The Family Dashboard

NOTE: This was originally published in Linux Journal, back in 2017. I noticed this morning that my script is still running every day, and I have over 1,100 Bing photos saved locally!

I’ve written a little about PHP before, because I think it’s a great utility language for writing quick things you need to do. Plus, it allows you to use a web browser as your interface, and everyone has a web browser. That makes it very convenient for my family, because I can make simple web interfaces for the various things I normally have to do from the command line. (This is extremely useful when I’m gone to a conference and the Plex server needs to be rebooted, or any of a dozen other things need to be done that are hard to explain over the phone.)

My “Family Dashboard” will look different from yours, but the concept is pretty simple. PHP allows you to execute local functions on the server, and so as long as you can create a bash script that does what you need it to do, it can be launched from the “dashboard” you create for your family. Here’s a sample dashboard file I’ve created, so you can see how simple it is to create a custom page that does what you need it to do (see Figure 1 for a screenshot of the dashboard in action):


<html><head><title>My Dashboard</title></head>
<body>
<h3>You need to enter some commands and possibly options, or just press a button:<br />
<button onclick="window.location='lj.php?command=weather&option=houston'">Weather</button>
<button onclick="window.location='lj.php?command=bing'">Bing Photo</button>
<button onclick="window.location='lj.php?command=uname'">Kernel Name</button>
<button onclick="window.location='lj.php?command=time'">Unix Time</button>
</h3>

<?php

$command = $_GET['command'];
$option = $_GET['option'];

switch ($command)
{
    case "weather":
        echo file_get_contents("http://wttr.in/$option");
        break;
    case "time":
        echo time() . "  <-- that's how I read time! I'm a robot!";
        break;
    case "bing":
        $json = json_decode(file_get_contents("http://www.bing.com/HPImageArchive.aspx?format=js&idx=0&n=1&mkt=en-US"), TRUE);
        $url = "http://bing.com" . $json['images']['0']['url'];
        echo "Here is the image of the day:\n";
        echo "<img src=$url />";
        break;
    case "uname":
        echo shell_exec("uname -a");
        break;
    default:
        echo "<h1>Press a button!</h1>";

}

?>
</body></html>

Figure 1. My dashboard is simple, but it’s just a front end for the code beneath.

First off, copy and paste that code into a file called lj.php and save it onto your local web server. The server needs to have PHP active, but I’ll leave that as an exercise for the reader to set up. I’ve written about installing a LAMP stack before, so it shouldn’t be too challenging to get a web server running with PHP support (see my article “PHP for Non-Developers” from the December 2014 issue) Also, naming the file “lj.php” is only important because if you look at the code, it references itself. If you name it something different, just change the references in the HTML/PHP code.

Before learning how the code works, test it out and watch it work. If you can’t host the file yourself, but want to see it in action, you can use my server for testing. Just head over to here, and it should redirect you to a hosted version of this file. Click the buttons, and see if you can figure out what’s going on. Can you get the local forecast for your area?

What’s with the GET and Switch Stuff?

It’s possible to create a separate PHP file for every action you need to accomplish. That is a lot of PHP files, however, and it still doesn’t give you the ability to receive input to use in the PHP file itself. I want my family to have a single URL, and I want all my code in a single file. It’s just easier that way. First I’ll explain what the $_GET variable does.

As you click the buttons on the page, you should look at the address bar on your browser. When you click on the weather button, for instance, you should see this in the address bar: http://your.server.here/lj.php?command=weather&option=houston.

That stuff at the end is how you tell the PHP script what information you want it to display. All the variables you assign are put into an array called $_GET. So in the weather example above, I’ve assigned two variables. To reference them inside the PHP script, you use the $_GET array. So in the URL above, these two variables are assigned:


$_GET['command'] = "weather";
$_GET['option'] = "houston";

And, you can use those variables in your PHP code. Notice that I’ve actually assigned those two variables to standard variable names, so that it’s easier to reference them later. You can change what variables are sent to the PHP script by changing the information in the URL. That allows the script to be dynamic and provide output based on the input you give it. In fact, the only reason pressing those buttons works is that it loads the page with the arguments already in place! See if you can get your local weather now by changing the “option” variable in the URL and loading the page. Cool, huh?

