Steve Kemp's Blog Writings relating to Debian & Free Software

Lumail 2.x ?

Sat, 22 Nov 2014 21:39:28 GMT

I've continued to ponder the idea of reimplementing the console mail-client I wrote, lumail, using a more object-based codebase.

For one thing having loosely coupled code would allow testing things in isolation, which is clearly a good thing.

I've written some proof of concept code which will allow the following Lua to be evaluated:

-- Open the maildir.
users = "/home/skx/Maildir/.debian.user" )

-- Count the messages.
print( "There are " .. users:count() .. " messages in the maildir " .. users:path() )

-- Now we want to get all the messages and output their paths.
for k,v in ipairs( users:messages()) do
    -- Here we could do something like:
    --   if ( string.find( v:headers["subject"], "troll", 1, true ) ) then v:delete()  end
    -- Instead play-nice and just show the path.
    print( k .. " -> " .. v:path() )

This is all a bit ugly, but I've butchered some code together that works, and tried to solicit feedback from lumail users.

I'd write more but I'm tired, and intending to drink whisky and have an early night. Today I mostly replaced pipes in my attic. (Is it "attic", or is it "loft"? I keep alternating!) Fingers crossed this will mean a dry kitchen in the morning.

| 1 comment.


An experiment in (re)building Debian

Thu, 20 Nov 2014 13:28:36 GMT

I've rebuilt many Debian packages over the years, largely to fix bugs which affected me, or to add features which didn't make the cut in various releases. For example I made a package of fabric available for Wheezy, since it wasn't in the release. (Happily in that case a wheezy-backport became available. Similar cases involved repackaging gtk-gnutella when the protocol changed and the official package in the lenny release no longer worked.)

I generally release a lot of my own software as Debian packages, although I'll admit I've started switching to publishing Perl-based projects on CPAN instead - from which they can be debianized via dh-make-perl.

One thing I've not done for many years is a mass-rebuild of Debian packages. I did that once upon a time when I was trying to push for the stack-smashing-protection inclusion all the way back in 2006.

Having had a few interesting emails this past week I decided to do the job for real. I picked a random server of mine,, which stores backups, and decided to rebuild it using "my own" packages.

The host has about 300 packages installed upon it:

root@rsync ~ # dpkg --list | grep ^ii | wc -l

I got the source to every package, patched the changelog to bump the version, and rebuild every package from source. That took about three hours.

Every package has a "skx1" suffix now, and all the build-dependencies were also determined by magic and rebuilt:

root@rsync ~ # dpkg --list | grep ^ii | awk '{ print $2 " " $3}'| head -n 4
acpi 1.6-1skx1
acpi-support-base 0.140-5+deb7u3skx1
acpid 1:2.0.16-1+deb7u1skx1
adduser 3.113+nmu3skx1

The process was pretty quick once I started getting more and more of the packages built. The only shortcut was not explicitly updating the dependencies to rely upon my updages. For example bash has a Debian control file that contains:

Depends: base-files (>= 2.1.12), debianutils (>= 2.15)

That should have been updated to say:

Depends: base-files (>= 2.1.12skx1), debianutils (>= 2.15skx1)

However I didn't do that, because I suspect if I did want to do this decently, and I wanted to share the source-trees, and the generated packages, the way to go would not be messing about with Debian versions instead I'd create a new Debian release "alpha-apple", "beta-bananna", "crunchy-carrot", "dying-dragonfruit", "easy-elderberry", or similar.

In conclusion: Importing Debian packages into git, much like Ubuntu did with bzr, is a fun project, and it doesn't take much to mass-rebuild if you're not making huge changes. Whether it is worth doing is an entirely different question of course.



How could you rationally fork Debian?

Sun, 9 Nov 2014 12:16:24 GMT

The topic of Debian forks has come up a lot recently, and as time goes on I've actually started considering the matter seriously: How would you fork Debian?

The biggest stumbling block is that the Debian distribution contains thousands of packages, which are maintained by thousands of developers. A small team has virtually no hope of keeping up to date, importing changes, dealing with bug-reports, etc. Instead you have to pick your battle and decide what you care about.

This is why Ubuntu split things into "main" and "universe". Because this way they didn't have to deal with bug reports - instead they could just say "Try again in six months. Stuff from that repository isn't supported. Sorry!"

So if you were going to split the Debian project into "supported" and "unsupported" what would you use as the dividing line? I think the only sensible approach would be :

  • Base + Server stuff.
  • The rest.

On that basis you'd immediately drop the support burden of GNOME, KDE, Firefox, Xine, etc. All the big, complex, and user-friendly stuff would just get thrown away. What you'd end up with would be a Debian-Server fork, or derivative.

Things you'd package and care about would include:

  • The base system.
  • The kernel.
  • SSHD.
  • Apache / Nginx / thttpd / lighttpd / etc
  • PHP / Perl / Ruby / Python / etc
  • Jabberd / ircd / rsync / etc
  • MySQL / PostGres / Redis / MariadB / etc.

