Using iex's open() command with Emacs multiterm

code better • have fun

(tldr; I can now open Elixir source files from inside iex, and have them pop up in an Emacs buffer alongside my terminal buffer.)

Multiterm with iex open from Dave Thomas on Vimeo.


My name is Dave Thomas and I use Emacs.

There, I’ve said it.

And when I switched from an 17” to a 13” laptop, I got into trouble, because I couldn’t easily manage terminal windows and Emacs windows side-by-side.1

So I investigated ways of using terminals inside Emacs. It took a surprisingly long time to get a setup that worked the way I wanted, but now I use it pretty much exclusively. When I’m coding, I have an Emacs frame full screen, with editor buffers and terminal windows opened (and managed inside it).

My setup uses term-mode inside Emacs, and some fish shell config on the outside to bind things nicely together. For example, I have an e shell function which takes a file name and an optional line number, and it opens an Emacs buffer on that file and line.

Integrate with IEx

IEx 1.5 comes with a new open function. You give it a module (with an optional function name) and it opens an editor on the file that contains it. This can be easily customized: Chris McCord has written about his setup with Emacs. However, he uses a terminal-based Emacs, and I wanted to use windowing.

So here’s what I did.

Create A Simple Shell Function

When you all “open Fred.func” in IEx, it looks for the source file that contains the Fred module, then opens an external editor, setting the cursor to the line containing the start of func1.

It finds the name of the editor program by reading the environment variable ELIXIR_EDITOR. It then invokes the editor, passing the name of the file, colon, and the line number.

Normally, you’d set ELIXIR_EDITOR to vi, or atom, or whatever. In my case, through, I needed IEx not to run a program. Instead I wanted it to tell Emacs to open the file in a new window.

To do this, I defined ELIXIR_EDITOR to be a simple echo command that simple wrote the name of the file to be edited, prepended by a magic escape sequence. The convention used by term-mode is to start the sequence \eAnSiT, so I wrote:

set -gx ELIXIR_EDITOR 'echo "\033A\nSiTe"'

Intercept This Sequence in Emacs

term-mode provides a hook that lets you intercept ANSI escape sequences. This is normally used to track and display the directory name in the buffer containing the terminal. However, in my Emacs initialization I have:

  (defun term-handle-ansi-terminal-messages (message)
    (while (string-match "\eAnSiT.+\n" message)

      ;; Extract the command code and the argument.
      (let* ((start (match-beginning 0))
             (command-code (aref message (+ start 6)))
                (substring message
                           (+ start 8)
                           (string-match "\r?\n" message
                                         (+ start 8))))))
        ;; Delete this command from MESSAGE.
        (setq message (replace-match "" t t message))

        (cond ((= command-code ?c)
               (setq term-ansi-at-dir argument))
              ((= command-code ?h)
               (setq term-ansi-at-host argument))
              ((= command-code ?u)
               (setq term-ansi-at-user argument))

;;; this is the code that handles the edit function ;;;

              ((= command-code ?e)
                 (dt-find-file-with-line argument))))))
    (when (and term-ansi-at-host term-ansi-at-dir term-ansi-at-user)
      (setq buffer-file-name
            (format "%[email protected]%s:%s" term-ansi-at-user term-ansi-at-host term-ansi-at-dir))
      (set-buffer-modified-p nil)
      (setq default-directory (if (string= term-ansi-at-host (system-name))
                                  (concatenate 'string term-ansi-at-dir "/")
                                (format "/%[email protected]%s:%s/" term-ansi-at-user term-ansi-at-host term-ansi-at-dir)))
      (setq truncated-dir-name (truncate-dir-name default-directory)))

The three lines of code look for the e at the end of the ANSI escape sequence, then call dt-find-file-with-line passing the file name and line number.

(defun dt-find-file-with-line (file-line-string)
  (let* ((dt-file-line (split-string file-line-string ":"))
         (dt-file      (car dt-file-line))
         (dt-line      (or (cadr dt-file-line) "1"))
         (dt-buffer    (find-file-other-window dt-file)))

    (switch-to-buffer dt-buffer)
    (goto-char (point-min))
    (forward-line (- (string-to-int dt-line) 1))
    (run-with-idle-timer 0
                         (lambda (buffer)
                                 (switch-to-buffer-other-window buffer))

This function simply splits the argument into a file name and line number, loads the file into a buffer, and sets the cursor to the start of that line in the buffer.

One problem is that term-mode expects to be in its own buffer when we return from processing the escape sequence, so I add an idle timer which switches to the new buffer once term-mode has finished doing its stuff.

  1. I use the GUI version of Emacs because it gives me better OS X integration.