The Text Triumvirate
zsh vim unix

The Triumviri

In 62 BC, Caesar united a political alliance between himself, the statesman Crassus, and the military general Pompey. Together, the three men formed a secret political faction called the Triumvirate that ruled the Roman Republic. The Text Triumvirate is an alliance between the zsh, vim, and tmux. Each of these venerable tools is extremely powerful in its own right; however, together they are an unmatched productivity force that rules all forms of text manipulation. This post aims to provide an overview of how to create a highly functional and easy to configure Text Triumvirate for those new to this tool chain. I try to focus on aspects of how to integrate zsh, vim, and tmux with particular focus on my experiences with two common problems—copy/paste functionality and color aesthetics.

  • Opinions
  • Aesthetics
  • Setup
  • zsh
  • vim
  • tmux
  • Plug-ins
  • Opinions

    Just like Rands, I’m rabid foaming at the mouth crazy about my tools. I think the Text Triumvirate is the most powerful tool chain available for text manipulation. If you don’t use this tool chain, I would encourage you to drink the Kool-Aid and try the Text Triumvirate. I think you owe it to yourself if you spend hours each day wrangling text. At first it may be awkward to switch tools, but your diligence will be rewarded. The benefits to using zsh, vim, and tmux is that they are free, fast, endlessly customizable, work on any operating system, function in remote environments, are capable of remote pair programming, and are deeply integrated with one another and all of Unix. The net result is greater efficiency and organization with all things text. The tool chain can be managed entirely by git and cloned onto a remote server or a new machine within a few seconds. Together, these advantages have made me a faster and more productive writer and coder.

    One of the great advantages to the Text Triumvirate is the ubiquitous use of the split model for managing working environments. Split model management allows tmux to act as glue to organize work flows. I find by the end of a day I usually have several shell windows and a huge number of scratch files, data files, source code files, documentation files, and databases open. It’s a huge pain to close each window only to come back the next day to open all the same files again. tmux and vim allows dozens of panes and windows to be open around a particular project and if you wish to switch to working on an entirely different project you can detach from those windows, go to another project, and then reattach to your first project in the same state you left it. I generally have multiple projects for both work and personal that I’m working on at a given time. The ability to attach and detach for working environments is essential.1

    Where we are going—zsh and vim wrapped in tmux awesome sauce:


    The tmux session above has three windows named demo, docs, and scatch, however only the top most demo window is visable in the screenshot. In this window there are four splits. The top left split is a Z-shell window, the bottom left window has an interactive python session, the top right window is running vim with python code, and the bottom right window contains markdown documentation.


    I suggest setting up the Text Triumvirate with two color themes—one theme for work projects and another theme for personal projects. I make heavy use of context-dependent memory, so using two themes helps me a great deal with cognition and demarcating work projects from personal projects. Below is what my personal theme (left) and work theme (right) look like. Both themes are versions of Ethan Schoonover’s solarized project. I use the dark theme for play because I usually work on my own projects in the morning or evening when it’s dark outside. A dark theme is much easier on my eyes at these times. For fonts, I used 14 point Inconsolata.2



    The first thing to do is remap the Capslock key to the Control key. The Capslock is a vestige from the past and it’s important to make better usage of the valuable keyboard real estate. tmux in particular makes heavy usage of the Control key, so it’s helpful to remap Control to a more ergonomic position.

    To generate a respectable working environment for the Triumvirate, download the iTerm2 terminal emulator. iTerm2 has a number of performance enhancements, features, and customizations over the stock Once you start using iTerm2, go back and read the full docs to see its capabilities. One useful feature is Command-?, which overlays a nice visual for finding your current cursor position quickly. Most of iTerm2’s really cool features are outside the scope of this post. Make sure you check out iTerm2’s instant replay, regex search, click to open URLs, and jump to mark features.

    Once iTerm2 is installed, add both light and dark solarized themes. The solarized repo has iTerm2 color palettes and instructions for configuring the themes in iTerm2, so it’s straight-forward to setup. Another helpful iTerm2 configuration is to enable a system-wide key-binding that bring iTerm2 forward to the front most window. I find it faster to setup an explicit binding rather than using the Application Switcher to toggle through applications. This shortcut is set in Preferences > Keys and I use Option-t as my binding. The other customization I would suggest is to uncheck the iTerm2 bell sound under Profiles > Terminal > Notifications.

    Since the Text Triumvirate is highly keyboard-centric, it is prudent to map out a sane key-binding strategy for iTerm, zsh, vim, tmux, and any other tools you use before configuring and committing your own bindings to muscle memory. For window movements, I use the Option key. Option-t brings iTerm2 to the front, Option-i brings Twitter to the front, etc. I also use Moom as my tiling manager on OS X with all shortcuts configured with the Option key to send windows to specific displays or destinations on the screen.3

    Next up, install Homebrew and then use Homebrew to install git, MacVim, tmux, and reattach-to-user-namespace. The purpose of installing MacVim is twofold. For one, the default vim that ships with OS X seems slow for a lot of people. I’ve found using the vim distribution that ships with MacVim to be much faster than the OS X version. The added advantage of installing MacVim is you will get a newer version of vim on your system. Secondly, copy/paste do not work optimally with the version of vim that ships with OS X.

