Welcome to Tony's Notebook

Don't forget the Unix tools

So many times we get lost in complexity. But the core ideas of Unix helps me stay sane in an insane world. The idea of small, single purpose tools, that you can chain together through pipes to create custom processing, is just so powerful. Keeping things in plain, simply delimited text files, and being cogniscent of standard input and output in your tool design helps massively too.

Of course with a generation of computer users brought up on Windows and "ICT" at school it's easy to dismiss a concept with origins in the 1970s. All those funny beards and flared trousers - so...yesterday. Until you are bogged down in endless Java minutiae and can't see the forest for the trees and you are wondering why you didn't become an actuary like your mum told you. It's all too easy to forget the lessons of Unix, and the great value of its approach.

I was reminded of that value just the other day. A company I do some occasional odds-and-sods for has a giant multi-purpose Excel spreadsheet with lots of data (yes, one of those, horrible things that they are). They needed some data generated from the master spreadsheet based on a simple filter. Now I guess you could do that in Excel VBScript or something...but I don't have Word installed and really don't want Word installed to be honest.

Then I remembered this little Unix tool called cut. And Google Sheets (where they store the master) lets you export as TSV. Very sensible that. Oh the joy of simple tools and plain text file processing.

It took about a minute to write and test the following, and I probably could have made the syntax a little more succint too:

$ cut -f2,4,7,9 master.tsv | grep NDT | cut -f1-3 > ndt.tsv

Imagine doing the same thing in Java. Sweet Christmas.

Within a couple of minutes I had the required email list imported into MailChimp and had a coffee and blueberry muffin lined up as a reward. Happy customer. Happy me.