Jeffrey Paul: Stupid Unix Tricks

Jeffrey Paul

Stupid Unix Tricks
11 October 2019
( 4326 words, approximately 24 minutes reading time. )

These are my stupid unix tricks. I hope that they are useful to you.

Platform Note

I use Mac OS X (pron: “ten”). If you don’t, you might want to switch instances of ~/Library/ to something else, like ~/.local/.

Modular .bashrc

Before we begin, first note that bashrc refers to something that runs in each and every new shell, and profile refers to something that runs only in login shells (spawned by your terminal, not just a shell script, for example). They aren’t the same and you don’t want them to be the same.

A lot of software or configurations want to run some stuff each new shell. You want to add aliases and functions to your shell environment. Manually editing ~/.bashrc is a drag, as is grepping it to determine programmatically if it’s been modified in a specific way.

mkdir -p ~/Library/bashrc.d ~/Library/profile.d
touch ~/Library/bashrc.d/
touch ~/Library/profile.d/
cat > ~/.bashrc <<'EOF'
# do not edit this file. put files in the dir below.
for FN in $HOME/Library/bashrc.d/*.sh ; do
    source "$FN"
cat > ~/.profile <<'EOF'
# do not edit this file. put files in the dir below.
source ~/.bashrc
for FN in $HOME/Library/profile.d/*.sh ; do
    source "$FN"

Now you can use standard tools like rm and cat and cp and if [[ -e $HOME/Library/bashrc.d/ ]]; to add/test/remove things from your shell environment.

Here are some of mine:

sneak@pris:~/Library/bashrc.d$ grep . 100* HOMEBREW_CASK_OPTS="--appdir=$HOME/Applications" GOPATH="$HOME/Library/Go" HOMEBREW_NO_ANALYTICS=1 PATH+=":$HOME/Library/Homebrew/bin" PATH+=":$HOME/Library/Homebrew/sbin" PATH+=":$HOME/Library/Local/bin" PATH+=":$HOME/Library/Local/sbin" PATH+=":$HOME/.yarn/bin"  # homebrew's yarn installs to here

Prefix them with numbers so that they sort and run in order; e.g. you want your bin paths (for python, yarn, et c) added to your $PATH before you start trying to run things from within them.

Extra Credit

Bonus points if you synchronize a directory (e.g. via dropbox/gdrive, or, better yet, via syncthing like I do). My ~/.bashrc actually contains:

# do not edit this file. put files in the dir below.
for FN in $HOME/Library/bashrc.d/*.sh ; do
    source "$FN"

for FN in $HOME/Documents/sync/bashrc.d/*.sh ; do
    source "$FN"

This way I can add aliases and environment variables in ~/Documents/sync/bashrc.d/ and they magically appear on all of my machines without additional configuration.

Wrap Startup Commands

Wrap your startup script commands in checks to prevent errors if things aren’t installed or available, e.g.:

Don’t try to install things with brew if brew is not installed:

if which brew >/dev/null 2>&1 ; then
    brew install jq

Change the GOPATH only if the directory exists on the machine in question:

if [[ -d "$HOME/dev/go" ]]; then
    export GOPATH="$HOME/dev/go"

This way you can put things that need to happen into startup scripts (e.g. installation of jq for subsequent commands in the script to work) and they won’t error out if files or directories aren’t installed yet.

Another example (from ~/Documents/sync/bashrc.d/

This loads bash completion for kubectl, but only on systems that have kubectl installed and in the $PATH already.

if which kubectl >/dev/null 2>&1 ; then
    source <(kubectl completion bash)

Use an HSM for SSH Keys

An ssh key on disk, even with a passphrase, is vulnerable to malware (malware can steal your files, and keylog your passphrase to decrypt them). Put your ssh private keys somewhere that software (any software, even your own) on your computer simply cannot access them.

The best way to store SSH private keys is in a hardware security module, or HSM.

I use a Yubikey 4C Nano (though the Yubikey 5C Nano is current now), via gpg-agent. I have one physically installed in each computer I regularly use, plus a few spares stashed in safe places offsite. I generated the keys on the devices, did not back them up at generation time (so now they can’t ever be exported from the devices at all), and each device has its own unique key. (They have the added benefit of serving as U2F tokens for web authentication, something you absolutely should be using everywhere you can.)

