Technology Tales

Adventures & experiences in contemporary technology

Why all the commas?

4th December 2022

In recent times, I have been making use of Grammarly for proofreading what I write for online consumption. That has applied as much to what I write in Markdown form as it has for what is authored using content management systems like WordPress and Textpattern.

The free version does nag you to upgrade to a paid subscription, but is not my main irritation. That would be its inflexibility because you cannot turn off rules that you think intrusive, at least in the free version. This comment is particularly applicable to the unofficial plugin that you can install in Visual Studio Code. To me, the add-on for Firefox feels less scrupulous.

There are other options though, and one that I have encountered is LanguageTool. This also offers a Firefox add-on, but there are others not only for other browsers but also Microsoft Word. Recent versions of LibreOffice Writer can connect to a LanguageTool server using in-built functionality, too. There are also dedicated editors for iOS, macOS or Windows.

The one operating that does not get specific add-on support is Linux, but there is another option there. That uses an embedded HTTP server that I installed using Homebrew and set to start automatically using cron. This really helps when using the LanguageTool Linter extension in Visual Studio Code because it can connect to that instead of the public API, which bans your IP address if you overuse it. The extension is also configurable with the ability to add exceptions (both grammatical and spelling), though I appear to have enabled smart formatting only to have it mess up quotes in a Markdown file that then caused Hugo rendering to fail.

Like Grammarly, there is an online editor that offers more if you choose an annual subscription. That is cheaper than the one from Grammarly, so that caused me to go for that instead to get rephrasing suggestions both in the online editor and through a browser add-on. It is better not to get nagged all the time…

The title may surprise you, but I have been using co-ordinating conjunctions without commas for as long as I can remember. Both Grammarly and LanguageTool pick up on these, so I had to do some investigation to find a gap in my education, especially since LanguageTool is so good at finding them. What I also found is how repetitive my writing style can be, which also means that rephrasing has been needed. That, after all, is the point of a proofreading tool, and it can rankle if you have fixed opinions about grammar or enjoy creative writing.

Putting some off-copyright texts from other authors triggers all kinds of messages, but you just have to ignore these. Turning off checks needs care, even if turning them on again is easy to do. There, however, is the danger that artificial intelligence tools could make writing too uniform, since there is only so much that these technologies can do. They should make you look at your text more intently, though, which is never a bad thing because computers still struggle with meaning.

Moves to Hugo

30th November 2022

What amazes me is how things can become more complicated over time. As long as you knew HTML, CSS and JavaScript, building a website was not as onerous as long as web browsers played ball with it. Since then, things have got easier to use but more complex at the same time. One example is WordPress: in the early days, themes were much simpler than they are now. The web also has got more insecure over time, and that adds to complexity as well. It sometimes feels as if there is a choice to make between ease of use and simplicity.

It is against that background that I reassessed the technology that I was using on my public transport and Irish history websites. The former used WordPress, while the latter used Drupal. The irony was that the simpler website was using the more complex platform, so the act of going simpler probably was not before time. Alternatives to WordPress were being surveyed for the first of the pair, but none had quite the flexibility, pervasiveness and ease of use that WordPress offers.

There is another approach that has been gaining notice recently. One part of this is the use of Markdown for web publishing. This is a simple and distraction-free plain text format that can be transformed into something more readable. It sees usage in blogs hosted on GitHub, but also facilitates the generation of static websites. The clutter is absent for those who have no need of the Gutenberg Editor on WordPress.

With the content written in Markdown, it can be fed to a static website generator like Hugo. Using defined templates and fixed assets like CSS together with images and other static files, it can slot the content into HTML files very speedily since it is written in the Go programming language. Once you get acclimatised, there are no folder structures that cannot be used, so you get full flexibility in how you build out your website. Sitemaps and RSS feeds can be built at the same time, both using the same input as the HTML files.

In a nutshell, it automates what once needed manual effort used a code editor or a visual web page editor. The use of HTML snippets and layouts means that there is no necessity for hand-coding content, like there was at the start of the web. It also helps that Bootstrap can be built in using Node, so that gives a basis for any styling. Then, SCSS can take care of things, giving even more automation.

Given that there is no database involved in any of this, the required information has to be stored somewhere, and neither the Markdown content nor the layout files contain all that is needed. The main site configuration is defined in a single TOML file, and you can have a single one of these for every publishing destination; I have development and production servers, which makes this a very handy feature. Otherwise, every Markdown file needs a YAML header where titles, template references, publishing status and other similar information gets defined. The layouts then are linked to their components, and control logic and other advanced functionality can be added too.

