Digital Calendar Fun!

May 3, 2018 6:13pm
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This is a project that I’ve been looking forward to working on for a long time! Thankfully by the time I finally got around to it, most of the messy stuff has been worked out by other people and throwing this together was actually pretty easy… 😉

Ever since I realized that my wife and I could share a calendar via Google, it seemed like a no-brainer to help keep me on the same page because I’m the one who can never keep track of doctor’s appointments and all of the random stuff that we’ve got going on for the family throughout the month. The thing is, Google Calendar is great when I’m on the go and just want to check something on my phone real quick, but when I’m at home, I still like the simplicity of a wall calendar hanging in the kitchen or my office to be able to see at a glance if we’ve got anything going on that week.

The solution is actually pretty simple:

  • one old computer display (I picked this 22″ Dell up at a used monitor sale for $10)
  • one Raspberry Pi (I’m using the zero model because barely any CPU is needed here)
  • one free account on DAKboard.com

What’s cool is when I originally thought about doing this, I figured I’d have to create a custom page and embed the calendar from Google in it, and then host that locally on the Pi along with any photos that I wanted to incorporate into some sort of slideshow, but instead the DAKboard folks have done all of that heavy lifting for me by creating a web service that pulls in calendar info using iCal, as well as weather data, news via RSS feeds, even a to-do list from Todoist, plus background images from sites like Instagram and Flickr!

I literally fought with my Raspberry Pi for two days because I got a bad USB dongle in my order and couldn’t get it to recognize a keyboard/mouse, and then setup the calendar itself using DAKboard’s features in about 20 minutes.

The display is just a full screen Chromium browser pointed at the Private URL that DAKboard gives you.

I added one line of code to the Pi’s config.txt file to rotate the screen to better resemble a wall calendar.

Now pretty much all I have left is to modify the startup script to have it automatically load Chromium and go right to that URL, install a script to make the cursor disappear on inactive, and then figure out how to hang the thing on the wall!

(and luckily, DAKboard has a neat-o blog post that details pretty much all of this stuff!)

It’s kind of surprising how quickly this much came together once I actually started – I do have a wishlist, but it’s admittedly pretty small…

  • Incorporate a motion sensor that will put the screen to sleep once everyone goes to bed (no idea how to do this)
  • Incorporate some sort of controls to allow flipping between months (my wife insists that this is vital to completely replace our paper calendar)
  • Create a separate photo account specifically for calendar photos (because it’s neat to link to Instagram, but I take pictures of dumb stuff sometimes that doesn’t belong on our family calendar!)
  • Support for more than one screen (I think DAKboard right now only supports one and I can see having different layouts for kitchen vs office, etc…)
  • Hide the power cords once this is mounted to the wall (it’s going to be a pain, but I basically just need to install a new outlet wherever the calendar will go)

I suppose I should point out that DAKboard’s business is actually in selling a retail version of this where everything is done for you, though they didn’t pay me to write this post … but I’d be happy to write a review if they want to send me a free unit to try out! 😉

Theirs is still a little pricey – $299 for a 24-inch display, whereas mine will likely still be less than $75 even after I pick up a wall mount for it.

Hopefully the price will come down, though, as displays continue to get cheaper. I see it as an alternative to the digital picture frame craze that we had a few years ago, but thankfully with a much larger display! With everything else so dynamic and connected around us, it seems weird to still be penciling in appointments on a piece of paper hanging on the wall, and at least this is still cheaper than hanging a full-fledged iPad to fulfill that coveted touch capability. 😀

If I was buying a monitor specifically for this, I’d aim for a slightly newer one with built-in USB (to eliminate a power cable for the Pi) and HDMI (to avoid an extra adapter from DVI to HDMI to micro HDMI), but you really don’t need much … I’m pretty sure you can still get displays like that in the neighborhood of $100.

I’ll be sure to post something else if/when I figure out all of that trickier stuff, but for now I’m pretty satisfied!