More Than Just Weather

Since you’re able to send your PHP script variables via the URL, that means your dashboard can do much more than just show the weather. Based on the variables, you can call different commands with the switch construct in PHP. It’s like a CASE statement in other languages, and the logic is pretty straightforward.

You run the switch statement on the $command variable assigned from the $_GET array. If the variable matches any of the options listed as a “case”, it executes the code in that section, then you break; out of the switch construct. If the $command variable doesn’t match any of the case options, the switch executes the default: section at the end. In this example, it’s a message to press a button.

Let’s look at each section to see what’s going on when you press a button (or manually enter the command in the URL).

The Part before the PHP

If you put standard HTML into a PHP file, and don’t enclose it between <?PHP ?> tags, it just sends it to the web browser as HTML code. So the top of the lj.php file is just plain HTML. The text is shown in <h3> tags, and the buttons are created with a little bit of JavaScript that allows them to load the URL specified. If the buttons and JavaScript make you uncomfortable, it’s okay to make standard text links that point where you want them. I just like buttons because they look cool.

It’s important to realize that the buttons aren’t doing anything other than loading the page with $_GET variables assigned in the URL. The buttons themselves don’t execute code, and aren’t anything fancy. You can type the URL out by hand and achieve the same thing. Your family will appreciate it if you make them links or buttons though, because clicking is much easier than typing long, complicated URLs!

Weather

If you click the weather button, or enter the URL by hand to send the $_GET['command'] and $_GET['option'] variables to the script with weather as the command, the switch statement will execute the code inside the case "weather": section.

This is a really simple command that just echoes (prints on the screen) the results from fetching the web page. The file_get_contents function in PHP will get the contents of a local file or a file on the internet. In this instance, you create the URL with your $option variable. If you clicked the button, you’ll notice $option is set to “houston”, but you can change the URL by hand in order to get your local weather. It will accept city names, ZIP codes and even airport codes.

The weather section of the script is the only one that looks at the $option variable, but it’s possible to assign as many variables as you want from the URL. If you assign a variable and it isn’t used, there’s no harm, it’s just ignored.

The Time?

The “time” section doesn’t return what you’d expect for a time button to return. In fact, I labeled the button that loads that page “Unix Time”, because I used the time() function in PHP, which displays the number of seconds that have elapsed since January 1, 1970. That might not seem like a terribly useful number, but it’s very convenient when programming, because you don’t have to parse out hours, minutes and so on. You can click (or refresh) the page a few times, and you should see the number increment.

UNIX time (sometimes called Epoch Time) is fun to play with, and although this example isn’t terribly useful, I wanted to include it so you could see how the time() command works, along with the echo command. If you look, there is a single period after the time() function. That concatenates the two items into a single string and displays it all together. If you click the button, you’ll see what I mean.

Bing? How Dare You Load a Microsoft Page!

The Bing photograph of the day is always awesome (Figure 2). Really, Microsoft does a great job of procuring incredible photos, and I love to see them. Since the URL is always different, this was a great way to show how to load JSON into a variable and then extract an array element. Don’t let the scary looking code intimidate you; JSON is really cool. Basically, you load the JSON from that long Bing URL and put it into a PHP array. Then, you form the URL for the photo from the contents of that array. Here’s a snippet of code you can use to see the array in a more readable form:


<?php

$json = json_decode(file_get_contents("http://www.bing.com/
↪HPImageArchive.aspx?format=js&idx=0&n=1&mkt=en-US"), TRUE);

echo "<pre>";
print_r($json);
echo "</pre>";

?>

Figure 2. The Bing photos are always so cool.

If you don’t have a server, head over to here to see the results of the PHP file. You can see where I got the information to build the URL for the image, and in the switch statement, you can see it just loads the image based on that URL. Isn’t JSON cool?