The gpg-agent is a small daemon that is part of GnuPG that runs locally and allows you to use a GnuPG key as an SSH key. GnuPG supports using a smartcard as a GnuPG key. Yubikeys can serve as GnuPG-compatible CCID smartcards. This means that your Yubikey, in CCID mode, can be used to authenticate to SSH servers.

To initialize a key on the card, use the instructions found at this guide. I do not recommend setting an expiration (as they suggest) and don’t put your real name/email on the GnuPG keys it generates, as these are not going to be used for normal GnuPG-style things.

The author of that tutorial has a slightly different (perhaps better) take on what to put in your .bashrc to use the card for ssh. Mine is below.

Set it up to use your GPG smartcard to authenticate to remote hosts by dropping a file in your modular profile.d directory:

cat > ~/Library/profile.d/ <<'EOF'
# check for existing running agent info
if [[ -e $HOME/.gpg-agent-info ]]; then
    source $HOME/.gpg-agent-info

# test existing agent, remove info file if not working
ssh-add -L 2>/dev/null >/dev/null || rm -f $HOME/.gpg-agent-info

# if no info file, start up potentially-new, working agent
if [[ ! -e $HOME/.gpg-agent-info ]]; then
    if which gpg-agent >/dev/null 2>&1 ; then
        gpg-agent \
            --enable-ssh-support \
            --daemon \
            --pinentry-program $(brew --prefix)/bin/pinentry-mac \
            2> /dev/null > $HOME/.gpg-agent-info

# load up new agent info
if [[ -e $HOME/.gpg-agent-info ]]; then
    source $HOME/.gpg-agent-info

Once you have generated a key on your card and started the gpg-agent correctly, ssh-add -L | grep cardno will show you the ssh public key from the key on your Yubikey, e.g.:

sneak@pris:~$ ssh-add -L | grep cardno
ssh-rsa AAAAB3NzaC1yc2EAAAA....VCBZawcIANQ== cardno:000601231234

Extra Credit

Save the GnuPG public keys from all the cards and export them as a single ascii-armored bundle (gpg -a --export $KEYIDS > keys.txt) which you save somewhere easily accessible. You can then use a tool like mine to easily encrypt data for safekeeping that you will always be able to decrypt should you have at least one of your HSMs around.

Publish your authorized_keys

Two options, github or self-hosted. The github option has some drawbacks, but is fine for most people (other than the fact that you should not be using GitHub at all, for anything).

Add all of your ssh public keys from your various HSMs (you should have one for each computer you type on) to your GitHub account. GitHub publishes everyone’s public keys at (here’s mine).

Then, on new systems, simply paste this line (substituting your own username, of course):

mkdir -p ~/.ssh
curl -sf > ~/.ssh/authorized_keys

You may be tempted to crontab this like I was, so that the keys on all of your machines are automatically updated on adds/removes to the master list. If you do so, you give anyone who controls the domain the ability to add ssh keys to your machines automatically. You may or may not be okay with this—I am not, considering Microsoft (GitHub’s owner) is a giant military defense contractor and eager partner in the US military’s illegal bulk surveillance programs.

Note: If you do end up running it from cron, be sure to check the return value of curl before replacing the file (i.e. don’t use the line above unmodified), because then if the network is down when cron runs it will clobber your file and not refill it, rendering your authorized_keys file empty.

Personally, I like to have ssh keys that have access to GitHub (non HSM keys, such as on my Pixelbook which sadly doesn’t support Linux USB passthrough for the Yubikey smartcard) that don’t also have root on my machines, so I maintain a separate list on my own website:

Then, on new boxes, I just paste the following:

mkdir .ssh
cd .ssh
mv authorized_keys authorized_keys.orig

Use A Remote Docker

Docker desktop for mac is closed source software, which is dumb for something that asks for administrator permissions on your local machine. This lameness aside, it runs the docker daemon (not the command line client) inside a linux VM which it runs on your local machine, which is probably a relatively slow laptop on a not-great internet connection.