Because static files are being created, it does mean that site searching and commenting or contact pages cannot work they would on a dynamic web platform. Often, external services are plugged in using JavaScript. One that I use for contact forms is Getform.io. Then, Zapier has had its uses in using the RSS feed to tweet site updates on Twitter when new content gets added. Though I made different choices, Disqus can be used for comments and Algolia for site searching. Generally, though, you can find yourself needing to pay, particularly if you need to remove advertising or gain advanced features.

Some comments service providers offer open source self-hosted options, but I found these difficult to set up and ended up not offering commenting at all. That was after I tried out Cactus Comments only to find that it was not discriminating between pages, so it showed the same comments everywhere. There are numerous alternatives like Remark42, Hyvor Talk, Commento, FastComments, Utterances, Isso, Mouthful, Muut and HyperComments but trying them all out was too time-consuming for what commenting was worth to me. It also explains why some static websites even send readers to Twitter if they have something to say, though I have not followed this way of working.

For searching, I added a JavaScript/JSON self-hosted component to the transport website, and it works well. However, it adds to the size of what a browser needs to download. That is not a major issue for desktop browsers, but the situation with mobile browsers is such that it has a sizeable effect. Testing with PageSpeed and Lighthouse highlighted this, even if I left things as they are. The solution works well in any case.

One thing that I have yet to work out is how to edit or add content while away from home. Editing files using an SSH connection is as much a possibility as setting up a Hugo publishing setup on a laptop. After that, there is the question of using a tablet or phone, since content management systems make everything web based. These are points that I have yet to explore.

As is natural with a code-based solution, there is a learning curve with Hugo. Reading a book provided some orientation, and looking on the web resolved many conundrums. There is good documentation on the project website, while forum discussions turn up on many a web search. Following any research, there was next to nothing that could not be done in some way.

Migration of content takes some forethought and took quite a bit of time, though there was an opportunity to carry some housekeeping as well. The history website was small, so copying and pasting sufficed. For the transport website, I used Python to convert what was on the database into Markdown files before refining the result. That provided some automation, but left a lot of work to be done afterwards.

The results were satisfactory, and I like the associated simplicity and efficiency. That Hugo works so fast means that it can handle large websites, so it is scalable. The new Markdown method for content production is not problematical so far apart from the need to make it more portable, and it helps that I found a setup that works for me. This also avoids any potential dealbreakers that continued development of publishing platforms like WordPress or Drupal could bring. For the former, I hope to remain with the Classic Editor indefinitely, but now have another option in case things go too far.

Converting QEMU disk images to VirtualBox images on Linux Mint 21

30th October 2022

Recently, VirtualBox gained fuller support for Windows 11 and I successively set up a new Windows 11 virtual machine that I hope will supplant a Windows 10 counterpart in time. The setup itself was streamlined but I ran into such stability issues that I set the new VM aside until a new version of VirtualBox got released. That has happened with the appearance of version 7.0.2 but Windows 11 remains prone to freezing on my Linux Mint machine. Thankfully, that now is much less frequent but the need for added stability remains outstanding.

While I was thinking about trying our Virtualbox 7.0.0, I remembered a QEMU machine that I had running Windows 11. Though QEMU proved more limited than VirtualBox when it came to having easy availability of functionality like moving data in and out of the virtual machine or support for sound, there was no problem with TPM support or system stability. Since it did contain some useful data, I wondered about converting its virtual hard disk to VirtualBox format and it is easy to do. First, you need to install qemu-img and other utilities as follows:

sudo apt-get install qemu-utils

With that in place, executing a command like the following performs the required conversion. Here, the -O switch specifies the required file type of vdi in this case.

qemu-img convert -O vdi [virtual hard disk].qcow2 [virtual hard disk].vdi

While I have yet to mount it on the new Virtualbox Windows 11 virtual machine, it is good to have the old virtual hard disk available for doing so. The thought of using it as a boot drive in VirtualBox did enter my mind but the required change of drivers and other incompatibilities dissuaded me from doing so.

