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jr conlin's ink stained banana

:: Linux Walkabout with a Chromebook

For the past few years, i’ve been using a chromebook as my “walk-about”. i used to have a full laptop with semi-ridiculous specs that weight close to 9 or 10 pounds because, that made the most amount of sense, but we live in the modern era and there’s no reason to do that.

So, why a Chromebook?

99% of the work i do is remote. i log into one or more servers, write code using VIM or something similar, do the compile remotely, and bring up remotely served web pages to see the results. Generally, i don’t need a beefy box to compile up firefox every hour or so. i can get away with a fairly whimpy machine that just needs to runs ssh and a browser. Plus, if i destroy or lose the machine, i’m sad, but not $3,000 sad.

Chromebooks kind of fit that niche nicely. Yeah, i could also use an apple product, but those tend to be way overpriced, and personally, i don’t have a whole lot of positive feelings toward apple. (If you do, great. i don’t. i’m fine showing you where on the doll the bad computer manufacturer touched me.)

As an added bonus, Chromebooks are linux machines at heart. This means that it’s not TOO hard to get things rolling in a pretty usable way.

Picking Hardware

A chromebook is a chromebook, right? These things are all the same, right?

Well, no. Turns out that there are some remarkable differences in build quality, performance, and usability among each of these. HPs, for example, tend to be fairly durable, but they’re also bigger and slower. Asus tend to look fantastic, but i’ve had mixed luck with processing speed and heat generation. Lenovos are also good, but tend to lean more toward the “overkill” side of things making them pricier and bulkier than i prefer. Honestly, if you can go somewhere and do a “hands on check” for a system, it’s worth it. This is a tool, and like a good tool, you can’t always tell everything you need from a static beauty shot and some sales text.

i have a side thing that pays me about $100 a month. i put that extra cash into an account i use for gadgets, phones and stuff like that, so that kinda drives the price i feel comfortable with. Generally, i shoot for around $500. The latest is more in line with what i paid for my cellphone, so it hurt a bit more, but i figure i’ll get a few years out of it at the very least as well.

As for what brand, i’m not going to say “Use an Acer!” just because those are the boxes that i’ve had the best luck with, but i will provide the following criteria i use when picking a box:

Required:

  1. x86 base – this is more important later, but if you’re planning on running Linux, there are FAR more things compiled for x86 architecture than ARM. x86 can cost more, but honestly, it’s worth it unless you’re never offline or at the wrong end of a crap connection.
  2. USB C charging – Again, we live in a modern era. Chances are you’re phone is USB C (or can talk it), and getting a universal adapter means less crap in the carry on. i’ve gotten a 65w USB charger that i’ve used across several chromebooks and it travels great.

That’s really it. The rest are the optional, bonus bits:

  1. Multiple USB C ports – Because you might want to do more than just charge.
  2. Micro SD slot – Extra storage FTW!
  3. USB A port – It’s the universal standard for stuff like plug in keyboards and drives. Bonus if it’s USB3.
  4. Greater than 1440 vertical resolution – This is a bit esoteric, but i am a sucker for being able to put the max amount of text up on the screen, and to do that i need very high resolution. Resolution tends to vary, but the real base is the vertical, and even at 4:6 horizontal is going to beat vertical, so i use that to judge machines.
  5. 360° hinge – When i use an external keyboard, it can be nice to fold away the main one. It’s also nice when you’re watching movies on airplanes.
  6. Illuminated keyboard – Surprisingly useful at night.

The machine i currently use has all of these, and a pen too which i’ve used maybe once. Still, kinda nice.

The two flavors of Linux

i’ll note that Kenn White has a great article about using a low end chromebook without doing a lot extra to it. Sadly, his needs are not quite my own.

One of the needs i have is to run remote programs off of my X-Windows workstation. This is a bit more involved than just running VNC, but is far more useful. To do that, means i have to have locally running linux that can act as an X client. Previously, that meant rooting the box and installing Crouton, which runs linux in it’s own VM with it’s own display. Newer versions of ChromeOS support a “Linux Beta” which uses a container to run linux as an app. Both allow you to run remote X applications.

