Raspberry Pi 4 server

Some may have noticed that my site was down for most of the day yesterday. This is because I was migrating my web site over to a new server. Originally, my web server was an old desktop HP that I repurposed for use as a web server by installing Ubuntu 18.04 LTS server edition. It came with an energy star compliant 240 watt power supply, but even at its most energy efficient, it cannot come close to the 3.5A 5 volt power supply for the Pi 4 which, with a maximum input current of 0.8 amps at 120 volts, won’t use more than 96 watts. Not to mention that the Pi 4, when running headless, takes up virtually no space at all. With 4GB of RAM and USB 3 support, I believe the Pi 4 is perfectly suitable for this task. Then there’s the fact that the HP is over a decade old, raising concerns about long term reliability with it being left on 24/7.

The old server

One of the biggest advantages I see with the Pi 4, besides the savings in power consumption and in the space it occupies, is the fact that any point of failure is easily mitigated. If the power supply fails, a new one can be bought anywhere. If anything fails on the main board, I simply plug the MicroSD card into a new board. If the SD card fails, I simply flash a new MicroSD card and things are up and running again. It’s all very low cost and easy to maintain. These are early days for me with the Raspberry Pi. It’s still plugged into the big UPS that the old desktop server was plugged into, but there are Pi-specific UPS power supplies which I would like to explore in the future, which may include making my server completely solar powered.

The new server

In case you’re interested, my Pi kit came with heat sinks and a cooling fan, and before I turned it into a server, I played around with the full Raspbian desktop with the recommended software, and can attest to the fact that this brings to the modern day the golden age that many of us enjoyed in the 1980’s when minimalist, inexpensive, and surprisingly powerful single board computers were meant for the end consumer to develop on. I loaded a 32GB card with Raspbian Buster Lite which weighed in at a mere 435MB, then installed the LAMP stack before migrating my web site files and database over from my old server using FTP and FileZilla. It’s all pretty basic for now and I’ve yet to install NextCloud (that’s today’s project), but from what I can tell, the Raspberry Pi 4 is the perfect personal web server for anyone wishing to liberate themselves from the centralized and oppressive big tech companies.

Bon Echo 2019

I really enjoy camping. I enjoy escaping my own materialistic wants and desires as well as the complexity and stresses of modern life. I get to explore as I hike, or lounge on a beach by a lake as I dip in for a swim as I feel like it. When I get hungry, I eat a simple meal. When I’m tired, I sleep. The acrid smell of a fresh camp fire is a most wonderful and comforting aroma, and gazing into the coals allows me to easily empty my mind and meditate. I usually record our excursions to various provincial parks and upload those videos to my channel on Youtube, but then this particular weekend made me realize that I am a writer and a photographer first, and I enjoy creating and sharing stories by that medium. I’m also okay at video, but as I move forward in life with a goal to simplify, I believe that I can convey so much more through photographs and writing than I ever could through video. While I have two other previous camping trips recorded on video and ready to upload, I wanted to utilize my precious little spare time in getting back to the writing that I love.

My brother waiting for our camping trip in May 1995.

Bon Echo this year was a very special and very short camping trip. It was special because my parents were also there for my father’s birthday, and my brother was visiting from Alberta with his two beautiful children. Sally and I planned this trip with my father while the snow was still on the ground, and I was really looking forward to it. Since we didn’t book right away, we were unable to book one of the sites closer to the beach and the rock; however, we were able to book two nice sites in the Hardwood Hills campground. I wanted to bring the canoe so my brother could paddle around Joe Perry Lake with my father, and perhaps I too would take a turn with someone. The last time I ever camped with my brother was in the 1990’s, when we were both very young and single.

Site 27 at Emily Provincial Park

Of course, camping was much simpler then. A couple of pup tents, sleeping bags, a Styrofoam cooler, a tarp strung up above the picnic table, and a couple of coal oil lanterns were all we needed to have a good time. I’d light a cigar back then as we sat around the camp fire, as that smell reminded me of the pipe tobacco one of my favourite boy scout leaders smoked. The opportunity to reconnect with my brother in this way with his children and my parents and with my wife and son was something I was really looking forward to. Sadly, there is no real escape from the complexity of modern life, and all of our lives have become pretty complex, leaving all of us with precious little time to spend together.

