Category Archives: review

results from running pi-hole for several weeks

I came across pi-hole recently – an ad blocker and DNS service that you can run on a Raspberry Pi in Raspian (or any Debian or Ubuntu (ie Debian-like)) system. Using pi-hole should obviate the need for running ad-blockers in your browser (so long as you’re on a network that is running DNS queries through pi-hole).

I’ve seen some people running it on CentOS – but I’ve had issues with that combination, so am keeping to the .deb-based distros (specifically, I’m running it on the smallest droplet size from Digital Ocean with Ubuntu 16.04).

First the good – it is truly stupidly-simple to get setup and running. A little too simple – not because tools should have to be hard to use, but because there’s not much configuration that goes in the automated script. Also, updating the blacklist and whitelist are easy – though they don’t always update via the web portal as you’d hope.

Second, configuration is almost all manual: so, if you want to use more than 2 upstream DNS hosts (I personally want to hit both Google and Freenom upstream), for example, there is manual file editing. Or if you want to have basic auth enabled for the web portal, you need to not only add it manually, but you need to re-add it manually after any updates.

Third, the bad. This is not a pi-hole issue, per se, but it is still relevant: most devices that you would configure to use DNS for your home (or maybe even enterprise) want at least two entries (eg your cable modem, or home wifi router). You can set only one DNS provider with some devices, but not all. Which goes towards showing how pi-hole might not be best run outside your network – if you run piggy-back DHCP and DNS both off your RPi, and not off the wireless router you’re probably running, then you’re OK. But if your wireless router / cable modem demands multiple DNS entries, you either need to run multiple pi-hole servers somewhere, or you need to realize not everything will end up going through the hole.

Pi-hole sets up lighttpd instance (which you don’t have to use) so you can see a pretty admin panel:


I added basic authentication to the admin subdirectory by adding the following lines to /etc/lighttpd/lighttpd.conf after following this tutorial:

#add http basic auth
auth.backend = "htdigest"
auth.backend.htdigest.userfile = "/etc/lighttpd/.htpasswd/lighttpd-htdigest.user"
auth.require = ("/admin" =>
( "method" => "digest",
"realm" => "rerss",
"require" => "valid-user" )

I also have 4 upstream DNS providers in /etc/dnsmasq.d/01-pihole.conf:


I still need to SSLify the page, but that’s coming.

The 8.8.* addresses are Google’s public DNS. The 80.80.* addresses are Freenom’s. There are myriad more free DNS providers out there – these are just the ones I use.

So what’s my tl;dr on pi-hole? It’s pretty good. It needs a little work to get it more stable between updates – but it’s very close. And I bet if I understood a little more of the setup process, I could probably make a fix to the update script that wouldn’t clobber (or would restore) any custom settings I have in place.


It had such promise.

Or, should have.

How could you go wrong? Slow zombies. Arnold Schwarzenegger. A plot.

It was also [almost] direct-to-video.

What am I talking about? Maggie. The worst movie Ahnold has been in since End Of Days (and boy was that one bad).

No, it was worse than End Of Days.

I don’t know where to begin. So let’s start with the conclusion. It sucked. Bad. And not in the Red Heat kind of bad – more in the Gigli kind of bad.

The zombies in this movie are slow (a plus), but they also take weeks to turn into one after being bit (which, conveniently, gives the non-turned ample time to plan to eliminate them, and time for the turning to get their affairs in order before being dispatched). In the whole movie, I think, there’s only two encounters with “real” zombies – which could have lots of promise. Focusing on the humanity of the situation could have been good.

But it wasn’t. The pacing was atrocious. Good Night, and Good Luck was this slow, but for a reason. This movie was slow, I think, so that they could call it a “movie”. It’s listed at 95 minutes from IMDb. Pretty sure it’s really only about 52 minutes long.

And even that was about 41 minutes longer than it should have been.