    Once git is installed, initialize a new repo for storing the Text Triumvirate config files. My repo is called dotfiles and contains all my configurations for zsh, vim, and tmux. Read Pro Git or Git Immersion if you don’t know how to setup version control for your files.


    Many great posts have been written about how to use zsh and why zsh is superior to bash.4 zsh basically has all of the functionality of bash as well as quite a few additional features. I use zsh over bash because it has extended globbing, superior tab completion, built-in spell correction, a better calculator (zcalc), and a built-in batch file renaming tool (zmv). The other killer zsh feature is oh-my-zsh—a community driven framework for zsh. oh-my-zsh comes prepackaged with very nice themes, plugins, and customizations that make zsh extremely powerful.5 If you take away nothing else from this post install iTerm2 and use zsh as your default shell.

    I store my .zshrc, .vimrc, and .tmux.conf configuration files within my dotfiles directory and then symlink them to my home directory. This approach allows zsh, vim, and tmux customizations to be maintained all in one directory under version control. Since the Text Triumvirate uses vim, it makes sense to setup zsh and tmux to also use vim and vim key bindings and use vim as the default editor. Add these lines to the .zshrc file for vim support in zsh:

    export EDITOR="vim"
    bindkey -v 
    # vi style incremental search
    bindkey '^R' history-incremental-search-backward
    bindkey '^S' history-incremental-search-forward
    bindkey '^P' history-search-backward
    bindkey '^N' history-search-forward  

    While zsh supports most bash commands, it also supports a more intelligent collection of commands. For example, if you want to move inside a directory in bash you would type cd foo. In zsh you can just type foo if you add this line to your .zshrc:

    setopt AUTO_CD

    To setup a nice prompt, I used Steve Losh’s excellent prompt as a guide and then made a few minor modifications. Simply create a new theme file within oh-my-zsh/themes/ and add a line to your zshrc file referencing the name of your theme (ZSH_THEME=bunsen). Here is my version of Steve’s prompt:

    function virtualenv_info {
        [ $VIRTUAL_ENV ] && echo '('`basename $VIRTUAL_ENV`') '
    function box_name {
        [ -f ~/.box-name ] && cat ~/.box-name || hostname -s
    %{$fg[magenta]%}%n%{$reset_color%} at %{$fg[yellow]%}$(box_name)%{$reset_color%} in %{$
    $(virtualenv_info)%(?,,%{${fg_bold[blue]}%}[%?]%{$reset_color%} )$ '
    ZSH_THEME_GIT_PROMPT_PREFIX=" on %{$fg[magenta]%}"
    local return_status="%{$fg[red]%}%(?..⤬)%{$reset_color%}"


    I’m going to focus specifically on aspects of integrating vim with the Text Triumvirate rather than vim itself. To get solarized integration with vim, install the vim solarized plugin and then append these lines to your vimrc:

    syntax enable
    let g:solarized_termtrans = 1
    colorscheme solarized

    Color management in the terminal can be tricky. On my system, I had to explicitly add let g:solarized_termtrans = 1 to get the proper color rendering in terminal vim. Solarized provides a built in background function to toggle light and dark themes using the <F5> function, so if you want this functionality add the last line. Inside vim you can also run :set background=dark or :set background=light to achieve the same functionality.

    vim handles copy/paste somewhat differently than GUI-based text editors. Instead of a single copy/paste system, vim has numerous copy registers and a couple paste modes. I’ve added the following lines to my vimrc to make copy/paste with the system more intuitive.

    " Yank text to the OS X clipboard
    noremap <leader>y "*y
    noremap <leader>yy "*Y
    " Preserve indentation while pasting text from the OS X clipboard
    noremap <leader>p :set paste<CR>:put  *<CR>:set nopaste<CR>

    The above mappings make using the OS X system clipboard much more accessible. The first two commands yank selected text or a line into the system clipboard, respectively. The last line maintains the formatting of text pasted into vim. In practice I don’t find that I paste a great deal of text in and out of vim. If I need to share code I usually use the vim gist plugin, which is faster than copy/paste.


    tmux is the glue that holds the Text Triumvirate together. I’ve only started using tmux within the last month, but I’m amazed at how indespensible it now is to my workflow. Here is the wikipedia description of tmux:

    tmux is a software application that can be used to multiplex several virtual consoles, allowing a user to access multiple separate terminal sessions inside a single terminal window or remote terminal session. It is useful for dealing with multiple programs from a command line interface, and for separating programs from the Unix shell that started the program.

    Essentially, tmux allows you to create sessions, which you can attach and detach from whenever you like. tmux is invaluable because you can organize your work contextually.