Machine Learning for a Better Search

April 30, 2018 9:56pm
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I wanted to expand more on the comment I made earlier on my micro-blog about how to build a better search function because the more that I think about it, the more I believe that this addresses one of the Internet’s biggest problems right now.

We went from limited information before the digital age to endless information a few decades in, but now what we really need to focus on is putting the right information in front of people.

Or, as my micro example cited – it should be easier to find the source of a topic than it is to find commentary about that topic.

And as if grading your sources wasn’t difficult enough, I’m going to throw one more curveball into the mix – you can’t blacklist an article based on its publisher, with my thought process here being simply that sure, 95% of what places like Fox News and Breitbart post is absolute garbage, but…

  1. We want everyone to use and rely on this new search method and people aren’t as likely to jump onboard if their favorite sources, damned as they may be, are automatically excluded from the mix.
  2. But more importantly, even if 95% of what someone writers is pure drivel, we want to encourage that remaining 5% to rise above the rest because that’s how you change opinions.

Now most of this is well beyond my level of expertise, but I know that there are methods in use today to determine “the quality” of a body of text based on sentence structure, vocabulary, etc… The question is, how can we expand on that logic to categorize stories based both on quality as well as what they bring to the table. Because hey, there’s a lot of opinion on the Internet and I certainly don’t want to discount that – I’m just saying that when somebody searches for a topic, they should be presented with facts first and editorial second.

It gets even trickier when you don’t have a fairly clean example like the one I used – even with regards to the White House Correspondents’ Dinner, there were multiple videos that contained the full speeches from the dinner … some were censored, some were from different outlets … but what about when it’s not even that cut and dry?

A video of President Trump saying XYZ would be the most accurate source, but if instead you have news reports sharing what it was that he said – and possibly some with more/less context or fact correction in their articles – then that becomes very subjective to try and decide which one did the best job of reporting XYZ that then deserves to be at the top of the search results.

I kind of have a love/hate relationship with Google these days because I know that they’re trying to filter out the literally billions of pages on the Internet, and they do say that they look at things like user experience and reblogging to help rank their results, but at the same time I still see those hideous, clickbait ads from Taboola and Outbrain on some of the biggest websites seemingly without penalty.

How does a search engine remain independent while trying to sort relevancy as well as fact from fiction, alongside people constantly working to game the system to get their garbage to float to the top to make the ad bucks???

Maybe it’s time to learn a thing or two about machine learning and get to work on this… 😉

Whatever happened to RSS readers???

April 23, 2018 9:19pm
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I guess they just went away with the rise of social media and apps and notifications, though for what it’s worth I always found that a bit silly because I don’t want a dedicated app on my phone for every single website that I visit!

…not to mention, what about the ones that don’t have apps … like mine? 😯

In continuing with my hiatus from social media, this has been somewhat of a challenge for me because there are definitely sites that I still want to keep up with, but I might not necessarily want the rest of the chatter of following them on social media, and not for nothing but algorithmic sorting makes it harder and harder to see stuff that I actually want to see, anyways!

So I stumbled back across this feature built into WordPress.com for subscribing to blogs. It was originally designed specifically for blogs hosted on WP.com, but was eventually extended to all WordPress blogs via Jetpack and now it looks like you can follow just about any site with an RSS feed because I’ve setup follows with blogs on Blogger and Typepad, too!

It’ll be interesting to see if it scales out well if I want to add a couple dozen more sites to be able to include news outlets and whatnot in addition to my writer friends and folks I’ve come to admire online, but for now it’s honestly just nice to get a list of posts in the order that they were actually published as opposed to the order in which an algorithm thinks I want to read them … with plenty of targeted ads interspersed, no less!

Oops – no HTTP/2 today…

April 23, 2018 4:08am
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Note to Self: DON’T MAKE SERVER CHANGES WITHOUT WRITING DOWN WHAT YOU’RE CHANGING FIRST!!!!!

So … about 11 hours ago, I thought that I’d try to upgrade my web server to use HTTP/2.

It sounded like a great idea after reading this article from Yoast, so I spun up Easy Apache and found the mod_http2 option. It mentioned that I needed to switch from one MPM to another, but I didn’t really think much of it.

