care bears holding paws

How to socialize on the internet

Preface

It occurs to me many internet users maybe don’t have a Free and Open Source guide to the socializing options available to everyone. We all know about large social media corporations but perhaps you’re tired of the limitations they place on your content, or the invasions into your property rights or privacy. So this guide will be a signpost to a few great (and free!) choices.

The Blog – WordPress

WordPress is currently the best choice for blogging. It’s a great choice for a lot of other purposes too, which makes it a solid leader for “best website software”. Your family photo album, your small business, your personal opinions, and many other capabilities. I suggest starting with free themes, and low cost private hosting that offers you E-mail with your website’s domain name.

How will my friends follow me?

All the best blogging softwares, including WordPress, include support for publishing content “feeds”, including rss, rss2, atom, and so on. This is usually built in and enabled by default, allowing anyone to use various free RSS feed reader applications to follow their friends’ updates.

Link to WordPress: https://wordpress.org/.
Link to RSS Readers: Wikipedia.
Link to Hosting: Pride Tech Design.

The BBS – phpBB

A somewhat underappreciated feature of social computer networks is the bulletin boards, these days called forums. It’s a slow and thoughtful way to communicate and an excellent method to meet new friends with similar interests. I recommend the phpBB software, it’s extremely mature. It’s not as easy to install or administer as WordPress but there is documentation and with a little effort anyone can do it.

Link to phpBB: https://www.phpbb.com/.

The MicroBlog – Mastodon

Twitter is a corporate giant and your satisfaction as a user is second place to their return on investment. An excellent choice of alternatives is Mastodon, which is a diversified and federated network of private and community “instances”. You can join one or many, you can create your own, and everyone can participate together.

Link to Mastodon: https://joinmastodon.org/.

The Chat – Matrix

You’ve got a lot of options for chat softwares.. that is any app aimed at instant response conversations with support for group conversations. I recommend Matrix.org, for a number of reasons. It’s free, it’s open source, it’s distributed, it’s disowned from any corporate masters, and it’s ambitious. You’ll need to be patient with it, it is brand new software and they are trying to do a lot of very modern and exciting features. It’s a great opportunity for new programmers to cut their teeth on something exciting too.

Link to Matrix.org: https://matrix.org/.
Link to Riot.im (Leading client): https://riot.im/.

apple 2 computer showing bbs screen

How to build a Modern BBS

Preface

After reading an article here about building a modern Bulletin Board System, and crafting my own brief response here about how the website already is a modern BBS, I decided I should write a short guide on how you can construct a modern equivalent of a BBS on the web using mostly free tools.

A computer & phone line

In the 1980s operating a BBS required a computer and at least one phone line. Back then a single phone line would cost $20 to $50 per month. Today, a phone line still costs a minimum of $20 a month (phone service is a racket!), but you don’t need to spend that much. For $5 per month you can rent a Virtual Server from Digital Ocean with a dedicated IP address. As far as quality and reliability are concerned Digital Ocean are the best in the marketplace, which is why I recommend them. The link I provide is a referral link which will give me credit toward my own hosting bill if you sign up.

Digital Ocean Hosting

Website Software

It is true that you could build a website from scratch so you don’t actually need to use this software but that takes a lot of time and you’d be re-inventing the wheel. That’s okay if you’re a developer and you’ve got a great idea for a wheel that nobody has thought of before, but otherwise I recommend using WordPress. It’s free and mature, as well as very easy to start using.

WordPress.org

Message Boards

In the 1980s, “Message Boards” are where people would post and discuss topics. Today we call these things “Forums” but they serve the same functionality. The best software for setting up a message board on a website is phpBB. Not only is it free, but it has a really excellent user interface that meets all of the common needs and is very intuitive. It is stand-alone software and it is loaded with features. Installation is pretty easy but configuration can feel a bit daunting. Just take your time and read the documentation and you should be fine.

phpBB

DOOR Games

One of the coolest features of a BBS in the 1980s was Door Games. These were computer games that ran externally from the BBS software. The term ‘door’ was a reference to how the BBS acts as a gateway to access these games. This technology has evolved in multiple ways and powers many of the advanced capabilities seen on the internet today.

There are many ways to run games on your website. Software such as Unity or HTML5 make it possible to build modern games for the browser. However because Nostalgia is a big part of this theme, I’m going to recommend EM-DOSBOX, which is a plugin that allows you to run actual DOS games from within a web browser. The Internet Archive uses this same software for it’s video game archive website.

