04 Oct 2022

Infrastructure as code

You've heard it everywhere. You know it's a good thing. Versioning! Replicability! It's all great.

Of course you want to have everything in code somewhere, in files. Now what would you use for that?

A silly drawing of Superterra

I think if you use AWS you can do a lot worse than terraform, and this is how I would structure it, based on my very extensive experience managing a big and complex multi country, multi environment setup.

Let's start

You start reading about terraform and will end up with a bunch of files that define your environment. You will be importing 3rd party modules maybe, you will maybe creating your own modules. But most likely you will have a big folder where all files depend on each other.

This will start biting you in the butt:

  • Applying will take longer and longer, as terraform has to match the resource ids in local with everything in AWS
  • All your users (admins) will be able to do everything, and even though Terraform is quite good at allow multiple users using the same sync backend, some times what you will be working one will be removed (or flagged for removal) by some other user's apply
  • Terraform version changes mean a lot of changes and you will be hesitant to apply them as they need to be applied system-wide

There are other approaches I won't go into here, like terragrunt.

First step, take control of terraform itself

Install tfenv.

Create a .terraform-version file and versions.tf file

terraform {
  required_version = "~> 1.3"

The first file is used by tfenv to detect and install the correct version. You can use tfenv use to switch to it (and tfenv install to install it).

The second file is used by terraform to stop processing if the version requirement isn't matched, or to switch to old syntax compatibility if requesting a lower version.

How best to split resources in terraform files?

Let's abandon the idea of having it all in one state. Accept defeat and let's split it into sub modules that can be applied separately. This is how:

Big caveat: this is just my proposal based on what's been working for my needs and the needs of my company and colleagues so far, maybe we will change it tomorrow but here it is.

  • Create a folder for your modules (shared code)
  • Create a folder per each environment + region combination (staging-us, prod-us, prod-eu, ...)
  • Create inside each:
    • a folder per 'business area' or 'team' that are likely to need to work in parallel and are relatively independent
    • a folder for 'staff' where you will define all the auth data/groups etc - this could live in a completely separate place altogether if you don't want to leak user names and who can do what
  • Create also a file with shared values (shared.tf)
  • Create provider.tf, variables.tf, terraform.tfvars, versions.tf in each of the areas, most of this will be done by terraform initial

Now in each of these area folders:

  • Create a symbolic link for .terraform-version, provider.tf, variables.tf, terraform.tfvars, versions.tf in each of the areas(*)
  • Create a backend.tf file in which you declare that the backend for terraform's state will be in s3 in a bucket with a path that includes the name of the area
    • Now you have a way to prevent teams from accessing each other's state
    • You can of course use any other backend, the core idea here is to use something you can restrict access to.

(*) This is not strictly necessary but it will benefit you in the long term: make sure you use the same version of terraform everywhere and have a common set of 'global variables'. Using the same version becomes extremely important when modules are concerned as they are shared code.

Now here's how I go about gluing everything together, and believe me we've tried many approaches:

  • First: try to minimize as much as you dependencies between teams
  • Where these are inevitable, like for instance the list of VPCs and subnets, you define them in the shared resources or variables

An example backend.tf would look like:

terraform {
  backend "s3" {
    bucket  = "super-important-status"
    key     = "prod-us-1/terraform/authservice"
    profile = "my aws profile name for this region"
    region  = "us-east-1"

An example shared.tf

locals {
  // These values are retrieved from the main module using 'terraform state show' and related values
  prod_route53_zone_id          = "ZXXYYXXYYXXYZZ"
  private_subnet_ids              = [
  public_subnet_ids               = [
  main_vpc_id = "vpc-aaaaaaaaaaaaaa"
  main_vpc_cidr = [""]
  vpn_cidr = [""]
  vpn_sg = ["sg-xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx"]

Note that having to do this is ugly but realistically the number of times you are going to recreate your VPCs once you have a production (or even dev) setup going is about 0. And if you ever do all you'll have to do will be to update your shared values an reapply all areas.

