Awesome Shell Power: yes ” | head | nl -ba


Often when programming in shell you want a sequence of numbers. bash has quirky for syntax for doing it, but I’m not really interested in that. I want something portable.

«yes '' | head | nl -ba» will generate a sequence of numbers from 1 to 10. 1 to N can be achieved by specifying an argument to head: «yes '' | head -7 | nl -ba», or, as I never tire of telling people, using sed instead of head: «yes '' | sed 7q | nl -ba». The sed version is one character shorter.

As long as we’ve invoked sed we may as well read the manual to get: «yes | sed -n '=;7q'». Note that as sed is not actually processing the input lines, just counting them, it doesn’t matter what their contents are, so we no longer need an argument to yes.

It turns out that yes is not a standard part of the Unix utilities. So much for portability. Whilst we could make an adequate simulation of yes with «while : ; do echo y ; done», it’s much more amusing to use dd:

$ dd < /dev/zero ibs=1 cbs=1 count=7 conv=unblock | sed -n =
7+0 records in
0+1 records out
14 bytes transferred in 0.000060 secs (233945 bytes/sec)

I love dd for its obscurity, its parody of the DD statement in JCL, and the way no-one seems to know what it is for any more. There are some stderr turds left by dd which we can eliminate with a quick 2>&-: «dd < /dev/zero 2>&- ibs=1 cbs=1 count=7 conv=unblock | sed -n =».

This version of the command is improved in many ways: “count=7” is practically self-documenting; we no longer need quotes around the sed program (though the way a bare = appears at the end does seem like a bit of a non sequitur, especially given all the other = that appear in the dd command that have a completely different meaning). However, it’s unsatisfying in many other ways. It uses /dev/zero which isn’t guaranteed to exist (even on conformant Unix OSes). It squirts binary data (a sequence of alternating NUL and LF characters) into sed which isn’t obliged to behave on such input. It’s long and silly.

Much better to just generate the sequence directly using something approaching a real programming language:

awk 'BEGIN{ for(i=1;i<=7;++i) print i}'

Even those who don’t know the mighty awk can probably work out what it does. It’s portable (some now truly ancient, that is SunOS 4.x, systems might need an extra < /dev/null); it’s clear; it works.

Of course on systems with jot installed you can just go jot 7. That includes FreeBSD and OS X. It turns out that jot is named after APL’s ɩ, iota, which is spelt i. in J.

3 Responses to “Awesome Shell Power: yes ” | head | nl -ba”

  1. YAJer Says:

    Another command line program like this is seq. With $ as my prompt:

    $ seq 1 4

  2. Gareth Rees Says:

    I always used to use yes ”|head -10|cat -n. But now I see that cat -n is not POSIX (it’s in FreeBSD and relatives and in the GNU textutils too).

  3. drj11 Says:

    cat -n? Die! Die! Die!

    All credit to the relevant committees for not bloating cat with zillions of irrelevant options.

    Of course, I find having to type -ba in nl -ba a constant embarrassment and annoyance.

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