Category Archives: Howtos

Miscellaneous howtos.

Remove Amazon icon on Ubuntu

To successfully remove Amazon icon appearing on Ubuntu 17, open the Terminal and type the following:

sudo apt-get remove ubuntu-web-launchers

Type the root password and Amazon icon will disappear.


How to shrink a scanned PDF on Linux

When you want to reduce the file size of a PDF document, this quick command using convert will shrink the original PDF file.

convert -density 150×150 -quality 60 -compress jpeg -colorspace Gray original.pdf new.pdf

This command is particularly useful against scanned documents, the jpeg quality will be 60% for 150dpi.

Converting an original 300dpi / color PDF to a 150dpi, greyscale PDF can reduce file size up to 50%. There will be some quality loss but in this way you can reduce file size enough to send scanned documents of dozens of pages via e-mail without using third-party services.

How to import .ovpn files on Ubuntu Linux network manager

On Linux you don’t need to install OpenVPN because it’s already installed. However, configuration especially via the network manager can be tricky.

Install this additional package on your distro to display a new OpenVPN option in the network manager:

sudo apt-get install network-manager-openvpn-gnome

If you’re migrating from Windows and you’ve already a Windows installation of OpenVPN you can copy .key, .crt, .conf and .ovpn files from the OpenVPN location. Copy these files to your Linux home (e.g. ~/openvpn/) and reshape permissions to allow the access only to the owner.

After you’ve the .ovpn, .crt, .key files locally, you can test the connection using these commands:

cd ~/openvpn/;
sudo openvpn my-openvpn-file.ovpn

Type the sudo password, wait and the connection should be established successfully. Press Ctrl+C to stop the VPN from command line.

Now you can configure the Network Manager to accept the .ovpn file.

Click on the network icon on the top right corner of the screen and look for VPN Settings.

Click the + icon aside the VPN title and select Import from file…

Select the my-openvpn-file.ovpn you’ve checked before. A form containing user certificate, CA, private key and the gateway will be automatically filled. It’s very important to select .ovpn and not .conf since the latter will not work.

If the private key is password protected you can also type the password and on Advanced you can do some fine tuning but it’s usually unnecessary.

On the Details tab, uncheck the automatic connection option if you don’t want to start the VPN at every login and choose if you want to allow other users to access the connection.

On IPv4 and IPv6 you can disable a specific protocol or limit the connection to “Use this connection only for resources on its network“. This last step is particularly important because using VPN can limit network connection.

Press Apply and you should be able to connect pressing the network icon on the top right corner > VPN > your VPN name.

Tested on Ubuntu 17.

PIL error

PIL: ord() expected a character, but string of length 0 found (SOLVED)

Using Django, and easy_thumbnails coupled with Pillow specifically I’m stumbled upon this error in PIL.ImageFile on PIL/

ord() expected a character, but string of length 0 found

This python error was so frequent I’ve done some research, coming up with nothing.

I’ve checked current Pillow version with:

pip freeze | grep Pillow



Then I’ve upgraded the Pillow package with this:

pip install Pillow --upgrade

The sofware was updated to the very last version (5.0.0) without any issue on easy_thumbnails backend or frontend.

Consequently, pip freeze returned:


and errors are gone.

tl;dr: Update Pillow from 3.0.0 to latest version (5.0.0 by now)

Note: this error can be accompained by others:

  • unpack requires a string argument of length 2
  • string index out of range

Upgrading Pillow also correct these.

Failed to start Authorization manager (SOLVED)

If you get the “Failed to start Authorization manager” while booting a Linux OS (e.g. CentOS) most likely you’ve a SELinux misconfiguration.

The main issue is that if you’ve restarted the system, you cannot login since OpenSSH service is not running. If you’ve a virtual server, even the console shipped by your provider is stuck on the Authorization manager error.

The reason behind this in my case was a completely wrong value in SELINUXTYPE.

The example below is valid for a Digital Ocean’s droplet running a CentOS 7 but can be adapted to other providers and distro.

To fix it I had to:

1. Boot the OS with initramfs (also called Recovery Kernel). You can do this on the dashboard provided by your virtual server provider (e.g. on Digital Ocean)

2. Open the console from your provider’s dashboard

3. Mount the root filesystem, e.g.

mkdir /mnt
mount /dev/vfsa1 /mnt

Where /dev/vfsa1 is your root partition.

4. Move broken configuration and recreate selinux config file manually with:

mv /mnt/etc/selinux/config /mnt/etc/selinux/config.BROKEN
touch /mnt/etc/selinux/config
cat > /mnt/etc/selinux/config

Then type these two lines:


Go to a new blank line after, then type Ctrl+D to quit. Since initramfs hasn’t a text editor like vi or nano, the simple cat > filename do the trick.

5. From your dashboard, change the kernel version to what you’ve used previously and Power Cycle (reboot) the machine using the dashboard because a reboot from initramfs in this state will restart initramfs itself.

Open the provider’s console on boot to see your system working again. Wait the services to start and then connect with your SSH client to see again your files and get again the control of your server.

Be careful when configuring SELinux again and create a shapshot and/or backup after you’ve restored your server…and before changing SELinux again.

HTTPS: how to add TLS ciphers on nginx (update regularly)

HTTPS is a great improvement to a website security. However, HTTPS comes in different flavours and among these there are very weak ones.

