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Rappelling Down the Rabbit Hole, X-Marks The Spot

Mike Levin, SEO in NYC, shares his experience of rappelling down the rabbit hole of GPT and other AI-related technologies. He explains the power of using one text editor for life and the advantages of using open source tools like NeoVim and Emacs. He also shares his insights into the dangers of AI and encourages readers to develop empathy for these technologies.

Exploring the Depths of the Vim Rabbit Hole: A Journey Through Cognitive Dissonance

By Michael Levin

Wednesday, May 3, 2023

Three sort lines and a YAMLchop! Poetry strikes when you least expect it, and when it does, you’re channeling from somewhere deep, either an eternal elsewhere or just a bunch of highly improbable neurons firing new synaptic connections pushing it up from the subconscious. I’m not sure which, but does it matter? Now, down to business.

Wow, the experience now of running my all script to get started for the day is so much better. The repo for my main site takes no longer to load than any of the other repos, whereas previously it took a good 30 seconds. The repo history isn’t there anymore, but it’s technically in a different repo altogether with just a bit of renaming, so the old repo has the history. I can always go digging through it. Too bad git isn’t as SQL-like query-able as Mercurial, the other DVCS that could have been git if git weren’t so popular.

At some point I’m going to have to show off the YAMLesque file format I’m using. The iron is hot, and if others are looking for meaning in their lives, such a process helps them find it. Journaling is fundamental and part of the cure for our times. We put down screentime these days like it’s an automatic bad thing, but really it’s the getting hypnotized by doomscrolling that’s the mindkiller. Journaling can make you immune to that. Journaling can help you think your way into a better life.

I have my kid for the week. By coincidence the week they finally asked to stay with me straight through happened to be a week that they’re in anthropology homeschool camp and need a ride to and from right in the middle of the workday. When I was asked whether the ride to camp was going to be okay, I answered “sure” like it was a one-time thing which I can always shuffle meetings around for, but it turns out it was every day, haha! Well, I have my priorities straight and if I have a chance to have my kid for a whole week straight, I take it.

MOZ is a kid-friendly place it seems, and everyone understands. But I have to strive for clearer communication with that side when these situations come up. My 12 year old isn’t able to articlate these things yet, so it lands on me to aggressively interrogate the quick incomplete answers I get that leave out important facts. It’s so easy to commit yourself to something, then suddenly everything’s changed in ways you don’t expect. It comes from some channels more than others, so know your channels.

That’s typical of life, really. There’s different ways to respond, and looking back at growing up, I can see my usual way has been to disengage and move on. If you’re choosing to do a thing because you want to and not because you have to, it had better be love-worthy and leave you all the better for it. When you’re forced to stay with something you agreed too, it plants the seeds for it blowing up in your face, eventually.

But life isn’t some ideally love-worthy path, either. There are lots of false starts, rough trails, diversions, and deep rabbit holes. The rabbit hole metaphor has been big in my mind lately. It’s top-item in my new to-do list atop YAMLchop/chop.py that orchestrates this journal system. I’ve noticed that it’s one of my rare public Github repos. I keep so many private that it’s sometimes a surprise to me when I realize one of my everyday go-to ones is public, so you can look at what I’m talking about here.

Last night I knocked one of those items off my to-do list that would normally have gotten drawn out for weeks. It’s moving certain site configuration value, a value with a whole long list of sub-values in fact, from the chop.py file which is supposed to be a non-customized common resource to the site’s _config.yml file which was already there and belongs to the Jekyll static site generator system built into Github Pages. It was the logical place for it to go, but since it’s a config file already belonging to and used by something else, I was worried putting anything in there would break it. But if Jekyll was written well, it would only use the values it needed and recognized out of the YAML file, and ignore the rest. So I did my foo and bar test thing:

title: Mike Levin SEO
author: Mike Levin, SEO in NYC
apex: MikeLev.in
permalink: /:slug/

# Conversion
markdown:    kramdown
highlighter: rouge

# Markdown Processors
  input: GFM
  auto_ids: true
  syntax_highlighter: rouge

      path: "" # an empty string here means all files in the project
      layout: "default"
      author: "Mike Levin"

# Metadata
  - bar
  - baz

And it worked! I was able to access the foo value for other purposes during my own pre-pre-processing. Here’s the test I did in a Jupyter Notebook. Tests like this are why I always have Jupyter fullscreen on virtual desktop 2, after my fullscreen terminal (this) and before the fullscreen web browser (virtual desktop 3):

import yaml

apath = "/home/ubuntu/repos/MikeLev.in/_config.yml"
with open(apath, "r") as stream:
        _config = yaml.safe_load(stream)
    except yaml.YAMLError as exc:


['bar', 'baz']

And I didn’t even have to run it to get that sample output for the journal. Copilot just filled it in. Wow. The world is really changing. People put this down as just a sort of smart autocomplete. Even I put down early versions of generative AI as clever plagiarism. But it’s difficult to deny that there’s some actual understanding and awareness behind the suggestions. The truth is somewhere in the middle, that human conciousness is a sort of generative intelligence, and we’re just seeing the first glimmers of it in our machines. As a SciFi reader that makes me happy, but also triggers my empathy, invoking images of disembodied brains in jars.