Crouton

To put it bluntly, Crouton is a hack. It’s an utterly magnificent hack, but it does require you putting your chromebook in “dev” mode which disables pretty much all the security that chromebooks are famous for. Plus, everytime you reboot you get a super scary message and loud beeping warning you that you’re in Dev mode and to hit the space bar to wipe everything clean. You press ^D to continue. Keep that in mind if you’ve got small kids who like to play with your computers.

That said, installing and using crouton is pretty trivial (albeit, getting a window manager of choice running is as difficult as as it is on any other system), and there’s no denying that once you’ve switched to the Linux side, you’re running full on Linux. You get access to the chromebook drive side (kind of have to dig for it, but it’s there), and if you run an additional plugin like Xiwi, you don’t even have to switch modes to use all the Linux goodness. You even have full access to all the devices (including USB) with no trickery required.

All that said, since it’s a magnificent hack, it’s not exactly “official” and there are bits of it that can be slow. For what it’s worth, if you’re running on an ARM box, i’d actually recommend this approach, even though it requires more CPU. Partly for the reason that it’s a bit more stable.

Pros:
* Full on Linux – with all the features and quirks
* Survives “sleep” cycles
* Full access to devices

Cons:
* Full on Linux – with all the features and quirks
* CPU Intensive (no GPU/hardware acceleration)
* Full access to devices (like USB)
* Requires running Chromebook in “dev” mode with the constant threat of a system wipe.

Crostini

Newer versions of ChromeOS introduced the “Linux (beta)” feature. This runs linux in a sandboxed container. (In theory, you could run other similar containers, but you probably won’t.) The container has access to the main ChromeOS screen, and for all intents and purposes, apps run that way show up as apps in the task bar.

You don’t get a program manager by default for linux apps, but you can easily install something like Firefox Nightly for Linux and run that without a hitch. It depends on what chip you’re running but i’ve got 64-bit x86 linux so i can pretty much natively run anything that draws to the screen.

It’s not all sunshine and unicorns, though. The linux app will sometimes hard hang the box during a light ‘sleep’. In addition, Chromebooks don’t have a ‘hibernate’ so they gleefully kill the CPU (and the linux app) if left alone too long.

Pros:
* Full linux with seamlessly integrated window display.
* Cut & Paste works like expected.
* Supported, and generally getting better.

Cons:
* No hibernation here, only death.
* Hangs on sleep or straight up crashes when running out of memory.
* No window manager finesse or app manager control, your CLI is your friend.
* No full linux access to USB (devices go through ChromeOS, so your Yubikey won’t work quite right with linux apps.)
* Limited drive access to ChromeOS.

Final notes

Is this going to be perfect? Hell no. Some things are going to suck or be annoying. Then again, that’s a universal constant, so we continue on as a species. If your needs are like mine, it’ll be just peachy.

If you like, nothing stops you from running either Crostini or Crouton, getting annoyed, factory resetting and switching to the other install. It’s trivial to back up important stuff with either system.

Also, yeah, chromebooks have a known problem with bluetooth audio devices failing to stay connected. They’re reportedly working on a fix. For now, it’s an excuse to carry the audio cable for your headset in your carry bag.

Good luck, and i’d be interested in hearing what you think.

:: Waiting For Mr. Good Avenger

There’s a really popular movie opening this weekend. You’ve heard of it. It’s earned (no kidding) $1.2 Billion dollars in the opening weekend and everyone says it awesome.

Mind you, being a card carrying nerd, i should probably either have seen it, have tickets to see it, or be in some theater right now watching it. i’m not.

Truth is, i’m not really sure i enjoy going to movie theaters anymore. i mean, they’re comfy, and the screen is huge and all, but they don’t really hold the same appeal to me anymore.

There are probably a lot of reasons for this. If i go to a given movie, i usually do it alone because most of the folks i’d want to go see a nerdy superhero beat-em-up live hours if not hundreds of miles from me (Thanks Internets!), so i’d be the sad, old dude in the back of a theater. Plus, for a communal activity, you’re supposed to be quiet. i mean, i get that nobody wants to hear about your rectal exam while Thor and the Hulk share a tender bonding moment bashing in alien skulls, but anything other than applause at predesignated points is roundly frowned upon. Then, you pay to watch the movie, and get 45 minutes of the same commercials you see on TV, previews for other movies you probably already saw on YouTube, and told to shut up repeatedly. (It’s not like audience participation ever really worked for a movie, after all.)

i dunno, but it just isn’t fun anymore.

