A very DIY weekend

All this coronavirus business has meant that we’ve been doing a lot of not going anywhere for the past couple of weeks. Both Kristina and I are lucky enough to be able to work our regular jobs entirely from home which is fantastic, and the lack of commuting means that we’ve got lots more time in our days. I finally got around to putting together the Tau and Space Marines that come in the Kill Team box set I got back in September, and have started painting them. I’d noticed when I was painting the ungors from the Beastgrave box that the new arch lighting on my painting table still wasn’t quite sufficient, and with the additional painting I’m doing, decided I should get around to doing something about it.

All of my miniature stuff lives in the back room and I’ll bring it inside as necessary, and yesterday started with me being annoyed that the door handle on the outside of the room was nearly falling off because the holes that the screws go into were worn out and the screws didn’t actually hold anything in (and also that to lock the deadbolt you had to lift the door slightly because it’s out of alignment with the hole). I drilled out the holes in the actual metal door handle itself to fit newer and larger screws in, and also filed down the plate that the deadbolt goes into so the door doesn’t need lifting anymore when you lock it, so now the door is like a normal door and you don’t have to fight with it when locking and unlocking it.

Also yesterday, Kristina decided to trim the horrible trees that we have growing in the narrow garden bed next to the pergola, and I decided to follow suit by pulling out all the weeds and grasses that’d grown there and generally trying to make it tidier. We were going to get mulch from Bunnings to prevent the weeds from getting a foothold and generally to improve how the garden bed looks, but I got carried away and also ended up removing all the dead leaves that were sitting against the bottom of the back room walls, and so was totally exhausted. Today we did hit up Bunnings, and while we were there I figured I’d do something about the lighting for my painting table so I also picked up some more wood for the arch, plus another set of strip lights and a power board, as well as a circular saw because I’m sick of manually hacking at pieces of wood when I’m chopping them!

I’ve not used a circular saw before, it’s delightfully fast to chop the wood of course but it was a little tricky because the pieces of wood I use for the arch on my table are quite narrow and it’s difficult to work out specifically where the blade is going to be cutting; I’m sure some more practice will help. I also attached another piece of wood to the side of it so I could mount the power board there and have both the strip lights plugged into that, and just turn it on and off at the wall.

Behold!

A photo of a DIY wooden "table" sitting on a dining table, with a square arch over the top of it with LED strip lights all along the inner surface of it. There's lots of Games Workshop paint pots and miniatures on it.

I also generally tightened everything up and attached the two arches together so they’d stop being knocked forwards if I bumped into them. It’s very much even brighter than before, so much so that the ceiling light above the dining table doesn’t really bring anything to the party anymore — previously I’d found that I was still needing to use it if I didn’t have the miniature I was painting totally centred under the arch.

Reducing our power usage: Powershop, heat pump hot water, and solar panels

Ever since we moved into our house almost seven years ago now we’d been slowly making the place more energy efficient and reducing our power usage. First were double-glazed windows, then a new roof, then replacing all the light globes with LED ones, and slowly but surely replacing our various appliances with newer ones (the fridge was replaced shortly after we had our kitchen redone and used over a third less power than the old one, we got a dryer as well that uses a heap less power than trying to dry things in the combination washer/dryer, and a new air conditioner just before summer of 2018 to replace the ancient and increasingly-creaky one). Despite power bills going up at a fairly absurd rate over the past decade, we actually didn’t see much of an increase at all thanks to us being able to steadily use less power over time.

There’s an electricity company called Powershop that a few people at work use and are very happy with, and all their power is 100% carbon offset. We switched over to them in mid-September last year, and got our power meter upgraded — for free — to a smart meter in early October. The data from the meter is really fascinating, you can view it right on Powershop’s site and they give you a heat map of half-hour blocks throughout the whole day where you can see specifically when and how much power you’re using. A snapshot from part of October looked like this:

Brighter means more power being used, darker means less. You can clearly see the weekends during the day when we had the air conditioning on, and that much brighter section around 1:30-2:00am every night is the hot water system coming on. It was using 3-4 kilowatt-hours of power each and every night, and even though it’s on the off-peak pricing and thus not costing us a heap, it’s still pretty damn inefficient. I had a close look at the system and it had a manufacturing date of 2002, so we decided it was probably time to replace it anyway. I did a bunch of research and settled on a heat pump hot water system from a company called Sanden. Heat pumps work on the same general principle as refrigerators but in the exact opposite direction, they bring in the warm ambient air from outside to heat up the water. As a result, a heat pump hot water system can use 20% of the power of a regular hot water system. We got it installed in mid-December and it looks like a regular hot water system hooked up to an air conditioning unit!

A photo of our heat pump hot water system, which is comprised of a standard-looking hot water water tank with what looks like a small air conditioning compressor next to it.

(The scale is a bit off in this photo, I had to use the ultra-wide lens in my iPhone to get all of it in the shot as I was hard up against the fence. The photo was taken from about waist height, and the water tank comes up to about shoulder height or so). One neat thing this with system is that it’s absurdly quiet, they quote only 37 decibels when it’s running.

You can very clearly see the drop in power usage when after we got it installed, no more bright line! (The extended purple section in the wee hours of the morning is because that’s right when we had a spate of hot days and the air conditioner had to run more than normal overnight).

I worked out that the new system was using between 1 and 1.5kWh of power depending on what the outside temperature was (remember that it uses ambient air to heat the water, so warmer ambient air equals less power needed), which is a pretty nice improvement over the old system.

After all of this, we also decided to invest in a solar power system! There’s a fantastic website called Solar Quotes that has a ton of good info and will contact up to three installers for you to organise them to come out and give quotes. We ended up going with Penrith Solar Centre who were fantastic, and the system was installed on the 20th of last month, and it looks very handsome.

A photo of our backyard and house with solar panels on the roof.

(You can also see we also had our pergola redone too, which was a bit of a shit-show and dragged on for way longer than it should have. You can see in the photo that we had it shortened a fair chunk as it was far larger than it needed to be, so now we have significantly more space for renovating our back yard when we eventually get around to doing that).

The total solar setup is 22 Hanwha Q-Cells panels — sixteen on the north-facing expanse and six on the western side — plus Enphase IQ7+ micro-inverters, and we also get Enphase’s Envoy consumption monitoring setup so we can see in real-time how much power we’re using versus how much we’re exporting back to the grid! The monitoring includes panel-level monitoring of each individual panel so if anything goes wrong with one of them, it’s immediately obvious and the solar installers can immediately see which one needs fixing or replacing.

The Envoy system took a bit of time to be activated but even before that we were able to get a sense of how much our usage had changed via Powershop’s usage heat map. You can clearly see the day the solar was installed because all the days after that have big black sections where we were using no power from the grid at all:

The day at the top there, the 1st of March, we were doing all of the clothes washing — so using the washing machine and the dryer — as well as having the oven on for lunch, the dishwasher running, and the the air conditioner on for most of the day, and yet only used 11.46kWh for the day, compared to what would normally be more like 30-35kWh.

Powershop also have the inverse of the usage heat map if you have solar, which is the feed-in heat map, showing how many kilowatt-hours you’ve sent back to the grid.

The especially bright yellow blocks in the middle on the 28th are just a bit under 3kWh! You can also see on the 26th of February when the clouds came over after lunch.

The Envoy system gives us essentially what Powershop’s heat maps do, but in real-time, and it also monitors each individual solar panel so if anything breaks with one of them or we see that it’s producing way less power, we immediately have the knowledge of which panel it is which makes Penrith Solar Centre’s job far easier if they need to come out and fix something. You also get consumption versus generation graphs in 15-minute increments as well! The blue is how much we’re producing from the solar panels and the orange is how much we’ve used. It took me a bit to work out what the circle at the top meant, but it means in total we’ve consumed 16.84kWh all up, and of that, the section of the circle is how much we consumed directly from the solar panels, whereas the grey portion is power imported from the grid.

Now that we’re generating a bunch of our own power, the other thing I wanted to do was to have our hot water run off the solar panels in the middle of the day, instead of using off-peak in the wee hours of the morning, especially since heat pump systems work best when the ambient temperature is warmer… not super useful in the middle of winter at 1am! Fortunately the Sanden system we have comes with a block-out timer so you can explicitly set when you want it to be running. I had the Penrith Solar people swap the hot water over to the regular non-off-peak meter and I configured the block-out timer so the system only comes on in the middle of the day when we’re producing power from our solar panels (and conveniently when the ambient temperature is at it highest so it needs to use even less power).

I’ll be very interested to see how this goes during winter, our power usage is generally less — we don’t use the air conditioner’s heating function because it dries everything out too much, but instead just use oil-filled radiant heaters — but from talking to people at work, the solar panels also generate only about 30% of the electricity compared to the height of summer thanks to the shorter days and lower sun.

A trip to New Zealand’s North Island (Te Ika-a-Māui)

A trip to New Zealand’s North Island (Te Ika-a-Māui)

On Monday last week we woke up at arse o’clock in the morning to catch a flight to Auckland! We’d been to Queenstown two years ago but hadn’t seen the North Island yet.

We hired a car and stayed in Parnell for the first two nights which was quite lovely (it’s also apparently one of the most expensive suburbs in New Zealand which I’d 100% believe), and the first partial day we were there just involved wandering around the neighbourhood taking some photos.

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Holy Trinity Cathedral
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33 St Stephens Avenure

The second day we drove out to Piha to see the black sand beach which was extremely cool. I couldn’t capture it in the photos but when you look at the sand against the sun it really sparkles thanks to its volcanic origins!

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We also went to the Arataki Visitor Centre and tromped through the forest on a walking track. It was very neat but the only photos were a vista from the centre and the big totem pole there as well, because the forest itself wasn’t particularly photogenic. 😛

View from the Vistor Centre
Arataki Vistor Centre entrance

After that we walked from our AirBnB to the CBD, and quickly decided that that was a large mistake due to the sheer amount of construction going on and blocked-off streets. It made Sydney’s construction look positively pedestrian!

There’s a pizza chain in New Zealand called Sal’s that claims to do genuine New York-style pizza, so we walked to the closest one for dinner and gave it a go, and oh my god. Kristina said it’s about 95% of the quality of the actual New York-style pizza she had when she lived in New Jersey. She’d been talking about how good it was for years, and I now finally understand it!

Day 3 we drove to Rotorua, which is about three and a half hours drive, so we broke up the trip by stopping in at Hamilton and visiting Hamilton Gardens which were absolutely fantastic. It’s divided up into a bunch of incredibly well-designed and well-maintained gardens from throughout history — plus some whimsical ones — and I can’t recommend it highly enough.

Indian Char Bagh Garden
Indian Char Bagh Garden
Italian Renaissance Garden
Italian Renaissance Garden
Japanese Garden of Contemplation
Japanese Garden of Contemplation
English Flower Garden
English Flower Garden
Chinese Scholar’s Garden
Chinese Scholar’s Garden
Tropical Garden
Tropical Garden
Surrealist Garden
Surrealist Garden
Tudor Garden
Tudor Garden

After that we continued on through to Rotorua itself and went for a lovely walk through Whakarewarewa Forest which is a forest full of massive redwood trees, then visited some work colleagues of Kristina’s — and Colin, their miniature wire-haired dachshund — who live in Rotorua and went out for a delicious dinner at Macs Steakhouse on Rotorua’s “Eat Street”.

