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.comment: Essential Console Applications

Working Directly from the Command Line

  • June 21, 2000
  • By Dennis E. Powell

Don't get me wrong. The X Window System is great, and were it not for the window managers and desktops that it makes possible, the Linux user base would be a lot smaller than it is, and any notion of Linux becoming a desktop operating system with wide appeal would not exist.

But X is not Linux, and putting too much reliance on a nice, graphical screen smiling at you may well one day be something you regret.

Example: A few weeks ago, I downloaded and installed a replacement X server designed to make my video card sing. I installed it. Instantly, all sorts of applications ceased to function. Well, I said to myself, it's about time that I installed XFree86-4.0 anyway. There are a lot of things that I compile regularly, some of them pretty complicated and crucial. Rebuilding the kernel? A piece of cake. But I've never compiled XFree and produced results that worked. And already today something that seemed simple had gone terribly wrong.

So I poked around and found some XFree86-4.0 rpms. I grabbed 'em--I'd done this before, four or five times, no problem--and when they were all aboard the local drive, I dumped out of what was left of my 3.3.5 and at the console attempted to install the new, much improved, XFree.

Imagine my chagrin when, halfway into the third package, the rpm program told me that there was something wrong with one of the packages and it would not install.

The next couple of hours were too horrifying and too embarrassing to recount. Let it suffice to say that at one point I had pieces of three versions of XFree86 installed. XF86Setup ran just fine, but the result wouldn't start, which was no big surprise. And, of course, in my relaxed confidence--I'd done this before with no problem--I hadn't backed up my semi-working version. So I couldn't even get back online from my nice graphical desktop and try to find a clean set of rpms.

I had a command prompt. And the sense that clever use of the command prompt would be enough to solve the problem. Had I the knowledge to use it cleverly?

This is just one of the multitude of cases where your only friend is that $ prompt, which you can su into a #. You will, sooner or later, face it yourself. The time to prepare for that day is now. A broken system does not present the ideal milieu for exploring the joys of new applications. And, as in the foggy distant past when Windows 3.0 got released and, once the user learned to tip-toe around UAEs, DOS skills disappeared, the increasingly elaborate new graphical desktops for Linux impart complacency about needing fundamental Linux skills.

Linux lets you do very nearly everything from a simple command prompt, if you know the right commands. I don't know them all. Do you? Did you know that the chmod command recurses directories if you apply the -R option, while other commands do the same thing if you apply the -r option? And if you do, do you use these commands with sufficient frequency that you will remember them in the pinch? Me neither. Man pages are often helpful, but they are also sometimes a little obscure, which shortcoming is magnified when reading them in high panic.

Fortunately, applications that will ease your way already exist. You probably have some of them on your machine already, though you may never have used them.

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