01.04.2009 23:32

Employing org-mode

Since I started using org-mode I employed its simple format on many different documents, not just limiting it to manage my agenda. For example it's a great format for documenting systems I maintain; all system information, changes, security updates etc. are stored in per-system org files. I also use it for all projects I work on. Once terms are set I will open a new project.org file and start outlining tasks. Later all kinds of sensitive information will be added, and this brings up the issue of security, I wrote about encrypting file-systems but additionally I also encrypt every sensitive file with GPG. This is where EasyPG for Emacs fits in, it allows transparent en/decryption of files while ensuring nothing gets leaked outside of Emacs.

It's not as simple as some (custom) systems I've seen but it's a complete solution. Freelancing from home I had to come up with something to make my life easier and my hands weren't tied by some office rule or regulation. The same setup can be used to keep your passwords, logins, bank account and other personal information. Org's table mode is a good format for those files.

Along with project.org I also have report.org files for every project, holding various information, documenting everything I did and so on. When I'm done I export the report as a PDF and send it to clients, feedback was always very positive. It's simple but it makes a difference. I'll mention just one more use case. This winter I was at a hackmeeting and someone asked me to talk about video streaming. It took me about an hour to write an org file on the topic and I used it directly with Emacs to do a presentation. I did it by strategically expanding and folding relevant sections as I went over the topics, and it turned out really well. After the event I exported it to a few different formats and shared them with participants, once again I had a complete solution...

Written by anrxc | Permalink | Filed under crypto, work, emacs

29.03.2009 23:01

Publishing with NB and Emacs

Picking an engine to publish my writings I wanted something extremely simple. First thing that implies is no SQL. I wanted an engine written in Python and pyblosxom was interesting but in the end I went with NanoBlogger. NB is a blog engine written in Bash that uses standard UNIX utils like sed and grep to create static HTML content. How to write and publish the content is left as an exercise to the user.

NB can automatically generate templates on new entries or articles, but it's not perfect when it comes to GNU Emacs. I wanted at least the correct mode to be started. So I wrote nbpost.sh, it creates a new entry, inserts a template and starts the correct mode. It also recognizes when I'm editing an existing entry, and can start Emacs if it's not already running. As for the mode, html-mode is OK, but I found post-mode to fit perfectly. It was written for mutt and editing e-mails but it has other uses too.

Once written and HTML generated, an article needs to be published to the web server. Doing this manually would be tedious so I wrote nbsync.py. It uses rsync for publishing content over SSH. Rsync will transfer only changes between files, it uses compression and ssh provides encryption... very simple yet very effective.

With that in place I still wanted better integration of NB in my environment. I use ZSH which has great completion and a web search brought me to completion functions written in 2006, a little outdated but very good. I updated them and published _nb here. It completes all the commands as well as categories and entries.

I now have a complete solution for publishing from Emacs. Which also brings its related benefits; syntax highlighting, spell checking, well known key bindings and automatic publishing of content. Not to mention that org-mode found it's use too. I keep a journal.org file outlining all my entries and categories, related TODO tasks and ideas for future articles.

Written by anrxc | Permalink | Filed under main, code, emacs

27.03.2009 19:59

Filesystem encryption on Linux

After months of reviewing different filesystem encryption implementations for GNU/Linux I settled for two possible candidates. Those were: dm-crypt and eCryptfs. The first provides a block device encryption layer while eCryptfs is an actual filesystem - a stacked cryptographic filesystem to be exact. After another month of weighing options I decided to use eCryptfs for protecting my laptop.

Being a stacked FS, eCryptfs mounts on top of an existing filesystem so it doesn't require a pre-allocated block device. You can mount it on top of any single directory to protect it. Drawbacks are that you can't use it to protect you swap partition nor does it provide plausible deniability - it's obvious that encrypted data exists. Here is a nice table comparing these two implementations. Besides speed and simplicity eCryptfs is a really clever implementation and it's just what I need right now.

I used eCryptfs to encrypt my entire $HOME, which is still kind of a un-documented area. So I decided to write an article describing my setup which explains how to use eCryptfs for $HOME encryption and dm-crypt for protecting swap space (without breaking hibernation). Next Ubuntu release will have $HOME encryption with eCryptfs integrated so it will be interesting to see how they implemented it. By the way, right now I am more concerned about privacy issues then security - that's why I didn't encrypt my entire drive, yet. Even if I did all I could with current solutions I still wouldn't be at the level of security I really want:

With strong crypto I still want a few other things, most important one being plausible deniability. Either to have completely hidden encrypted volumes (Truecrypt hidden volumes can be detected) or to have different keys unlocking different data. The secret police should not be able to prove that not everything was decrypted.

