is an example of hashbang. It’s a very neat Unix concept: when placed at the beginning of a script, the line starting with
# (hash) and
! (bang) indicates an interpreter that should be chosen when running the script as an executable. Often used for shells (
#!/bin/zsh…), it also works for many regular programming languages, like Ruby, Python or Perl. Some of them may not even use
# as comment character but still allow for hashbangs, simply by ignoring such a first line. Funnily enough, this is just enough to fully “support” them, as the choice of interpreter is done at the system level.
Sadly, though, the only portable way to write a hashbang is to follow it with absolute path to an executable, which makes it problematic for pretty much anything other than /bin/*sh.
Take Python as an example. On many Linuxes it will be under /usr/bin/python, but that’s hardly a standard. What about /usr/local/bin/python? ~/bin/python?… Heck, one Python I use is under /usr/local/Cellar/python/2.7.3/bin – that’s installed by Homebrew on OS X, a perfectly valid Unix! And I haven’t even mentioned virtualenv…
This madness is typically solved by a standard tool called env, located under /usr/bin on anything at least somewhat *nixy:
env looks up the correct executable for its argument, relying on the
PATH environmental variable (hence its name). Thanks to env, we can solve all of the problems signaled above, and any similar woes for many other languages. That’s because by the very definition, running Python file with the above hashbang is equivalent to passing it directly to the interpreter:
Now, what if you wanted to also include some flags in interpreter invocation? For
python, for example, you can add
-O to turn on some basic optimizations. The seemingly obvious solution is to include them in hashbang:
Although this may very well work, it puts us again into “not really portable” land. Thankfully, there is a very ingenious (but, sadly, quite Python-specific) trick that lets us add arguments and be confident that our program will run pretty much anywhere.
Here’s how it looks like:
Understandably, it may not be immediately obvious how does it work. Let’s dismantle the pieces one by one, so we can see how do they all fit together – down not just to every quotation sign, but also to every space.