Setting up a Raspberry Pi media centre

A couple of years ago I built a media player using a Raspberry Pi and OpenELEC. I’ve made a few changes since I wrote that blog post (not least moving to LibreELEC), and have also made a smaller version of the same device that I use in hotels when I’m travelling.

Hardware

There are two hardware choices for this sort of project – Any model of full sized Pi, or a Pi Zero (which is more portable, but harder to get media on to).

Preinstalled SD cards can be bought directly from Pi Hut (or just buy blank ones from Amazon which is what I do).

You’ll also need a mouse (for setup), the TV you’re going to plug it into, a HDMI cable, and some way of getting media on to the device if you’re using the Pi Zero (more about that later).

For my Pi III based device I still use the same case as before, and also have small USB drives plugged into each spare USB port to give more storage. I also have it networked now to allow easier streaming from my NAS.

For my Pi Zero I use a case that I can’t find a link for now, but really anything that allows access to all the ports will be fine.

Software

LibreELEC is one of the installation options on the NOOBS image, and can also be bought preinstalled on an SD card. The first option requires an internet connection (which might be tricky on the Pi Zero), and both options require a mouse.

Once installation had finished the device boots into the default Kodi interface. A web-based remote can be accessed by browsing to the device’s IP address on port 8080, and it can be accessed as network based storage from other computers on the same network.

Full details on how to download and install later verions of the software as they become available can be found on the LibreELEC wiki.

Content

Adding content is straightforward if the device is networked. It’s simply a case of browsing to the device and copying files across, or by pointing it at a network share.

For ther Pi Zero I’ve found the best way to do this is to use a USB ethernet adaptor (mine doesn’t have wifi), but I suspect that the newer model linked to above might work on wifi which would reduce the need for a further piece of hardware.

Addons

The original plan for this project was that I’d end up with something that could play movies and music on my TV, and that could handle storing a small amount of content locally so that when I end up in a hotel room with a few hours to kill I have something interesting to watch. The solution I’ve built ticks all those boxes, but I was curious to explore what else LibreELEC could handle.

After exploring the interface and available software for a little while I found channels for Last.fm scrobbles, BBC iPlayer and TED talks. All of these installed and worked fine, and I’ve not found myself needing anything else on these devices.The larger one is used every day, and is definitely my prefered platform for interacting with iPlayer. The smaller one travels with me, and I just copy a variety of films to the internal SD card and use the one USB port for a mouse.

How I consume music

The way I buy and consume music has changed recently. So far this year I’ve only bought 5 records (the three that Rough Trade send me, plus two Belle & Sebastian records that I pre-ordered last year). All my other music discovery has been via Spotify, and I find I’m using it more on my phone now, with a huge big playlist of new discoveries being the soundtrack to my commute. I also spent most of January and February listening to vinyl and CDs rather than music on my computer (at least when in my study – I still need digital music for when I’m travelling).

This month I’ve been doing an experiment around listening to all my old digital music, and trying to rediscover old things rather than buying new ones. I’ve been building up a library of MP3s since I got this computer, and it’s now up to about 400Gb of music, which would take several months to play. I’ve had this playlist on shuffle for about a week now, and I’m fairly sure I can manage to hold off buying too much more new music this year based on the amount of great things I’ve rediscovered that I totally forgot I owned.

Setting up new Ubuntu computers

I’ve had to set up a few Ubuntu desktop machines recently, and I thought it was worth documenting what I install on each one, and how I automate those installations as much as possible. I wrote about this a few years ago but so much has changed with my setup that I thought it was worth revisiting these instructions.

Generally I’ll always install from USB, and from the latest desktop version. I make my installer in Ubuntu, using Disk Image Writer and boot the computer from that. From 18.04 onwards I’ll be using the minimal installation feature (which I love), but for now assume that I just go with the defaults for everything.

Once it has finished installing, I’ll go through the process of getting everything I want on to the machine.

Install dropbox

I download the latest version from https://www.dropbox.com/install?os=lnx and then type:

sudo dpkg -i dropbox <hit the tab key>

I have a lot of files on Dropbox, so I let this sync while I’m doing the rest.