I have many big, fast computers on 1 or 10 gigabit connections that I can use via SSH that are better for building docker images or testing Dockerfiles (I do all of my editing and giting and suchlike on my local workstation, because my signing keys and editor config are all here).

cat > ~/Library/bashrc.d/ <<'EOF'
alias ber1.docker="/bin/rm -f $TMPDIR/docker.sock; ssh -nNT -L $TMPDIR/docker.sock:/var/run/docker.sock ; export DOCKER_HOST=unix://$TMPDIR/docker.sock"

The preceding uses ssh to forward a local unix socket (a type of special file) to a remote server (in this example,, with which your local docker command can use to talk to a remote docker server (via locating the socket in the DOCKER_HOST environment variable). You’ll want to change the ber1.docker part to whatever you want the command to be to enable your remote docker, and the part to the username and hostname of the remote machine you wish to use. (It needs to be running ssh and docker already.)

Once you run one of those aliases (they have to be aliases instead of scripts because they need to modify the environment of your existing, running shell) you should be able to use all normal docker commands (e.g. docker ps, docker push, docker build -t username/image /path/to/dir) just as if you were on the docker host itself. This makes it pretty simple to do a docker build . in a directory in which you’ve been hacking, but leveraging all of the power of a big, fast machine in a datacenter. You’ve never seen apt update in your Dockerfile go so fast.

Security warning: anyone who can read and write from the local socket on your workstation (probably just you, but worth mentioning) has root on the remote server, as API access to a remote docker daemon is equivalent, from a security and practical standpoint, to root on the docker host itself.

Update! Better yet! HN user 11235813213455 writes to say that you can simply set DOCKER_HOST to an ssh url starting in docker 18.09!

export DOCKER_HOST=ssh://
docker ps

or, to persist:

echo 'export DOCKER_HOST=ssh://' > ~/Library/bashrc.d/

Hacks Repo

I have a git repository called hacks into which I commit any non-secret code, scripts, snippets, or supporting tooling that isn’t big or important or generic enough to warrant its own repo. This is a good way to get all the little junk you work on up onto a website without creating a billion repositories.

Back Up Your IMAP Data Locally From Cloud Services

You might use gmail and access it with a mail client via IMAP. Use offlineimap to periodically back it up to files in a local maildir-format directory, so that if your Google account should evaporate through no fault of your own, you don’t lose decades of email. (Sync it to other machines via syncthing to avoid losing data via disk crash or hardware theft, or put it somewhere that your local workstation backups will pick it up.)

Back Up Your Local Workstation

I back up my local machine to a remote (encrypted disk) server via SSH using rsync via this script. It looks at the environment variable $BACKUPDEST to figure out where to do the backup.

For a remote ssh backup, do:

echo 'export BACKUPDEST=""' > ~/Library/bashrc.d/

For a local drive:

echo 'export BACKUPDEST="/Volumes/externaldisk/mybackup"' > ~/Library/bashrc.d/

Then use the above script. Copy it to your local machine and edit the backup exclusions as required for your use case.

If you trust other companies with your data and want something more user-friendly, check out BackBlaze, as they’re cheap and excellent and offer unlimited storage.

(I also use the macOS built-in backup called Time Machine to back up to an external USB drive periodically, but I don’t trust it. syncthing is my first-line defense against data loss, my rsync backups are my second, and the Time Machine backups are just a safety net.)

Makefile in Home Directory

I have a Makefile in my home directory (really just a symlink to ~/dev/hacks/homedir.makefile/Makefile; it officially lives in my hacks repository) that I use to store common tasks related to my local machine (many of which are somewhat out of date, I note now on review).

The one I use most often, though, is make clean, which takes everything in ~/Desktop and moves it into ~/Documents/$YYYYMM (creating the month directory in the process if it doesn’t exist), and also empties trashes. This alone is worth the price of admission to me.

I should prune it of old/outdated commands and update it for my current/latest backup configuration. In my ideal world, make in my home directory would empty trashes, clean up the desktop, download/mirror all my IMAP email to local directories, then run a full backup to a remote host.

Sync Development Directory

I have a symlink, ~/dev, in my home directory, that points to a subdirectory of my synced folder, ~/Documents/sync, into which I check out any code I’m working on. I rarely edit code outside of ~/dev. This way, even if I don’t remember to commit and push, my current working copies are synced shortly after save to several other machines. I wouldn’t lose much if you threw any of my machines in the river at any time.

