[NetBehaviour] Let's Learn UNIX!

James Wallbank james at lowtech.org
Fri Apr 15 17:14:54 CEST 2011

Super links, Rob!

I, too, am convinced that learning the command line is hugely 
liberating. About five years into using Linux I had a sudden epiphany - 
a perceptual change which is very hard to describe. (But I'll have a go...)

Previously I had used the bash shell as an experiment, and because I 
like the repeatability of text. I used the GUI for most activities 
day-to-day, but liked fiddling around with little bash one-liners and 
devising little scripts. Then one day I was trying to diagnose a 
misbehaving machine that just wouldn't connect to the network. I was 
getting frustrated, peering at little settings windows, checking what 
was ticked and what values were in each box. (I think is was  a Mandriva 
KDE control panel, for what it's worth).

Then suddenly I thought, "Stuff this, I need to see what's ACTUALLY 
going on!"  I pressed Ctrl-Alt-F1 and logged in as root. Suddenly I felt 
my awareness increased, as if my vision had cleared. I could see the DNS 
servers, the routing table, the loaded modules, the running processes, 
the network card settings...

Previously I'd felt as if the shell deprived me of information - that I 
had more awareness of "where I was and what I was doing" with all those 
comforting little icons and pictures. But they weren't helping me - in 
fact, they were concealing the true picture from me.

The mental inversion which took place was quite distinct. Suddenly I saw 
the shell as the place that was information rich and informative, and 
the GUI as confusing and restrictive. However, it had taken me AGES of 
what felt like "feeling around in the dark" before I had enough skill 
and awareness to use the shell to perceive more.

I will never forget that experience - it was so strange and unfamiliar. 
It felt as if I'd developed a new sonar sense, and suddenly I realised 
that I could see more by shutting my eyes.

Maybe some people get this when they learn a new language - I've never 
successfully learned to speak another tongue and count all my 
unsuccessful language learning as wasted time. But maybe the sensation 
when you finally do break through to fluency is similar.

Recently I saw a documentary about some researchers who had made a belt 
that tingled or squeezed the wearer in response to the earth's magnetic 
field. After wearing the belt all the time for a few weeks, the wearer 
could navigate around where they knew with their eyes shut.

The wearers had developed a new sense and awareness which they found 
very difficult to describe. At the end of the experiment they didn't 
want to give the belt back, and felt subtley disabled without it.

I'm sure that this sort of perceptual expansion is what happens when you 
learn enough Unix. Now I find it hard to want or like any digital device 
where I can't get user and root shells - so to me most smartphones and 
other sealed consumer level devices are just not of interest - I feel 
blind when I'm using one.

A few years ago I took a "Linux Professional Institute" exam ("aced it", 
he says smugly) so after several years of self-directed learning I guess 
I had picked up something at basic professional level. But Unix is deep, 
and I am still learning more and more. Reading the second link (which is 


... there was PLENTY that I didn't know (eg: trimming with ${var%suffix} 
and ${var#prefix} are handy!) I reckon I didn't know 20% of stuff "Every 
Linux user should know" after more than ELEVEN YEARS of intensive Linux 

Then again... JWM, you say:
> I agree. I would recommend that any mac/linux/other-unix-variant users learn
> to use the command line. You won't regret it.
You won't regret it if you persist enough to make that perceptual 
transition - but if you give up, you could spend quite a while for only 
frustration and little usable result. Have patience, keep going. Use the 
shell for little tasks. Have fun. Don't worry that you don't get it. 
Keep going.

Who says "easy" is best?

Best Regards,


More information about the NetBehaviour mailing list