What I learned at OggCamp 2018

I last attended OggCamp in Liverpool in 2015 and had a great time. There wasn’t one in 2016, and in 2017 it was in the wrong part of the UK for the gods of time & space to allow.

I did though make it to OggCamp 2018 in Sheffield, so here’s some of the things I took away:

Sheffield is Super

It’s been a long time since I was last in Sheffield, and an even longer time since I arrived by train on the Penistone line. The rolling stock is still the faithful old Pacer, that I’m sure they were going to replace when I was still in my teenage years…

Anyway, some lovely new buildings in amongst the old, and some nice ‘modern’ uses for re-purposed places too. One of which was where I had coffee and breakfast – Tamper Sellers Wheel on Arundel Street. Absolutely amazing food, coffee and service.

OggCamp

I got the feeling there were fewer attendees than at Liverpool, but I couldn’t be sure. The layout in Sheffield wasn’t ideal, with venues being split by five storeys, so it felt a bit disconnected. However, once the Welcome Talk was underway, there were plenty of familiar faces around and it soon felt like OggCamp again.

I went to a talk on The Things Network, as it’s always good to find out what other groups are doing, and if there are any ideas I can use to help with my own TTN projects on the Isle of Man. It seems the main thing we need to work on here in the island is a use case which builds a community around it, as that looks like the most successful way of involving enough people and getting access to some funds.

The next talk was about delivering images over the mobile web. Not something I’d specifically thought about but quite interesting nonetheless.

  1. You can wind up your JPEG compression without really noticing on small screens.  A nice tool called cjpeg-dssim, which looks at structural similarity, can help with this.
  2. File formats matter. SVGs are a kind of XML, and can even go inline with your HTTP code – BUT beware. If you create them in Adobe products, it seems about 98% of the resulting file size is cruft that you can remove! WebP seems to be the best format in terms of quality vs filesize, but is only supported in Chrome and Android browsers for now.
  3. Size matters. Most mobile browsers download loads of pixels, and then throw most of them away before displaying. This wastes mobile data, slows down load times, as well as making the processor in the mobile device work harder than it has to. Ideally create lots of versions of an image which differ by about 25 kB in size, and then use some responsive scripts to load the correct size image for the current viewport size. Speeds things up a lot.
  4. Lazy loading saves data, as most pages don’t get viewed in their entirety. Loading images just as they scroll up towards the viewport means that if the user doesn’t scroll, no data is wasted (and page loads quicker) but if they do scroll, they still see all the pictures.

The final talk before lunch was about hacking the O2 Joggler. This was great, as the presenter was clearly very passionate about re-using old kit that would otherwise have gone to waste. I’d never really considered hacking as a force for environmental good before. It seems that the Joggler is quite versatile with hacked firmware, and they’re available fairly cheaply at the moment.

Beer with Friends

As much as OggCamp is great (really, you should attend), I received a Twitter message from someone I’d never met in real life but who I’ve swapped messages with for years. They’d noted I was in Sheffield and wondered if I wanted to meet up. A very chilled afternoon of drinking in the sunshine and exploring various drinking venues and beers of Sheffield followed, before riding the train again.

Liverpool Makefest

I took the boat from the Isle of Man to Liverpool for the day, to visit Makefest in Liverpool.

This was a great day out, and I saw loads of good things. The highlights were:

  • Having my portrait drawn from a webcam by a DIY plotter made from DVD drives
  • An impromptu meeting with lots of northern Things Network groups
  • Seeing an RC2014 computer (and then buying one!)
  • Spending too much money on loads of bits and bobs from ABX-Labs store.

Found some nice food and real ale in a pub later in the afternoon, and the sea was flat calm on the way home so it was pretty much a perfect day out!

Leaving Twitter

When I joined Twitter in 2009, it was a place to find interesting people sharing interesting ideas and learning from one another.  You could ask questions on very technical topics, and people would take the time to reply in detailed and thoughtful ways.

Over time, more and more people joined and the conversations grew. Twitter became my default source of news. I could get answers to problems and queries of a far better quality than I ever could with an algorithmic search engine. I was also able to help out other people by replying to their queries too. It was a place of learning, sharing and growing together.

Sadly as with everything in the modern world, capitalism takes over. Nobody sees the value in something unless it makes money, and while I long for the day when we realise as a species that this love of wealth creation doesn’t do us any good in the long run, Twitter decided to jump in with both feet. And so it was that I started seeing ‘promoted’ tweets. I called them adverts.

Businesses rushed into the space. At first as a communications channel with their customers, but it wasn’t long before they too fell into the capitalist trap and started pretend conversations talking about their products and services and employing people to tweet and re-tweet their messages.