This leaves us with something like:

  -- [modules]
  |  |
  |  -- [mysharedcode]
  |  |  |
  |  |  +- variables.tf
  |  |  +- outputs.tf
  |  |  \- main.tf
  |  |
  |  -- [myothersharedcode]
  |     |
  |     +- variables.tf
  |     +- outputs.tf
  |     \- main.tf
  -- [prod-us]
     -- [terraform]
        +- .terraform-version
        +- versions.tf
        +- terraform.tfvars
        +- variables.tf
        +- provider.tf
        +- shared.tf
        -- [staff]
        |  |
        |  +- .terraform-version --> ../.terraform-version
        |  +- versions.tf --> ../versions.tf
        |  +- terraform.tfvars --> ../terraform.tfvars
        |  +- variables.tf --> ../variables.tf
        |  +- provider.tf --> ../provider.tf
        |  +- shared.tf --> ../shared.tf
        |  +- users.tf
        |  +- permissions.tf
        |  \- backend.tf
        -- [frontend]
        |  |
        |  +- .terraform-version --> ../.terraform-version
        |  +- versions.tf --> ../versions.tf
        |  +- terraform.tfvars --> ../terraform.tfvars
        |  +- variables.tf --> ../variables.tf
        |  +- provider.tf --> ../provider.tf
        |  +- shared.tf --> ../shared.tf
        |  +- s3.tf
        |  +- iam.tf
        |  \- backend.tf
        -- [dataeng]
           +- .terraform-version --> ../.terraform-version
           +- versions.tf --> ../versions.tf
           +- terraform.tfvars --> ../terraform.tfvars
           +- variables.tf --> ../variables.tf
           +- provider.tf --> ../provider.tf
           +- shared.tf --> ../shared.tf
           +- s3.tf
           +- other.tf
           \- backend.tf

In the particular case outlined above:

  • Terraform will create a folder 'prod-us-1/terraform/dataeng' inside the super-important-status bucket
  • Inside, it will keep the state of terraform, this is a mapping between resource IDs in AWS and resource IDs in terraform
  • It will use a profile you will have defined in your ~/.aws/credentials file

Final thoughts

This setup's main aim is to

  • Help with auditing, scope limiting, user creation
  • Allowing to work in parallel and have 'half-applied' terraform objects while one team is deploying a change or simply experimenting
  • Protect developers and admins from themselves

All without adding layers that would make infrastructure-as-code become 'infrastructure-as-code that-you-modify-with-some-tool'.

To reap the full benefits you now will create users in your staff folder and permission policies. You then add your users to groups or policies accordingly. The policies will allow access to some of the S3 status (eg allowing mybucket/mystatusprefix/terrafor/dataeng/*).

Fair warning: however much you try, the users able to apply terraform will probably end up with too many rights. It is extremely difficult to narrow permissions. The only way is to start with nothing, try applying, add new permissions, etc. From time to time your users will need to do something not allowed and they'll see the rejection, just make it a process that they ask you/admins to review.


02 Oct 2022

I set up a local kubernetes cluster using microk8s just as a development/home cluster and as part of it I ended up connecting to the kubernetes dashboard application using a service account token, as recommended

A silly drawing of Superkube
$ microk8s kubectl create token default
(...token output...)

This process lead me to a few questions:

  • What is that token?
  • Where does it come from?
  • Where is it stored?
  • Does it expire?

Essentially, "wait how does the whole token authentication thing work?"

Token types

So far we have dealt with two token types:

  1. We have static tokens, like the one we added in the kube config file. This token is equivalent to a user:password pair. If exposed it could be used forever to act as that user.
    • These are either stored as secrets or via some other mechanism
    • In microk8s there are some credentials created during installation, including the admin user we have been using. This can be found in /var/snap/microk8s/current under credentials/known_tokens.csv. Changing the token can be done by editing the file.
  2. Then we have temporary tokens, like the one we used for the dashboard access

Now, let's think about those... what is a temporary token? where are they stored? how do they expire? Those are the kind of questions I like to dig in to learn about the internals, and I end up finding a lot of this is implemented in a perfectly reasonable and standards-based way.