I’ve only not seen a couple Arnie films – make sure you add this to your list of ones of his to skip.

jump start your brain by doug hall

I’m happy I didn’t pay for this copy of Jump Start Your Brain.

I’m saddened someone else did in order to give it to me.

The core of Doug Hall’s creative self-help book from 1996 is decent: get outside yourself, remember what it’s like to be a kid, have fun, don’t take yourself too seriously, and be willing to take calculated risks.

The problem is that summary could be said of pretty much any 3-5 page group of the book, and the rest of the pages seem to be filled with text, quotes, and graphics to show you that you can’t be effectively creative if you’re stagnant in your thinking.

Save yourself the trouble of buying (or even reading) this book, and instead take its core advice:

Maybe version 2.0 is better? I dunno. Not really psyched to find out.

But the blog looks nice.

steam by andrea sutcliffe

Andrea Sutcliffe’s book Steam: The Untold Story of American’s First Great Invention was a pure joy to read. Being the second review I’m writing with my “new” system, I hope you find this book as interesting as I have.

In 1784, James Rumsey designed a boat that could, by purely mechanical means, move its way upstream. What he devised was truly brilliant: imagine a catamaran or pontoon boat with a platform across the two hulls. Anchored to the platform is a waterwheel. The waterwheel dips into the river, and is connected via a linkage to poles that push the boat against the current like a Venetian Gondola.

Why did he develop such a device? Because at the time, shipping by barge etc was incredibly simple downstream – you load-up the barge, give it a small crew, and float downriver. But because there was no way of mechanically returning the vessel upstream (without using sail power, which can be fickle to use, and uses a lot of otherwise-usable cargo area). So barges and shipping vessels tended to be crudely made so they would only ever go downstream – at their destination they’d be turned into building materials. And the crews would have to return on foot. To put this in perspective, it took about 4 weeks to float a barge from Pittsburg down the Ohio to the Mississippi to New Orleans. And it took about 6 months to get home.

Enter the need for reliable mechanical ship propulsion.

Beginning in his teens as a surveyor for the 6th Lord Fairfax, George Washington became enamored with the idea of inland navigation – that is, using streams, canals, rivers, and lakes to transport people and goods instead of the ocean. During his tenure as a surveyor, then an engineer, then a general, he never lost sight of what he viewed as the budding nation’s biggest hurdle to westward expansion – the overwhelmingly high cost of transporting goods from east to west, and vice versa. Along the coast, transport was simple and cheap. But to go far inland made prices exorbitantly high for both consumers and shippers – which made markets hard to tap.

The initial days of the steam wars are proof that ideas are worthless. Stationary steam engines, like those made by Boulton & Watt were too heavy and inefficient to possibly consider putting on a boat – at any scale. So while the idea of steam-powered travel had been running around folks’ minds for 20+ years by the time Rumsey built his simple mechanical boat, there was no way to practically use it.

What was needed were major improvements on steam engine design and implementation before wider applications for their power could be found. This is where the steamboat wars start to become exciting. Independently, Rumsey and a man named John Fitch (with his business partner) developed the pipe boiler which reduced the amount of water needed for operating an engine for the same power output, increased fuel efficiency, cut heating time, and lightened the engine itself. Traditional steam engines used a pot boiler – effectively a massive tank of water that would be heated in gestalt. As anyone who has ever timed how long it takes to start boiling water in a tea kettle vs a stock pot knows, water is very difficult to heat, and lots of energy is needed to move it even a couple degrees.

The fact is, that one new idea leads to another, that to a third, and so on through a course of time until someone, with whom none of these ideas was original, combines all together, and produces what is justly called a new invention. –Thomas Jefferson

Fascinatingly, Thomas Jefferson was against the idea of patents and copyright law, and likely would have campaigned heavily against it in the Constitutional process had he not been Minister to France. From a letter he wrote years after serving on the first Patent Commission Board:

He who receives an idea from me, receives instruction himself without lessening mine; as he who lights his taper at mine, receives light without darkening me. That ideas should freely spread from one to another over the globe for the moral and mutual instruction of man, and improvement of his condition, seems to have been peculiarly and benevolently designed by nature… Inventions then cannot, in nature, be a subject of property. Society may give an exclusive right to the profits arising form them, as an encouragement to men to pursue ideas which may produce utility, but this may or may not be done, according to the will and convenience of the society.

