Feb 3, 2013

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Changes in 2013

In my 2012 redux I said that this year will be different from 2012. Now that it’s been organised, agreed on and shared with my team I can finally let the cat out of the bag! I’m going to spend less time at work this year so that I can spend more time on the projects and activities I have a personal passion for :) Starting March 1 I’ll not be going in to work on Fridays. I’ve had this plan for a long time, but it conflicted with my desire to travel and do missions work, so I had to be sure I was staying in Wellington for the year before I could commit to it.

What has surprised me the most is how much support I’ve had from work and my client when I’ve told them my plans. Everyone has been supportive and interested in my plans, even a bit envious that I’m able to do this at all. Now is a good time for me to do this – I’m single, I have a stable income and projects that I want to put more time into, more on those soon. I’ve known for a long time that money won’t make me happy so I’m not chasing it. I work in a company that believes in Open Source, with smart, funny people who enjoy life and clients who have big goals and visions of the future. I’m looking to draw on all of these examples in my own projects.

This privilege means I need to make the most of the time I’ll have – this won’t be a day to relax, it’ll be a day of work. I’m looking at a few areas to spend my time on: projects, bible study & prayer, time with others, exercise, chores and eventually volunteering. I’m going to wait at least three months before I think about volunteering because I want to be able to make the commitment and stick to it, not try for a while and then decide I’m overcommitted and stop. Bible study, prayer and exercise are all important things I should be doing more of, they’re actually more important than the project work I have planned and more beneficial long term.

I’m under no illusions – the Web moves so quickly that anything I create will only be useful for a limited time, but that’s fine, these projects are something I have a passion for:

Sentinel – watching over your websites

Web developers like myself have a specific skill set that’s in demand in many places. It seems that every organisation needs a website, then a blog. New projects need their own space online so they make a new site. To make this as easy as possible you can download a system that someone else has made for making websites and install that. These systems are usually called Content Management Systems and many of them are Open Source, making them free to download and use. WordPress, Drupal and Joomla are all ways to make a website or blog. Other more specialised systems are Moodle for online teaching and Mahara for your online portfolio. You can mix and match these systems and before you know it you have them all installed and then you have a maintenance problem.

All of these projects have had security issues in the past and will do in the future. Much like a car, websites need to be maintained, but unlike a car, there’s no legal requirement to do that and people forget, move on or have a hard time justifying the time. The cost of not keeping sites up to date can be the loss of your data or your site can be used to attack your visitors. I saw this in YWAM Kona, a large base with a small IT team that has a mix of long and short term volunteers and a large number of independent organisations under one roof. This situation is a problem and there’s no good Open Source tool available for this kind of monitoring. There should be.

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A screenshot of “WordPress status dashboard” – another effort to fix this problem for WordPress sites

Based on similar concepts to the Archimedes project we use at work to monitor websites I plan to write a website that gives you a dashboard of your websites and tells you which ones need updating. I’ll be writing plugins for WordPress, Drupal and Joomla to start with and expanding to other systems as I have time. This project will be Open Source and free to download on Github. Others can also contribute to it and help make it better. I’ll be using PHP as the language because that’s what the other systems use, making it easier to pick up and install. I’m going back to the drawing board with the code too, swapping out Drupal for a framework, possibly Symfony.

Base Server – Low cost electronic learning server

The Internet is a wonderful thing when you have it. It enables so many things, including electronic learning. In 2010 I had the privilege of visiting the Philippines. I spent time on YWAM bases and all of them offered training to the people. YWAM isn’t unique in this, people all over the world are looking to learn new skills and the Internet can help them get there, but it can be expensive, intermittent, overloaded or just not there – how do we answer that?

cubieboard

Believe it or not, this is a proper computer – just plug in a monitor, keyboard and mouse

In the past year there have been a number of small but powerful for their size computers available for sale for around $50. The most well known is the Raspberry Pi and I’ve also recently received a cubieboard for testing and I have a third “TV Stick” PC on the way. My plan is to work with these credit card size computers and make them into a website in your pocket using Linux. They will run Moodle, an Open Source online learning system and can be pre-loaded with courses before they’re sent overseas, plugged in and left to run. I’d love to get these servers connected to the Internet when possible so they can be updated and courses can be shared around the world. It’s a big ask, but for this year I’ll be happy if I can get one system working fast enough to send away. I plan to use puppet to remotely manage these systems where possible.

Cancel That Card

It’s important to keep the details of your credit or debit card safe, especially on the Internet. Unfortunately with the rise of personalised credit cards people are taking photos and putting them on Twitter for anyone to see. My belief is that if they knew their card was at risk they wouldn’t post the photo, the most common defense I see is that the “Security code / CVV” on the back of the card is needed to use it, this is not true and cards can be used without that code.

