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a word in your shell, like

Thursday 03 September 2009 09:13

As the end of the holidays approached and the kids are looking to go back to school (and DD2 starts this year! exciting!) I've been distracting myself by mucking about in shell and thinking how and why we do what we do with the command line.

hacking trac

A tool I built for hacking around with Trac at WooMe is a command line access tool for the most obvious things one does with Trac:

* makes tickets * alters tickets * edits wiki pages

the fact that a tool like this didn't already exist was kind of a surprise. Trac has an excellent (cough) XMLRPC interface so I guess most people write bespoke little tools for managing trac.

We at WooMe do too, but we write them in shell with traccmd

traccmd is really very simple, but that's not the point. It just exposes the obvious things to shell so you don't have to open a browser, fire up a tab, fill in forms, etc...

I originally wrote it because I wanted a way to edit wiki pages in the mighty Emacs. There was already an Elisp/XMLRPC based program for doing that... but it worked inside Emacs and as Emacs is not multi-threaded it didn't work very well.

The solution is the age old shell pattern: write a command line interface to it and then wrap that in higher tools. It's the way unix was designed to work. So often we forget that and I'm not sure why. It's such a powerful way of working.

With traccmd we've been able to build release management tools, stuff that embeds quite deeply into Trac things from inside our live environment, here's a snippet of the release candidate maker script: ticket $(cat rc_ticket_depending_numbers) | grep summary 

from a list of ticket numbers that tells us in a nice formatted list what the ticket is about.


Something I wrote just last night in python is org2trac, this is kind of an example of the normal un*x shell tools letting me down. I needed to convert an Emacs OrgMode list:

 * this is a list
 ** this is a subpoint
 * todo
 ** manage all my work through orgmode
 ** possibles
 *** become elvis presley
 ** write about org mode in a blog entry
 ** make dinner
 ** stop DS2 attacking the dog

into something that Trac likes as a Wiki format:

 * this is a list
  * this is a subpoint
 * todo
  * manage all my work through orgmode
  * possibles
   * become elvis presley
  * write about org mode in a blog entry
  * make dinner
  * stop DS2 attacking the dog

It's a simple little thing:

import re
import sys
for line in sys.stdin:
    sys.stdout.write(re.sub("(\**)(?=\*)", lambda m: " " * len(, line))

It's just a regex really. But it's still there, on the shell for you to do things with:

cat | org2trac | traccmd wikiput NicFerrier/todo

and of course in Emacs I can select a region and C-u M-| and pipe a region of text through org2trac and replace it with the output (and I've just realized how cool it would be to record that in a screencast and show you it happening - if only I had that kind of time I'd be able to, well, I dunno, shower or something).


The above little org hack was something I prototyped in pyline which is just an awesome little tool.

I showed it to the sysadmins at WooMe who are all a bit keen to learn Python, mainly because we use it like mad here. It's a brilliant learning tool for budding |pythonistas because it lets you practice, replacing awk and sed with bits of python.

Again, this is down to shell, it's so easy to test stuff, just keep shoving the input into your little command and test what comes out:

ps ajx | pyline 'word[5] if"python", line) else None'

size limit it:

ps ajx | head | pyline 'word[5] if"python", line) else None'

pattern limit it:

ps ajx | head | grep python | pyline 'word[5] if"python", line) else None'

... it's just all so easy.

this must be going somewhere, right?

Well, maybe. I think the point I am constantly learning is that shell is just the best integration tool, especially when you can get at it from your editor.

I was going to wrap up with some thoughts about the acme editor but I think there is actually a slightly more interesting point here... what I've noticed is that the shell tools I use are all very simple themselves. So while shells have to some extent got quite complex and hard to use I don't find myself using that stuff. Much.

So what I find myself thinking is: would a simpler shell be even more powerful? let's take stuff out not put stuff in. Let's stick to the original vision and just make it easier to pipe things in and out. Maybe we should improve completion and access to obscure command options. Maybe we should think about helping people who don't use shell write now.

Which is what acme was trying to do, to an extent. But that's another story.