Linux Fu: Modernize Your Command Line

If you use Linux and its associated tools on the desktop or on a Raspberry Pi, or on a server, you probably have used the command line. Some people love it and some people hate it. However, many of us have been using Linux for years and sometimes Unix before that, and we tend to use the same old tried-and-true tools. [Remy Sharp] had a recent post talking about how he had created aliases to replace those old tools with great modern replacements and it is definitely worth a read.

We’ll be honest, when we first saw the post we almost skipped reading it. A lot of Linux tip posts are pretty uninteresting unless you are a total beginner. But [Remy] has a lot of really great tools and how he has them installed including bat, which is like cat but with syntax coloring (see picture above), and fzf — a command line history search on steroids. He even shows how to join fzf and bat to make a very cool file browser from the command line (see below).

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Linux Fu: Scripting for Binary Files

If you ever need to write a binary file from a traditional language like C, it isn’t all that hard to do. About the worst thing you might have to deal with is attempts to fake line endings across Windows and Linux, but there’s usually a way to turn that off if it is on by default. However, if you are using some type of scripting language, binary file support might be a bit more difficult. One answer is to use a tool like xxd or t2b (text-to-binary) to handle the details. You can find the code for t2b on GitHub including prebuilt binaries for many platforms. You should be able to install xxd from your system repository.

These tools take very different approaches. You might be familiar with tools like od or hexdump for producing readable representations of binary files. The xxd tool can actually do the same thing — although it is not as flexible. What xxd can even reverse itself so that it can rebuild a binary file from a hex dump it creates (something other tools can’t do). The t2b tool takes a much different approach. You issue commands to it that causes it to write an original hex file.

Both of these approaches have some merit. If you are editing a binary file in a scripting language, xxd makes perfect sense. You can convert the file to text, process it, and then roll it back to binary using one program. On the other hand, if you are creating a binary file from scratch, the t2b program has some advantages, too.

I decided to write a few test scripts using bash to show how it all works. These aren’t production scripts so they won’t be as hardened as they could be, but there is no reason they couldn’t be made as robust as you were willing to make them.

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Software Development in… Bash

Truly good ideas tend to apply in all situations. The phrase is “never run with scissors”, not “don’t run with scissors unless you are just going into the next room.” Software development methodology is a good idea and most of us have our choice of tools. But what if you are developing a significant amount of bash or similar script? Should you just wing it because bash isn’t a “real” programming language? [Oscar] says no, and if you are writing more than two or three lines of script, we agree.

We’ve made the argument before (and many of you have disagreed) that bash is a programming language. Maybe not the greatest and certainly not the sexiest, but bash is near ubiquitous on certain kinds of systems and for many tasks is pretty productive. [Oscar] shows how he uses a source code formatter, a linter, and a unit test framework to bring bash scripting in line with modern software development. We are pretty sure he uses source control, too, but that seems so elementary that it doesn’t come up outside of a link to his repository in GitHub.

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Linux Fu: A Little Help for Bash

It isn’t uncommon these days for a programmer’s editor to offer you help about what you are typing, ranging from a pop up with choices to a full-blown code template. If you have written a million lines of code in the language, this might even annoy you. However, if you use it only occasionally, these can be very helpful. I’ve used Unix and Linux for many years, but I realize that there are people who don’t use it every day. With the Raspberry Pi, Linux servers, and Windows 10 having a bash shell, there are more people using a shell “every once in a while” than ever before. Could you use a little help? If so, you might try bashelp: a little something I put together while writing about bash completion.

There’s good news and bad news. The good news is that Unix has a built-in help command — man — and has for some time. The bad news is that you need to stop what you are typing and enter a man command to use it. Man, by the way, is short for manual.

There are GUI front-ends to man (like yelp, on the left) and you can even use a web browser locally or remotely. However, none of these are connected to what you are typing. You have to move to another window, enter your search term, then go back to your typing. That got me to thinking about how to get a sort of context-sensitive inline help for bash.

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Linux Fu: Custom Bash Command Completion

If you aren’t a Linux user and you watch someone who knows what they are doing use Bash — the popular command line interpreter — you might get the impression they type much faster than they actually do. That’s because experienced Linux users know that pressing the tab key will tend to complete what they are typing, so you can type just a few characters and get a much longer line of text. The feature is very smart so you may not have realized it, but it knows a good bit about what you could type. For example, if you try to unzip a file, it knows the expected file name probably has a .zip extension.

How does that happen? At first, you might think, “who cares how it happens?” The problem is when you write a shell script or a program that runs on Linux, the completion gets dumb. Someone has to make Bash smart about each command line program and if you are the author then that someone is you.

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Linux Fu: Better Bash Scripting

It is easy to dismiss bash — the typical Linux shell program — as just a command prompt that allows scripting. Bash, however, is a full-blown programming language. I wouldn’t presume to tell you that it is as fast as a compiled C program, but that’s not why it exists. While a lot of people use shell scripts as an analog to a batch file in MSDOS, it can do so much more than that. Contrary to what you might think after a casual glance, it is entirely possible to write scripts that are reliable and robust enough to use in many embedded systems on a Raspberry Pi or similar computer.

I say that because sometimes bash gets a bad reputation. For one thing, it emphasizes ease-of-use. So while it has features that can promote making a robust script, you have to know to turn those features on. Another issue is that a lot of the functionality you’ll use in writing a bash script doesn’t come from bash, it comes from Linux commands (or whatever environment you are using; I’m going to assume some Linux distribution). If those programs do bad things, that isn’t a problem specific to bash.

One other limiting issue to bash is that many people (and I’m one of them) tend to write scripts using constructs that are compatible with older shells. Often times bash can do things better or neater, but we still use the older ways. For example:

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Stupid Git Tricks

My apologies if you speak the Queen’s English since that title probably has a whole different meaning to you than I intended. In fact, I’m talking about Git, the version control system. Last time I talked about how the program came to be and offered you a few tutorials. If you are a dyed-in-the-wool software developer, you probably don’t need to be convinced to use Git. But even if you aren’t, there are a lot of things you can do with Git that don’t fit the usual mold.

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