Would that be a useful split? I suspect it would. It would also be manageable by a reasonably small team.

That split would also mean if you were keen on dropping any particular init-system you'd not have an unduly difficult job - your server wouldn't be running GNOME, for example.

Of course if you're thinking of integrating a kernel and server-only stuff then you might instead prefer a BSD-based distribution. But if you did that you'd miss out on Docker. Hrm.



Some brief notes on Docker

Sat, 8 Nov 2014 13:33:25 GMT

Docker is the well-known tool for building, distributing, and launching containers.

I use it personally to run a chat-server, a graphite instance, and I distribute some of my applications with Dockerfiles too, to ease deployment.

Here are some brief notes on things that might not be obvious.

For a start when you create a container it is identified by a 64-byte ID. This ID is truncated and used as the hostname of the new guest - but if you ever care you can discover the full ID from within the guest:

~# awk -F/ '{print $NF}' /proc/self/cgroup

Compare that with the hostname:

~# hostname

Assigning names to containers is useful, for example:

$ docker run -d -p 2222:22 --name=sshd skxskx/sshd

However note that names must be removed before they can be reused:

# launch my ssh-container - removing the name first
docker rm  sshd || true
docker run --name=sshd -d -p 2222:22 skxskx/sshd

The obvious next step is to get the IP of the new container, and setup a hostname for it sshd.docker. Getting the IP is easy, via either the name of the ID:

~$ docker inspect --format '{{ .NetworkSettings.IPAddress }}' sshd

The only missing step is the ability to do that magically. You'd hope there would be a hook that you could run when a container has started - unfortunately there is no such thing. Instead you have two choices:

  • Write a script which parses the output of "docker events" and fires appropriately when a guest is created/destroyed.
  • Write a wrapper script for launching containers, and use that to handle the creation.

I wrote a simple watcher to fire when events are created, which lets me do the job.

But running a deamon just to watch for events seems like the wrong way to go. Instead I've switched to running via a wrapper dock-run:

$ dock-run --name=sshd -d -p 2222:22 skxskx/sshd

This invokes run-parts on the creation directory, if present, and that allows me to update DNS. So "sshd.docker.local" will point to the IP of the new image.

The wrapper was two minutes work, but it does work, and if you like you can find it here.

That concludes my notes on docker - although you can read articles I wrote on docker elsewhere.

| No comments


Planning how to configure my next desktop

Thu, 6 Nov 2014 21:26:36 GMT

I recently setup a bunch of IPv6-only accessible hosts, which I mentioned in my previous blog post.

In the end I got them talking to the IPv4/legacy world via the installation of an OpenVPN server - they connect over IPv6 get a private IP address, and that is masqueraded via the OpenVPN-gateway.

But the other thing I've been planning recently is how to configure my next desktop system. I generally do all development, surfing, etc, on one desktop system. I use virtual desktops to organize things, and I have a simple scripting utility to juggle windows around into the correct virtual-desktop as they're launched.

Planning a replacement desktop means installing a fresh desktop, then getting all the software working again. These days I'd probably use docker images to do development within, along with a few virtual machines (such as the pbuilder host I used to release all my Debian packages).

But there are still niggles. I'd like to keep the base system lean, with few packages, but you can't run xine remotely, similarly I need mpd/sonata for listening to music, emacs for local stuff, etc, etc.

In short there is always the tendency to install yet-another package, service, or application on the desktop, which makes migration a pain.

I'm not sure I could easily avoid that, but it is worth thinking about. I guess I could configure a puppet/slaughter/cfengine host and use that to install the desktop - but I've always done desktops "manually" and servers "magically" so it's a bit of a change in thinking.



IPv6 only server

Sun, 2 Nov 2014 10:54:56 GMT

I enjoy the site/community, and since I've just setup an IPv6-only host I was looking to do something similar.

Unfortunately my (working) code to clone github repositories into per-user directories fails - because github isn't accessible over IPv6.

That's a shame.

Oddly enough chromium, the browser packaged for wheezy, doesn't want to display IPv6-only websites either. For example this site fail to load

In the meantime I've got a server setup which is only accessible over IPv6 and I'm a little smug. (

(Yes it is true that I've used all the IPv4 addreses allocated to my VLAN. That's just a coincidence. Ssh!)



A brief introduction to freebsd

Wed, 29 Oct 2014 18:37:28 GMT

I've spent the past thirty minutes installing FreeBSD as a KVM guest. This mostly involved fetching the ISO (I chose the latest stable release 10.0), and accepting all the defaults. A pleasant experience.

As I'm running KVM inside screen I wanted to see the boot prompt, etc, via the serial console, which took two distinct steps:

  • Enabling the serial console - which lets boot stuff show up
  • Enabling a login prompt on the serial console in case I screw up the networking.