Looking up at the redwoods
Whakarewarewa Forest
Colin the miniature wire-haired dachshund
Eat Street in Rotorua

Unfortunately the B&B we were staying at (“Sandi’s B&B”) wasn’t good… turns out it was on a major road that has large trucks going down it extremely loudly at all hours of the night, some enough that they’d actually vibrate the bed, and it had the world’s stupidest problem where there was a pear tree that was growing over the top of the cabin we were in and the fruit was ripe enough that the pears were randomly dropping onto the roof with an extremely loud THUD. Sandi made us a full breakfast in the morning which was delicious but it didn’t make up for the ruined sleep. 😴

Rotorua is known for its geothermal springs so on day 4 we visited “Wai-O-Tapu Geothermal Wonderland” and it was very impressive. The sulphur smell was something else, especially since it came it with steam so it was both humid and smelly!

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Champagne Pool
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Lake Ngakoro

Our last full day we started with visiting a wildlife park called Paradise Valley Springs, after having another shitty night from trucks and pears thudding on the roof. We were there first thing in the morning so nobody else was around which was pretty sweet, but the farm animal section didn’t have very many animals in it and it seemed like they’d have liked some more company. We figured that it probably seems a lot more social when there are other people there.

Kea
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Feeding
Angora goat

The absolute best part of the day, however, was the visit to the Cornerstone Alpaca farm that broke up the drive from Rotorua back to Auckland! They had a whole presentation before we went out to see the alpacas, which was quite interesting, and the tour consisted just of Kristina and me. They’re so soft, and very pushy about getting food, haha.

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After that, our final night was spent in a hotel in Newmarket. We wandered around and took some photos which you can see in the album above. We made a second stop at Sal’s for dinner, and afterwards were poking around the cable TV channels in the hotel to see what was on, ended up watching the first game of the T20 England versus South Africa cricket match, and Kristina ended up quite enjoying it! I was explaining the rules as we went along and she’s pretty well got the hang of it now, to the point that we’ve at least temporarily subscribed to Foxtel Now to be able to watch more T20 games, hahah.

Our flight back to Sydney on the sixth day didn’t leave until 4pm so we went to the Auckland Museum to kill time after we checked out from the hotel, and it was actually really neat. The whole ground floor is a massive Maori and Pacific Islander exhibit with all sorts of cultural artefacts and details of their history, and on the second floor was a fascinating exhibit on volcanoes.

Next time we go back to New Zealand I reckon we’ll probably be hitting up the South Island (Te Waipounamu) again, but it was definitely a good trip — sans the terrible sleep in the middle at least, anyway.

Installing OpenWRT on a Netgear D7800 (Nighthawk X4S) router

I had blogged back in October of last year about setting up DNS over HTTPS, and it’s been very reliable, except for the parts where I’ve had to run Software Update on the Mac mini to pick up security update, and while it’s restarting all of our DNS resolution stops working! I’d come across OpenWRT a while back, which is an open-source and very extensible firmware for a whole variety of different routers, but I did a bunch of searching and hadn’t come across any reports of people fully-successfully using it on our specific router, the Netgear D7800 (also known as the Nighthawk X4S), just people having various problems. One of the reasons I was interested in OpenWRT because it’s Linux-based and extensible and I would be able to move the DHCP and DNS functionality off the Mac mini back onto the router where it belongs, and in theory bring the encrypted-DNS over as well.

I finally bit the bullet and decided to give installing it a go today, and it was surprisingly easy. I figured I’d document it here for posterity and in the hopes that it’ll help someone else out in the same position as I was.

Important note: The DSL/VDSL modem in the X4S is not supported under OpenWRT!

Installation

  1. Download the firmware file from the “Firmware OpenWrt Install URL” (not the Upgrade URL) on the D7800’s entry on OpenWRT.org.
  2. Make sure you have a TFTP client, macOS comes with the built-in tftp command line tool. This is used to transfer the firmware image to the router.
  3. Unplug everything from the router except power and the ethernet cable for the machine you’ll be using to install OpenWRT from (this can’t be done wirelessly).
  4. Set your machine to have a static IP address in the range of 192.168.1.something. The router will be .1.
  5. Reset the router back to factory settings by holding the reset button on the back of it in until the light starts flashing.
  6. Once it’s fully started up, turn it off entirely, hold the reset button in again and while still holding the button in, turn the router back on.
  7. Keep the reset button held in until the power light starts flashing white.

Now the OpenWRT firmware file needs to be transferred to the router via TFTP. Run tftp -e 192.168.1.1 (-e turns on binary mode), then put <path to the firmware file>. It’ll transfer the file and then install it and reboot, this will take several minutes.

Once it’s up and running, the OpenWRT interface will be accessible at http://192.168.1.1, with a username of root and no password. Set a password then follow the quick-start guide to turn on and secure the wifi radios — they’re off by default.

Additional dnsmasq configuration and DNS-over-TLS

I mentioned in my DNS-over-HTTPS post that I’d also set up dnsmasq to do local machine name resolution, this is very trivially set up in OpenWRT under Network > DHCP and DNS and putting in the MAC address and desired IP and machine name under the Static Leases section, then hitting Save & Apply.

The other part I wanted to replicate was having my DNS queries encrypted. In OpenWRT this isn’t easily possible with DNS-over-HTTPS, but is when using DNS-over-TLS, which gets you to the same end-state. It requires installing Stubby, a DNS stub resolver, that will forward DNS queries on to Cloudflare’s DNS.

  1. On the router, go to System > Software, install stubby.
  2. Go to System > Startup, ensure Stubby is listed as Enabled so it starts at boot.
  3. Go to Network > DHCP and DNS, under “DNS Forwardings” enter 127.0.0.1#5453 so dnsmasq will forward DNS queries on to stubby, which in turns reaches out to Cloudflare; Cloudflare’s DNS servers are configured by default. Stubby’s configuration can be viewed at /etc/config/stubby.
  4. Under the “Resolv and Hosts Files” tab, tick the “Ignore resolve file” box.
  5. Click Save & Apply.

Many thanks to Craig Andrews for his blog post on this subject!

Quality of Service (QoS)

The last thing I wanted to set up was QoS, which allows for prioritisation of traffic when your link is saturated. This was pretty straightforward as well, and just involved installing the luci-app-sqm package and following the official OpenWRT page to configure it!

Ongoing findings

I’ll update this section as I come across other little tweaks and changes I’ve needed to make.

Plex local access

We use Plex on the Xbox One as our media player (the Plex Media Software runs on the Mac mini), and I found that after installing OpenWRT on the router, the Plex client on the Xbox couldn’t find the server anymore despite being on the same LAN. I found a fix on Plex’s forums, which is to go to Network > DHCP and DNS, and add the domain plex.direct to the “Domain whitelist” field for the Rebind Protection setting.

Xbox Live and Plex Remote Access (January 2020)

Xbox Live is quite picky about its NAT settings, and requires UPnP to be enabled or you can end up with issues with voice chat or gameplay in multiplayer, and similarly Plex’s Remote Access requires UPnP as well. This isn’t provided by default with OpenWRT but can be installed with the luci-app-upnp and the configuration shows up under Services > UPnP in the top navbar. It doesn’t start by default, so tick the “Start UPnP and NAT-PMP service” and “Enable UPnP” boxes, then click Save & Apply.

Upgrading to a new major release (February 2020)

When I originally wrote this post I was running OpenWRT 18.06, and now that 19.07 has come out I figured I’d upgrade, and it was surprisingly straightforward!

  1. Connect to the router via ethernet, make sure your network interface is set to use DHCP.
  2. Log into the OpenWRT interface and go to System > Backup/Flash Firmware and generate a backup of the configuration files.
  3. Go to the device page on openwrt.org and download the “Firmware OpenWrt Upgrade” image (not the “Firmware OpenWrt Install” one).
  4. Go back to System > Backup/Flash Firmware, choose “Flash image” and select your newly-downloaded image.
  5. In the next screen, make sure “Keep settings and retain the current configuration” is not ticked and continue.
  6. Wait for the router light to stop flashing, then renew your DHCP lease (assuming you’d set it up to be something other than 192.168.1.x like I did).
  7. Log back into the router at http://192.168.1.1 and re-set your root password.
  8. Go back to System > Backup/Flash Firmware and restore the backup of the settings you made (then renew your DHCP lease again if you’d changed the default range).

I had a couple of conflicts with files in /etc/config between my configuration and the new default file, so I SSHed in and manually checked through them to see how they differed and updated them as necessary. After that it was just a case of re-installing the luci-app-sqm, luci-app-upnp, and stubby packages, and I was back in business!

A painting table upgrade

I’ve posted previously about my mobile painting table setup (one, two) but one downside it’s always had is the table light I was using. It was nice and bright, but fairly harsh — at certain angles it’s very easy to be working in your own shadow — and because it was a halogen bulb it would get really hot, which in summer is decidedly unpleasant, even when inside with the air conditioning going.

I’d wanted to take advantage of LED strip lights for a while now to construct some sort of lighting system over the top of the table, and I decided that the Christmas break would be a good time to do it. We went to Bunnings today, and a bit of wood-cutting, drilling, screwing, and attaching later, I’m very pleased with the result!

The lights are Arlec attachable LEDs, they come in a 3-metre-long strip with adhesive tape on the back of them, and you can even cut them at specific points and use the included joiner cable to join the two pieces together. Unfortunately the connection is very finicky, and I wasn’t able to properly attach the ends of the joiner cable to the wood as I’d wanted because at the angle I need the other half of the light strip cuts out. 🙁 Hence the dodgy cable tie that you can just see at the left of the photo above. As long as I don’t jostle or move it it works fine though.

It casts a really nice even light, and while I think it might actually be a little bit dimmer than the old light, the lack of harsh shadows more than makes up for it — and if I decide in future that it’s too dim, I can just get some more LED lights and hook them up!

Coding my own personal version of Facebook’s Memories feature

I deleted my Facebook account way back somewhere around 2009, but the one thing that Kristina shows me that I think is a neat idea is the “memories” feature, where it shows posts from previous years on that day in particular. I realised I could very much code something up myself to accomplish the same thing, given I have Media posts going back to 2009.

And so I did! By default it’ll show all posts that were made on this exact same date in each previous year (if any), excluding today’s, and you can also pick an arbitrary date and view all posts on that date for each previous year as well.

I was originally going to have it send me an email each day, but I quickly realised I couldn’t be bothered dealing with HTML emails and so it ended up in its current state. It’s not perfect, I’m still wrestling with timezones — if you view the main Memories page before 11am Sydney time, you’ll get yesterday’s date because 11am Sydney time is currently when the day switches over to the new day when it’s UTC time. If I do specify a Sydney time in my code, the automated tests fail on Bitbucket Cloud because they’re all running in UTC. I’m sure it’s fixable, I just haven’t had the brain capacity to sit down and work it out. 😛 Between this and my tag browser, it’s been pretty fun seeing old posts I’d forgotten about.

Update 21st December: I found these two posts about timezones in Postgres, and between them and firing up two Docker containers in UTC time for testing — one for Postgres and one for my code — I managed to get it fully working! 🎉

Another vehicular upgrade!

We bought a new car today! A shiny new 1.5-litre Toyota Yaris in white.