Inspecting a temporary token

As usual:

There we see:

  • The created token is a signed JSON Web Token (JWT)
  • The signed JWT can be used as a bearer token to authenticate as thegiven service account

Now, let's take our token and inspect it - pasting it into jwt.io to see its content (this is safe as long as you don't expose your cluster anywhere):

  "alg": "RS256",
  "kid": "_h3i-pvtWSsSXXVyXxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx"

  "aud": [
  "exp": 1664705605,
  "iat": 1664702005,
  "iss": "https://kubernetes.default.svc",
  "kubernetes.io": {
    "namespace": "default",
    "serviceaccount": {
      "name": "default",
      "uid": "755e1766-e817-xxxx-xxxx-xxxxxxxxxxxx"
  "nbf": 1664702005,
  "sub": "system:serviceaccount:default:default"
  • The aud parameter indicates the audience, in this case kubernetes
  • The sub indicates the 'subject' (user, service account, etc). When we created the token we didn't specify a service account, which means it used the 'default' service account (not great practice but hey we are starting)
    • This means the authentication request is coming from system:serviceaccount:default:default
    • You can take a look at this account with kubectl get sa default -o yaml
  • The date parameters define the validity period: "nbf": 1664702005 (not before), "iat": 1664702005 (issued at) and "exp": 1664705605 (expiry) which you can quickly convert to a date with:
$ date -d@"1664702005"
Sun  2 Oct 10:13:25 BST 2022
$ date -d@"1664705605"
Sun  2 Oct 11:13:25 BST 2022

How can I use this token?

Any client application we give the token to will be sending an HTTPS request to the API server with a header set to Authentication: Bearer <token>. That's all is needed. Any requests will then be approved/rejected based on the permissions of that account.

If you want to test a particular call, you can use the token with for example:

kubectl --token="xxxxxxxxxxxxxx" get pods --all-namespaces

And finally, where is it stored?

  • The token is not stored as a secret and it's not directly linked from the service account object
  • In fact, the token is not stored anywhere in kubernetes, it's validated from the signature
  • Secrets don't expire but these tokens do (an hour as seen above in the JWT token itself)

As usual, you will be able to dig into the Dashboard project itself, for instance here you have alternative access methods

A final note on temporary tokens: they do provide advantages in limiting the scope of attack as they will expire but you will still need to associate them to limited users or service accounts with limited restrictions, something I haven't gone into yet and we have been using the default service account. For example, if the temporary account is captured it can be used to create permanent accounts/secrets.


01 Oct 2022

But why?

Whatever you think about Kubernetes, it is here to stay. At work it's replaced all our custom orchestration and ECS usage. It solves infrastructure problems in a common way that most Cloud providers have agreed to, which is no small feat.

So why would you want to install it locally anyway? For work your company will most likely provide you access to a cluster and give you a set of credentials that somewhat limit what you can do. Depending on your interests that won't be enough to properly learn about what is going on under the hood. Getting familiar with how Kubernetes stores containers, container logs, how networking is handled, DNS resolution, load balancing etc will help remove a huge barrier.

The best thing I can say about Kubernetes is that when you dig into it, everything makes sense and turns out to be relatively simple. You will see that most tasks are actually performed by a container, one that has parameters, logs and a github repo somewhere you can check. Your DNS resolution is not working? Well then take a look at "kubectl -n kube-system logs coredns-d489fb88-n7q9p", check the configuration in "-n kube-system get deployments coredns -o yaml", proxy or port-forward to it, check the metrics...

In my particular case I also always have a bunch of code I need to run, scripts to aggregate and publish things, renew my Letsencrypt certificates, update podcast and RSS services, installed tools like Grocy and others. Over the years I've tried various solutions to handle all of this. Currently I have a bunch of scripts running on my main machine (Linux) that I usually have always running, some of those spawning containers (to ease dependency management, sometimes it's not completely under my control) and other tasks are done by my Synology DS.

