Things That Moved Me in 2020 – Part 2

And off we go with part two with a summary of things ‘that moved me’ in 2020. Apart from the wireless network related topics I wrote about in part 1, the year 2020 was certainly the year video conferencing had a breakthrough for many people. As I value my privacy I was not really keen to have all my meetings over infrastructure and software provided by large 3rd party companies that use closed source software and don’t give much about privacy and confidentiality. So I set up my first open source Jitsi video conferencing server in a German data center for private conversations and meetings. Much easier than I thought! I then gave a talk about it at DiVOC (‘Digital verteiltes Online Chaos’), the first conference gone online in the year 2020 I attended and was run-over by interested people. And from there, things escalated quickly.

Also during this event, which replaced the EasterHegg 2020, I noted that quite a number of people had set up BigBlueButton video conferencing servers. I’ve never heard about it before but people were generally noting that BBB could handle more conference participants in a single conference than Jitsi. So after DiVOC, I set up an instance for my wife, who lectures at a non-technical University so she could hold her courses online. Many other lecturers were also stranded and asked if they could use the server as well. In the end, pretty much the complete faculty was on board and I had to scale up my ‘private’ setup to cater for the demand and having up to a hundred people on the server simultaneously, most of them with video switched-on. A month or so later, the university caught up and, much to my delight, installed their own BBB infrastructure instead of using privacy invading alternatives. Since then I’ve been making BBB infrastructure available to a number of projects, particularly the Vintage Computing Festival Berlin 2020.

Something perhaps even more important than the private video conferencing infrastructure I have put in place for my household and friends has been the addition of voice and video calling to ‘Conversations’, my XMPP client of choice. Finally, I could make end-to-end encrypted voice and video calls to members of the household and friends in my social bubble while on the go. On the server side only a few additional settings were required in addition to putting a separate TURN server in place to get through NATs.

Over the years I struggled a bit with Nextcloud when it came to large multi-gigabyte files. However, in the meantime, the Nextcloud uploading functionality has changed to a chunk based approach. This means that one can now upload files of any size. So I gave it a try with a 20 GB file just to be on the safe side and while it didn’t quite work over web-dav, it worked without a hitch over the web interface.

I also made a big leap forward with further securing the data on the notebooks of the household. While I’ve used encryption for the data partitions for many years, the boot partition was and still is unencrypted. There’s not much personal data there but still enough for it to feel uncomfortable. But this year I found out how the hard disk can be protected with a power-on password and how to deal with password protected drives when they are put into computers of a different manufacturer that uses a different way of encoding a clear text password for forwarding it to the drive.

Digital Sovereignty is a bit of work but not so hard to do with the right skills. But most people don’t have the time nor the skills to host all cloud services they want to use from calendar synchronization to messaging on their own. But there are good alternatives to services of big privacy unfriendly companies out there about which I wrote a post to summarize what I had found over the years when people asked me for alternatives.

On the evolutionary front I have taken a closer look this year of how to use tablets and pens for PDF annotation and note taking. It takes a bit of an effort and exercise to learn how to do this but I was surprised about the opportunities this opens up. Of course one has to be a bit careful not to end up spilling private documents into the hands of companies that want to take of that for you. As Nextcloud integrates into Android pretty nicely, that’s not much of a problem, though.

Also, the experience with virtual machines, preserving my data from bit rot and video encoding this year has made me think about offloading some things to a workstation at home. Operated only over the network, I learnt a lot from using graphical user interfaces of virtual machines over the network, about CPU speed differences between my notebook and a data center, upgrading to 2.5 GbE Ethernet, using ZFS instead of ext4 to be able to span filesystems across several physical drives, etc. etc. This has been a massive learning experience and in the end I wrote a 12 part mini-series about it.

And last but not least I had a lot of fun coding things again this year. Apart from some ‘in-house’ software that continued to evolve, I came up with a nice Nautilus file manager plugin to rotate, fix, shrink and PDF images in large batches. And as I finally grew tired of using a shell window with ping to monitor Internet connectivity, I wrote a little program that does the same thing in a small window that conveniently and unobtrusively sits at the bottom right corner of my screen now and gives me further information about connectivity issues I could not get before. And finally, my Certificate Pinner for Firefox also got a number of additional features.

So that was 2020 for me, again filled with tons of interesting stuff.