Local Scripts

This part of the switch statement is powerful, but also a little scary. If you click on the “Kernel Name” button, you can see it executes the code in the uname section of the switch statement. Using the shell_exec command, you can execute a file on the local server and show the results in the browser window. This is powerful because it means you can have your family execute local bash scripts by clicking on a button. But it’s a little scary, because you’re executing local commands on your server by clicking a button!

The script is executed with the permission of the web browser, so, for example, in Ubuntu running Apache, the www-data user would be executing the command. If that user doesn’t have permission to do something in the script, the script will fail. This is one of those “with great power comes great responsibility” things. It can be incredibly useful, but also incredibly dangerous, especially if your server is exposed to the internet!

Troubleshooting

Whenever I write PHP code, I make mistakes. Usually it’s a forgotten semicolon or a mismatched bracket. It can be very annoying when you load the page, and it’s suddenly just blank instead of showing you an error. In the last article I wrote about PHP, I showed how to turn on PHP errors so you could see in the web browser what’s going wrong. I don’t do that anymore, because it’s annoying to see PHP warnings when things are working fine. So what I do now is run php from the command line. If the code is broken, it will show errors on your command line, and you won’t have to worry about turning error logging on and off in your web browser. For example, in the example lj.php file, just go to the folder where it’s stored and type:


php lj.php

And the server will dump the HTML to your command line as if it were a web browser. If there’s an error, it will tell you what you did wrong. I like that method of error checking much more than getting error notifications in my web browser, but if you prefer to see them on the browser, look back to my PHP article from the December 2014 issue and see how to activate error logging.

Just like last time, I’m giving you only a taste of the sorts of things you can accomplish with PHP and a little ingenuity. If you come up with an interesting dashboard of your own, I’d love to see it, even if it’s just a screenshot. (Don’t expose your dashboard to the internet, especially if it controls your local server with shell_exec statements!) Feel free to email me at shawn@brainofshawn.com, but be sure to put “DASHBOARD” in the subject line, or I might assume it’s spam. I get so much darn spam!

Unlimited Local Storage for $12 per Month. Really.

I have a 48TB NAS in my basement. Granted, thanks to RAID6 I only (only!) have 36TB of usable space, but still, I assumed that would last me forever. Thanks to ripping DVDs and Blurays, I was so very, very wrong. Rather than spend a few thousand dollars on a new NAS, however, I decided to host my files in the cloud. The storage is unlimited for $12/month, and after 6 months or so, I can tell you it’s a viable alternative to local storage. Plus, it mounts exactly like a local NAS!

The Service

There are plenty of cloud-based storage solutions available, but they are all either very limited in storage space, or very expensive per GB. There is one solution, however, that provides unlimited storage for a set monthly price. Google Drive.

Officially, in order to get unlimited storage, you must get a Business Gsuite with 5 users. Each user is $12/month, and so you’d have to pay $60/month to get unlimited storage. Honestly, $60 a month for that much space is still insanely affordable — but if you open a Business Gsuite account with a single user (so only $12/mo), you still get unlimited storage. It might seem like an error Google would quickly fix, but it’s been that way for years. I’m currently using more than 40TB of space on my Google Drive, and only have a single user on my Gsuite for Business.

The Problem

Google Drive is nice, but let’s be honest, no one wants to use their web interface as bulk storage. It’s clumsy, slow, and as much as I love Google, the organization is confusing at best. Google does provide “Google Drive Stream”, but due to local caching, you still need local storage or you get “not enough space” errors.

Thankfully, Rclone makes direct access to Google Drive seamless. It allows you to create access via keypair (no annoying logging in all the time), and even lets you mount your remote share on your local filesystem. And in true Steve Jobs “one more thing” fashion, it also allows you to encrypt files and directories in real time, so your privacy is protected even if your data is stored on someone else’s hard drive. It’s seriously amazing. And Rclone? Open Source and totally free!

The Process

Rclone is in most Linux distributions, and even has Windows and OSX versions available that all work similarly. In this video, I show you how to quickly set up a share and mount it on the local filesystem. If it seems too good to be true, yeah, I get that. But I’ve been using it for months and I’ve been more than impressed. It’s been reliable, and robust enough to support a handful of users reading and writing at the same time.