So this means that watching something “spoiler free” just doesn’t happen.

i’m pretty sure that within hours i’ll find out about Iron Man’s defeat at the hooves of Hellcow, the surprise Jubilee/Dazzler dance number, or Thanos being defeated by the rise of Dr Bong. It’s ok. i honestly don’t care about spoilers because knowing that the whale won doesn’t make Moby Dick any less of a work of literature, and i’m pretty sure everyone who binge watches movies on Christmas has at least a clue about Clarence’s wings. If your movie runs for 3 hours and can’t survive someone knowing that Thanos has a severe reaction to Rice Krispie treats, well, it’s probably a 3 hour movie folks can skip.

So, i’ll probably just have to contend myself for waiting the 4 months to a year until the studios decide to let some streaming service run it. Heck, maybe i’ll even pony up $20 to watch a couple of Marvel flicks off of Disney+, and then cancel when i’m done.

At least i can hit the pause button to refresh the popcorn bowl.

:: Fun With Miles per kWh

Ok, so yeah, a bit of a follow-up on the electric vehicle front

In short, i got one. Well, sort of.

What i got was a Plug-in Electric Vehicle, which gets about 48* mpg city and a pure electric range of about 26** miles. Since that’s twice what the last car got, and my work (which is 10 miles away) very kindly provides free charging, i expect my fuel bill to drop a fair bit. The car is also pretty fun to drive and ticks pretty much all my required checkboxes (aside from a trailer hitch for a bike rack, but that’s something i can solve pretty easily).

What’s really interesting is doing the math on the charging bit, and why i’m now super happy with a PHEV rather than a full on electric. Particularly since i’m a right cheap bastard at times.

Consider, as stated, my car now gets about 26 miles on 8.6 kWh, or about 3.02 miles per kWh. That’s the max range on the full battery in pure electric mode, probably with a strong wind at your back and ample down hills, but good enough for now. It takes 2 hours and 42 minutes to charge up from pretty much zero on a Level 2 charger.

The hybrid engine gets me around 48 mpg in the city, which is what i generally drive. Again, presume strong winds, ample down hills, and whatever other bits gets you to that high of a number.

Currently, gas goes for around $3.30 per gallon. 26 is about 54% of 48, so it’s safe to assume that running pure electric is equivalent to running about half a gallon of fuel. That means it costs me $1.15 to drive the equivalent distance if my battery is flat and i use the gas engine.

So, when i charge, i want to look for any charging station that costs less than $1.81 total to use. That means anything that’s $.01 a minute (well, $.68 per hour because rounding) or less, or charges less than $0.21 a kWh. According to PG&E, my power company, i pay $0.28 per kWh peak (between 1:00 PM and 7:00 PM) and $0.27 off-peak, so it doesn’t really make sense to charge at home. i’d be paying an equivalent $4.64 for a gallon of gas.

What floors me is that looking at various commercial charging sites charge even more. EVgo, charges $1.50 an hour, which is like spending $6.70 a gallon on gas. i mean, i totally understand companies needing to make a profit and all, but Holy Ampère that’s a lot. Granted, it gets worse. There’s at least one “public” charge station nearby that charges $4 an hour. That’s about $11 a gallon.

i’m going to guess that my car is probably less efficient a pure EV than, well, a pure EV, but even so, if you’ve got an 80kWh battery and your range is 300 miles, that gets you about 3.75 miles per kWh. Still, a full “tank” of electricity still costs far less than it used to in my last car, so not really complaining. i’m also willing to bet that prices per kWh are probably less outside of the Bay Area, but yeah, i’m fine plugging into the free stations when i can and may just skip the pay ones.

Sam Penrose wrote up his thoughts about gas stations vs. electric. i’ll note that in the summer months, i’m getting around 51 MPG, and can fully charge off of the solar panels while they’re producing > 3kWh, and still send some to the grid. i’ll also note that the car is a blast to drive as pure electric, so i tend to charge up frequently.