Me setting up our trailer on site 401.

The first thing that cut our trip short was because my brother bought his return plane tickets to Alberta thinking his kids started school the following week, and so he had booked his flight for Saturday night. Once he realized his mistake, it was too late, the tickets were non-refundable through the service he used, so my father cancelled their Saturday night stay, leaving only the Friday night. The other thing was my fault; I started a new position that week, and while I would normally have had Friday off, I had to work on Friday which meant we were later than we wanted to be arriving to the camp site. We arrived sometime around 7 pm. Another disappointment was the fact that our son had to stay behind because he had training this weekend for his job. Because of these things, we decided to not bring the canoe with us, as we realized we would not have enough time to enjoy it, and loading it up would steal precious minutes from our reunion.

My parents with their new friend.

When we arrived, we soon discovered that my parents had made fast friends with the people at the campsite across from them. My parents are like that; they’re friendly, open, and if they accidentally cross your camp site on the way to the washrooms, you’re liable to be invited over to their site for some of my father’s famous homemade wine and my mother’s famous birthday cheesecake. My brother cooked the sausages we brought with us on the campfire he made, and they tasted fantastic. My niece made a fire pit of her own, and my nephew curled up on my lap to tell me about the tooth he had lost in the sink drain while washing it. We stayed up far later than we ought to have, catching up with each other’s lives and making new friends with my parent’s new friends.

My nephew and niece by the fire pit and fire they made themselves.

We really didn’t get quite enough sleep, as we were up bright and early the next morning to spend the last remaining hours we had visiting. A lot of times, we noticed large families would get together and book adjoining sites and enjoy a week camping together. We talked about making this sort of reunion a family tradition. Perhaps if we planned enough in advance, we could do this again next year.

My nephew taking a picture of his father, my brother.

All of our plans dissolved as time continued to march on. We wanted to go with everyone up to the rock and the store. Originally, I had thought how nice it would have been to take the boat ride, but sadly these boats did not run on the weekend. That plan was scaled back from my first idea of all of us actually climbing up to the lookout after taking the ferry across. As it turned out, we were lucky to go for a short walk around the camp grounds with my brother and his children as we talked about our goals of weight loss, fitness, and the marathons we wanted to run. My niece and nephew, along with their new friend, the granddaughter of my parent’s new friends, were full of energy and life.

A rare family photograph

I felt fortunate that we had the time to take a group photograph at my parent’s camp site before they left. 11:00 am was coming up fast and it was starting to rain. They were packed up and ready to go, so we said our final good-byes. As it turned out, it was also the last night for their friends who had arrived earlier in the week, and they left as well. Sally and I decided to retreat back into our trailer as the rain picked up. Our cell phone signal was practically non-existent, and neither of us were really up for doing too much, so we took out our trusty portable DVD player and Twilight Zone box set and settled down to watch the episode, “A Hundred Yards Over The Rim.”

Eventually, the rain stopped, the episode was over, so we stepped outside for a walk. As we walked towards site 402, I was suddenly struck with a sense of melancholy. My greatest fear as a child was the fear of being left behind; a fear that was so strong, I would get off the school bus one stop before mine, which was the last stop, just so I would not be the last one left behind on the bus. Having just watched “A Hundred Yards Over The Rim,” I felt like how the character Christian Horne felt when he turned around to look back at the wagon only to see it gone. I realized how much I loved my brother, his family, and my parents, and started to wonder why we live in a culture that seems to keep us apart, when other cultures, like the Amish and the Mennonites, and indeed even other cultures from around the world, have developed in a way that places great value on these family connections.

Sally and I walked hand in hand down the long and lonely dirt road that leads to the Hardwood Hills campgrounds, talking about how we both felt about the time we spent with my parents, my brother, and his children, taking pictures along the way. I realized that it was us who left our son behind on this trip, and wondered how long it would be before his life became too complicated to co-ordinate with ours. We felt it to be a good idea to create an annual family tradition of a camping trip every summer, planned well ahead of time so that everyone could participate.