To make matters worse, I also used the same time to uncheck a few random Apache and PHP modules that I didn’t think I needed.

As soon as I restarted Apache, sites already started looking hosed. 

Some wouldn’t even render their CSS, others were missing random images. But I didn’t know enough about HTTP/2 yet to realize whether I had actually screwed something up or if I just needed to make some modifications to WordPress to get everything working correctly.

At one point I thought that maybe all I needed was this HTTP/2 Server Push plugin, as I started to understand that HTTP/2 handles requests a lot faster, so was it possible that the browser was just getting the CSS file and other images too late and didn’t know what to do with them?

No, not really.

I also dug deep into caching issues, which is always a mess because I run Varnish and some of my sites use W3 Total Cache, though it’s currently disabled on my multisite install due to weird config issues. I also cleared my own browser cache and tried other browsers, but no luck.

Eventually I started to dig into the whole some images loading but others weren’t thread, and even more peculiar – I run three WordPress installs on this server … two multisites and one standalone, and only my big multisite install had issues!

This got me thinking back to some of the permissions issues I’ve had with Apache and PHP while trying to get APC working (quick summary – APC is supposed to be wicked fast, but won’t run under the SuPHP handler, only DSO … which handles permissions for running Apache different than SuPHP). What was weird was that images I had uploaded recently were missing, but the older images were fine … and note that all of the files were still present on the file system itself.

I gradually conceded that I needed to give up on HTTP/2 for now and roll back to what I had before, though this was a giant pain because I’d run Easy Apache so many times that something got corrupted in the config and I ended up making the biggest changes using YUM via SSH.

I got moved back from mod_mpm_event and mod_http2 over to mod_mpm_prefork, though that didn’t seem to make a difference.

Then on a whim I reinstalled mod_ruid2 because of this helpful explanation – Run all httpd process under user’s access right.

AND BAM – MY SITES ALL STARTED RELOADING PERFECTLY AGAIN LIKE MAGIC!!!

Well, almost like magic. I still had a lot of plugins to reactivate and other troubleshooting steps that I’d taken to reverse, but now … as far as I can tell … my WordPress network is back to the way it was 11 hours ago before I decided to try and setup HTTP/2 “on a whim!”

Clearly I need to do a lot more research into it, and also probably spin up a test site or something, before I start monkeying with that hassle all over again. 😛

Made in China

April 13, 2018 8:14pm
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The last couple of days I’ve been kind of fascinated by videos of people buying things in the gigantic, multi-story super malls in China. It started from revisiting this video of a guy who built his own iPhone from parts that he bought in Shenzhen!

Of course, it’s not so much about the economics, but more so just one of those things because he could that’s impressive to me. I’ve built plenty of my own computers in my days, but small enough to fit in your pocket is a whole new ballgame that I don’t think my own soldering ability is up for the task! 😉

But from there I started watching these videos from another guy shopping the same market – primarily for counterfeit goods because apparently they’re everywhere…

Although he’s shopping mostly for clothes instead of electronics, which I don’t really care about, it intrigues me nonetheless for so many reasons…

  • Despite everyone selling knockoffs of major brands, the brands themselves don’t really mean much in China simply because counterfeiting is so widespread that everyone knows that what everybody else is wearing is fake.
  • The price flexibility is ridiculous – to start at something like 4,000 Chinese Yen ($632 USD) and work your way down to 150 YEN ($24) … it’s always interesting to me to see where the margin that products sell for falls, but it’s particularly apparent when you have products here that they’re trying to sell for name brand prices that realistically cost pennies to make.
  • …or do they? Consider that how a lot of counterfeiting of clothing takes place is simply by the factory making it to leak the plans, or for all we know it could be happening in the exact same factory! If it looks just like the original, and it’s made in the same place as the original, how fake is it?
  • And of course, salesmanship continues to astound me because you have to be so persistent to do that kind of thing amid eye rolls and people walking away. It’s always surprised me when we go on a cruise and you have those kinds of sellers in Caribbean countries – no matter how good of a deal you think you’re getting, they’re no doubt still making money off of you.

