Being a tech-savvy parent sometime can be very frustrating.

The COVID-19 pandemic has forced a great acceleration in the adoption of information technology by schools scrambling to keep students able to learn while at home.
The private school of my children took the path of cloud technology, a very reasonable one to scale capacity rapidly, and went for Google’s ecosystem: Google Drive and Google Docs/Sheets form the backbone of their solution.

All is good as long as you have a reliable connectivity, which is the case of Singapore, and the students are able to self-manage their use of non-school-related Google services.
The moment the children need help in resisting the temptation of burning tens of hours per week on YouTube things become more complicated for parents that neither have a solid understanding of the technology nor can spend all their time watching the computer use of their children.
Having a fairly solid IT background I thought I was in a better position that the average parent and could easily implement an automated solution to the problem.

I have a firewall at home and I thought that I could simply block YouTube through it.
Unfortunately blocking YouTube-related domains (,,,, not only works perfectly to block YouTube, but also works perfectly to prevent Google Drive website from loading.
A quick search confirmed it wasn’t something I did wrong on my side, but the way Google has setup their services.
But you can use the official app to make Google Drive look like a local disk and access the files while blocking YouTube, right?
I did so and felt quite proud of it, but only for a short while. Just until I realized this is not enough to edit documents created with Google’s productivity suite.
The documents in the virtual disk in reality contain only the metadata to open the remote documents with Google’s productivity suite online, not the actual documents: I needed YouTube access again.

Another quick search provided me with a manual workaround for the documents created with Google’s tools, but I find it is fairly impractical:
1) Download locally through the web interface the document created with Google’s productivity suite. This will automatically trigger a conversion to a standard office format for the downloaded copy.
2) Load back the converted file after ensuring you didn’t configure the settings to automatically convert to Google’s format
3) Edit the standard-format document both online (with Google’s tool) and locally (with LibreOffice if you don’t have a license for M365).
Because my son already had >100 documents in Google format and the first 2 steps require access to YouTube every time he forgets to perform them at school I find this route quite inconvenient.
For the time being I am giving up on finding a way to automatically block YouTube while having full access to Google Docs.

From the business point of view I can see why Google would rather not have parents blocking children’s access to YouTube; this is one way they make money with their “free” productivity tools.
I would also have understood the business decision to go with Google’s productivity suite if it was made by a public institute in a country with financial troubles because it’s still much better than leaving the students unable to learn.
But when the school asks for annual tuition fees in the range of of the tens of thousands of dollars picking Google’s productivity suite over Microsoft 365, which is also cloud based, but works by default with industry standard formats, it simply makes no sense from a parent’s point of view.
The school should have invested adequately in tools and personnel to facilitate the remote learning needs of their students at a level matching their premium tuition fees.

If someone knows a fully automatic way to block YouTube while at the same time work seamlessly with Google’s documents please share it in the comments: I’m sure I will not be the only parent happy to know how to do it.

Synology DSM 7.0 as a simple ad-blocker

I’m ok with the ad-supported business model, but when on the screen I find 10 (ten!) advertising for the same computer vendor I feel a strong urge to get some ad-freedom.
Often times the ads are not static, but dynamic and this obsoletes older computer faster than strictly needed. This motivates me even further.

A few years back I have successfully used a nice little tool to convert my DS411Slim into an ad-blocker.
The process was simple and all was good until my DS411Slim died for good.
After recovering all the data (with a fair amount of stress and work) I kept using the same solution on the Xpenology running on a HP microserver Gen8 that replaced it.

Fast forward a few years and I moved to Singapore without bringing the server over, but still needed a baseline level of ad-freedom.
For a while I used OPNsense (running on a Kodlix GK45) for this purpose, but after a few (several) months I grew tired of Suricata turning off seemingly randomly on the box (with little useable logs to troubleshoot and no improvement with the OPNsense patches) and sometimes the DNS service doing just the same.
The OPNsense box got decommissioned (it is waiting to be repurposed) and a Unifi USG (I had it sitting around unused since in Italy I moved to a Sophos firewall for my dual-wan needs) took over the basic firewall duties leaving me with my ad-invasion problem again.

