Linux Fu: The Kitchen Sync

One of the great things about Linux and similar operating systems is they are configurable. If you don’t like something, there’s a great chance you can change it easily with a few entries in a file somewhere. For example, take bash — a very popular shell by any measure. If you want a different style of command line editing, there’s an option. You want the tab key to match files regardless of case? Another option. Usually, these are set in one of your so-called profile files like .bashrc in your home directory.

As long as you are sitting in front of your single computer working, this is great. You customize your .bashrc and other files to your heart’s content and then you work in an environment that acts the way you want it to. The problem is when you have a lot of computers. Maybe you have a web server, a desktop, a firewall machine, and a few dozen Raspberry Pi computers. How do you keep all the configurations the same? Then once they are the same, how do you keep them up to date?

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Linux Fu: Marker is a Command Line Menu

The command line. You either love it or hate it, but if you do anything with a Unix-like system you are going to have to use it eventually. You might find marker — a system billed as a “command palette for the terminal” — a useful program to install. We couldn’t decide if it was like command history on steroids or more of a bookmark system. In a way, it is a little of both.

Your history rolls off eventually and also contains a lot of small commands (although you can use the HISTIGNORE variable to ignore particular commands). With marker, you save specific commands and they stay saved. There are no extra commands nor do the ones you save ever roll off.

Of course, you could just make a shell script or an alias if that’s all there was to it. Marker lets you add a description to the command and then you can search through the commands and the descriptions using a fuzzy incremental search. In addition, you can put placeholders into your command lines that are easily replaced. There are some built-in commands to get you started and the same bookmarks will work in bash and zsh, if you use both.

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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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