    Just like vim, the most difficult aspects of setting up and using tmux is color management and copy/paste functionality with the system clipboard. It’s straight forward to generate the proper solarized colors by making sure tmux knows you are using 256 colors. Add this line to your tmux.conf file:

    set -g default-terminal "screen-256color"

    For copy/paste, tmux has a special copy mode. Copy mode tmux commands start with a prefix key. By default the tmux prefix key is Control-b. Most people, myself included, remap the prefix to Control-a because it’s much easier to touch type and it is also the default binding of GNU screen. When you see me refer to prefix below, it means Control-a. So <prefix> c means: type Control-a and then c.

    Copy/paste inside tmux is completely broken on OS X. Fortunately, Chris Johnsen created a nice patch called reattach-to-user-namespace that is easy to install via Homebrew. The people at Thoughtbot have a number of helpful blog posts explaining how to use tmux and how to get copy/paste functionality working (see here and here). Even with these instructions I didn’t initially grasp how to use tmux with the OS X clipboard system, so here’s what you need add to your tmux.conf file after reattach-to-user-namespace is installed:

    set -g default-command "reattach-to-user-namespace -l zsh"
    set -g mode-mouse on
    setw -g mouse-select-window on
    setw -g mouse-select-pane on
    # Copy mode
    setw -g mode-keys vi
    bind ` copy-mode
    unbind [
    unbind p
    bind p paste-buffer
    bind -t vi-copy v begin-selection
    bind -t vi-copy y copy-selection
    bind -t vi-copy Escape cancel
    bind y run "tmux save-buffer - | reattach-to-user-namespace pbcopy"

    The first line configures tmux to use the wrapper program to start zsh for each new tmux window that is opened. The next three lines are my personal preferences for mouse handling inside tmux. You can keep or discard these lines depending on your preferences. The real meat and potatoes are the next ten lines that deal with copy mode.

    tmux has it’s own copy/paste buffers in addition to the vim copy/paste buffers, and OS X copy/paste. To work efficiently with tmux buffers, enter copy mode with `. I've remapped the default copy bindings to use the analgous vi bindings. To place text into a tmux copy/paste buffer, enter copy mode and select the text to copy using v to make a selection and then y to yank the selection. At this point, the text is in a tmux copy/paste buffer. Running <prefix> p will paste the text. However, if you want the text in the OS X copy/paste buffer, run <prefix> y.


    I would be remiss if I didn't mention some of the incredible open source projects that integrate especially well the Text Triumvirate. Rather than explaining each tool in-depth, here are links to some of my favorite projects with abridged descriptions:

    • Ack—better than grep
    • Autojump—directory navigation
    • Command-t—vim plugin for fuzzy search; (link to setting up with tmux)
    • Formd—my own markdown link formatting tool for prose
    • Pandoc—markup format conversion
    • Poweline-vim—customized vim statusbar
    • Pianobar—terminal Pandora music player
    • pdfgrep—grep for PDF files
    • shelr—screen recording in the shell
    • vimux—interact with tmux from vim
    • virtualenv—Python virtual environment builder
    • wemux—multi-user multiplexing
    • yadr—an opinionated zsh, MacVim, and git configuration


    Several people have contacted me asking how to setup tmux with the attractive status bar I displayed in the above screenshot. I learned how to do this from the wemux project. Assuming you have installed vim-powerline and are using patched fonts, you can simply append the following lines your your .tmux.conf file to get my status bar style. Thanks Matt Furden!

    set -g status-left-length 52
    set -g status-right-length 451
    set -g status-fg white
    set -g status-bg colour234
    set -g window-status-activity-attr bold
    set -g pane-border-fg colour245
    set -g pane-active-border-fg colour39
    set -g message-fg colour16
    set -g message-bg colour221
    set -g message-attr bold
    set -g status-left '#[fg=colour235,bg=colour252,bold] ❐ #S
    #[fg=colour252,bg=colour238,nobold]⮀#[fg=colour245,bg=colour238,bold] #(whoami)
    set -g window-status-format "#[fg=white,bg=colour234] #I #W "
    set -g window-status-current-format
    "#[fg=colour234,bg=colour39]⮀#[fg=colour25,bg=colour39,noreverse,bold] #I ⮁ #W

    1. The Thoughtbot blog has a nice overview of how windows and splits/panes work in tmux. ↩

    2. Dan Benjamin has a useful post highlighting a number of great monospace fonts. ↩

    3. For tiling hotkeys I follow a Cartesian coordinate system representing the four quadrants. Option-1—upper-right quadrant, Option-2—upper-left, etc. Moom also has excellent multi-display capabilities and supports sending windows to other displays. ↩

    4. A few phenomonal Z-shell resouces include: My Extravagant Zsh Prompt, zsh-lovers, Bash in minds with zsh, and Zzappers best of zsh tips. ↩

    5. Some people find that Robby Russell's oh-my-zsh slows down zsh. I've never found it to be a problem, but if you do, consider using Sorin's oh-my-zsh fork. ↩