Image of speed blur - Self-hosting the IndieWeb

Discovering the IndieWeb movement was a 2015 highlight for me. It addressed many of my concerns about the direction of the modern internet, especially regarding ownership and control over that data.  But to truly own your own data, self-hosting is a must!

Background: Self-hosting your own stuff

I’m an ideas person. I have a number of projects – or, rather, project ideas – lined up, which I need to record and review. My blog provides me with the ideal space for that, as some ideas may attract the attention of others who are also interested. But why does this matter?

As someone who naturally likes to share experiences and knowledge, I see no benefit in not sharing my ideas too. After all, the web is all about sharing ideas. This matters to me, because the web is widely regarded as the most valuable asset civilised society has today (aside from the usual – like natural resources, power, warmth and sustenance)!

Owning your own data

As a small business owner, I sometimes benefit from various common business practices. For example, the standard accounting principle of straight-line depreciation means that after several years, capital assets once purchased by the business have little-to-no use for the business, meaning they become potential liabilities (both in the financial and risk-management sense). This means I am able to get hold of used, good-condition computing hardware of 4-5 years old at very little cost.

 

Two HP ProLiant tower servers, side by side. Self-hosting a website can work on much older hardware.
Even 10 year old servers still make for good general purpose machines. I’ll be using one of these for this blog, soon.  Expect plenty of caching!

 

This is useful for me, as a blogger and an IndieWeb advocate, as I can not only publish and manage all my own data, but also physically host my own data too. As I have fibre broadband running to my house, it’s now feasible to serve my blog as reasonable speeds with 10-20 Mib/sec upstream (“download speed” to you), which is sufficient for my likely traffic and audience.

This ties in nicely with one of my core beliefs, that people should be able to manage all their own data if they choose. I am technically competent enough, and have the meants at my disposal to do it. So why not!

Another driver towards this is that I wish to permanently separate “work” and “pleasure”. My business web hosting and cloud service is for my customers. Yes, we host our own web content as a business, but personal content? Well, in the interests of security and vested interests, I am pushing towards making  personal content something that is only hosted for a paying customer.

Of course, I would encourage anyone to start their own adventure self-hosting too!

Many bridges to cross

Naturally, taking on this type of arrangement has various challenges attached. Here is a selection of the tasks still to be achieved:

  • Convert some space in house for hosting
    • Create a level screed
    • Sort out wiring
    • Fire detection/resistance considerations
    • Power supply (e.g. UPS)
    • Physical security
  • Get server cabinet & rack it up
  • Configure firewall(s)/routing accordingly
  • Implement back-up – and possibly failover – processes

Step one: documentation

Whilst I am progressing these endeavours, it would be remiss if I didn’t document them. There is a lot to be said for the benefits (to a devop, anyway) of hosting one’s own sites and data, but naturally my blog must carry on while I am in the process of building its new home.

A quick jiggle around of my site’s menu structure will hopefully clarify where you can see this work, going forwards (hint, check the projects menu).

Taking it from here

If you are interested in hosting your own servers and being in direct control over your content/data, why not subscribe to this blog’s RSS feed or subscribe by email (form towards footer). Or if you have comments, just “Leave a Reply” beneath! 🙂

20150808_093127
Brasilia style – a good option for any Saturday morning

I’m consciously reworking my way through Taylors’ range of filter coffee.  Many times before we’ve had the Italian style medium roast and, in addition, we’ve also gone for the number 6 strength “Hot Lava Java”.  But sometimes you need a milder option, to more gently ease you into into a state of caffienated bliss.

Score out of 5 … 3. It’s a mellow cup, but perhaps missing some depth to the flavour. Not disagreeable at all though.  Would still recommend.

 

#coffeeftw #saturday

 

 

 

In the spirit of the upcoming Hallo’ween, today is my unofficial #deadmouseday.  I am challenging myself to go without using my computer mouse all day – which has already been a considerable challenge in WordPress when creating this post.

The mouse is dead!
The mouse is dead!

(img: http://funnypictures24.blogspot.co.uk/2012/02/computer-mouse-humor-best-computer.html)

Let’s see how far I get…

Chromecast: the promise of simplicity
Chromecast: the promise of simplicity

Not getting audio-only output from your Chromecast?  Why not just plug it in the wrong way round… Read on!