Add a script to make updating software easier

First all install something I’ll need to make the script work:

sudo apt install byobu

Then I’ll create a new file called updateall

#!/bin/bash
echo "updateall v.1.2 for Ubuntu"
#Run this as a normal user. Your admin password will be asked for if required.
sudo apt update
sudo apt upgrade -y
sudo apt full-upgrade -y
sudo apt autoremove -y
sudo purge-old-kernels -y
echo "The script has now finished running."

I move it to /usr/local/bin/ then make it executable with sudo chmod -X update all.

Add some software from the Ubuntu repositories

sudo updateall
sudo apt install git gimp vlc ubuntu-restricted-extras build-essential hexchat openssh-server gnome-tweak-tool tilix testdrive tasksel gnome-session
sudo snap install --classic atom
sudo snap install spotify

Install tails-installer

sudo add-apt-repository ppa:tails-team/tails-installer
sudo apt update
sudo apt install tails-installer   

Install pandoc

wget https://github.com/jgm/pandoc/releases/download/1.17.0.2/pandoc-1.17.0.2-1-amd64.deb
sudo dpkg -i pandoc-1.17.0.2-1-amd64.deb
sudo apt install texlive

See here for more on how I configure and use Pandoc.

Cosmetic tweaks

Reduce dock size to 24.

Change desktop wallpaper.

Log out, and choose a vanilla Gnome session from the chooser.

Browse to https://extensions.gnome.org/local/ and install some extensions. The ones I go for are Alternate Tab, Gravatar, Places Status Indicator, windowNavigator and Workspace Indicator.

Go to Settings --> Security and Privacy and turn off all “phone home” functionality.

Albums of the year 2017

I probably listened to less new music this year than any year in the last decade, although I definitely listened to each new record more, which was very much my intention at the start of the year. I also reverted to buying physical copies of music wherever possible (either on vinyl or on CD), which lead to me setting up my old stereo in my study and only really listening to digital music through Spotify or when I was on the move.

Did this change the sort of music I listened to? I don’t think so, but I definitely found myself exploring the back catalogues of several of the artists responsible for the records below in a way I probably wouldn’t have in previous years, and I think that might have lead to the list being slightly more biased towards established artists I already owned music by than new discoveries and more diverse genres.

The list I’ve come up with for this year (in alphabetical order) is:

Aldous Harding – Party
Belle & Sebastian – How to Solve Our Human Problems (part 1)
The Big Moon – Love in the 4th Dimension
Big Thief – Capacity
Bjork – Utopia
British Sea Power – Let the Dancers Inherit the Party
Cigarettes After Sex – Cigarettes After Sex
Colter Wall – Colter Wall
Conor Oberst – Salutations
Destroyer – Ken
The Fall – New Facts Emerge
Father John Misty – Pure Comedy
Here Lies Man – Here Lies Man
Idles – Brutalism
The Indelicates – Juniverbrecher
Lorde – Melodrama
Los Campesinos! – Sick Scenes
Lost Horizons – Ojala
Mac DeMarco – This Old Dog
Mark Eitzel – Hey Mr Ferryman
Michael Head & The Red Elastic Band – Adios Señor Pussycat
The National – Sleep Well Beast
The New Pornographers – Whiteout Conditions
Richard Dawson – Peasant
Ryan Adams – Prisoner
Slowdive – Slowdive
Sun Kil Moon – Common as Light and Love are Red Valleys of Blood
This is the Kit – Moonshine Freeze
The Unthanks – Diversions vol. 4 : The Songs and Poems of Molly Drake
The Wedding Present – George Best 30
Yorkston/Thorne/Khan – Neuk Wight Delhi All-stars

I’ve also created a playlist containing all the above and a few other things I’ve enjoyed over the last 12 months:

Counting down to Christmas

This week I’ve attended a carol service, eaten nut roast, drank mulled wine, made an excessively glittery Christmas card, listened to Christmas music, and voluntarily walked in the snow. I think that means I’m actually celebrating Christmas this year.