We’d been thinking of selling the old (2000 model!) Corolla and getting a new car for a while, and a friend of a friend of Kristina’s had an urgent need for a replacement car so we actually sold the Corolla a couple of months ago and have been managing with just the Cerato in the meantime.

We decided to go test drive the Yaris, and Kristina immediately loved it. The turning circle is hilariously tiny, and the visibility is fantastic, so we put down a deposit in early November, and went and picked it up today! It has a surprising amount of pep for a 1.5L engine, more than what the old Corolla’s 1.8L had — though granted that was also 19 years old. You definitely feel less like you’re sitting in the car compared to the Cerato… with that, you’re down in the seats whereas the Yaris has a much higher-feeling seating position. We’re getting a carport added to the front of the house so the Yaris isn’t sitting out in the open all the time (we’re still going to be parking at the station), but that won’t be until early January, so hopefully we don’t get any hail before then!

Of coding and a history of iPhone photo filter apps

I had last week off work, mostly due to being in desperate need of a holiday, I didn’t go anywhere but just chilled out at home. I did do a bunch of coding on my website though!

I’d been using Tumblr to post my random snaps from 2009 to about 2016 or so and cross-posting them to Twitter, before I found that Tweetbot had custom image posting functionality where you could post images to a URL that replied with a specific format and Tweetbot would use those image URLs in its tweets. I added functionality for that on my website and had been saving tweets and images directly since 2016.

Last year, it occurred to me that I should import my posts from Tumblr to my website in order to have everything in one place. I obsessively tag my Flickr photos and as a result am able to find almost anything I’ve taken a photo of very quickly, and while I hadn’t quite gone to those same levels of tagging with Tumblr, all my posts there had at least some basic tags on them that I wanted to preserve when bringing them in to my website, so I had coded up a tags system for my Media page and a script to scrape the Tumblr API and suck the posts, images, and tags in. I also wrote a very simple little React app to be able to continue adding tags to new posts I’m making directly to my website.

The one thing that was missing was the ability to see all of the current tags, and to search by tag, so this past week I’ve been doing exactly that! I have a page that shows all the tags that exist with links to view just the posts tagged with a given tag, and on the front page the tags that a post has are clickable as well.

I realised I had mucked up the tagging on a few posts so was going through and re-tagging and updating them, and it struck me just how much I used to rely on those camera filter apps to hide how shit photos from old iPhones used to be. One of the ways I’d tagged my photos on Tumblr, and I’ve continued this even now with the new direct-posting-via-a-custom-iOS-shortcut that I’ve got set up on my iPhone, is with the name of app I used to edit the photo. Going roughly chronologically as I started using each app:

Instagram was only a very brief foray, and VSCOCam was by far my most-used app. Unfortunately it went downhill a couple of years ago and they Androidified it and now all of the icons are utterly inscrutable and you also can’t get RAW files taken from within the app back out again in anything but JPEG. Apparently there’s a thing called a VSCO Girl which I suspect is part of what happened there.

My most recent editing app prior to getting the iPhone 11 Pro has been Darkroom, it’s extremely slick and integrates directly with the regular photo library on your phone and offers a similar style of film-esque presets to VSCOCam, though fewer in number.

With the iPhone 11 Pro, however, the image quality is good enough that I don’t even feel the need to add obviously-film-looking presets to the images. I take the photo, hit the “Auto” button in Photos.app to add a bit of contrast, and usually use the “Vivid” preset to bring the colours up a bit, but otherwise they’re pretty natural-looking.

That said, I’ll probably end up heading back to Darkroom at some point as I do like my film aesthetic!

iPhone 11 Pro

I upgraded to the iPhone 7 nearly three years ago and was very impressed with the camera, and here I am again being impressed by the camera in a new iPhone! Or more specifically, three cameras, since the iPhone 11 Pro comes with 13mm full frame-equivalent, 26mm-equivalent, and 52mm-equivalent lenses.

I absolutely love the look of the iPhone 11 Pro, especially in Midnight Green as Apple has been using for a lot of its promo shots. Someone on Ars Technica described it thus and I think they really nailed it:

It’s a touch retro, a touch cyberpunk, with a hint of bounty hunter droid (somewhere between 4-LOM and IG-88)

The cameras themselves are extremely impressive as well. Sadly there’s (currently) no way to get RAW images out of the ultrawide 13mm-equivalent lens, so you’re stuck with JPEGs, but the images direct out of the phone are still quite impressive. I’ve gone for three walks on my lunch break so far, two with the ultrawide (1, 2) and one with the regular 26mm-equivalent shooting in RAW with Halide.

That last shot was taken with the telephone lens on the way home from the train station.

I’ve also found myself sharing way more photos on Mastodon lately thanks to the combination of image quality, ease of taking photos even in dim lighting (Night Mode is extremely good), combined with our 40Mbps upstream NBN HFC connection and the custom iOS shortcut I have to post things to my website before sending them to Mastodon. It’s all very frictionless.

Another fantastic part of this whole setup is using Lightroom and my Apple Pencil on my iPad Pro to fully edit photos I’ve taken with the iPhone and then send them on to Flickr. My standard for images to go on Flickr is ones that are Proper Photography, if you will, rather than just snapping an image of something that’s happening or something that’s cute, and of good quality. The iPhone 11 Pro delivers that in spades, and not having to use a computer for Proper Photography is an absolute delight. There’s still some kinks — I obsessively tag my photos on Flickr and Lightroom Classic on my computer has a big hierarchical list of tags that all get uploaded along with the image, and sadly there’s no hierarchical tagging available at all in Lightroom Mobile or CC, so I have to manually add them all after the fact — but it’s incredibly freeing nonetheless.

The iPhone 11 Pro is just effortlessly fast, whatever I want to do just happens immediately without any sort of needing to think about it. It was an extremely worthy upgrade from my trusty old iPhone 7!

Cardiovascular health and a new shiny: Apple Watch Series 5

We bought a treadmill back at the start of 2014 and it came with a heart rate monitor that you wear around your chest, which is pretty cool. I gave the treadmill a pretty good going and was doing one of those Couch to 5K programs, but I keep having issues with my knees where running messes one of them up. We bought an elliptical in August last year — which apparently I didn’t post about here — and I’ve been thoroughly enjoying using it. The one we have has a tablet holder right at eye level so I’ve been watching TV shows on Netflix while using it, and it really helps pass the time.

The downside was that I had no heart rate monitor, as the one that came with the treadmill only works with the treadmill (it shows your current heart rate right alongside the distance and estimated calories burned and such). I’d been going pretty hard on it but had noticed that I was getting some heart palpitations, and had a couple of feeling-dizzy moments a while after I’d finished exercising. I went to the doctor and she suggested cutting down on caffeine to start with — I was on four admittedly only instant coffees a day — and see if that improves things to start with, and if not we could get an EKG done.

Quite conveniently timed, the Apple Watch Series 5 was announced on the 10th of September this year, and it comes with an always-on display. Prior models had their display totally black and would only light up when you’d either raise your wrist or tap on the screen. I’d been eyeing the Apple Watch off for a couple of years, and finally decided I’d jump on board because it’d be usable as a regular watch even if the screen doesn’t fully light up. I got the 40m stainless steel with black leather Modern Buckle band and it looks classy as hell.

(I also realised after my first workout that I needed to get one of the cheaper non-leather bands as well because man do I get sweaty wrists when I’m exercising 😛).

Apple has been leaning pretty hard into the health thing with the Apple Watch in recent years, and as well as the heart rate monitor — which is constantly taking your heart rate periodically throughout the day as well as constantly when you start a workout — it comes with an app called “Activity” on the iPhone to help motivate you to keep moving. The way it works is that there’s three “rings” you should try to close each day, called Move, Exercise, and Stand. Move is just generally getting up and about and not sitting on your arse, and is set to 1422kJ for me based on my height and weight. Exercise is 30 minutes of brisk movement — I walk fast enough that I get a few minutes counted towards it each time I’m walking to or from the station or taking the stairs at work. The stand goal is standing up and moving for at least a minute during a one hour period for 12 separate hours during the day, and if you’ve been sitting around for 50 minutes in a given hour you get a little buzz on your wrist at ten minutes to the next hour that reminds you to stand up and move around a bit.

Apple must have done a whole lot of psychological research into what’s most satisfying in terms of motivation because god damn closing those rings feels good. You get a little round fireworks animation of the given colour of ring when you fully complete one for the day, and the one with all three when you’ve finished all of them. I bought the Watch on the 23rd of September and every single day since then I’ve closed all three rings! You get little badges called “Awards” when you complete certain goals, like getting a full week of closing all three rings, which has meant that when I’ve been working from home I’ve been jumping on the treadmill or elliptical for just a quick half hour to get my exercise goal done. I also downloaded an app for the Watch called HeartWatch that gives you a little speedometer of heart rate when you’re exercising and ensures you keep it in the correct zone — not too fast and not too slow — for what you’re trying to do, in my case just generally be fitter.

I completed October with every single day’s rings fully closed, which I’m pretty chuffed about!

A screenshot of the Activity app for Apple Watch showing every single day in October having all three rings closed

We’d also bought a set of smart scales last year that sync with the Health app on iOS, I’ve been weighing myself each morning and as a result of all of this fitness I’m hovering around 70.2kg, which is a weight I don’t recall being for many years now; I was at 82kg a few years back. The heart palpitations have definitely decreased as well and I haven’t had any dizziness since I’ve been monitoring what my heart rate has been while exercising.

I don’t do much by way of outdoor exercising, but the Apple Watches all come with GPS as well so you can keep maps of the routes you’ve taken and see the speed you did during each section. Overall I’m wildly impressed with this bit of technology! I hadn’t worn a watch since about 2001 when I got a job and bought my first mobile phone, but now I feel naked without it, haha.

A new hobby: Making bread!

A new hobby: Making bread!

Back in July and August, Kristina had been on a bit of a bread-making spree. We have an old bread machine that Kristina bought from Vinnies back in 2009 when she first moved over here from the US, and she’d been using that with varying amounts of success. I was talking to some of my co-workers and one of them recommended a book called Flour Water Salt Yeast and said you absolutely cannot go past it. I bought that for Kristina’s birthday, as well as the thing it says to bake the bread in, a Dutch oven.

It’s a really interesting book, even the most basic recipes only use a tiny amount of yeast (2 grams/½ a teaspoon), you don’t knead them, and the shortest recipe has the dough rising for five hours and proofing for another hour. You can get a good idea of how it all goes from the man himself, Ken Forkish.

As it turns out Kristina doesn’t really have the patience for it, so the bread-making has become my thing, and OH MY GOD THE BREAD FROM THIS BOOK. It is absolutely epic, nice and chewy like sourdough and the Dutch oven is the magic around how the crust comes out so good.

I’ve been doing a batch of bread almost every weekend now, and there’s something really enjoyable about the whole process. I’ve been tooting my efforts, get a load of all of this damn bread! The first two photos were the “Saturday White Bread” recipe where it’s done in one day, the third was the Overnight 40% (actually 35% and rye) Wholemeal Bread, and the last was the Overnight White Bread (which I screwed the timing up for because I didn’t read the recipe of when to start it and so had to put it into the fridge overnight so it didn’t rise too much, but it came out delicious anyway).

A magnificent-looking round brown crusty bread loaf.
A dark brown round loaf of bread covered in flour.
A brown absolutely delicious-looking round loaf of bread sitting on a cooling rack, with a light dusting of flour on it.
Two round loaves of bread on a cooling rack, the left one being noticeably browner than the right one.

