Accessing Ubuntu desktop UI over SSH+VNC

During this pandemic I’m working from home on my Mac laptop and accessing things on my Ubuntu 18.04-based Linux desktop in the office. For most things this is fine via SSH or sshfs, but there are times you just need access to the desktop UI to get things done.

Specifically I had a 500 MB OVA that I needed to upload to an ESXi system — both of which are in the office. I could have downloaded the OVA to my laptop over the VPN, then uploaded it back over the VPN to ESXi but that is both slow, tedious, and wasteful. Instead after a bit of googling I figured out how to get a VNC client on my Mac securely accessing my work Xwindows display and do it all local to the office:

On your desktop, install x11vnc:

sudo apt install x11vnc

On your home computer, open an SSH tunnel and start the viewer on your remote system (below as $HOSTNAME):

ssh -t -L 5900:localhost:5900 $HOSTNAME 'x11vnc -localhost -display :0'

Then start a VNC viewer on your home computer (on MacOS I recommend RealVNC) and connect to localhost:5900

Security advisory: when accessing your desktop like this your computer is unlocked and accessible by keyboard and mouse to users who wander by your desk. Granted, in a pandemic when everyone is working from home is this really a problem? Lock your computer when you’re done as if you were walking away from your desk and you’ll be fine.

Granny Dot died today

My maternal grandmother Dorothy Birkelbach — Dot to her friends and Granny Dot to her grandchildren — died today. She was an amazing woman who will be missed. I am grateful that I was able to speak with her this morning before she passed to tell her that I love her — I’m confident she never doubted that.

My grandmother was quite the influence on my life. Reading, travel, laughter, adopted families, crafting, baking — I see so much of her life reflected in my own.

She was always an avid reader and I have many books that she gave me over the years. She and my grandfather liked to travel, unlike the rest of my family, and I attribute my joy of seeing other countries and cities to them.

Always quick with a smile and a laugh, she loved fiercely. When I was about three my grandmother met a woman named Wally Watson, her husband Darrel and daughter Renee, at a soaring event. My grandmother “adopted” Wally as her own, which is how I came to know Renee — we’ve been siblings ever since. My Granny was always “Granny” to Renee. If my Granny decided you were family that was it: you were family, loved through and through. My Granny also had her shit list. It took a lot to get on it; it took a lot to get off of it too!

My Granny did ceramics when I was growing up. She always made the trophies for the soaring competitions held in Littlefield: beautiful soaring seagull. She made some for her grandkids too and it stands on our mantle next to a picture of my grandfather in his sailplane. Needless to say she was always interested in my pottery. She was also a crocheter, making me numerous sets of house shoes over the years. Something my husband Daniel continues to this day.

Granny loved to bake. Chocolate sheet cake, cinnamon roles, cookies, you name it. In college, and even years after, I would receive a box of homemade cookies from her every Christmas. Dozens of different cookies. Chocolate chip, oatmeal, cowboy cookies, Marfa Light cookies.

But her chocolate sheet cake is my favorite and the most memorable. Granny always made it when I would bring friends to my grandparents’ lake house. I never saw her make it, it always just seemed to appear when we walked in the door. Years later I would get the following recipe from her:

Granny Dot’s Chocolate Cake

Bake a boxed chocolate cake mix (Duncan Hines, Betty Crocker, etc)

5 minutes before the cake is done, start the icing:
Melt and bring to boil 1 stick margarine, 4 T cocoa, and 6 T milk. Take from stove and add 1 box (16 oz; 3.5 C) powdered sugar, 1 t vanilla, and 1 cup chopped pecans. Mix well and spread over hot cake.

Imagine my surprise to discover it started with box of cake mix! But that was my Granny, not a pretentious bone in her body. I made a chocolate cake last night in her honor.

But the most cherished memory of my grandmother was back in 2009. My youngest brother was getting married and my brother and parents said that my (now ex-) husband Benjamin was not welcome at the wedding. They didn’t want us to be a “distraction”. I told my family that I would not be attending the wedding if my husband were not welcome. I had not yet come out to my grandparents, but it was clear I needed to do so before the wedding.

I called Granny Dot and told her that I was gay and why I wasn’t going to be at the wedding. I forget the details of how that conversation went, because I was a nervous wreck, but I remember it going well. I received this letter from her a few days after the wedding:

Dearest Casey,

It was so good to hear from you. The news you told me was no surprise to me – I had suspected the situation for a long time. I know you didn’t wake up one day and decide to be gay – it is an inborn thing and is natural to you but the average person views it as unnatural, because it doesn’t follow the norm. They need to stop and evaluate all the couples who co-habitate. In my opinion there is not much difference.

Of course I had looked forward to your children to love, but my love for you has never changed and never will. You are a part of me and Papa and we have always been proud of you. Just be happy and people will learn to accept the situation. I wish you every happiness.

I love you –

I love you too Granny.