I’ve also made a preliminary list for my albums of the year blog post, mostly because I’ll be overseas during the time I usually write it so I want to give myself a head start. One thing I suspect will feature is the new Bjork album, which I’ve listened to a fair bit over the last couple of weeks, and which I do seem to be recommending to people a lot right now. I like all of it, but this is the song that fits best with the usual subject matter of this blog:

Places I’ve eaten this year

This year I seem to have socialised over food a lot more than previously, so I thought it was worth listing places I’ve eaten in 2017 (in the UK) in case there is anywhere that people are not aware of. I suspect most of these will be in Birmingham or London, as that’s where I spend most of my time.

The Goat Tavern, London – I can’t actually remember what I ate here (it was right at the start of the year), but I did quite enjoy this pub, and their menu has quite a few things I’d like to try on it.

Bratby Bar, University of Birmingham – I don’t eat here often (although I’m there at least once every couple of weeks for drinks it seems). The food is basic, and the three times I’ve eaten here (a very greasy pizza and and two underwhelming jacket potatoes) I’ve not really enjoyed the food that much, although eating there sometimes beats not eating there, which is something I’ve also done a couple of times recently.

The Green Man, London – Nothing too spectacular about this one. It’s a perfectly decent pub that happens to do food, unfortunately it didn’t have a great deal of choice for people who don’t want to eat meat, and as such it didn’t really inspire me to want to eat there. I ended up having a salad and some sweet potato fries, which was about half of the food on the menu that I could actually eat, although I note the menu now looks loads better, so I might have to give it another try at some point.

TGI Fridays, Birmingham – This is where we always seem to eat when we meet my family, and it’s a place I didn’t particularly like before I stopped eating meat, and one that offers an even more limited choice of food now. The last time we went there there was a fire in the kitchen and we got our meal for free – hopefully the next time (in 2 weeks) will be less eventful, although I can pretty much guarantee I’ll be eating the same thing as last time.

Saint Christopher’s Inn, London – Another London pub, but this time one that had plenty of choice, and was probably the best brunch I’ve had in London ever. I had eggs florentine, which is one of my go to breakfast dishes anyway, and which was perfectly cooked and beautifully presented. Definitely somewhere I would go back to if I ever find myself in that part of London again.

That pub in Peterborough (people who were there will know where I mean) – Sometimes when you’re traveling you just have to take a chance on a place. The food wasn’t bad, but the pub itself was full of people who just stared at us the whole of the time we were there, and I’ve never been more glad to leave a pub. Not one to go back to, although I can’t actually remember what it was called so maybe I’ll just have to never go back to Peterborough to make sure.

Bottega, Resorts World, Birmingham. This was probably my favourite place I’ve had dinner at this year (sweet and sour cauliflower and rice on both occasions), but it’s since closed so I can’t really recommend it any more.

The Noble Room, University of Birmingham – I’ve eaten here a few times this year, and I’ve always found the food really good. It’s also a really convenient place to get a cooked main meal if I’m not going to be eating dinner until late. I think this has probably replaced Bratby Bar as my favourite place to meet people for lunch on campus now.

The Knights Templar, London – I’ve only eaten here once this year, and it was only a simple veggie burger and chips, but the KT is generally the only Wetherspoons pub I’ll go anywhere near, and it’s where I often spend my evenings if I’m in London for a conference. I think this is another one that’s all about the people and very little to do with the food, but I do still recommend it as a good place to meet small groups of people who are traveling from all over the place. It’s also within walking distance of where I usually stay when I’m in London, which gives me the unprecedented experience of being able to get from the pub to where I’m sleeping on foot. This did lead to a rather late night last time I was there.

Yakinori, Birmingham – This is down the road from our office, and provides the occasional Friday treat. It does really great bento and sushi, and the portion sizes are very generous for the money. I generally have battered pumpkin, with (separate) katsu sauce and rice, but nothing I’ve had from here has been less than wonderful and I’d highly recommend it.

