New answers tagged io
Quick answer: The RAM doesn't "know" anything. Whatever structures are stored in RAM that help determine the semantics of other contents of RAM, are built by the operating system.
This isn't actually doing an ls -al and passing that into cat, it's doing a process substitution on cat and presenting that as a file to ls -al which will then do a listing on the file. So the process substitution creates a pipe connecting a file-object and stdin of the "inner" program, cat here and presents a file to the "outer" program. Then you do an ls ...
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