Some Cool Shell Aliases

Over the last couple of years I’ve worked out some cool shell tricks, which I use as aliases. Like any good software developer, if I notice a pattern I take steps to generalize and reduce it. For shells, it might be as simple as replacing a regularly typed long command with a short alias, but the coolest tricks are the ones that reduce an entire habit.

The first one is the singleton pattern. Say you have a terminal program that should only have a single process instance but should only start on demand. Some programs may enforce that rule, if it makes sense to, but some do not.

In my case, that program was rtorrent. I only want a single instance of this program running at a time, but I also don’t want to have to think about whether or not I’ve started it already. I always run it in screen so that I can detach it and let it run in the background. My shell habits looked like this.

# Assume it's there already
$ screen -r rtorrent
# If not, fire it up
$ screen -S rtorrent rtorrent

If I needed to start rtorrent for the first time I was often typing in that first command just to see it fail. Fortunately, it really does fail: the exit code is non-zero. This allows me to make this cool alias,

alias rt='screen -r rtorrent || screen -S rtorrent rtorrent'

Either it attaches to the existing instance or fires a new one up for me and attaches me to that one. Now, there is a race condition here. That “or” operator isn’t atomic, so something else might spawn an rtorrent instance in between check and creation. Since I’m only ever running this by hand, and there is only one of me, that’s not a problem.

The next trick has to do with my habit of throwing up a temporary web server when I need to share files. I noticed that I would launch it, run it for a minute, kill it, run one or two commands, and launch it again. For example, if I’m working on a program and I want to share the build with someone else. I might drop out of it just to do something with git and rebuild. Once again, my alias fix involves screen,

alias httpd='screen -S http python -m SimpleHTTPServer 8080'

Rather than kill the server only to restart it again, I always run it in screen. So instead I detach, but I don’t even need to bother reattaching.

This next one is my Emacs alias. Emacs has the really, really cool ability to become a daemon. You can launch a daemon instance, then connect to it as needed with clients to do your editing (emacsclient --create-frame or just -c). This allows your Emacs session to live for a long time, preserving all your buffers. Long-living sessions are an old Lisp tradition. Also, being a daemon eliminates any lengthy startup penalty, because it only happens once after reboot.

$ emacs --daemon
$ emacsclient -c
# Close it and sometime later start another client
$ emacsclient -c

This is another case of the single-instance problem. However, Emacs is really smart about managing this by itself. It has an argument, --alternate-editor (-a), which allows you to specify another editor to use in case the daemon isn’t started.

emacsclient -ca nano

The most important part of this option is its hidden feature. When the argument is empty it defaults to launching a daemon. No need to launch it manually, it’s just one command.

alias e='emacsclient -cna ""'

Naturally, Emacs gets to be in one of the coveted, single-letter slots. I also set one up for terminal mode Emacs (-t instead of -c),

alias et='emacsclient -ta ""'

And just to teach the editor heathens a lesson or two, this command has a second alias,

alias vi='emacsclient -ta ""'

The final trick is one I just figured out this week, and it involves passphrase agents. Just in case you are not familiar, both ssh and gpg have daemons which will securely store your passphrases for you.

Update June 2012: I have a better solution for this problem.

OpenSSH is loaded with extremely useful functionality. One of them is key authentication. Rather than use a password to log into a system, you can prove your identity cryptographically — you solve a math problem that only you have the information to solve. This is invaluable to Git, because it allows for passwordless access to remote repositories. You can host a repository for a bunch of users without the awkward password step (“Pst … your password is passwordABC. Change it after you first log in.”). Instead, they all send you their public keys.

To use this feature, you first you generate a public/private keypair for yourself, which gets stored in ~/.ssh/id_rsa and ~/.ssh/

$ ssh-keygen

At one point in this process you will be asked for a passphrase, which is used to encrypt your private key. At first you might wonder why you bother with the key at all if you’re going to encrypt it. Rather than enter a password to log into a system, you have to enter a passphrase, which is even worse because it’s longer. So you don’t bother with a passphrase. This is dangerous because it’s practically the same as storing your login password in a file! If someone got a hold of your private key file, they have full access to your systems.

This is where ssh-agent comes in. It runs as a service in the background. You register your private key with it with ssh-add and it queries for your passphrase, storing it in memory. It’s very careful about this. It’s stored on a memory page that has been registered with the operating system such that it’s never written to permanent storage (swap). When the process dies, or zeros out that memory, the passphrase is completely lost.

GnuPG’s daemon, gpg-agent, works very similarly. It holds onto your PGP passphrase so you can perform a number of actions with it without needing to enter it a bunch of times.

gpg and ssh know how communicate with their agents through information stored in environmental variables. However, this creates a problem when launching the agents. They can’t change the environment of their parent process, your shell. The easiest way to do it is to reverse the relationship, with the agent becoming the parent of your shell.

$ exec ssh-agent bash

This tells ssh-agent to launch a new shell with the proper environment. In case you’re not familiar, the exec causes the new shell replace the current one. It’s the same exec() as the POSIX function. You could leave it off, but you’ll be left with nested shells, which can be very confusing.

GnuPG’s agent is launched like this,

$ exec gpg-agent --daemon bash

My problem was that I often want both of these at the same time. I could run them back to back, but making them into a single, alias-able command is tricky. This naive expression will not work,

$ exec ssh-agent bash && exec gpg-agent bash

The first exec causes the current shell to end, so the second part is never evaluated. I can’t simply remove the execs and live with nested shells because the next agent isn’t launched until the first agent’s shell dies. The very cool solution is to chain them together!

alias agent='exec ssh-agent gpg-agent --daemon bash'

The current shell turns into the ssh-agent, which spawns gpg-agent with the proper environment for ssh, which forwards its environment along to spawn a new shell with the proper environment for both.

If I ever need another agent I just add it to the chain. That command should probably be at the end of my .bashrc or something, but it’s just an alias for now. Sometimes I log into X first, sometimes ssh first, so I’m not sure what the correct place would be.

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Chris Wellons