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Mar 092018

One of the things that annoys me about pagers such as lessmore, most, etc. is that they are dumb in the sense that they cannot detect the format of the text file they are displaying. For example, all of a sudden I find myself reading lots of markdown-formatted files, and I find myself using most to display it – never remembering that it is mdv I want.

As it happens, when I invoke a pager at the shell prompt, I typically use an alias (page or pg) to invoke a preferred pager, and by extending this functionality into a function I can start to approach what I want :-

function extension {
  printf "%s\n" ${argv/*\./}

function page {
 if [[ -z $argv ]]
   case $(extension $argv) in
       mdv -A $argv | $PAGER
       groff -m mandoc -Tutf8 $argv | $PAGER
       $PAGER $argv

Of course there are undoubtedly umpteen errors in that, and probably better ways to do it too. And it won’t work properly on its own ($PAGER hasn’t been set).
But it’s the start of something I can use to display all sorts of text files in a terminal window without having to remember all those commands. But as for ‘intelligent’, nope it’s not that – just a bit smarter than the average pager.

Dec 102015


You have a a column of numbers that you have produced in some manner such as :-

$ awk '/clean message/ {print $(NF-1)}'

And you want a quick and dirty way of finding the largest number. Well there is a way but it is perhaps the least efficient way to do it, and that is to sort the numbers into numerical order and use “head” to display the first one :-

$ awk '/clean message/ {print $(NF-1)}' | sort -rn | head -1

But frankly there must be a better method. And yes there is if you happen to be using zsh (or possibly others, but this has been tested with zsh). Simply iterate over the values assigning the current value to the “max” variable if the current variable is larger :-

$ max=0; for x in $(awk '/clean message/ {print $(NF-1)}'; [[ $x -gt $max ]] && max=$x; echo $max

You may be wondering why I don’t simply use the ability of awk to perform calculations. Well that is certainly possible, but I may not always be using awk to produce the numbers in the first place, and this is supposed to be a generic recipe.

Jul 032014

It is nice to make a shell environment more pleasant to use in many ways, but it is also helpful to ensure that the process degrades gracefully …

For example, I have a section in my .zshrc which creates an ls alias to use human-readable values, and to colourise the output :-

ls --color=auto > /dev/null 2>&1
#       Just collect the exit status ...
if [ "$?" = 0 ]
  # If there is no error then use the --color option
  alias ls='ls -h --color=auto'
  alias ls='ls -h'

Thus when logging into a system that has an ls command that lacks the –color option, the alias will not create an ls command that immediately fails. Now whilst such systems are getting rather more rare than in the past, this graceful degradation is still useful as a principle. Whether creating shell aliases, or more generally.

As another example, I have a shell alias (page or also pg) that I use to invoke a “pager” like more, less, pg, or my preferred choice, most. The relevant section within the zshrc file is :-

for candidate in more less most
  p=$(which $candidate)
  if [ "$?" = "0" ]
    alias pg=$candidate
    alias page=$candidate

This repeatedly sets up the two aliases (and sets the PAGER environment variable) if the candidate pager is available; otherwise the aliases are left alone. In other words, this works through a list of candidates in order from most available to least available (but preferred) to select one. Once used to using page as a command, I no longer need to worry about if most is installed on a system.

A very similar loop is used to generate an alias called vim which will always work (at least when vi is available).

Jun 192014

… or a red ✗. Incidentally, if your browser doesn’t show ticks (✓), crosses (✗), and a right pointing double arrow (») properly, this posting may look a bit odd.

As in :-


The aim here is to make the zsh prompt (a Unix shell) start with a green ✓ (tick) if the previous command’s exit status was zero, and a red ✗ (cross) if the previous command’s exit status was non-zero. A tiny thing, but both useful and fun.

The first thing I need is a set of variables containing terminal sequences for setting colours. Fortunately zsh comes with a set of suitable functions; even if they’re poorly named :-

autoload -U colors && colors

The next thing is to perform a test to see if the current terminal type is worth setting a fancy prompt for. In some cases – such as when using the plain Linux console, or when things are broken enough that the terminal type isn’t set properly – it is worth avoiding setting a prompt. I do this by setting up an array containing a list of terminal types that I think it is worth setting a fancy prompt for :-

fancyterms=(xterm xterms dtterm iris-ansi xterm-256color)

(Some of that list is very historical!)

The test for whether to set a fancy prompt is somewhat tricky … it uses a ‘reverse subscripting’ flag in the array lookup to search the array for the string :-

if [[ ${fancyterms[(r)$TERM]} == "$TERM" ]] 
  echo Fancy prompt
  echo Plain prompt

And lastly, I actually set the prompt :-

export PROMPT="%(?.%{$fg[green]%}✓ %{$reset_color%}.%{$fg[red]%}✗ %{$reset_color%})%B%n@%m»%b "

Which is not exactly the easiest string to understand, but breaking it up :-

  1. The %{$fg[green]%} sequence sets the colour to green, the ✓ is fairly self-explanatory, and the %{$reset_color%} sets the colours back to normal.
  2. Similarly the %{$fg[red]%} sets the colour to red, the ✗ should also be self-explanatory, and the %{reset_color%} does as before.
  3. The sequence %{ … %} is very important as any output that does not advance the cursor should be contained within these. This allows zsh to count the number of visible characters within the prompt so that various screen operations happen in the right location. Judging by how often this is emphasised (and the fact that I made a mistake with it myself), it looks to be a very common problem.
  4. The sequence %{?.True.False%} tests the exit status of the previous command and if true outputs the first string and if false outputs the second string.
  5. The sequence at the end – %B%n@%m»%b – turns bold on (%B), outputs the username (%n), outputs an “@”, outputs the short machine name (%m), outputs a literal “»”, turns off cold (%b), and finally adds a space to the prompt.

Putting it all together, I get :-

# Now the prompt
autoload -U colors && colors
#       Enable colour variables (used in prompt)
fancyterms=(xterm xterms dtterm iris-ansi xterm-256color)
#       An array of 'fancy' terminal types that we do more for … as in a funky PROMPT.

if [[ ${fancyterms[(r)$TERM]} == "$TERM" ]] 
        precmd () { print -Pn '\e]2;%n@%m - %~^G' }
        # Put the hostname in the Window title/Tab title
        export PROMPT="%(?.%{$fg[green]%}✓ %{$reset_color%}.%{$fg[red]%}✗ %{$reset_color%})%B%n@%m»%b "
        # And set a really fancy prompt.
        # If we don't recognise the terminal type, don't attempt to be quite so ambitious
        # with the prompt.
        export PROMPT=$'%B%n@%m - %~\n%#%b '

This is still a little bit plain compared with what some people do with their prompts, but it is right for me (at least for now).

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