An old IT ninja learns new Unix tricks

Even Unix veterans might be amazed to discover what commands have been lurking under their fingertips all this time

It was with some fascination that I happened across Ian Langworth's "VIM after 11 years" post last week. As a vi/vim user for more than 20 years, I wasn't expecting to learn much. But to my surprise, Langworth revealed many features and tweaks I never would've sought out on my own because -- well, why would I? My vim reflexes have been built up like calluses over decades, long before many of these features and plug-ins were a glimmer in anyone's eye.

Yet I found some very old features that I either never knew about or used so sparingly that they've been archived. The :g// command was one of those items. Despite the fact that :g/re/p in the ed editor was the original impetus for Ken Thompson to write the first stand-alone grep utility, I've never really used :g// in vi/vim. It just never worked its way into my reflexes. In hindsight, that's hard to believe, but I'm apparently not alone in that regard, as Langworth noted in a follow-up article.

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The fact is we get mental calluses when we use the same tools over and over again. We stop thinking about how to do something and instead rely on our reflexes. Because we've stopped thinking about the mechanics, it's easy to miss updates and advances to the tool.

I'd also posit that these calluses are more likely to occur in regard to CLI tools than GUI tools, because we tend to notice new menus or new options in drop-down lists or new check boxes in a dialog. In a CLI app, especially a CLI utility rather than an editor like vi, options and features are masked. To find them, you need to call up the man page.

A great example of this is the Unix less command. The less command has been in development for decades. Recent CentOS and Debian installations use version 436. For those familiar with the tool, this might seem a bit absurd.

After all, this is a tool that simply handles pagination of long text files, as well as the ability to move forward and backward within the file. Completely unscientifically, I would estimate that 95 percent of all uses of the less utility involve little more than hitting space bar or Enter to advance the text, and Ctrl-B to back up a page. A relatively small number of uses will leverage the / search capabilities. An even tinier number will use regular expressions in those searches. It's the less command, for pete's sake -- it's a very simple tool.

However, 34 command-line switches are available for the current version of the less command -- seriously, 34. Check out the man page. And there's more, including all kinds of navigation commands that go well beyond the rudiments, multiple file management commands, and a huge range of tweaks.

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