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.

Hello Chromebook (Again!)

Having already dipped my toe in the water of Chromebooks with my wife’s HP Chromebook 11, I knew that I liked Chrome OS. The very fast boot time, stable and full featured browser together with a real physical keyboard make these great devices for people who like to create content, rather than just consume it.

I managed to get a few Chromebooks to use with students at work too, and they’ve found the same thing. Switch on, log in, work. Simple. No hassle about updates, apps, or who was using the device before you and left it all messed up. Sadly, I’ve been told that we can’t roll out more Chromebooks for students to use because our government don’t want to support another platform. Yes. Really. Support. For a Chromebook(!)

It is better to remain silent at the risk of being thought a fool, than to talk and remove all doubt of it.

Anyway, I digress. The whole point of this article was to tell you about my new toy! My wife hasn’t been able to get near her Chromebook, so I decided to get my own. I’ve gone for the Acer C720, which at £179 was cheaper. There are some compromises compared to the HP Chromebook 11 – most notably the screen, which while being perfectly adequate on the Acer is poor when compared to the screen on the HP. The keyboard isn’t quite so roomy either. Also the Acer C720 looks like a ‘functional’ laptop, and lacks the refined design touches of the HP. It’s not all doom and gloom though – the device runs a touch faster, and has a built in SD card reader and an standard sized HDMI output, which the HP doesn’t have.

One of my main reasons for choosing the Acer other than the price, was that it has an Intel processor. I knew that this would mean that I could find Linux kernels that would be more likely to run on it, without too much hassle. In fact, it has been very easy to tweak. It seems that Acer knew that ‘geeks’ would be drawn to a lower cost device with a screen and keyboard, so they’ve made it quite easy to work with. In developer mode, you can boot from USB devices, and the Acer also has a cut down ‘BIOS’ called SeaBIOS which can be booted from the Coreboot bootloader, effectively meaning anything written for a ‘standard’ x86 PC can be booted.

After just a few minutes of tweaking, I’ve now got my Acer C720 to be a Chromebook OR a fully-fledged Ubuntu laptop. I can choose the OS at boot time depending on what tasks I want to get done. It’s definitely the best of both worlds. Ubuntu runs well, and the battery life is pretty good.

If you’re in the market for a Chromebook, or a cheap Linux laptop, then I’d recommend the C720 at this price point. Very portable, and great for people who like to get things done when out and about.