I spent some time investigating, with the help of some IRC friends. In fact, Carla Schroder, author of O'Reilly's Linux Cookbook, was the one who pinned down the creation of the files to the script /usr/bin/startx.
Here's the deal: if you use gdm, kdm, or xdm, you'll never see this. But for some reason, Ubuntu's startx uses a program called xauth which creates a file containing an "MIT-MAGIC-COOKIE". (Don't ask.) Under most Linux distributions, the magic cookie goes into a file called .Xauthority. The startx script checks an environment variable called XENVIRONMENT for the filename; if it's not set to something else, it defaults to $HOME/.Xenvironment.
Ubuntu's version is a little different. It still has the block of code where it checks XENVIRONMENT and sets it to $HOME/.Xenvironment if it isn't already set. But a few lines later, it proceeds to create the file under another, hardwired, name: you guessed it, $HOME/.serverauth.$$. The XENVIRONMENT variable which was checked and set is never actually used.
Programmers take note! When adding a feature to a script, please take a moment and think about what the script does, and check to see whether it already does something like what you're adding. If so, it's okay -- really -- to remove the old code, rather than leaving redundant and obsolete code blocks in place.
Okay, so why is the current code a problem? Because startx creates the file, calls xinit, then removes the file. In other words, it relies on xinit (and the X server) exiting gracefully. If anything else happens -- for example, if you shut your machine down from within X -- the startx script (which does not catch signals) can die without ever getting to the code that removes the file. So if you habitually shut down your machine from within X, you will have a .serverauth.???? file from each X session you ever shut down that way.
Note that the old setup didn't remove the file either, but at least it was always the same file. So you always have a single .Xauthority file in your home directory whether or not it's currently in use. Not much of a problem.
I wasn't seeing this under Hoary because under Hoary I ran gdm, while with Dapper, gdm would no longer log me in automatically so I had to find another approach to auto-login.
For Ubuntu users who wish to go back to the old one-file XAUTHORITY setup, there's a very simple fix: edit /usr/bin/startx (as root, of course) and change the line:
xserverauthfile=$HOME/.serverauth.$$to read instead
If you want to track this issue, it's bug bug 35758.
[ 20:24 Mar 20, 2006 More linux | permalink to this entry ]