Your friendly neighbourhood über-browser

Vivaldi01There’s been a trend in the browser market in recent years – streamline and strip out features that ‘nobody’ uses, let someone else add them back via extensions or plugins.

This makes sense for those who only use the basic features, but for power users, developers, geeks and tweakers, all those plugins just slow down the browser, add bloat and risk causing the whole thing to fall over like a washing machine with a brick in the drum (google it).

Now, however, there’s Vivaldi.

Vivaldi03The beta is super-fast but still with tons of features and configuration options, even before it’s been officially released.

Stacked tabs, tiled browsing (side-by-side comparisons anyone?), keyboard shortcuts, customisation settings for EVERYTHING, the ability to use arrow keys to move between links (instead of just tabbing), etc, etc.

All your settings are belong to us...

All your settings are belong to us…

There’s also a really cool feature where the tab changes colour to match the favicon of the website you’re viewing. Plus, Sync and a minimal email client are in the pipeline.

Vivaldi is built from JavaScript – React and Node.js, plus other – and is based on the same Blink engine (WebKit fork) used by Google Chrome and Chromium.

It’s closed source, but you can’t have everything…

It’s like having the good old Opera back (before it lost the plot), with all the best bits of Firefox and Chrome as well.

The developers say they’re only just getting started – expect much, much more from this app.

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Home server project (part 2)

In an earlier post, I talked about putting together the hardware for my home server project, next I needed to load an operating system. This is where I ran into a few problems…

As my laptop runs Linux Mint day-to-day, a Windows server was never a consideration. Naively, I assumed there would be a raft of linux-based NAS or home server distros which I could install and be streaming episodes of Spaced to our Chromecast within hours.

I had a checklist of non-negotiable requirements:
– NAS file storage
– scheduled backups
– Plex media server
– Bit torrent
– Minecraft server for our son

I thought the hardest part would be choosing. On the face of it, I could be forgiven that assumption. The web is awash with reviews and suggestions – Amahi, OpenMediaVault, FreeNAS, NAS4Free, Rockstor, etc.

As a clear favourite in a lot of the web reviews I read, after some moderate to severe procrastination I eventually decided to try Amahi first. I expected to find an Amahi ISO to download, but the instructions for Amahi 8 required Fedora 21 to be installed first. Err… OK. Off I popped to Fedora.

The user is then expected to enter bash commands to install Amahi over the top of the Fedora Server install – I’m fine with that, but I imagine it could very off putting for someone with limited or no Linux experience.

Whilst waiting for Fedora to install, I signed up to Amahi and created my ‘hda profile’ (HDA apparently stands for home digital assistant), which seems like a very useful feature. However, a scan through the Amahi Apps (after creating an account) suddenly revealed that practically every ‘essential’ app is charged for – a bit of a cheeky surprise, but not a deal breaker. The way this is only revealed after creating an account, however, is somewhat disingenuous and sets the old ‘rip-off alert’ sirens going in my head.

After that, I noticed that several of the apps I wanted are still in beta, and the beta testing program has been closed to new testers. However, Pro account users can have ‘early access’ to beta apps for $7.95 per month – this was all starting to smell somewhat fishy, and I realised that the monthly charge option plus paid apps would quickly mount up. I don’t have a problem paying for software, indeed I’ve paid hundreds for pro-audio or office apps over the years, but I was starting to wonder what other hidden costs would materialise after I committed to an Amahi setup. Plus, I had no guarantee that everything would work as I wanted it to.

In the end, the choice was made for me when typing one of Amahi’s install commands generated an error every time. Onto the next…

Rockstor was more promising; built on CentOS, an ISO image available to download, easy to install and configure, quick to get up and running. It’s built over the top of BTRFS as the file system, with the benefits that brings, such as snapshots, checksums to guard against bitrot and SSD optimisation, etc. Plus, the web UI is gorgeous!

