Welcome to Mr. Crystal Ball

As some of you may already know, I am a die-hard fan of productive editing. That is probably because I don’t find myself very fast, on a keyboard. So, I am always trying to find ways to improve my editing speed. And when I ain’t surfing on the web, I am either typing stuff in my shell or my editor. So today, I would like to share a few tricks I uses in my default shell, Z Shell.

The shell history can be a powerful tool. If you find yourself typing commands again, and again, and again, you probably can use it at your advantage. You probably already know about Ctrl+R, which is bound to history-incremental-search-backward command in most shells. Personally, I don’t find it very useful since it tries to find a match everywhere, but it’s better than cycling through the history with the Up/Down keys. In fact, anything is better than the Up/Down keys. So, why not rebind them to something more useful, like history-search-backward? Well, that is easy. With Zsh, you need to add these two line to your .zshrc:

bindkey '\e[A' history-search-backward
bindkey '\e[B' history-search-forward

In fact, if you’re using Emacs key-bindings, you don’t even need to do anything, because Meta+P and Meta+N are already bound to these two functions. Incidentally, Steven Harms is advocating to enable this feature by default in Ubuntu, for Bash’s users. Personally, I am not sure if it’s really necessary to make it a default. I am not a fan of modifications in .inputrc, either. But, I will leave that discussion for another blog post.

Now, that we have functional Up/Down arrow keys, can we do more? Yes, we can! Let me introduce one of my favorite features of Zsh, preemptive auto-completion. If you’re tired typing TAB a zillion times a day, you will love this one. This feature implements predictive typing using history search and auto-completion. Again, to enable it, just copy these lines to your configuration file:

autoload predict-on
zle -N predict-on
zle -N predict-off
bindkey '^Z'   predict-on
bindkey '^X^Z' predict-off
zstyle ':predict' verbose true

Here, note that predict-on and predict-off, are bounded to Ctrl+Z and Ctrl+X Z respectively. That means you can turn it on/off, whenever you need to. You will find useful to turn it off when you edit the middle of a command, since it can confuse the prediction. But other than that, it’s great.

Sometime, the shell editor is not enough for me — I need something more powerful when I edit long commands. So, I use another cool built in function of Zsh, called edit-command-line. With this feature, I can edit the current command with an external editor, defined by the environment variable $EDITOR. To enable it, just copy-and-paste this:

autoload edit-command-line
zle -N edit-command-line
bindkey '^Xe' edit-command-line

So, when I think the command will be long, like a for-loop. I just press Ctrl+X e, which launches, on my system, emacsclient. I am always running Emacs with its server, therefore the shell command is instantaneously loaded into a Emacs buffer. Then when I am done, I close the Emacs session with Ctrl+x # and the command appears in my shell. It is just sweet.

Even if you’re a master with your editor, nothing beats a short alias, or a shell script. I keep a full directory of useful scripts, to automate my daily tasks. At first, writing scripts feels a bit awkward. If you’re like me, you will always worry that your scripts might go terribly wrong, and eat your data. That’s totally normal, but don’t be a fool. Automating your tasks, even the most trivial ones, will save some of your precious time. Unlike scripts, which can really do some heavy automation, aliases are just a shell convenience, like auto-completion. Personally, I am not a big fan of fancy aliases. (I tend to use functions for the more fancy things.) Anyway, here some of my favourite aliases:

# Set up aliases
alias c=clear
alias d='dirs -v'
alias e=$EDITOR
alias grep=egrep
alias h=history
alias j=jobs
alias po=popd
alias pu=pushd
alias ss='screen -Rx'

# Global aliases -- These do not have to be
# at the beginning of the command line.
alias -g M='|more'
alias -g L='|less'
alias -g H='|head'
alias -g T='|tail'

# Go to parent directories without `cd'
setopt autocd
alias -g ...='../..'
alias -g ....='../../..'
alias -g .....='../../../..'

I certainly have a ton of shell tricks, but I will keep them for my other blog posts. So, that’s all folks!

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  1. Jason Brower said,

    April 7, 2007 @ 10:51 pm

    Very cool! I would like to try this on my server. But I don’t have the instructions for that. Could you edit your post of blog again how to setup Zsh on Ubuntu? Thanks, it looks like this, is what I want.

  2. Alexandre said,

    April 8, 2007 @ 12:02 am

    That is simple, Jason. Just install it with APT, and then, if you want, change your default shell:

      sudo apt-get install zsh zsh-doc
      sudo usermod --shell /bin/zsh `whoami`
  3. Matt said,

    April 22, 2007 @ 3:35 pm

    alias c=clear

    You can use C-l to clear the screen.

  4. Alexandre said,

    April 22, 2007 @ 4:52 pm

    Thanks Matt, for the comment. I usually use C-l, too, to clear the screen. I even removed this alias a few days after I posted this, when I reorganized my shell configuration. I still wonder why I needed this alias at all… It probably was just a copy & paste leftover.