Early on in the life of Twitter, you could ‘favourite’ a tweet. A way of bookmarking tweets which you wanted to come back to later.  Maybe they were ones which contained a useful tip, or a link to another article somewhere that you would read later. Twitter killed this by renaming a favourite to a ‘like’ (complete with new childish animations), and users from other social networks where likes were common brought their own bad habits with them. Proper conversation suffered, and the atmosphere changed. Things were now stuck in a  rut. Tweet -> like -> dead-end.

As recent years have passed I’ve witnessed a gradual decline in the quality of conversations. There has also been a real polarisation of opinions (regardless of subject) and many Twitter users seem incapable of independent thought now. They just follow their own tribes in terms of political or social views and vehemently attack anyone who dares to suggest an alternative world view.

The nail in the coffin for me was Twitter’s change to its privacy policy, which meant that they would no longer honour the ‘do not track’ setting in my browser and would begin to track my movements across the internet on other sites outside of Twitter. That’s not the attitude of a company that cares about its customers or values their privacy.

So, I’m out. I don’t think I’ll miss it at all.

Photo credit: REUTERS/Dado Ruvic

Reconnecting with Nature

During a recent holiday in England, I spent a few days in a location without any links to the internet at all. No mobile phone signal, no WiFi hotspots. Nothing.

It was interesting to see the impact this had. There were countless times when I wanted to check something on a map. Or the opening times of a shop. Or get the latest news or weather forecast. Without realising it, I have become an autonomous and habitual user of Google and suddenly found myself disconnected.

At some point during those few days the frustration of not having instant answers to questions was replaced with a sense of calm. A distant remnant in my brain remembered a time when this was normality. When there was no internet, no smartphone.

I began to feel more aware of my surroundings. The birdsong. The vivid green of the grass, the blue of the sky. You don’t need a weather forecast when you remember that you have eyes and can look up at the clouds to judge their size, speed and direction and make an educated guess. Who needs a map when you’ve got the sun and the stars?

Being offline for so long has been good for me. Maybe I should do it more often.

What I learned at OggCamp 2015

I attended my first ever OggCamp on the weekend of 31st October / 1st November. Having never been to any kind of ‘unconference’ before, I didn’t know quite what to expect. So here’s a few thoughts on what I learned:

Free culture and free software types are a friendly bunch.

This happened even before I arrived. Half way up Brownlow Hill, I was staring at a map on my phone when a chap walking nearby asked if I was looking for OggCamp. He told me about the previous ones he’d attended, and we walked up to the venue together. (I also learned the advantages of wearing an Ubuntu T-shirt in public!)

I didn’t realise Mars was as small or as cold as it is.

The first talk I listened to was by Gurbir Singh who gave a detailed presentation about space exploration, and likely future missions to Mars. You can see his slides here: http://astrotalkuk.org/2015/10/31/mars-the-new-space-race

Protocols run the world.

Jon Spriggs (who really is a nice guy) was giving the next talk I went to, looking at the various protocols which run our networks. Lots of great info, but the bits which stuck in my head were:

192.0.2.x is the ‘dummy’ subnet – just like example.com is for domain names
DNS resolvers allow for easy MITM attacks, because the first to reply wins
TLS is the correct name for SSL
SQRL (squirrel) is a new one-click authentication for the web

A lot can happen in five minutes.

The next thing I attended was the ‘lightning’ talks event. This is a slot where people present for just five minutes, and can be asked just one question at the end. A great format which led to many diverse things being presented. For me, the one to remember was about using big USB hubs and some software called Multi-Writer to write an .iso (or .img) file to multiple memory cards at once. I can see me needing this if I ever get round to my ‘Raspberry Pi for Dummies’ talk at IoM CodeClub.

Entroware make nice looking machines.

I’d never heard of Entroware until OggCamp, but they sell Linux based desktops, laptops and servers. They had a few on show in the exhibition space at OggCamp. Definitely worth a look if you’re in the market for a new machine. They also sponsored a lot of what was happening at OggCamp, and even stumped up a shiny new laptop as a raffle prize. Great.

HR Deparments suck.

The next talk I went to was by Stuart Coulson who was discussing ‘hacking’ your CV to gain advantage in the job market. Lots of great tips about why CV’s don’t work, and what you can do about it. It was interesting to think of a CV as device to get HR to pass your application on to someone who cares, in just a 20 second window! Also some good advice about separating out ‘personal’ and ‘professional’ accounts on social media, and creating your own ‘brand’ for yourself.

Talking to new people takes me out of my comfort zone.