After our walk, we decided to drive up to the park store and visitor center, which are located at the historic area of the park where it’s very difficult to book a camp site unless you book it very early. We reflected on how fortunate we were to have each other to enjoy this sort of thing, and wished we didn’t have to keep it all to ourselves this weekend.

As evening quickly approached, I started up the campfire and we opened the bottle of my father’s homemade wine that he had left us. We cooked our dinner over the fire, enjoyed the wine, and fell asleep by the camp fire next to each other on our folding love seat.

We awoke just as early Sunday morning as we did Saturday morning. After having breakfast and packing up, we rode our bikes down to Joe Perry lake to get our exercise and to get one last picture together before leaving.

Just like my parents and my brother, we were packed up and ready to go by 11:00. As we were leaving, it started to rain. We drove by my parent’s site, #402, to find that some new campers were set up and enjoying the site, and so the cycle continues.

My new commute

Here’s a video showing what my commute was like yesterday:

It was cold and wet, but there was no traffic and I arrived to work invigorated. This is the way I like to commute.

The folly of the E-bike

I’ve been interested in e-bikes since their introduction. Here is something which someone could buy and use to get around on without needing insurance or licensing; these represented freedom. However, as I was soon to discover, this freedom is so restrained, it’s practically worthless.

I’m in the market for a new bike. My existing Raleigh Tarantula is now 23 years old. I’ve rebuilt the entire bike twice. It has served me well, but now I’d like something that would make the 10 kilometer commute back and forth to work easier and quicker. When I went to the local bike shop, they had a promotion where if I test rode an e-Bike, I could scratch a ticket and win a prize. How could I resist? I went for the best they had; a Trek Super Commuter+ 7. If I had to ride an eBike, this one is the best looking one of the bunch.

I’m not going to waste your time; there’s different settings for levels of assist, but suffice it to say that the electric assist helps you get up to 20 MPH (32 km/h), and that’s it. I found it nearly impossible to push this bike past that point. I don’t know if it was the weight of the bike, or if it was in some sort of “Regeneration” mode, but it really felt as though I hit a wall at 20 MPH, even when riding downhill. This was from a bike that was priced at $5,299.99.

My next test ride was on a Trek FX-3, priced significantly less at $939.99. The only barrier I felt on this bike was my own abilities; I easily got this bike up to 20 MPH and past. When I hit my limit, I felt as though that limit was dictated by the laws of gravity and the resistance of the wind against my body. When I hit my limit on this bike, that was the point when I would have liked an electric assist to act like a tail wind and help me maintain a 40 km/h (25 MPH) speed, as that is the natural limit I feel is the point at which the wind resistance is too great and I remain well within the limits of the brakes and wheel balance of the machine I am riding.

As it turns out, I am not alone in this. Many states have set the speed limit of e-bikes at 30 MPH, which is in around 48 km/h. This sets the speed limit of an e-bike at a slight super-human speed, but not excessively so. It also allows e-bikes to better blend with the speed of motorized vehicle traffic in and around a city, which makes them inherently safer, as it decreases the speed differential between the cyclist and the automobiles they must share the road with.

As it stands now, the traditional bicycle remains unbeaten as the most efficient means of self-powered transportation. As far as I’m concerned, it’s the ideal mode of transport inside of a 20 kilometer range. At a cost of less than 1/5th of an e-Bike, I was able to find a bike that delivered a solution which I believe will yield similar commute times and experience to that of the more expensive e-Bike. As far as I’m concerned, the bicycle as a mode of transportation is being severely under-utilized in my country, while their contemporary e-bikes are being unnecessarily over-restricted in what they could do. My advice is to spend the money on a really good traditional bicycle, unless you have some sort of disability; in which case, the e-bike starts to make sense.

OpenAudible

I am a fan of audio books. My experience with audio books started when I was looking for something to take the edge off of my commute to Toronto every day. I discovered this unique section at my local branch of the Oshawa Public Library, and back then they came on cassette tape. This made things convenient, as I could take the tape from my car and put it into my Walkman to continue listening to it. I even bought a few on cassette from the local book store at the mall. Later, this would turn into CD’s, on which I enjoyed Alan Alda’s “Never have your dog stuffed” and got through Moby Dick. Compact Discs were an inconvenient format, and when MP3 players came down in price, I would rip the library CD’s to low fidelity MP3’s that were perfect for what I needed. Then there was Audible.

