My National Album Day playlist

It’s National Album day today, and I’ve spent the day listening to a few old and new favourites (with a short break to walk the dog once the rain stopped). This is what I ended up listening to:

  • The Cure – Faith (1981)
  • Father John Misty – God’s Favourite Customer (2018)
  • British Sea Power – Do You Like Rock Music? (2008)
  • Michael Head & The Red Elastic Band – Adios Senor Pussycat (2017)
  • The Wedding Present – George Best 30 (2017)
  • The Auteurs – After Murder Park (1996)
  • Hope Sandoval – Until the Hunter (2016)
  • Adrianne Lenker – Abysskiss (2018)
  • IDLES – Joy as an Act of Resistance (2018)
  • The National – Sleep Well Beast (2017)
  • She Makes War – Brace for Impact (2018)
  • Felt – The Pictorial Jackson Review (1988)
  • The House of Love – The House of Love (1988)
  • Belle & Sebastian – If You’re Feeling Sinister (1996)
  • Pixies – Doolittle (1988)

<

p>

Concerts I’d like to go to

I’ve been to a couple of very enjoyable concerts this year (Belle & Sebastian and She Makes War) and I’d very much like to go to more now the nights are drawing in and spending evenings outside is less appealing. I thought it was worth listing things I was interested in, just in case I know anyone who might want to come along.

All of these are in Birmingham, and I in no way intend to go to all of them (but some would be nice).

Using Pi-hole as an ad blocker

I’ve used various ad-blockers over the years, and while they have all largely worked, they have also started to slow my browser down (especially on older computers). I read about Pi-hole a few times, but didn’t get around to actually installing it until this week. Now I have installed it I’m wishing I hadn’t waited, because not only does it lead to a largely ad-free browsing experience, but it also makes my older and slower computers noticeably faster.

Pi-hole should work on any Debian or Red Hat derived Linux distribution, but I went for the obvious solution of putting it on one of my always-on Raspberry Pis (which also runs WordPress and a command-line IRC client). To install just type curl -sSL https://install.pi-hole.net | bash in a terminal, and then visit the /admin URL of the machine it’s installed on to view the admin console.

Configuring machines to use it is just a case of defining a custom DNS server (how to do that varies between each OS, but was trivial on Ubuntu and ChromeOS – I’ve not tried anything else yet). Just add the IP address of the Pi as a DNS server, and it will block anything on the block list, and then forward everything else on to be dealt with as normal. If you want to do this for everything on your network then there are various options detailed here that range from configuring one machine to routing everything through Pi-hole.

Pi-hole admin page

The admin page will tell you how much blocking is going on. With me it was about 1% of all traffic, and it will even tell you which domains it is blocking so you can whitelist anything you actually want to see (not all ads are bad). I don’t really notice a performance increase on my main computer, but older and slower computers definitely seem snappier, and can maintain about twice as many open tabs before they start to slow down, which is a bonus feature that I wasn’t really expecting.

2018 stock take

Last year I wrote down a list of things I wanted to achieve and then evaluated how well I had done. This year I wrote a similar list but failed to publish it. 8 months later I’ve just found the list, and I’m amused to find that I’ve done fairly well, and even exceeded my own expectations in at least one area (I said I’d start cycling, but didn’t predict that it would become such a large part of my life).

It turns out that travelling less, spending more time exploring Birmingham, trying new places to eat, and swapping time spent in front of a computer for outdoor activities were all (at least subconsciously) planned. Now I just need to go to more concerts and spend more time with my non-Birmingham friends and then the list is largely complete.

Installing Ubuntu on a Chromebook

I’ve been experimenting with Chromebooks for a few weeks now to try and come up with a low-power low-cost no-maintenance setup. There are a lot of very good blog posts covering the basics already, but I thought it was at least worth documenting how I got Ubuntu installed on my older Chromebook (which is a bit of a frankenstein that goes against the general ethos of not upgrading or otherwise tinkering with the hardware). This is probably best not attempted on anything with less than 32Gb of storage, and 4Gb of RAM is probably a good idea as well.

Enable developer mode

To enable developer mode, press escape and refresh and hold down the power key. When the scary message appears then press Ctrl+d and wait for the (fairly long) process to complete. This will unlock the full bash shell, and give you enough control over the Chromebook to set up a chroot.

Install Crouton

Crouton is the script that is used to install Ubuntu in a chroot. Download it from here and ensure it’s in your downloads folder. Then press Ctrl+Alt+t to open the chrosh terminal, and type shell at the command prompt. This will get you full shell access to the Chromebook.

To install Ubuntu (at time of writing 16.04) then issue the following command:

sudo sh ~/Downloads/crouton -e -t xfce

This will take a while, but when it’s done then issue the following command to start Ubuntu:

sudo startxfce4

To toggle between ChromeOS and Ubuntu use Ctrl+Alt+Shift+Back and Ctrl+Alt+Shift+Forward. Performance is actually not bad, and productivity is only an apt install firefox away.