Removing redundant kernels from Ubuntu

29th October 2022

Recently, a message appear on some web servers that I have that exhorted me to upgrade to Ubuntu 22.04.1 using the do-release-upgrade command. In the interests of remaining current, I did just that to get another message, one like the following:

The upgrade needs a total of [amount of space with units] free space on disk `/boot`.
Please free at least an additional [amount of space with units] of disk space on `/boot`.
Empty your trash and remove temporary packages of former installations
using `sudo apt-get clean`.

Using sudo apt-get clean did not resolve the problem so the advice given was of no use. The actual problem was that there were too many old kernels cluttering up /boot and searching around the web provided that wisdom. What also came up was a single command for fixing the problem. However, removing the wrong kernel can trash a system so I took a more cautious approach. First, I listed the kernels to be removed and checked that they did not include the currently running one. This was done with the following command (broken up over several lines for clarity using the backslash character to denote continuation) and running uname -r found the details of the running kernel:

dpkg -l linux-{image,headers}-"[0-9]*" \

| awk '/ii/{print $2}' \

| grep -ve "$(uname -r \

| sed -r 's/-[a-z]+//')"

The dpkg command listed the installed kernels with awk, grep and sed filtering out unwanted sections of the text. The awk command takes the tabular output from dpkg and turns it into a list. The -v switch on the grep command gets the lines that do not match the search expression created by the sed command, while the -e switch makes grep look for patterns. The sed command removes all letters from the output of the uname command, where the -r switch produces the kernel release details, to leave on the release number of the current kernel. On being satisfied that nothing untoward would happen, the full command below (also broken up over several lines for clarity using the backslash character to denote continuation) could be executed.

sudo apt purge $(dpkg -l linux-{image,headers}-"[0-9]*" \

| awk '/ii/{print $2}' \

| grep -ve "$(uname -r \

| sed -r 's/-[a-z]+//')")

This apt to purge the unwanted kernels, thus freeing up enough space for the upgrade to continue. That happened without significant incident though there were some remediations needed on the PHP side to get the website working smoothly again.

Using inventory files with Ansible

28th October 2022

This is the second post on Ansible following my main system’s upgrade to Linux Mint 21. Then, I manually ran some Ansible playbooks only to spot messages that I had not noticed before. Here, I discuss two messages issued because of an issue with an inventory file, which is where one defines lists of servers against which playbooks are executed. The default is called hosts and is located at /etc/ansible but the system upgrade had renamed the existing one so Ansible could not find it. The solution was to take a copy and put somewhere safer. Then, I needed to add the location of the new file to the affected ansible-playbook commands using the following construct:

ansible-playbook [playbook path] -i [inventory file path]

Before I did this, I was seeing messages including the text “Could not match supplied host pattern” or others with the following text:

[WARNING]: No inventory was parsed, only implicit localhost is available

[WARNING]: provided hosts list is empty, only localhost is available. Note that the implicit localhost does not match 'all'

The cause was the same in each case and attending to the inventory file got rid of the unwanted messages. The new file also should not be affected by system upgrades in the future.

Fixing an Ansible warning about boolean type conversion

27th October 2022

My primary use for Ansible is doing system updates using the inbuilt apt module. Recently, I updated my main system to Linux Mint 21 and a few things like Ansible stopped working. Removing instances that I had added with pip3 sorted the problem but I then ran playbooks manually only for various warning messages to appear that I had not noticed before. What follows below is one of these.

[WARNING]: The value True (type bool) in a string field was converted to u'True' (type string). If this does not look like what you expect, quote the entire value to ensure it does not change.

The message is not so clear in some ways, not least because it had me looking for a boolean value of True when it should have been yes. A search on the web revealed something about the apt module that surprised me.: the value of the upgrade parameter is a string when others like it take boolean values of yes or no. Thus, I had passed a bareword of yes when it should have been declared in quotes as “yes”. To my mind, this is an inconsistency but I have changed things anyway to get rid of the message.

Upgrading from OpenMediaVault 5.x to OpenMediaVault 6.x

8th June 2022

Having an older PC to upgrade, I decided to install OpenMediaVault on there a few years ago after adding in 6 TB and 4 TB hard drives for storage, a Gigabit network card to speed up backups and a new BeQuiet! power supply to make it quieter. It has been working smoothly since then and the release of OpenMediaVault 6.x had me wondering how to move to it.

Usefully, I enabled an SSH service for remote logins and set up an account for anything that I needed to do. This includes upgrades, taking backups of what is on my NAS drives and even shutting down the machine when I am done with what I need to do with it.

