Category Archives: Articles

How to run an ethernet cable in your home, and save your relationship

My partner and I live in a 2-bedroom flat with our very young daughter. After a couple of weeks of working from the living room, which is where the WiFi is, and where I typically keep my computer, I decided, for the good of our relationship, to move my office to the spare bedroom.

There’s just one problem:

I can connect to the Wifi, but performance is abysmal

I’m not alone in spending a lot more time working from home recently, and if my Slack calls at work are anything to go by, I’m also not alone in struggling with poor WiFi reception. Urban areas tend to be densely packed with WiFi signals at the best of times, let alone while everyone’s cooped up at home full-time.

In my case, the WiFi connection in the spare bedroom is totally unusable for work, but continuing to work from the lounge would risk my relationship (and possibly my general safety).

So what’s a self-isolating telecommuter to do?

Continue reading

Guide to Buying a Dell Latitude Laptop on eBay

It’s hard to go past eBay for a second-hand laptop (full disclosure – I own some shares in eBay). There’s a huge range, and it tends to be the outlet of choice for ex-corporate machines which are replaced on a regular cadence – more regularly than most consumers would replace theirs.

But buying a second-hand Latitude can be a bit of a lottery if you don’t know what you’re getting, as the lines are confusing with many different models. Here I’ll try to break it down, so you can make a more informed decision.

I’ve focused on small and light models, as that is what I bought for myself and thus was what guided my research. If you’re interested, check out my article on upgrading to a Latitude 7300 from a Macbook Pro.

Continue reading

The 80/20 Rule Applied to Personal Finance

It’s hard to watch The Big Short, and not come away thinking that the odds are stacked against you as a would-be individual investor. It’s a great film that makes some very valid points, but leaves you thinking.

Surely if there are all these hedge funds that mismanage their clients’ money, and getting a seat at the big-boy’s table requires vast amounts of capital, there’s a gap in the market for cooperatively run mutual funds that actually act in their clients’ interests?

It turns out that there are already companies in this space, but the chances are you wouldn’t hear about them from a financial advisor.

Continue reading

Improving your privacy with a custom email domain

This blog post is a follow-up to It’s Time to Ditch Gmail. It began as a review of Fastmail, and my experience of moving to it from Gmail, but I quickly found myself going on a tangent. Since privacy was the main driver in my decision to move to Fastmail, and using a custom domain is one of the ways that I protect my privacy, I figured it was important enough to warrant its own post.

One of the factors that made it easier to move away from Gmail is my use of a custom domain for most of my mail. Before moving to Fastmail, this domain was tied to a GSuite account which forwarded everything to my standard Gmail account. This made switching in anger much easier, as I had fewer accounts to log in to and update my email address, and those that were still pointing directly at Gmail tended to be older low-value accounts that I no longer use anyway.

In this article though, I want to take a detour to explain why I use a custom domain, and how it can aid your privacy. Continue reading

Provisioning Vault with Code

A couple of years ago, Hashicorp published a blog post “Codifying Vault Policies and Configuration“. We used a heavily modified version of their scripts to get us going with Vault.

However there are a few problems with the approach, some of which are noted in the original post.

The main one is that if we remove a policy from the configuration, applying it again will not remove the objects from Vault. Essentially it is additive only, and while it will modify existing objects and create new ones, removing objects that are no longer declared is arguably just as important.

Another problem is that shell scripts inevitably have dependencies, which you may not want to install on your shell servers. Curl, in particular, is extremely useful for hackers, and we don’t want to have it available in production (in our environment, access to the vault API from outside the network is not allowed).

Finally, shell scripts aren’t easy to test, and don’t scale particularly well as complexity grows. You can do some amazing things in bash, but once it gets beyond a few hundred lines it’s time to break out into a proper language.

So that’s what I did.

The result is a tool called vaultsmith, and it’s designed to do one thing – take a directory of json files and apply them to your vault server.

Continue reading

Building and Packaging a Python command-line tool for Debian

python-logo-notext-svgPython packaging has a chequered past.

Distutils was and still is the original tool included with the standard library. But then setuptools was created to overcome the limitations of distutils, gained wide adoption, subsequently stagnated, and a fork called distribute was created to address some of the issues. Distutils2 was an attempt to take the best of previous tools to support Python 3, but it failed. Then distribute grew to support Python 3, was merged back in to setuptools, and everything else became moot!

