Replacing Apple TV

Date: 2015-12-18

For a long time now, I and my family have used an Apple TV as our media PC. Not those newfangled ones with third-party games and apps, but the older generation, those with a set of pre-installed "apps" which let you access certain quarantines of content, such as Netflix, YouTube, iTunes, etc.

The Apple TV worked well enough when accessing content from those sources. The Netflix client was good, the YouTube client kind of lackluster, and the iTunes client decent enough. There various other "apps", but those went mostly unused. The main problem however, affecting basically everything on the platform, is that I live in Norway; as a result, most of the time, somewhat new TV shows or movies we want to watch simply isn't available through those sources. Often, we needed to play video files obtained through other means. This left us two options:

  1. Find a Mac, play the video file in VLC there, mirror the screen to the Apple TV. This gives us various degrees of choppy frame rate, but lets us play the video instantly after it's downloaded, and lets us use subtitles if we so desire.
  2. Spend around half an hour converting the video to mp4, and stream it to the TV with this tool. This gives smooth frame rate, but takes a while due to converting media. It also doesn't support subtitles.

One day, I decided I'd had enough. I found an old laptop, threw Linux on it, connected it to the TV, and started writing code.

Introducing MMPC

MMPC, Mort's Media PC, is the fruits of my endevours. It's designed to be controlled from afar, with a web interface. It's also written in a modular fashion, and I'll go through what each module does.

Media Streaming

https://github.com/mortie/mmpc-media-streamer

The media streamer module is the most important module. When playing a movie or episode from a TV show, we generally have a torrent containing the media file. In the past, we would download the movie from the torrent file, and then find a way to play it on the TV when it's done. This module however lets us instead either paste in a torrent link, or upload a torrent file, and it'll stream that to a VLC window which opens on the big screen. VLC also comes with a web interface, so once you start playing a video, the browser loads the VLC web interface, and you can control video playback from there.

The control panel, letting you paste a magnet link, youtube link, etc:

Control Panel

VLC playback controls:

Playback Controls

Remote Desktop

https://github.com/mortie/mmpc-remote-desktop

Sometimes, you need more than streaming torrent files. Netflix, for example, is very useful, whenever it has the content we want to watch, and the same applies to various other websites. As the computer is running a full Linux distro instead of some locked down version of iOS, it's useful to have a way to control it directly. However, it's also annoying to have a wireless keyboard and mouse connected to it constantly and use that. Therefore, I decided it would be nice to be able to remote control it from the browser.

Implementing remote desktop in the browser sounded like it would be an interesting challenge. However, it turned out to be surprisingly easy. There's already a library out there called jsmpg which basically does everything I need. It has a client to stream an mpeg stream to a canvas element, and a server to stream to the client using websockets. The server also has an HTTP server, which you can stream video to and have it appear in all connected clients. Ffmpeg can both record the screen, and output to an HTTP server.

Once I had streaming video to the client working, the rest was just listening for various events on the client (mousemove, mousedown, etc.), and send HTTP requests to an HTTP server, which then promptly runs an xdotool command, and voila, remote desktop.

Remote Desktop

Live Wallpapers

https://github.com/mortie/mmpc-wallpaper

One nice thing about the Apple TV is that it can be set to display random pictures in your photo gallery, which is very nice. However, those pictures have to be in your iCloud photo library, which is sort of problematic, considering I don't use Apple devices, and dislike that kind of platform lock-in for something as important as photos. I therefore moved everything from what we used to use for photos, a shared iCloud photo stream, over to a NAS, mounted that NAS on the media PC as a webdav volume with davfs, and wrote this module to pick a random picture every 5 seconds and set it as the wallpaper. If the random picture it picked was in portrait orientation, it will find another portrait picture, and put them side by side using imagemagick before setting it as the wallpaper.

Why not Plex/Kodi/whatever?

Media PC software already exists. However, both Plex and Kodi, to my knowledge, sort of expects you to have a media collection stored on hard drives somewhere. They excel at letting you browse and play that media, but we rarely find ourselves in a situation where that would be beneficial. Most of the time, we just want to watch a movie we haven't seen before and have had no reason to already have in a media library, and we generally decide what movie to watch shortly before watching it. Writing the software myself lets me tailor it specifically to our use case.