For me, having kubernetes seems like a logical step even if it's just to see if this solution will age better over time. I like the declarative nature of the YAML configuration and the relative isolation of having Dockerfiles with their own minimal needs defined.

But let's be clear, for most non developers this is a pretty silly thing to do!

Let's reuse some hardware

There are multiple ways to have a local kubernetes cluster. One of the most popular is minikube but this time we are going to try the Microk8s offer from Canonical (Ubuntu) running in a spare Linux box (rather than a VM).

Microk8s is a developer-orientated kubernetes distribution. You should most certainly not use it as your day to day driver but it's a good option to play with Kubernetes without getting too lost in the actual setup

Do you have a spare computer somewhere? I have an old Mac Mini I was using as my main OS X (for iOS builds) and as a secondary backup system. Now it has been superseded by a much better Intel Mac Mini I kind friend gave me, leaving me with a machine that is too nice to just shelve but too cumbersome to maintain as another Mac OS X machine (it won't be plugged in to a monitor most of the time).

  • I installed a minimal Ubuntu 22.04.1 LTS on it (Server edition)
  • Cpu according to /proc/cpuinfo is i5-4278U CPU @ 2.60GHz
  • RAM according to /proc/raminfo is 16GB of RAM
  • And according to hdparm -I I have two SSDs since some time ago I replaced the old HDD with a spare SDD: Samsung SSD 860 EVO 500GB and the original APPLE SSD SM0128F
    • I decided to mount the smaller Apple SSD as ext4 in / and the bigger 500GB one as zfs in a separate mountpoint called /main. Mostly because I have tendency to reinstall the whole OS but like to keep the ZFS partition between installs.

Setting up microk8s

Once the Mac Mini linux installation was setup (nothing extra needed to do there), I enabled SSH and the remaining setup was done from inside SSH sessions.

Installation didn't start very promising as it failed the first time, but re-running did finish, following the official installation guide:

$ sudo snap install microk8s --classic
microk8s (1.25/stable) v1.25.2 from Canonical✓ installed

For ease of use I've given my own user access to it with:

sudo usermod -a -G microk8s osuka
sudo chown -f -R osuka ~/.kube
# exiting the ssh session and logging in again is needed at this point

That you have the correct permissions can be checked by running microk8s status --wait-ready As per the guide, enable some services:

$ microk8s status
high-availability: no
  datastore master nodes:
  datastore standby nodes: none
    ha-cluster           # (core) Configure high availability on the current node
    helm                 # (core) Helm - the package manager for Kubernetes
    helm3                # (core) Helm 3 - the package manager for Kubernetes
    metrics-server       # (core) K8s Metrics Server for API access to service metrics
    cert-manager         # (core) Cloud native certificate management
    community            # (core) The community addons repository
    dashboard            # (core) The Kubernetes dashboard

We activate the following services, by running microk8s enable XXXX for each one:

  • dashboard: Provides us with a web UI to check the status of the luster. See more on github
  • dns: installs coredns which will allow us to have cluster-local DNS resolution
  • registry: installs a private container registry where we can push our images

We enable also the "community" services with microk8s enable community which gives us additional services we can enable. From the community, we install

  • istio: this creates a service mesh which provides load balancing, service-to-service authentication and monitoring on top of existing services, see their docs

Make microk8s kubectl the default command to run:

  • add alias mkctl="microk8s kubectl"
  • this is just the standard kubectl, just provided via microk8s so we on't need to install it separately - we can still use kubectl from other machines

Let's use it remotely

Access the cluster itself with kubectl

The last thing I want is to have yet another computer I have to keep connecting to a display so this installation will be used remotely. Also I don't really want to be ssh'ing inside of it just to run kubectl commands.

