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Very useful in shell scripts because you can run a task nicely in the background using job-control and output progress until it completes.
Here's an example of how I use it in backup scripts to run gpg in the background to encrypt an archive file (which I create in this same way). $! is the process ID of the last run command, which is saved here as the variable PI, then sleeper is called with the process id of the gpg task (PI), and sleeper is also specified to output : instead of the default . every 3 seconds instead of the default 1. So a shorter version would be sleeper $!;
The wait is also used here, though it may not be needed on your system.
echo ">>> ENCRYPTING SQL BACKUP"
gpg --output archive.tgz.asc --encrypt archive.tgz 1>/dev/null &
PI=$!; sleeper $PI ":" 3; wait $PI && rm archive.tgz &>/dev/null
Previously to get around the $! not always being available, I would instead check for the existance of the process ID by checking if the directory /proc/$PID existed, but not everyone uses proc anymore. That version is currently the one at http://www.askapache.com/linux-unix/bash_profile-functions-advanced-shell.html but I plan on upgrading to this new version soon.
Ummmm.. Saw that gem on some dead-head hippies VW bus at phish this summer.. It's actually one of my favorite ways of using bash, very clean. It shows what you can do with the cool advanced features like job control, redirection, combining commands that don't wait for each other, and the thing I like the most is the use of the ( ) to make this process heirarchy below, which comes in very handy when using fifos for adding optimization to your scripts or commands with similar acrobatics.
F UID PID PPID WCHAN RSS PSR CMD
1 gplovr 30667 1 wait 1324 1 -bash
0 gplovr 30672 30667 - 516 3 \_ sleep 3
1 gplovr 30669 1 wait 1324 1 -bash
0 gplovr 30673 30669 - 516 0 \_ sleep 5
1 gplovr 30671 1 wait 1324 1 -bash
0 gplovr 30674 30671 - 516 1 \_ sleep 7