A month without Facebook

Just over a month ago, I decided to stop using Facebook after receiving a system wide ban for three days for posting a joke in a closed group. For the record, I never got banned from the group; I’m still a member, the admins never had a problem with my joke. Facebook decided that I should be banned system wide as “Punishment” for posting a link to a Youtube video entitled, “Goat shagging.” It was this heavy handed censorship to which I oppose, and my primary motivator for quitting Facebook. As I reflect on the past month, I have to admit I’m glad that this happened, and my life has been significantly better without Facebook.

The first thing that happened was that I started to get things done. For example, I kept my old computer because I intended to turn it into my personal web server for my blog. I finally did that, but also turned it into a multi-function cloud server. I also finally got around to installing Linux on my new computer; I had been running the Windows 10 license from my old computer, but now use Linux for nearly 100% of my computing needs. Then I started writing again. When I looked around, I noticed that a lot of creative, intelligent, and inspiring people have also left Facebook, inspiring me further to learn even more new things. Who knew I could track my own cell phone?

A month off of Facebook has helped me to recognize what a useless waste of time it really was. I’m no longer chasing the likes, looking to blow up my number of friends, and feed into a marketing machine constantly distracted by insignificant notifications. I’ve become more focused on my career, real friends, family, and my own mental and physical health. I’ve learned so much in just a short period of time from others who have also learned the folly of Facebook. Facebook is now constantly spamming me with notifications via e-mail, but it’s not my primary e-mail address, and even then it gets filtered away into a folder. I still have yet to migrate my content off of the Facebook platform, but now that I realize how insignificant it really is, I’m in no big hurry to do so.

I don’t think I’ll entirely delete my account on Facebook; unfortunately, for some people, it might be the only way they can initially get in touch with me. I can use Caprine instead of Messenger for one-on-one communications, but I do prefer e-mail. Meanwhile, I’m going to continue to move my content and digital life from the big corporate marketing machines to my own hardware, learn new things, and make new friends along the way.

There are other reasons to leave Facebook; here’s some links of note that you may also be interested in reading:

Lifehack has 7 reasons why quitting Facebook now is good for your future.

Men’s Journal also has 7 reasons why you should quit Facebook.

Gizmodo came up with a top 10 list of reasons to leave Facebook.

I don’t expect change to happen very soon, as this wired article explains why victims of Facebook censorship don’t leave Facebook.

However, as this CNet article points out, Facebook’s censorship can be a real problem.

Keeping track of myself

Our smart phones can track our every movement, and this has become a controversial issue among people with privacy concerns. On one hand, this can be very beneficial; for example, it can act as the perfect alibi to prove where you were at a particular time. It’s also good to have if your phone goes missing. For me, as a service electrician, I can verify where I’ve been and how long I’ve been there. However, people have legitimate concerns about giving big companies that information about us; for example, what if it places you at the scene of a crime during the time it occurred, yet you had nothing to do with it? While it’s good for me to see how many times I’ve visited the LCBO in order to make better decisions and choices about my health, a company that would sell that information for marketing purposes would ensure that this government corporation could better target their marketing campaign to encourage me to consume more of their addictive poison. I’m writing this today to tell you that it’s not an either-or decision. You can enjoy the benefits of tracking the location of your phone without giving it to a big marketing company. You can do it yourself, and it’s really not as hard as you might think.

Screenshot of Owntracks showing my location, an open source Android and iOS app

First of all, I’m going to briefly go over how GPS works. We have been culturally conditioned through television and radio to believe that advertisements are the only way to get good things for free; however, when it comes to GPS tracking, big marketing companies are using something that we have already paid for at little to no expense to them for great opportunities to sell valuable targeted advertising. The heart of GPS technology is a network of 30 geosynchronous satellites each transmitting a unique signal; wherever you are in the world, at least 4 satellites are visible, and by timing the transmission of these four signals, a GPS receiver can determine, with a great degree of accuracy, its location. This is the most expensive component of this technology, and it has already been paid for by working class taxpayers of the United States of America. If you are a taxpayer in the United States of America, you and your fellow Americans paid for this network, it belongs to you. If you’re outside of the United States, this signal is a gift by the people of the United States to the world to make the world a better place. The other component of GPS locating technology is a combination of the hardware and firmware in your smart phone, and, if you’re like me and buy your phones unlocked, you have paid for this already; there’s no need to believe you should have to pay any more. The rest is software, which is provided by the open source community.

A screenshot of PhoneTrack, filtering my captured data.

Software needs to run on at least two places for this to work; you need software on your phone to collect and send the data, and you need software on a computer somewhere to receive and store this information. For this, I use Owntracks, an open source application for iOS and Android. On my server, I’m running a plugin called PhoneTrack which works on NextCloud, which is running on Apache2 on Ubuntu Server. All of these are open source, and some large marketing companies use some of these programs themselves, but they are easy enough to install and run on my small obsolete desktop computer. There is plenty of documentation online that provides step-by-step direction, so it’s a simple matter of following directions. Anyone could do it.