Rockstor also offers plugins, Docker containers called Rock-Ons, which seem to work very well. Rockstor is the only system on which I progressed to the point of getting Plex up-and-running, easily achieved with the Plex Rock-On. The selection is limited right now, but once the Rock-Ons platform is fully stable, I would anticipate a flood of existing Docker container projects being forked, adapted and tweaked to expand the range of Rock-Ons.

So, why didn’t I stick with Rockstor? The Bit Torrent Rock-On on offer is Transmission, which I just can’t get along with – a shame because Transmission seems to be the default torrenting app on so many Linux distros. Transmission was an irritation, but the deciding factor was that, try as I might, I just couldn’t get Rockstor to find one of my unformatted hard drives, and that it didn’t seem possible to plug in an external USB3 hard drive to transfer media files (as the external drive was formatted as NTFS not BTRFS). However, I was still hugely impressed by Rockstor’s features and wiped it somewhat reluctantly – I suspect I’ll be back in a few months to give it another try.

So that’s as far as I got this week – next, I’m planning to give OpenMediaVault and FreeNAS a whirl. If neither of those work for me, a DIY NAS on Ubuntu Server will probably be my fall-back.

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A fun little home server project

… or so I thought.

IMG_20150914_174238It started OK; about a year ago, I inherited an old desktop tower case from a neighbour who moved away, a Thermaltake Kandalf. This thing is a monster – almost two feet high and 22 kg, with built-in liquid cooling.

Having spent its life in the Arabian desert, it needed a lot of cleaning to get rid of all the sandy dust, and then it sat in a cabinet until I finally got around to doing something with it last week.

It still needed another proper clean – every time we have a sandstorm here, everything in the house gets covered with a layer of yellow dust.

IMG_20151009_205206There are seven internal 3.5″ hard drive bays ready to use, as well as four or five additional 5.25″ drive bays that could be used with adapters.

One of the planned uses for this server will be as our NAS and backup machine, so having some space to expand is a plus. I already had some spare hard drives from the desktop PC I gave to a friend when we left the UK.

With the addition of a PSU, a veteran gaming motherboard, an Intel i5-4690 CPU and a stick of RAM, we have pretty well everything we need for our home server.

I don’t plan to use the built-in water cooling radiator and connections right now, as the unit is running cool and very, very quiet right now, but the option is there if I need better cooling later – the coolant pipes are tucked away neatly at the bottom of the case.

It had been a while since I last built a PC, but everything seemed to fit together as easily as I remember – if not more so these days. Whilst fitting the motherboard, I realised that the three fans in the front panel have two-pin connectors, which means that the motherboard (having four-pin connectors) won’t be able to control their speed, so I picked up a cheap four fan controller as well.

IMG_20151009_204959 IMG_20151009_205054

OK, now to install an operating system.

Loads of choice out there…  what could possibly go wrong?

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On a quick visit to the UK, to sell or give away most of our belongings, pack up what’s left and ship out to our new life, in the sunny, dusty desert.

I’m trying to prepare my wife for just how crazy the roads are in Riyadh. She’s a bad enough passenger in Manchester, so the drive from the airport to our new home should be fun…

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To the desert…

So, tomorrow I leave for Riyadh – a new life as an expat, in a country that is virtually impossible to visit otherwise. Naturally I am somewhat apprehensive, but excited in equal measure.

I will be leaving my wife and son behind in the UK for about three months, which is going to be a challenge for a family that’s close, but the toughest bit right now is that I will miss my son’s birthday next week. Hopefully the next few months will pass quickly.

Still, our new life in Arabia promises to be truly life-changing. I’m looking forward to when we’re reunited in our new home.

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Linux Mint 15

I have just updated the Linux Mint partition on my laptop to version 15 ‘Olivia’, and moved from the MATE-based to the Cinnamon-based spin.

So far, I’m very impressed. It’s built on Ubuntu 13.04, and has inherited the performance improvements of the new Ubuntu release.

It boots quickly, it seems smoother and more stable than my previous experiences with Cinnamon, and the Mint branding is looking better than ever.

Looking through the list of new features and improvements, Clem and the team must have collectively put more hours into this release than any of the previous ones.