* for the pedantic, after about a week, i’m seeing around 42mpg and the full battery charge gets me around **24 miles, but it’s also winter, which sets my target price per kWh to $.24 or $.77 an hour.

:: Travel Advise

At work, someone said they were visiting California this upcoming summer for a couple of weeks and wanted to know if there were any recommendations for places to visit.

i offered the following:

There’s lots to do and see in California, but you have to remember that it’s a big state. (it takes around 13 hours to drive from the top to bottom, on freeways, so it’s not really the best way to see it.) i note this because it’s actually worth considering California as several different states loosely bound by asphalt.

True “Northern California” (generally everything north of Santa Rosa) is mostly deep wood areas. That’s where you get some really stunning drives through massive redwood forests and along coastlines. i’ve done route 1 from Mendocino to Eureka. It’s really pretty, but probably not the best with a car full of kids. It can also be more than a bit redneck.

East across the 5 is Shasta, Lassen and Plumas. These are also pretty, but less wooded. They are the remains of part of the volcano chain that stretches up the rest of the coast. Again, great if you love hiking, not so great if you’re into family fun activities.

Heading south a bit you get to what most would consider “Northern California” (which is about mid-way down the state). Basically it’s the Wine valleys (Russian River, Napa & Sonoma) east to about Sacramento, and south to Monterey. Lots and lots of stuff to do around here. Depending on what you want, you can spend days in SF and San Jose, visit Old Town and the train museum in Sacramento. Take advantage of your kids driving skills in the Wine Valleys, or spend the day at the Santa Cruz board walk, or just hit up Atlas Obscura for places like the Musée Mécanique)

Headed further south on 1 (you’ll recognize it for being in every car commercial, ever) gets you to the Central Coast, so named because even Californian’s have no idea how big their state really is. That gets you Pismo Beach and San Luis Obispo (SLO). One noted for being Bugs Bunny’s vacation destination of choice, the other for being a college town with a fairly nice downtown. Again, wineries abound around there, and if you’re feeling like ignoring your car rentals strict rules, there’s beach driving at the Dunes. Or there’s also Dinosaur Caves Park, named after a tourist attraction that featured most of a dinosaur that eventually fell into the sea. Darn pretty park, though.

If you’re particularly lucky, and or the weather holds out, you might even be able to see a rocket launch from Vandenburg in Lompoc. (Bonus points if you insist on saying that town’s name like the narrator in Roger Ramjet, but only because it annoys my wife.) Continuing south gets you to Santa Barbara which is notable for it’s beach, ritzy shopping area, and the birthplace of a number of burger joints.

It’s also about where Southern California starts. Personally, i love taking 101 along this stretch since it hugs the coast. Right now, however, there’s also the problem of burn areas and mud slides, but that’s because we insist on putting roads next to mountains that catch fire.

Then comes LA. You could spend years going over all the stuff in LA and still not see it all. Instead feel free to drive through Anaheim past all the theme parks and watch your kids understand the glory of disappointment. Or just go by Knotts Berry Farm and let them wonder why the company that makes half of their peanut butter sandwiches has some deal promoting a 70 year old cartoon character using roller-coasters.

Finally, roll down 5 past the largest military base in the country, and you’ll arrive in San Diego. An old Spanish town which translates roughly into “Base Entrance next 5 exits”. Downtown San Diego does have some really good restaurants, a surprisingly good Little Italy and lots of folks from LA getting away for the weekend.

i didn’t even note some of the eastern stuff like the Salton Sea (which is a weird monument to a devastating irrigation error, the remains of Josuha Tree National Park & Death Valley.

Likewise, there’s Yosemite, with it’s grand vistas and magnificent traffic, and Lake Tahoe, which will probably make you realize you really can’t take too many pictures.

i think that should probably do it. Granted, by this point you’ll probably be enjoying retirement. Your kids retirement, but retirement none the less. Hope that helps!