One example of a credit card posted online

A credit card posted online, edited by me to block out the numbers, name and expiry

I have registered a twitter account that will automatically tweet people who post photos of their cards, linking to a page explaining the risk involved – hopefully people will cancel their card before it’s used. I haven’t decided which technology to use for this yet, but I think it’s a good opportunity to try my hand at python.

Ambitious

This is an ambitious set of goals to set for myself this year. I don’t expect to fully achieve all of them on my own, but I have a target to aim for and that’s more important. Even if I don’t make it, I want to look back on 2013 and be happy with what I will achieve and look forward to the next year!

“We cannot do everything, and there is a sense of liberation in realizing this. This enables us to do something, and to do it very well. It may be incomplete, but it is a beginning, a step along the way, an opportunity for the Lord’s grace to enter and do the rest.”

Bishop Ken Untener of Saginaw

I want to talk to you about this

Projects like this require many different people to be successful. A web developer in New Zealand isn’t enough and a community is far more capable than an individual. I want to ask you if you’d like to get involved with any of these projects in any way? If you have suggestions and ideas for hardware to try, software that I’ve missed that makes Sentinel unnecessary or just something I didn’t make clear, leave a comment, send me an email or tweet @serenecloud. This early in I’m still working out the details of each project so your feedback will really help me out.

Jan 20, 2013

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Sydney in 4 days

Last year I made my first ever trip to Australia. I’ve travelled to a few places yet I’d never taken the time to visit our closest neighbour and say G’day, despite it being so close and cheap to fly. After visiting I can certainly see the appeal, but I didn’t visit Sydney to see the city, I went to see Matt & Jenna (and Nathan), Sam and Jess & Sheldon – friends who have sadly left NZ and taken up various jobs in the most populated city in Australia[1].

Matt & Jenna had been offering to host me since they moved over and I couldn’t pass up the opportunity. I got a cheap ticket by using Wenza and decided to take on the 7kg challenge[2] and only travel with a carry on bag. I sacrificed my laptop but I had everything I needed plus some room to take over kiwi snacks. Unfortunately, a 7am flight meant a 5am check in, so I was very tired.

Day 1

189388_10151064775807190_1380983254_nI was picked up at Sydney airport by Matt & Jenna, got a Vodafone SIM for the time I’d be there and went back to their place. After planning out our itinerary for the next couple of days I promptly crashed and slept for a couple of hours. When I came back to feeling human there were sandwiches waiting for me in the kitchen. This was just the start of how well I was looked after on this trip, Matt & Jenna’s hospitality is second to none. After eating we headed out into the city.

We visited Chinatown.

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Saw the fireworks.

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And took in a show.

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Day 2

We visited Paddy’s Market.

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We got this close to being in a submarine, but it was closed for the day.

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Not all was lost. I found Sam and he found beer.

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Then we saw Batman in IMAX – way better than any 3D I’ve seen.

Day 3

We took the ferry from Manly to Circular Quay.

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I posed like the tourist I was on the Harbour bridge.

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We saw a plane that had been cut up and sent by postal mail to the US and back.

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We tried out Matt’s camera remote to great success.

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And before the delicious steak BBQ in the evening, we even managed to see this view.

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Day 4

We visited the zoo and saw animals that entertained.

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Animals that took my money.

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Animals I’m glad NZ doesn’t have.

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Animals that were very cute.

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And we worked on Kiwi[3] & Aussie relations.

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We packed heaps into the 4 days and I enjoyed myself so much I know I’ll be back. I have way too many photos and memories for a single blog post, but I’ll leave you with these suggestions:

  • Travel light: Carry less weight, pay less to check a bag, spend less time packing and waiting for bags
  • Stay with friends: Not only do you get to see your friends, you also get a place to sleep
  • Plan rest: Don’t exhaust yourself trying to do everything on your list, it’ll keep
  • Pick the cooler months: Sydney can get incredibly hot and uncomfortable for exploring if you go in the middle of summer
  • Be sure to see: Darling Harbour, Chinatown, Maritime Museum, “The Local” bar (and get a tasting paddle) and the Museum of Contemporary Art

Footnotes

[1] To give that a bit of perspective, the population of New Zealand is roughly the same size as the population of Sydney (including suburbs).

[2] My backpack weighed in at 6.7kg (the scale wasn’t calibrated properly) but because you can also take a “small personal item such as a handbag” in addition to your 7kg allowance my SLR camera and bag travel too.

[3] Kiwi is my travelling companion, he has visited Hawaii, Philippines and Australia with me, sneaking into photos along the way.