An artistic update

An artistic update

I posted back in February about some of the stuff I’d been doing in Procreate on my iPad, and I’m overdue for another post! I haven’t been doing as much in the intervening months, as there’s been lots of other things taking up my time and I haven’t felt as inspired but I still managed to do a few.

I’ve quite enjoy using Procreate’s Acrylic brush, you can get some really nice layer and lighting effects with it, and I used only that brush for this one:

A painting of a window at night, from inside a room. There's sheer curtains over the window, a candle is on a small table at the right casting light, and there's a tall cupboard at the left in the shadows.
The Window

I don’t actually remember the brush I used for this next one, but I definitely took full advantage of Procreate’s symmetry guides so I could get it properly even:

A painting of a cybernetic woman, her eyes look like blue glass and she has green and very shiny "skin". She has a purple hood over the back of her head.
Cybernetic Woman

This next one is interesting, I was intending on the main structures that take up the top two-thirds of the image to look like a big craggy mountain range, but I showed it to Kristina and she can’t see it as anything but a tornado coming down!

A painting of a craggy grey mountain range in the top two-thirds of the image, with a river of fire making its way the whole way across the image, and a bunch of conifers at the bottom.
The River

I quite enjoy doing epic-looking landscapes, and this one ended up starting out in a very different place than it finished. It was much more brown, the feature in the middle was a river, and the sky was a sunset which I didn’t manage to get looking how I wanted. In the end it became very much inspired by the aesthetic of the Hive from Destiny!

A painting looking down a desolate grey rocky valley. A deep black rift runs down the middle with a sickly green glow at the bottom, at the left is a crystal embedded in the ground with the same green glow coming from it. At the right is a cave entrance in the valley wall with another glowing crystal. The sky is awash with stars, and the moon peeks from behind the valley peak at the far left.
The Emergence

The paintings above were all done from about March to half-way through May, then there was a bit of a break until July.

I decided to take advantage of Procreate’s drawing guide again, this time with the perspective guide. I was aiming for buildings in a futuristic city but the thing that I always struggle with is details and a sense of scale, so it didn’t turn out to be anything but big blocks. ? Still pleased with the shadows and sense of lighting though.

A very clean geometric painting of grey and blue city buildings. The sky is purple and the light is coming from the very right, the buildings casting shadows to the left.
City Buildings

This next one I did as “speed-painting”, and did it in about 45 minutes! It was a combination of the acrylic brush and a palette knife brush from a big third-party brush pack I bought.

A painting of a volcano erupting atop a hill, the hill is surrounded by taller mountains all around, and the sky above is filled with striated dark orange clouds.
Volcano

Then lastly, this one was done in August, again with Procreate’s symmetry guide on! I was going to give her a witch’s hat but couldn’t get it looking right.

A head and shoulders portrait painting of a white woman with piercing green eyes, long red hair, and dark green lipstick. She’s wearing a dark purple top, and there’s a bright light shining behind her that’s lighting up her shoulders and the very edges of her hair.
The Witch

I also had a burst of inspiration and got some more miniature painting done! I’m still working my way through the Dark Imperium box set I got nearly two years ago, but the main impetus here was Games Workshop releasing their “Contrast” line of paints. They’re essentially a base coat plus wash combined into one single coat, and they’re seriously incredible. Dark Imperium comes with twenty poxwalkers which I was dreading having to paint, but the Contrast paints made them far quicker to deal with! There’s twenty models (but only ten unique ones), and I’ve done half of them so far.

As part of doing this, I also discovered how much better the miniatures look when you apply a varnish to them! The Contrast paint specifically comes off a lot more easily than regular paint, so varnish is a necessity, but it also really makes the colours pop, they’re a lot more vibrant than without it.

Poxwalker 1
Poxwalker 2
Poxwalker 3
Poxwalker 4
Poxwalker 5

I also finally finished off the Plague Marine champion that’d been sitting there mostly-finished for months, and I’m really happy with the base I did. I had a bunch of really old Space Marines from a starter painting box that a friend had given me, so I sacrificed one of them and cut him up to adorn the base, and it looks absolutely fantastic.

Plague Marine Champion

It’s fascinating seeing the evolution of Games Workshop’s plastic miniatures, back when I started (*cough*24 years ago*cough*) plastic was the cheap and crappy option, and the pewter (or lead as they were back then!) miniatures were much more detailed. Nowadays it’s very much the reverse, the plastic is INSANELY detailed — have a look at the full-size poxwalkers on Flickr and zoom all the way in — and the pewter ones are a bit shit by comparison.

There’s also a small-scale Warhammer 40,000 game called Kill Team that I’ve started playing at work with some people, and have bought the new box set that was released in September. It’s similar to Shadespire in that your squads only have a small number of miniatures so it’s much more feasible to get them painted, but it comes with a bunch of absolutely amazing-looking terrain. I put it together and took a couple of photos prior to it being painted, just to get a sense of the scale and what the terrain looks like.

A photo of some Death Guard and Space Wolves miniatures on the new Kill Team starter box terrain. The terrain itself is unpainted grey plastic but is towering over the miniatures and has a very steampunk aesthetic to it.
A photo of some Death Guard and Space Wolves miniatures on the new Kill Team starter box terrain. The terrain itself is unpainted grey plastic but is towering over the miniatures and has a very steampunk aesthetic to it.

I’ve finished painting a couple of pieces of it, but it’s so big that I don’t have a large enough white backdrop that’ll fit the whole terrain piece! Photos will definitely be forthcoming once I do get said backdrop though. ?

More coding adventures: Migrating to TypeScript and Express.js

Three and a half years ago I blogged about learning Javascript and Node.js, and then again at the start of 2018 about my progress and also learning React, and I figured it was about time for another update! This time it’s been moving from Sails.js (which is a web framework based on Express.js) to using raw Express itself and moving the language from Javascript to TypeScript (TypeScript is basically Javascript, except with type-checking).

At work, we migrated the codebase of the server that runs our internal platform-as-a-service from Javascript to TypeScript, and I figured it seemed like a neat thing to learn. TypeScript ultimately gets compiled down to Javascript, and I started by trying to just write my Sails.js modules as TypeScript and have them compiled to Javascript in the locations that Sails expected them to be in, but this proved to be a fair bit of a pain so I figured I’d just go whole-hog and move to raw Express.js while I was at it.

I did a whole heap of reading, and ended up coming across this absolutely excellent series of blog posts that takes you through using Express and TypeScript step by step. It took about a month all up, and you can really see how much code was removed (this excludes Node’s package-lock.json file because it’s massive):

$ git diff --stat a95f378 47f7a56 -- . ':(exclude)package-lock.json'
[...]
 151 files changed, 2183 insertions(+), 4719 deletions(-)

My website looks absolutely no different in any way, shape, or form after all of this, but when writing code it’s quite nice having all of Visual Studio Code‘s smarts (things like complaining when you’ve missed a required parameter when calling a function, auto-completion, and on).

Having moved to raw Express.js from Sails.js means I have a much better understanding of how it all works under the bonnet… Sails is great for getting up and running quickly, but there’s a lot of magic that happens in order to accomplish that, and more than once I’ve run into the boundaries of where the magic ends and have had to try to hack my way around it. Express by itself is a lot more widely-used than Sails too, so if I run into problems I generally have an easier time finding an answer to it!

Twenty years of VirtualWolf

Today twenty years ago marks the earliest point I can find of where I started going by “VirtualWolf” online! That’s over half my life. 😮

I had posted previously back in 2009 (back when this blog was on LiveJournal) about being VirtualWolf online for around ten years at that point but it was pretty vague in terms of dates, and I’ve since consolidated all my old websites and put them up online. Further digging reminded me that I have a whole bunch of other sites that I never actually finished — I should add those to archive.virtualwolf.org too, now I think about it — and there was one called “DevlinSlayer’s Imperium” from February of 1999 so it was clearly after that.

The earliest mention of VirtualWolf I can find is from my Realm of the Wolf site from the 28th of June 1999, and the name of the Myth II map I’d created, “Realm of the VirtualWolf”. Unfortunately that file has been lost and I cannot for the life of me find the original anymore. I was able to recover all but one of my Marathon maps from various places, but I can’t even find the original pre-compiled image files for the Myth II map. The only image related is the overhead map view from the website I created after Realm of the Wolf.

Since that point, it’s been all VirtualWolf, all the time. I’ve owned the domain virtualwolf.org since the start of 2002, and have made a point of ensuring all the old links to images I’ve posted here and on Ars Technica still work even now.

Here’s to me making a post in twenty years saying “Forty years of VirtualWolf!”. 😛

Ten years of marriage!

Ten years of marriage!

Ten years ago today, on a very cold and windy but at least sunny day at Dee Why headlands, Kristina and I got married!

TEN. YEARS.

I have no idea how it’s been ten years, it doesn’t remotely feel like it’s been that long. I’ve mentioned on this blog before, and on LiveJournal before it, that everything is so effortless, and it still remains true!

We originally knew each other from Everything2, which is still around but very much dead compared to the old days, and has been for many years now (my registration date there is May 2000). There was a bit of a mass-migration from E2 over to LiveJournal a couple of years afterwards, and I have a happy birthday wish from Kristina on one of my LJ posts from 2003! She said I was always “That guy in Australia who likes metal”, but we got to chatting more towards the end of 2007 and then on a whim decided to come visit in March of 2008, and the rest, as they say, is history!

With both of us being keen photographers we tend to be behind the camera instead of in front of it, but we’ve got a few photos together over the years!

Kristina and I
The first one of us together, in August 2008 in Boston the first time I visited (we don’t have any of the two of us from March when Kristina first visited Sydney). This was right before I trimmed my goatee entirely down because it’d started just triangulating outwards and getting all wispy.
Untitled
November 2008, we were up in the Blue Mountains when we got the call that the engagement ring was ready to be picked up!
Untitled
Then our wedding, of course. I love this photo so much!
December 2011, being all arty!
Selfie!
This was taken in May 2014 when we bought the Fujifilm X100S. Kristina looks so hilariously unimpressed.
Kristina and me
December 2015!
Untitled
Then an attempt in February 2017 at taking a photo with the two of us and Beanie. It didn’t go so well.
Untitled
And finally the most recent one of us together from December of 2017, taken with the flash and massive parabolic umbrella directly behind the camera.

In the time we’ve been married we’ve been to:

And that’s not counting the day trips or single night trips of which there have been plenty.

Here’s to many more years of adventures to come! ❤️

New bathroom!

The bathroom in our house was always a little bit crap, it’d clearly been done on the cheap and many years ago, and we wanted to get a new one put in. Conveniently, my parents were going away on holidays for three weeks last month so we decided that this was a pretty perfect time to do it. We schlepped our stuff over to their place and stayed over there while the old bathroom was ripped out and a brand new shiny one put in! (We also got the second toilet redone in the same style, so there were no toilets at all hence the inability to stay at home while this was being done; also Beanie would have lost his mind when with the tradies being over all the time).

I borrowed a really wide-angle lens from a friend in order to properly take before and after photos, this is the old bathroom (the shower screen is filthy because we’d given up on cleaning it by this point).