From inside the ssh session, check stuff is running:

$ mkctl get pods --all-namespaces
NAMESPACE            NAME                                         READY   STATUS    RESTARTS   AGE
kube-system          kubernetes-dashboard-74b66d7f9c-6ngts        1/1     Running   0          18m
kube-system          dashboard-metrics-scraper-64bcc67c9c-pth8h   1/1     Running   0          18m
kube-system          metrics-server-6b6844c455-5t85g              1/1     Running   0          19m

There's quite a bit of documentation on how to do most common tasks, check the how to section of the Microk8s site. To configure access:

  • Expose configuration
$ microk8s config
apiVersion: v1
- cluster:
    certificate-authority-data: LS0tLS1CRUdJTiBDRV... # (certificate)
    server: https://192.168.x.x:16443   # (ip in local network)
  name: microk8s-cluster
- context:
    cluster: microk8s-cluster
    user: admin
  name: microk8s
current-context: microk8s
kind: Config
preferences: {}
- name: admin
    token: WDBySG1.......  # direct token authentication

At some point we will create users but for initial development tasks all we need is to concatenate the contents of this configuration into our ~/.kube/config file (or create it if it's the first time using kubectl).

After doing this, all kubectl commands will work as usual. I've renamed my context to 'minion':

❯ kubectl config use-context minion
❯ kubectl get pods --all-namespaces

More details for this specific step in the official howto.

Access the dashboard

Since we haven't enabled any other mechanism, to access the dashboard you will need a token. At this point you could use the same token you have in .kube/config, but the recommended way is to create a temporary token instead:

$ kubectl create token default
... a token is printed
$ kubectl port-forward -n kube-system service/kubernetes-dashboard 10443:443

Then connect to https://localhost:10443 and paste the output from the first command. See the next post for an explanation of the token used there.


07 Jul 2022

I used python but this is arguably even worse in Javascript/Typescript. Sorry I mean JavaScript. It turned out the problem wasn't java it was the people (also: are katas a type of defensive programming?) Aquí he usado python pero esto pasa igual o más en Javascript/Typescript. Quiero decir JavaScript. Al final resultó que el problema no era java si no la gente (por cierto: son las katas un tipo de programación defensiva?)


19 Jun 2022

Chewing tobacco in a work meeting with your clients, the ultimate power move. Mascar tabaco en una reunión de trabajo frente a tus clients, el power move definitivo.


20 Jun 2021

No matter what your pet may think of you, wear your mask don't be stupid. Independientemente de lo que tu mascota pueda pensar de ti, ponte la máscara no seas estúpido.


14 Oct 2020

When transmitting complex information I find having some kind of diagram extremely helpful. Sometimes they are there just to have something to look at and point, sometimes they are key to following a complex flow.

Over the years of trying lots of different tools, still seems to me that what I would call 'hand drawn' diagrams are best - but I don't mean actually hand drawn, I'm quite bad at whiteboard drawing but give me a tool like Omnigraffle and I'll make the nicest diagrams. I'll throw in some pastel colors even.

The issue is that integrating that with documentation when most of the documentation is in markdown is getting very annoying: you have to export the diagram as an image, save it somewhere and then insert a reference to it inside the markdown document.

It's pretty much impossible to do a decent version control on those, other than replacing a binary blow by another binary blob.

WARNING: If you read this post in an RSS reader it's not going to look pretty - diagrams are rendered client-side, you'll need to go to the website.


Many times all I want is to draw a small simple figure to help the narrative or to more effectively highlight some point, something that belongs to the document. Enter mermaidjs, that lets you embed diagrams by writing a description of them. Here is a simple example diagram, you will have to enclose it in three backticks and the word mermaid (I can't seem to be able to escape that in a way that works in jekyll):

    Mobile Device->>Server: Request
    Server->>Cache: get [x-something]
    Cache-->>Server: null || contents


sequenceDiagram Mobile Device->>Server: Request Server->>Cache: get [x-something] Cache-->>Server: null || contents

The great thing about this is that now I can edit the source file for this post and open a preview in Visual Studio Code (by installing the extension Markdown Preview Mermaid Support) that shows me what it would look like.

