I am moving towards a full embracing of Qubes2 as my operating system of choice, with multiple security domains, each running only the Emacs configuration they need with the data that I need. Over time, I'm going to try encapsulating this as much as possible in to a single CCE module, but for now, the bulk of that integration is simply sprinkled throughout the CCE codebase.

A major failing of FSEM was the amount of time it took to tangle1, limiting the amount of time I was willing to invest in porting and debugging the system; I would edit fsem.el directly, and byte compile that, eventually remembering to un-tangle those changes back in to CCE takes a different approach, relying on heavy modularization, putting things in to single .org files based on their purpose, tangled, subsequently, to different .el and .elc files. This allows me to modify a particular subsystem without needing to recompile the whole thing. As such, this is the rough "table of contents", the things we can dive in to and work through.

Installation and Usage

Each of these modules tangles out to its own set of files, including this file itself. This file serves as the launcher, init.elc, and also has an installer function, which I execute by putting point inside of it and hitting C-c C-c:

(setq after-cce-hook nil)
(setq cce-files
      '("cce-system-core" "cce-emacs-core" "cce-shells" "cce-sauron" "cce-exwm"
        "cce-browsers" "cce-laptop" "cce-bcs" "cce-homehub" "cce-org"
        "cce-writing" "cce-agenda" "cce-gcal" "cce-gnus" "cce-twitter"
        "cce-code-core" "cce-arduino" "cce-lisps" "cce-python" "cce-js" "cce-java"
        "cce-music" "cce-movies" "cce-reading" "cce-home"
(defun cce/install (files)
  (dolist (file files)
    (message "Installing %s" file)
    (org-babel-tangle-file (concat file ".org"))
    (with-current-buffer (find-file-noselect (concat file ".el") t)
      (when (file-exists-p (concat file ".el"))
        (revert-buffer t t)
  (dolist (file files)
    (when (file-exists-p (concat file ".el"))
      (byte-compile-file (concat file ".el")))))
(cce/install cce-files)
(async-shell-command "bash"
                     "*cce manager*")
(disable-theme 'alect-black)
(load-theme 'tsdh-light)
(enable-theme 'alect-black)
(disable-theme 'tsdh-light)

After that is done, I run the shell script with bash.

cd $(dirname $0)

for file in ./source/*.sh; do
    source $file

link-this $CCE_DIR ~/.emacs.d/cce
link-this $CCE_DIR/cce.elc ~/.emacs.d/init.elc

for file in ./*.shell; do
    test "$file" = "./" || source $file


This is the loader for the CCE modules.

(defvar after-cce-hook nil
  "Hooks to run after all of the Complete Computing Environment has been loaded")

(defconst qdot/emacs-start-time (current-time))
(defun cce/time-since-start ()
  (float-time (time-subtract (current-time)

(defun timestamped-message (orig-func &rest args)
  (let ((format-string (car args))
        (args (cdr args)))
    (add-to-list 'args (format "%s -- %s"
                               (number-to-string (cce/time-since-start))
    (apply orig-func args)))
;(advice-add 'message :around #'timestamped-message)

(add-to-list 'load-path "~/.emacs.d/cce/") ;; Installed by

;; core
(require 'cce-emacs-core)
;(require 'cce-matrix)
(require 'cce-sauron)
(require 'cce-browsers)

;; platform modes
(cce/with-any-domain '("work" "main" "nervelink")
                     (require 'cce-exwm)
                     (require 'cce-laptop))
(cce/with-any-domain '("bcs")
                     (require 'cce-bcs))
(cce/with-any-domain '("server")
                     (require 'cce-homehub))

;; org mode configuration
(require 'cce-org)
(require 'cce-writing)
(require 'cce-agenda)
(require 'cce-gcal)

;; comunications platforms
(require 'cce-gnus)
(require 'cce-twitter)

;; programming support
(require 'cce-code-core)
(require 'cce-arduino)
(require 'cce-lisps)
(require 'cce-python)
(require 'cce-js)
(require 'cce-java)

;; downtime
(require 'cce-music)
(require 'cce-movies)
(require 'cce-reading)
(require 'cce-home)

(add-hook 'after-cce-hook
          (lambda ()
            (message "The Complete Computing Environment has been loaded")))

(add-hook 'after-cce-hook
          `(lambda ()
             (let ((elapsed (cce/time-since-start)))
               (message "Loading %s...done (%.3fs)"
                        ,load-file-name elapsed))) t)
(add-hook 'after-init-hook
          `(lambda ()
             (let ((elapsed (cce/time-since-start)))
               (message "Loading %s...done (%.3fs) [after-init]"
                        ,load-file-name elapsed))) t)

(defun cce/install (files)
  (dolist (file files)
    (message "Installing %s" file)
    (org-babel-tangle-file (concat file ".org"))
    (with-current-buffer (find-file-noselect (concat file ".el") t)
      (revert-buffer t t)
  (dolist (file files)
    (byte-compile-file (concat file ".el"))))

(run-hooks 'after-cce-hook)

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Unfortunately, EXWM is still a bit too unstable for me…

Author: Ryan Rix

Created: 2017-07-02 Sun 11:25

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