A wide-angle view of a bathroom, the floor tiles are sickly grey and the grout looks dark just from being dirty. A cheap-looking white vanity with a single sink is in the middle of the photo, the shower screen around the shower is at the left and is totally soap scum-encrusted. The tiles in the shower are black with discoloured grout between them. A toilet roll holder is attached by suction cup to the outside of the shower screen next to the toilet, that's just visible at the bottom-left.
A wide-angle view of a bathroom, the floor tiles are sickly grey and the grout looks dark just from being dirty. A cheap-looking white vanity with a single sink is in the right of the photo, the shower screen around the shower is in the middle and is totally soap scum-encrusted. The tiles in the shower are black with discoloured grout between them. A toilet roll holder is attached by suction cup to the outside of the shower screen next to the toilet, the toilet itself is small and very plastic-looking and sits next to the shower. In the ceiling above the shower is an EXTREMELY yellowed plastic fan vent.
A wide-angle view of a bathroom looking towards the bath, the floor tiles are sickly grey and the grout looks dark just from being dirty. The bath is in the middle of the photo, with black tiles around it, the shower screen is at the right of the photo and the vanity is just visible at the bottom-left.

The grout on the floor was all dirty and discoloured, the tiles were really thin, clearly cheap, and also quite ugly, and the vanity was really cheap-feeling, and we’d had to clean mould out of the inside of the cupboards more than once.

Kristina was interested in doing the bathroom in a much more modern and minimalist style than we’d done with the kitchen, to try to minimise the amount of nooks and crannies that would need to be cleaned, and to ensure it didn’t end up looking cluttered. We decided on white wall tiles, and slate grey floor tiles, plus a wall-hung vanity and wall-mounted taps.

The guy who was overseeing the whole lot sent us daily updates on how it was going, and it was fascinating to see everything ripped out and just the bare frame and insulation after they’d finished on the first day.

The bathroom with no tiles or gyprock on the bottom half of the walls, just bare timber frame and insulation.

After that, each day’s updates were just more and more things being put in, we were able to come back on the Saturday of the third week though the shower screen itself wasn’t in by that point. On the Friday of the following week the guy came to install it, and with that it was done, and it looks absolutely amazing!

The fantastic new bathroom, a white wall-hung double-basin vanity and wall-mounted chrome taps are in the middle of the photo, a shaving cabinet with mirror above, and two lovely in-ceiling LED lights above that. To the left is a waist-high thin wall tiled in white, and that side of the shower screen starts at the top of the wall. The wall tiles are white and the floor tiles are a dark slate grey.

There is a towel on the wall that's a dark pink, and on the right of the vanity is a small towel ring that has a hand towel of the same dark pink colour.
The fantastic new bathroom, a white wall-hung double-basin vanity and wall-mounted chrome taps are at the right of the photo. In the centre is a waist-high thin wall tiled in white, and that side of the shower screen starts at the top of the wall. Next to the wall sits a white ceramic toilet, and the toilet roll holder is a chrome metal one that's attached to the waist-height wall. The wall tiles are white and the floor tiles are a dark slate grey.
The fantastic new bathroom, a white wall-hung double-basin vanity and wall-mounted chrome taps are at the left of the photo. In the centre is the bath surrounded by white wall tiles, at the right is a waist-high thin wall tiled in white, and that side of the shower screen starts at the top of the wall. The wall tiles are white and the floor tiles are a dark slate grey.

A dark pink towel hangs on the wall over the left end of the bath.

There’s lovely LED lights above the vanity, and the mirror is actually a shaving cabinet so we can put stuff into it and not have to be rummaging around in a dark cupboard. As we discovered with the kitchen and the drawers in there, drawers are far superior to cupboards for anything but really shallow depths.

We didn’t even get anything moved in terms of layout, it’s all in the exact same position as it was before, but it just feels so much larger and more spacious, it’s wonderful!

Configuring a virtual machine with Linode StackScripts

Configuring a virtual machine with Linode StackScripts

I’ve been using Linode to host myself a Linux virtual machine since 2011, originally so I could run Jira on it (now long since moved to a cloud-hosted instance), since my entire job was supporting it back then, and also just generally to dabble with Linux and the command line. I started out with CentOS 5 as that’s what we were using at work at the time, and slowly installed more and more random things on it.

When I decided it was time to upgrade to CentOS 7 in 2015, I put together a page in Confluence noting down each thing I was doing, as I was starting with a fresh new virtual machine and migrating only the bits and pieces I needed to it. That was better, but still ended up with a bit of a sprawling page and me forgetting to update it after I’d completed the initial migration. I eventually shut down my whole Dreamhost account and moved solely to having my website and blog and various miscellany (15 years worth of images from LiveJournal entries and posts on Ars Technica, as two examples) hosted on the Linode. Unfortunately I wrote down absolutely none of how I configured it all!

As part of playing around with my YubiKey and setting up GPG agent forwarding, I discovered that the version of GnuPG that CentOS 7 ships with is too old to support agent forwarding from newer versions, so I decided to spin up a new Linode but with Debian 9 instead (since thatdoes support agent forwarding), and migrate everything to it. This time, however, I would do it programatically!

Linode have a thing called StackScripts that let you start up a fresh VM and run a bunch of commands on boot to configure it how you need. Over the course of probably two months, I built up a Bash script to install and configure all my various software packages at boot to a fresh Debian 9 machine to configure it how I needed, and with everything stored in a Git repository. That included also adding Git repositories with my Nginx and systemd configurations as well as running a script on my existing CentOS 7 VM to grab database dumps of my website and our respective blogs, as well as the aforementioned 15 years’ worth of images and other files.

The end result is a ~500 line Bash script that’s version-controlled so I can see exactly what I did, with any new changes I’m making since I cut over to the Debian VM being saved in that as well, and the same with my systemd/Nginx/everything-else configuration! As long as I’m disciplined about remembering to update my StackScript when I make software changes, whenever the next big move to a new VM is should be a hell of a lot simpler.

Art update, February 2019

Art update, February 2019

As previously mentioned, I’ve been enjoying the hell out of my iPad Pro and Apple Pencil, and have been doing a whole lot more drawing/sketching/painting since then. I moved my Mastodon account over to a much smaller instance, mastodon.art, which as you’d expect is very focused on art and has a lot of extremely creative people on it, and I’ve been getting a daily dose of inspiration. (As a side-note, I can’t recommend enough moving to a smaller Mastodon instance as opposed to one of the huge ones like mastodon.social… it really does feel much more like a community, and the local timeline is something you actually can keep up with and interact with).

I found a really good series of tutorials on drawing people and facial expressions, and drew this!

Four cartoon-style heads: a white girl with long blonde hair looking unimpressed, a bald Asian man looking shocked, a black man with big hair and a goatee looking sleepy, and an Indian man smirking with one eyebrow raised.

After that were a bunch more extremely munted-looking people which I’m not going to post, but then I eventually got my proportions better.

A portrait sketch of a pale red-haired woman with green eyes, smirking and raising one eyebrow.

One of the artist-types I follow on Mastodon is Noah Bradley, he’s done paintings for all sorts of places including for Magic: The Gathering! He said he biggest piece of advice was “Use more reference!”, i.e. have an actual picture/photo/whatever next to the thing you’re drawing so you can get the proportions and such correct. I took that advice to heart, and painted this picture of what ended up as a queen!

A painting of a white woman from the chest up, lit from the left side while her right side is heavily shadowed. She has long braided blonde hair and is wearing a purple high-collared dress. Behind her and to her left and right are glowing red eldritch runes, giving a faint red tinge to her outline.

She looks nothing like the original photo, of course, but it really helped to get the angles of everything correct. I also really started getting the hang of lighting, I’m so pleased with the light from the runes that’s reflecting off her hair, especially on the right.

Lily’s Christmas present was the first-gen Apple Pencil for her own iPad and she’s been absolutely drawing her heart out as well. One of the things she likes drawing are My Little Pony characters… she’s never watched the show but enjoys making up her own characters. She set me a challenge of making a character myself, with the theme of “neon”, and I took that opportunity to do some more practice with lighting (see the linked image for the full effect). I found an outline online and traced over that for the shape, but the colour is all me!

A side-on painting of a My Little Pony character on a black background, coloured in dark blue with neon blue lightning at the top of her hooves and a dark purple tail with a purple neon light running down it.

We also took my old teddy bear Neddy out, who I’ve had since I was a year old, and used him for some lighting practice.

A three-quarter profile of a brown teddy bear on a black background, the edges of the left side of him are lit from a bright white light source to the left of the painting.

Then my latest work was Maria Franz from the band Heilung! They do epic pagan/folk music and it’s absolutely fantastic (see the video of their live show). I introduced Lily to them and she’s now completely obsessed. She sent me a picture of Maria Franz that she’d traced over and coloured in, and I realised that’d be a perfect bit of subject matter.

A painting of a woman from the chest up, she has antlers on her head and long red hair, and has headgear that goes over her forehead, with tassles obscuring her eyes.

I had a picture of her open in Safari in split-screen view so I could get the outline and proportions right, and Procreate tells me this was nearly 10 hours all up! I’m absolutely stoked with how it ended up, and just seeing the difference between my earliest stuff and now is great, even though it’s only been two months. The “Use reference” mantra is one that I’m definitely taking to heart.

Five years of Beanie!

Five years of Beanie!

As of today, we’ve had Beanie for five years!

We got him as a rescue dog when he was a year old, he’d already had three previous owners before us, and the house he was living in when we got him had two other much larger dogs that apparently were taking most of the food and generally bullied him. The idiot woman who owned him also had him on some “raw chicken” diet where he’d have basically just raw chicken pieces, and his hair was all short and his tail was permanently very tightly curled — which is how he gets when he’s nervous or anxious — and didn’t wag at all for the first three or so weeks that he was living at ours.

A very young-looking Beanie when he was one year old at the end of our hallway in the midst of running back to us.
One of the very first photos of Beanie shortly after we got him.

He had quite bad separation anxiety, we eventually went to the vet and got some anti-anxiety medicine because he would scratch at the door repeatedly when we’d leave the house, to the point that he was scratching the paint off it. The medicine combined with giving him a marrowbone treat whenever we leave for a period of more than an hour or two has definitely helped, he now gets excited we’re we’re getting ready to leave because he often gets a treat. 😛

He’s never liked other dogs, and generally still doesn’t, but we were able to take him to puppy training session where he at least got some exposure to dogs around his size, and that led to our now-regular visits with Leo!

Leo, a Jack Russell, and Beanie facing each other about to leap at each other.
Leo and Beanie playing in Leo’s backyard.

Because Kristina and I are out of the house for a good 10-11 hours a day, we have a dog walker to comes every day after lunch to let him out and give him a walk. We have her come around anyway if one of us is working from home or sick, and he gets so excited when she arrives.

Beanie is a good boy, he never gets into any trouble whatsoever: he doesn’t chew things, he goes to bed at night when we do and doesn’t get out of bed in the morning until we’re up (or even after we’re up on occasion), if one of us is sick he’ll happily snuggle up on the lounge with us. One of his favourite things to do is to “up” at us, which he frequently does after we’re lying in bed and getting ready to go to sleep!

Beanie sitting up on his hind legs, smiling.
He thinks he’s people!