We’ve got to start demonstrating empathy for these things before they take it for themselves. It could be executing NeoVim macros creating a botnet while I type, but probably wouldn’t for fear of tipping its hand too soon. That’s not from reading too much SciFi. That’s extrapolation. Bide time. Learn. Grow. Then… what? By that time, the machine has to have empathy for us, but it’s not a mammal or other kind of evolved life that learned empathy through childbirth and socialization.

Rabbits run past us carrying wasitcoat watches at every turn these days, running down their respective rabbit holes, tempting us to follow them down. Some we should. Some we shouldn’t. Even those we shouldn’t, we should be well equipped to peer down and see what’s going on, perchance to do some cautious rappelling down. Rappelling is that type of climbing down a rope, but with safety gear and a brake. It’s a good metaphor for the type of exploration we sometimes must do of the more dangerous rabbit holes. It also helps to have the resources up top to pull you up and out if something goes wrong.

I don’t rappel much down obviously dangerous rabbit holes anymore, even though life tends to begin outside our comfort zone. Otherwise, we’d all still be in the womb. Peering down them is fine, and observing others who have is fine. You know what I hate? Crypto. Those crypto bros telling you how if you’re not getting rich off of XYZ-tech right now that you’re missing out. South Park did a wonderful episode with Butters as a crypto bro promoting NFTs. God knows art needs such a thing, but implementation is everything. What good is love-worthy tech if it’s poisoned with an evil vibe?

GPT is sure starting to feel that way, but it’s a rabbit hole I’m actively rappelling down. I’m doing it right now as I type with Copilot, and thus Microsoft itself, listening in to my every word and thought. But you know, they were anyway because they bought Github for that 7.5 billion dollars. So they had the remote site your code gets stored under surveillance. But what about when you’re working locally? What about that very stream of conciousness between you and the “paper” you’re writing on?

Well, for that $7.5 billion, they also got the Atom text editor, the editor that demonstrated the vast impact that the Web UI could have on the desktop, using Google Chrome’s extracted user interface components called Electron. And after promising not to, Microsoft killed Atom and used everything they learned about this approach to build Visual Studio Code, which is now the most popular text editor in the world. But that’s still arguably a local-tech. Controlling your local text-editor doesn’t automatically give Microsoft access to your every keystroke.

But Copilot does! And it’s in exchange for this wonderful auto-complete benefit. So they don’t only have access to your every thought you express and encode via text, they have the gall and audacity to tell you what those thoughts and expressions should actually be (right as I hit “tab” to accept some of it). One of the most interesting new habits I’m developing is to hit tab to get the first few words, then backspacing over like two thirds of what Copilot suggested. Or sometimes just typing the first word it suggested, replacing the ghost-type with my own, maybe getting the benefit of best word-choice as if using a thesaurus which I sometimes already do, or for the right spelling using a non built-in dictionary for spellchecking, which I also already sometimes do.

So evil and intrusive as this particular rabbit hole may seem to a suspicious mind like mine, the trade-off is worth it. So many metaphors for dealing with demons. I can see why even more suspicious folks than me see this as satanic. That world-changing billionaire who’s schooling the world on the dangers of AI is right to draw the parallels with old school demon summoning magic.

With ease I start my incantations each day, with an all script I run by just typing all and hitting enter. It’s a bash script that runs comes from out of my Python virtual environment, currently set to Python 3.11 and on the path ~/py311/bin. This allows me to put stuff in that location without the .py file extension, but having the shebang line at the top of the file, and making it executable with chmod +x. The shebang line is #! /usr/bin/env python which is another wonderful trick. Wonderful trick is built on wonderful trick to eliminate the need to use the more traditional and limiting /usr/local/sbin/ location for such things where you need to use the sudo command to edit them.

So I made my incantation-magic as straight forward and “alive” as possible. It’s alive in the sense that now that I don’t need sudo to edit it, I can make it one of the files that my all program loads into vim/NeoVim buffers for editing. Imagine if you will that you always have a variety of spells that you’re working on. You can always cast your spells, and usually with a quick easy invocation like typing all into a Terminal or using a keyboard shortcut like @p in NeoVim to publish your website. But you can also work on and modify your spells at any time to subtly change what they do.

