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Hardware

Hello Chromebook (Again, again!)

I bought my first Chromebook back in 2014, and have been using it daily up until a year or so ago when it stopped receiving security updates. I’ve used it occasionally since but have always a bit wary of doing anything important on it.

So, I decided to upgrade it. This time, I found a Lenovo Ideapad 3 for £97.49 from Argos. The official spec is:

  • Intel N4020 at 1.1 GHz
  • 4GB RAM
  • 64 GB eMMC
  • microSD card slot
  • 11.6 inch screen

Physically it’s very similar in size to the Chromebook it replaces. It’s so much more useful though. As well as an up to date version of ChromeOS (with updates guaranteed to the middle of 2027), it also is able to run Android apps which means I have access to lots of additional software my old Chromebook didn’t have.

The real icing on the cake for me is the support for Linux. In just a few mouse-clicks, I had installed Debian Buster inside a container. This works really well and gives me scope to install all of the usual Linux software that I like. I’ve added the Signal messaging app (which otherwise would be unavailable on a Chromebook) and the integration with ChromeOS is great. Signal appears in the applications menu, and if I launch it, ChromeOS silently brings up the container (if it’s not already running) and then launches Signal seamlessly. Lovely.

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Hardware Stuff

Ad-Blocking On The Go

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.

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Hardware

A New Lease of Life

I changed jobs about 18 months ago, and I’m already getting known as ‘that’ guy when it comes to fiddling with technology!

So, a colleague turned up at work with a laptop which had been given to him by a family member, after they’d bought a newer machine. He said it was running slowly and asked me if I’d have a look.

It seemed reasonably modern, probably about 7 or 8 years old. However it was running Windows 7, which I don’t really know my way around too well having not used Windows myself since the days of Windows 98 and Windows XP.

I was able to find out enough information to establish that the machine was slow because the hard drive was struggling with multiple read errors. My colleague also said it crashed a lot and some files had disappeared. A quick boot into Linux with my trusty USB stick (which is always in my pocket!) confirmed the SMART data on the drive showed it was unserviceable. So I gave him the bad news and suggested it needed a replacement disk.

We discussed use cases to decide on a size, and he ended up ordering a small solid state disk for about £25 including delivery. I showed him which screws to undo to swap the drive out and gave him a USB installer for Ubuntu, explaining that I didn’t have a way to get him a copy of Windows and he’d need to talk to someone else about that.

The new drive duly arrived, and my colleague was able to fit the disk and install Ubuntu from scratch using the USB stick I’d lent him. My colleague would be the first to say he’s not very technical, so I think credit is due to the GNU/Linux community for making Linux so easy to use these days.

Even more exciting (to me!) is that my colleague has absolutely no plans to go back to Windows. He’s found software to do everything he wants, says the machine is faster than it ever was and is happy to have an up to date and modern laptop for an outlay of £25.

I really enjoy helping people to try Linux and realise that when they thought they needed a new computer, they often don’t. Machines are saved from landfill, and resources aren’t wasted on an unnecessary new machine. Everyone wins!

If you’d like to try running Linux on your computer, I’d recommend trying Ubuntu because it is well thought out and works on most things with ease. You can download it for free from this link.

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Stuff

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.

Categories
Hardware

Printing from a Chromebook

Chromebooks are nice machines, but of course they dance to Google’s tune. Google are usually pretty good at adopting open standards but occasionally they think they can do better. There are established protocols for printing over a network, but Google have ignored these entirely by ensuring that all Chromebooks only support Google Cloud Print printers!

To be fair to the mighty G, they do explain how you can leave a PC running with their Google Chrome browser open to make your existing printer available to your Chromebooks but electricity on the Isle of Man is not very cheap, so I don’t want to leave a PC running all day long.

Instead, I’ve deployed a humble Raspberry Pi along with the magic of GNU/Linux and the Google Cloud Print connector for CUPS to achieve the same result without wasting the planet’s resources.

However, efficiently sipping electricity like this won’t help the island to pay off its debts!