Among protocols, SSL have to be avoided because it is not secure. Its successor, TLS, comes in different versions and supports different ciphers. To be short, the cipher is the encryption method/algorihms the website and the client use to talk each other.

The combination of protocols and ciphers available to implement HTTPS will limits the type of clients capable to access the website.

To be sure your website will not lose traffic, you have to balance the strongest ciphers available with the most compatible but still secure, dropping all weaker ciphers.

Check the strenght of your HTTPS implementation

If you’ve already implemented HTTPS on your website, first you’ve to check ist current security status of protocols and ciphers.

Check your hostname on Qualys SSL Labs pasting the HTTPS protected domain on the Test your server section. It’s a fast method with a very detailed output for public websites.

The report will give your hostname a rank, a detailed list of issues, browser support, and the complete list of supported ciphers. Among these ciphers, you can get some ciphers highlighted in yellow. You have to get the rid of these no matter what.

The list of ciphers actually differs from a typical cipher declaration on nginx because nginx can use the OpenSSL naming and Qualys uses IANA naming.

Here’s an helpful conversion table by Mozilla where you can convert IANA to OpenSSL and the other way round. Take note of the weak ciphers but wait before start to cut your cipher declaration on nginx.

You’ve to check how many visitors you’ll lose after the cut first.

Get the website statistics

Using Google Analytics or similar services and software, go to the Audience > Technology > Browser to get a list of your visitors’ browsers. Select a timespan like the last year or less.

You can add Browser version or OS version as secondary dimension to match the list of supported browsers from SSL Labs. You’ll get something similar:


Well, someone is still using Internet Explorer 9.0 in 2018.

Since Internet Explorer running on old Windows versions (like XP) is one of the most troublesome combination, check how many visitors use this legacy software.

On Google Analytics type on the search box “Internet Explorer” and you’ll get the browser usage of this legacy browser. Select OS version as secondary dimension to get a list of OSes using IE.

Compare this list with the report from SSL Labs and with the conversion table from Mozilla cited above and count the number of visitors you want to cut off from your website in the sake of security.

Cut the weak ciphers

Trimming down the ciphers declaration on nginx conf you’ll get something like this:


Each cipher is separated by a ‘:’ and at the end some elements (typically using OpenSSL naming) are forbidden with a ‘!’.

Here’s the context:

server {
        # the port your site will be served on
        listen      443 ssl;
        # the domain name it will serve for
        # substitute your machine's IP address or FQDN
        ssl_certificate /path/to/fullchain.pem;
        ssl_certificate_key /path/to/privkey.pem;
        ssl_protocols TLSv1 TLSv1.1 TLSv1.2;
        ssl_prefer_server_ciphers on;
        ssl_dhparam /etc/ssl/certs/dhparam.pem;
        # cfr. ........................................
        ssl_ciphers ** PASTE CIPHERS HERE **;
        ssl_session_timeout 1d;
        ssl_session_cache shared:SSL:50m;
        ssl_stapling on;
        ssl_stapling_verify on;
        add_header Strict-Transport-Security max-age=15768000;
        charset     utf-8;
        # This is for Let's Encrypt
        location ^~ /.well-known {
                alias /path/to/.well-known;
                allow all;

        # max upload size
        client_max_body_size 75M;   # adjust to taste

        location /webpath  {
                alias /path/to/web;

Change the conf file, reload nginx (on CentOS 7 systemctl reload nginx) and then re-run the SSL Labs test.

The Qualys’ tool will show you the new incompatibility with legacy browsers in the Handshake Simulation section:


Modern protocols and ciphers implemented using the above declaration on nginx cut off IE 8 on XP and IE 6, the report explain.

According to the technology used by visitors of the analyzed website, few visits are sacrificed for better security for both visitors and host.

Tune these settings according to your needs, keep monitoring the tecnology used by site visitors and dropping legacy system progressively, with Modern compatibility as a (not so) long term objective.

Certbot: auto-renew LetsEncrypt certificate on cron

Certificates renewal can be difficult to automate leading to errors that will mark the website as “Insecure”.

Here’s how to automate certificate renewal on CentOS 7 with nginx as webserver:

su -
(root password)
crontab -e

And then add to the crontab these lines pressing A to edit:

37 02 * * * /usr/local/sbin/certbot-auto renew
39 02 * * * /usr/bin/systemctl reload nginx

Every day at 02.37 the certificate will be asked for renewal. Two minutes later nginx will be restarted.

After you’ve typed these lines, type:


To write and quit. You’ll get this message:

crontab: installing new crontab

Other Linux distributions

If you’re using a different Linux OS you can locate certbot-auto using the following command:

whereis certbot-auto

And then you can use it on the crontab.

You’ve also to use the alternative of systemctl for your system to refresh the certificates on the webserver.

If you’ve to do get your first certificate, here you can get more information about how to install free Let’s Encrypt certificates on nginx.

When auto-renew certificates

Since certificates lasts for about three months, you can tell crontab to run this every week instead every day.

To do so, change the lines on crontab like this:

37 02 * * 0 /usr/local/sbin/certbot-auto renew
39 02 * * 0 /usr/bin/systemctl reload nginx

Adding the 0 on the 5th position will tell crontab to run the command every Sunday at 2 AM (2nd position) and 37 minutes (1st position).

If you find this syntax difficult you can use to easily generate the crontab.