5 Ways to Use the Terminal in OS X, from Useful to Just Fun

Like many Mac users, part of the reason I started using a Mac was the graphical interface and not having to use a command line. It was a big selling point for Apple in the early days of the Mac, with their literature often belittling Unix and DOS/Windows systems for their reliance on “obscure commands”.

Unix Underneath OS X

Of course, since 2001 we’ve had a Unix variant under the hood of the Mac OS. Apple is now quite proud to promote its command line environment (see Based on Unix on Apple’s website).

When OS X debuted, I had very little command line experience. I’d hardly ever used a PC until I occasionally got stuck with them in the labs at college, so I’d never used DOS for more than a few minutes.

My first two years in college, we got email by dialing a terminal program into the university’s Unix servers, but I only knew the commands to get and manipulate my mail.

I wasn’t very happy with the prospect of having to learn some Unix when I first installed Mac OS X 10.0. Technically there wasn’t any need to use the Terminal, but it helped to gain some functionality out of the OS and fix things for which there was no graphical program.

The first thing I learned to do was compile software from source, because there was a video poker game that would run on OS X when compiled straight from source – and I was desperate for a game other than Apple’s Chess program.

The next thing I learned to do was delete files with root power, using the sudo command. (You may remember how sometimes you just couldn’t empty your Trash in the early versions of OS X.)

In the days before Apple supplied a “Repair Permissions” feature in Disk Utility, it sure helped to know the chown and chmod commands, which change file ownership and permissions.

And so on, until one day the Terminal became one of my regular applications. After a while, I had learned enough and actually started to like it. Around the same time, I’d also started to tinker with Linux, and that certainly helped my familiarity with and acceptance of the command line.

Now I wouldn’t do without the Terminal, although in today’s OS X it’s not needed near as much as it was with earlier versions. The bugs that sent you to the command line in those days are long gone, and there are now GUI front-ends for nearly everything in the Unix underpinnings. If there isn’t, it won’t be long until somebody builds one in XCode.

But that doesn’t mean there still isn’t some fun to be had. Here’s a rundown of five fun things to do in the Terminal:

Browse the Web

Forget Firefox, Safari, and Camino. The fastest browser on the Mac is without a doubt Links. Of course, it doesn’t load any pictures, animations, or Flash movies, but it’s great for low-bandwidth connections and for just reading on the Web.

After you download and install the Mac OS X installer package, just open up your Terminal and type links, such as http://lowendmac.com/ to visit Low End Mac in text-only mode. Use the up and down arrows to scroll among the links on the page, and press return on a highlighted link to follow it.

The G key will bring up a URL box for when you’d like to browse to a different site. The Q key quits Links. To get a full list of keyboard shortcuts, press the escape key, and you’ll get a menu bar with all the options and their keyboard equivalents.

Make a Remote Mac Sing

This one requires you to have a administrative login account on a remote Mac that has Remote Login (SSH) enabled. Assuming your friend or co-worker’s Mac meets these requirements, you can play a heck of an April Fools’ joke.

In the Terminal, first remotely login to the system by using ssh <username>@<remote Mac’s IP address or hostname>.

Once logged in, enter this command:

sudo osascript -e "set Volume 20"

And then press return. This sends an AppleScript to set the volume to an audible level. Then enter the following command:

sudo osascript -e 'say "Dum dum dum dum dum dum dum he he he ho ho ho fa lah lah lah lah lah lah fa lah full hoo hoo hoo" using "Cellos"'

This sends an AppleScript to say the phrase using the Cellos voice. The results are quite humorous. You can try it out on your own system to hear what it sounds like.

Look at a Calendar

The cal command presents you with a quick and easy calendar month view. Just type cal, hit Return, and you’ll see a calendar of the current month.

You can also view the calendar for any year past or future by typing the year after cal. For example, cal 2005 will show us last year’s calendar.

Want to see the calendar for a specific month and year? Use the month’s number and the year after the cal command: cal 3 2006 will show the calendar for March 2006.

Watch Star Wars: Episode IV

ASCII art has been with us as long as we’ve been using computers, and there’s a lot of great ASCII animation out there. How about watching the original Star Wars in ASCII animation?

A telnet server out there on the Internet serves up this amazing adaptation. Just enter telnet towel.blinkenlights.nl and hit return. You’ll then be treated to a new twist on a familiar tale.

The last time I watched this, it wasn’t complete, although it mentioned that scenes will be added in the future. I’m not sure how complete it is right now, but I hope to find the time to watch it again sometime soon.

If you’d like to quit before the end, you can type control-] to get to the telnet prompt. At the prompt, type quit and press return.

Make a Banner

You can also make your own ASCII art banners. Just type banner followed by a phrase of your choosing to create a huge text banner. For example, banner Welcome to Low End Mac will create a banner out of the phrase “Welcome to Low End Mac.”

It’s pretty neat to watch it flow across the screen, but you can actually make a printable version.

First let’s change directories to your Desktop:

cd ~/Desktop/

Then create a new blank file called banner.txt:

touch banner.txt

Now type your banner command, followed by > banner.txt:

banner Welcome to Low End Mac > banner.txt

The “>” directs the output of the previous command into the specified file. Double click the banner.txt file on your Desktop, and you’ll see your printable banner in your default text editor.

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