Good fortune

I don’t want this to turn into the “obscure Unix commands blog” (any more than it already is), but I did have reason to use another old Unix command the other day. Unlike rs, this one is one that I’d used a lot in the past but hadn’t done anything with in ages.

The command is fortune, and I got reacquainted with it as a result of this question in the Keyboard Maestro forums. The OP wanted a way to display random messages from a list he’d made. This is exactly what fortune is for, so I suggested he use it. He didn’t follow my suggestion, which I think has more to do with the fear some people have of the command line than of fortune’s value.

Apple doesn’t include fortune with macOS, so you have to install it yourself, with Homebrew being the easiest way to do so. With fortune on your system, you then have to create a text file with all of the messages you want to select from, save that file to a specific folder, and run a simple command that creates a lookup table that fortune uses. See this writeup by Louis Tiao for full details. The only adjustment I have to Louis’s instructions is that if you’re using an Apple Silicon Mac, the folder you put your list of messages in should be


instead of


This is in keeping with Homebrew’s new defaults for Apple Silicon.

fortune comes with several files of aphorisms, but I don’t recommend you use any of them. They suffer from two problems:

About 20 years ago, I used fortune to generate random email signatures (which was the style at the time). One of the aphorism lists I used was the Oblique Strategies suggestions by Brian Eno and Peter Schmidt. I don’t remember where I got them, but it was likely this page, which goes back to the late 90s.

The strategies had to be reformatted like this, with each saying followed by a line with just a percentage sign:

Abandon normal instruments
Accept advice
A line has two sides
Allow an easement (an easement is the abandonment of a stricture)

This file, named oblique with no extension, was saved in the appropriate folder on my Linux system. I then ran

strfile oblique

to create create the oblique.dat file. From the strfile man page:

strfile reads a file containing groups of lines separated by a line containing a single percent `%’ sign (or other specified delimiter character) and creates a data file which contains a header structure and a table of file offsets for each group of lines. This allows random access of the strings.

Now fortune oblique returns lines like

Look at the order in which you do things

Always good advice.