EM-DOSBOX

Real Time Chat

In the 1980s operating a chat system on a BBS was extremely expensive. First most free BBS software didn’t support it well at all, so you probably had to pay for a commercial platform. Second, every user required their own phone line connection, so if you wanted a 10 person chatroom you had to pay for 10 separate phone lines. Today it’s so much easier and cheaper.

There’s a lot of ‘chat’ plugins available for WordPress. I am going to focus on Matrix.org and Riot.im. There isn’t an easy ‘plugin’ available to install these on your website, but you could use an iframe to embed a riot.im chatroom. The Matrix protocol is still very early in development and as time goes on you can expect there will be simpler and more elegant solutions for this purpose.

Matrix.org
Riot.im

Summary

So there you have it all of the tools required to build a modern “BBS” on the web, and with the exception of server rental all of it is free. You could, in theory, do all of this on your own server running on your home internet connection but that introduces some challenges such as DNS addressing. It’s up to you if that’s worth the $5 saved.

You might notice I did not include detailed tutorials on each piece of this puzzle. That is intentional. This post is meant to be a starting point for people interested in this sort of project. There are already dozens of specific guides and tutorials available for each of the things I’ve linked. This kind of project represents an adventure and learning about the software is part of that adventure. Also, detailed information like installation procedures are likely to evolve over time. So if you’re looking for help with phpBB or WordPress, just do a web search for tutorials on those subjects and you’ll find dozens.

I hope you found this article helpful or useful. I welcome any comments on how to improve my recommendations.

Linux: batch convert webp to png using ffmpeg

If you have some images in webp format, such as exported from Telegram’s “sticker” packs, and you want to convert them to standard png for use in other applications, I have written a small bash script which will convert all the webp files in a directory into png and then remove the webp files.

This requires that you have ffmpeg installed. If you don’t want the webp files deleted afterward just remove line 5.

If you find this useful let me know in the comments! I invite suggestions to improve upon it.

vertical server racks and clean cabling

PowerDNS Script to add new zones using pdnsutil

I recently began using PowerDNS, and it has a really nice command line utility called “pdnsutil” which is sadly under-documented, so I am sharing my bash script which creates a new zone and a reverse dns zone, using pdnsutil.

This script is extremely basic, and I welcome any efforts to fork and improve it.

Be sure to specify your own nameservers where I have placed ns1.nameserver.com and ns2.nameserver.com

The DKIM record is based on a ‘standard’ DKIM configuration that I use, yours may vary.

Monty Python spam skit

anti-spam script

I created a script to notify the abuse@ person for an IP address, while simultaneously banning that IP address for a time-period using fail2ban.

In my case this is useful for spam that I receive through a web based contact form. I don’t want to put a captcha on the form, and most of the spam was coming from the same IPs every day.

This script depends on curl, pcregrep and fail2ban. You could replace fail2ban with iptables however setting an expiration date with iptables alone is more complicated. Since I use fail2ban everywhere (and you should too), this method is just easier. pcregrep is required for doing a multi-line regex match.

Zootopia Carrot Pen

How to Disassemble & Repair the official Disney Store Zootopia Carrot Pen

I’m a big fan of the film so when I saw they had this pen I had to buy one. It records great and writes adequately. It is possible to replace the pen part, however one should take great care when disassembling so as not to break any of the plastic bits.

There was one issue which seems like a defect to me. The spring on the pen is a bit too large for it, and on mine it shifted up and wedged itself on the block which is supposed to keep the spring down. As a result the retractable feature stopped working.

To repair the retractability, I carefully disassembled the pen:
1. There are two covered screws near the top, the covers can be removed with a sewing needle.

2. The silver cone tip is where everything locks together so that is where one must be very careful not to break the pen. The cone has two ‘teeth’ which fit inside the two orange halves, and each orange half has a tooth which fits into the cone.

3. Once disassembled, a bit of electrical tape wrapped tightly around the “blocker” part of the pen, just above where the spring goes, will keep the spring from shifting upward. A smaller spring might be a better solution, but who knows where to find such a thing.

~ fin

UPDATE Jan 7th, 2017

The pen broke again a few weeks ago, sadly.. The electrical tape must have slid from it’s spot as I feared it might. I’ll need a more permanent solution, perhaps a tiny bit of epoxy. It’s a low priority, I really love the pen, perhaps I’ll write Disney and asked if they’ve addressed the issue in a new batch.