I search for things a lot, especially in my code. Or even worse - someone else’s code. For years grep served as an amazing tool for this: fast, simple, and yet powerful. That was until I discovered ack for myself. An incredibly easy to use grep implementation built to work with large (or not really) code trees.

A lot can be said to enforce superiority of ack over grep when it comes to working with code, and it’s all said here: ack’s features.

Amazing thing is - ack doesn’t even need a tutorial. Learning progression is natural and “just happens” by researching necessary use cases as the need arises (ack has a great manual entry).

Here’s a typical use example for ack:

ack --shell 'gr[ae]y'

Searches all shell script files in the current code tree for any occurrences of “gray” or “grey”. It will search .sh, .zsh, and just about dot-anything; ack will even check shebang lines for you.

Ease of use, the fact that it’s ready to use out of the box, extensive file types, native support for Perl’s regular expressions: ack does really good job at searching through code.

Download it from Beyond grep.

I generally don’t use Mutt for everyday emails - I find smooth non-monospace fonts to be more pleasant to the eye, and the visualization my browser offers is hard to beat. The main use-case for me is composing long emails: Mutt lets me use my favorite text editor, which speeds up the editing of long and carefully composed responses.

Recently I added a new use-case to my work flow: searching through emails. Mutt has a powerful built-in regular-expressions engine, which is something the web Gmail client is missing.

Mutt has two ways of finding things: search and limit. “Search” just jumps from one matching letter to another, something along the lines what / command does in less, more, or vim. “Limit” is something I am more used to with the web client, and it’s what I use the most.

Using limits

Limit works the way regular search works in Gmail: it limits the view to conversations matching the query. Hit l, and enter a search query.

By default, Mutt will only search through the subject lines, but this behaviour can be changed by prefixing the command with a special identifier. For instance, searching for ~b oranges will limit the view to all the messages which mention “oranges” in the message body. Here are a couple I use the most:

  • ~b – Search in the message body.
  • ~B – Search in the whole message.
  • ~f – Message originated from the user.
  • ~Q – Messages which have been replied to.

You can find full list in the Mutt Advanced Usage Manual.

Patterns can be chained to produce narrower results: ~f joe ~B apples. This will search for a message mentioning “apples” coming from an author whose name contains “joe”.

Caching mail for faster search

You may find that searching whole messages is slow, especially if you have more than a couple hundred messages to search through. That’s because by default Mutt does not store messages for local use. This can be changed by specifying header_cache and message_cachedir variables in your .muttrc file:

set header_cache     = "$HOME/Mail"
set message_cachedir = "$HOME/Mail"

Now, after you perform your first search, it will cache every message you open, making all the consecutive searches lightning fast.

Oh, and keep in mind, Mutt stores messages and headers in plain text, so make sure the cache directory is not shared with anyone but yourself.

Limiting code to 80 (or 100 or 120) characters per line. It’s a well-known topic, and there’s an overall consensus on the subject, not counting occasional questions by newbies and odd cases. Most established tech companies have their own line length guidelines. These are often dependent on a language, such as in the case of Google with their 80 character Python and 100 character Java limits.

In this article, I won’t be advocating all the usual arguments, such as easier diff with version control software, or the ability to stack windows side by side on wide screens. No, I believe that battle to be won quite a long time ago, the topic is now closed. But something I didn’t find mentioned in any of the discussions is an interesting point from the world of writers and designers.

Ever since I started being interested in improving my writing skills, I found article after article mention the importance of line length in reading. Interestingly enough, this issue was raised in a world of literature. It had been resolved long before programmers were fascinated with the desire to use up rapidly expanding screen real estate.

I am talking about something known as “measure” in typography. It seems to be the reason newspapers use narrow columns, or books leave such vast margins around the text on a page. Here’s an exempt from the Wikipedia article:

Measure (or sometimes “The Measure”) in typography is the length of a line of text. For a single-column design measure should ideally lie between 40 & 80 characters. Many typographers consider the perfect measure to be 65 characters. If the lines are too short then the text becomes disjointed, if they are too long the content loses rhythm as the reader searches for the start of each line. Punctuation should preferably hang outside the measure.

Most programming languages use special operators and keywords, which can be considered “punctuation”. Some languages are more verbose (use more punctuation), and some aren’t. If you remove punctuation, the 80/100/120 character limit perfectly fits the standard time-honed “measure”.

Maybe I can use this as an additional argument the next time I have to explain to a junior new hire why the character limits are so strictly enforced.

I spend most of my development time in the shell - be it editing text with Vim or executing various console commands. I have quite a number of tricks in my daily repertoire, and I would like to share three tips today.

Edit current command with a text editor

I often end up having to change a long command I just typed, and using arrow keys to get to the correct spot is not favorable. Bash has the feature which lets you edit current command in a text editor of your choice. Hit Ctrl + x, Ctrl + e (or Ctrl + x + e), and you will be dropped into your text editor. Now you are able to edit the command, and it will be executed as soon as your write the file and exit the editor.

You can use an editor of your choice by adding following line to your .bashrc file:

export EDITOR=vim

Replace vim with the name of your favorite editor.

Update: It looks like for some machines setting EDITOR variable is not enough. In this case, you also need to set VISUAL environment variable.

Edit recent command

You can edit your recent commands in a text editor of your choice by executing fc beginning_of_the_command. For instance, if you run fc l, you will open most recent command starting with the letter “l”.

You can execute fc without any arguments to edit last executed command.

Bash history autocomplete

Another great feature - “reverse intelligent search”. If you hit Ctrl + r in your shell, you’ll be greeted by the following prompt:


Start typing a part of the command from your history, and you’ll see suggestions popping up. Hit Enter to pick the command (you’ll be able to edit it before executing), or push Ctrl + g to return back.

Like any of these tips? Have some of your own? Don’t hesitate to share those in the comments section down below.

Recently I’ve been writing much more than I used to: long emails, software documentation, personal Wiki, keeping work journal, blogging, writing challenges… Luckily enough, I do all of this writing in Vim. But sometimes writing prose in Vim might feel a bit unnatural, especially if you have a wide screen: text will be on the very left side of the screen, or (if textwrap is not enabled) you’ll end up with lines hundreds of characters long. And overall, editing text in Vim sometimes might feel a bit clunky - with all the extra information and high-tech (or low-tech, depending on your perspective) look.

I found a simple, yet sufficient solution for this issue: VimRoom. It’s a Vim plugin which enters distraction-free writing mode, by centering the 80-character block of text on your screen. It’s highly configurable, and I found it to look especially pleasing on vertical monitors (which I prefer to use for writing). It looks presentable even on smaller screens though, here’s a screenshot:

Install the plugin (use a package manager like Vundle or Pathogen to simplify the task) and add a following line to your .vimrc:

nnoremap <Leader>vr :VimroomToggle<CR>

Now, hit <Leader>vr to drop in/out of the VimRoom mode (<Leader is a backslash \ character by default).

GitHub link: https://github.com/mikewest/vimroom.