Tip 8: Use here scripts

17 October 11. [link] PDF version

Part of a series of tips on POSIX and C. Start from the tip intro page, or get 21st Century C, the book based on this series.

level: intermediate POSIX
purpose: fewer temp files floating around

I'll relate this to C in a few episodes, but this is a general feature of POSIX-compliant shells that you can use for Python, Perl, or whatever else. In fact, if you want to have a multilingual script, this is an easy way to do it. Do some parsing in Perl, do the math in C, then have R produce the pretty pictures, and have it all in one text file.

Here's a Python example. Normally, you'd tell Python to run a script via

python your_script.py

You can give the file name '-' to use standard in as the input file:

echo "print 'hi.'" | python '-'

[Subtip: We need '-' and not just - to indicate that this is plain text and not introducing a switch like the c in python -c "print 'Hi'". Many programs follow a custom that two dashes indicate that they should stop reading switches and read subsequent inputs plain. Thus
echo "print 'hi.'" | python -- -
also works, but is the sort of thing that scares people.]

You could, in theory, put some lengthy scripts on the command line via echo, but you'll quickly see that there are a lot of little undesired parsings going on--you might need \"hi\" instead of just "hi", for example.

Thus, the here script, which does no parsing at all. Try this:

python '-' <<"XXXX"
print "\nThis script is %i lines long.\n" %(lines,)

The XXXX is any string you'd like; EOF is also popular, and --- looks good as long as you get the dash count to match at top and bottom. When the shell sees your chosen string alone on a line, then it will stop sending the script to the program's stdin. That's all the parsing that happens.

This tip is a standard shell feature, and so should work on any POSIX system. I know because the POSIX standard is online and is not all that painful to read, as standards go. Unfortunately, I'm not sure how to link to a certain line, so you'll have to go searching to verify my promise that Here Documents are standard shell features.

There's also a variant that begins with <<-. Search the standard or ask man bash for details.

As another variant, there's a difference between <<"XXXX" and <<XXXX. In the second version the shell parses certain elements, which means you can have the shell insert the value of $shell_variables for you.

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