Customizing Bash

I spend a lot of time every day looking at a terminal window, and over the last decade I had been tweaking my bash profile to make the terminal act, and look, the way I wanted it to. As a systems administrator in a former life, I had collected a bunch of “useful” scripts that would help me work on a variety of operating systems, from Solaris, to AIX, to SGI,  as well as various flavors of Linux (CentOS, Fedora, Ubuntu, SUSE, Gentoo, etc.). I had aliases to commands (and my common typos) to log on to servers, control various services in my local development environment, and override common commands I typed all the time (e.g. ss for rails server) in my .bashrc which was symlinked to my .bash_profile due to an OS X quirk. This has resulted in a really long bashrc file (nearly 2000 lines long), and I wanted to take some time to clean things and get rid of a lot of the legacy cruft that was in that file.

In my personal workflow, I try to stay in the terminal as much as I can, finding the cognitive shift from a text-based environment to a GUI rather jarring. Imagine that; I connect my MacBook Pro with its two graphics cards to a 24″ monitor, yet most of my “work” is done in a terminal (I do use the graphic card for its GPU regularly though). Since I spend so much time in the terminal, I not only wanted to get rid of the cruft, I wanted to do a bit more to make the environment look as good as this computer performs.

I had been intrigued by the oh-my-zsh approach of bundling some themes and plugins. While I have used Zshell in the past, I never quite found the tab-completion, auto-correction, or the improvements to the scripting language compelling enough to make the move from Bash. However, being able to share a history across sessions and the built-in pager and globbing features almost got me there!

Apparently other folks were in the same boat I was in. I ran across the bash-it project a few weeks ago and finally had an opportunity recently to try this out. Basically what this project does is provide a framework for you to build your own themes, plugins, and aliases for your own environment. The installation is straight-forward on OS X (and every Linux box I’ve tried this on):

git clone ~/.bash_it

These two lines clone the bash-it repository to a hidden directory (.bash_it) for your user account (/Users/[your user name]/.bash_it) then launches the installer script. Using hidden directories (.bash_it) hides the directory from Finder, but still gives you access to the directory with the Terminal app. The installation script backs up your current ~/.bash_profile file (if you have made any adjustments to it), then prompts you for the features you want. I answered ‘some’ to most of the questions in the installation script to choose which plugins and aliases you would like to enable. I don’t use emacs or nginx on a regular basis, and use rvm over rbenv, and it turns out the xterm plugin causes some issues on OS X, so I left those out.


The default theme is named Bobby and looks really nice. It uses solarized colors and had one feature I really like: multiline feedback. On one line, I know which Ruby version I have active in RVM, the server I’m on, and where I am on the system. On the second line, I know which git branch I’m on, and if there are uncommitted changes (red x if there are changes, green check if everything is committed).


I had quite a few aliases in my .bash_profile that I had created over the years. There were, however, some nice additional aliases included in the bash-it package to shorten some typing of commands. They included some common mispellings (yes, that was on purpose); most of the git aliases I had been using anyway, some useful aliases for heroku, homebrew (yeah bup), for opening various applications like Firefox, Photoshop, and Chromium, and some nice features for todo-txt.


This isn’t something that the bash-it library deals with, but important in customizing the experience. The default font for the Terminal in OS X is Menlo. It’s a fine system font, but can get a little difficult to read at the distance I sit from my monitor. A really popular font for developers is Inconsolata. I changed my font to Inconsolata 14pt, and it has a very nice look to it.


In Snow Leopard, the Terminal app doesn’t support 256-bit colors. Apple has updated Terminal  in Lion to support this, but I have not yet upgraded to Lion. Quite honestly, the Lion machines I have dealt with have had ‘issues’ getting the tools I use on a regular basis installed, and I have just not had the time to deal with upgrading yet (most of the issues involve issues with XCode’s removal of gcc in favor of llvm. There is a good work around, and I believe the issue has been resolved in recent updates to XCode).

There is, however, an awesome Terminal app replacement named iTerm2 that has a lot of the features I want; 256-bit color support, full-screen mode, ability to split the screens, and hot keys (please don’t make me click when I can type). After installing iTerm2, I can now run the tests for prism and get all the NyanCat rainbow awesomeness.

After updating Terminal, installing the bash-it themes and plugins, and getting a ‘better’ font on my machine (and adding a few aliases back in to the ~/.bash_profile to log on to some servers), I used scp to push these files to the various server environments I work on (replace user and server):

scp -r ~/.bash_it user@server:~/

scp ~/.bash_profile user@server:~/.bash_profile

Overall, I’ve been happy with the move to this setup. It plays nicely with some of the other cool things I use (e.g. pianobar, tmux, and vim). With some cleaver key bindings, and a transparent terminal, I can actually change something on my screen and see the update in the browser without changing programs,

Next up? I think I may write either an rsync script that will push any local changes to the various servers I use, or maybe even use the Dropbox client on Linux to symlink these files in, ensuring as soon as I make a change on my local development environment, they will be on the remote systems as well.

Wayne Graham is head of the Scholars' Lab Research and Development team. He holds an MA in history from the College of William and Mary and his BA in history from the Virginia Military Institute. Before joining the Scholars' Lab in 2009, he worked at the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation's Department of Historical Research, then as…

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