You can do a bit of extra work to create your own application API, which will make the performance more robust. It doesn’t cost any extra money, but it’s admittedly a bit of confusing clicking.

The Training?

You probably know I create training for a living. I have more in-depth training on rclone over at CBT Nuggets. If you’re already a subscriber, you can go to https://snar.co/cbt-rclone to get to the skill directly.

If you’re not yet a subscriber at CBT Nuggets, you can see my Everything Linux course overview, which includes my rclone skill and many others. Feel free to sign up for a free trial if you want to view my training. https://snar.co/cbt-everythinglinux

(This isn’t a creepy bait and switch — the free video above really does walk you through the process. There’s just more capability if you’re interested in diving in deeper, and want to check out my professional DayJob training!)

The Done Manifesto

I only recently discovered this tiny bit of brilliance, even though it was written over a decade ago. It’s by Bre Pettis and Kio Stark, and released under Creative Commons, so I’m pretty sure I can post it here without being shady. (I don’t know where to link to originally, because Bre Pettis’ blog from 2009 is no longer live) First, the manifesto:

  1. There are three states of being. Not knowing, action and completion.
  2. Accept that everything is a draft. It helps to get it done.
  3. There is no editing stage.
  4. Pretending you know what you’re doing is almost the same as knowing what you are doing, so just accept that you know what you’re doing even if you don’t and do it.
  5. Banish procrastination. If you wait more than a week to get an idea done, abandon it.
  6. The point of being done is not to finish but to get other things done.
  7. Once you’re done you can throw it away.
  8. Laugh at perfection. It’s boring and keeps you from being done.
  9. People without dirty hands are wrong. Doing something makes you right.
  10. Failure counts as done. So do mistakes.
  11. Destruction is a variant of done.
  12. If you have an idea and publish it on the internet, that counts as a ghost of done.
  13. Done is the engine of more.

The funny part for me is the controversy this seems to spark in people. If this resonates with you (as it does with me, to my very core), it makes perfect sense. It’s not even slightly suggesting a “good enough” attitude, or creating an environment for creating crappy products/results.

This manifesto is for perfectionists who are crippled by a need to make things perfect, or a fear of not being good enough. Or maybe both.

If you worry this list will make you produce mediocre work, this list is not for you.

If following this list seems like permission to do a job half way, this list is not for you.

If you think this list is stupid, and is fluffy nonsense, this list is not for you.

BUT. If this list resonates with your very soul, and reading it gives you the freedom to be as excellent as you truly are but never seem to show, this list IS for you.

Done is better than perfect. And imperfections are what make art beautiful. Don’t rob the world of your creations because they’re not perfect. The world doesn’t need perfect, it needs you. 🙂

PS: I want to buy this poster in the WORST way!

I Am Racist

I don’t want to be. I don’t try to be. My mom didn’t purposefully raise me to be. But I am.

White Privilege. I’m racist because I’m white and I live in a country where that affords me privileges black folks don’t get. Just because I’m white. I don’t want to put white privilege in quotes, because that implies its existence is in debate. It’s not. I have privileges as a white person that others simply don’t have. And yes, I AM ashamed of it. Just because I didn’t seek out my white privilege doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. And if I “choose” to not use my white privilege, well, I can’t. That’s not how it works. I have plenty of struggles, and I even grew up very poor — but not because of my skin color. Others can’t say the same.

Systemic Racism. I’m also racist because of the systemic racism that still exists in our country. I read a post by a black man who has to walk his tiny little poodle when he wants to go for a walk, because with the tiny poodle, he’s less threatening. That seems absurd. Surely I wouldn’t treat a black man any differently if we passed on the street. But then I thought about it. Would I? If this 6’2″, athletically built black man was walking down the street toward me, would I be nervous? What if he was having a bad day and had a sour look on his face? What if he hated white people? (See? Systemic racism. He MIGHT hate white people, and he might have really good reasons to feel that way. And NO, that’s not “reverse racism”, because there’s just no such thing) I’ve grown up in a bubble, even though I lived in the inner city of Detroit as a child. I was still a white kid in the inner city, so when it came time for me to get a job, I had an easier time simply because I’m white. (Yes, white privilege is part of systemic racism, but I wanted to list them both in bold)