With NextCloud, I already have the ability to back up pictures and settings on my phone; this plug-in provides me with the ability to take ownership of yet another beneficial smartphone feature. Ultimately, it’s not an either-or decision; we really can enjoy all the benefits of technology without giving up our privacy, as long as we’re willing to take ownership of what rightfully belongs to us with the power of open source software.

Snow day time travel: 1998

This past week I had a snow day, so I decided to stay at home and rebuild my first Windows ’98 machine.

The 90’s were a time of positive change and growth for me. I started the 90’s as a single college student using an Amiga computer. In the mid-1990’s, I got married and was running OS/2 Warp 3 on a computer I built myself based on the PCI54ITS motherboard in a Genesis mid tower case. This was a Socket 7 motherboard with a Pentium CPU running at 200 Mhz. By the time 1998 rolled around, the writing was on the wall; OS/2 was going to go the way of the Amiga, and Windows ’95 brought with it a whole new experience in gaming, and my interest in gaming was renewed with games like Command and Conquer: Red Alert, Heretic, and Duke Nukem 3D. Games like Quake 3 and Half Life demonstrated that Windows was really the only way to go. USB was going to be the new standard for devices, which was not yet supported with OS/2 but was with Windows ’98. The fact that I could get StarOffice 5, a free full office suite on par with Microsoft Office I had been using with OS/2 Warp 3, for Windows ’98 sealed the deal. Since I had a legitimate licensed copy of Windows 3.1, I bought the Windows ’98 “Upgrade” when it went on sale at Costco, along with Westwood Classic’s Command and Conquer: Red Alert and Tiberian Sun game pack.

Me in May 1999 doing baby duty. I was (and still am) a trackball guy.

My motherboard of choice for my Windows ’98 build was the TMC AI5VG+, a super socket 7 motherboard with the AMD K62-450 processor. This was a unique motherboard that kept one foot in the past, and another in the future: With two ISA slots, two 72 pin SIMM slots, legacy serial, parallel, and keyboard ports, and AT power supply connectors, it was backwards compatible with everything I already owned. With 3 168 pin DIMM slots, 1 AGP slot, 4 PCI slots, two USB connectors (one powered, one not powered), and ATX power supply connectors, it was ready for the future. With a bus speed of up to 100 Mhz, it could really perform.

Check out those legacy slots.

I went with the AMD K62 processor partly because it offered great overall performance (especially with their 3DNow technology), and also partly because I could piss off Mac snobs who sneered at people who bought “WinTel.” When I had a Pentium processor, I was running OS/2; now that I was running Windows, I had an AMD processor. I knew the PC world was much bigger than Windows and Intel, and so when a Mac snob tried to tell me that I was a sheep for buying just another “Wintel” machine, I could inform them that I actually built the computer myself, and while it ran Windows, there was no Intel under the hood, it was AMD. Then I’d advise them to lay off the Kool-Aid for a while as I explained the benefits of the PC’s open architecture as their eyes glazed over. Good times.

The original warranty sticker on my motherboard

Over the past 21 years, this computer became my first personal web server, running Apache on Red Hat Linux, and then became something for my son to play around with. At some point, the keyboard connector became unreliable and it got tucked away in the basement for storage. That beautiful Genesis mid-tower case rusted out after spending years in a basement and suffering from a flood, but the motherboard and components survived; meanwhile, I had a ‘386 in a cheap mini tower case from that era living in the garage, where the motherboard was destroyed from a battery leak, but the case and power supply held up fine. I decided to use that case for this week’s build.

Fixing the keyboard connector

I started by reflowing the solder on the motherboard connector so that my keyboard would work reliably. I then replaced the CMOS battery and used rubbing alcohol to clean the contacts on the memory chips and expansion cards. I kept my big, beautiful monitor all these years; it has a real Sony Trinitron tube. I also decided to use my compact Model M keyboard with this, as well as a proper trackball.

I found a 4 gigabyte hard drive that works well, though I may consider upgrading that in the future. With both 5.25″ and 3.5″ disk drives, along with an iomega zip drive and CD-ROM, this system will make it easy to transfer old files to modern USB solid state solutions. It’s maxed out with 256MB of RAM. The video card is an unexpanded ATI Rage Pro, though I may consider swapping that out for the ATI all in wonder if I get a case with better cooling and a better power supply.

While most people today would install Windows ’98 SE, I never owned a license for that, because, after all the updates, Windows ’98 was the same thing as Windows ’98 SE. After this, I bought a laptop that had Windows ME, and, contrary to criticisms, ran and performed very well. My next build after that was a Windows XP machine with a boxed copy of Windows XP upgrade, but that’s a story for another day.

