Home > news, open source tools > Interview with Chris Wiggins: don’t send me another $^%& shortcut alias!

Interview with Chris Wiggins: don’t send me another $^%& shortcut alias!

April 15, 2013

When I first met Chris Wiggins of Columbia and hackNY back in 2011, he immediately introduced me to about a hundred other people, which made it obvious that his introductions were highly stereotyped. I thought he was some kind of robot, especially when I started getting emails from his phone which all had the same (long) phrases in them, like “I’m away from my keyboard right now, but when I get back to my desk I’ll calendar prune and send you some free times.”

Finally I was like “what the hell, are you sending me whole auto-generated emails”? To which he replied “of course.”

Chris posted the code to his introduction script last week so now I have proof that some of my favorite emails I thought were from him back in 2011 were actually from tcsh.

Feeling cheated, I called him to tell him he has an addiction to shell scripting. Here’s a brief interview, rewritten to make me sound smarter and cooler than I am.


CO: Ok, let’s start with these iphone shortcuts. Sometimes the whole email from you reads like a bunch of shortcuts.

CW: Yup, lots of times.

CO: What the hell? Don’t you want to personalize things for me at least a little?

CW: I do! But I also want to catch the subway.

CO: Ugh. How many shortcuts do you have on that thing?

CW: Well.. (pause)..38.

CO: Ok now I’m officially worried about you. What’s the longest one?

CW: Probably this one I wrote for Sandy: If I write “sandy” it unpacks to

“Sorry for delay and brevity in reply. Sandy knocked out my phone, power, water, and internet so I won’t be replying as quickly as usual. Please do not hesitate to email me again if I don’t reply soon.”

CO: You officially have a problem. What’s the shortest one?

CW: Well, when I type “plu” it becomes “+1”

CO: Ok, let me apply the math for you: your shortcut is longer than your longcut.

CW: I know but not if you include switching from letters to numbers on the iphone, which is annoying.

CO: How did you first become addicted to shortcuts?

CW: I got introduced to UNIX in the 80s and, in my frame of reference at the time, the closest I had come to meeting a wizard was the university’s sysadmin. I was constantly breaking things by chomping cpu with undead processes or removing my $HOME or something, and he had to come in and fix things. I learned a lot over his shoulder. In the summer before I started college, my dream was to be a university sysadmin. He had to explain to me patiently that I shouldn’t spend college in a computercave.

CO: Good advice, but now that you’re a grownup you can do that.

CW: Exactly. Anyway, everytime he would fix whatever incredible mess I had made he would sign off with some different flair and walk out, like he was dropping the mic and walking off stage. He never signed out “logout” it was always “die” or “leave” or “ciao” (I didn’t know that word at the time). So of course by the time he got back to his desk one day there was an email from me asking how to do this and he replied:

“RTFM. alias

CO: That seems like kind of a mean thing to do to you at such a young age.

CW: It’s true. UNIX alias was clearly the gateway drug that led me to writing shell scripts for everything.

CO: How many aliases do you have now?

CW: According to “alias | wc -l “, I have 1137. So far.

CO: So you’ve spent countless hours making aliases to save time.

CW: Yes! And shell scripts!

CO: Ok let’s talk about this script for introducing me to people. As you know I don’t like getting treated like a small cog. I’m kind of a big deal.

CW: Yes, you’ve mentioned that.

CO: So how does it work?

CW: I have separate biography files for everyone, and a file called nfile.asc that has first name, lastname@tag, and email address. Then I can introduce people via

% ii oneil@mathbabe schutt

It strips out the @mathbabe part (so I can keep track of multiple people named oneil) from the actual email, reads in and reformats the biographies, grepping out the commented lines, and writes an email I can pipe to mutt. The whole thing can be done in a few seconds.

CO: Ok that does sound pretty good. How many shell scripts do you have?

CW: Hundreds. A few of them are in my public mise-en-place repository, which I should update more. I’m not sure which of them I really use all the time, but it’s pretty rare I type an actual legal UNIX command at the command line. That said I try never to leave the command line. Students are always teaching me fancypants tricks for their browsers or some new app, but I spend a lot of time at the command line getting and munging data, and for that, sed, awk, and grep are here to stay.

CO: That’s kinda sad and yet… so true. Ok here’s the only question I really wanted to ask though: will you promise me you’ll never send me any more auto-generated emails?

CW: no.

Categories: news, open source tools
  1. Emanuel Derman
    April 15, 2013 at 9:18 am

    I don’t use them anymore, now being a lazy consumer Mac gui guy, but sh, grep, awk, sed, lex and yacc gave me an incredibly heady feeling when I learned and used them. Wish I could go back. I bow to Chris.


  2. griznog
    April 15, 2013 at 10:15 am

    GUI’s are the opiate of the masses.


  3. Leon Kautsky
    April 15, 2013 at 10:28 am

    I’ve been considering something like this.

    Plus, when I was briefly considering getting married, I was worried my would-be wife in America would have nothing to do. She offered to do my email and social networking and being antisocial, I have to say, I was pretty tempted. They all would’ve been long-form, maudlin and had mistakes, but who would’ve known the difference?


  4. grwww
    April 15, 2013 at 10:59 am

    He needs to download and use MH (nmh is the currently supported instance) for email. It has all kinds of scripting and templates and stuff that make it possible to set symlinks to commands like “repl” that will case reply to load preformatted templates that say specific things, or extract particular information from the message you are replying to. It is the bomb!


  5. April 19, 2013 at 10:01 pm

    Back in the 1970s a friend of mine finally agreed to explain the set of keyboard aliases and the like he had set up on Multics account. Multics was a UNIX precursor. The aliases were pretty impressive, and a lot like what your friend seems to have set up, though his advanced language of choice was LISP rather than one of the UNIX newcomers. Afterwards, he said “It was like showing off all my underwear.”

    Another friend of mine from that era was also big on automated scripts, and he had things down to a science. He had one alias called “piss” that locked his console for just the right length of time for him to get from his office to the men’s room, urinate, wash his hands, walk back and settle at his desk just as his console unlocked.

    I think Charles Dicken’s Wemmick, from Great Expectations, would have had an alias library like that if they had had computers back in then.


  6. Dr. Bitboy
    April 24, 2013 at 7:42 am

    alias hg=’history | grep’


    • grwww
      April 27, 2013 at 3:03 pm

      The key to many of these “grep” aliases is to remember to put “grep -v ” at the end of the pipeline so that you don’t have to read through lines of text that don’t matter.


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