Black Lives Matter. I can not understand why this phrase offends people. It’s not saying or implying that black lives matter more than any other lives. Just that they matter. As much. When we respond, “All Lives Matter” — we’ve missed the point entirely. We can’t erase the disproportionate police brutality by cleverly overwriting the sentiment with inclusivity. Of COURSE all lives matter, but that should include black lives, and the evidence shows it’s not the case. One of my favorite responses to saying “All Lives Matter” is this comic by Kris Straub:

Black People Don’t Need a White Savior. I can’t fix this. I can’t even understand all of it, because of my white privilege. So what should I do? Again, I don’t have all the answers. I know that if we want to make a difference as white people, we should listen to black people. Not so we can fix it, but so we can humbly try to help. I’m a problem solver by nature. I hate that this isn’t something I can fix, but I simply can’t. Hopefully I can be part of the solution.

So to my white friends: No one is mad at you for being white. No one blames you for your white privilege. But denying systemic racism exists is insulting, and a non-starter for moving forward. And honestly, we’re so blinded to the reality, I’m sure I’ve misrepresented things in this very post. Be humble. Acknowledge the disparity. Care. It’s not about us, even if it’s because of us.

My Youngest, Lizzie

To my black friends: You don’t need more burdens, that much I understand. But as a group, we (white people) are so sheltered from reality, we not only don’t know what we should do, we don’t even understand the depth of what’s going on. When white people say, “All Lives Matter”, many of them are trying to be loving and understanding. We want to be better. But we’re spoiled, ignorant, and are used to “fixing” things by snapping our fingers. (GAWD that’s an embarrassing truth) When I see my daughter proudly holding a Black Lives Matter sign while getting scorned by people in big trucks waving confederate flags — I have hope. But even her protest is a cry for guidance. And it’s guidance I can’t give her. Because I don’t know. And my ignorance is embarrassing, but I’d rather be embarrassed and look foolish than be silent and look hateful.

And lastly, to quote my friend Jim Wright, “If you want to be a better nation, be better citizens.”

We Can’t Do This Alone

(NOTE: This is being written during the COVID-19 pandemic, specifically during the “Stay at Home” directive in Michigan.)

My Lungs Suck. Barely.

This week, the CDC announced that it is recommended to wear cloth masks while out in public. A friend of mine kindly made and delivered really cool masks for Donna and me to wear when we go out for walks. You’d think this post was going to be about how my friend Dennis making us masks is how we can work together to get through this. And while that’s true, that’s not what I’m writing about.

Donna and I have been in quarantine for a little over 2 weeks now. It’s because I have health issues that put me at high risk for complications if I get the virus. Today, my health issues really just kicked me in the pants. See, about 3 minutes into our walk, I was reminded just how weak my lungs are. Even with the thin, cloth mask — my lungs were overwhelmed. I had trouble catching my breath, I started wheezing, and my chest started hurting.

Had I not experienced this before, it would have been terrifying. But sadly, I was just reminded that I have never been able to wear masks. When we emptied the hay out of our barn a couple years back, I tried to wear an N95 mask (I also have allergies, hay dust is a monster), and I couldn’t even wear it when riding the tractor. My lungs are just too weak. In fact, even after those couple minutes yesterday, my lungs are still angry today. I just can’t wear a mask.

And that’s the point of this post. Wearing a mask is only a recommendation at this point. I was planning to wear one whenever I go out for a walk, to set a good example. But I can’t. If you can wear a mask, it would be a kindness to people like me. Not even because you might be infected and not know it (you could be), but because wearing a mask is an outward sign that you care about others. Others like me.

I feel bad that I can’t wear a mask. I apologize for the appearance I show of not caring, or not taking the CDC recommendations seriously. But if we all do what we can, we can put the humanity into our society. Be safe. Wash your hands. <3