That’s over half a gigabyte for the app alone!

The convenience that Audible offered cannot be understated. I felt their monthly subscription was a good value, and signed up. I realized early on that Audible files were a proprietary format, but they were supported with my favourite Sansa MP3 player, so that didn’t matter so much. When I moved on to an Android phone, I was a little frustrated that I had to install their app, which used up valuable space in my phone’s main storage. At this time, I could not install it to an external SD card. It was also frustrating when I wanted to share an audiobook with my family; my wife and son had to install the app as well, and I could only share with my wife. I couldn’t “Lend” an audiobook to my mother and father to enjoy. The breaking point was when I recognized that I could not play my Audible purchases in Linux. This concerned me as I wondered, what would become of my collection if Audible ever went out of business? Their app would eventually stop working with the latest operating systems, and that investment would be lost. Then there’s the fact that there is no good way for me to share my collection with my son or with future generations of grandchildren. I wouldn’t stand for this sort of thing with the music that I buy, so I see no reason that I should put up with these restrictions with audio books.

Good software, but how long will it work for?

Enter OpenAudible. As usual, I am not the first to think of this problem, so what OpenAudible does is it takes the audio books I legally purchased from Audible and converts them into an MP3 format. This allows me to enjoy my audio books with whatever audio player I choose, Now, this program wasn’t as intuitive on my installation of Ubuntu 18.04 as I would have liked. Installing it did not create an icon in my launcher, nor was there any obvious way for me to start it. After doing some digging, I discovered that this app installs itself in /opt/OpenAudible. I opened a terminal, typed in “cd /opt/OpenAudible” and then typed in OpenAudible to launch the program. After that, I followed the instructions on the OpenAudible web site and let it run all day to download and convert my collection.

Enjoying my legally purchased audio book in a Linux MP3 player.

Moving forward, I will cancel my subscription to Audible. However, I will continue to purchase books from Audible on a book-by-book basis, providing this application is still able to download and convert my Audible purchases for me. Should Audible see fit to permit the download of purchases in an open format, I may consider resuming a subscription. Meanwhile, I’ve rediscovered a great resource that I had been using years ago; that resource was LibreVox.

The future of all audiobooks

These are books that are in the public domain read by volunteers, and is a great way to get caught up on the classics. This is where I may divert some of the money I’ve been giving to Audible.

Facebook is desparate

It’s been some time since I’ve actually used Facebook. I’ve shared my blog posts from here to my timeline there, but that is an automated task that is accomplished through the software running on this blog. There is a lot of stuff I still want to transfer from Facebook; namely, the comments and background information provided by members of my family on some very old family photo’s that I’m going to transfer to my cloud, but I would have Facebook running in a container in Firefox in order to do that. Meanwhile, Facebook has been desperate to get me to use their “Service” again.

First are the e-mails. They’ve always sent me e-mails, but lately they’ve ramped that up to 30+ e-mails per day. These go to a secondary e-mail address and get filtered appropriately as spam, so I never actually have to see them unless I want to. But then after a month or so, my phone started blowing up with notifications. Chrome on my Android phone was sending me these notifications from Facebook. The strange thing was, I didn’t even have a Facebook tab open! It turns out that one does not need to have a tab open for Facebook to push notifications via Chrome once I “Allowed” Facebook to send me notifications, so I went into my Chrome settings and revoked this permission in my settings. Then things got weirder.

I started getting text messages from Facebook about activity that had been going on. Turns out that they are using the phone number I provided them for the purposes of two-step verification to spam me with notifications. They are like the creepy ex who wants to keep on pursuing a relationship long after they’ve been dumped for abusive behaviour that they’ve never acknowledged nor apologized for.

I suppose I did leave a lot of stuff at Facebook’s house, so I probably should get around to moving it over to my cloud, but still, this behaviour is unprecedented for an on-line service. The levels of manipulation Facebook uses goes deep, and this makes me glad that I’ve pretty much stopped using them.