I like the MintSources tool, the HTML greeter is nice and I love the ‘Desklets’. The screensaver with away message is also a clever idea – I’m amazed nobody has thought of that before. There are some gorgeous new backgrounds too. I’d still like to see better category browsing in the Mint Software Manager, but that’s a very minor niggle.

I’ve already done a bit of minor visual tweaking – as always, I’ve added the Mint logo in place of the cog on the Mint Menu, and I’ve put the panel at the top of the screen, with window and workspace hot corners at the bottom left and right respectively.

All-in-all, a good solid new release from the Mint crew. With OpenSUSE and Manjaro still installed as well, it’s now even harder to choose when my GRUB screen appears…

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Preston Hackspace

Yesterday evening, I went to the first meeting of the newly-formed Preston Hackspace group, held in the civilised surroundings of the New Continental – one of my favourite pubs in Preston, and very well stocked with beers and ales of various kinds.

We met in the very warm and bright conservatory area, which made looking at laptop screens a bit of a challenge, but luckily the evening was mostly about chatting and getting to know each other, rather actual hacking.

There were plenty of ideas being chucked around, and it was interesting to hear about the breadth of experience across the various people who attended.

Should be interesting to see how this one pans out…

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I recently came across this video, which helped me understand the basics of how Openstack does what it does:

I really love the idea of OpenStack – an open-source cloud platform that’s fast becoming the industry standard, and displacing the proprietary cloud standards in the market – but the underlying technology is not simple, and seems to involve a steep learning curve.

OpenStack started out as a joint project between NASA and Rackspace, combining elements from an older NASA platform called Nebula and Rackspace’s existing Cloud Files service. The idea was to make an open source platform available to install on consumer hardware, thereby bringing the cost of offering cloud-computing services considerably. OpenStack has already been embraced by Ubuntu and Fedora, making it simpler to deploy a series of servers quickly and (relatively) cheaply.

There’s a great piece in the OpenStack FAQ to explain what it’s about:

How do you describe OpenStack to your parents?

This is a great question because I have been in that position before, I like to explain to them with simple examples so that they can correlate with their everyday activities, for instance my father loves to fix almost everything and he waste a lot of time looking for the right tool for the job that he is trying to do, so one day I told him that the Cloud was a toolbox always reachable that will give him the right tool at the moment that he needs it, after a couple of minutes later, he smiled to me and said “When can I have it?”  I just smiled back to him!

More info here:

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Free at last!

My IT shackles have finally been removed!

After four years of struggling to deliver against the constraints of a locked down PC, I’ve finally managed to persuade the powers that be to allow me a ‘developer build’, along with other members of the team.

This allows us a small measure of additional control over our Windows XP boxes, not least of which is the ability to defrag the HD (at last!), and install applications.

Right off the bat, I installed PowerPivot for Excel, Firefox, Chrome, GIMP, LibreOffice, Notepad++, Eclipse, WinPython (python 2.7 and a whole load of useful libraries and applications), Git, MySQL and PostgreSQL.

Just having the tools available to streamline my workflow is already paying dividends. Plus, I’m now enjoying my work more than ever…

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Getting my HEAD around Git

Since getting involved in a Python development project at work, I’ve also had to start using Git.

There’s a lot about Git that I don’t fully understand, but I found the term ‘HEAD’ and the concept it refers to particularly opaque until I had a chat with a colleague about it.

Apparently, HEAD can be viewed as the currently checked-out branch, ie the one that you’re working on. My understanding is that HEAD is akin to a setting or property that tells Git where to point the details of edits you’ve made.

Just to confuse matters, it seems there is also a difference between ‘HEAD’ and ‘head’; with the uppercase version being the currently selected branch, and there being more than one ‘head’ for each branch in the repository.

A quick search of YouTube brings up this talk about Git, including explanation of key terms like HEAD/head.

Slight tangent, and it may be an old blog post now (2007), but I like Zack Rusin’s Git Cheat Sheet too – I’m a visual kind of person, and the commands sequence diagram suits my ‘scribble it on a whiteboard’ thought patterns quite nicely.

