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Acme Tricks

Contents: Acme for git; using it as your terminal; fixing zsh; changing the font; running on WSL; leveraging plumber; using the new Go port; finding information; getting started

References: Plan9 Port; Cat-v; UNIX Haters Handbook (esp. § 6. Terminal Insanity)


I was a die-hard emacs user for a long time. In 2014 I discovered Acme, and though these days I do much of my work on VS Code and GoLand, Acme remains my Swiss Army knife.

My knowledge grows in fits and starts, driven by need. Information on Acme is not so easy to find. I thought I’d share a few tricks I’ve gathered.
Intended for intermediate users, but I have some information for beginners at the end.

Acme as a “porcelain”1 for git

In my new job I’ve had some scary moments with git rebase, which I had not really used in previous jobs. A couple of colleagues had to help me out. On one occasion I needed to squash a long list of commits. With vim serving as the default EDITOR for my interactive rebase, my colleague walked me through going into visual block mode, choosing a bunch of pick commands strewn over many lines, and changing them to s. Whew!

I realized I needed to become better at vim, or perhaps start using emacs again to leverage magit. But these kinds of thoughts annoy me. All I should need to do is a) understand rebasing, and b) have a good way to edit rebase lists. Having to learn visual block mode or use magit or switch to a GUI tool seemed totally overkill for b).

1. Using Acme as your EDITOR

git gives you hooks for your favorite tools. The environment EDITOR variable will tell git which program to use for “visual” operations like interactive rebasing or writing commit messages. In most systems it defaults to vi or vim.

In my personal computer I used to set EDITOR to sam -d to use sam in line-editor mode, much like ed. This gave me a retro kick but it was too clunky for rebasing.

Plan9 Port comes with two very useful scripts: B and E. B opens content in a new window inside your Acme session. E does the same, but returns to the calling process only after you’re done editing. This is perfect for git.

You can set EDITOR=E in your shell config file of choice, or you can use it on an as-needed basis, e.g. EDITOR=E git rebase -i HEAD~5

NOTE: you should have a plumber process running for this to work.2 More info on the plumber below.

2. Editing rebase lists

With your EDITOR pointing to E, now you can do an interactive rebase.

acme window for rebase

Say you want to squash a bunch of commits. You select the relevant lines, then execute Edit s/pick/squash/g in the tag. No need for new modes or plugins.
When you’re done editing the rebase manifest, remember to Put and Del to give the calling git the go-ahead.

3. Use Acme to show git commits

A nice thing in Acme is how easy it is to execute commands anywhere by middle-clicking. When working with git, sometimes you’ll want to do a git log, perhaps a git log --oneline. It would be great if you could right-click on a commit SHA, and get a new window open with the results of git show.

acme showing git log

For this, we need to use the plumber (more on it later). You should pgrep to check if you have a plumber process. If you don’t, fire it.2 And perhaps think of adding it to your .zlogin, .profile or equivalent.

You can add the following rule3 to your ~/lib/plumbing file:

type	is	text
data	matches	'[0-9a-f]*[a-f][0-9a-f]*'
data	matches	'([0-9a-f][0-9a-f][0-9a-f][0-9a-f][0-9a-f][0-9a-f]+)'
plumb	start rc -c 'cd '$wdir'; cd `{git rev-parse --show-toplevel} && [ -d .git ] && git show '$1' | plumb -i -d edit -a ''action=showdata filename=+git/'$1''' '

That’s a handful. Let’s analyze it:

  1. The matches statements ensure we only apply the rule on SHA-1 looking strings. The parentheses tell us what we’re reading into the $1 value.
  2. rc -c: we’re passing our complex instructions to the rc shell as a string, as we need to go beyond plumbing rule syntax.
  3. cd `{git rev-parse --show-toplevel} && [ -d .git ] && git show '$1': make sure we’re on a git repo, then call git show on the SHA-1 looking argument we found previously.
  4. | plumb -i -d edit: pipe the output of git show to an edit (Acme) window. The -i argument tells plumb to read the input from STDIN (in our case piped), and the -d specifies the destination.
  5. -a ''action=showdata filename=+git/'$1''' is not strictly necessary, but it will add a title to the window tag showing the commit SHA.

The plumber and 9p

The composition model in Unix is that of programs writing and reading standard I/O, connectable by pipes.

The designers of Plan9 wanted an even more general and reusable mechanism: the composition model in Plan 9 was that of file servers. Even Acme is written as a file server. It provides access to its resources, including its windows, via the 9p protocol.

For instance, you can list the windows open in Acme:

9p ls acme

for which I get currently

12
2
24
44
acme
cons
consctl
draw
editout
index
label
log
new

Those numbers are window id’s. You can search inside them with 9p ls and reveal subdirectories. Right now, running 9p read acme/12/body will display the contents of the window where I’m writing this post.

The plumber is the Plan9 program that connects programs. You can think of it as the next iteration of UNIX pipes in the richer environment of file servers.

Plan9 Port comes loaded with some rules for the plumber. For example, it contains rules to send url’s to a web browser or image files to an image viewer, so entering plumb http://wikipedia.org or plumb myDocument.pdf in your terminal will open stuff in other programs.

