A Weird Imagination

Which command will be run?

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The problem

While trying to develop a modification to the Pelican source, I was unexpectedly having my installed version of Pelican get run instead of the local version:

$ which pelican
/usr/local/bin/pelican
$ command -v pelican
/usr/bin/pelican

For some reason, which was pointing to the executable I was expecting bash to run, but the Bash builtin command was telling me that bash was running the installed version instead.

The solution

Use the hash builtin to clear bash's cache of the location of pelican:

$ hash -d pelican
$ command -v pelican
/usr/local/bin/pelican

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Speeding up Pelican's regenerate

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Pelican's default Makefile includes an option make regenerate which uses Pelican's -r/--autoreload option to regenerate the site whenever a file is modified. Combined with the Firefox extension Auto Reload, this makes it easy to keep an eye on how a blog post will be rendered as you author it and to quickly preview theme changes.

The problem

With just thirty articles, Pelican already takes several seconds to regenerate the site. For publishing a site, this is plenty fast, but for tweaking formatting in a blog post or theme, this is too slow.

The quick solution

Pelican has an option, --write-selected, which makes it only write out the files listed. Writing just one file takes about half a second on my computer, even though it still has to do some processing for all of the files in order to determine what to write. To use --write-selected, you have to determine the output filename of the article you are editing:

$ pelican -r content -o output -s pelicanconf.py \
    --relative-urls \
    --write-selected output/draft/in-progress-article.html

The right solution

Optimally, we wouldn't have to tell Pelican which file to output; instead, it would figure out which files could be affected by a change and regenerate only those files.

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Better hash-based colors

The problem

Yesterday, I proposed using a hash function to choose colors:

ps1_color="32;38;5;$((0x$(hostname | md5sum | cut -f1 -d' ' | tr -d '\n' | tail -c2)))"

I did not discuss two issues with this approach:

  1. Colors may be too similar to other colors, such that they are not useful.
  2. Some colors may be undesirable altogether, particularly very dark ones may be too similar to a black terminal background color.

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Hash-based hostname colors

Random color selection

In my post about hostname-based prompt colors, I suggested a fallback color scheme that was obviously wrong in order to remind you to set a color for that host:

alice@unknown:~$ 

This carried with it an implicit assumption: you care what color each host is assigned. You may instead be happy to assign a random color to each host. We could use shuf to generate a random color:

ps1_color="32;38;5;$(shuf -i 0-255 -n 1)"

The problem with this solution is the goal of the recoloring the prompt was not simply to make it more colorful, but for that color to have meaning. We want the color to always be the same for each login to a given host.

One way to accomplish this would be to use that code to randomly generate colors, but save the results in a table like the one used before for manually-chosen colors. But it turns out we can do better.

Hash-based color selection

Hash functions have a useful property called determinism, which means that hashing the same value will always get the same result. The consequence is that we can use a hash function like it's a lookup table of random numbers shared among all of our computers:

ps1_color="32;38;5;$(($(hostname | sum | cut -f1 -d' ' | sed s/^0*//) % 256))"

The $((...)) syntax is bash's replacement for expr which is less portable but easier to use. Here we use it to make sure the hash value we compute is a number between 0 and 255. [sum][sum] computes a hash of its input, in this case the result of hostname. Its output is not just a number so cut selects out the number and sed gets rid of any leading zeros so it isn't misinterpreted as octal.

The idea of using sum was suggested by a friend after reading my previous post on the topic.

But this turns out to not work great for hosts with similar names like rob.example.com and orb.example.com:

alice@rob:~$ 
alice@orb:~$ 

Similar colors on hosts with very different names would not be so bad, but because of how sum works, it will tend to give similar results on similar strings (although less often than I expected; it took some effort to find such an example).

Better hash functions

While this is not a security-critical application, here cryptographic hash functions solve the problem. Cryptographic hash functions guarantee (in theory) that knowing that two inputs are similar tells you nothing about their hash values. In other words, the output of cryptographic hash functions are indistinguishable from random and, in fact, they can be used to build pseudorandom generators like Linux's /dev/urandom.

The cryptographic hash function utilities output hex instead of decimal, so they aren't quite a drop-in replacement for sum:

ps1_color="32;38;5;$((0x$(hostname | md5sum | cut -f1 -d' ' | tr -d '\n' | tail -c2)))"

Here we use cut and tr to select just the hex string of the hash. tail's -c option specifies the number of bytes to read from the end, where 2 bytes corresponds to 2 hex digits, which can have a value of 0 to 255, so the modulo operation is not needed. Instead the 0x prefix inside $((...)) interprets the string as a hex number and outputs it as a decimal number.

This code uses the md5sum utility to compute an MD5 hash of the hostname. This is recommended because md5sum is likely to be available on all hosts. Do be aware that MD5 is insecure and it is only okay to use here because coloring the prompt is not a security-critical application.

sha1sum and sha256sum are also likely available on modern systems and work as drop-in replacements for md5sum in the above command should you wish to use a different hash. Additionally, you could also get different values out of the hash by adding a salt:

salt="Some string."
ps1_color="32;38;5;$((0x$( (echo "$salt"; hostname) | sha256sum | cut -f1 -d' ' | tr -d '\n' | tail -c2)))"