Stupid SSH Tricks

SSH: Config FIle

Your ssh client config lives at ~/.ssh/config.

The user ssh client config file is amazing, and you should be using it extensively. ssh_config(5) has more info (run man 5 ssh_config).

Here’s the basic format:


Host *

Host *

In this way, you can specify new default settings for all ssh commands, and then override them on a specific wildcard/host basis.

e.g. to always ssh as root:

Host *
    User root

Note that (I’m told) ssh will read each setting in the order it is found in the file, without later items being allowed to override previous ones, so specify them from most-specific to most-generic (putting the Host * at the end), allowing host- or domain-specific items to come before your defaults.

SSH: Move Your SSH Config File Into a Synced Folder

In the following example, ~/Documents/sync is a synced directory that replicates automatically across all my workstations using syncthing. (You should use syncthing.) You could also use Google Drive or Dropbox if you want to give third parties that much control over your machine, or knowledge of your hostnames/habits.

mkdir -p ~/Documents/sync/dotfiles
mv ~/.ssh/config ~/Documents/sync/dotfiles/ssh_config
ln -s ~/Documents/sync/dotfiles/ssh_config ~/.ssh/config

On the other machines, just:

rm ~/.ssh/config
ln -s ~/Documents/sync/dotfiles/ssh_config ~/.ssh/config

Now, settings changes for ssh automatically propagate to all workstations.

You could do the same for your known_hosts file to sync host key fingerprints between all of your machines, too, but I don’t bother, as I find TOFU sufficient.

SSH: Faster Crypto

Put the following in your Host * section:

Host *
	Cipher aes128-ctr

It’s my understanding that the counter mode is more efficient on modern, multicore CPUs, as it is easier to parallelize.

SSH: Persistent Connections

Put the following in your Host * section:

Host *
	ControlPath ~/.ssh/%C.sock
	ControlMaster auto
	ControlPersist 10m

Make sure you use %C (hash of username+hostname) as the filename token instead of %h (hostname) or whatever other stuff other tutorials on the internet told you, I ran into issues using the other format, whereas this uses just [a-f0-9] in the first part of the filename.

This will maintain a connection to each host you ssh into for 10 minutes after idle. Any future ssh connections while the first is open (or within that 10 minute window) will re-use the existing TCP connection, which speeds things up a lot.

Security notice: anyone who can write to these socket files (probably just you) has full access to the hosts to which they are connected.

SSH: Rewrite Hostnames

Have some machines that aren’t in DNS, or have stupid hostnames that you can’t remember? Using IPs is a terrible smell that you should always avoid. Rewrite them by overriding their connection hostname:


Host otherbox
    Port 11022
    User ec2_user

Then, just ssh otherbox. Sure beats ssh -p 11022!

In this way, your ssh config file functions as a sort of local dns database.

SSH: ProxyCommand

You can use the ProxyCommand directive to tell ssh how to get i/o to a remote ssh service, skipping the whole direct TCP connection process entirely. You can use this for connecting transparently via a bastion host, e.g.:

Host *.internal.corplan
	ProxyCommand ssh nc %h %p

Using the preceding will result in ssh box1.internal.corplan sshing as user to and running netcat with nc box1.internal.corplan 22 (%h and %p are replaced with the destination host and port of the “main” ssh, i.e. the ones you typed or implied on the command line (box1).

If you don’t have a nice organized corporate naming scheme, or even DNS at all, you can hardcode the values:

# is the bastion host
Host box2.internal.corplan
	ProxyCommand ssh myuser@ nc 22

Host box3.internal.corplan
    Username appuser
	ProxyCommand ssh myuser@ nc 22

Alternately, combine them:

Host bastion.corpext
    User myuser

Host box2.internal.corplan
	ProxyCommand ssh bastion.corpext nc 22

Host box3.internal.corplan
	ProxyCommand ssh bastion.corpext nc 22

Finally, I used nc (netcat) to illustrate the example, but it turns out that the ssh command has the functionality built in (as -W), removing the need to have netcat installed (-T tells it not to allocate a pty):

Host box2.internal.corplan
	ProxyCommand ssh user@ -T -W

The beauty of setting up key-based SSH and configuring your hosts in your ssh client config file is that then commands such as:

rsync -avP ./localdirectory/ otherhost:/path/to/dest/

..will “just work”, even if the machine is behind a bastion host, or needs a special SSH port, or a different username, or even if it’s accessed via tor. You no longer need to think about the specifics of each ssh host (other than the hostname), it just lives in your config file.

