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Unsung Heroes of the Command Line

hoelzro profile image Rob Hoelz ・4 min read

Originally published at https://hoelz.ro/blog/unsung-heroes-of-the-command-line

Since the command line is my primary way of interacting with my computer, I often will take steps to optimize my usage of it. Most command line users know the basics: ls, cd, grep, etc - these are instrumental building blocks in using the command line. However, there are often more specialized programs out there that can really save you some time, and I'd like to share a few notable examples of these kinds of specialized programs that have made my life easier over the last year or two. If you don't know them, hopefully you'll find them useful; if you do know them, hopefully it will just indicate that we both have good taste in our tools. =)

mojo

Over the past few years, I find myself doing more and more work with data online. Calling out to various web services or fetching content from a URL has become an essential part of being a developer. When it comes down to simply fetching the data, I reach for curl. However, if I have to do some slicing and dicing, I look to my good friend mojo.

mojo is a command line utility shipped with the Mojolicious project - it's a kind of web toolkit for Perl programmers. You don't need to be skilled in Perl to make use of mojo, however. mojo get allows you to fetch the contents at a URL, select particular elements via CSS3 selectors, and then transform the result using various methods. For example, let's say I want to get the src attribute of each img element on a page. This is how I could invoke mojo get to get the job done:

    $ mojo get http://example.com img attr src

The img part is of course the element selector; the arguments following it are a method name (any method in Mojo::DOM may be used) plus any arguments for the method. I've found mojo get to be invaluable in scraping a document and extracting some content from it for use further down the command line.

jq

Continuing along the online data trend, I find myself working with JSON pretty often too. Instead of writing a script to extract data from a JSON, you can use jq. It's a handy program that describes itself as "sed for JSON data", and I feel like it lives up to this idea. Just invoking the . operator (which selects the current object) will pretty-print a chunk of JSON:

    $ cat chunk-of.json | jq .

You can select a particular key in a document by adding it after the . operator:

    $ cat chunk-of.json | jq .result

jq's selector syntax is pretty easy to understand and to recall - I can reliably remember how to do the basics each time I use it. For other instances, the documentation is always available for consultation!

uniprops & unichars

I try to write software to be Unicode-aware, which often means something like checking for the Letter property rather than simply looking for a-z and A-Z. To help me in this effort, I make use of two scripts from the Unicode::Tussle CPAN distribution: uniprops and unichars.

To use uniprops, you can give a character or codepoint, and it will tell you about all of the Unicode properties that character exhibits. For example:

    $ uniprops а
    U+0430 ‹а› \N{CYRILLIC SMALL LETTER A}
        \w \pL \p{LC} \p{L_} \p{L&} \p{Ll}
        All Alnum X_POSIX_Alnum Alpha X_POSIX_Alpha Alphabetic Any Assigned
           InCyrillic Cyrillic Is_Cyrillic ID_Continue Is_IDC Cased Cased_Letter LC
           Changes_When_Casemapped CWCM Changes_When_Titlecased CWT
           Changes_When_Uppercased CWU Cyrl Ll L Gr_Base Grapheme_Base Graph
           X_POSIX_Graph GrBase IDC ID_Start IDS Letter L_ Lowercase_Letter Lower
           X_POSIX_Lower Lowercase Print X_POSIX_Print Unicode Word X_POSIX_Word
           XID_Continue XIDC XID_Start XIDS

unichars approaches the property problem from the opposite angle; instead of telling you which properties a character has, it gives you a list of which Unicode characters have a particular property:

    $ unichars '\p{Cyrillic}
     Ѐ  U+0400 CYRILLIC CAPITAL LETTER IE WITH GRAVE
     Ё  U+0401 CYRILLIC CAPITAL LETTER IO
     Ђ  U+0402 CYRILLIC CAPITAL LETTER DJE
     Ѓ  U+0403 CYRILLIC CAPITAL LETTER GJE
     Є  U+0404 CYRILLIC CAPITAL LETTER UKRAINIAN IE
     Ѕ  U+0405 CYRILLIC CAPITAL LETTER DZE
     І  U+0406 CYRILLIC CAPITAL LETTER BYELORUSSIAN-UKRAINIAN I
     Ї  U+0407 CYRILLIC CAPITAL LETTER YI
     Ј  U+0408 CYRILLIC CAPITAL LETTER JE
     Љ  U+0409 CYRILLIC CAPITAL LETTER LJE

combine

If you've done text processing on the command line, there's a good chance you're familiar with comm(1). It's a program that you give two text files along with an option switch that indicates different set operations to perform on the lines in those files. For example, comm -13 A B prints lines unique to B, and comm -12 A B prints lines in both A and B. From my examples, you get a good idea of how difficult comm can be to use; I would always have to consult the man page or sit and think the invocation I would need to make to get the results I needed. Frustrated, I cried out to the Internet:

Fortunately, a fellow programmer heard my plea:

Ever since that fateful day, I have not used comm once. combine does exactly what I need, and does so using a syntax that's so straightforward. My examples from above change to combine B not A and combine A and B, respectively.

Discovering More Tools

combine is part of the moreutils package, available on many platforms; I recommend looking at other tools in the package to see if you find something else that solves a problem you have, or better yet, a problem you didn't know you had!

If jq apppeals to you, but you work with other kinds of structured data, you may find this repository on GitHub interesting:

https://github.com/dbohdan/structured-text-tools

Are you there any specialized tools you feel make your life a lot easier? If so, please let me know!

Discussion (9)

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dploeger profile image
Dennis Ploeger

If you ever need to worry about csvfiles, csvkit's got you covered. It's a suite of handy tools to wrangle with them.

Also, q is quite interesting as it lets you fun sql on csv files.

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jacoby profile image
Dave Jacoby

So, you may use curl to GET an API response, and jq to display it in a pretty way.

But that's two things, and you want one.

httpie

And Boris got there first...

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hoelzro profile image
Rob Hoelz Author

Yeah, that's true! I kind of like the separation of "fetching the contents at a URL" and "coloring/diving into the structure" each provide; if I wanted a shortcut, I'd probably just make a shell function or alias. But maybe httpie has some features I could make use of!

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mateusz__be profile image
Mateusz Bełczowski

jq is a great tool

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melezhik profile image
Alexey Melezhik

Hi Rob! Nice post, thank you. I use Tomtit to automate my command line tasks. It comes with a lot of plugins.

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biros profile image
Boris Jamot ✊ /

Great list!
I use httpie instead of curl.
Bat instead of cat.
Exa instead of ls.
Modd is also a great tool for developers.

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hoelzro profile image
Rob Hoelz Author

Interesting! Would you mind going into more detail about how each of those improves upon their counterparts, or otherwise what they bring to the table?

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biros profile image
Boris Jamot ✊ /

httpie is a much more user-friendly alternative to curl, that allow pretty-printing and a lot of other cool features.

Bat is a paginated alternative to cat that also allow pretty-printing your code in the terminal.

Exa is also an alternative to ls with default pretty-print feature and git integration.

modd is a filesystem watcher that allows you to automate everything. I use it to run my unit tests or my server-side app when the codebase changes.

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juanfrank77 profile image
Juan F Gonzalez

I'd like to know the answer to that too.

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