A Weird Imagination

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:


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:


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)))"