Contrast this to the efforts of both Fitch and Rumsey who lobbied for patent boards of some kind (at both the state and federal levels) between the end of the Revolutionary War and the ratification of the Unites States Constitution.

Sutcliffe’s account of the first “steamboat wars” shows that intellectual property litigation is an expensive, time-consuming, and distracting effort – whose end may or may not have any value.

Progress is an illusion, it happens, but it is slow and invariably disappointing. –George Orwell

Thornton’s condenser is undoubtedly one of the best calculated to condense without a jet of water, but I conceive the difficulty of getting rid of the air insurmountable .. when [the air] is drove back again by the steam to the cold condenser, it becomes nearly equal to common air in density, and skulks into the bottom of the condenser for security. –John Fitch (describing a new condenser design in 1790)

Based upon the extensive research Ms Sutcliffe has done into the early history and designs of steam engines and their associated mechanical conveyances, an old idea of mine has newly gained plausible validity: that of a steam-powered tank. Back in high school I postulated that both the power-to-weight and power-to-size ratio of steam engines had advanced sufficiently by the late 1850s that, in conjunction with a primitive form of caterpillar track design (which Fitch would have called an “endless chain of feet” (vs an early idea of his to use an “endless chain of paddles”)), that the first fully-mechanized war machines could have been built and sent into battle not in WWI, as the first tanks actually were, but instead during the Civil War – 50 years sooner. Leonardo Da Vinci has designed a human-powered armored car in the late 15th century. Replacing man power with steam power could have been a logical thing to have done – but no one ever did.

In the availability of men willing to persevere with a possibly “ridiculous” idea, America had an advantage. –Frank D Pager on the early successes of the Industrial Revolution in America.

Fitch and Rumsey took their war to the people in a series of “pamphlets” published over the course of many months. From Sutcliffe’s description of a “pamphlet” in this context, it seems they were the late 18th century version of a sourced blog or op-ed. Ranging from 20 to 50 (or more) pages in length, with affidavits, letters, and histories presented, the pamphlet was the common man’s research or position paper. I suppose they may have been used by others, too – but the context given in Steam shows them used as marketing and propaganda pieces.

He that studies and writes on the improvements of the arts and sciences labours to benefit generations unborn, for it is impossible that his contemporaries will pay any attention to him. –Oliver Evans

It’s the same each time with progress. First they ignore you, then they say you’re mad, then dangerous, then there’s a pause and then you can’t find anyone who disagrees with you. –Tony Benn (British Labour politician)

Seems that’s where Ghandi may have gotten the inspiration for this famous quotation:

First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.

Or perhaps it was Benn who was inspired by Ghandi. Or maybe they just realized the same thing independently.

draft day – the second football movie of the year

And while not as good as When The Game Stands Tall, still a very good movie.

The parents’ guide warnings from IMDB may be helpful – there’s more language than needed for the story-telling, though I guess that’s what brought it into the PG13 range instead of PG.

I’m not a huge fan of sports movies in general, but some are good (especially the ones that aren’t really sports movies (like For Love of the Game, another Kevin Costner film)). I’m happy to be able to add this one to my list of enjoyable stories.

programming your home by mike riley

Mike Riley’s entry in The Pragmatic Programmers series, Programming Your Home – automating with Arduino, Android, and your computer – was a lot of fun.

While I am not really in a position to do many of the mini projects given in the book (wrong type of house plus we rent), reading some of the project ideas did give me some inspiration for other activities. One of those is a Buffer-like tool I’m now writing to queue tweets over-and-above what the free level of Buffer will allow (and on a different schedule from my Buffer-fed queue). In conjunction with python-twitter, cron, and simple email messages, I’ve got a system started to which I can email things I would like to be posted, and they will go out when the cron job runs.