Sunday last week I thought it was a good idea to get rid of my ad problem leveraging my recently purchased Synology DS120J in tandem with a used DS115J (yes, I did learn from the DS411Slim experience that a NAS is a single point of failure even when is supporting multiple disks).
Because I went through the process in the past I thought it was going to be a matter of a few minutes and a good idea to relax a bit during my study session for the AWS Certified Solutions Architect – Professional exam.

After almost 30 years dealing with computers I should have known better that often times “few minutes” becomes “few hours”.
In this case the time-stretching happened because I’m running DSM 7.0 instead of DSM 6.x like in my previous NAS and Synology in this major version changed the way some of the built-in services are managed.
Because of this change the directory structure changed too and the original script didn’t work out of the box anymore.
The former:
in DSM7 becomes:

After hammering here and there for a while I got to a hack that seems to be working for me.
If someone wants to take a look at it I attached it in the GitHub issue here.
The usual disclaimer apply: there is no guarantee implied or expressed that it will work for anyone else, it’s totally unrelated to my current or past job and employers, and if the script is used I bear no responsibility for anything bad happening. You can read at the bottom the full, wordy, detail.

Because I passed my certification exam last Friday (Friday the 17th, what an auspicious day did I pick!) I feel much less guilty now of having subtracted two hours from my study and I hope with this post I will save some time for others trying to follow the same approach.

Dell 6430u updated to bios A10

Two days ago I did a new bios update on the notebook.

The process worked fine as usual and, again as usual, did not fix or improve the issue with the fan noise.
After 36 months with it I have to bear it for only 12 more months until the notebook is due to refresh.

A positive note about the 6430U: it does no longer trigger the security scanner in the Ben Gurion airport. Whatever the chemical that was there it is now completely evaporated.

Olivetti M10: amarcord purchase

When I was 11 I had my first programming training.
At the time computers were still a fairly esoteric subject in Italy, but my school had the opportunity to get a few Olivetti M10 when they were introduced and offered the opportunity to the students, on a voluntary basis, to be trained to use the systems.

30 years later I’ve decided to buy a piece of my computing history and now it’s part of my collection of old hardware.

Welcome home M10


Asus EA-66N: a great little AP

After living for quite some time with the wi-fi built into the ADSL modems (I have two lines at  home) I’ve decided that the signal needed some improvement to work reliably with the Nexus 7.
For this reason, after reading a lot of reviews online I’ve selected this small device: it’s not the cheapest device for the purpose but I trust Smallnetbuilder

The design is unconventional and the size was surprisingly small when I got it.
The installation manual is relatively fat but it’s only because it covers a dozen different languages: the actual content is quite skinny; this fortunately is not an issue as the setup, once connected to the web interface, is really easy to do.

Signal improved significantly on the Nexus 7: from 1-2 tabs with some occasional complete disconnection to 4 bars (out of 4) with few drops to 3 bars.
Also the Nokia Lumia 800 and E7 both have shown a significant improvement in signal quality.
The Acer 3810T was already working fine with the older solution: this is likely due to the larger radio antenna and greater available power.

The device can be used also as a wi-fi to ethernet bridge to connect a single device implementing in an easy way what I did using OpenWRT and to extend the wi-fi range, but I’ve not used it in this way.

Overall I had a very positive experience and would suggest this device to anyone having a need like mine.

Synology DSVideo and mobile devices

This week I’ve made a few experiments with the video streaming capabilities of my DS411Slim NAS with two mobile platforms: a Nexus 7 (Android) and the Lumia 800 (WP 7.5).
In order to proceed I had to install the beta version on the NAS as a first step, then I was able to connect with the app downloaded from the stores of the two devices.

I only had a handful of old AVI movies to test and it turned out that the native player of both the Lumia and the Nexus 7 were unable to play the format.

On the Nexus 7 it was possible to install VLC and then play the video.
The same possibility is not available on the Lumia making it an unsuitable platform for further experiments.

