TweetFollow Us on Twitter

Apr 02 Mac OS X

Volume Number: 18 (2002)
Issue Number: 04
Column Tag: Mac OS X

The BSD Man Pages

by Rich Morin

How to find them; how to read them.

Welcome

"Section 7", the name of this column, is also the shorthand term for the "Miscellaneous Information" section of the Berkeley Software Distribution's manual pages (known to their friends as the BSD "man pages"). This column will feature miscellaneous information on BSD-related aspects of Mac OS X, including application design, documentation, and even the politics of the developer and user communities.

Mac OS X is the most widely-disseminated version of BSD, but many Mac developers are a bit unclear on what BSD actually is. So, a word of explanation may be in order. BSD is a well-respected operating system, with a long history of solid engineering. Derived from Unix 32V, BSD is used for network servers, firewalls, and many other mission-critical applications.

Darwin (and thereby Mac OS X) is based on the FreeBSD and NetBSD distributions. As a result, it can take advantage of a well-developed operating system environment and thousands of "ported" applications from the FreeBSD Ports Collection. Clearly, BSD's solid technology and active developer community make a powerful contribution to the Mac OS X story.

Getting Started

BSD (and other Open Source) developers maintain several thousand "man pages" (manual pages), covering a wide range of topics. Because the pages are written by developers, they tend to be authoritative, consistently organized, current, detailed, and refreshingly honest. On the other hand, they also tend to be terse, tightly focused, and a bit unpolished in spots.

Consequently, reading man pages may not be the best way to approach a new and complex topic (e.g., NFS, socket programming), but it is an extremely handy way to learn about specific commands, remind yourself about forgotten details, etc. Once you've read a few man pages, I predict that you'll get addicted to their strong points; you may even (eventually) forgive their deficiencies.

Although it isn't critically necessary, you'll find it useful (and fun!) to have some Terminal windows on hand while you read this article. For one thing, you'll be able to see the actual output of the commands I'm describing; for another, you'll be able to try things out.

Using the Finder, navigate through the Applications and Utilities folders. When you find the icon for the Terminal Utility, drag it into the Dock. Now, double-click the icon twice, creating two Terminal windows. Unlike typical applications, these windows are not closely tied to each other. In fact, each Terminal window provides an independent BSD "session".

You should probably spend a few seconds arranging the windows, so that you can see them both at the same time. Also, stretch at least one of them vertically (keeping the width constant). This will let you see more of your commands' output without scrolling.

To view a particular man page, you must ask the system to run the "man" command, giving it the name of the page you want to see. We can try this out by asking for the man page that describes the "null" device:

[localhost:~] rdm% man null
NULL(4)         System Programmer's Manual           NULL(4)

NAME
     null - the null device

DESCRIPTION
     The null device accepts and reads data as any ordinary
     (and willing) file - but throws it away. The length of
     the null device is always zero.

FILES
     /dev/null

HISTORY
     A null device appeared in Version 7 AT&T UNIX.

Headings

As the example shows, each part of the man page is introduced by a descriptive heading. Some headings (e.g., NAME, DESCRIPTION) will show up on every man page; others (e.g., FILES, HISTORY) only appear when needed. Some, finally, are invented by the page's author. Here are some common headings, in the order they would normally appear on a man page:

  • NAME The following text gives the name(s) of the described item(s), followed by a terse description. In the case of commands, only one name will typically be given. In the case of library functions, however, there may be a long list of entry points.
  • SYNOPSIS The following text gives a (stylized) description of the normal usage mode for the item(s). In the case of commands, this will show the possible option flags; in the case of system calls and library functions, it will show representative declarations, etc.
  • DESCRIPTION The following text gives an extended description of the item(s), including options, usage considerations, etc. Some descriptions go on at great length.
  • RETURN VALUES The following text describes the return values for the item(s).
  • ERRORS The following text lists possible error conditions and resulting actions.
  • FILES The following text lists related files.
  • SEE ALSO The following text lists related man pages.
  • STANDARDS The following text lists applicable standards, sometimes discussing the degree to which the described item(s) comply.
  • BUGS The following text lists ways in which the command fails to meet the documentor's expectations. Some vendors find this section embarassing, so they rename or remove it. Feh!
  • NOTES The following text lists ancillary information which is not appropriate to any of the other sections.
  • HISTORY The following text tells where (i.e., in which BSD or Unix variant) the item first appeared, etc.