The Arduino is an impressive embedded platform – one that has also rekindled another long-time interest I’ve had in robotics. Years back, I recall seeing Sally Struthers advertising for one of those learn-at-home groups, and one of the options was robotics. (By “years back”, I mean 20+ years ago – probably more like 25 years ago, at this point.) I used to own a copy of Robot Builder’s Bonanza – and read it cover-to-cover a couple times. I loved watching Battlebots on TV. I’ve always wanted to buy/use LEGO Mindstorms.

Using robots to automate daily activities (and, of course, for fun) has been a fascination since I first saw Lost In Space and myriad other scifi shows and movies.

Riley does a great job of not demanding you be an expert programmer (or even a programmer at all) with the fully-implemented code examples in the book. He also does a good job of indicating what you’ll likely have to tweak on your own – and what you can probably just leave alone in the examples. Add to this the “extra credit challenges”, and I highly recommend it to anyone interested in home automation, embedded development, robotics, or just general programming/scripting.

There are some other interesting Python snippets throughout the book – that don’t have to be used in the context of an Arduino (like using Google’s SMTP server (via authentication)).

coolidge by amity shlaes

Calvin Coolidge is my favorite president. Has been for a long time.

So when I saw Coolidge at my local bookstore recently, I was very excited to grab a copy and read Amity Shlaes rendition of his life.

In just the first 18 pages is enough to inspire anyone to love the man we call our 30th President.

Some choice excerpts form the introduction and first chapter:

Under Coolidge, the federal debt fell. Under Coolidge the top income tax rate came down by half, to 25 percent. Under Coolidge, the federal budget was always in surplus. Under Coolidge, unemployment was 5 percent, or even 3 percent. Under Coolidge, Americans wired their homes for electricity and bought their first cars or household appliances on credit. Under Coolidge, the economy grew strongly, even as the federal government shrank. Under Coolidge, the rates of patent applications and patents granted increased dramatically… Under Coolidge, a man from a town without a railroad station, Americans moved from the road and into the air… Under Coolidge, wages rose and interest rates came down so that the poor might borrow more easily.

Coolidge kept government out of the way of commerce.

Indeed, Coolidge was a rare kind of hero: a minimalist president, an economic general of budgeting and tax cuts. Economic heroism is subtler than other forms of heroism.

It was Washington whom Coolidge emulated in his deliberate decision not to seek reelection in 1928.

Without knowing Coolidge, Americans cannot know the 1920s.

Most presidents place faith in action; the modern presidency is perpetual motion. Coolidge made virtue of inaction… “It is much more important to kill bad bills than to pass good ones,” he wrote… In politics as in business, it is often harder, after all, not to do, to delegate, than to do. Coolidge is our great refrainer.

“The Coolidge family recipe collection contained instructions for ‘Scripture Cake’:

One cup of butter. Judges 5:25
Three and one half cups flour. 1 Kings 4:22
Two cups sugar. Jeremiah 6:20
Two cups raisins. 1 Samuel 30:12
One cup of water. Genesis 24:17
Two cups figs. 1 Samuel 30:12
Two cups almonds. Genesis 43:11
Six eggs. Isaiah 10:14
One tablespoonful honey. Exodus 16:31
A pinch of salt. Leviticus 2:13
Spices to taste. 1 Kings 10:2
Two tablespoonfuls baking pow. 1 Cor 5:6
Follow Solomon’s advice for making good boys (Proverb 23:14), and you will have good cake.
Bake in a loaf and ice.

Calvin wrote to his grandmother in 1887 while at boarding school,

“I am in first rate health and I am having a good time but having a good time is not everything to think about in this world.”

I pity anyone who does not appreciate Coolidge, and anyone who believes that emulating the leader of our most successful decade is a poor idea.

If only every president lead like Coolidge did.