Home Automation

How to write code efficiently (and this has nothing to do with code)

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The world is falling down with books, methodologies, techniques, tips and tricks on how to be more efficient in life, work, and everything else you can think of. What isn’t often discussed is how the desktops, both real and virtual can be tailored to act as a strong foundation, and take things to the next level.

I’ve been thinking about this ever since I tidied my (physical) desktop a couple of weeks ago. Wow.. what a difference. Not my strength keeping that tidy, but it got me thinking about my virtual desktop too. As a Ubuntu User with multiple virtual desktops available to me, I’ve always had a strong sense of standard placement of specific applications but after some thought, have taken that to the next level.

The Physical Desktop

I love my latpop, and there are times when I get in the habit of sitting in front of the fire for a few days with it on my lap, but nothing beats the productivity benefits of a desk, a second monitor, a real keyboard and mouse, kick ass sound, and somewhere to set your coffee.


I’m not really going to say much more about it than that  – the pictures says 1000 words.

The Virtual Desktop(s)

Now things get interesting.  If you are a Windows user then unless things have changed since I last braved using one, you are SOL when it comes to virtual desktops.  For Mac and Linux uses, multiple virtual desktops are things that we’ve been using (or haven’t bothered to use) for years.

Anyhoo. Ubuntu and Mac users can have as many virtual desktops as they like.  Not sure about Mac, but with Ubuntu you can configure how they are arranged, and maybe because of my old Cube days, I like 4 virtual desktops side by side, and configured so you when you get to one end you wrap straight around to the other.

That means I have four full desktops that I can flick back and forward between, and each has 2 monitors.. 8 distinct areas.

So the secret to making this a haven of joy and efficiency is always keeping things in the same place relative to each other.  For example,  say all you use is a browser and Word Processor all day long as part of your core job, then an email client, and a music player.

You might do something like this:

Virtual Desktop 1

Laptop: Music Player

Monitor: Email

Virtual Desktop 2

Laptop: Browser

Monitor: Word Processor

Why is that good?  If you are working on a document, and you need to send an email you know that the email client is just over there on the Virtual Desktop to the right.  Not a great example, but what happens when things get a bit more complex.  I’m a rails developer, and at the very least that involves:

  • a browser
  • a terminal running the rails server (and putting out useful information)
  • an editor
  • a terminal running a rails console (used constantly while writing code)
  • often a MySQL GUI

As if this isn’t enough, in development one is typically working with many open files at the same time, so multiple tabs within the editor.  It’s this last part that made me really rethink my old strategy and for the first time move editing and the browser to different virtual desktops.. and try something that has turned out to be incredibly valuable.

I now have 4 different editors open, with the folder tree in each open to a specific folder of a rails project.

  1. Models
  3. Controllers
  4. Project Root (for other.. migrations, configs, helpers, css / js)

Each of these editors

  • is not full screen
  • has a corner visible no matter what (so you can get to it with a click)
  • is always in the same on the screen (I go M/V/C/Other clockwise starting top corner).

It’s all kinds of awesome.  The result of this separation of browser and editor left some really great gaps for other things.  Here’s a rundown of my 4 Virtual Desktops going left to right.





I have to say after running with this for a couple of weeks, I can’t imagine going back.  My fingers have absolutely learned things like CTRL-S, CTRL-ALT-LEFT,F5 (Save code, move left one desktop, refresh browser) and having the Rails server beside the browser and the rails server beside the editor makes so much sense.

Give it a go!


The problem with XBMC and why it doesn’t make sense anymore.

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Here’s the problem in a nutshell. People like me who drooled over XBMC for years did so because it did an incredible job of dealing with local media files.  We then got really excited because XBMC did an adequate job of dealing with streaming services that started to creep into our lives, like Hulu, Spotify, Amazon Video etc.

That was a while ago – but here we are now, and the world has changed. If you are anything like me, you’ve gone through this evolution:

1) EVERYTHING was local media, acqured by whatever means necessary.
2) Streaming services crept into my life, but still – 90% local, 10% streaming
3) Today.. > 50% streaming, < 50% local.

That’s BAD for XBMC.

It’s not XBMC’s fault.. it’s a great product, created and maintained by a great bunch of open source guys, but the real problem is the plugins.  Hulu could give two shizzles about the XBMC market.. likewise for all the rest. They just don’t care.. and that means that the plugin creators have an uphill battle.