For helping a senior family member switch from a faulty Linux laptop to a Chromebook, I was rewarded with a Chromecast (thanks Mum). Lucky me.

The plan, with my newly received gift, was to plug the Chromecast into a spare HDMI input on my Sony STR-DA1200ES A/V amplifier and enjoy listening to my Google Play Music collection, or watch some YouTube videos, as desired. My (naive) idea was that because I had HDMI into the amp, I could just enjoy the music without having my Panasonic TX-P42G10B Plasma TV switched on.  Oh no.  How wrong I was.

Simplicity, redefined

The first issue, which I quickly discovered, is that HDMI and other digital display protocols like Thunderbolt, Digital Video Interface (DVI) and DisplayPort (DP) operate in full cooperation with DRMDigital Restrictions Management.  By using a sub-protocol called HDCP – or High-bandwidth Digital Content Protection, the source device negotiates an encrypted link with the receiving device – typically your TV.   The data then travels down (or up) the HDMI link “safely”, protected from digital content thieves, pirates, bittorrent users.. you know the sort: me and you.  The customers.

An HDMI splitter: the ViewHD
An HDMI splitter: the ViewHD

But arguments aside about what rights one should have with the digital media  they purchase, the reality is that the technology actually introduces more complexity and less convenience than promised.

The situation is made worse with how HDMI can be implemented.  You can have end points – a source and a display device, for instance – and you can also have mid-point, passthrough devices.  But when it comes to HDCP, pass-through devices have no say or influence over content encryption or negotiation – they just shunt the data onwards down the chain. HDMI splitters and strippers were introduced as another way of getting around implementation restrictions – including removing DRM, with varying results (HDCP, HDMI splitters/strippers and Chromecasts have been discussed on reddit more than once, not to mention XDA developers and other sites…). [ Incidentally, a highly regarded device, the HD Fury, won’t give you much change from £150-odd, but it is reputedly very good as totally stripping HDCP. ]

Dancing in the streams

DRM is an issue that will not go away, because we get back to the basic fact that controlling users through draconian methods of control only punishes innocent consumers, while not providing any tangible security benefit for the media plublishers.

So we arrive back at my Chromecast.  Through a number of unplugging and re-plugging efforts, I stumbled upon a strange solution.  I acquired the ViewHD HDMI splitter, with the intention to split out audio from HDMI and feed an TOSLink optical cable into the A/V amp, but even using this required the TV to be switched on.

System singing sweetly: audio in full swing
System singing sweetly: audio in full swing

But… what if the Chromecast thinks it is sorted with its display device?  Strangely, this seems achievable by plugging the Chromecast into the HDMI splitter’s HDMI input, and then plugging the HDMI splitter’s output into the A/V amp’s output.  Yep, let me repeat: connecting the HDMI splitter’s output to the amp’s output connector (which would normally go to a monitor) strangely seemed to fool the Chromecast into happily sending forth its content to the HDMI splitter, from which the optical feed supplies PCM audio at 48khz straight into the amp.

Selecting music, using Google Play Music on the Nexus 7 Android tablet, is now a joy that is almost completely reliable.  Occasionally it reports that a track cannot be played, which requires disconnection of tablet from Chromecast and re-connection while playing the song.  But send the Chromecast an album or playlist, and all’s good.

Conclusion

The downside of this strange result is that I can only use the Chromecast for one thing: streaming audio.  Luckily, this is the only reason I go it, and the devices are so cheap (£30) as to effectively justify buying a second for the same TV, using another spare HDMI input.

Why the Chromecast and ViewHD behave quite like this, I cannot say.  It suggests there could be other interesting workarounds with HDMI and various signal splitting devices .. but this is probably where I should end.

My philosophy behind this review is not just to compare the phone directly with other Android or iOS handsets, but also to focus on what it offers, independently of those other platforms.

In other words, for what this phone and OS provide, how well do they do it..?