Unfortunately, it’s hard to find reliable information on python packaging, because many articles you might find in a Duckduckgo search were created before setuptools was reinvigorated. Many reflect practices that are sub-optimal today, and I would disregard anything written before the distribute merge, which happened in March 2013. Continue reading

Kiwis, London, and expectations

Recently there’s been a conversation in the expat community about Kiwis making the move to London. Alex Hazlehurst’s article, which set out to dispel the myth that finding a job in London is easy for kiwis, attracted a fair bit of commentary (she also has a nicely designed blog here). Some of it was nice, some not so nice, and one reply was well written but somewhat condescending.

This conversation is not about people coming for an extended holiday. It is not about coming to London on the two-year visa, with nothing but travel plans and maybe a bit of bar or temp work here and there. It’s about young Kiwis moving to London to start or continue their careers, as I and many others have done. Continue reading

Ubuntu Home Server 14.04

I had grand intentions.

This home server article was to be a detailed masterpiece, a complete documentation of my home server setup.

It hasn’t turned out that way, and many pieces are missing. Turns out, that writing a detailed article on setting up a server is much harder than just doing it! So what you see here is what I finally managed to publish, 5 months after actually building it. I hope you find it useful, and I don’t rule out the possibility that I may update parts of it in future. Continue reading

Ubuntu Home Server 14.04 – A DIY NAS

It’s been more than 4 years since I wrote about home servers, but my Ubuntu Home Server article was, for a while, the most popular post on this blog. Since moving to the UK though, I’ve taken a more appliance-based approach to my home network. For the last few years I’ve been using a Boxee Box for media playback, and a 4-bay Netgear ReadyNAS duo NV2+ for storage, mainly to keep the bulk of my possessions to a minimum.

The appliance approach does have advantages. It is power efficient, easy to setup, and very low maintenance. But after getting an internet connection with decent upload speed, I wanted to run CrashPlan on the NAS without having to have another PC running. I managed to get it running by following directions I found here.

There’s just one problem:

3.3 months to upload 350GB is a little too long

3.3 months to upload 350GB is a little too long

Performance is abysmal, and I’ve only selected the most important data – my photos. I’m limited not by my internet connection, but by the NAS’s anaemic CPU and lack of ram (just 256Mb). Furthermore, it’s always had very slow read and write speeds – generally around 2Mb/sec, and loading a large directory via its Samba shares can take a while.

So I started to look for a replacement. My requirements:

  • Minimum 2GB ram
  • Strong CPU, preferably x86
  • 4+ drive bays
  • Linux based OS
  • Root access to said OS

The best pre-built option I could find which meets those requirements is the Thecus N5550, but at £383 it is a long way from cheap. And it barely meets the specs; an Atom CPU is strong for a NAS but not by modern x86 standards.

While the customised software shipped with a NAS does offer some conveniences, it also gets in the way of using newer Linux features such as BTFS RAID 5/6 (which is currently not considered stable but should be within the next 12 months). You’re also reliant on the vendor for distribution upgrades, and the priority is going to be shiny features which consumers will appreciate, not keeping the foundation OS up to date. The ReadyNAS NV2+ is currently running Debian Squeeze, and will be until the day support ends.

At this point I realised that a pre-made NAS with the level of power and flexibility I wanted doesn’t exist at a realistic price point. And with the end of Boxee support its days as a useful device are numbered, so a HTPC could be on the cards as well. It’s time to build my own server again.

Continue reading

13″ Retina Macbook Pro (late 2013) – Buyer Review

As with all my reviews, this is a totally subjective personal view and not an in-depth technical analysis. For more mainstream reviews, check out Engadet, Pocket Lint, Expert Reviews, and Casey Johnston’s Air vs Pro comparison on Arstechnica if you’re also considering an Air.

Retina vs Dell

My old faithful Dell E4300 has done its dash. Actually it still works; it runs Ubuntu well, it has an SSD and 4GB of ram which makes it pretty nippy for web browsing and lightweight tasks, but what sealed its fate was my work laptop – a 15″ Retina Macbook Pro. After getting used to that gorgeous 2880×1800 screen, I found I just couldn’t go back to the Dell any more with its 1280×800 TN LCD (ugh), horrible touchpad and 2009-era performance.

Continue reading