WP, Shell and Me

Earlier in the week I needed to make a few changes to this site, but didn’t have access to my own computer. Thank goodness, then, for SSH, and particularly Pico, a Unix- and Linux-based text editor. Fast, secure, and (unlike Notepad) respectful of my line breaks and tabs, what could have been a messy half-hour of tricky editing and painful attempts to use a web-based FTP application, was in fact a simple five-minute job.

I must admit, I don’t have a glorious history with command lines. Yes, I used DOS, and probably even managed a few BASIC commands at school, but they were only ever a means to an end—usually running a word-processing application or game. I wasn’t interested in the thing itself, and when Windows 3.1 came along I was more than happy to jump onto the GUI ship. From there I went on through a series of Windows operating systems: 95, 2000, XP, never looking back, never missing the black-and-white purity of the command line. Coming back to it, in any shape or form, was never part of the plan. We had evolved—or so I thought.

It was when I started playing around with Ruby on Rails that things began to change. The documentation was full of cryptic instructions that assumed a working knowledge of the command line, right from the initial installation:

gem install rails --include-dependencies

This was scary stuff for a Windows boy from the suburbs, regardless of web development savvy. I’d mastered text editors as a way towards better development: they got me closer to the code, made me think about what I was doing, gave me a mastery one could never get with a WYSIWYG editor. But this was something else; the next level.

Being a philosophy student with an interest in history, I know a certain amount about the early days of computers: Babbage, Turing et al. Parenthetically, I’d go as far as to say that all educated people should read Turing’s article, ‘Computing Machinery and Intelligence’, from Mind 59 (1950). Coming across this article on the command line by Neal Stephenson (an always readable commentator on technological issues), I began to think that really, I should be making more of an effort. Just as taking up text editors gave me a better understanding of not only web development, but computers more generally, so using the command line would give me not only a powerful tool, but a key to greater knowledge.

This is a grand way of talking about something so humble, so functional—not flashy, but powerful nonetheless. But grand speech is a way of making us value things, even if beforehand we took them for granted.

This was going to be an article about accessing remote servers to make changes to your website, but it seems to have turned into something else. In the interests of completeness, here’s a list of the links I was going to use. Hopefully you’ll find them as useful as I did.

Last updated 13th Jan 2009

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