It’s one thing to be a part of that battle when the plugins account for 10% of viewing pleasure, but when it’s more than 50% (for me 90!) then it gets really painful.  Put that a different way, 3 years ago, XBMC did 90% of what I wanted really well – and I had to fight with plugins for the other 10%.  Now It does 10% well – and I have to fight with plugins for the 90%.


For me, the nail in XBMC coffin was a little bundle of joy called Plex. Plex server in it’s current incarnation is all kinds of sexy. It runs on pretty much anything (and for me that’s the only remaining linux Desktop in the house) and merrily does things very very well. In a way it’s XBMC center without the center. It scans specific folders for specific media, works out what it is, adds cover art, and then joy of all joys, makes that content available through a browser.. and.. to Plex Clients.

What Plex clients are there I here you ask? Well that’s where things get really nice..

– Android
– Roku
– Others (including iProducts)

I’m just going to leave the “others” up to you, because as far as I’m concerned that’s already mindblowing.

Let’s switch gears for a sec and talk about Roku. Roku IMHO is the Apple TV for non fanboys. I didn’t realize how astonishingly awesome it was until the Plex server features made stop and say, “Hey.. wait a minute” and  take off my XBMC tunnel vision goggles.

Roku Rocks. The Roku 3 is a powerful little beast in the palm of your hand, with a great interface and a nifty little idea – headphone socket on the remote. Love it. But can it really make all of these big PCs go away that I have scattered around the house connected to TVs?

Hell yes.. because of Plex. Thanks to the Plex plugin for Roku, that shrinking yet vital media set that one acquires through various means (because it’s not yet on  Hulu, Amazon or Netflix) is still right there in a beautiful package, as is your entire music and photo collection.

Nuts and bolts.. here’s the choice:

– great support for local media
– buggy support for Hulu
– buggy support for Amazon
– ugly support for Spotify
– buggy smartphone remotes
– various fun things
— great people out there working hard to provide plugins in an uphill battle against service providors e.g. PBS

– beautiful support for local media through Plex
– flawless support for Hulu
– flawless support for Amazon
– flawless support for Netflix
– flawless support for Spotify
– excelent Roku smartphone app
– adequate stream from smartphone apps
— service providors falling over themselves trying to work with Roku to add channels e.g. PBS.

I’m sad to say that for me XBMC is dead. I’ve gone from 2 hefty XBMC  to two Roku 3s I picked up for less than the price of the PC video cards running XBMC and I couldn’t be happier.



Build your own Linux / Ubuntu System and Network Health Monitor Application – Part I

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At home I have various devices doing various things.. and it’s important to me that I know they are working. There are many tools out there designed to keep an eye on server health, but they don’t do everything that I want in the way that I want, and I’m a big believer that coding = creating, so there’s nothing wrong with reinventing the wheel just for the sake of it.

For me it started recently when I repurposed an old android phone as an IP webcam pointing out the front window. After that it was a natural progression to install the excelent linux app Motion to pick up movement from that feed, and store images and mpegs to disk – for security. Well no point in storing the images on the nice machine that is likely to be stolen in event of a break in.. so let’s store them on an old EEE-Box that’s running headless in a hidden corner of the basement 😉

Well there you have it. Definite needs for a frequent health check:

– is the camera working?
– is the EEE nfs mount mounted?

I wrote a ruby script and cron to solve that problem, but then it just grew. Now I have the system running on multiple machines:

– checking each other
– making sure all my websites are responding to ping
– validating that certain URLs are giving a 200 response
– making sure that disks aren’t filling up
– checking that certain processes / background applications are running

On top of that:

– my laptop knows if I’m at home or away and tests accordingly
– the system creates Desktop icons for each problem (and removes them when problems resolve)
– it can generate Ubuntu desktop notifications
– it can notify me of issues with a text message
– each machine manages hostname|issue style files on Dropbox so whereever I am my laptop can tell me what’s  going on at home.
– it shuts up at night
– for every problem it finds, it checks to see if there are instructions to try to correct it

All this is achieved with:

– 200 lines of core ruby methods that perform all the tests
– 50 lines of code relating to specific issue resolution
– 100 lines of control code –  one liners which are basically “If you are this machine, then do this test”

In Part II we’ll take the very basics of that code, and create a simple single ruby script to keep an eye on a machines own health.