Unboxing & initial impressions

I ordered through ZTE’s UK-based ebay site.  The phone was dispatched via the 48hr Royal Mail delivery service, which is where £5 of my £38.99 spend was allocated.  This was pleasing and does confer a certain progressive philosophy of ZTE.  It also means the handset + accessories cost only £33.99 including UK VAT (sales tax), which I find astonishing.

The packaging was robust and served its purpose.  After removing the colourful box from its mail bag, and opening it up, there I was greeted with the phone in somewhat cheapish-looking celophane.  Nevertheless, unwrapping indeed exposed the Open C as expected – not bright orange or blue, but dark and moody black – the way I like my phones!

Although I was expecting the handset to feel cheap, I was actually pleasantly surprised.  For its price, it feels very reasonable.  The materials – including the screen – naturally are plastic, but given the feel of the plastic one expects from a stock Samsung Galaxy S4 (that is, not premium!), the Open C had a feel to it more like that of a pebble, with its soft-touch almost rubberised plastic rear cover.

Size comparison: Open C vs Galaxy S4
Size comparison: Open C (left) vs Galaxy S4 (right)

Attractive design features include the recessed ear speaker, which sits snuggly atop of the screen, and the subtle, angular curvature towards the base of the phone, which meets the centred microUSB socket smoothly and seamlessly.  An iPhone 4 user I handed the device to commented on how nice in the hand it felt, and I must agree – it’s very comfortable to hold.

The compact charger and USB cable are standard fare, but the included earphones/headset are distinctly “cheap”.  In this case, you get what you pay for, but this is a minor thing.

Recessed ear speaker
The recessed ear speaker at the top of the screen is attractively styled.

Powering on

Start-up and set-up

Taking the rear cover off the phone revealed the battery compartment, SIM slot and microSD slot.  The battery was a very snug fit and the SIM slipped into the slot just fine.  The microSD card slot wasn’t quite as reassuring, and I felt the need to double-check I’d inserted the card far enough.   There are no spring-clip card slots on this phone; a clear cost-saver.  But cover back on, this was no issue, and the cover feels integral to the phone once back in place.

The software set-up feature of the phone has been well covered elsewhere, so I won’t go into that here.  One annoyance was that the phone couldn’t pick up my local time from any network I connected to, which I found unusual and slightly inconvenient.  The UI to change date and time was slightly unintuitive but the task was soon accomplished.

Boot-up and running through this “wizard” was relatively quick and the phone was ready to use within a few minutes.

Getting contacts into the phone

The ThunderSync Add-On for Thunderbird can export your addressbook as VCard files.  Although on first attempt these files were not recognised to import into the phonebook, trying again – once the phone’s set-up process had completed – yielded success.  241 VCard contacts imported perfectly.

The Import from SIM card function worked perfectly, as did the Import from Facebook feature.  I didn’t try the Import from GMail feature, as I don’t store contacts there.

Considering these features are what the phone offers, I would say that it manages these tasks reasonably well, although the out-of-the-box experience was not quite as smooth as possible.  It is a shame that CardDAV support wasn’t baked in too, but at least this is work in progress.

Managing contacts

A feature recognised by some Android users, and as a further plus, the Link Contacts feature allows you link an imported phonebook contact with a social media contact.  In addition, the Find duplicate contacts feature allows you to easily scour the phonebook and delete or merge any identified duplicate contact records, as desired.

In fairly quick time, I was up and running with all my contacts in the address book.

Importing Media

Getting music, videos and photos on to the device is painless, thanks to its straightforward USB Mass Storage support.  As an Android and Linux user, I was appalled when this transfer protocol was eschewed in favour of MTP on my Galaxy S4 – a “feature” of Jellybean+.

But back to the Open C.  Controlling whether the phone’s memory or the storage card is exposed to the USB host (i.e. the connected computer) was achieved through the settings on the phone.   Once connected, media transfers were effortless.

After disconnecting, simply opening up the Music player, Video player or Gallery displayed my media more or less as expected, although a 1080p mp4 video shot on the aforementioned S4 and transferred over, failed to materialise in the Video player’s file list.

Somewhat annoyingly, album art from transferred music also appears in the gallery, which seems a bit strange.  To make matters worse, this same album art was not visible in the Music player for the albums to which it corresponded.  Instead, I was greeted with placeholder patterns.  I’m not sure how this problem is avoided, but it’s far from perfect.