Using an SSH session, the first step was to switch to the administrator account and issue the following command to ensure that my OpenMediaVault 5.x installation was as up to date as it could be:

omv-update

Once that had completed what it needed to do, the next step was to do the upgrade itself with the following command:

omv-release-upgrade

With that complete, it was time to reboot the system and I fired up the web administration interface and spotted a kernel update that I applied. Again the system was restarted and further updates were noticed and these were applied, again through the web interface. The whole thing is based on Debian 11.x but I am not complaining since it quietly does exactly what I need of it.

A quick look at the 7G Firewall

17th October 2021

There is a simple principal with the 7G Firewall from Perishable press: it is a set of mod_rewrite rules for the Apache web server that can be added to a .htaccess file and there also is a version for the Nginx web server as well. These check query strings, request Uniform Resource Identifiers (URI’s), user agents, remote hosts, HTTP referrers and request methods for any anomalies and blocks those that appear dubious.

Unfortunately, I found that the rules heavily slowed down a website with which I tried them so I am going have to wait until that is moved to a faster system before I really can give them a go. This can be a problem with security tools as I also found with adding a modsec jail to a Fail2Ban instance. As it happens, both sets of observations were made using the GTmetrix tool so it seems that there is a trade off between security and speed that needs to be assessed before adding anything to block unwanted web visitors.

Some online writing tools

15th October 2021

Every week, I get an email newsletter from Woody’s Office Watch. This was something to which I started subscribing in the 1990’s but I took a break from it for a good while for reasons that I cannot recall and returned to it only in recent years. This week’s issue featured a list of online paraphrasing tools that are part of what is offered by Quillbot, Paraphraser, Dupli Checker¬†and Pre Post Seo. Each got their own reviews in the newsletter so I will just outline other features in this posting.

In Quillbot’s case, the toolkit includes a grammar checker, summary generator, and citation generator. In addition to the online offering, there are extensions for Microsoft Word, Google Chrome, and Google Docs. In addition to the free version, a paid subscription option is available.

In spite of the name, Paraphraser is about more than what the title purports to do. There is article rewriting, plagiarism checking, grammar checking and text summarisation. Because there is no premium version, the offering is funded by advertising and it will not work with an ad blocker enabled. The mention of plagiarism suggests a perhaps murkier side to writing that cuts both ways: one is to avoid copying other work while another is the avoidance of groundless accusations of copying.

It was appear that the main role of Dupli Checker is to avoid accusations of plagiarism by checking what you write yet there is a grammar checker as well as a paraphrasing tool on there too. When I tried it, the English that it produced looked a little convoluted and there is a lack of fluency in what is written on its website as well. Together with a free offering that is supported by ads that were not blocked by my ad blocker, there are premium subscriptions too.

In web publishing, they say that content is king so the appearance of an option using the acronym for Search Engine Optimisation in it name may not be as strange as it might as first glance. There are numerous tools here with both free and paid tiers of service. While paraphrasing and plagiarism checking get top billing in the main menu on the home page, further inspection reveals that there is a lot more to check on this site.

In writing, inspiration is a fleeting and ephemeral quantity so anything that helps with this has to be of interest. While any rewriting of initial content may appear less smooth than the starting point, any help with the creation process cannot go amiss. For that reason alone, I might be tempted to try these tools from time to time and they might assist with proof reading as well because that can be a hit and miss affair for some.

 

Stopping Firefox from launching on the wrong virtual desktop on Linux Mint

12th October 2021

During the summer, I discovered that Firefox was steadfastly opening on the same virtual desktop on Linux Mint (the Cinnamon version) regardless of the one on which it was started. Being a creature of habit who routinely opens Firefox within the same virtual desktop all the time, this was not something that I had noticed until the upheaval of a system rebuild. The supposed cause is setting the browser to reopen tabs from the preceding session. The settings change according to the version of Firefox but it is found in Settings > General in the version in which I am writing these words (Firefox Developer Edition 94.0b4) and the text beside the tick box is Open previous windows and tabs.

While disabling the aforementioned setting could work, there is another less intrusive solution. This needs the opening of a new tab and the entering of the address about:config in the address bar. If you see a warning message about the consequences of proceed further, accept responsibility using the interface as you do just that. In the resulting field marked Search preference name, enter the text widget.disable-workspace-management and toggle the setting from false to true in order to activate it. Then, Firefox should open on the desktop where you want it and not some other default location.

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