Saturday, 7 October 2017

Fixing the laptop I broke

Sometimes things happen that you don't expect. It can be anything: a power failure during a system upgrade, or maybe a careless chmod 644 /usr/lib/ — in my case, it was the latter (tab completion failure).

Training yourself on the proper way to respond to unexpected failures is the key to recovering them without pain or further data loss. When I had realised my gaffe, the first thing I thought was: How do I chmod it back without the ability to run chmod?

Static-linked rescue binaries are a must-have

The first thing I learned from this experience is that having a set of static-linked rescue binaries somewhere on your system can help in a lot of unexpected situations. We're going to be adding a busybox-static package to Adélie Linux just for such an occasion, and we may put it in the base system depending on community feedback. If I had a static busybox in, say, /var/recovery or such a path, this would have been a ten second fix rather than a few hour fix.

Embrace the system

After a few other attempts, I realised I could drop to assembler. Long ago, I spent my days writing assembler for system-level code. Since assembler is by design writing "below" C, you are not using the C runtime. Theoretically, you should be able to perform the same tasks as any utility on the system as long as there's a matching system call for it. And by luck, there is a single syscall: SYS_chown. Following is x86_64 assembler for Linux to chown /usr/lib/ back to 755 (executable for all users):

_start: mov $90,%rax /* SYS_chown */ mov $str,%rdi /* const char *filename */ mov $493,%rsi /* mode_t mode */ syscall /* do it! */ mov $60,%rax /* SYS_exit */ syscall /* bye */ str: .ascii "/usr/lib/\0"

Then it was a matter of as -o fixit.o fixit.S; ld -o fixit fixit.o; strip fixit to generate a 440 byte binary file that would solve my issue. The next issue was transferring it to the laptop. I tried to use bash's /dev/tcp; unfortunately however, it does not support binary file transfer without something like `cat` or `dd`. Since I could only use the shell, I did what I had not done in over a decade: echo -n followed by the escape codes. Since a lot of the binary was still padding, I omitted the last 200 or so bytes. The output of the echo command needed to be redirected to a binary that was already executable (otherwise the file created would not have execute permission!), so I chose one I probably wouldn't need urgently: neon-config, a configuration utility for a library I installed for tinkering. The full shell transcript is in my misc Linux directory. This worked! And my laptop ran again...

As I said in the opening of this little musing: I could have made things a lot worse and lost all my open unsaved data by turning off the computer and trying to recover using media. Additionally, that computer is very picky about booting off external media, so that would have wasted even more time. Sometimes all you need is ingenuity and experience, and the only way to acquire either one is by messing about and poking at stuff! Happy hacking.