UPDATE: It has come to my attention that Kodi has some addons which let you stream torrent files. However, even with that, there are some things Kodi doesn't do:

  • Streaming from arbitrary video services - some services, like Netflix, have kodi addons, but many streaming services don't have such plugins. There's no plugin for daisuki for example. Just having a regular desktop with Google Chrome, and some links to websites on the desktop for easier access, solves this.
  • Having those unobstructed dynamic live wallpapers of pictures we've taken whenever video isn't playing is rather nice.
  • Being able to control from a laptop instead of a remote control is useful; remote controls get lost, laptops don't. Typing on a laptop keyboard is also a lot easier than with a remote control.

You could get many of the features I want by using Kodi by installing, and maybe writing, lots of plugins, but I'm not convinced that would've been mch easier than just writing the thousand lines of javascript this project required.

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Housecat, my new static site generator

Date: 2015-10-08

This website has gone through several content management systems throughout the times. Years ago, it was WordPress, before I switched to a basic homegrown one written in PHP. A while after that, I switched to a static site generator written in JavaScript, which I called Nouwell.. Now, the time has come to yet again move, as I just completed Housecat, my new static site generator.

Nouwell, like the PHP blogging system which came before it, was designed to be one complete solution to write and manage blog posts. It was an admin interface and a site builder in a complete package. With Housecat, I decided to take a different route. It's around 1500 lines of C code, compared to Nouwell's roughly 5000 lines of javascript for node.js, PHP, and HTML/CSS/JS. That's because its scope is so much more limited and well defined; take a bunch of source files in a given directory structure, and create a bunch of output files in another directory structure.

Housecat is designed to be a tool in a bigger system. It does its one thing, and, in my opinion, it does it pretty well. Currently, I'm editing this blog post with vim. I'm navigating and administrating articles with regular unix directory and file utilities. I have a tiny bash script which converts my articles from markdown to HTML before Housecat processes them. Eventually, I even plan to make a web interface for administrating things and writing blog posts and such, which will use Housecat as a back-end. To my understanding, this is what the UNIX philosophy is all about.

Housecat features a rather powerful theming system, a plugin system, pagination, drafts (start a post with the string "DRAFT:", and it'll only be accessible through the canonical URL, not listed anywhere), and should be compatible with any sane web server, and is, of course, open source.

Now, some of you might be wondering why anyone would ever use C to write a static site generator. To be honest, the main reason I chose C was that I wanted to learn it better. However, after using it for a while, it doesn't seem like a bad choice at all. Coming mostly from javascript, it's refreshing to have a compiler actually tell me when something's wrong, instead of just randomly blowing up in certain situations. C certainly isn't perfect when it comes to compiler warnings, as anyone who has ever seen the phrase segmentation fault (core dumped) will tell you, however having a compiler tell you you're wrong at all is a very nice change, and valgrind helps a lot with those segfaults. I also think that being forced to have more control over what I'm doing and what goes where helps; with javascript, you can generally throw enough hacks at the problem, and it disappears for a while. That strategy generally literally doesn't work at all in C. That isn't to say that you can't write good code in javascript, nor that you can't write bad code in C, but I found it nice nonetheless.

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Apple and security: Are we back to using our favorite band as our passwords?

I have relatively recently started switching all my online account over to using a password system where all my passwords are over 20 characters, and the password is different for each and every account. It also contains both numbers, lowercase characters, and uppercase characters. I should be safe, right? Well, not quite.

A while ago, I just randomly decided to try out Apple’s “forgot password” feature. I’m a web developer, and am sometimes curious as to how websites implement that kind of thing, so I headed over to http://iforgot.apple.com/ and typed in my Apple ID. I noticed that it gave me the option to answer security questions.

I was first greeted with this screen, asking me for my date of birth:

apple-dob

The date of birth is obviously not classified information, and is basically available to anyone who knows my name and how to use Google.