Paging

With all of this detail, some man pages can (and do :) go on for quite a while. In fact, multiple-page "man pages" are quite common. So, the man command is set up to let the reader "page" through the text. The default "pager" on Mac OS X is "more"; for a rundown on its capabilities, look at its man page!

[localhost:~] rdm% man more

Although more isn't very sophisticated, it does respond to the space bar (skip to the next page), the return key (move forward one line), "q" (quit), and a few other commands. If you want more features, try the GNU Project's "less" command (less is more, more or less):

[localhost:~] rdm% setenv PAGER less

Sections

The man pages cover a wide range of topics: administrative and user commands, C language interfaces, devices, etc. If all of the topics were simply sorted together, there would be name clashes. For instance, there is a passwd file, as well as a passwd command. To keep things straight, the man pages are divided into nine sections:

  • Section 1 (General Commands). These are commands that any user might enter from the command line or use in a "shell script". Some example commands include cd, ls, and rm.
  • Section 2 (System Calls). These are C language interfaces to kernel-provided services. Note that a system call, by definition, causes a context switch into the kernel. The application is halted until the system call completes. Some example system calls include close and open.
  • Section 3 (Library Functions). These are also C language interfaces, but the function runs (in general) with the application's context. Of course, some library functions make system calls, which do context switches, as described above. Some example library functions include fopen, scanf, and sqrt.
  • Section 4 (Devices and Device Drivers). These are the external interfaces to system devices. Some devices (e.g., /dev/null, /dev/tty) are intended for direct (command-line) use; others are only accessed by application or system-level code. Consequently, the descriptions in this section vary considerably in level and coverage.
  • Section 5 (File Formats). Many BSD activities are controlled or monitored by means of files. This section describes some of the critical files that an administrator might need to read or edit. Note, however, that Mac OS X uses different administrative mechanisms than most other BSD variants, so your mileage will definitely vary!
  • Section 6 (Games). Some BSD distributions include recreational programs; others do not. By placing these programs in a special area, the operating system eases monitoring and control of their use.
  • Section 7 (Miscellaneous Information). This section includes descriptions that are not tied to any given command, file, or function. Look here for high-level introductions, etc.
  • Section 8 (System Maintenance and Operation Commands). These are commands that the system administrator might enter from the command line or use in a "shell script". Some example commands include chown, fsck, and tunefs.
  • Section 9 (System Kernel Interfaces). These are C language interfaces to kernel-provided services. They differ from system calls in that they can only be called from inside the kernel. Thus, they are only of interest to kernel programmers. Mac OS X does not currently have this section, but FreeBSD does, so I expect it to show up eventually.

Navigation

Going back to the case of passwd, we see that the passwd command would be described in Section 1, while the passwd file would be described in Section 5. The specific man pages would normally be referred to as "passwd(1)" and "passwd(5)". By default, the man command will display the first page it finds, going in ascending order through the sections. You can make sure that you get passwd(5), however, by typing "man 5 passwd". Try it!

Unlike the hierarchical "help systems", as found on Cicso routers or operating systems such as VMS, man pages have no automated support for navigation. Some experimental variants use HTML to display man pages, turning SEE ALSO entries into hyperlinks. Most man systems, however, require that you do your own navigation.

Part of the reason for this lies in the sheer scale of the BSD command set. There are several hundred commands and thousands of functions. Trying to place them all in a meaningful hierarchy (or even defensible topical groupings) is not a trivial task! Nonetheless, some help is available.

To find a man page when you don't know the exact name, use apropos(1). It displays all the "NAME" lines that contain the specified text strings. If you are trying for a text string that contains non-alphanumeric characters, be sure to enclose the string in quotes. Otherwise, you'll get all the pages that match any "word" (i.e., sequence of non-blank characters) in the string. Here are some interesting uses of the apropos command; try them out!

[localhost:~] rdm% apropos device
[localhost:~] rdm% apropos dev
[localhost:~] rdm% apropos ‘(4)'
[localhost:~] rdm% apropos ‘file system'
[localhost:~] rdm% apropos file system

Although BSD provides several hundred commands, only a few are needed for everyday use. Next month, we'll look at some basic BSD commands, as well as a smattering of shell (command line interface) syntax.


Rich Morin has been using computers since 1970, Unix since 1983, and Mac-based Unix since 1985 (when he helped Apple create A/UX 1.0). When he isn't writing this column, Rich runs Prime Time Freeware (www.ptf.com), a publisher of books and CD-ROMs for the Free and Open Source software community. Feel free to write to Rich at rdm@ptf.com.

