Learning Unix

As I meet new Unix hackers using Linux or Mac, sometimes I am surprised at how few Unix tricks they know. It is sometimes painful to watch developers perform manual tasks on the shell.

What follows are my recommendations on how to improve your Unix skills, with a little introduction as to why you should get each book. I have linked to each one of those books with my Amazon afiliates link, so feel free to click on those links liberally.

Here is the list of books that programmers using Unix should read. It will only take you a couple of days to read them, but you will easily increase your productivity by a whole order of magnitude.

The Basics

The Unix Programming Environment by Kernighan and Pike is a must-read. Although this is a very old book and it does not cover the fancy new features in modern versions of Unix, no other book covers in such beauty the explanation of the shell quoting rules, expansion rules, shell functions and the redirection rules.

Every single thing you do in Unix will use the above in some form or shape, and until you commit those to memory you will be a tourist, and not a resident.

Then you will learn sed and basic awk, both tools that you will use on a daily basis once you become proficient. You do not have to ever be scared of sed or regular expressions anymore.

Save yourself the embarrassment, and avoid posting on the comments section jwz's quote on regular expressions. You are not jwz.

It will take you about a week of commuting by bus to read it. You do not have to finish the book, you can skip over the second part.

Unix Boot Camp

While Kernighan's book is basic literacy, you need to develop your muscles and you need to do this fast and not buy a book so thick and so packed with ridiculous screenshots that you will never get past page 20.

Get UNIX for the Impatient. This book is fun, compact and is packed with goodies that will make you enjoy every minute in Unix.

Learn Emacs

Emacs has had a strong influence in Unix over the years. If you learn to use Emacs, you will automatically learn the hotkeys and keybindings in hundreds of applications in Unix.

The best place to learn Emacs is to launch Emacs and then press Control-h and then t. This is the online tutorial and it will take you about two hours to complete.

The knowledge that you will gain from Emacs will be useful for years to come. You will thank me. And you will offer to buy me a beer, which I will refuse because I rather have you buy me a freshly squeezed orange juice.

Tooting my own horn

Learn to use the Midnight Commander.

The Midnight Commander blends the best of both worlds: GUI-esque file management with full access to the Unix console.

The Midnight Commander is a console application that shows 2 panels listing two different directories side-by-side and provides a command line that is fed directly to the Unix shell.

The basics are simple: use the arrow keys to move around, Control-S to do incremental searches over filenames, Control-t to tag or untag files and the F keys to perform copy, move or delete operations. Copy and Move default to copy to the other panel (which you can conveniently switch to by pressing the tab key).

There is no better way of keeping your file system organized than using my file manager.

Becoming a Power User

If you can not quench your thirst for knowledge there is one last book that I will recommend. This is the atomic bomb of Unix knowledge.

Unix Power Tools is a compilation of tricks by some of the best Unix users that got compiled into a huge volume. This is a book of individual tricks, each about a page long, ideal to keep either on your bedside or in the restoom to pick a new trick every day.

Mavis Beacon

At this point you might be thinking "I am awesome", "the world is my oyster" and "Avatar 3D was not such a bad movie".

But unless you touch-type, you are neither awesome, nor you are in a position to judge the qualities of the world as an oyster or any James Cameron movies.

You have to face the fact that not only you are a slow typist, you do look a little bit ridiculous. You are typing with two maybe three fingers on each hand and you move your head like a chicken as you alternate looking at your keyboard and looking at your screen.

Do humanity a favor and learn to touch type.

You can learn to touch type in about three weeks if you spend some two to three hours per day using Mavis Beacon Teaches Typing.

Mavis Beacon costs seventeen dollars ($17). Those seventeen dollars and the sixty three hours you will spend using it will do more to advance your carreer than the same sixty three hours spend reading editorials on Hacker News.

Classics

All of the books I list here have stood the test of time. They were written at a time when books were designed to last a lifetime.

Unlike most modern computer books, all of these were a pleasure to read.

Posted on 06 Sep 2011 by Miguel de Icaza
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