But each time I do it, I reckon it gets easier. I didn’t know whether to go to the ‘official’ pub (The Constellation) for the Saturday night drinks. Thankfully, I was spurred into action by a tweet from @himayyay and so left the confines of my windowless hotel box to venture into the real world. I managed not to get lost on the way, and also learned that my legs are much longer than Google’s, as their Maps app had overestimated the journey time by about 100% 🙂

I got myself a drink (priorities, right?) and then loitered. People in OggCamp T-shirts around. People with Linux-y T-shirts. I was obviously in the right place. Everyone was engaged in conversations in groups, so…
…I went outside! Thanks to Twitter though, I met up briefly with @himayyay until the call of KFC on an empty stomach took him and his friend away. Still, I’d done it. Gone somewhere strange in the dark and spoken to people. Strengthened by my success, I went back inside all fired up to break into the group conversations…

…and promptly stood against a wall, clutching my pint for protection!

I thought I’d finish it and go back to my hotel, when I was rescued by Gemma and Dick who spotted my unease and asked if I’d like to join them. Thanks guys! Anyway, within seconds I’d identified them as fellow Yorkshire folk and so knew that everything would be OK. Three more drinks and much conversation later, we were finally kicked out of the place.

My hotel was in the opposite direction to the next venue, so I headed back. Bed was calling.

We have to step up on privacy.

On the second day at OggCamp, I went to a panel discussion chaired by Sally Hanford about privacy. I’d clearly missed a talk from the day before which this discussion was following on from. However, online privacy is something I’m very interested in so it was easy for me to follow along and contribute. It seems we still have to solve the problem of making privacy important to people. I guess in reality, it’ll take more breaches like the TalkTalk one, or a change to a more oppresive and authoritarian stance by our governments before people begin to realise the real consequences of a lack of online privacy.

ESP8266 modules are great for building IoT devices

The next talk I went to was by Tim Gibbon who has reverse engineered the RF interface used in a lot of UK gas central heating systems, so that he can switch his boiler on and off remotely. In conjunction with some inexpensive (about £6 per room) sensors and transmitters he’s able to monitor the temperatures in all the parts of his house, see the information live and historically through a web browser and get the system to crank up the heating automatically when it gets cold. All for a fraction of the price of any commercially available solution.

Update: Tim has made his slides available.

Air travel sucks.

My journey home was hard work. I left OggCamp as soon as it finished, and rushed off to the airport to catch a flight. It was delayed. It was delayed again. It was cancelled.

At this point, people ceased being human passengers and became units for a handling agent to process. Queues three hours long with no seats nearby. Lack of information and updates. When you finally get to the front of the queue, you’re told you’ve been booked on to the next flight in the morning. Queue again to find out where you’ll sleep.

Nobody knows. There are hotels nearby, but the handling agent has to use a national agent who is refusing to answer the phone. Hours pass. Still no seats to sit on. Legs tired. At midnight I call it quits and drop £70 on a hotel room across the road.

Four hours later, I’m up and back at the airport ready for my morning flight. There’s a fundamental problem with airport security if you bought your wife bottles of perfume in duty free the night before. Perfume is a liquid. Apparently, airline authorities are scared of liquids and so I now have a problem. I solve it. (I’m resourceful, y’see.)

So, back in departures. I see a delay on the board. Unease. More delay. Oh look – my flight is cancelled. Once again, we’re led like cattle through the arse end of the airport and back land side. Once again we join the queues of doom…

Rebooked onto another flight later in the morning. By this time their printer has died, and so I clutch a handwritten scrap of paper and have to find another desk to check in again. Oh, and I have to get my contraband liquid gifts through security again. This time I own up, and go for the human misery angle. It works. (Well, you can only use a 0-day once, right?)

Third time in the departure lounge. Time passes. Flight gets delayed. This time though, the news of the actual cancellation comes from the Isle of Man airport (via Zak’s excellent app) when I notice that our flight is listed as cancelled on their arrivals board. It was another 30 minutes before they finally owned up and told us in Liverpool, before leading us through the now very familiar tunnels and passages back to the land side world. I suspect the delay before telling us was because they were trying to manage the length of the queue at the handling agent’s desk!

At this point, I’d lost the will to go on. I couldn’t face the whole queue, rebook, queue, check-in, queue, security farce for a fourth time. I got my lovely wife to phone up and book me a seat on the evening boat from Liverpool, and got myself on a bus into town. I managed to kill time for the rest of the day with the help of a pub and some beer. Felt human again.

The boat was slightly delayed, but the reasons were made very clear. Here is a transport company that knows passengers need information. Here is salvation. I settle in for the journey, only to find my Bluetooth headphones have died. I think the triple X-raying they’d had earlier on had cooked them. Bloody airport!

OggCamp is great.

Really, it is. Great people. Well organised. Lots to learn. Lots to see. Lots to do. Huge thanks to everyone who played a part in making it happen. I had a fantastic time! Fingers crossed that OggCamp 2016 will be a thing.