 

Community Search:
MacTech Search:

Software Updates via MacUpdate

Artlantis Studio 5.1.2.7 - 3D rendering...
Artlantis Studio is a unique and ideal tool for performing very high resolution rendering easily and in real time. The new FastRadiosity engine now lets you compute images in radiosity-even in... Read more
MacUpdate Desktop 6.0.5 - Search and ins...
MacUpdate Desktop 6 brings seamless 1-click installs and version updates to your Mac. With a free MacUpdate account and MacUpdate Desktop 6, Mac users can now install almost any Mac app on macupdate.... Read more
BitTorrent Sync 2.0.82 - Sync files secu...
BitTorrent Sync allows you to sync unlimited files between your own devices, or share a folder with friends and family to automatically sync anything. File transfers are encrypted. Your information... Read more
Google Drive 1.20 - File backup and shar...
Google Drive is a place where you can create, share, collaborate, and keep all of your stuff. Whether you're working with a friend on a joint research project, planning a wedding with your fiancé, or... Read more
Simon 4.0.3 - Monitor changes and crashe...
Simon monitors websites and alerts you of crashes and changes. Select pages to monitor, choose your alert options, and customize your settings. Simon does the rest. Keep a watchful eye on your... Read more
Vitamin-R 2.23 - Personal productivity t...
Vitamin-R creates the optimal conditions for your brain to work at its best by structuring your work into short bursts of distraction-free, highly focused activity alternating with opportunities for... Read more
iDefrag 5.0.0 - Disk defragmentation and...
iDefrag helps defragment and optimize your disk for improved performance. Features include: Supports HFS and HFS+ (Mac OS Extended). Supports case sensitive and journaled filesystems. Supports... Read more
PCalc 4.2 - Full-featured scientific cal...
PCalc is a full-featured, scriptable scientific calculator with support for hexadecimal, octal, and binary calculations, as well as an RPN mode, programmable functions, and an extensive set of unit... Read more
FileZilla 3.10.2 - Fast and reliable FTP...
FileZilla (ported from Windows) is a fast and reliable FTP client and server with lots of useful features and an intuitive interface. Version 3.10.2: Note: Now requires a 64-bit Intel processor.... Read more
The Hit List 1.1.11 - Advanced reminder...
The Hit List manages the daily chaos of your modern life. It's easy to learn - it's as easy as making lists. And it's powerful enough to let you plan, then forget, then act when the time is right.... Read more

Protect Yourself from an Onslaught of Ca...
Surprise Attack Games has announced a Cat-astrophic new physics puzzler called Fort Meow! In the game, a young girl named Nia finds her grandfather’s journal which triggers an all mighty feline attack! Why do the cats want the journal? Who knows,... | Read more »
GDC 2015 – Jelly Reef will be Game Oven’...
GDC 2015 – Jelly Reef will be Game Oven’s Last Hurrah, and it Seems like a Good Note to Go Out on Posted by Rob Rich on March 4th, 2015 [ permalink ] It’s sad knowing that Game Oven ( | Read more »
daWindci Deluxe Review
daWindci Deluxe Review By Campbell Bird on March 4th, 2015 Our Rating: :: BLUSTERY PUZZLESUniversal App - Designed for iPhone and iPad This updated puzzle game offers some creative gameplay and new mechanics, but still suffers from... | Read more »
Dungeon Hunter 5 Coming on March 12
Gameloft has excitedly announced that Dungeon Hunter 5 is on its way! Once again, you will adventure across the land of Valenthia exploring dungeons and fighting monsters. The game will have a new asynchronous multiplayer mode called Strongholds... | Read more »
GDC 2015 – The Sandbox 2 is Coming, and...
GDC 2015 – The Sandbox 2 is Coming, and Now it has Textures! | Read more »
Warner Bros. Interactive Announces Mort...
Mortal Kombat X, by Warner Bros. and NetherRealm Studios, will be a a free-to-play fighting/card-battle Mortal Kombat game. The game promises card collecting, multiplayer team combat, classic characters such as Scorpion, Sub-Zero and Raiden, and the... | Read more »
GDC 2015 – Piloteer is Whitaker Trebella...
GDC 2015 – Piloteer is Whitaker Trebella’s Latest Project, and it’s Definitely Something DIfferent Posted by Rob Rich on March 3rd, 2015 [ permalink ] You know | Read more »
PangoLand Review
PangoLand Review By Amy Solomon on March 3rd, 2015 Our Rating: :: COME VISIT PANGO AND FRIENDSUniversal App - Designed for iPhone and iPad PangoLand is an open-ended world full of familiar characters, bright colors and interactive... | Read more »
Knights of Pen & Paper is Leveling U...
With the roll of a die and a critical success, Paradox Interactive has announced Knights of Pen & Paper 2! You’ll be taking your place at the table once again in this sequel to Knights of Pen & Paper +1 Edition. The game will introduce the... | Read more »
GDC 2015 – Project Highrise is an Intere...
GDC 2015 – Project Highrise is an Interesting Idea from SomaSim Posted by Rob Rich on March 3rd, 2015 [ permalink ] You might know SomaSim best from their gold rush sim, 1849< | Read more »