The app on the Nexus is not able to resume the play from the point where the tablet was suspended and apparently doesn’t support the manual seek.
I’ve downloaded locally the file and VLC seek worked without any issue.

Overall the experience was fairly negative: DSVideo is not yet a mature solution.

OpenWRT on TP Link MR3420: easy and powerful

The house of my parent’s in law seems to have WiFi gremlins living inside.
Even obtaining a decent signal 8 meters from the router in the past proved to be a challenge.

As a first attempt to connect an old desktop of mine I tried a TP Link WiFi N PCI adapter (TL-WN751ND) with a single antenna (the best that was available in the nearby computer shop): the router signal was detected but connection always failed.

To improve the situation I’ve added a high(er) gain antenna (8db) with an extension cord: signal appeared significantly stronger but connection was still failing most of the time and when successful was lasting only a few minutes.

As a last attempt I decided to convert the 3G router that I already had from the stock firmware to the OpenWRT firmware and use it as a bridge providing ethernet connectivity to the desktop.
Installation was very simple as it worked from the standard firmware update interface of the stock firmware and in about 10 minutes I’ve had the bridge up and running.

Most likely the big challenge is related to signal scattering and the 2×2 MIMO did the needed magic.
Now the connection is fairly stable and I can get the full speed of the ADSL line to the desktop.

A big thank you to the OpenWRT guys.

New Nokia Lumia 800 at home: low satisfaction with WP

Recently my Nokia E7 died and I was left without a smartphone.

Given the nice feeling that I’ve had with the Nokia N9 I’ve picked up the Lumia 800 handset as the phone construction is very similar and the N9 was not longer available at a good price.

After one week of usage I’ve to say that I’m very unhappy with the phone because of the Windows Phone 7.5 operating system.

Microsoft made something major with WP that makes this OS worthless for me (and for people traveling a lot):
There it is no way I could find to download automatically (or by explicit command) all the email attachments for all the emails in my inbox.
I travel in foreign countries 50% of my time and I’m not always in free wifi coverage: having all the data in the phone up to the last synchronization time is key to make it a good work companion.
The position of MS is that the behavior is selected to avoid risks of infections and to help save bandwidth: I’d agree with the choice if it was just the default configuration but it’s not changeable at all.

BTW there it is people who is complaining about Android downloading attachments they’re never going to read 🙂

I’ll either hand the phone over to my wife or send it back hoping that I’ll get the E7 back from service soon as the physical keyboard is a big deal too for me.

My Nokia E7 died

Early in the monday morning I picked up my E7 to use it for both phone calls and as a GPS for my trip in Germany and I’ve found a bad surprise.
For no apparent reason it was asking me to insert the USB cable and then to disconnect the device no matter if I had or not something connected.
Acknowledging it was not helping: in a few seconds it was back with one of the two requests.
I’ve tried all the possible combinations suggested in this thread on, but nothing worked.
I hope to get it fixed under warranty 😦

December update: I got it back fixed under warranty. Horray!

Vodafone station issue: round 2

Today I had again issues with the voice calls using the phone connected to the VF station.

People told me that the my voice recalled them the creature of the black lagoon and that Skype voice quality was way better.
It’s very annoying.

I know that my phone is not directly connected to the PSTN but is actually converted to VOIP by Vodafone’s own router, but this should be transparent to the me as is a VF technical implementation decision and not a hack on my side.

What is interesting is that it looks like the issues started after i got the line upgraded from 7mbit/s to 20mbit/s (not really achieved yet)
Tomorrow I’ll do a test with another phone: if I can’t sort this out soon I’ll revert back to the 7mbit/s and save the money extra money of the nominally better and faster line.

If anyone would like to take a test of the 20 mbit vodafone and share the results it’s possible to join this speed wave

UPDATE: on Friday afternoon (October 19th) the line drown in the black lagoon altogether.
No ADSL and no voice at all for about 30 minutes.

UPDATE: on Saturday evening (November 17th) no ADSL again. Vodafone’s reliability is way worse than what I get with Wind/Infostrada.
To make things worse it’s not possible for the end-user to tell to the Vodafone Station to connect at a lower speed in an attempt to improve reliability.