In use: the User Interface & Experience

In software development, an oft-accepted maxim is that your version 1 release is basically a proof of concept.  Version 2 is where you throw in lots of features, but version 3 is where it all starts knitting together well.

Given that this handset runs version 1.3, the FirefoxOS experience is acceptable.  It won’t set the world on fire (no pun intended), but the key features are here – some better than others.

Performance

Coming from a Galaxy S4, I was pleased with how responsive the Open C is.  On the Samsung, Touchwiz (the user interface layer on top of Android) does a wonderful job of slowing things down and adding a “treacle factor”, generally incurring an extra second or so for each major application switch.

Surprisingly, the Open C felt more nimble and less weighed-down than the S4 once I had opened 8-10 different apps on each.  Granted, the apps on the S4 are more feature-rich,  running on a more feature-rich operating system – and I do have quite a number of them.  But it’s more powerful hardware, you always pay by way of a performance penalty for complexity in software.

On the Open C, swiping across from one home screen to another was fluid and unencumbered, and opening apps was reassuringly nippy too.  Nothing felt laggy and the biggest challenge was getting used to not having a back button.

General OS Features

There have been many comparisons with Android here and elsewhere, but I would argue that this is a testament to the capability of FirefoxOS.   The Settings area provides a reasonable number of options, from power-saving, to connectivity, SIM management and security.

Unlike Android, I didn’t feel as though options we so nested to the nth degree that I couldn’t find what I needed, quickly.  This was refreshing and gave me pause for thought over just how large and burdened Android is now by its own capability.   This is, after all, a phone and Mozilla have fundamentally recognised this.

Sadly, one omission is Firefox Sync.  I was surprised that, being a FirefoxOS device, it doesn’t support Sync with Mozilla’s servers out-of-the-box.  What a shame – this will be inconvenient to some, and argues in favour of using Firefox (the browser) on Android, instead.

Another lamentable omission is a file browser.  I couldn’t see any way to browse the local file system.  Hopefully this will arrive in version 2 or beyond.

Where it does pick up the bat somewhat is with the Notes app, which seemingly offers Evernote syncing.  Although I’m not an Evernote fan, I know that many people are, and this may sway some opinions.  Along with CalDAV calendar sync, it goes some way towards being “cloud-friendly”, which is a nice touch for a browser-based OS… 😉

Hardware

The screen

The screen is where I have seen some criticism being levelled.  Let’s clear this up: having become accustomed one of the highest-resolution (441dpi), most saturated colour displays (AMOLED) on the market, I am not offended at all by the Open C’s screen.  In fact, quite the opposite.  I was surprised how well text seemed to render on it and colour saturation seems average, which in my book is actually a good thing (not too saturated or too pale).  At a claimed 233dpi, the resolution was workable, and the viewing angles from sides and from underneath were ok too.  Viewing the screen from the phone’s top, downwards, was where it all went to hell though – everything neg’d out quite quickly.

Position of Open C's microphone
The phone’s microphone positioning.  Note the capacitive home-button.  The general styling is also vaguely reminiscent of early HTC Android phones.

Sound quality

An often-overlooked area of smartphones is sound quality, via the headphone jack.  Having transferred a random selection of OGG music files, I selected John Williams’ Jurassic Park theme.  During listening I was very surprised that the Open C managed to dig up elements of a double bass (string instrument) in the performance.  By comparison, the S4 couldn’t dredge up this particular detail.

Unfortunately, the rest of the musical quality was middling at best – brass sounded honky, strings somewhat electric and the combination of these plus percussion was a bit brash and ringing.  When listening to the same track on the S4, I was greeted with a much purer, deeper soundstage with individual instruments identifiable and well placed.  Timbre on the S4 was markedly improved over the Open C and generally the listening experience was superior.  But still, it didn’t give me that low bass…

Whether the Firefox OS’s codec is sufficiently different to Android or whether this is hardware is, unfortunately, guess work.  For general listening, say on the train for an hour, the Open C will be plenty good enough.  It’s just not the last word in subtlety.

Battery life

The SIM I use for testing doesn’t have a data allowance, so I have switched off mobile data.  This will have had a positive effect on battery life, but a negative effect on a fair test.

Still, despite not using the phone as heavily as normal in that regard, during testing and initial set up the screen has been on a fair bit, with WiFi connected at all times.  I have seen nearly two days’ usage before needing its first re-charge, so that is encouraging.  I was surprised, too, that after a night on flight-mode, the battery charge level had not shifted a dime, from 66%.

One minor issue though, is that at 10% battery remaining, the phone suddenly died and got stuck in a reboot cycle.   This suggests the battery life/remaining isn’t possibly quite as accurate as it could be, although it could be argued that on its first charge, FirefoxOS hadn’t accumulated enough battery metrics to accurately predict exhaustion.

Camera

Image of back of Open C, showing camera.
The Open C’s camera

This is a tricky area to judge.  This is a £34 phone.  It’s difficult to buy a decent point-and-shoot camera for that price, so how does one judge this fairly?

The 3.2MP sensor is mounted on the back of the phone near the top, in the customary location.  There is no flash or manual/autofocus, and video recording is a rather old-school 352×288@15fps (according to GSMArena).  My testing seemed to concur with that.  Photos are stored as JPEGs, unless edited (in which case, for some reason they are then stored as PNGs), and videos as 3GP files.

In low-light settings, you can only expect average quality at best.  Still, to the naked eye, colour accuracy could have been a lot worse.

The included software does allow some recolouring to help adjust pictures, and the Aviary app is easy to download and install, for more comprehensive off-line photo editing.

Hardware Buttons

Finally, the buttons themselves.  In general use they don’t feel flimsy and give sufficient feedback.  But I do question the positioning of the volume rocker and wonder if it is on the wrong side?  I tend to be ambidextrous when using my phone – it goes to either ear indiscriminately.  I suppose the volume rocker has to be on one side – the right hand side it is!

Summary

Considering this is a £34 phone…

  • Build and general quality is better than expected
  • Setting up is straightforward – although a couple of caveats:
    • Importing VCard contacts from microSD card failed on first attempt, but then worked
    • Plugging microUSB cable into phone didn’t have that reassuring “click”, but connection seems secure enough. (NOTE: this may have been the cable I was using; another cable did seem more secure)
  • Size and thickness is very reasonable – and better than I was led to believe on some blogs/vlogs.  Phone is not too bulky and has a reassuring thickness when in the hand.
  • As a media device it’s fairly average, but as a phone which you won’t care about scratching up and little and using to the full, it’s great.   At the price, you can forget about protective cases – just chuck it in a bag or your pocket and get on with life!

Final words

Comparing to flagship smartphones is unwarranted.  It is not a flagship but an entry-level phone – so comparisons should be with Android phones at same price!

I was pleasantly surprised by the Open C.  The phone hardware, at this price, is exceptionally good value.  No, unless you’re incredibly limber it will not allow you to post selfies to Facebook (with no front-facing camera present), but is this a major thing?

Likewise, it’s a fairly “lightweight” experience all round: apps are less functional than their Android or iOS brethren, and the OS is less “tweakable”.  But as a result, it’s swift and responsive in use, and the vast majority of software included is stable and acceptable.

As an entry-level smartphone, for £34 + £5 p&p, I find it hard to fault.  If it weren’t for the stellar camera on my S4, I might consider switching to it.


 

A more in-depth review of FirefoxOS plus full specs on the Open C can be found at GSMArena.

It all starts with that strange sound… In my machine’s case, a whining noise.  As a sysadmin and/or experienced geek, you know something’s wrong.  I suspect the head assembly has become detached and is scraping along the disk surface at 7200rpm… 

SMART stats for the offending drive
SMART stats for the offending drive, which wasn’t being used outside design parameters, despite GNOME-disk-utility’s opinion!

Naturally, the usual recovery tools don’t work… and the drive sounds shot.

# pvmove /dev/sdd1 /dev/sdg1
/dev/sdd1: Moved: 0.0%
/dev/sdd1: Moved: 0.0%
/dev/sdd1: read failed after 0 of 2048 at 0: Input/output error
No physical volume label read from /dev/sdd1
Physical volume /dev/sdd1 not found
ABORTING: Can’t reread PV /dev/sdd1
ABORTING: Can’t reread VG for /dev/sdd1

# dd if=/dev/sdd1 of=dev/sdg1 bs=4096
dd: reading `/dev/sdd1′: Input/output error
2+0 records in
2+0 records out
8192 bytes (8.2 kB) copied, 0.0992418 s, 82.5 kB/s

# dd if=/dev/sdd of=dev/sdg bs=4096
dd: reading `/dev/sdd’: Input/output error
1+0 records in
1+0 records out
4096 bytes (4.1 kB) copied, 0.0205753 s, 199 kB/s

This is the third 1TB Seagate ES.2 drive I’ve had develop bad sectors.  Although they have a 5 year warranty, they seem to start expiring after 3.

Thank goodness I have backups…

#whodoyoutrust

I have a Thinkpad T420 – now 2 years, 6 months old.  Started to notice the fan seemed a bit noisier than normal and the CPU was reporting a temperature of around 60deg C, even when the machine wasn’t doing very much.

As suspected, 30 months of usage without a clean is a little bit too long.  Cleaning a laptop fan can be fairly straightforward – this took just two screw removals.  Of course, always seek advice and YouTube videos if you need help to do yours! 😉

After the procedure, my laptop runs about 10-15deg C cooler and is much quieter.

#cleanmachine #laptoprepair #dusty +Lenovo #thinkpad

(Warning, images are grotesque scenes of mostly human skin.  Some microscopic lifeforms may have been “damaged” during the making of these images…)

When making my morning brew, I started pondering how to make it more interesting.  Sure, you can add flavour (and waistline) “enhancements” like cream, sugar, maybe some vanilla…  But such unimaginativeness doesn’t last long.

Image courtesy of oddee.com. You can
also buy coffee from the dark side.

What’s needed is a whole new coffee experience. 

Scouring the web for new things to do often turns up very interesting results.  For instance, there’s a whole web site dedicated to Putting Weird Things in Coffee.   Some of those weird things include cheese, meat (!) and even black pudding.  The fascination with meat is prevalent elsewhere, too. Hmm.

But you don’t need to go so far to enhance the flavour of coffee.  One simple food-enhacing staple – salt – has also been used extensively and blogged about for some time.  Clearly, it might be worth trying.

Spices, of course, have provided that added “something” to a good coffee for many years.  Adding spice instead of sugar is also a neat dietary trick for those careful watching calorie consumption.

Taking it up a level

What you put into coffee is only half of the story though.  How much caffeine you ingest daily is another thing.  Curiously, at the time of writing, 66 people “Like” this Facebook page entitled “Extreme Coffee Drinking“, which has no content and not even a picture.  As one quote says, “Coffee: do stupid things more quickly and with more energy“.

Extreme coffee drinking seems to be a sport amongst some.  It’s not merely a question of having multiple cups per day.  Whether the evidence is conclusive that lots of coffee each day can kill you, is certainly still to be debated.

Things can get a bit extreme, though.  Death Wish Coffee, as reported here, promotes extreme levels of caffeine as its USP.  A step too far?  Maybe.  But, it can hardly be contested that we love coffee, and our interest in all things joe-related, together with its growth in the West, continues unabated.  Coffee is recognised as a personal experience, so the growth of single cup products may indicate that social coffee drinking is diminishing in favour of a more insular, smart-phone focused experience.

Taking it too far?

While at university, I recall many a lovely coffee in what is now claimed to be the world’s oldest internet cafe – CB1 (Google Maps link).  I’m not sure about the validity of this claim, but there’s no disputing the charm of a good coffee shop.

But these days, though it’s not all academia, with bustling coffee shops populated by artisans, guarded closely by the intelligentsia.  Caffeine addiction and dependency/withdrawal symptoms are a real problem for some people.  Luckily, the web has many suggestions to combat this.  I suppose one could make a visit to an internet cafe and research this on his or her own…

Perhaps indulging in a caffeine kick is not the best long term policy, but it certainly starts the day well.