Here are some more examples, there is a ton of diagram types:

pie title When to use a pie chart "Never" : 235 "When lying about your data" : 85 "When hungry" : 15

I can see myself writing a quick gantt diagram that I can store as part of my project's code, and then export as PDF when needed with the "Markdown PDF: Export (pdf)" command of the Markdown PDF plugin.

gantt title A Gantt Diagram: This is not how things work in reality but you need something dateFormat YYYY-MM-DD section Governing Planning :done, planning, 2013-12-21, 5d Budget allocation :done, budget, after planning, 5d section Backend API definition :active, api-interface, 2014-01-01, 5d API implementation :api-implementation, after api-interface, 10d E2E testing :e2e, after api-implementation, 3d Announcing it's all done and leaving the company: after api-interface, 3d section Frontend Implementation :fe-implementation, after api-interface branding, 12d Implementation extension : fe-again, after fe-implementation we-didnt-think-about-that, 12d section Design Branding :active, branding, after budget, 12d We didn't think about that : we-didnt-think-about-that, after api-implementation, 24d

You can do pretty interesting things in the gantt charts, multiple dependencies etc

erDiagram CUSTOMER ||--o{ ORDER : places ORDER ||--|{ LINE-ITEM : contains CUSTOMER }|..|{ DELIVERY-ADDRESS : uses

You can have class diagrams

      Animal <|-- Duck
      Animal <|-- Fish
      Animal <|-- Zebra
      class Duck{
          +String beakColor
classDiagram Animal <|-- Duck Animal <|-- Fish Animal <|-- Zebra Animal : +int age Animal : +String gender Animal: +isMammal() Animal: +mate() class Duck{ +String beakColor +swim() +quack() } class Fish{ -int sizeInFeet -canEat() } class Zebra{ +bool is_wild +run() }

You can have nice state diagrams

    [*] --> State1
    State3 --> State4
    State1 --> State2
    State3 --> [*]
    State2 --> State4
    State2 --> State3: Conked

or with the newer plugin:

    [*] --> State1
    state fork_state <<fork>>
        [*] --> fork_state
        fork_state --> State1
        fork_state --> State3
stateDiagram-v2 [*] --> State1 state fork_state <> [*] --> fork_state fork_state --> State1 fork_state --> State3 State3 --> State4 State1: The state with a note note right of State1 Important information! You can write notes. end note State1 --> State2 note left of State2 : This is the note to the left. State2 --> Active state Active { [*] --> NumLockOff NumLockOff --> NumLockOn : EvNumLockPressed NumLockOn --> NumLockOff : EvNumLockPressed -- [*] --> ScrollLockOff ScrollLockOff --> ScrollLockOn : EvCapsLockPressed ScrollLockOn --> ScrollLockOff : EvCapsLockPressed } state join_state <> State4 --> join_state Active --> join_state join_state --> [*]
stateDiagram [*] --> State1 State3 --> State4 State1 --> State2 State3 --> [*] State2 --> State4 State2 --> State3: Conked

Entity relationship diagrams:

graph LR A[Hard edge] -->|Link text| B(Round edge) B --> C{Decision} C -->|One| D[Result one] C -->|Two| E[Result two]


One thing to note is the different diagram plugins are almost independent applications and have subtle syntax differences: for instance you must use quotes in pie charts, but not in gantt.

The "Markdown: Open preview to the side" command on visual studio code right now works but has a very annoying refresh effect on the document you are typing in making it mostly unusable. You will be better of just opening previews that refresh only when you focus them using the "Markdown: Open Preview" command.

Integration with Jekyll

There's no real integration with Jekyll, you just add the library to your layout and then embed a <div> which automatically gets expanded client-side by the library:

<div class="mermaid">
    Mobile Device->>Server: Request
    Server->>Cache: get [x-something]
    Cache-->>Server: null || contents

To add the library (quite a hefty library at 800K for the minified version, but for a site like this it's acceptable):

mkdir lib
cd lib
curl -O https://raw.githubusercontent.com/mermaid-js/mermaid/develop/dist/mermaid.min.js

To add it to your layout, edit for instance _layouts/default.html:

<script src="/yay/lib/mermaid.min.js"></script>


One of the greatest things about mermaid is that you can tweak most of it using just CSS and you can add event listeners to make the diagrams more interactive. Check the excellent documentation


27 Aug 2020

I've been a very big fan of small Wacom tablets as a replacement for a mouse. I'll go through my current setup for Linux in case it can help anyone out there.