It makes me wonder the extent of this same kind of counterfeiting in the electronics area – some things like full devices and iPhone backs make sense, but looking at the parts the guy bought in the first video, it begs the question of how many were counterfeits and how many were parts out of recycled phones and whatnot. I mean, I know that it exists to some extent – probably quite a bit, considering that there are entire counterfeit Apple stores that pop up around China, but to what level do they take it?

And then the ethical question to end on – when the west exploits so much of their cheap labor to make these devices and shoes and purses, can you really blame them for finding a way to get a leg up in this commerce game when otherwise their numbers are being bought and sold for next to nothing???

Long before Facebook and Twitter, building my own websites, and even a graphical interface to the Internet in general … there was a Host: prompt.

This is what we saw when we “got online” … at least after fighting for dial-up access lines at the local library that would get snapped up like hotcakes the moment kids started getting out of school. Of course, it probably didn’t help that you had kids like me who would literally connect for hours and hours at a time, whether I was chatting with strangers from around the state or exploring whatever random bits of information gopher found for me or even hacking and slashing my way through MUDs before World of Warcraft and other MMORPGs ever became a thing!

One of the very first sites that I ever came across while surfing this strange, new text-based world was a BBS-like community online called Grex. Living in the middle of nowhere, we didn’t really have much for BBSes because everything would’ve been long-distance, so aside from a single friend’s BBS that his parents let him run out of their lake house when they weren’t there to need the line, Grex was really the first multi-user community I found where multiple users could actually be online at the same time!

In addition to just random chat rooms that would fill with other high school and college kids, as well as the local computer club enthusiasts that ran the place, I eventually also got involved with their forums (which they called conferences). I settled upon a group that talked about pretty much everything that a 14 year-old me was interested in … video games, RPGs, and a little Magic: The Gathering, and that’s where I would do my socializing after school while other kids were out doing whatever normal kids did back in 1994…

It kind of impresses me that some 23 years later, Grex is actually still out therethough from reading through the conferences it’s a shell of its former self and likely only hasn’t been shuttered simply because it would be too much effort. But you can actually still see all of my old posts either by browsing the links below or even better by searching for one of my usernames.

From what I can tell, I had three different ones during my time there:

  • seveners – my first and most unoriginal username
  • setzer – the suave gambler from Final Fantasy 3 (VI)
  • gandalf – we all know who he is…

Stumbling back across this stuff is enough to make me wonder if it’s worth trying to archive this stuff for posterity somehow, though it’s kind of like a half-step ahead from reading private emails … I guess the idea of it all is really more nostalgic than the actual content!

Still, I could run a quick script against it and stuff them in an archive somewhere to find again in another 20 years and that might be neat, even if only to see if I can still remember what Final Fantasy and Magic and Game Genie codes ever were in the first place. 😉

Right now I’m in the process of pruning and reorganizing my various sites a bit – mostly finishing what I started back at the end of the year, but also in consolidating a few other sites into my WordPress multisite install to make everything easier to manage.

I was just looking over plugins in preparation of bringing comedic-genius.com into the mix and I got to wondering how many of them are even still active. My multisite network as a whole currently has over 50 plugins installed, yet I’ve got to imagine that there are probably a good handful that are really only being used for one specific site…

…if they even still work at all! 😛

So I found this cool plugin – WDS Active Plugin Data – and it creates this really simple visual showing every plugin currently in the network, where it’s active, and even differentiates between single-site and network-wide activations!

Now it should just be a matter of deleting the ones not in use altogether as well as reviewing the single-site ones to see if there’s anything that can also be removed or at least consolidated with other more featured plugins.

Good stuff! 😀

my computer rigs, 2017 edition

April 19, 2017 1:23am
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It’s been a while since I’ve written a post like this, so between reading back through this random post about backups from three years ago that I stumbled across tonight as well as trying to blog more myself, here we are! 😉

My Primary Computer
Speaking of 2014, I’m still using the MacBook Air that I got for Christmas that year and I still absolutely love it. You couldn’t pay me enough money to switch back to Windows because I still have a laptop with Windows 7 on my desk for work and I hate it with a passion. I can’t tell you how many stupid errors and nonsensical slowdowns that I get with Windows that I just never see with my Mac.