Remember the plumber process needs to be running.2 By default it daemonizes, but you can add the -f flag to keep it in the foreground while you debug your rules.

You can define your own rules in ~/lib/plumbing. In the Plan9 Port installation you can find predefined rules in $PLAN9/plumb/. The man pages on the plumber are reasonably good, once you know where you’re going.

Acme as your terminal

One (more) peculiarity about Plan 9 and Acme: they do away with all the Terminal Emulation crap.4 Many Plan9 programs will list “dumb” as their terminal type. Way to go.

This is important to keep in mind when running a Win terminal in Acme. It’s a very different experience from what you’re used to: this is still a text window. You can edit everything, even history, with full mouse support. Any text in the window can be highlighted and executed via the middle button, and will be added to the terminal session.
Being able to edit a long CLI invocation with the mouse seems totally natural, but is sadly lacking in (most?) terminal emulators.

However, some Unix/Linux commands are wired to use terminal emulation and pagers, and won’t work too well on Acme Win. You’ll get a fair warning:

WARNING: terminal is not fully functional
-  (press RETURN)

This will happen, for example, if you try to do a git diff inside a repo folder. You could get around this by setting the PAGER environment var to p, a pager that comes installed with Plan9 Port and does not rely on terminal emulation.
Another solution is to the use plumber once again, to pipe the output of git to a new window:

git diff | plumb -i -d edit

zsh on Acme

zsh, which is the default on macOS and ubiquitous these days, shows a strange character sequence on the prompt, in Win:

Mac-Mini-2 ~ % [?2004h

You can easily google or stack-overflow this to find that the ^[[?2004h and ^[[?2004l control sequences turn bracketed paste mode on/off. This mode doesn’t play well with “dumb” terminals.

You can deactivate it with unset zle_bracketed_paste

Acme on Windows WSL

Arguably, running Debian on WSL2 on a Windows machine may be a better Unix experience than macOS. Strange times!

It’s not difficult to get Acme running smoothly on WSL2. You can find a nice general discussion in this donationcoder thread.

What you need:

  1. Get yourself an X client. For example I got x410.
  2. Set the DISPLAY environment variable to specify the location of the X server.

In WSL1, export DISPLAY=:0 worked. In WSL2, you should use the nameserver IP address created by WSL.

This works:

export DISPLAY=$(cat /etc/resolv.conf | grep nameserver | awk '{print $2; exit;}'):0.0

You can add it to your login shell startup script.

The Go port of Acme

This hasn’t been advertised much, and I only heard about it by chance in the recent interview Dev Tool Time with Roger Peppé.

You can find the new port of Acme written in Go in the 9fans go repo. The editor is in the cmd/acme directory, not the top-level acme folder (which contains utils).

This is not the first effort to port Acme to Go, but being driven by Russ Cox, this one feels as official as it could be. It’s already working decently.

To build and use, clone the repo and cd into it, then

go build -o acmePort 9fans.net/go/cmd/acme

and move the executable (however you’ve named it) to some place in your PATH.

You can also run directly with go:

go run 9fans.net/go/cmd/acme

Changing the font

There’s no config file for Acme, and no config menus. You set the font via CLI arguments.

The fonts will be served to Acme through fontsrv, which is installed with Plan9 Port. To find out the filenames of available fonts: fontsrv -p . (don’t forget the dot.) The filenames are long, so it’s a good idea to save the one you want to use as an environment variable in your shell startup.

For example I use the font Input, set

export FONT=/mnt/font/InputMonoNarrow-Regular/20a/font

in my .zlogin, and then simply call:

acme -a -f $FONT &

Motivation, getting started, finding information

The best way to see if learning Acme might interest you is to watch Russ Cox’s video A Tour of the Acme Editor.

One of the principles of Acme and other Plan9 programs was to take advantage of the mouse. This is in sharp contrast with the keyboard-heavy ethos of vi or emacs. The evidence on mouse-driven vs. keyboard-driven is not clear5, but personally I’ll say that remembering so many commands and so many modes in emacs/vi gets tiring. Acme has fewer but more powerful primitives.

The Plan9 Port page has all the information you need to get the system installed and running.

Acme and the other Plan9 Port utilities are not widely used. This makes it more difficult to find information about them, but it’s also satisfying to be so removed from the stack-overflow instant-answer industrial complex.

The plan9port-dev mailing list is not really the place for beginner questions, but the searchable archives are very useful, and the people are helpful.

There’s also this directory: mailing lists.

For background, place in the world, and a good rant, I like Cat-v. Good rants are underrated.


  1. yes, really, porcelain is the term that gets used for git UI. Oh well. ↩︎

  2. plumber, as well as plumb, are installed as part of Plan9 Port. If you added $PLAN9/bin to your PATH, you should see them. plumber requires no arguments, and daemonizes. ↩︎

  3. lifted verbatim from user squeek in a discussion on plan9port-dev ↩︎

  4. The UNIX Haters Handbook has much to say here that I agree with (see § 6. Terminal Insanity) – though I’m no UNIX Hater. ↩︎

  5. Dan Luu has a post on keyboard vs mouse. ↩︎

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