Other useful commands

The following commands could be useful (all issued within the ChromeOS shell):

See a list of possible distributions to install:

sh ~/Downloads/crouton -r list

Back up a chroot:

sudo edit-chroot -b name

Restore it:

sudo edit-chroot -r name

Delete a chroot:

sudo delete-chroot name

500 miles and beyond

I’ve just cycled 500 miles to raise money for Good Hope hospital in Birmingham. I did it over a few weeks, interspersed with all the other things I usually do, which made it a lot more feasible than trying to do it over a weekend (which I also think would have killed me). 500 miles might not seem like a lot, but I had only been cycling for just over a month when I started (after 10+ years without a bike), and I knew that I would likely have to do most of that distance as part of commutes, hospital visits, shopping trips, and other scenarios that would require me to carry a lot of luggage.

The first few days were very hard. I did a lot of road cycling and quickly remembered why I had stopped cycling in the first place. I then talked to other people who cycled in Birmingham and found a couple of canal routes I wasn’t aware of. I also explored the bit of north Birmingham between Good Hope hospital and my house and found a few miles of parks that meant I could avoid the nightmare that is Sutton town centre during rush hour. This made things easier, and I did the first bit of my challenge in and around Sutton and other parts of north Birmingham, with the occasional canal adventure in the south.

I also started cycling home from work some days. It’s a 9 mile ride (8 miles of which is canal towpaths), and I initially thought it might be too far to do every day. Towards the end I did do it every day, and also cycled to work the same way a couple of days a week. Most of my last 200 miles was done this way, and I’ve found it a much more pleasant experience than cycling on the roads.

I did manage a few trips where I got to cycle for pleasure, rather than to move between two places I had to be. I’ve been to Sandwell Valley Country Park, done some of the Rea Valley route, and done a 25 mile exploration of the Grand Union Canal in blistering sunshine. I certainly plan on doing more of that sort of cycling in the near future.

When I started cycling I was carrying everything in a rucksack (largely because the first bike I used didn’t have any other storage). I’ve since switched to panniers for most trips, which reduces the strain on my back significantly, although does add width that can be a problem in some tunnels. It means I can carry a lot now though, and a weekly shop is now very much a possibility (including wine, jars of curry sauce, and other heavy/bulky things). I’m also still refining what I carry with me on a daily basis, although I have found a use for most of the tools in my bag (especially puncture repair tools), and there is probably not much I would want to discard at this point.

I’ve completed 500 miles, but I’m not stopping there. The challenge continues until September, so I’m going to keep on cycling and see how far I get (I’m hoping for at least 700 miles). I’ll be tracking my progress on the website, and am still very much interested in further sponsorship.

My Setup

I’ve been maintaining an up to date list of what hardware and software I use since I discovered Uses This a few years ago. It usually lives as a page on this blog, but as I’ve rewritten 95% of it today then I think it deserves to be a blog post.

The hardware I use

Work – Surface Pro 4, with a Targus dock, two generic monitors and a Microsoft keyboard and mouse.

Home – A setup that looks superficially the same as work, but is older, has more cables, and has an excellent solar powered keyboard that is far superior to the Microsoft one I use at work. It also replaces the Surface Pro with a proper laptop, and adds a server with lots of memory that runs my (internal) WordPress sites and contains a backup of all my music. I also have a variety of small laptops and Raspberry Pis that fulfill various server and media functions, and a Synology NAS for backups. I’m trying to phase out a lot of my older computers and only use newer machines with SSDs and lots of memory, but it’s hard to let go sometimes.

Work from home – As home, but with an additional VM that allows me to connect to a remote desktop. Sometimes I’ll plug the Surface in, but that is only required for certain types of work and it’s far from my default setup now.

Travel – Chromebook, Raspberry Pi Zero, iPad (sometimes), Kindle and phone. Sometimes I’ll travel with my laptop, but that is rare. I also carry bootable USB versions of Ubuntu and Tails everywhere I go (even places I don’t take a computer). Increasingly my travel hardware also includes a bike and related tools.

The software I use

At work I’m running Windows 10. It’s ok, but I would like to be able to live without it.

At home (and whilst travelling) It’s a mix of Ubuntu, iOS, LibreElec ChromeOS and Raspbian (although I also have computers running Windows 10 and Mac OS that are rarely switched on now). Some of this is the legacy of spending the first half of 2018 trying to live with each main desktop OS for at least a month, which I must get round to writing up properly soon.

I use Firefox, Chrome and Safari on a daily basis, although Firefox has always been my main browser.

Other software I use that I feel is somewhat noteworthy includes:

WordPress – All my blogs run on WordPress, including several that are only available on my home network (including an extensive knowledge base containing all IT related things I learn). I currently maintain a WordPress multisite installation and several stand alone sites.