Every once in a blue moon, I will occasionally see my MacBook crash hard, but it’s nothing compared to Windows!

Anyways, I still run Microsoft Office for Word and Excel because I’m just too used to them and I don’t care for the Google or Mac alternatives. Also, I’m a big fan of OneDrive that comes with my Office 365 subscription because it serves so many functions for really no extra cost:

  • Backing up a copy of all of my documents and photos to the cloud.
  • Transferring photos from my iPhone, my wife’s iPhone, and also her iPad to one location for backups via the iOS app.
  • Allowing me to access random files from my desktop via my iPhone.

The subscription I use is something like $69/year via Amazon and gives me 5 licenses, meaning I’ve got plenty for expansion to throw a copy on the wife’s iPad or on a computer of her own if/when we get her one. Add in the 1 TB of OneDrive storage and that’s one less feature I have to pay for elsewhere.

That said, for actual backups I’m also using CrashPlan which is $14/month and is cool because it facilitates backups to the cloud and to other locations; plus they’re one of the only ones I found that have a Linux app, so I’ve got desktop backups both going to CrashPlan as well as to a drive on my home server, and critical files (Plex library data, mostly) from the server goes up to CrashPlan as well.

Lastly, I continue to pay for a subscription to Adobe Creative Cloud … mostly for access to Photoshop, which is overkill because I only use it for resizing photos and contrast adjustments, but I figure I owe them for all of the years that I used a pirated copy anyways! Actually, I also use the old Macromedia Fireworks through Creative Cloud, which is technically defunct but still there, as well as Acrobat Pro just because why not – I’m paying for it anyways…

Oh yes, and I just recently in the last week started using LastPass for password management and I feel really stupid for going so long without trying it because it seems to work really well. 😛

My Phone
Real quick – iPhone 6 … notable apps are OneDrive and the WordPress app, which I use more than anything else for working with my sites these days.

I pay Apple the $0.99/month for 50 GB of cloud storage just so that there’s enough room to backup my phone in full because I’ve had to restore a couple of times and iCloud makes the process pretty painless.

My Home Server
This was setup sometime in spring of 2015 on the old hardware I was using for my Windows desktop … a quad-core something or other that still works for streaming Plex around the house as intended, though transcoding can sometimes be an issue. Its only functions are file server and media server, so the box itself was long-since relocated to a closet because hard drives are noisy.

I think there’s something like 28 TB of disk space currently – almost entirely TV and movies – and realistically it’s about ready for another disk, but I’m not sure if the power supply can handle one more!

Eventually I want to replace this with a rack-mount server and separate NAS, but the hardware I’ve picked out is really expensive… 🙁

Operating system is CentOS because it’s what my web host runs and I’m most familiar with it. Internet connection is a 150 Mbps FiOS line from Frontier (was Verizon) that is about the max of what the server hardware can make use of anyways … kinda hoping that by the time I can afford to switch to a rack, their 300 Mbps package will have dropped in price a bit!

My Web Server(s)
I’ve hosted with InterServer up in New Jersey now for something like 15 years … 2002-ish, maybe? … and they’ve been nothing but great to me the entire ride. Right now I technically have two VPSes with them because I’m migrating to a newer OS, but everything is basically CentOS + PHP 7 + MySQL + WordPress and it works just fine for me.

The web stuff almost warrants its own post beyond that, but I’ve been in the process of consolidating my various sites down into a couple of WordPress multisite installations because I’ve found that they’re way easier to manage. The biggest install is the one where this blog and its subdomains (Thing-a-Day, Thoughts) currently live, and so I’m experimenting with ways to speed everything up using Varnish, caching options, etc… before migrating the rest.