An Invitation

A while ago, I noticed some people were leaving Facebook. Some were my friends, some were notable people. They all had well thought out reasons for doing so. For me, it was a heavy handed three day ban for the sin of posting a joke in a closed debate group – no, not banned from the debate group, as I didn’t actually do anything wrong or against the rules of the group, but from all of Facebook, because someone in the group, presumably the debater who’s argument was defeated by my joke, complained about being offended, and so my entire account was suspended for three days, without any ability to make an appeal.

Five months ago, Jeri Ellsworth announced she was deleting her Facebook account and moving on, and invited us to friend her on a new platform, MeWe. I signed up, because even five months ago, I was starting to recognize that Facebook wasn’t a good tech company. However, as much as MeWe professes that it’s much better than Facebook, it was a move from one closed system with terms of service to another closed system with admittedly much better terms of service, but terms of service nonetheless. Number one was telling me I could not violate any law or regulation. Well, there are some pretty stupid laws out there that need to be challenged and broken, like blasphemy, god damn it.

I understand that these companies need to have terms and conditions in order to protect themselves from liability, but there was also the glaring fact that I had exactly one friend on MeWe. None of the content I posted there would ever be seen by any of my real-world friends, and I couldn’t expect them to go to the trouble of signing up for yet another social media account, so I started this blog on an old computer of mine running open source software so that I could communicate and interact on the Internet on my own terms and conditions. This set me on a journey of discovery and learning like none other. I made some new friends along the way, and also some important discoveries.

It turns out that others see the problem with traditional social media, and that problem is the fact that we need to sign up for different services that profit from selling our information; friends on Facebook can’t see what friends on Twitter are posting, and vice versa. Imagine if you had a Yahoo e-mail account and had to sign up for G-mail in order to send and receive messages to and from your friends and family who also had G-mail. So now there is a new social media that has been created using open standards, like e-mail. The solution is a federated social media network that uses open standards. What this means is that anyone can set up their own social media server, choose from a variety of open source software packages with which to host their instance, and be able to share and see updates with friends and family just like Facebook or Twitter, but their friends and family can be on completely different servers running different software packages.

I would like to extend an invitation to all of my friends and family to join me in this new revolution. Just like e-mail, you don’t have to set up your own server if you don’t want to. Right now, the biggest and most popular servers are mastodon.social, as well as mastodon.xyz where you’ll find notable people like Larry Sanger, co-founder of Wikipedia. There are also many groups dedicated to certain tastes that you can browse through at joinmastodon.org. There are apps for Android and iPhone. I have an account on mastodon.social, @quirk@mastodon.social. I also have the Social app installed on my Nextcloud server, and have a federated social media address there of @paul@cloud.pquirk.com. I encourage all of my friends and family to find a federated social media instance or start your own if you’re as ambitious as me, and I’ll follow you. Together, we can kick the Facebook habit and take ownership of our social media experience. This is the future, so please join me and we can enjoy it together.

Ending the commute: A retrospective

To live and work in the same city: That’s the dream, isn’t it? To the rest of the world, this seems obvious; yet, to many people who live in the Greater Toronto Area, this is merely pie in the sky that requires compromises that many do not wish to make. You either need to live in an overpriced condo that’s barely big enough to turn around in, or you need to take a cut in pay to work at a place of employment that’s not in the center of the universe. After running the numbers, I came to the realization that the cost in time and money of my commute had become significantly greater than the difference in pay in accepting a position as an Electrician in the city in which I live, so I put in my two week’s notice. This is how it’s been so far.

What a commute!

In the week leading up to my last day at my old job, I had to train my replacement. During this time, I realized I could re-schedule my appointments with my dental specialist so that I would not need to miss any time at work, as they were within a 10 minute drive of my new place of employment. This would be a new thing for me, and put me in a very good mood. It was a fun week with a fellow electrician, but I admit I was eager to end my commute, so I put in extra time on Thursday to make sure the job was finished so that I could take Friday off. I submitted all of my paperwork Thursday, and bid my new replacement as well as my soon-to-be former colleagues and employer adieu.

