Category Archives: Articles

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.

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Pausing Spotify and playing a random video in Python – A party trick for Halloween

For a Halloween party last weekend I wrote a python script to pause Spotify, play a random video and start music playback again. The videos were basic ogg files I cobbled together which showed a scary image and evil laughs or screaming with OpenShot. I can’t really share them, as I don’t have rights to the media, but it’s pretty simple to recreate them yourself.

The code for this script is on Github, and I’ve reproduced the latest snapshot below. Feel free to fork and improve if you want to scare your guests, or add support for other OS’s. Presently it only supports Linux because I used dbus to perform the play/pause actions.


This is a Halloween party script which pauses Spotify and plays a video
at random intervals.

import random
import subprocess
from subprocess import call
from time import sleep
import os
import datetime

start_time = datetime.time(21, 0, 0)
stop_time = datetime.time(23, 0, 0)

video_dir = '/home/alex/Videos/scream/'
videos = { 'scream1_nofade.ogg': 30,
'happy.ogg': 1,
'evil_laugh.ogg': 5,

def time_in_range(start, end, x):
"""Return true if x is in the range [start, end]"""
if start <= end:
return start <= x <= end
return start <= x or x <= end

def weighted_choice(weights):
total = sum(weights[video] for video in weights)
r = random.uniform(0, total)
upto = 0
print("total: %s\nrandom: %s" % (total, r))

for video in weights:
w = weights[video]
if upto + w > r:
return video
upto += w
assert False, "shouldn't get here"

def spotifyPause():
command = "dbus-send --print-reply --dest=org.mpris.MediaPlayer2.spotify /org/mpris/MediaPlayer2 org.mpris.MediaPlayer2.Player.Pause"
print("pausing spotify")

def spotifyPlay():
print("playing spotify")
command = "dbus-send --print-reply --dest=org.mpris.MediaPlayer2.spotify /org/mpris/MediaPlayer2 org.mpris.MediaPlayer2.Player.PlayPause"

def play_video(video_file):
print("Playing %s" % video_file)
#call(['/usr/bin/mplayer', '-fs', video_file], stdout=None, stderr=None)
#result = subprocess.Popen(['/usr/bin/mplayer', '-really-quiet', '-fs', video_file])
result = subprocess.check_call(['/usr/bin/mplayer', '-really-quiet', '-fs', video_file], stdout=None, stderr=None)
return result

def playBuzz(buzzfile):
result = subprocess.check_call(['/usr/bin/mplayer', '-really-quiet', '-ss', '18', buzzfile], stdout=None, stderr=None)
return result

def infiniteLoop():
while 1:
current_time =
#if current_time > stop_time or current_time < midday:

choice = weighted_choice(videos)

random_time = random.randrange(1200,2400)
random_time = 3

video_file = video_dir + choice
print("Chose video %s after %s seconds" % (video_file, random_time))

# Whether to play buzz
buzz = False
if random.randrange(0,100) > 90:
buzz = True

# Continue if outside time range
if not time_in_range(start_time, stop_time, current_time):
print("Not playing video, outside time range")

# Do it
if buzz:

if __name__ == "__main__":

5 tips on travelling with a wide-angle lens

Three years ago, on a bit of a whim, I bought a Canon EF-S 10-22mm lens. The action was probably symptomatic of Gear Acquisition Syndrome, but I’ve fortunately managed to keep it under control since – I’m still using the same set of lenses I bought around that time!
Canon EF-S 10-22mm f/3.5-5.6 USM

It was a pricey item, and to this day I don’t really know what possessed me to spend such a sum on a piece of glass that I didn’t really know how to use. What’s more, I wasn’t sure I’d use it regularly. But all the pictures in this article were taken with it, and these days it hardly leaves the camera.

Others have asked me about wide angle photography, and I’ve even loaned my 10-22 out a couple of times, so I thought it was about time I put down some words about traveling with a wide angle lens.

Continue reading

Buying a PC Power Supply in the UK, January 2012

In the process of building my first desktop PC in about 4 years, I’ve come to realise that I no longer know anything about PC hardware. At one stage I considered myself, perhaps incorrectly, to be fairly knowledgeable about the subject of PC power supplies, even writing a PSU guide for a forum I used to frequent. Most of that guide is now irrelevant but looking back it wasn’t terrible advice for a newbie looking to buy a PSU at that time.
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Upgrading my E4300

Two years is quite a long time for me to keep a computer, but this Dell has lasted surprisingly well. It lags a bit in the 3D graphics department, but CPU wise it’s still perfectly acceptable and 4gb of ram is still a decent amount. And the 13″ form factor is perfect for my needs.

One of the major advantages of business models is the long product life cycle, which means an ample supply of spare parts and accessories. In the case of the Dell E series the docking stations and some of the other accessories are compatible with all other E series laptops. The greater amount of resources that go into the design and the higher build quality are also apparent – once you’ve had a good business laptop it’s hard to go back to disposable consumer machines!

Recently I’ve had a few gripes with it however:

  • The lack of bluetooth has become an inconvenience as the E4300 is chronically short of USB ports. Two really isn’t enough, and I want to get a bluetooth mouse to free up one of them.
  • I moved to the UK last year and the USA keyboard layout lacks the keys for € and £ symbols.
  • The fan started to buzz loudly now and again about six months ago. It was relatively infrequent and only annoyed me perhaps once a week, but it was a sure sign that the bearings were on the way out.

When the fan finally outright stalled I was able to get it to move again after a rest, but I decided it was time to kill 3 pigs with 1 bird and give the old girl a new lease of life.

I picked up the following parts on ebay: Continue reading

Getting the most out of Terminator

Terminator in action

Terminator is a must-have tool for Linux administrators. It’s a terminal emulator that supports multiple terminals via tabs, but also by dividing up its window with horizontal and vertical splits.

The user documentation is a bit sparse, in fact what you see in the man page is what you get. In this post I’ll take you through the features that I think make Terminator the best terminal emulator around.
Continue reading