I’m also using the Akismet and VaultPress options through WordPress Jetpack for spam filtering, WordPress backups, and malware monitoring on top of the server instance backups that InterServer also does for me.

My domains are all registered through Google Domains because, well, fuck GoDaddy and their convoluted pricing games.

Did I miss anything?! I hope not because I’m honestly really happy with my current setup – it’s fun, but in no way overbearing to maintain and more importantly, it just works so I can spend less time writing and doing what I need to do and less time fighting stupid Windows errors that are only solved by a mysterious reboot and a pair of crossed fingers!

More Home Automation Talk

January 3, 2017 12:57am
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So I’ve been thinking more about home automation lately – which in itself is a bit comical because apparently the last time I wrote about it was a year and a half ago – but nonetheless I think that it’s going to become a project of mine for this year, at least from an introductory perspective.

The thing that I’ve learned the most so far is that, simply put, there’s a lot to take in, and I’m seeing at least the potential for the same conflicts we’ve seen with audio and video where different companies have their own formats and aren’t necessarily eager to work together. And I hope that’s not the case because a big part of this for me is really going to be getting all of these various things to do that as much as possible…

…though I’m entertaining the idea that if everything is controlled via an iPad and different functions have their own apps, maybe that would be ok.

I think that comes much later, though. For now I think my best approach is to narrow down just a couple areas of focus – primarily ones that offer some real function to my home and not just ones that sound neat, but admittedly I’m not really lacking or anything. 

For example:

Lighting
I’m still trying to wrap my head around the traditional lights because although having the ability to change colors and put on light shows and all of that sounds cool, at $50/bulb the cost is just ridiculous with very little objective value. Plus I’m not entirely sure that it makes sense to have “connected bulbs” that burn out in favor of switches that control many lights, as is the case with most of the rooms in my house.

Still, I have a shelf up high that spans the main wall in our living room which we decorated with lit up garland for the holidays and we kind of grew accustomed to the ambient light when the house was otherwise dark, so I thought this might be a good trial to run a strand or two of LED strip lights along the top that can be controlled remotely.

Keyless Entry
This is a simple one. I’ve got three kids now and thus I almost never come through the front door with nothing in my hands, so just like I’ve loved not having to dig out my car keys to open the door anymore, now seems like the time to introduce that same technology to the house as well.

Pool Temperature
I’ve tried a couple of floating sensors from Home Depot over the years and frankly, none have lasted more than a couple of months tops. But I think that it would be really useful to be able to compare air temp and the actual water temp in our pool to gauge if taking an afternoon dip is realistic or not.

Three fairly simple tasks – I think. Two of which should just be configuring products out of the box, with the pool thermometer possibly needing some creative fabrication to make an underwater sensor where others in the past have failed. But I think all of these are reasonable, and more importantly, each would serve a worthwhile role to help really sell me on the other stuff that seems cool, but might not be as instantly beneficial as not having to fumble for my keys when I’m trying to get kids and groceries through the door! 🙂

Because in everything that I’ve looked at so far, there is a bunch of neat stuff out there to pick up – a Nest thermostat, the indoor and outdoor cameras for security, fancy smoke detectors that run for 4x what regular ones do, and maybe even one of these Amazon Echo discs to control everything via voice command … if we can prevent Alexa from rattling off porn phrases, anyways!

Of course, the other side is that this stuff isn’t exactly cheap and although I’d like to think that a well-designed system might help to raise our home value when we’re ready to sell in a couple of years, it’s definitely something that will need to be done in phases rather than just going wild with an Amazon order and getting a box of robots in the mail two days later! It should be fun, though, and I’ll plan on writing more about it once I’m able to start picking a few of these things up later on this spring.

#ServerProgress

December 20, 2016 8:56pm
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Update: Got the scottsevener.com network of sites moved back over to its new home, everything is resolving correctly and not in 48 seconds per page load, and it’s being served through Varnish + Apache … woohoo!

Mind you, I’m not entirely sure that it’s configured correctly because speeds aren’t tons faster, but we’ll work on configuration tweaking another day … I’ve got so much catch-up writing to do now… 😛

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