The only irritation is his bark… there is ZERO wind-up or warning, and it’s an extremely loud and sharp bark that gives you a heart-attack! If he’s bored he’ll find things to bark at which can be super-annoying, but usually a quick walk around the block will tire him out and he calms down afterwards. Given how destructive other dogs can be though, I think we have it pretty good with Beanie. 🙂

Installing Linux Mint 19.1 on a Late-2010 MacBook Air

Installing Linux Mint 19.1 on a Late-2010 MacBook Air

We have a still perfectly usable Late-2010 MacBook Air, but with macOS 10.14 Mojave dropping support for Macs older than 2012 (it’s possible to extremely-hackily install it on older machines but I’d rather not go down that route), I decided I’d try installing Linux on it. The MacBook Air still works fine, if a bit slow, on macOS 10.13 but I felt like a bit of nerding!

Installation

My distribution of choice was Linux Mint, which is Ubuntu-based but less with the constant changes that Canonical keep making. The first hurdle right out of the gate was which “edition” to choose: Cinnamon, MATE, or xfce. There was zero info on the website about which to choose, I started with Cinnamon but that kept crashing when booting from the installation ISO and giving me a message about being in fallback mode. It turns out Cinnamon is the one with all the graphical bells and whistles, and it appears that an eight-year ultralight laptop’s video card isn’t up to snuff, so I ended up on “MATE” edition, which looks pretty much identical but works fine.

My installation method was using Etcher to write the installation ISO to a spare SD card. Installing Linux requires you to partition the SSD, I added a 2GB partition for the /boot partition, and another 100GB to install Linux onto. It doesn’t matter which format you choose as it’ll be reformatted as part of the installation process.

The installer is quite straightforward, but I chose the custom option when it asked how to format the drive, formatted both the 2GB and 100GB partitions as ext4, with the 2GB one mounted at /boot and the 100GB at /. The other part is to install the bootloader onto that /boot partition, to make it easy to get rid of everything if you want to go back to single-partition macOS and no Linux.

Post-install

The next hurdle was video card drivers. Mint comes with an open-source video card driver called “Nouveau” which _works_ but isn’t very performant, and there was lots of screen tearing as I’d scroll or move windows around. This being Linux, it was naturally not as simple as just installing the official Nvidia one and being done with, because that resulted in a black screen at boot. 😛 I did a massive amount of searching and eventually stumbled across this answer on AskUbuntu which worked where nothing else did: I followed those instructions and was able to successfully install the official Nvidia drivers without getting a black screen on boot!

At this point I realised that the brightness keys on the keyboard didn’t work. Cue a whole bunch more searching, with fix being to add the following snippet to the bottom of /usr/share/X11/xorg.conf.d/nvidia-drm-outputclass-ubuntu.conf:

Section "Device"
  Identifier     "Device0"
  Driver         "nvidia"
  VendorName     "NVIDIA Corporation"
  BoardName      "GeForce 320M"
  Option         "RegistryDwords" "EnableBrightnessControl=1"
EndSection

BoardName being the name of the video card.

The last hurdle was getting the _other_ function keys to work (the audio and media keys), which was resolved with a simple sudo apt install pommed, and now I have a fully-functioning Linux installation, with working sleep+wake, audio, wifi, and brightness!

I’m certainly not going to be switching to it full-time, and it feels like a lot more fragile than macOS, but it’s fun to muck around with a new operating system. And with 1Password X, I’m able to use 1Password within Firefox under Linux too!

New shiny: 11″ iPad Pro and Apple Pencil 2

I bought an iPad mini 2 back in April of 2014, which was the first mini with a retina display. It got fairly slow with the upgrade to iOS 11, and even though iOS 12 gave it a bit of a shot in the arm, it still ultimately struggled to do much beyond very basic web browsing and social media things — not entirely surprising given it’s five years old at this point. Apple announced the latest version of the iPad Pro at the end of October last year, along with an updated Apple Pencil, and all the reviews said the iPad was absolutely gobsmackingly fast (to the point where it beats all but the highest-end Core i9 15″ MacBook Pro in a number of CPU benchmarks), so I decided to finally retire the iPad mini and upgrade.

Holy. Crap.

It’s honestly one of the most impressive pieces of technology I’ve used in recent years; almost the entire thing is screen, there’s only enough bezel to comfortably hold the edges and no more, and it’s about as thin as I recall the iPhone 4/4S being, with the same industrial design. I’m still on the iPhone 7 so haven’t used Face ID before, and it works like magic. The screen has a 120Hz refresh rate as opposed to the standard 60Hz of most displays, and it means that everything feels just subtly more fluid and responsive. Everything I do on it is just totally effortless, it responds immediately without any hint of lag or hesitation.

However, I think my favourite part so far is the Apple Pencil. It’s much the same as the original in terms of usage, but magnetically pairs and charges on the right side of the iPad, and has an option to double-tap the Pencil itself to switch between your current drawing tool and the eraser tool. It has pressure and angle sensitivity, so can behave exactly like an actual pencil. Turn it sideways and use the edge and you can do subtle shading, and the harder you press the darker the shade.

The built-in Notes app has basic Pencil support, but I’ve been using Procreate — which I actually originally bought on my iPad mini but didn’t use very much due to it being a pain trying to do any sort of detail with a finger — and it’s so awesome. It’s absolutely not going to win any sort of awards, but I’ve done two things so far and am really happy with both of them.

The first was done with the drawing assist turned on and an isometric grid, followed by a whole bunch of layers to get the lighting looking right.

And the second is just a pencil sketch. Like I said, objectively it’s not very good, but not having done anything like this before, I’m still very pleased.

I had a photo open in Safari in split-screen view beside Procreate, the woman in my sketch looks absolutely nothing like the photo but it was more just generally to get the angles right. 😛 My having done photography definitely helped with the shading because I could easily visualise in my head how the shadows would fall.

I need to make sure I keep up the practise so I can improve!


I also remembered that GarageBand on iOS is a thing, and goddamn, it’s also impressive. It’s the same idea as in GarageBand on the Mac with adding preset loops of instruments and combining them together — or recording your own — but they’ve done an amazing job of translating that to something that’s usable with a touch interface. I’d made a couple of songs in GarageBand for Mac previously (nearly twelve years ago now, jesus), but not really anything since.

I bought a USB-C to 3.5mm headphone adapter for the iPad so I could use my big Audio Technica headphones — doing audio work requires very low latency, and Bluetooth has way too much latency, to the point where if you try to use Bluetooth headphones with GarageBand on iOS it’ll give you a big warning to that effect — and did a bunch of dabbling the other day, and made another new song!


I’m very interested to see what Apple does with iOS 13 this year, because the iPad Pro’s hardware is astonishingly capable, but it feels like the software could be doing more. I’ve hooked up our spare Bluetooth keyboard and dabbled around in that and it’s neat, but there’s not enough support for keyboard shortcuts even in Apple’s own applications . In Messages, for instance, you can use Cmd-↑ and Cmd-↓ to switch between conversations, but there’s no way to get the focus back to the input field once you’ve done so… you have to reach for the screen. There’s an official Apple keyboard cover that turns your iPad into something resembling a laptop, but I don’t know how well it would work remaining steady on a lap on a train.

All that said, I’m absolutely stoked with the new iPad, and am seriously keen to see the software catch up to the capabilities of the hardware!

More fun with Yubikey: Signed Git commits and GPG agent forwarding

I’ve been on a “What other neat things can I do with my Yubikey” kick after my last post, and it turns out one of those neat things is to cryptographically sign Git commits. This allows you to prove that the owner of a particular GPG key is actually the person who committed the code. 

Setting up signed Git commits locally is very easy, run git config --global user.signingkey "<ID of your GPG signing subkey>" (mine is C65E91ED24C34F59 as shown in the screenshot below), then run your Git commit normally but with the added flag -S to sign it.

Bitbucket Cloud doesn’t currently support displaying signed Git commits in the UI, but you can do it on GitHub and you get a shiny little “Verified” badge next to each one and this message when you click on it:

You can also show it locally with git log --show-signature.

This is all well and good, but what if you want to sign something on a remote server that you’re connected to via SSH? Enter GPG agent forwarding!

Just like you can do SSH agent forwarding to have your private SSH key securely forwarded to a machine you’re connecting to, you can do the same with the GPG agent that stores your GPG keys and allow it to access your signing subkey. Setting up GPG agent forwarding is broadly straightforward, but make a note of which versions of GNUPG you’re running at each end. The “modern” version is 2.1 and higher, I’m running 2.2.x on my Macs but my Linode runs CentOS 7 which only comes with GPUPG 2.0.x and I wasn’t able to fully get agent forwarding working between it and 2.2.x on my Macs. I tested the latest Debian with 2.1 and that worked.

I followed this guide, but one extremely important note is that you can’t use a relative path for the local or remote sockets, they have to be the full absolute path. This becomes a pain when you’re connecting to and from different OSes or machines where your username differs. Thankfully, SSH has a Match exec option where you can run a command to match different hosts and use different host definitions (and thus put in different paths for the sockets) depending on your local and remote machines.

Mine looks like this :

# Source machine is a personal Mac, connecting to another personal Mac on my local network; the local network all uses the .core domain internally
Match exec "hostname | grep -F .core" Host *.core
RemoteForward /Users/virtualwolf/.gnupg/S.gpg-agent /Users/virtualwolf/.gnupg/S.gpg-agent.extra

# Source machine is a personal Mac, connecting to my Linux box
Match exec "hostname | grep -F .core" Host {name of the Host block for my Linode}
RemoteForward /home/virtualwolf/.gnupg/S.gpg-agent /Users/virtualwolf/.gnupg/S.gpg-agent.extra

# Source machine is my work Mac, connecting to my Linux box
Match exec "hostname | grep -F {work machine hostname}" Host {name of the Host block for my Linode}
RemoteForward /home/virtualwolf/.gnupg/S.gpg-agent /Users/{work username}/.gnupg/S.gpg-agent.extra

(Yes, technically this doesn’t work as I mentioned at the start due to my Linode being on CentOS 7 and having GNUPG 2.0, but the socket forwarding bit works, just not when I actually want to do anything with it. :P)

Nginx, PHP-FPM, and Cloudflare, oh my!

I use my Linode to host a number of things (this blog and Kristina’s, my website and Kristina’s, an IRC session via tmux and irssi for a friend and me, and probably another thing or two I’m forgetting). Kristina started up a travel blog a few months ago which I’m also hosting on it, and shortly after that point I found that maybe once every two weeks or so my website and our blogs weren’t running anymore. I looked into it and it was being caused by Linux’s Out-Of-Memory Killer, which kicks in when the system is critically low on memory and needs to free some up, killing the Docker container that my website runs in as well as MariaDB.

The main cause was Apache and MariaDB using up entirely too much memory for my little 1GB Linode, it was evidently just sitting on this side of stable with two WordPress blogs but adding a third seems like it tipped it over the edge. The reason MariaDB and my website’s Docker container were being killed is because although Apache was using up a heap of memory it was spread over a number of worker threads, so individually none of those were high, and MariaDB and my website were the largest on the list. There’s lots of tweaks you can do, several of which I tried, but all that happened was that it delayed the inevitable rather than entirely resolving it. Apache is powerful but low-resource-usage it ain’t. The primary low-resource-usage alternative to Apache is Nginx, so I figured this weekend I’d have a crack at moving over to that.

Overall it was pretty straightforward, this guide from Digital Ocean was a good starting point, the bits where it fell short was mostly just a case of looking up all of the equivalent directives for SSL, mapping to filesystem locations, etc. (I have ~15 years of history of hosted images I’ve posted on the Ars Technica  forums and my old LiveJournal—which is now this blog—and wanted to make sure those links all kept working). 