Hopefully the information above will help someone who’s where I was a little while ago, struggling to understand what Git is all about, and developing migraines in the process! Of course, if you feel my interpretation is incorrect, please feel free to leave a comment. Any input or clarification is welcome!

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Back to work

Back to work this week…

There’s lots going on, as ever, and plenty to get stuck into. We’re looking at the entire business intelligence and operational reporting capability that the team and I have been developing, tweaking, evolving and supporting for the past four years that I’ve been here, and before that.

The sheer volume of data and information we now make available has become difficult to assess at a glance, and the senior management team would benefit from a single-page ‘health check’, so that’s what I’m looking into right now.

In all, I’m glad to be back, and getting my teeth into a new project.

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Brave new Ubuntu

With Mark Shuttleworth having closed Ubuntu’s Bug #1 recently, and Canonical raising the heckles of yet more Linux developers and even members of the Ubuntu community by announcing that it is dropping Wayland as the successor to X, in favour of its in-house developed Mir, I wonder if this means we’ll start seeing linux-based malware targeted specifically at Ubuntu distributions.

I hope that’s way off the mark, at least technically, preferably socio-politically as well, but data/financial theft motives aside, there has been a huge amount of malware over the years, designed by malcontents and idealogical opponents of MS, for the sole purpose of bringing down Windows systems en masse. I feel it would be a huge shame if that started happening to Ubuntu-based systems as well.

Just a thought…


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Partition madness

The state of my hard drives is getting out of hand.

There’s not really anything wrong with them, as such – it’s just that my distro-hopping habit has become a create-new-partition-and-install-new-distro habit.

Yes, I know I could satisfy my addiction using virtual machines (I do that as well using VirtualBox or VMWare), but I quite enjoy the whole partitioning and installing process, as well as the subsequent challenges sometimes involved in getting the new distro up-and-running. That’s right; I said I enjoy it, believe it or not. The people on Linux QuestionsUbuntu Forums and each of the distros’ individual communities have been a huge help in my many hours of need.

My laptop currently has four distros installed alongside Windows 7; Linux Mint, Ubuntu Studio, Manjaro (for development) and CentOS minimal (server, for tinkering with and learning), but that’s just the start of it. On our family desktop, all booting happily next to Windows 7, we now have;

  • Linux Mint
  • Ubuntu Studio
  • Manjaro
  • Kubuntu
  • Ubuntu 12.04 LTS (Unity)
  • ElementaryOS
  • Debian
  • CrunchBang
  • SolusOS
  • CentOS
  • Fedora
  • Fuduntu
  • OpenSUSE
  • Mageia
  • ROSA
  • PCLinuxOS
  • Sabayon
  • Chakra
  • Bridge
  • ArchBang
  • Slackware
  • BackTrack
  • Raring testing

OK… I recognise that I may have developed a slight obsession here…

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Ubuntu Studio documentation

I’ve been using Ubuntu Studio since I started experimenting with Linux again last November – it’s a great, multimedia-focused distribution based on Xubuntu, and it comes with all sorts of audio, video and graphics applications pre-installed. It also has a low-latency kernel, which (in theory) means that any real-time audio or video processing should proceed without getting interrupted by routine software updates or suchlike.

However, I hate to admit this, but I still don’t find it anywhere near as easy to lay down a quick backing track or indulge in some ad-hoc sound design as it is in Windows 7 or OSX. Part of this is bound to be familiarity – I had quite a bit of experience using both Windows and OSX for audio stuff – but the main issue is that the open-source pro-audio applications available and the linux audio stack just doesn’t seem quite as well-developed. Recording multi-track audio seems more than adequately covered by Ardour, but the electronic music industry has now pretty well embraced VST/AU plug-ins and virtual instruments, and it’s not easy (maybe impossible) to replicate the kind of plug-and-play workflow of applications like Ableton Live, Cubase or Logic Pro using the open source options currently available (yep, including the all-powerful Ardour).