Evernote – I use this on every device I own (largely the web version now though), mostly to take notes in meetings and training sessions, and then to revise/reflect later. A lot of my notes are now photographs of whiteboards and other hand drawn scribbles, which Evernote handles very well.

Atom – A text editor that handles Markdown well, and can preview and export to PDF. I also use Pandoc to convert to PDF, HTML and/or .docx if required (I try not to use office software until the point I have to share what I’m working on with someone else).

Trello – I use this for my to do list, and it’s a good way to visualise the planning and execution of any task based work.

Dropbox – Cloud storage and syncing software to ensure I can access everything everywhere. I also use the text editor on the Dropbox mobile app to edit on the move.

IFTTT and Buffer – To automate as much as possible. Between them they handle a lot of the seemingly clever things in my digital life, and explain why I seem to be able to post to social media sites at times when I appear to be elsewhere.

Virtualbox – Because no-one needs as many physical computers as I had before virtualisation was a thing.

Spotify for discovering new music, and Rhythmbox for playing the music I already own.

My dream setup

Maybe I’m already living the dream, but the one thing I’d really like is to go back to doing everything on one computer (ideally running Ubuntu). That was possible 10 years ago, and I’m sad that it doesn’t seem possible today. I also yearn to live the life of a nomad, with just a bike, a change of clothes, and a tiny laptop to my name.

Why I’m cycling 500 miles

The NHS have helped us a lot over the last few weeks. Without the NHS we would probably have remortgaged our house by now (or tried to), and we have met lots of skilled, dedicated, and above all nice people.

They are struggling though. From old computers, to inefficient processes, to an IT system that doesn’t seem to be fully joined up, there is so much that is crying out for more funding, more fixing, and a little love.

That’s why I’m cycling 500 miles and asking for £500 in sponsorship I generally hate asking for things, but it turns out when it’s not for me then I don’t mind. I in no way believe that doing this will change lives (apart from perhaps mine), but it’s one of those small things that might at least contribute to something bigger, and should at least give something back.

Testing on Ubuntu

This blog post details the installation process for Ubuntu when I’m using it for testing web applications. The builds are designed to conduct meaningful tests on Oracle cloud applications but should be suitable for testing any similar web application.

Test Build 1 (all tests)

Installation

  • Installed in a VM running in VirtualBox
  • Give the VM 4Gb of Ram, a 10Gb hard drive, and enable 3D acceleration
  • Install from ubuntu-18.04-desktop-amd64.iso
  • Minimal installation
  • Download updates
  • Don’t install 3rd party software

Post installation tasks

  • Launch gnome-terminal
  • Install all updates by typing sudo apt update && sudo apt upgrade -y
  • Reboot if required

Smoke tests

  • VM boots
  • User can log in
  • User can connect to internet
  • User can open Firefox and browse to a website

Test Build 2 (all tests that fail on Test Build 1)

  • Installed in a VM running in VirtualBox
  • Give the VM 4Gb of Ram, a 10Gb hard drive, and enable 3D acceleration
  • Install from ubuntu-18.04-desktop-amd64.iso
  • Normal installation
  • Download updates
  • Install 3rd party software

Post installation tasks

  • Launch Software & Updates
  • Under Ubuntu Software ensure that all 4 repositories are enabled (main, universe, restricted, multiverse)
  • Under Other Software enable Canonical Partners
  • Launch gnome-terminal
  • Install all updates by typing sudo apt update && sudo apt upgrade -y
  • Reboot if required
  • Install some software by typing sudo apt install ubuntu-restricted-extras adobe-flashplugin browser-plugin-freshplayer-pepperflash chromium-browser

Smoke tests

  • VM boots
  • User can log in
  • User can connect to internet
  • User can open Firefox and browse to a website
  • User can open Chromium and browse to a website
  • User can open LibreOffice Calc
  • User can open LibreOffice Writer

Six months of the Rough Trade Club

This afternoon I cycled to the post office in Erdington town centre to collect my Rough Trade Club record of the month, which was the eponymous debut by LUMP (Laura Marling and Mike Lindsay). I don’t really have a bag that is ideal for both cycling and carrying vinyl (recommendations welcome), but despite a slightly unbalanced cycle home (I did a food shop too, so added weight and bulk to the already oddly shaped bag that seemed to want to end up on my hip rather than my back) it did remind me very much of the many times I cycled to record shops when I was younger, and how much more of an occasion it makes getting hold of new music that the straightforward but soulless downloading or streaming that is largely how most of us consume music in the iTunes and Spotify age.

It’s a good record too. Short, but well worth a listen. In fact, everything Rough Trade have sent me over the last six months has really hit the spot, and has represented well over 50% of music I’ve bought this year so far. Yes, that’s 6 records – not 60 as would be the case in previous years. I’ve made a playlist (on Spotify, of course), just in case there is anyone reading this who might want to dive into some new music.