One difference is with getting WordPress going… WordPress is all PHP, and Apache by default runs PHP code inside the Apache process itself via mod_php, whereas when you’re using Nginx you have to be using PHP-FPM or similar which is an entirely separate process that runs on the server and that Nginx talks to to process the PHP code. I mostly followed this guide, also from Digital Ocean though there were a couple of extra gotchas I ran into when getting it fully going with Nginx for WordPress:

  • Edit /etc/nginx/fastcgi_params and add a new line with this content or you’ll end up with nothing but an empty blank page: fastcgi_param PATH_TRANSLATED $document_root$fastcgi_script_name;
  • Remember to change the ownership of the WordPress installation directory to the nginx user instead of  apache
  • The default settings for PHP-FPM assume it’s running on a box with significantly more than 2GB of RAM; edit /etc/php-fpm.d/www.conf and change the line that says pm = dynamic to be pm = ondemand; with ondemand PHP-FPM will spin up worker processes as needed but will kill off idle ones after ten seconds rather than leaving them around indefinitely.

Additionally, Nginx doesn’t support .htaccess files so if you’ve got WordPress set up to use any of the “pretty”-type links, you’ll end up with 404s when you try to view an individual post instead. The fix is to put the following into the server block at the bottom:

location / {
  try_files $uri $uri/ /index.php?$args;
}

So it’ll pass the correct arguments to WordPress’ index.php file. You’ll also want to block access to any existing .htaccess files as well:

location ~ /\.ht {
  deny all;
}

The last thing I did with this setup was to put the entirety of my website, Kristina’s, and our respective blogs behind Cloudflare. I had great success with their DNS over HTTPS service, and their original product is essentially a reverse proxy that caches static content (CSS, Javascript, images) at each of their points of presence around the world so you’ll load those from whichever server is geographically closest to you. For basic use it’s free, and includes SSL, you just need to point your domain’s nameservers at the ones they provide. The only thing I needed to do was to set up another DNS record so I could actually SSH into my Linode, because now the host virtualwolf.org resolves to Cloudflare’s servers which obviously don’t have any SSH running!

Overall, the combination of Nginx + PHP-FPM + Cloudflare has resulted in remarkably faster page loads for our blogs, and thus far significantly reduced memory usage as well.

GPG and hardware-based two-factor authentication with YubiKey

As part of having an Ars Technica Pro++ subscription, they sent me a free YubiKey 4, which is a small hardware token that plugs into your USB port and allows for a bunch of extra security on your various accounts because you need the token physically plugged into your computer in order to authenticate. It does a number of neat things:

  • Generating one-time passwords (TOTP) as a second-factor when logging in to websites;
  • Storing GPG keys;
  • Use as a second-factor with Duo;

And a bunch of other stuff as well, none of which I’m using (yet).

My password manager of choice is 1Password, and although it allows saving one-time passwords for websites itself, I wanted to lock access to the 1Password account itself down even further. Their cloud-based subscription already has strong protection by using a secret key in addition to your strong master password, but you can also set it up to require a one-time password the first time you log into it from a new device or browser so I’m using the YubiKey for that.

I also generated myself GPG keys and saved them to the YubiKey. It was not the most user-friendly process in the world, though that’s a common complaint that’s levelled at GPG. I found this guide that runs you through it all and, while long, it’s pretty straightforward. It’s all set up now, though, my public key is here and I can send and receive encrypted messages and cryptographically sign documents, and the master key is saved only on an encrypted USB stick. You can also use the GPG agent that runs on your machine and reads the keys from the YubiKey to also be used for SSH, so I’ve got that set up with my Linode.

The last thing I’ve done is to set the YubiKey up as a hardware token with Duo and put my Linode’s SSH and this blog (and soon Kristina’s, though hers not with the YubiKey) behind that. With the Duo Unix module, even sudo access requires the YubiKey, and the way that’s set up is that you touch the button on the YubiKey itself and it generates a code and enters it for you.

It’s all pretty sweet and definitely adds a bunch of extra security around everything. I’m busily seeing what else I can lock down now!

Setting up DNS over HTTPS on macOS

Back in April, Cloudflare announced a privacy-focused DNS server running at 1.1.1.1 (and 1.0.0.1), and that it supported DNS over HTTPS. A lot of regular traffic goes over HTTPS these days, but DNS queries to look up the IP address of a domain are still unencrypted, so your ISP can still snoop on which servers you’re visiting even if they can’t see the actual content. We have a Mac mini that runs macOS Server and does DHCP and DNS for our home network, among other things, and with the impending removal of those functions and their suggested replacements with regular non-UI tools with a upcoming version of it, I figured now would be a good time to look into moving us over to use Cloudflare’s shiny new DNS server at the same time.

Turns out it wasn’t that difficult!

Overview

  1. Install Homebrew.
  2. Install cloudflared and dnsmasq: brew install cloudflare/cloudflare/cloudflared dnsmasq
  3. Configure dnsmasq to point to cloudflared as its own DNS resolver.
  4. Configure cloudflared to use DNS over HTTPS and run on port 54.
  5. Install both as services to run at system boot.

Configuring dnsmasq

Edit the configuration file located at /usr/local/etc/dnsmasq.conf and uncomment line 66 and change it from server=/localnet/192.168.0.1 to server=127.0.0.1#54 to tell it to pass DNS requests onto localhost on port 54, which is where cloudflared will be set up.

Configuring cloudflared

Create the directory /usr/local/etc/cloudflared and create a file inside that called config.yml with the following contents:

no-autoupdate: true
proxy-dns: true
proxy-dns-port: 54
proxy-dns-upstream:
  - https://1.1.1.1/dns-query
  - https://1.0.0.1/dns-query

Auto-update is disabled because that seems to break things when the update occurs, and the service doesn’t start back up correctly.

Configuring dnsmasq and cloudflared to start on system boot

dnsmasq: sudo brew services start dnsmasq will both start it immediately and also set it to start at system boot.

cloudflared: sudo cloudflared service install, which installs it for launchctl at /Library/LaunchDaemons/com.cloudflare.cloudflared.plist.

Updating your DNS servers

Now that dnsmasq and cloudflared are running, you need to actually tell your machines to use them as their DNS servers! Open up System Preferences > Network, hit Advanced, and in the DNS tab click the + button and put your computer’s local IP address in. (You’ll want to make sure your machine has a static IP address, of course). Repeat the process for everything else on your local network to have them all send their DNS traffic to 1.1.1.1 as well.

You can confirm that all your DNS traffic is going where it should be with dnsleaktest.

And done!

I was surprised at how straightforward this was. I also didn’t realise until I was doing all of this that dnsmasq also does DHCP, so with the assistance of this blog post I’ve also replaced the built-in DHCP server on the Mac mini and continue to have full local hostname resolution as well!

Knights Ridge “eco retreat”

Knights Ridge “eco retreat”

We went for a weekend away up to a place in the Hunter Valley billing itself as an “eco retreat” and it was pretty great! We were able to bring Beanie along too, which he loved. Kristina had the great idea to get one of those extendo-leads so he was able to roam up to five metres away and smell all the smells while still remaining technically on his lead.

The whole place is entirely off-grid: electricity comes from solar plus battery storage (though they also included instructions for how to start up the backup generator in case anything happened), the toilet is a composting one, and water is all captured from the rain and stored. They did have a somewhat anaemic ADSL2 connection though, so I don’t know if you count that as still being entirely off-grid. 😛 There was zero mobile phone signal though, the whole time we were there our phones said “No service”.

The place was decorated in quite the rustic style, with all sorts of old bits and bobs around, but it was all totally clean and dust-free.

Sitting
Untitled
Untitled

There was no electric kettle, only an old stovetop one, and you don’t realise  how spoiled you are until you remember just how damn long it takes for a kettle to come to a boil on a gas stovetop!

Putting a cuppa on

The whole place was completely and totally silent in terms of any sort of human noise, the only sounds were from the trees and birds, and it was absolutely delightful. Sunset down the shallow valley that we were in was quite nice too.

Spotlight
Sunset

At dusk we saw a couple of wombats, though Beanie had to bark at them probably because they were low and had four legs and so looked somewhat dog-shaped, but we also saw some kangaroos! Beanie was absolutely fascinated by the kangaroos, we were watching from a goodly distance and he was sitting there absolutely laser-focused on them.

A distant kangaroo!
The kangaroo is the little tiny spec right in the middle where the field starts turning into the side of the valley.
Intently watching the distant kangaroo

My only complaint with the place is the number of bugs that manage to come in at night! Only about half the windows have flyscreens on them, so we had to run around and mostly close the place up once dusk arrived. All in all it was extremely relaxing, though. A++ would relax again.

The full album of photos is on Flickr.

Book recommendations, 2018 edition

Fair warning, I’m rubbish at writing reviews so I’m just going to copy and paste the summary from Booktopia. 😛 But I’ve read all of these books and they’re all fantastic and highly recommended!

Vigil by Angela Slatter (Book 1 of the Verity Fassbinder series)

Urban fantasy set in Brisbane.

Verity Fassbinder has her feet in two worlds.

The daughter of one human and one Weyrd parent, she has very little power herself, but does claim unusual strength — and the ability to walk between us and the other — as a couple of her talents. As such a rarity, she is charged with keeping the peace between both races, and ensuring the Weyrd remain hidden from us.

But now Sirens are dying, illegal wine made from the tears of human children is for sale — and in the hands of those Weyrd who hold with the old ways — and someone has released an unknown and terrifyingly destructive force on the streets of Brisbane.

And Verity must investigate, or risk ancient forces carving our world apart. 

The Stars are Legion by Kameron Hurley

Science fiction, a review on Amazon described it as “biopunk” which I think is perfect. It’s one of those books where very little is explicitly spelled out and you gather more and more little nuggets about the world as the book goes on.

Somewhere on the outer rim of the universe, a mass of decaying worldships known as the Legion is traveling in the seams between the stars. For generations, a war for control of the Legion has been waged, with no clear resolution. As worlds continue to die, a desperate plan is put into motion.

Zan wakes with no memory, prisoner of a people who say they are her family. She is told she is their salvation — the only person capable of boarding the Mokshi, a world-ship with the power to leave the Legion. But Zan’s new family is not the only one desperate to gain control of the prized ship. Zan must choose sides in a genocidal campaign that will take her from the edges of the Legion’s gravity well to the very belly of the world. Zan will soon learn that she carries the seeds of the Legion’s destruction — and its possible salvation. 

The Collapsing Empire by John Scalzi (Book 1 of the Interdependency series)

Science fiction.

In the far future, humanity has left Earth to create a glorious empire. Now this interstellar network of worlds faces disaster — but can three individuals save their people?

The empire’s outposts are utterly dependent on each other for resources, a safeguard against war, and a way its rulers can exert control. This relies on extra-dimensional pathways between the stars, connecting worlds. But “The Flow” is changing course, which could plunge every colony into fatal isolation.

A scientist will risk his life to inform the empire’s ruler. A scion of a Merchant House stumbles upon conspirators seeking power. And the new Empress of the Interdependency must battle lies, rebellion and treason. Yet as they work to save a civilization on the brink of collapse, others have very different plans…

The Fifth Season by N.K. Jemisin (Book 1 of the Broken Earth trilogy)

Science-fiction/fantasy, it’s kind of hard to nail it down to a single genre.