Luckily, one of Ubuntu Studio’s real strengths is the documentation available, including the Ubuntu Studio Wiki, so if there’s a way to achieve a particular task, you can usually find out how in the docs. Another of the things I love about open source software is the opportunity to contribute, and I approached the Ubuntu Studio team last month about helping out – they told me that they could do with some help reviewing and updating the documentation. We agreed that the perfect place for me to start was with the Pro Audio Intro and the Jack Quick Start. I’m working my way through both of these (when I get chance alongside work stuff), but I’m having great fun learning about Ubuntu Studio and audio on linux in general.

UPDATE 27/06/2013: Unfortunately, since I learned that my current contract work contract will be ending soon, my focus has been (and will be for the foreseeable future) on ‘up-skilling’ in technology that’s more relevant to work, so Ubuntu Studio has had to take a back seat for the time-being…

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Be cool

MatchFlameI’ve just been reading a great blog post on Linux Advocates by Ken Starks called ‘time to put on our Big Boy pants‘, and it really struck a chord with me.

The only reason I got anywhere using the various operating systems and applications I’ve experimented with over the years is because I’ve clicked away at them like a big kid until I broke them (if I could), then had to work out how to fix what I broke, and learned a whole lot about how they worked in the process.

Now that we’re seeing the Raspberry Pi in schools and old PCs given a new lease of life with Linux, before being given to children who can’t afford a brand new one, there are ever greater numbers of kids out there doing the same thing – clicking, breaking, fixing, learning.

For this reason, it’s all the more important for those of us who populate the Linux and open-source communities to set a better example. Quite frankly some of the behaviour we all see now is worse than childish.

The other tangent of the article related to the usability and naming of apps, and sometimes it does feel a little like these are specifically designed to be off-putting or intimidating. This is self-defeating. As more talented young coders start to find their feet, those deliberately obstructive, “you’re not worthy” types of packages will be superseded by better and more user-friendly options that those young programmers will create themselves… and ultimately forgotten in the mists of history.

I get that some people feel that running Linux makes them the underdog, and that they love this. However, when the platform you use and the communities that surround it start gaining popularity, surely that should be celebrated – it shows that you were right all along in your choice.

If your reaction is to belittle and shame some unfortunate kid who doesn’t know the basics, and maybe doesn’t yet have the language skills needed to express themselves to your satisfaction… that’s not going to stop the influx of new people to your community, it just makes you look a little pathetic.

Surely a guiding hand is going to benefit us all much more than a slap in the face? It will benefit the poor kid (or average joe/joanna, or silver surfer) trying to find their way, it will benefit the community as a whole, and who knows, it might even benefit the person who thinks twice before spouting bile.

If we encourage a new generation of Linux-based hackers, coders and admins, if a greater proportion of the general population know how to manage their operating system and create elegant applications, surely that benefits all of us? Don’t worry, there will still be plenty of work to go around. We’re on the cusp of a new era in computing, all the signs are pointing to that. Let’s open the doors and really see what we can build together.

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#2 – learn to code

Original Image Attribution: Tim Lucas,

Original Image Attribution: Tim Lucas,

Well, that’s one of my New Year’s Resolutions anyway, to learn programming.

So, this is how I’m planning to go about it.

First, I’ve started Mozilla’s School of Webcraft at the ‘Peer To Peer University’ (P2PU). I’ve got some basic experience with HTML, but it looks like things move on fairly quickly to CSS and there seem to be modules on PHP and Python too. I like the way this site is set up. When you’re starting out on your learning journey, there are peers and mentors to help you through. It’s free to join and participate. Once you get competent at a subject, you can put yourself forwards as a mentor, and give something back to the community that helped you. I’ve yet to really see how that works in reality, but I like the idea.

Next, I think I’ll work through some of the courses at Codecademy, which is also free to use, by the looks of it. They have courses in jQuery, Javascript, Python and Ruby.