This also allows you to use the ssh/scp support in your local editor (vim does this, for example) to edit files on remote machines (in a local editor without keyboard lag) that might be a pain in the ass to ssh into due to being behind firewalls or bastion hosts, or on weird ports. Put the specifics in the config file, then it’s as simple as vim scp:// (two slashes between hostname and absolute path for vim’s scp support, mind you).

SSH: Easy Access With Tor

I like to install tor on boxes I administrate, and set up a hidden service running on them for ssh, because then I can ssh into them (albeit slowly) even if they have all inbound ports firewalled, or are behind NAT, or whatever—no port forwarding required.

Set Up Hidden Service

Install tor on the server, add the following two lines to /etc/tor/torrc, restart tor, and now you have a hidden service address for that system:

apt update && apt install -y tor
cat >> /etc/tor/torrc <<EOF
HiddenServiceDir /var/lib/tor/my-ssh/
HiddenServicePort 22
service tor restart
cat /var/lib/tor/my-ssh/hostname

If you don’t want the ssh service to be reachable even from the lan/wan (only via the hidden service), add a ListenAddress to /etc/ssh/sshd_config and bounce sshd.

Connect To Hidden Service

For the following to work, you have to be running tor on your local machine too (which provides a SOCKS5 proxy at

Two parts are required:

Host *.tor
     ProxyCommand nc -x %h %p

Then, for each host:

Host zeus.tor
    User myuser
    Hostname ldlktrhkwerjhtkexample.onion

Then, I can just ssh zeus.tor and it will match the ProxyCommand in *.tor to use netcat to talk to the local SOCKS proxy provided by the tor daemon on localhost to connect to the .onion, and then it will pick up the .onion hostname and username to use for that specific box from the full host string match zeus.tor.

I actually use my ssh config file as my master record of the onion hostnames of my machines. (This is one reason why syncing with syncthing is vastly preferred to using a file syncing service that gives third parties access to your files. I would prefer that nobody know what hidden services I am interested in or are associated with me, for privacy’s sake.)

SSH: Forward Public Port To Local Server

Ever want to access a machine behind several NATs/firewalls from a publicly-acessible port? You can use this for access to SSH, or any other service running on the ssh client machine, like a development webserver. First, set up unattended key authentication between the target machine (behind the firewall) to the public machine that is reachable, probably by generating an ssh key without a password on the target machine and creating an unprivileged user on the public machine and adding that public key to ~/.ssh/authorized_keys for that unprivileged user. The public machine also needs to have GatewayPorts yes in its /etc/ssh/sshd_config (which is not the default), so it requires a little configuration change to get working.

Then, set the following command to run continuously (via runit or systemd):

ssh -T -R user@publichost

In the above example, this would make port 11022 on the public host (externally available) connect to the target machine’s ssh port (22) as long as the ssh command is running. This is a quick hack to publish a service behind firewalls or on your local workstation accessible, along the lines of what ngrok does, but by re-using a server you already have.

To expose a local development webserver:

ssh -T -R root@publichost

(You need to use root to bind to ports under 1024, such as 80.)

Nicholas at has more information on the technique, including a way to restrict this type of remote port binding to a specific user.

See Also


Thanks to HN user roryrjb, Peter Fischer, and James Abbatiello for all submitting bug reports for this post, all of which have been incorporated in small edits. This just once again illustrates that the best way to get a list of thorough errors and required corrections is to speak authoritatively about something in public. :D

Thanks also to @darkcube, @salcedo, and @someara for prerelease proofreading.


Think I’m right? Think I’m totally wrong? Find a bug in a snippet? Complaints, suggestions, and praise to

About The Author

Jeffrey Paul is a hacker and security researcher living in Berlin and the founder of EEQJ, a consulting and research organization.