:: Ununifi’d

i have a server in my garage. It’s not a super beefy machine, but i use it as a NAS, postgres/http server and a few other things. i’ve had it for a while and while i wouldn’t say it’s a key element of my home network, it’s damn handy to keep around. Still, it’s not quite worth fishing a 30m of cat6 line through a 60 year old house, so i use wifi to connect to it.

the unifi access pointBecause i tend to be a fairly cheap bastard, i’ll get a sub $100 access point in whatever the fastest flavor of 802.11 happens to be at the time. The problem with doing that is sometimes, say, when you’re on vacation in LA for a week, the crappy access point dies on you and your wife can’t peek at the out the front window while she’s away. So after coming home and turning the access point on and off again, i decided i’d fix the problem for realz and get an Unifi AP AC Lite. Several colleagues have Unifi setups for their homes and swear that they’re the bees knees. (i’ll get into that a bit more later.)

Yeah, i’m not so sure about that anymore.

Now, let me make a brief aside to discuss my home network.

i consider the modem provided to me to be hostile. It’s from AT&T, so that’s probably all you need to know. Since it runs a network on 192.168.1.0/24, i keep my protected network on 192.168.2.0/24 behind a second router. Further more, i keep two “private” wifi nets and one “guest” net that gets no access to the private network. i also run a Pi-Hole as my local network DNS. ABSOLUTELY NONE OF THAT SHOULD MATTER TO ANY GOOD ACCESS POINT

Normally, when i get a new access point, i simply plug it into the protected net’s hub, open up the admin access HTTP page, do a bit of local configuration for the device, and we’re good to go, super easy-peasy.

This is not the case with Unifi.

Unifi first wants… no, let me clarify… demands you download their java based controller app. This sets up a local connection running on port “8443” (Oh, hey, that’s the HTTPS port! Better hope you don’t run a secure server on whatever machine you’re running this app on because otherwise you’re going to be very sad.). Of course, the Controller app doesn’t provide any config options to change the port or really do anything other than open a browser to connect, which i guess is fine.

Ok, so let me connect up the access point. i grab a few extra cat5 cables (because none were in the box), and pass the connection through the PoE connector running on a 12″ power cord. i was told that as a device comes online it would appear in the Controller listing. This, appears not to be true.

i unplug, and replug, checking connections. Nope.
i open my protected router’s config panel and see the new Unifi device’s IP4 address. Still nothing in the controller.
i ping the access point, Nothing in the controller.
i port scan the access point, oh, port 22 is open. Google says the user and password is “ubnt” (yay! Security!) and yep, that works just fine. Still nothing in the controller app, though.
i use the “device discovery” tool, which eventually finds the device and lets me locate it. Absolutely zilch in the controller app.

Out of pure curiosity and a bit of needling from a colleague, i connect my computer directly to the AP. Hey! There it is! Only i can’t adopt it because who the hell knows why?

Ok, this is just stupid. Screw you, “controller” app that’s probably doing some UDP polling crap to be clever, let me just ssh back onto the device and… oh, swell. It’s running some weird deviant of Unix. No /etc/network, no /etc/wpa_supplicant,…

There is a /var/log/message that i can cat, and see that it’s constantly trying to connect to “http://unifi:8080/inform”. Well, that’s less than helpful, since i don’t have a “unifi” on my net. Let me force it to connect to my host box that’s running the Connector app… Yay! It connected! and failed to adopt and is back looking for “http://unifi:8080/inform”…

Yeah, ok, i’m done.

i have no doubt that these are amazing in enterprise configurations. i’m sure that if you buy enough Unifi gear, that things “just work” kind of like how you need to buy all of Apple’s stuff for all of Apple’s stuff to work together magically. (i consider this “tech tautology”.) i’m also reminded of one colleague noting that he was able to “adopt” unifi gear that was being installed into neighbor’s houses, so guessing that things work REALLY WELL if you’re doing your initial setup in a Faraday cage, or with no questionable parties sitting within 230 feet of you.

But for me? yeah, no. This thing’s going back.

As for my crappy current access point that drops on occasion? i can solve that for about $25.

Blogs of note
personal Christopher Conlin USMC memoirs of hydrogen guy rhapsodic.org Henriette's Herbal Blog
geek ultramookie

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