Having typed in this, I get to a new page, which looks like this:

apple-secquestions

It asks me what my favourite band is and what my first teacher’s name is. None of that is secret either; anyone who know me knows that my favorite band is Metallica, and there are traces of that all throughout the Internet, and if it’s not in public records somewhere, anyone could just randomly ask me what my first teacher’s name was, and I’d probably answer honestly.

Anyways, typing in that information, I find something truly terrifying:

apple-terrifying

I was able to change my password. Only knowing my email address, my date of birth, my favourite band, and my first teacher, anyone could take complete control of all my Apple devices, remotely delete everything on them, access all my images, all documents, everything. And there would be nothing I could do to stop it. After some days, I would probably notice that I couldn’t log in to anything, and would call tech support, but at that point, it would already have been way too late. Anyone could by then have remotely deleted all my data, after backing it up on their machine. Only by knowing publicly available information about me, or asking me seemingly innocent questions via chat.

This isn’t even a case of me using terrible security questions either. Apple only allows you to pick from a small set of security questions, and the vast majority of them were completely inapplicable to me. I have no favourite children’s book. I’m not sure what my dream job is. I didn’t have a childhood nickname, unless we count “mort”, which isn’t really a “childhood” nickname, as it’s my current nick to this day. I don’t have a car, so I don’t know the model of my first car. I have no favourite film star or character. Et cetera. Those are all questions I could’ve chosen instead of “Who was your favourite band or singer in school?”, but none are applicable to me, and more importantly, none of them would be more secure than my current security questions.

Is this standard for security really acceptable from anyone, much less the world’s most valuable tech company, in this day and age? Are we really back to the dark ages of using birth dates, favorite bands, and other personal information as our passwords? Didn’t security experts find out that this was a bad idea a long time ago?

There are of course ways to mitigate the effects of Apple's poorly designed system. You could generate new random passwords for each security questions if you're using a password manager, or you could make up fake answers. I highly suggest going to https://appleid.apple.com/signin and change your security questions right away. However, Apple's solution is still broken. I expect that the vast majority of people will give their actual personal information as the answers, because after all, that's what the website asks you to do.

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Yet Another "Types of Programmers"-post

I and some friends were hanging out in a Google Docs-document earlier, and made our own "types of programmers"-list. The result:

The kinda-master:

This kind of programmer always assumes they know best, and commits without any testing, often breaking sections of the code. They invent unusual methods of doing things, and insist they are the best, especially when they are not. They are very skilled at many things, and assume this translates to everything.

The Delusional:

This kind of programmer takes knowing more than the average person to be knowing more than any person. They code badly and refuse to improve, under the impression everyone else is a moron, especially those who know better than them.

The Ninja:

This breed of programmer quietly twiddles their thumbs until their code is due, at which point they promptly ejaculate a pile of code resembling the result of spaghetti being fed through a blender.

The Bugfixer:

This kind of programmer does nothing at all to assist in the development of a project, leaving it to someone else, who as a result of having more work will produce a buggy and terrible end project. It is at this point that the bugfixer springs into action, finding single lines of code and suggesting slight improvements, all the while making snobby comments about how they should have been written better.

The Magician:

The one you go to whenever you need help, only to get an answer you can't seem to comprehend. You proceed to assume The Magician is an expert in the field, as he seem to possess some long lost knowledge you never knew existed.

The Tinkerer:

The programmer who starts one project, then spends the rest of his life working on said project. The Tinkerer will often end up with a neat end product, but it will be his only product. He will become an expert in any field his project touches, but will know nothing of any other field, save random information he happens to stumble upon.

The Procrastinator:

The one who always theorises about great projects. The Procrastinator will rarely get started with a project, and if they do, you can bet your ass it won't live for more than a week, tops.

The Perfectionist:

A close relative of The Procrastinator. There's one important difference though: while The Procrastinator rarely gets any idea started, The Perfectionist will usually start his projects. The Perfectionist will never get anything done though, as his time doesn't spent writing code, but rather trying to find ways to make his code perfect.