To configure boot messages to display via the serial console, issue the following command as the superuser:

 # echo 'console="comconsole"' >> /boot/loader.conf

To get a login: prompt you'll want to edit /etc/ttys and change "off" to "on" and "dialup" to "vt100" for the ttyu0 entry. Once you've done that reload init via:

 # kill -HUP 1

Enable remote root logins, if you're brave, or disable PAM and password authentication if you're sensible:

 vi /etc/ssh/sshd_config
 /etc/rc.d/sshd restart

Configure the system to allow binary package-installation - to be honest I was hazy on why this was required, but I ran the two command and it all worked out:


Now you may install a package via a simple command such as:

 pkg add screen

Removing packages you no longer want is as simple as using the delete option:

 pkg delete curl

You can see installed packages via "pkg info", and there are more options to be found via "pkg help". In the future you can apply updates via:

 pkg update && pkg upgrade

Finally I've installed 10.0-RELEASE which can be upgraded in the future via "freebsd-update" - This seems to boil down to "freebsd-update fetch" and "freebsd-update install" but I'm hazy on that just yet. For the moment you can see your installed version via:

 uname -a ; freebsd-version

Expect my future CPAN releases, etc, to be tested on FreeBSD too now :)



On writing test-cases and testsuites.

Wed, 22 Oct 2014 09:21:39 GMT

Last night I mostly patched my local copy of less to build and link against the PCRE regular expression library.

I've wanted to do that for a while, and reading Raymond Chen's blog post last night made me try it out.

The patch was small and pretty neat, and I'm familiar with GNU less having patched it in the past. But it doesn't contain tests.

Test cases are hard. Many programs, such as less, are used interactively which makes writing a scaffold hard. Other programs suffer from a similar fate - I'm not sure how you'd even test a web browser such as Firefox these days - mangleme would catch some things, eventually, but the interactive stuff? No clue.

In the past MySQL had a free set of test cases, but my memory is that Oracle locked them up. SQLite is famous for its decent test coverage. But off the top of my head I can't think of other things.

As a topical example there don't seem to be decent test-cases for either bash or openssl. If it compiles it works, more or less.

I did start writing some HTTP-server test cases a while back, but that was just to automate security attacks. e.g. Firing requests like:

GET /../../../etc/passwd HTTP/1.0
GET //....//....//....//etc/passwd HTTP/1.0

(It's amazing how many toy HTTP server components included in projects and products don't have decent HTTP-servers.)

I could imagine that being vaguely useful, especially because it is testing the protocol-handling rather than a project-specific codebase.

Anyway, I'm thinking writing test cases for things is good, but struggling to think of a decent place to start. The project has to be:

  • Non-interactive.
  • Open source.
  • Widely used - to make it a useful contribution.
  • Not written in some fancy language.
  • Open to receiving submissions.

Comments welcome; but better yet why not think about the test-coverage of any of your own packages and projects...?



On the names we use in email

Sat, 18 Oct 2014 23:03:06 GMT

Yesterday I received a small rush of SPAM mails, all of which were 419 scams, and all of them sent by "Mrs Elizabeth PETERSEN".

It struck me that I can't think of ever receiving a legitimate mail from a "Mrs XXX [YYY]", but I was too busy to check.

Today I've done so. Of the 38,553 emails I've received during the month of October 2014 I've got a hell of a lot of mails with a From address including a "Mrs" prefix:

"Mrs.Clanzo Amaki" <>
"Mrs Sarah Mamadou"<>
"Mrs Abia Abrahim" <>
"Mrs. Josie Wilson" <>
"Mrs. Theresa Luis"<>

There are thousands more. Not a single one of them was legitimate.

I have one false-positive when repeating the search for a Mr-prefix. I have one friend who has set his sender-address to "Mr Bob Smith", which always reads weirdly to me, but every single other email with a Mr-prefix was SPAM.

I'm not going to use this in any way, since I'm happy with my mail-filtering setup, but it was interesting observation.

Names are funny. My wife changed her surname post-marriage, but that was done largely on the basis that introducing herself as "Doctor Kemp" was simpler than "Doctor Foreign-Name", she'd certainly never introduce herself ever as Mrs Kemp.

Trivia: In Finnish the word for "Man" and "Husband" is the same (mies), but the word for "Woman" (nainen) is different than the word for "Wife" (vaimo).



Writing your own e-books is useful

Wed, 8 Oct 2014 19:03:34 GMT

Before our recent trip to Poland I took the time to create my own e-book, containing the names/addresses of people to whom we wanted to send postcards.

Authoring ebooks is simple, and this was a useful use. (Ordinarily I'd have my contacts on my phone, but I deliberately left it at home ..)

I did mean to copy and paste some notes from wikipedia about transport, tourist destinations, etc, into a brief guide. But I forgot.

In other news the toy virtual machine I hacked together got a decent series of updates, allowing you to embed it and add your own custom opcode(s) easily. That was neat, and fell out naturely from the switch to using function-pointers for the opcode implementation.



Spiral Logo


Recent Posts

Recent Tags


RSS Feed

  • Subscribe to feed