Price Scanner via MacPrices.net

Mac Pros on sale for up to $279 off MSRP
Amazon has Mac Pros in stock and on sale for up to $279 off MSRP. Shipping is free: - 4-Core Mac Pro: $2725.87, $273 off MSRP (9%) - 6-Core Mac Pro: $3719.99, $279 off MSRP (7%) Read more
Sale! 13-inch Retina MacBook Pros for up to $...
B&H Photo has 13″ Retina MacBook Pros on sale for up to $205 off MSRP. Shipping is free, and B&H charges NY sales tax only: - 13″ 2.6GHz/128GB Retina MacBook Pro: $1219.99 save $80 - 13″ 2.... Read more
Another Tranche Of IBM MobileFirst For iOS Ap...
IBM has announced the next expansion phase for  its IBM MobileFirst for iOS portfolio, with a troika of new apps to address key priorities for the Banking and Financial Services, Airline and Retail... Read more
Sale! 15-inch Retina MacBook Pros for up to $...
B&H Photo has the new 2014 15″ Retina MacBook Pros on sale for up to $250 off MSRP for a limited time. Shipping is free, and B&H charges NY sales tax only: - 15″ 2.2GHz Retina MacBook Pro: $... Read more
WaterField Designs Introduces the Minimalist...
With Apple Pay gaining popularity, Android Pay coming in May 2015, and loyalty cards and receipts that can be accessed from smartphones, San Francisco’s WaterField Designs observes that it may be... Read more
Sale! 15-inch 2.2GHz Retina MacBook Pro for $...
 Best Buy has the 15″ 2.2GHz Retina MacBook Pro on sale for $1774.99 $1799.99, or $225 off MSRP. Choose free home shipping or free local store pickup (if available). Price valid for online orders... Read more
13-inch 2.5GHz MacBook Pro (refurbished) avai...
The Apple Store has Apple Certified Refurbished 13″ 2.5GHz MacBook Pros available for $170 off the cost of new models. Apple’s one-year warranty is standard, and shipping is free: - 13″ 2.5GHz... Read more
13-inch 2.5GHz MacBook Pro on sale for $100 o...
B&H Photo has the 13″ 2.5GHz MacBook Pro on sale for $999.99 including free shipping plus NY sales tax only. Their price is $100 off MSRP. Read more
27-inch 3.5GHz 5K iMac in stock today and on...
 B&H Photo has the 27″ 3.5GHz 5K iMac in stock today and on sale for $2299 including free shipping plus NY sales tax only. Their price is $200 off MSRP, and it’s the lowest price available for... Read more
Apple Launches Free Web-Based Pages and Other...
Apple’s new Web-only access to iWork productivity apps is a free level of iCloud service available to anyone, including people who don’t own or use Apple devices. The service includes access to Apple... Read more

Jobs Board

*Apple* Solutions Consultant - Retail Sales...
**Job Summary** As an Apple Solutions Consultant (ASC) you are the link between our customers and our products. Your role is to drive the Apple business in a retail Read more
*Apple* Pay Automation Engineer - iOS System...
**Job Summary** At Apple , great ideas have a way of becoming great products, services, and customer experiences very quickly. Bring passion and dedication to your job Read more
Sr. Technical Services Consultant, *Apple*...
**Job Summary** Apple Professional Services (APS) has an opening for a senior technical position that contributes to Apple 's efforts for strategic and transactional Read more
Event Director, *Apple* Retail Marketing -...
…This senior level position is responsible for leading and imagining the Apple Retail Team's global engagement strategy and team. Delivering an overarching brand Read more
*Apple* Pay - Site Reliability Engineer - Ap...
**Job Summary** Imagine what you could do here. At Apple , great ideas have a way of becoming great products, services, and customer experiences very quickly. Bring Read more
All contents are Copyright 1984-2011 by Xplain Corporation. All rights reserved. Theme designed by Icreon.