On Friday, I called up my insurance company to advise them of the change in my commute. I was advised that the savings in insurance would be around $400 per year. I didn’t even consider this savings when I ran the numbers.

People arguing on the highway, is this healthy?

On Sunday night, I was all ready to start my new job. I noticed the gas in my truck was at a quarter tank. Normally, I would head out to a gas station Sunday night to top up my tank to make my Monday commute as smooth as possible, but not anymore; a quarter tank would be plenty to start the week.

Monday morning, I woke up at my usual time of 5:00am, because I’m used to it and the shop opens at 7 (my previous job started at 8). I had a leisurely breakfast, left the house at 6:30, sat in the line at McDonald’s for a coffee, and still arrived at work plenty early, breezing past the line up of cars waiting to get onto the highway. Monday was a good day where I got to meet my new co-workers and adjusted to this new culture. I discovered I was not alone in detesting the commute, as I was working alongside other ex-commuters. At the end of the day, I was home well before dinner time.

On Tuesday, I noticed that my truck still had a quarter tank of gas as I continued to adjust to my new workplace culture. Since part of my job involves documentation, I installed LibreOffice, Thunderbird, and Firefox on my workplace PC so that I could continue to use the apps I was familiar with. Doing wiring diagrams with Draw is a snap, the export to PDF function is a breeze, and it works so much better than Microsoft’s offerings. I’ve become as committed to using open source software as I am about ending my commute. I stopped at the dental specialist on my way home, and still arrived at home in plenty of good time to enjoy dinner and a quiet evening of watching Netflix.

My dream of driving an all-electric car started in April of 2011 and ended with my long commute.

Driving home on Wednesday, I noticed that the fuel gauge dipped a little below a quarter tank on my truck. Hearing that gas prices might go up, I decided to fill up. As I did, I wondered, would I even need to fill up once a week, or would a tank of gas last me two? Three? Maybe the entire month? If all I did was drive to work and back, I could get two months out of a tank of gas in my truck. Even a super gas miser sub-compact would have cost me $100 per week in gas with my old commute, and my truck, with its cylinder deactivation mode, was still costing around $150 a week, and the range of all but the most expensive electric cars wouldn’t even cut it for my commute. I often dreamed of buying an electric car just to avoid the gas line at the pump every other day. Now the occasional stop at the pumps didn’t seem so bad, and even a short range used Nissan Leaf with a diminished battery would offer plenty of range and utility if I didn’t need to tow my camper in the summer.

It was all sinking in by the time Thursday came around. My stress levels had gone down noticeably as I ran numbers through my head; between gas and the 407, I had easily been spending over $16,000 per year of after tax dollars ($20,000 of pre-tax dollars) between gas and tolls alone, never mind the stress and risks associated with such a long commute. I vowed that I would never do that kind of commute again. It was madness that had taken its toll.

Stuck on Highway 407 after a deadly accident.

Friday is a half day at my new job. With my old job, I was excited for half day Friday’s because it meant I could beat the traffic and get home at a reasonable time. Today, it meant that I truly had what felt like the start of a long weekend, as I went home to enjoy lunch and celebrate my first week at my new local job. The increase in the price of gas this weekend was all over the news, and I could not care less.

I remember a colleague from my Y2k programming days who quit his job when the company announced they were relocating from an office tower on the subway line in North York to a building far from any subway in Markham. He had become accustomed to a car-free and commute-free lifestyle where he would travel a short trip on the subway from his condo to work, and believed he could always find work in his field on the subway line in Toronto. At the time, I thought he was being short-sighted, but then I eventually was laid off from this company. I’ve lost touch with this man, but his conviction stuck with me and was a catalyst that drove me to change careers and start work at General Motors in the early 2000’s. A place where the years on the line and the closure of our plants caused me to forget as I focused on getting my trade license.

I started to write about this experience on my blog, but as the weekend wore on, I started to think, “What’s the big deal?” I mean, why even write about this? It all seems so absurd. As I reflect now, I realize that I didn’t want to compromise on owning a house and having a well paying job with excellent benefits, but was blind to all the other compromises this forced me to make on my lifestyle, health, and well-being. So now, I’m done – REALLY done. I don’t even want to talk or write about it anymore.