1600×1200 resolution, HD in the 90’s!

I decided to start with my 15th anniversary collection from Interplay. This set includes Battle Chess, Beat the House 95, Castles II: Siege & Conquest, Conquest of the New World Deluxe, Descent, Dragon Wars, Fallout, M.A.X., Norse by Norsewest, Redneck Rampage, Shattered Steel, Solitaire Deluxe Windows, Stonekeep, Virtual Pool, and Whiplash. I also have a ton of other games, all of which will probably fill up that hard drive fairly quickly.

Now, I know what you must be thinking; why go through all that trouble, when virtualization is so good? We have DOSBox and VirtualBox for both Windows and Linux, and some of these games, like Command and Conquer Red Alert, install and run fine for free very easily. To that I say, I agree one hundred percent. In many respects, virtualization is better than the real thing. However, it was a snow day, and I had this stuff stored away for all these years for just such an occasion to travel back to 1998 for the day with the real hardware, and for the nostalgia trip, it was worth it.

7 DIY tent trailer mods

Last year, we purchased a pop-up tent trailer after realizing that we’ve become too old to sleep on the ground, and wanted something that would hold all of our camping gear and outdoor toys. After buying this trailer, I decided to do some upgrades to make it more versatile and enjoyable; these mods include adding roof racks, bicycle racks, a solar panel, solar charge controller, USB/12 volt charging station with volt meter, and sound/light blocking curtains.

These are links to items featured in this video; note that if you use these links and buy any of these products for yourself, I will make a few cents commission, which helps this site. I am not affiliated with these companies, and I paid for these products myself and chose them because they delivered what I wanted at a good price. You may have to turn off any ad blockers you have to see these, and note that ad blockers aren’t necessary for my site, as any links to products will tie in with the post as you see here.

Click on this image if you’re interested in the USB/12 volt charging center with volt meter combination that I bought:

Click here if you’re interested in a 10 pack of T10 LED replacement lights for your RV or camper:

Income tax 2018

It’s that time of year again, that time when we get to continue to ensure that we’re doing our part to help pay for the cost of everything our country needs to fight World War 1, even though it’s long been over. A lot has changed in the 102 years since income tax was federally mandated in Canada; our government has become ever increasingly bloated and inefficient, and income tax has become so complicated, regular people often need someone trained in this field to do it for them. One year around a decade ago, I had a professional, Katrina Morin and Associates, do it for me, and they made a mistake that cost me $25 in interest to the government that I would not have had to pay if my return was done correctly on the first attempt, and Katrina told me herself that she would not refund me this interest charge, even though I paid her many times more than that. Instead of fighting her for the money, I decided to leave her a one star review. I have since realized that all these so-called professionals do is plug numbers into the same computer software anyone can get for free (simple data entry clerk level work), and a lot of them don’t really care if they do that good of a job of even that simple task, so garbage in = garbage out. Since then, I have always vowed to do my and my wife’s income tax myself.

I have since become generally opposed to the idea of paying money for a person or software to complete my income tax return; it’s an additional burden that hard-working taxpayers should not have to endure. I find it amazing that people get excited when they get a return, considering the only reason they would get a return is because they over-paid the government in the first place, effectively giving our government an interest-free loan, although it’s probably better than leaving it in a bank because at least they won’t charge you for taking your money…yet. The expense of software or a person to assist us with our taxes should be shouldered by the government who take so much money from our income in the first place. At the very least, the cost of such software or services should be a 100% write-off. However, our government needs to waste our money elsewhere to keep their budgets on creating waste as high as possible (more on that in a future blog post), and so we are left with our current state of corruption. Fortunately, there are free and pay-what-you-want models that exist.

My favourite program for doing income taxes over the past few years has been StudioTax. Unfortunately, it is Windows or Mac only. This seems unusual to me, as their license to use the software seems to be more in-line with the ideals of open source software: It’s free to use with no strings attached, no registration or license key required, and no coercion to upgrade or pay for other services. I tried to install it using WINE, and while it installed and launched correctly, it ground to a halt after attempting to enter some information.

StudioTax 2018, as far as I can get in Ubuntu Linux

I decided to shoot an e-mail to the StudioTax support team to ask them about Linux support. This was their reply:

Hi, Sorry, not an easy port to make and, most importantly, a costly yearly maintenance/certification. It just not enough demands out there to justify the effort…mobile devices(iOS and Android) are more urgent priority going forward. Thank you for using StudioTax! Warmest Regards, StudioTax Support Team

I was disappointed to learn that there’s a cost associated with getting software certified with our government (again, what are they wasting all that tax money on, as if I didn’t know), but I was happy to see that they are working on Android support. Android is an open source operating system, and there is work being done now to get Android apps to run in Linux. All of this means that it’s just a matter of time.

But, what about now? I could order a paper copy and do my taxes that way, but that’s going to be time-consuming and seems foolish when I have a powerful computer that can help me do it error-free. I could boot into Windows for that one task, but I prefer to stay on the Linux desktop. Option three is to use one of the free on-line services for me to do my taxes this year. I decided to go for the web-based service SimpleTax. They claim to use encryption, so if you forget your password, there’s no way for anyone to reset it. They have a clean, ad-free interface that I prefer. The way I see it, I e-File my return to government run servers anyway and who knows who’s looking after that (outsourced to the lowest bidder or to someone’s good friend or family member), and I have no reason to assume the people at SimpleTax are going to be worse than our government.

What about you? I’d love to see my reader’s opinions on this topic.

LightZone and Ubuntu 18.04

One of my favourite desktop applications is LightZone; it’s a digital darkroom that allows me to work with the RAW image format that my Pentax camera produces. In Ubuntu 18.04, it reported the following error on startup after installation, and then did not work correctly with JPEG images:

/usr/lib/lightzone/libLCJPEG.so: libjpeg.so.62: cannot open shared object file: No such file or directory

After doing some research, I discovered a simple command line solution to this problem; I simply opened a terminal window, then entered:

sudo apt-get install libjpeg62:i386

Now everything works as it should.

Games on Linux

One popular argument many people use for wanting to go with or stick with Windows is that Linux isn’t as good for games. Giving credit where credit is due, Windows is an excellent platform for gamers. Then again, so are consoles like the Playstation 4, XBox One, and Nintendo Switch. However, I’d like to make the case that Ubuntu Linux is also an excellent platform for games, so if your only reason for not switching to Linux is a lack of games, I think you should reconsider.

The standard Ubuntu install comes with four great desktop classics; Solitaire, Minesweeper, Sudoku, and Mahjongg. These classics are both relaxing and mentally stimulating, and are pure versions of these games without advertising or requiring money to unlock certain things.

Next up is the Ubuntu software center. Bear in mind that these are largely open source free games, but there are some gems to be found. Warzone 2100 is actually a very well done real time strategy game, and some of the knock-offs, like MineTest, are actually really well done and get a lot of support and development from the community, though people are also able to run the original Minecraft in Linux by following some instructions found on-line with a search. One notable thing that shows up repeatedly here are emulators of various systems like the Nintendo Entertainment System. I was more of a Commodore nerd, so Vice and UAE are more my thing, and DOSBox does an excellent job for classic DOS games. In fact, just about every classic gaming system is emulated in the Linux platform, which can make Ubuntu Linux a great home for all of your classic gaming needs; you just need to add the ROMs or disk images.

One of my all time favourites

Some great Windows games run fine on Ubuntu Linux, thanks to WINE. WINE is a recursive acronym which means Wine Is Not an Emulator. What it is is a compatibility layer that allows Windows programs and games to run on the Ubuntu desktop as a native application, because the compatibility layer provides them with the resources they need. Back in the 90’s, when I bought Windows ’98, I also bought Command and Conquer: Red Alert to go with it as a Westwood Classics, and this was the game that convinced me that Windows was the platform to have because of that game alone. Remarkable that I can play it for free flawlessly on the Ubuntu desktop.

Steam on Linux

Then there’s Steam. I went directly to their website to install this on Ubuntu 18.04 LTS, and it runs great. Another one of my all-time favourites are the Half Life series, including Portal, and these have all been written to run natively on Linux.

Portal

In the case of Half Life, the characters got some improvements in their details.

And then there are new games to try out and explore in the Linux platform; the first one I’m going to try out is Endless Sky, which is a free download. However, I’ll be the first to admit that I’m not really that up-to-date on the latest and greatest games on Linux. For that, I would have to refer you to sites like Foss’s 30 best Linux games on Steam you should play in 2019.

That’s about all I have for now, but I think it’s pretty clear that there is no shortage of games on the Linux platform. At least for me, it’s delivered everything I want from the gaming world, and so see no reason to revert back to Microsoft’s marketing vehicle called Windows 10. I hope you have a great weekend and enjoy a few games yourself.

Gas prices even lower

I really could not remember when gas prices were this cheap, so I had to check GasBuddies again to find out it’s been 10 years!

I regard this as a positive thing, because studies have shown that, when people spend less on every day things like gas, they stimulate the economy in other places, like going out for dinner at restaurants more. To put this into perspective, this translates to $3.72 per gallon. If we adjust for the US dollar difference, this works out to $2.83 USD per gallon of gas. This puts us on par with Nevada and Alaska, so it’s not really cheap, just more in-line to what it ought to cost without our government ripping us off.