A book about the command line for humans.
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  1. general purpose programmering ================================

I didn't set out to write a book about programming, as such, but because programming and the command line are so inextricably linked, this text draws near the subject almost of its own accord.

If you're not terribly interested in programming, this chapter can easily enough be skipped. It's more in the way of philosophical rambling than concrete instruction, and will be of most use to those with an existing background in writing code.

-> ✢ <-

If you've used computers for more than a few years, you're probably viscerally aware that most software is fragile and most systems decay. In the time since I took my first tentative steps into the little world of a computer (a friend's dad's unidentifiable gaming machine, my own father's blue monochrome Zenith laptop, the Apple II) the churn has been overwhelming. By now I've learned my way around vastly more software --- operating systems, programming languages and development environments, games, editors, chat clients, mail systems --- than I presently could use if I wanted to. Most of it has gone the way of some ancient civilization, surviving (if at all) only in faint, half-understood cultural echoes and occasional museum-piece displays. Every user of technology becomes, in time, a refugee from an irretrievably recent past.

And yet, despite all this, the shell endures. Most of the ideas in this book are older than I am. Most of them could have been applied in 1994 or thereabouts, when I first logged on to multiuser systems running AT&T Unix. Since the early 1990s, systems built on a fundamental substrate of Unix-like behavior and abstractions have proliferated wildly, becoming foundational at once to the modern web, the ecosystem of free and open software, and the technological dominance ca. 2014 of companies like Apple, Google, and Facebook.

Why is this, exactly?

-> ✣ <-

As I've said (and hopefully shown), the commands you write in your shell are essentially little programs. Like other programs, they can be stored for later use and recombined with other commands, creating new uses for your ideas.

It would be hard to say that there's any one reason command line environments remain so vital after decades of evolution and hard-won refinement in computer interfaces, but it seems like this combinatory nature is somewhere near the heart of it. The command line often lacks the polish of other interfaces we depend on, but in exchange it offers a richness and freedom of expression rarely seen elsewhere, and invites its users to build upon its basic facilities.

What is it that makes last chapter's addprop preferable to the more specific markpoem? Let's look at an alternative implementation of markpoem:

$ cat simple_markpoem

addprop $1 meta-ok-poem

Is this script trivial? Absolutely. It's so trivial that it barely seems to exist, because I already wrote addprop to do all the heavy lifting and play well with others, freeing us to imagine new uses for its central idea without worrying about the implementation details.

Unlike markpoem, addprop doesn't know anything about poetry. All it knows about, in fact, is putting a file (or three) in a particular place. And this is in keeping with a basic insight of Unix: Pieces of software that do one very simple thing generalize well. Good command line tools are like a hex wrench, a hammer, a utility knife: They embody knowledge of turning, of striking, of cutting --- and with this kind of knowledge at hand, the user can change the world even though no individual tool is made with complete knowledge of the world as a whole. There's a lot of power in the accumulation of small competencies.

Of course, if your code is only good at one thing, to be of any use, it has to talk to code that's good at other things. There's another basic insight in the Unix tradition: Tools should be composable. All those little programs have to share some assumptions, have to speak some kind of trade language, in order to combine usefully. Which is how we've arrived at standard IO, pipelines, filesystems, and text as as a lowest-common-denominator medium of exchange. If you think about most of these things, they have some very rough edges, but they give otherwise simple tools ways to communicate without becoming super-complicated along the way.

-> ✤ <-

What is the command line?

The command line is an environment of tool use.

So are kitchens, workshops, libraries, and programming languages.

-> ✥ <-

Here's a confession: I don't like writing shell scripts very much, and I can't blame anyone else for feeling the same way.

That doesn't mean you shouldn't know about them, or that you shouldn't write them. I write little ones all the time, and the ability to puzzle through other people's scripts comes in handy. Oftentimes, the best, most tasteful way to automate something is to build a script out of the commonly available commands. The standard tools are already there on millions of machines. Many of them have been pretty well understood for a generation, and most will probably be around for a generation or three to come. They do neat stuff. Scripts let you build on ideas you've already worked out, and give repeatable operations a memorable, user-friendly name. They encourage reuse of existing programs, and help express your ideas to people who'll come after you.

One of the reliable markers of powerful software is that it can be scripted: It extends to its users some of the same power that its authors used in creating it. Scriptable software is to some extent living software. It's a book that you, the reader, get to help write.

In all these ways, shell scripts are wonderful, a little bit magical, and quietly indispensable to the machinery of modern civilization.

Unfortunately, in all the ways that a shell like Bash is weird, finicky, and covered in 40 years of incidental cruft, long-form Bash scripts are even worse. Bash is a useful glue language, particularly if you're already comfortable wiring commands together. Syntactic and conceptual innovations like pipes are beautiful and necessary. What Bash is not, despite its power, is a very good general purpose programming language. It's just not especially good at things like math, or complex data structures, or not looking like a punctuation-heavy variety of alphabet soup.

It turns out that there's a threshold of complexity beyond which life becomes easier if you switch from shell scripting to a more robust language. Just where this threshold is located varies a lot between users and problems, but I often think about switching languages before a script gets bigger than I can view on my screen all at once. addprop is a good example:

$ wc -l ../script/addprop
41 ../script/addprop

41 lines is a touch over what fits on one screen in the editor I usually use. If I were going to add much in the way of features, I'd think pretty hard about porting it to another language first.

What's cool is that if you know a language like C, Python, Perl, Ruby, PHP, or JavaScript, your code can participate in the shell environment as a first class citizen simply by respecting the conventions of standard IO, files, and command line arguments. Often, in order to create a useful utility, it's only necessary to deal with STDIN, or operate on a particular sort of file, and most languages offer simple conventions for doing these things.

-> * <-

I think the shell can be taught and understood as a humane environment, despite all of its ugliness and complication, because it offers the materials of its own construction to its users, whatever their concerns. The writer, the philosopher, the scientist, the programmer: Files and text and pipes know little enough about these things, but in their very indifference to the specifics of any one complex purpose, they're adaptable to the basic needs of many. Simple utilities which enact simple kinds of knowledge survive and recombine because there is a wisdom to be found in small things.

Files and text know nothing about poetry, nothing in particular of the human soul. Neither do pen and ink, printing presses or codex books, but somehow we got Shakespeare and Montaigne.