Three terrible things happen in a single day.

Essun, masquerading as an ordinary schoolteacher in a quiet small town, comes home to find that her husband has brutally murdered their son and kidnapped their daughter. Mighty Sanze, the empire whose innovations have been civilization’s bedrock for a thousand years, collapses as its greatest city is destroyed by a madman’s vengeance. And worst of all, across the heartland of the world’s sole continent, a great red rift has been torn which spews ash enough to darken the sky for years. Or centuries.

But this is the Stillness, a land long familiar with struggle, and where orogenes — those who wield the power of the earth as a weapon — are feared far more than the long cold night. Essun has remembered herself, and she will have her daughter back.

She does not care if the world falls apart around her. Essun will break it herself, if she must, to save her daughter.

Leviathan Wakes (Book 1 of The Expanse series)

Gritty science fiction. (It should be noted that there are currently seven books in this series so far, and they are all brilliant.)

Humanity has colonised the planets — interstellar travel is still beyond our reach, but the solar system has become a dense network of colonies. But there are tensions — the mineral-rich outer planets resent their dependence on Earth and Mars and the political and military clout they wield over the Belt and beyond.

Now, when Captain Jim Holden’s ice miner stumbles across a derelict, abandoned ship, he uncovers a secret that threatens to throw the entire system into war. Attacked by a stealth ship belonging to the Mars fleet, Holden must find a way to uncover the motives behind the attack, stop a war and find the truth behind a vast conspiracy that threatens the entire human race.

Bound by Alan Baxter (Book 1 of the Alex Caine trilogy)

Urban fantasy set (at least initially) in Sydney.

Alex Caine is a martial artist fighting in illegal cage matches. His powerful secret weapon is an unnatural vision that allows him to see his opponents’ moves before they know their intentions themselves.

After a fight one night, an enigmatic Englishman, Patrick Welby, claims to know Alex’s secret. Welby shows Alex how to unleash a breathtaking realm of magic and power, drawing him into a mind-bending adventure beyond his control. And control is something Alex values above all else. 

Changer by Matt Gemmell (Book 1 of the Kestrel series)

Urban fantasy-slash-science-fiction, set in the Edinburgh, Scotland.

Jutland, Denmark: a billionaire industrialist seizes control of a top-secret project that the European Defence Agency calls Destiny, manipulating it for his own ends.

Edinburgh, Scotland: physicist Neil Aldridge’s life is saved by an elite EU special forces team, codenamed KESTREL, drawing him into a race against time to prevent a disaster that will claim millions of lives.

As the chase leads to London, Amsterdam and beyond, Aldridge and his allies must battle a ruthless adversary: a trained killer with an unnatural ability, who seeks to hasten the cataclysm.

With time running out, Aldridge discovers that he and his enemy share an astonishing secret, which may be the key to salvation — or cause death on an unprecedented scale…

The spiritual successor to SimCity, Cities: Skylines

I first played the original SimCity Classic back in the early 1990s on our old Macintosh LC II, and absolutely loved it. Laying out a city and watching it grow was extremely satisfying, and the sequel, SimCity 2000 was even more detailed. I played a bit of SimCity 4, which came out in 2003, but the latest entry in the series, titled just “SimCity“, by all accounts sucked. The maps were significantly smaller in size, and it required an internet connection and was multiplayer to boot.

It’s actually possible to play SimCity 2000 on modern machines and I definitely got stuck into it a few years ago. This is a screenshot of my most recent city!

Screenshot of SimCity 2000, zoomed out and showing as much of my city as possible.

If you’re wanting a proper modern SimCity 2000-esque experience though, Cities: Skylines is what you’re after. It came out in March of 2015 on desktop, and was ported to Xbox One in April of 2017 and they did a damned good job of it, the controls are all perfectly suited to playing on a controller as opposed to with a mouse and keyboard.

The level of detail of the simulation is fantastic, you can zoom all the way in and follow individual people (called “cims”, as opposed to SimCity’s “sims”) or vehicles and see where they’re going. There’s a robust public transport system and you can put in train lines (and buses, and trams, and a subway, and in the most recent expansion called Mass Transit, even monorails, blimps, and ferries!) and see the cims going to and from work, and how many are waiting at each station and so on.

We recently upgraded to the Xbox One X and a shiny new OLED 4K TV (quite the upgrade from our nine year-old 37″ giant-bezeled LCD TV!), and it makes for some very nice screenshots. These are from my largest city called Springdale, currently home to ~140k people!

Nostalgia and the Classic Mac OS

I’ve been a Mac user my entire life, originally just because my dad used them at his work and so bought them for home as well. My earliest memories are of him bringing his SE/30 home and playing around in MacPaint. We also had an Apple IIe that we got second-hand from my uncle that lived in my bedroom for a few years, though that doesn’t count as a Mac.

The first Mac my dad bought for us at home was the LC II in 1992 (I was 9!), and I can remember spending hours trawling through Microsoft Encarta being blown away at just how much information I could look up immediately. I also remember playing Shufflepuck Café and Battle Chess, and I’m sure plenty of others too that didn’t leave as large an impression. There was also an application that came with the computer called Mouse Practice that showed you how to use a mouse, and we had At Ease installed for a while as well until I outgrew it.

After the LC II we upgraded to the Power Macintosh 6200 in 1995, which among other things came with a disc full of demos on it including the original Star Wars: Dark Forces (which I absolutely begged my parents to get the full version of for Christmas, including promising to entirely delete Doom II which they were a bit disapproving of due to the high levels of gore), and Bungie’s Marathon 2: Durandal (which I originally didn’t even bother looking at for the first few months because I thought it was something to do with running!). Marathon 2 was where I first became a fan of Bungie’s games, and I spent many many hours playing it and the subsequent Marathon Infinity as well as a number of fan-made total conversions too (most notably Marathon:EVIL and Tempus Irae).

The period we owned the 6200 also marked the first time we had an internet connection as well (a whopping 28.8Kbps modem, no less!). The World Wide Web was just starting to take off around this time, I remember dialing into a couple of the local Mac BBSes but at that point they were already dying out anyway and the WWW quickly took over. The community that sprang up around the Marathon trilogy was the first online community I was really a member of, and Hotline was used quite extensively for chatting. Marathon Infinity came with map-making tools which I eagerly jumped into and made a whole bunch of maps and put them online. I was even able to dig up the vast majority of them, there’s only a couple of them that I’ve not been able to find. I have a vivid memory of when Marathon:EVIL first came out, it was an absolutely massive 20MB and I can recall leaving the download going at a blazing-fast 2.7KB/s for a good two or three hours, and constantly coming back to it to make sure it hadn’t dropped out or otherwise stopped.

After the Marathon trilogy, Bungie developed the realtime strategy games Myth: The Fallen Lords and its sequel Myth II: Soulblighter, both of which I also played the hell out of and was a pretty active member of the community in.

After the 6200 we then had a second-gen iMac G3 then a “Sawtooth” Power Mac G4 just for me as my sister and I kept arguing about who should have time on the computer and the Internet. 😛 The G4 was quite a bit of money as you’d imagine, so I promised to pay it back to dad as soon as I got a job and started working.

macOS (formerly Mac OS X then OS X) is obviously a far more solid operating system, but I’ve always had a soft spot for the Classic Mac OS even with its cooperative multitasking and general fragility. We got rid of the old Power Mac G4 probably eight years ago now (which I regret doing), and I wanted to have some machine capable of running Mac OS 9 just for nostalgia’s sake. Mum and dad still had mum’s old PowerBook G3 and I was able to get a power adapter for it and boot it up to noodle around in, but it was a bit awkwardly-sized to fit on my desk and the battery was so dead that if the power cord wasn’t plugged in it wouldn’t boot at all.

There was a thread on Ars Technica a few months ago about old computers, and someone mentioned that if you were looking at something capable of running Mac OS 9 your best bet was to get the very last of the Power Mac G4s that could boot to it natively, the Mirrored Drive Doors model. I poked around on eBay and found a guy selling one in mint condition, and so bought it as a present to myself for my birthday.

Behold!

Power Mac G4 MDD

Dual 1.25GHz G4 processors, 1GB of RAM, 80GB of hard disk space, and a 64MB ATI Radeon 8500 graphics card. What a powerhouse. 😛

There’s a website, Macintosh Repository, where a bunch of enthusiasts are collecting old Mac software from yesteryear, so that’s been my main place to download all the old software and games that I remember from growing up. It’s been such a trip down memory lane, I love it!

A trip to Queenstown

Last week we finally got around to visiting New Zealand! We’d been meaning to go for a good couple of years now, but never actually did it. We started small and visited just Queenstown and surrounds, and were only there for three full days.

We flew in at night on Saturday night, and the descent in was rather long and bumpy which I guess is to be somewhat expected when it’s surrounded by mountains. We went into Queenstown for dinner first, and had one of the best burgers I’ve ever had at The World Bar.

The place we were staying was about 15 minutes drive from Queenstown, but because it was night time all we could see was brilliant yellow leaves on the trees at the side of the road where the headlights were lighting them up. We woke up the next morning, and holy crap, the view!

The Remarkables, morning light

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We went up the Skyline Gondola which has a hell of a view over Queenstown itself.

The view from Skyline Queenstown

Next we drive up to Glenorchy, which is about an hour away. Lunch was surprisingly delicious beef noodle soup from a Chinese restaurant there (there are a lot of Chinese tourists around).

On the road to Glenorchy

Kristina

Orange

Glenorchy Wharf

We spent the afternoon wandering around Queenstown Gardens and Queenstown itself. This was definitely a fantastic time to visit, the air was cool and crisp and all the leaves were changing and everything was bright yellow.

Sitting

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Secluded

Smokey

Dinner was whole baked flounder with shaved fennel and orange from Public Kitchen and it was absolutely magnificent, cooked to total perfection. The “whole fish” bit was slightly off-putting because it’s literally that, a entire fish, eyeballs and all, sitting on your plate staring up at you but I pretty quickly got over it. 😛

The morning view the next morning was even better than before.

The Remarkables, morning light 2

We paid a brief visit to Arrowtown, though there wasn’t a whole lot there and it was mostly tourist shops.

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We then drove up to Wanaka and took the obligatory photo of the tree there.

That Wanaka Tree

The drive itself had some great scenery along the way too.

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Winding road

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Dinner was at the Pig & Whistle pub, I got the dry-rubbed steak with veggies and red wine jus and Kristina had chicken and mushroom pasta, and they were both absolutely incredible.

The final full day we were there, we drove two and a half hours up to Lake Pukaki. As before, the drive itself was quite scenic too.

Stopping at Tarras

Lindis Pass

The lake itself is amazing, it’s this crazy neon-blue colour. The first two photos don’t really do it justice, but the third one is exactly how it looked even in person.

Lake Pukaki

Lake Pukaki

Lake Pukaki

We drove a little further north along the western edge of the lake to get a bit closer to Looking towards Aoraki / Mount Cook, which was looking very dramatic with its peaks covered in clouds.

Looking towards Aoraki / Mount Cook

Overall it was a fantastic trip, we definitely want to go back again but we’re thinking we’ll fly into Christchurch next time and drive around further in the north of the South Island.

The full photosets are here: