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

Google Earth 7.1.8.3036 - View and contr...
Google Earth gives you a wealth of imagery and geographic information. Explore destinations like Maui and Paris, or browse content from Wikipedia, National Geographic, and more. Google Earth combines... Read more
QuickBooks 16.1.11.1556 R12 - Financial...
QuickBooks helps you manage your business easily and efficiently. Organize your finances all in one place, track money going in and out of your business, and spot areas where you can save. Built for... Read more
FileZilla 3.24.0 - 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 3.24.0: New The context menu for remote file search... Read more
Bookends 12.7.8 - Reference management a...
Bookends is a full-featured bibliography/reference and information-management system for students and professionals. Bookends uses the cloud to sync reference libraries on all the Macs you use.... Read more
Duplicate Annihilator 5.8.3 - Find and d...
Duplicate Annihilator takes on the time-consuming task of comparing the images in your iPhoto library using effective algorithms to make sure that no duplicate escapes. Duplicate Annihilator detects... Read more
BusyContacts 1.1.6 - Fast, efficient con...
BusyContacts is a contact manager for OS X that makes creating, finding, and managing contacts faster and more efficient. It brings to contact management the same power, flexibility, and sharing... Read more
MarsEdit 3.7.10 - Quick and convenient b...
MarsEdit is a blog editor for OS X that makes editing your blog like writing email, with spell-checking, drafts, multiple windows, and even AppleScript support. It works with with most blog services... Read more
BusyCal 3.1.4 - Powerful calendar app wi...
BusyCal is an award-winning desktop calendar that combines personal productivity features for individuals with powerful calendar sharing capabilities for families and workgroups. Its unique features... Read more
VirtualBox 5.1.14 - x86 virtualization s...
VirtualBox is a family of powerful x86 virtualization products for enterprise as well as home use. Not only is VirtualBox an extremely feature rich, high performance product for enterprise customers... Read more
Bookends 12.7.8 - Reference management a...
Bookends is a full-featured bibliography/reference and information-management system for students and professionals. Bookends uses the cloud to sync reference libraries on all the Macs you use.... Read more

Super Mario Run dashes onto Android in M...
Super Mario Run was one of the biggest mobile launches in 2016 before it was met with a lukewarm response by many. While the game itself plays a treat, it's pretty hard to swallow the steep price for the full game. With that said, Android users... | Read more »
WarFriends Beginner's Guide: How to...
Chillingo's new game, WarFriends, is finally available world wide, and so far it's a refreshing change from common mobile game trends. The game's a mix of tower defense, third person shooter, and collectible card game. There's a lot to unpack here... | Read more »
Super Gridland (Entertainment)
Super Gridland 1.0 Device: iOS Universal Category: Entertainment Price: $1.99, Version: 1.0 (iTunes) Description: Match. Build. Survive. "exquisitely tuned" - Rock Paper Shotgun No in-app purches, and no ads! | Read more »
Red's Kingdom (Games)
Red's Kingdom 1.0 Device: iOS Universal Category: Games Price: $4.99, Version: 1.0 (iTunes) Description: Mad King Mac has kidnapped your father and stolen your golden nut! Solve puzzles and battle goons as you explore and battle your... | Read more »
Turbo League Guide: How to tame the cont...
| Read more »
Fire Emblem: Heroes coming to Google Pla...
Nintendo gave us our first look at Fire Emblem: Heroes, the upcoming mobile Fire Emblem game the company hinted at last year. Revealed at the Fire Emblem Direct event held today, the game will condense the series' tactical RPG combat into bite-... | Read more »
ReSlice (Music)
ReSlice 1.0 Device: iOS Universal Category: Music Price: $9.99, Version: 1.0 (iTunes) Description: Audio Slice Machine Slice your audio samples with ReSlice and create flexible musical atoms which can be triggered by MIDI notes or... | Read more »
Stickman Surfer rides in with the tide t...
Stickson is back and this time he's taken up yet another extreme sport - surfing. Stickman Surfer is out this Thursday on both iOS and Android, so if you've been following the other Stickman adventures, you might be interested in picking this one... | Read more »
Z-Exemplar (Games)
Z-Exemplar 1.4 Device: iOS Universal Category: Games Price: $3.99, Version: 1.4 (iTunes) Description: | Read more »
5 dastardly difficult roguelikes like th...
Edmund McMillen's popular roguelike creation The Binding of Isaac: Rebirth has finally crawled onto mobile devices. It's a grotesque dual-stick shooter that tosses you into an endless, procedurally generated basement as you, the pitiable Isaac,... | Read more »

Price Scanner via MacPrices.net

Twelve South Releases RelaxedLeather Cases fo...
Inspired by the laid-back luxury of burnished leather boots and crafted in rich tones of taupe, herb and marsala, RelaxedLeather cases deliver smart, easy protection for the iPhone 7. Each genuine... Read more
Week’s Best Deal: New 2016 13-inch 2.0GHz Mac...
Amazon has the new 2016 13″ 2.0GHz non-Touch Bar MacBook Pros on sale for a limited time for $225 off MSRP including free shipping: - 13″ 2.0GHz MacBook Pro, Space Gray (MLL42LL/A): $1274.99 $225 off... Read more
Back in stock: Apple refurbished Mac minis fr...
Apple has Certified Refurbished Mac minis available starting at $419. Apple’s one-year warranty is included with each mini, and shipping is free: - 1.4GHz Mac mini: $419 $80 off MSRP - 2.6GHz Mac... Read more
Apple Ranked ‘Most Intimate Brand’
The top ranked ‘”intimate” brands continued to outperform the S&P and Fortune 500 indices in revenue and profit over the past 10 years, according to MBLM’s Brand Intimacy 2017 Report, the largest... Read more
B-Eng introduces SSD Health Check for Mac OS
Fehraltorf, Switzerland based independant Swiss company- B-Eng has announced the release and immediate availability of SSD Health Check 1.0, the company’s new hard drive utility for Mac OS X. As the... Read more
Apple’s Education discount saves up to $300 o...
Purchase a new Mac or iPad using Apple’s Education Store and take up to $300 off MSRP. All teachers, students, and staff of any educational institution qualify for the discount. Shipping is free: -... Read more
4-core 3.7GHz Mac Pro on sale for $2290, save...
Guitar Center has the 3.7GHz 4-core Mac Pro (MD253LL/A) on sale for $2289.97 including free shipping or free local store pickup (if available). Their price is a $710 savings over standard MSRP for... Read more
128GB Apple iPad Air 2, refurbished, availabl...
Apple has Certified Refurbished 128GB iPad Air 2s WiFis available for $419 including free shipping. That’s an $80 savings over standard MSRP for this model. A standard Apple one-year warranty is... Read more
13-inch 2.7GHz Retina MacBook Pro on sale for...
B&H Photo has the 2015 13″ 2.7GHz/128GB Retina Apple MacBook Pro on sale for $100 off MSRP. Shipping is free, and B&H charges NY tax only: - 13″ 2.7GHz/128GB Retina MacBook Pro (MF839LL/A): $... Read more
Laptop Market – Flight To Quality? – The ‘Boo...
Preliminary quarterly PC shipments data released by Gartner Inc. last week reveal an interesting disparity between sales performance of major name PC vendors as opposed to that of less well-known... Read more

Jobs Board

*Apple* macOS Systems Integration Administra...
…most exceptional support available in the industry. SCI is seeking an Junior Apple macOS systems integration administrator that will be responsible for providing Read more
*Apple* Retail - Multiple Positions- Deer Pa...
Job Description: Sales Specialist - Retail Customer Service and Sales Transform Apple Store visitors into loyal Apple customers. When customers enter the store, Read more
*Apple* Retail - Multiple Positions - Apple,...
Job Description: Sales Specialist - Retail Customer Service and Sales Transform Apple Store visitors into loyal Apple customers. When customers enter the store, Read more
*Apple* Technician - nfrastructure (United S...
Let’s Work Together Apple Technician This position is based in Portland, ME Life at nfrastructure At nfrastructure, we understand that our success results from our Read more
*Apple* Mobile Master - Best Buy (United Sta...
**467692BR** **Job Title:** Apple Mobile Master **Location Number:** 000602-Columbia MO-Store **Job Description:** **What does a Best Buy Apple Mobile Master Read more
All contents are Copyright 1984-2011 by Xplain Corporation. All rights reserved. Theme designed by Icreon.