Boston Tea Party, Birmingham – This has just opened in the city centre, which means I can have my all time favorite brunch (sweetcorn hash – which contains poached eggs, halloumi and avocado) without having to go to Harbourne. I’ve eaten here twice this year, including once with my family (who really liked it, and they are notoriously picky about places to eat). This is somewhere I definitely want to go back to soon, because my calendar says I’ve not been there since July.

The Pitcher and Piano, Reading – I’ve eaten here before when I was in Reading for a course, and decided to go back there when I was visiting this summer. I mainly choose this pub because it’s got very efficient air conditioning, and has Hobgoblin on tap, but it also does a decent veggie burger and never seems particularly busy.

Jamie’s Italian, Birmingham – A fairly regular place to eat, which for some reason I didn’t visit until June this year. I like Jamie’s a lot, and always manage to find some new pasta dish to go with the inevitable veggie plank (served on a plank, propped up by tins of tomatoes), and large glass of some sort of Italian wine. I’ve eaten here with family and friends, and it generally seems to go down well, although it is a little pricier than most of the places on this list.

The William Blake, London – Somewhere else I’ve eaten loads of times, but I’m still not completely sold on their food, and it’s very much a case of eating there because I’m hungry and can’t be bothered to move rather than a comment on the quality of the food. They do decent drinks though (including tea and cocktails), although it can get a little rowdy in the evenings, so probably best for lunch rather than dinner.

Cafe Soya, Birmingham – Definitely the best place to get oriental food if you don’t eat meat and fish, and one of the best menus for vegans that I’ve ever seen. I’ve never had a bad meal here, and I’ve also never finished a good meal (at least without taking half of it home).

The New Masala Merchant, Birmingham – Probably one of the best Indian meals I’ve had for a while, but it was unfortunately coupled with by far the worst wine I’ve drunk for a long time due to us relying on the local off license for alcohol. If I ever go back there I’m bringing wine from home, but there is certainly nothing about the food that I would change, and I actually had a really pleasant evening there.

Not Dogs, Birmingham – I love the idea of this place, and I really enjoyed the hot dog I had here directly after my most traumatic opticians appointment this year. I couldn’t recommend it to people who don’t like fake meat though.

The Stable, Birmingham – This is a new find, but I’ve had two very enjoyable evenings there recently and would highly recommend it. They specialise in cider (including a cider tasting board) and pizza, both of which they do to a very high standard, and they also have a vegan menu as well as several decent vegetarian options. It’s also right next to New Street station which makes the journey home easier than a lot of places on this list.

Accountability

At the start of the year I wrote a blog post about things I might do differently this year. Not resolutions as such, just lines in the sand and broad statements of intent. As the year is nearly two thirds of the way through (how?), I thought it was time to look at those statements of intent, see if anything had noticeably changed, and note anything else eventful that had happened.

The first thing I wrote about was visiting the cinema more. Apart from a slight lull in the spring this has gone very well, and I’ve seen 14 films this year so far. It’s not quite enough to make the unlimited card worth it, but when you add in discounts on food and drink and other benefits it’s just about paid for itself (although I do resolve to go to the cinema slightly more often in the cold winter months to make sure I get value for money). I also set up a (private) WordPress site to record everything I’ve seen, everything I want to see, and to otherwise document my cinematic adventures. Let’s face it, if I’m doing something then there is probably a WordPress site somewhere to document it.

The second thing I wrote about was my relationship with technology, and in particular how I was using my iPad more for personal computing (and my Surface Pro 4 for work computing). The last 8 months has probably been the least remarkable period of time in regard to changes in how I use technology, and I don’t think a single thing has really changed (apart from my diminishing love of the Surface). I’ve not bought a computer of any type this year, and spent a very small amount of money on technology in general. I’ve travelled several times with just an iPad, and have found that the thought of doing that is nowhere near as remarkable as I thought it might be at the start of the year. If anything has changed it’s that I’m using MacOS and Ubuntu at the same time rather than choosing between them, due to having a bigger desk that will fit two monitors, although the jury is still out as to whether I’ll actually replace the Mac when it finally dies or becomes obsolete (it’s 6 years old now).