I started using a Wacom tablet for drawing but found it an excellent replacement for a mouse and moved to exclusive use when I started having symptons of RSI. The change from having the wrist on top of a mouse to having it gripping a pen made a big difference and my problems went away.

When I started using macbooks this became almost a non issue since the trackpad (on OS X) removes a lot of the stress points, in particular if you enable tap to click, tap with two fingers to right click and three finger drag.

Now I find myself on desktop PCs running Linux most of the time so I went back to using it as my main device, tweaking it to my liking. I have compiled my tweaks and hacks here, currently all is tested on a relatively old Wacom Intuos pen & touch small tablet (CTH-480).

Oh and kudos to Jason Gerecke the maintainer of the linuxwacom driver, such an essential but slightly thankless job (and Wacom for supporting him).

The basics

Luckily most distros these days detect Wacom tablets without any hassle and provide even a tool that will help you do some simple mappings.

First of all you'll need to find the ID of the device you want to modify, and you'll need to have xsetwacom installed (part of xserver-xorg-input-wacom, normally installed by default).

In my case:

xsetwacom --list devices

 Wacom Intuos PT S Finger touch    id: 13  type: TOUCH
 Wacom Intuos PT S Pad pad         id: 14  type: PAD
 Wacom Intuos PT S Pen eraser      id: 17  type: ERASER
 Wacom Intuos PT S Pen stylus      id: 16  type: STYLUS

The following commands can use the name of the device or the id number, I'll use the name to make it easier to read.

Absolute positioning

This is a must, trying to use the pen as if it was a trackpad just doesn't function in an usable way. What you want is to map a point on the tablet to a point on the screen. This allows you to fly from one corner of the screen to the other faster than a trackpad could do.

For almost all distros you can switch this on via a UI, but if you don't have it, you can do it manually, for my case:

xsetwacom --set "Wacom Intuos PT S Pen stylus" Mode Absolute
xsetwacom --set "Wacom Intuos PT S Pen eraser" Mode Absolute

Aspect ratio

There is one subtle but very big problem I have noticed as the aspect ratio of my monitors have diverged from the aspect ratio of the tablet over time.

If your tablet proportions don't match the proportions of the screen it will be impossible to draw properly, this is painfully evident on an Ultrawide screen: you'll draw a circle but it will show as an oval. The brain is able to more or less adjust to that and you may be able to manage it but it's a very frustrating experience.

For my case I have written a small script that will calculate the aspect ratio of the screen and map the tablet to it.

# if you have more than one monitor you can specify which one to use by
# adding a --display option to the xrandr call
s_w=`xrandr | grep -w connected  | awk -F'[ \+]' '{print $4}' | sed 's/x/ /' | awk '{print $1}'`
s_h=`xrandr | grep -w connected  | awk -F'[ \+]' '{print $4}' | sed 's/x/ /' | awk '{print $2}'`

ratio=`echo "${s_h}/${s_w}" | bc -l`

echo "Screen detected: ${s_w}x${s_h}"
for device in 'Wacom Intuos PT S Pen stylus' 'Wacom Intuos PT S Pen eraser' ; do
  echo ""
  echo "${device}:"
  xsetwacom set "$device" ResetArea
  area=`xsetwacom get "$device" area | awk '{print $3,$4}'`
  w=`echo ${area} | awk '{print $1}'`
  h=`echo ${area} | awk '{print $2}'`
  hn=`echo "${w}*${ratio}" | bc -l`
  hn=`printf %.0f "${hn}"`
  echo "  Area ${w}x${h} ==> ${w}x${hn}"
  xsetwacom set "$device" area 0 0 ${w} ${hn}

Fix the jitter

My hand is not particularly steady and I find that if I try to keep it still I will get tiny movements (jitter). These two parameters make it less sensitive. You can play with the values. This seems to work for my Intuos S.

xsetwacom --set "Wacom Intuos PT S Pen stylus" Suppress 10
xsetwacom --set "Wacom Intuos PT S Pen stylus" RawSample 9
xsetwacom --set "Wacom Intuos PT S Pen eraser" RawSample 9
xsetwacom --set "Wacom Intuos PT S Pen eraser" Suppress 10

Mapping of the tablet buttons

There are some buttons on the tablet. I find the most useful thing to do is to map them to mouse buttons so that I can click more precisely. I find hovering over a selection and using the other hand to press the buttons makes me more precise. You can also map them to any key or combination of keys.