Written by anrxc | Permalink | Filed under crypto, code

25.03.2009 10:45

Cryptonomicon 10 years later

I bought and read The Baroque Cycle this winter, and loved it. I avoided it for the longest time thinking it would be an overkill because I read Stephenson's books primarily for his SF work. When I finished it I just had to read Cryptonomicon again.

While reading it I couldn't stop thinking about the technology in the book. Cryptonomicon was written in 1999, before we had blogs and Windows 98 was all the rage. Even the Internet as we know it today was a lot different. But somehow Stephenson pulled it off, Cryptonomicon 10 years later is not obsolete. You have Finux and crypto, optics and data havens... Parts of it almost seem like SF, even today.

Story follows three narrations. Two of them during WW2, and how allies broke the axis crypto. There people like Turing are side characters and besides cryptography Stephenson tells us a story of IT and electronic computers. Narration set in modern days follows a hacker named Randy - grandson of a mathematician that worked on breaking the axis code - and his company Epiphyte while they are trying to build a data haven. In the process they get involved in a hunt for Japanese war gold, so you also get your share of adventure... I often saw people calling it a cypherpunk/cyberpunk bible, and not without good reason, I agree.

Written by anrxc | Permalink | Filed under cyberpunk, crypto, books

22.03.2009 01:37

Takeshi Kovacs novels

I found Altered Carbon last year in my favorite bookshop, translated and published on its own. I really enjoyed it, even more so as a cyberpunk fan. It took me another year to find electronic versions of other books in Takeshi Kovacs trilogy; Broken Angels and Woken Furies, which I read this winter in a period of a few days, or nights to be more accurate. I started by re-reading Altered Carbon which, for me, in the end turned out better then the second book but not from Woken Furies which was a good finale.

Setting is some 500 years in the future, at which point humans colonized other planets. Dominant, and most interesting, concept in these books is that people don't really die anymore, as most of them have stacks in their spinal columns which store their personalities and memories. If a body dies the stack can be uploaded to a new sleeve (body). Well, there is still what they call real death, destroying the stack (and all backups of it, if any). That's where our hero, an ex envoy (elite military unit), Takeshi Kovacs comes in. He is re-sleeved on Earth and has to solve a murder case. Second book takes place some 30 years later, where Kovacs is involved in a war on some distant planet... a classic SciFi novel with interstellar warfare and aliens. While in the third book he finally returns to his home planet for a conclusion of a series. We also get to learn a lot about his early days.

I don't read a lot of SF, apart from cyberpunk novels, but this was really something. It's a mix of hard-boiled noir detective stories, cyberpunk and contemporary SF. Something in it for everyone. Richard Morgan is an author I can depend on now to tell a really good story, and his later work The Black Man (unrelated to Kovacs novels) confirms it.

Written by anrxc | Permalink | Filed under cyberpunk, books

21.03.2009 19:55

Pvol and ossaudiodev

Pvol screenshot My laptop has a lot of extra keys, a few of them for controlling sound. At first I mapped those to change the volume silently with amixer. While I was at a hackmeeting this winter I noticed a few laptops that had internal OSD showing a progress bar on volume changes. I liked that, and recently Gigamo showed me his rvol utility for changing the volume that displays a GTK progress bar. It's written in Ruby and I didn't have ruby-gtk2 bindings to try it (nor wanted to install them).

I considered it a good exercise to rewrite it in Python with pygtk, because so far I used only WxGTK and PythonCard. Good thing that I did as Pylendar was next and it was much easier to write. Anyway pvol.py is a command line utility for changing the volume, showing an optional GTK progress bar. While rvol uses an external utility for actual volume changes I decided to use ossaudiodev, so pvol is standalone. One especially tricky task with it was muting audio channels. I worked with pyalsaaudio before and I like it more but it's not part of the standard Python distribution. Finally I re-mapped my keys to use pvol and I'm very happy with it, it's simple but it makes a difference. Let's see what it actually does:

$ pvol -h

Usage: pvol [-s] [-m] [-c PERCENT] [-p] [-q]

  -h, --help            show this help message and exit
  -s, --status          display current volume
  -m, --mute            mute the main audio channel
  -c PERCENT, --change=PERCENT
                        increase or decrease volume by given percentage
  -p, --pcm             change PCM channel (default is MASTER)
  -q, --quiet           adjust volume without the progressbar

Written by anrxc | Permalink | Filed under desktop, code, media

19.03.2009 17:13


My LAN is connected to a 4096/256 kbps ADSL line. With so many machines and a number of people using them to access the Internet QoS is very important. I found wondershaper some years ago, and tried with both CBQ and HTB versions and a number of modifications. Results were OK, but not perfect, I never managed to achieve the "holy grail" of latency they were talking about.