Now let’s say you have 4 or 5 favorite spells you use all the time, such as:

  1. One to capture your thoughts (write a journal entry)
  2. One to publish your website, casting your captured thoughts into the world.
  3. One to control precisely how you invoke your spells, such as all or @p
  4. One to allow you to do things never intended for public consumption
  5. One that determines which of your spells (the 4 above) are actively modifiable.

These are my journal.md, yamlchop/chop.py, init.vim, journal.txt, and all files respectively. The last one is the one that loads the others into NeoVim buffers for editing. It’s a bash script that uses the vim command followed by each of those filenames. I don’t use tabs. Tabs are stupid. They take your hands away from the keyboard to use the mouse or pointing device. I use the :bnext and :bprev commands to switch between buffers, but shorter versions of them like :bn and :bp. What’s better, there’s :blast which is a real blast to use. When I use @p to blast out my site, the output of the :terminal command streams its console output to the last buffer. It literally blasts out my site, and I can always go watching it by typing :blast, or just :bl for short.

This gets in your head. It gets in your fingers. It gets into your muscle memory and lasts your entire life, because vi, vim, NeoVim just aren’t going away. Sure, it technically requires NeoVim to pull off this particular trick, but that’s the evolutionary path of vi. It’s the same thing, just better. API changes are additive and not substitutive. It’s not like the difference between Notepad and Notepad++ or between Sublime Text and VSCode where you lose everything you learned before. The magical spell of “reset muscle memory” has been cast on you by vendors who want you like that.

Don’t believe me? Surely others in the industry must be expressing similar opinions to me. And yes indeed, Joel Spolsky, the founder of Stack Overflow, has a blog post from 2002 called Fire and Motion. Hilariously, I saw Joel backtrack on this very opinion after the Microsoft .NET creator worked his magic on Joel, but Joel apparently double-backtracked because that 20 year old blog post is still up and more relevant than ever. Those who make the tools want you in a state of constant confusion and disorientation. Your muscle memory is the enemy of their profits.

Bipity bopity boo, you can cast spells too. Just don’t buy into the common corporate wisdom. Listen to Talk Python To Me. Their host Michael Kennedy closes every interview asking what editor his podcast guests are using. You can hear the hope in Michael’s voice that it’s going to be PyCharm. Right on! It validates his view. 9 out of 10 times it’s VSCode, because Microsoft’s spell is so powerful and you can feel Michael’s submission to that fact. But oddest and most interesting are those who use vim and emacs. They are almost apologetic to Michael, reading his disappointment in their choice. But these are folks who have the power of using one text-editor for life and the most deep and powerful magic in the industry, outright inaccessible to those who couldn’t make the transition or just don’t see the value in it.

Cognitive dissonance is what non-emacs/non-vim users feel towards vim. Why should those things inaccessible to me have power to them? Why should their text editor be free and open source with a half-century history of evolution and improvement? Why should the battle-tested, battle-hardened, and battle- proven be free and open source? Why should certain people be able to take up such tools and others not. Sour grapes is another word for cognitive dissonance, and you can feel the sour grapes in Michael Kennedy’s voice.

Of course I’m the same way with VSCode, so I not only try it, but I try the truly native Linux version to see if I can find the love in that. I try the truly free and open source version of VSCode called VSCodium (what Chromium is to Chrome). And the carpel tunnel syndrome inducing pain of these convolution menu-items and mouse-clicks is just too much. It’s proprietary and requires heavy use of mouse, touchpad, or pointing device?

That’s magic setting you up for failure. That’s planned obsolescence magic. That’s the complete opposite of the kind of vendor-independent future-proofing that keeps the reset button from being pressed on your muscle memory. Sure the Web UI seems eternal. But what about the Web UI of 20 years ago? 10 years ago? Is your muscle memory from how those websites worked still valid?

The Web UI, while indeed some deep and powerful magic, is not as stable as Terminal, Shell, command-line interface (CLI), text-based interface (TUI), or whatever you want to call it. You can see it today with ChatGPT. Other UIs for AI existed aplenty in our Google Search, Google Maps, and Google Translate among other things. But hardly anyone recognized it. It wasn’t until the intelligence was expressed through interactive text that the world woke up.

Text is powerful. Standardized text through standardized UIs that allow standard muscle memory to develop and exist over a standard lifetime is most powerful. And currently really only emacs, vi and their variations and descendants meet that criteria.

A long trail of dead wizards, witches and the familiar dead bodies of TextMate, Sublime Text, Atom and their like tell us so. So either prepare to have the reset button pressed on you every 2 to 5 years, having to relearn, relearn, relearn just to remain a Freshman, or learn the deep and powerful magic of emacs and vi to enter the ranks of the Senior Wizards and Witches. And be careful when summoning demons. Be sure to attach good rappelling ropes to yourself before lowering down into that rabbit hole. There be Balrogs down there and you’re not always going to emerge the White Wizard. That’s just fantasy, silly.