The third thing I wrote about was music, and how I planned on buying less but listening to it more. This has largely gone as expected, although I did go through a period in the spring where I bought a few extra CDs, and it really took me until about May before the vision of the future I was aiming for actually came to pass. I’ve also noticed that I’ve started listening to older music a lot more this year, with as lot of old favourites getting significantly more airtime that records that came out this year. I’m not sure whether this is a blip or a trend yet, but it will be interesting when I do my yearly review to see how many records from before 2017 make the list.

The last thing I wrote about was socialising, and how I wanted to do more of this (but didn’t have a plan). This is probably the area where the most has changed, and I’ve been more socially active (especially with people from work), and have done a wider range of things (cinema, walking and comedy nights rather than just food and drinks). As predicted, it sorted itself out organically, and I can’t pretend I really did anything to make this happen.

The other key thing that happened recently is that I stopped eating meat (and then eventually fish) at some point at the start of this year. It wasn’t a conscious decision (at least not at first), but once I realised I’d stopped and I felt better for it then it was a bit of a no brainer to just make it a thing I didn’t do any more. I’ve found it surprisingly easy, and I’ve found I’m learning more about food and how it affects my body as a result.

I think the only other things of note are that I bought my first pair of varifocals last week after a period of diminishing eyesight, and that at some point in the spring I started drinking proper coffee again and tried to cut out the instant rubbish as much as possible. Both of these are probably only of interest to me, although I’m sure people around me are glad I can now do things like read menus in restaurants and actually see what is on the screen of my phone.

Home improvement

We went to Ikea today, ostensibly for a new desk for my study. Evernote tells me I did the measurements for this desk over two years ago, so it’s probably about time. As well as a desk, we also picked up a new kitchen table (replacing one that’s probably 15 years old) and a new coffee/gaming table for the living room (replacing one that’s nearly as old as I am). We also picked up some stools and a couple of iPad holders each to make it easier to use what are fast becoming our primary computers in a number of different ways. Everything smells new and wooden, and I love it all.

I now need to work out how I want my new desk set up. I long ago accepted that my IT needs are less than they were when I actually worked in IT, and as a result I probably don’t need to have quite so many computers in circulation. How that is going to work with a larger desk I’m not sure, but I’m hoping I can at least be a little sensible when I’m deciding what actually needs to be reassembled tonight.

I’m also hoping this new setup will mean I can dismantle the standing desk I built on the living room fridge a year or so ago. It only houses a Raspberry Pi now, and it’s not really a useful workstation because the dog hates me using it to the point where she barks incessantly and/or tries to jump on my (non-existent) lap.

I like new things, and I suspect this is only phase one of a fairly major decluttering and renovation exercise that is long overdue.

1987 has a lot to answer for

I recently curated the music for a birthday party where a fair portion of the playlist was taken from songs originally released in 1987 (with a side order of 1983, 1984, and a few old favorites for good measure). As a result of this, I spent a fair bit of the last few weeks listening to music from this era, and it struck me how similar 1987 and 2017 were, both in the types of music that were popular (at least to me) and also in some of what was going on in the news. 1987 was an election year too, with The Housemartins and The Blow Monkeys (amongst others) singing about the need to change a right wing female PM for something more socialist. There were also great records from The Wedding Present, Pixies, Sonic Youth, New Order, The Fall, The Cure, Depeche Mode, and the swansong from The Smiths (as well as several of their best singles). 1987 was angry, dissatisfied, and just under half of the country wanted a change, but that change didn’t come for another few years.

Fast forward to 2017 and it’s another election year. The way we buy and consume music is almost unrecognisable, but I do note with interest that my vinyl buying habit is roughly equivalent to how it was 30 years ago, and that I’ve bought records by many of my 1987 favourites over the last year or so. I still buy lots of new music, but it seems that like Twin Peaks, Slowdive, Wire and a certain brand of gum, the things I liked then are definitely coming back in style. Which can only be a good thing.