Recently I decided to try HFSC, and results were much better. What I always wanted to achieve, and now have with wshaper.hfsc:

Low latency for interactive traffic (SSH, DNS and games)
SSH sessions should never lag.
ET ping never above 60 for my brother if someone is browsing or there is an active download.
Skype, Ventrilo and VoIP should be stable
There should be no interference, has priority over browsing and data transfers.
Fast web browsing
It should be fast but it should never hurt the interactive class, and it should stay fast even during file transfers.
Uploads should not harm downloads
Avoid large queues on the DSL modem.
Bit-torrent and other P2P traffic has the lowest priority
But if some other class is idle it can borrow traffic from it.

Written by anrxc | Permalink | Filed under code

12.03.2009 17:13

Vimperator for Emacs users

Vimperator is a Firefox extension which makes it behave like Vim text editor. It has similar key bindings and enables fast, keyboard only, web browsing. For a while there was a similar extension that targeted Emacs users, conkeror, but then they built a complete browser from it... and I lost interest. For a while I used LoL extension that provided hints, and Firemacs extension which provided Emacs like bindings, it was not bad, at all. But a recent xf86-video-intel update broke LoL, it would freeze Firefox while only trying to draw 10+ hints.

In recent months I was reading good things about vimperator almost every day so I decided to try it. After reading the manual I wrote a config file which gives me the same experience, effectively replacing; LoL, Firemacs, It's All Text, AutoHide Statusbar and Speed Dial extensions on my system (while providing many new great options). Guideline for writing it was that any combination hit by mistake does something as close as possible as it would do if you were in Emacs. Maybe hitting "B" is easier to get a buffer list but when you have "C-x C-b" burned into your fingertips it's not of much use.

In addition to re-mapping key bindings my options are solid, I decided to re-use the AwesomeBar functionality and my default search engine is YubNub, so those give me blazing fast access to whatever I need, i.e. hitting "C-x l" and typing: "aur some package", or "gim some image" ...

Written by anrxc | Permalink | Filed under desktop, emacs

11.03.2009 23:09

Desktop calendars

PyLendar screenshot I need a calendar app/widget on my desktop. KDE and GNOME users get one as a part of their environment. But if you use neither you are screwed as I recently found out. There are only two options, rainlendar and osmo. The first is broken with newer GTK versions for 6 months now and it's not free software (that could be a showstopper for some I imagine). Other is terribly limited by GTK, not all buttons/toolbars can be removed, it's huge by default and can't be scaled to some reasonable size and so on. Both of them are packed with functionality; notes, agenda, todo, alarms, birthdays... but I don't need that, I just want a simple calendar display with basic functions (like switching months and highlighting days), and there just isn't any.

At first I decided to keep it simple and used xmessage:

$ cal -m | xmessage -file -
Then I combined it with some lua code so I can select the month:
function calendar_select(offset)
    local datespec = os.date("*t")
    datespec = datespec.year * 12 + datespec.month - 1 + offset
    datespec = (datespec % 12 + 1) .. " " .. math.floor(datespec / 12)
    awful.util.spawn("cal -m " .. datespec .. " | xmessage -file -")

-- Then you can call (i.e. on mouse scrolls)
calendar_select(0)  -- for current month
calendar_select(1)  -- for next month
calendar_select(-1) -- for prev. month... and so on
But it was just too simple, I wanted the current day highlighted, at least. In the end I wrote my own, coded in python and pygtk. I call it PyLendar, it has only two (optional)buttons; Agenda - that calls org-mode agenda (which manages my tasks and projects), and Close that closes it (it also has a default timeout so it can close automatically). After a few days I decided to keep track of non-working days so I implemented that too along with locales. Non-working days are marked bold, and their names are shown in tooltips for the current month. I also implemented month selection on start-up so I can keep using my lua function from awesome, click or a mouse-scroll on my date widget will spawn pylendar in the top right corner of the screen.

Written by anrxc | Permalink | Filed under desktop, code

10.03.2009 03:57

Anathem by Neal Stephenson

Anathem is a book by Neal Stephenson, his latest, and for me his best work yet. Although after reading it again I must say that Diamond Age remains my favorite. I recommended Anathem to a few people and got positive feedback, people love it as much as I do.

Anathem book cover The story is set on another world, where scholars live apart from the rest of society. They live in concents and spend their whole lives studying mathematics, physics, mechanics, cosmology... or whatever makes them happy. This is one of my favorite concepts from the book. Through their own pursuit of knowledge the reader gets involved in numerous ideas from these fields. Of course there is a fair share of adventure, and basically what Stephenson calls "making a good yarn".

The book has around 1000 pages, as usual with Stephenson, and in the US it was distributed along with an audio CD, the music is now available on-line and it goes rather well with the book. Although you can't create a playlist, and it was a good exercise to do something about that, that's a story for another article... Since there are numerous ideas and concepts in the book some people organized a wiki for reference, it has some really good content and it's worth a visit.

Written by anrxc | Permalink | Filed under books