A Visit to a Sad Planet


One of the things that always irked me about my EPUB reader was that part of it is written in JavaScript, simply because that’s the only way one can script a browser view these days. I’ve always wanted to give the SPOCK compiler a try to see how well it does compared to ClojureScript, so this project gave me the perfect chance to cure me of delusions. After an evening, I got it running, it took me a few more evenings to iron out bugs introduced by the conversion and add a new bugfix. Here’s a list of observations made in that time:

  • Both versions are about the same size, with the Scheme version being a bit shorter (which is mostly closing parentheses not going on a separate line). I’d expect a greater difference in favor of the Scheme version if I had any noteworthy business logic embedded into this, but alas.
  • Debugging got significantly harder as there is no REPL, no source maps integration and no debugger for the Scheme code. I’ve had to do with classic printf-Debugging, except that it looked more like (%inline "console.log" (jstring (string-append "Foo " (number->string 42)))).
  • While there is documentation (which includes a few working examples), it isn’t clear how to use the compiler to its fullest abilities. I’ve resorted to compiling all kinds of code and staring at the compiler output to see what works and what doesn’t. This experimentation revealed that you’ll want to use %inline for most interop, with a bit of dot syntax for property access. ClojureScript beats SPOCK easily in this aspect, including its #js reader macro and conversion macros from/to JS data structures.
  • Error reporting is extremely basic, with some errors being silent and merely preventing code from executing any further.
  • The supported language is restricted to R5RS with a few useful macros and JS-specific helpers. In other words, while you might manage compiling other Scheme libraries to JavaScript, you’re better off writing your own helpers as needed.
  • Tooling is simple and quick. Recompiling code is instantaneous, it’s easy to see what part of your own code maps to the generated parts. This is the only benefit I see in SPOCK over ClojureScript.

To summarize, if you want maximum comfort and features, go for ClojureScript. The price you pay for it is significant friction while developing, but other than that it’s pretty advanced. Personally I think I’ll stay with vanilla JavaScript for my other toy projects to keep things as simple and painless as possible.

I predict that Guile Emacs won’t lead to a significant increase in packages written in Scheme for similar reasons. Much like in browsers, the majority of Emacs Lisp usage doesn’t have complex business logic and follows the principle of practicality over purity. Perhaps it’s different for big projects like Magit or Evil, but even these cases are doubtful to me, simply because they have higher priorities than speculative rewrites that might as well kill the project. I could keep rambling about my reasons for this assessment, but that is better left for a separate blog post…

Making Emacs More Presentable


I do occasionally hold talks, mostly about Lisp-related topics. My medium of choice is PDF, as generated by Org’s export with the Beamer backend. When it’s demonstration time, Emacs isn’t nearly as simple to adjust for comfortable viewing as a browser or terminal. My first instinct was to look for a function that allows increasing the font size, similar to C-+. It turns out that C-x C-+ is a thing, however it’s not ideal as it only increases the font size of the current buffer. A quick look at the sources reveals why:

(define-minor-mode text-scale-mode
  :lighter (" " text-scale-mode-lighter)
  (when text-scale-mode-remapping
    (face-remap-remove-relative text-scale-mode-remapping))
  (setq text-scale-mode-lighter
        (format (if (>= text-scale-mode-amount 0) "+%d" "%d")
  (setq text-scale-mode-remapping
        (and text-scale-mode
             (face-remap-add-relative 'default
                                          (expt text-scale-mode-step
  (force-window-update (current-buffer)))

text-scale-mode is implemented in terms of face-remap-add-relative, a function describing itself as “Add a face remapping entry of FACE to SPECS in the current buffer.”. Funnily enough, both live in face-remap.el, probably because scaling text is merely a demonstration of the buffer-local face remapping capabilities of Emacs. While it’s a cute demo, it’s clearly not what I’d want from a C-+ replacement, so I wrote an alternative solution operating on the frame:

(defun my-alter-frame-font-size (fn)
  (let* ((current-font-name (frame-parameter nil 'font))
         (decomposed-font-name (x-decompose-font-name current-font-name))
         (font-size (string-to-int (aref decomposed-font-name 5))))
    (aset decomposed-font-name 5 (int-to-string (funcall fn font-size)))
    (set-frame-font (x-compose-font-name decomposed-font-name))))

(defun my-inc-frame-font-size ()
  (my-alter-frame-font-size '1+))

(defun my-dec-frame-font-size ()
  (my-alter-frame-font-size '1-))

(global-set-key (kbd "C-+") 'my-inc-frame-font-size)
(global-set-key (kbd "C-=") 'my-inc-frame-font-size)
(global-set-key (kbd "C--") 'my-dec-frame-font-size)

This is a bit less hacky, but still disgusting. The code fetches the font name (which curiously comes in the XLFD notation) from the frame, converts it into an array, extracts the font size, manipulates it, puts it back into the array, converts it to a font name and sets the frame’s font to it. You can find this snippet and many more in my init.org, so if you haven’t already, give it a look to find more goodies!

Trapping Attackers With Nyan Cat


In case you haven’t done it yet, I strongly recommend you to give telnet nyancat.dakko.us a try. If you don’t have a telnet client ready, head over to nyancat.dakko.us instead and enjoy the pretty pictures.

I’ve wondered for quite some time whether it would be possible to run the same thing on a SSH server. It turns out that it’s not too hard to do as not only Kevin Lange’s creation can be run in a TTY, but OpenSSH allows you to do something else than giving you a shell after a successful authentication attempt.

First of all you’ll need to install and test the nyancat program:

% pacman -S nyancat
$ nyancat

To restrict the impact of the public-facing service, I decided to create a new user for it and run a separate SSH daemon with its own config and service file:

% useradd -m -s /bin/sh anonymous
% cp /usr/lib/systemd/system/sshd.service /etc/systemd/system/nyanpot.service
% cp /etc/ssh/sshd_config /etc/ssh/nyanpot_sshd_config

Relevant changed bits in the service file:

Description=OpenSSH Honeypot
ExecStart=/usr/bin/sshd -D -f /etc/ssh/nyanpot_sshd_config

The SSH config is a bit special as it locks out everyone who isn’t the anonymous user:

Port 22
PermitRootLogin No
PermitTTY No
PasswordAuthentication No
X11Forwarding No
AllowTcpForwarding No
Match User anonymous
    PasswordAuthentication Yes
    PermitTTY Yes
    ForceCommand nyancat

You can test the service with systemctl start nyanpot.service and logging in (ideally from a different system) as the anonymous user. If everything works fine, enable the service permanently with systemctl enable nyanpot.service. My honeypot is available via ssh anonymous@brause.cc (PW: anonymous). Enjoy!

Brave New World


Update: Finally figured out the layout after digging a bit more into the sources, it’s a QWERTY-UK (see devices/rpi2/uspi/include/uspios.h). Looks like I’ll have to modify the bundled USPI library to include a QWERTY-US layout before I can make any progress on keyboard remapping in Lisp…

I believe I’ve found an even greater time sink than writing Lisp interpreters for fun. Long time ago, I’ve read an encouraging blog post on the future of the LispM, not expecting to find an implementation of the ideas presented therein. Turns out I was wrong about that. Meet Interim OS!

In case you’re wondering why you should possibly care:

  • Small and readable codebase (most of the code is device drivers for the Raspberry Pi)
  • Simple to hack on
  • Plan9-style APIs
  • Minimal Lisp dialect
  • Runs on your favorite desktop OS in hosted mode, that is, safely contained to a terminal with the ability to spawn graphical windows
  • Runs on bare metal (Raspberry Pi 2)

Getting it to run in hosted mode is simple enough, so I won’t explain it here. Booting on bare metal however is a different story, so here we go:

$ git clone https://github.com/mntmn/interim
$ cp interim/docs/interim-0.1.0-rpi2.tgz ./
$ bsdtar -xf interim-0.1.0-rpi2.tgz # cry me a river
% mkdir /media/boot
% mount /dev/sdXN /media/boot
% cp release-rpi2/* /media/boot/
% rm /media/boot/cmdline.txt
% umount /media/boot
  • Plug in the SDHC card, a HDMI monitor and a USB keyboard
  • Optionally: Plug in a network cable and/or a USB mouse
  • Power up

You’ll be greeted by a “Welcome to Interim OS” and dropped into a promptless shell. If you’re unlucky, the chosen resolution may be unreadable, so feel free to retry this process a few times. The keyboard layout is hardcoded and somewhere between QWERTY-US and QWERTZ-DE, something I intend to fix soon. For basic usage instructions, type (bytes->str (load "/sd/hello.txt")) and hit the enter key. Happy hacking!

On Minimalism


Update: There is a CL merge request that supports SBCL among other implementations, as expected it beats the picolisp implementation in speed by a factor of 2x. Still, I’m fine with being second place :)

I’ve implemented MAL for the third time by now, this time in PicoLisp, a language priding itself on its implementation simplicity. While it clearly is a Lisp dialect, it has foregone a good amount of classic Lisp design choices in favor of terse code. Despite this, there are practical inclusions for writing application software, like the GUI system and a distributed database implementation with a Prolog-style query language. Other interesting features are an unobtrusive OOP system, a FFI for C and Java, live debugging utilities, pattern matching and more in a 1MiB tarball.

You might wonder why I’d be up for learning yet another Lisp dialect, after having learned Emacs Lisp, Clojure and Scheme. Furthermore, Scheme already claims to take minimalism as language design principle and of course there are more obscure Lisp dialects, like Arc and newLISP. I can only blame a friend who told me about this fascinating talk given by the PicoLisp author demonstrating the abilities of his programming language. The overall picture my friend painted was that of a bizarro world where a crazy German ignored all established rules for a Lisp dialect, walking the fine line between insanity and practicability. Most surprisingly though was that he used his own invention to write business applications and succeeded in making a living off it. Naturally I was intrigued and kept PicoLisp on my backlog of things to play with.

My implementation is a bit smaller than the Emacs Lisp one, is the first one to actually make use of GNU readline and went for a purely Lisp tokenizer as I couldn’t figure out how to use PCRE for this task. It also appears to be the fastest one out of all Lisp family implementations. This might change though once the “clisp” implementation gains support for using SBCL instead of CLISP…

Regarding oddities, here’s an incomplete list:

  • No lambda. You pass a quoted list instead.
  • Quote returns more than only its first argument. However (quote 1 2 3) is equivalent to '(1 2 3) so you’ll most likely not ever notice…
  • No macros. Functions can instead not evaluate their arguments, your job is to evaluate them as needed.
  • No strings. String syntax creates so-called “transient” symbols. Additionally to doubling as string replacement, these are not equal to other symbols with the same contents and are therefore used to avoid name clashes in macro-like functions.
  • No implicit closures. If you need to capture something from the environment, you must do this explicitly and have the choice between mutable and immutable ones.
  • Unknown symbols evaluate to NIL instead of throwing an exception.
  • Indentation (and even pretty-printing) is a lot easier than in classic Lisp dialects as it’s basically about increasing the depth by three spaces for each level instead of lining up parentheses.
  • Closing parentheses that do not belong to the current line are separated by spaces. For convenience’s sake, a closing bracket is interpreted as “super paren” and closes all remaining parentheses.
  • The style guide has an interesting solution to the problem of local variables potentially shadowing built-in functions: Capitalized identifiers!
  • NIL is not only equivalent to the empty list, but to the empty string as well. This bit me when wrapping readline as an empty string couldn’t be discerned from NULL with the naïve approach…
  • Error handling is close to non-existing. If you screw up things too much, the interpreter will segfault on you. This is not considered a bug.
  • Identifiers for built-in functions are very short and at times cryptic[1]. Clojure got nothing on that!
[1]read does not parse a string into a S-expression, str does. The result of this cannot be handed to eval either, you’ll need to run it instead. I could go on with this for a while…