Ad-Blocking On The Go

WireGuard Logo

After a recent trip away and having to endure the torrent of adverts and tracking that hotel WiFi and mobile internet connections provide, I was definitely missing the ad-blocking features of my Raspberry Pi running Pi-Hole back at home.

I’d also been thinking for a while that I should do something about securing my phone a little bit from the risks associated with using an unencrypted WiFi connection like the one available to me at work. Using insecure WiFi is a bad idea because anyone else on the same network can examine your traffic and potentially log in to all your internet accounts by stealing session cookies and account details.

So, I decided to add PiVPN to my Raspberry Pi and Pi-Hole setup. Now when I’m away from home, my phone encrypts all of its traffic using WireGuard and sends it back home to my Rasberry Pi. Here, all the usual blocking of adverts and trackers happens and I get the same nice experience out and about as I do at home. There’s also the added peace of mind that means nobody on an insecure WiFi link can see the traffic between my phone and the internet any more – everything is encrypted on its way back to my house. Lovely.

PiVPN was a breeze to set up. It took just seconds to install and set it up, and adding the phone’s connection was as simple as pointing my phone at a QR code. Amazing work by the community.

Fighting Back Against Internet Advertisements

PiHole Dashboard

I’m old enough to remember the World Wide Web in its infancy in the early 1990s, when the focus was on information sharing. These days the main aim of the web seems to be to make money by tracking people’s habits and showing them adverts.

I missed the old experience, and I wanted some protection against being tracked everywhere online, so I installed Pi-Hole on a Raspberry Pi and tucked it away behind the sofa. It was very easy to set up, and has worked perfectly for over a year, protecting all of our devices from the spying panopticon of advertisers.

I have genuinely been surprised at just how much of modern internet traffic is related to tracking and adverts. In fact, my Pi-Hole has blocked more than half of the total requests for data! That’s right – there’s more stuff flying around for the adverts and trackers rather than the actual content that you see. Crazy.

With Pi-Hole blocking things silently, you end up with cleaner web pages without the clutter of adverts, and pages load noticeably faster when they aren’t reporting back to big brother too. Mobile apps and games no longer show annoying full-screen adverts and things just work much much better.

In fact, Pi-Hole blocking has been so good that as soon as I go out and about away from my home network it is very jarring to see the internet as everyone else sees it. Full of adverts and junk. Yuck. I do have a plan to fix that little problem soon though…

What I Learned at OggCamp 2019

This was my third OggCamp, and I was able to make a full weekend visit to Manchester. Most of my best learning at OggCamps tends to be around what happens outside the scheduled stuff, so it was good to have the time to mingle in the evenings and discuss things over beer.

Although I already know about, use and contribute to Open Streetmap, I hadn’t heard of the missing maps project. I definitely hadn’t heard of the MapSwipe mobile app which allows you to do good for humanity while passing idle time playing a game on your phone. Do it!

Jamie Tanna gave a good insight into the IndieWeb movement and why it matters. The key theme was ownership of your identity and data. Popular open-access platforms (such as Twitter and Facebook) aren’t open. They often own the data. Look at their terms and conditions. They are all about making money and maximising attention. Conversely, your own platform revolves around you, does what you want and need and can even be a kind of political statement. Jamie’s approach is modularity. Publish things on your own site, and then use syndication elsewhere. That way, you have the original copy but users of Facebook, Twitter and such can still see your thoughts and interact with you.

There isn’t enough social housing. Governments should build more. Geodesic domes are cheap, strong, storm resistant with good wind loading and are also very quick to build. Maybe it’s time to ditch traditional bricks and mortar?

MQTT is definitely the best way to get IoT devices talking. Sensors can feed into something like Watson IoT and then with some NodeRed logic the outputs can be passed back to physical displays. An example was using thermal sensors at a coffee bar, and adjusting the colour of a neopixel LED strip so that customers could see whether to get up and go for another coffee or wait until the queue had died down! GlowOrbs make a nice form of ambient display and are easy enough to build.

Beer featured a lot, and the Lass O’Gowrie pub had a good selection and some nice food. While enjoying that I was shown some e-ink badges which were pretty good, and based on the Pimoroni displays, with a 3D-printed case.

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!