Then, it’s off to Learn Python The Hard Way by Zed A. Shaw, which is available to buy as a book, with the material on the website kindly made available for free. This course uses a technique that I’ve tried in the past, and I know works with me. You’re given clear instructions to carry out, which you do step-by-step, and repeat until they sink in – after that, what you’ve just done, and its significance, is explained. Zed has also written courses on Ruby, C, SQL, Regex and the Command Line Interface, most of which I’d like to work through at some point.

Finally, I’ve also bought a book: Python Programming for the Absolute Beginner by Mike Dawson (Amazon UK link). I haven’t properly looked through this yet, but it came recommended.

If you have any advice on which programming languages are good to learn, or of great resources to do so, please feel free to leave a comment below – I’m interested to hear your opinion.

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New Year’s Resolutions 2013

OK, I’m finally done – it’s ‘New Year’s Resolutions’ time.

In the spirit of social accountability, I’ve decided to go public this year, so feel free to harass me about my progress at any time in the coming year. Here goes…

In 2013, I plan to:
1) Run my first marathon.
2012 was supposed to be the year, but I was thwarted by injury a month before the marathon I signed up for.

February will be spent recovering from an operation, but sometime in March, I’ll be back out on the streets and trails, building miles and working on my pace.

By June, I’ll be ready to take part in the Freckleton Half Marathon again, with a full marathon entered for later in the year.

2) Really learn how to code.
By the end of the year I will be able to:
– write shell scripts and administer Linux using bash,
– confidently contribute to php/mysql/html5/js projects,
– write applications in python.
I also want to gain a better understanding of big data and cloud technologies (eg hadoop, openstack).

3) This year I’d like to help my wife make even more of a success of her online businesses. Seeing sales gradually creep up week on week over the past few months has been exciting, and has brought home to me how ecommerce success, although not instant, is rewarding the consistent hard work that my wife has put into these ventures (over years). It’s important to state that I do enjoy my day job and the challenges it offers, but I also enjoy working alongside my wife, and I’d like to do more of that.

4) Write an ebook.
I’m still undecided on the subject for this, but I rediscovered the pleasure of writing in 2012, and I’m going to capitalise on that this year. The book needn’t be especially long for me to achieve some sense of achievement, but I’d like to produce something that at least one reader will find useful.

5) Compose a four track EP.
I’ve been neglecting music for too long, and I still get ideas and snippets of tunes popping into my head regularly, so I’ll stop procrastinating and get some ideas down this year. Four tracks isn’t too onerous a target, so this won’t take much focus away from everything else I’m doing in 2013. I’ll also use it as an opportunity to learn/re-learn to play the guitar properly.

6) Take a holiday.
It’s been far too long (years!) – this year we are going to take a proper holiday as a family… and relax. It would be nice to take our boy to Disneyworld; he’s been saving his pocket money towards that for about two years. In any case, it must be somewhere warm, and the UK doesn’t count. I know that’s not politically correct in some quarters to say that, but I’m fed up of being cold!

7) Buy a car.
Time for an upgrade. We’ve been umming and ahhing about it for a good couple of years now, and it’s time to do something about it.

8) Get back my pilot licence.
Revalidate my lapsed PPL and start flying regularly again.

Well, that should keep me busy. All feedback, advice, support, encouragement or ribbing welcomed!

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What it’s all about…

Scrunched NewspaperThe following is a list of stuff that I’m interested it, and so will probably ramble on about – some more than others, most likely. The list below is not exhaustive, and I will probably find other stuff that interests me over time, as I tend to do…

  • computing, specifically linux, open-source software, programming, data, reporting, business intelligence;
  • general science, technology and engineering subjects, particularly physics or space-related;
  • environmental research and green technology;
  • self-building, going off-grid and smart home tech;
  • aviation, especially small general aviation aircraft and aerobatics;
  • travel, backpacking and going on adventures;
  • running, fitness and nutrition;
  • …and whatever else pops into my head.

Stuff may appear sporadically – there could be a number of posts then nothing for a while. But I’ll try to make sure it’s worth reading.

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