The Duct-Tape Programmer:

The one who tends to get projects done, but usually in a messy manner. The Duct-Tape Programmer is a polar opposite of The Perfectionist and The Procrastinator. Much like The Procrastinator, The Duct-Tape Programmer's head is sprawling with ideas. The difference is that The Duct-Tape Programmer will immediately start writing code, without thinking through anything. The shortcomings of his code will be fixed with duct tape.

The Anti Insertionist:

This kind of programmer relies on others to create a bad codebase, then improves it quickly, ending up with less insertions than deletions. They fix the most bugs and are useful as hell when finishing a project, but are useless by themselves. Since they are able to improve everyone else's code, they have a higher degree of knowledge of what they are doing than anyone else.

The Medium-rare:

Delicious.

The Spandex:

The programmer who doesn't specialise in one field, but rather his best to cover all fields. The Spandex will know something about everything, but a lot about nothing. Jack of all trades, master of none.

The Delusional Magikarp:

Is not a programmer but thinks they are programmer. The most common case of this is the front end web developer, who thinks knowing HTML and CSS puts him in the same league as those writing physics engines in C.

The Newbie:

The one who has just recently discovered the art of programming. The Newbie is a dangerous beast, his code is usually riddled with bugs, memory leaks, SQL injections and what have you not, but at least his heart is in the right place, and he's willing to learn.

The Douchebag:

The individual who has no good intentions. The Douchebag is often seen writing code which relies on a key value store which can only be interfaced with by writing a distributed Map-Reduce function. To make matters worse, his language of choice is Erlang.

The Insane:

Conversations with himself which usually go something like this:

observation: mort often makes jokes I don't get.

observation: inv often doesn't (stop confusing don't and doesn't) (sorry D:::) (>:C) get the jokes I make

observation: who the hell are you. < who typed this dunno

who t

she hell are YOUXeooooooolokk swwag

swedgeis this cursor purple???? ANSEWR ME >:L BLEURIOE:( wut color D: But invalid is blue :O WHO IS THAT

LE PURPLE

I WANT TO BE HEDGEHOG >:LJOP no its not its bzxcvzxcvzxcvAAAAAAAAAAAAAsdlue many dolphin, such wow, much anonymous if you are a hedgehog it is purple Can i haz purple hedgehog no? never

Plox ;n; POWEJPRWEJ D:::::::: BUT HEDGEHOG >:L fack u no not now

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Experimenting with static site generation

Hi!

If you visit this blog on a regular basis, which you probably don't, you may have noticed that it looks a bit different from how it used to look. The overall theme is the same, but the URLs look way different, and there is no comment section. So what happened?

A while ago, I wrote my own content management system in PHP, replacing WordPress. That was your standard CMS, for every request, you have a script (PHP script in this case) which generates the page dynamically, showing you the content you requested. March this year (2014) though, I started a new project, which works fundamentally different.

Enter jsSiteBuilder.

jsSiteBuilder is a static site generator. That means that nothing is built on the fly. There's a script which reads the content of a MySQL database and generates all the required HTML files for each and every page and post. Whenever a user requests the website, the one and only thing the web server ever does is what web servers do best - it fetches the file and sends it back to the user.

The most obvious advantage with this method is performance. Both server load and request time is brought down to the absolute minimum. It also provides some much needed stability. Your website doesn't go down, even in the case of an extreme disaster. Say you accidentally delete your MySQL database, or the database host goes down, or file permissions mess up. Usually, this would take down the website. With this CMS however, all html files will just stay there, available for everyone to see. Your users won't notice a thing, while you can take all the time you need to properly fix whatever issue appeared. You can even re-run the site building script as much as you like while everything is down; it won't delete anything.

Not everything with jsSiteBuilder is static however. More specifically, it has the admin control panel you'd expect from an old-fashioned dynamic site generator, like WordPress. That's because the admin panel is written in PHP. This makes it easy to create, edit, and generally administer and set up the website. All the admin interface does is to interact with the MySQL database. Once you're done making whatever changes you want to make, you can update the user-facing portion of the website with the push of a button. On my blog, with my server, completely regenerating the entire site takes no more than a few tenths of a second.

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