# the pad of my tablet has 4 buttons
# the mapping is a bit weird because Xinput reserves some buttons
# https://github.com/linuxwacom/xf86-input-wacom/wiki/Tablet-Configuration-1%3A-xsetwacom-and-xorg.conf
#  [ button 3 ]               [ button 9 ]
#  [ button 1 ]               [ button 8 ]
xsetwacom set "Wacom Intuos PT S Pad pad" Button 9 "key +ctrl z -ctrl"  # undo
xsetwacom set "Wacom Intuos PT S Pad pad" Button 8 2  # middle button
xsetwacom set "Wacom Intuos PT S Pad pad" button 1 1  # mouse click
xsetwacom set "Wacom Intuos PT S Pad pad" button 3 2  # middle button

You can use trial and error to find which buttons correspond to which numbers. Note the mapping for the 'undo' functionality, it's equivalent to saying "press control, while holding it press z, then release control"

Mapping of pen buttons

You can map the buttons on the pen itself to various functions.

For years one feature I missed was the ability to scroll just using the pen. The way this works is I press on the button on the side of the pen (which is very ergonomic) and then press with the pen on the tablet and move up and down. Works like a charm as a relaxed way of scrolling. This is called "pan scroll", I have seen it called "drag to scroll" too and has worked in Linux for a couple of years now and it's implemented as a button mapping.

# pan scroll (press lower button + click and drag to scroll)
xsetwacom --set "Wacom Intuos PT S Pen stylus" button 2 "pan"
xsetwacom --set "Wacom Intuos PT S Pen stylus" "PanScrollThreshold" 200

I leave the other buttons as they are, which is the tip of the button acts as a 'left click' and the second button on the side acts as a right click. This particular pen can also be used as an eraser - so you can change the eraser mapping too. Defaults work fine for me.

Touch and multi-touch (fusuma)

Without doing anything you get functional trackpad functionality on Wacom touch models. For mine you get standard movement, tap to click, tap with two fingers to right click and what I can best describe as "tap + release + tap again and move" to select or drag, plus scrolling by using two fingers up and down the tablet. Some distributions enable also going forwards and backwards in browsers by sliding both fingers left or right, while the most common case seems to enable scrolling left and right.

There's a few multi touch frameworks you can use to extend what's possible. I'm currently using fusuma, I simply followed the instructions to set it up and then launch it as part of my window manager startup. It can do a lot more than what I need so my configuration is very simple:

$ cat ~/.config/fusuma/config.yml
      sendkey: "LEFTALT+RIGHT" # History forward
      sendkey: "LEFTALT+LEFT" # History back
      sendkey: "LEFTMETA" # Activity
      sendkey: "LEFTALT+LEFTMETA+LEFT"
    command: "xdotool keydown ctrl click 4 keyup ctrl" # Zoom in
    command: "xdotool keydown ctrl click 5 keyup ctrl" # Zoom out

Basically I use four fingers to move between workspaces (I have mapped those keys in my window manager to switch workspaces) and three fingers to go back/forwards in browsers. I have pinch configured but it's not very practical to be honest.

Here you can really play with whatever fits best with your preferences and window manager. Note that you can issue extended complicated commands via xdotool in a similar way to what linuxwacom can already do by itself.

That's it. This is what works for me so far, feel free to ping me if you get stuck setting up something.


02 Apr 2020

For some, things haven't changed that much.


30 Mar 2020

I'll see if I can post some simple comics like this, to lighten the mood a bit.