I Think Bluetooth is Finally OK

Bluetooth was introduced on May 7, 1989. I think I first heard of it in the mid-2000’s. People would use it to try to send contact info or other files between feature phones. As I recall, it had about a 50% chance of actually working. All of my attempts fell squarely in the failing 50%. So I ignored it for a few more years.

Then there were smart phones with Bluetooth and laptops had Bluetooth. There were Bluetooth mice and eventually Bluetooth fitness devices and smart(ish) watches. And they all SUCKED.

Bluetooth and Me: A History

Mice

Every Bluetooth mouse I had was slammed down on the desk in frustration at least once. And only very narrowly avoided being hurled across the room. When you’re using something all day every day, 99% uptime is unacceptable. I’d be in the middle of something and the mouse would just stop responding and I’d have to spend a minute or so reconnecting it. Then it might be fine for several more hours. I tried several and finally quit. I’m firmly in the wireless USB dongle camp now as far as mice go. Logitech’s MX Master 3 is glorious. It actually supports Bluetooth AND wireless. I think I tried an earlier version of the MX Master on Bluetooth and quit the first time it disconnected. The wireless dongle has never once failed me, and I’ve used many.

Headphones

Specifically, I’m talking about “earbuds” or what the kids call “IEMs” (in-ear monitors) these days. I’ve had multiple sets of these. Historically, they suffer from four issues:

  1. Poor audio quality.
  2. Discomfort due to weight.
  3. Poor battery life.
  4. Connectivity issues.
  5. Cost.

You could probably come up with something where you could say you get to choose three out of those 5 points. Maybe. The point is, they play off each other. Better battery life means more weight and cost. Anyway, I never had a pair that I was happy with. In the end, the hassle of a cord (and these days a USB-C adapter) has always been less than the hassle of battery, discomfort, poor sound, and connection problems.

Speakers

I’ve also had multiple Bluetooth speakers. And I’ll even throw my car stereo system into this category. These have been so-so. Connectivity has often been an issue. Some good, some not so good. My car in particular is really bad. It always takes a minute or so and at least two tries to actually connect my phone.

The other thing that has killed me with Bluetooth speakers is that they’ve always had horrible performance on listening to voice audio sources. Music is ok, but just about every one I’ve had cuts out in the silence between words. It will pick up again when it hears the next set of words, but routinely a few words will be lost on almost every sentence. I listen to a lot of podcasts and audiobooks, and this was always impossible with every Bluetooth speaker I had.

Fitness Devices / Smartwatches

I’ve had multiple running watches that had Bluetooth, as well as several Fitbits and an Android Wear watch. Generally, the Bluetooth has worked great. Until it stopped working great. When they decided to stop connecting via Bluetooth, it seemed like there was nothing I could do to get them to reconnect. Even rebooting the device and whatever device it was trying to connect to. But then at some point it would just start working again for however many days.

All this is to say that I’m not just someone who hates something they’ve never tried. I’ve had dozens of Bluetooth devices and every single one of them has caused me some level of frustration. And yet, I keep buying them, holding out hope. (Except mice. I’ve eternally given up on Bluetooth mice.)

But wait!

In the last couple of months, I’ve purchased three Bluetooth devices that I’m actually quite happy with!

Galaxy Buds Plus

For some reason, I decided to take another leap of faith and got another set of Bluetooth ear buds. I checked out a ton of reviews on these things and these seemed like a solid buy. The cost was $139 on Amazon, which isn’t cheap, but not exorbitant. I’ve been amazed at how happy I am with these things. There’s nothing I can say about these that is negative.

Battery life is great. They have the charging case, which itself has wireless charging. I already have wireless charges scattered around the house, so it’s super easy to just toss it on one of them.

Connectivity has been flawless. They connect instantly, never lose the connection.

They are comfortable. I use them with foam tips, which I always get for any earbuds. Never get uncomfortable. I’ve used them while running and they stay put and feel fine.

Sound is quite good. Most of the time I’m listening to podcasts and audiobooks on my phone. They sound great for that. To be honest, for music, I stick with my Sony Walkman NW-A55 and wired Ikko OH-1 IEMs. That’s been a life changing combination. But if I’m running with my phone and want to listen to music, I’ll use the Buds for that, as the music is just background at that point.

I’ve had these for two and a half months now and I can’t say enough good about them. These are the items that have finally sold me on the idea that Bluetooth has made it.

JBL Flip 5

Speaking of sound, I recently picked up a Bluetooth speaker. To be completely transparent, I got this for free. A while back I switched to Verizon Fios and out of the blue they sent me this $100 coupon for the Verizon store as thanks for switching. Lots of phones and phone cases, chargers and headphones, none of which I really needed. I didn’t really need a Bluetooth speaker, but this had pretty good reviews and came to $95 with tax, so why not?

It sounds good, connectivity even on multiple devices has been great, and it works flawlessly with audiobooks and podcasts. Huge battery with lots of listening time. Also, you can turn off the power on/off and Bluetooth connect/disconnect sounds, which has been a big annoyance on every other speaker I’ve had.

Garmin Forerunner 235

In the last month I started running again. I pulled out my old Garmin running watch, which I hadn’t used in … sadly, years. After a full day of charging and trying to get it running, with no success, I ordered a new Garmin watch, the Forerunner 235.

It’s very nice. It’s a full on smartwatch (not Android), which you can add apps and watch faces to. I did set up a better watch face, but not really interested in other apps. It does all day heart rate and sleep tracking. Battery lasts a week if you’re not running. GPS while running will suck it down faster, but will still let you run for many hours without a problem.

It connects to the Garmin Express phone app via Bluetooth and that’s been nearly perfect. When I finish a run, if I have my phone on me, it nearly instantly syncs to the cloud via Bluetooth and phone. If I don’t have my phone on me, it often syncs as soon as I walk into my driveway, with my phone inside the house. Downright impressive.

Summary

Bluetooth may have won me over. I look forward to seeing other quality implementations, though I’m not holding my breath on the mouse situation.

My Wireguard Setup

Disclaimer

Someone has been submitting my recent posts to online tech news aggregators, where they are criticized for not being cutting edge or paradigm shifting enough. If you’ve been led to believe that this post awe and amaze you, complain to the person who submitted it, not me. This is just my personal blog where I write about stuff that I’m doing, mostly technology based. It will not change your life. That said…

Background

I’ve had a “home server” for close to ten years now. It’s a Linux-based desktop pc. It acts as a file server, media server, backup server and a place to try out different things. I guess it’s what is now popularly called a “home lab”. All that’s great when I’m at home on my home network. I can stream movies and music, get files, ssh into the server and do whatever I need to do.

But when I’m out and about, traveling, working (when we used to go out and do stuff like that), I’d also like to have that same access. That’s all simple enough. You go into your router settings, do some port forwarding to that box and then you can stream, ssh, ftp, vnc, whatever. I’ve certainly done just that often enough. But as I became more security conscious, this started to worry me more and more. Having all those ports open into my main machine made me nervous. Yeah, they are behind passwords, or hopefully keys. I locked down ssh pretty tightly, but still worried about it, and all those other services. When I was on Xfinity for home internet, their management app provided a security section which listed all the various attempts to access different ports on the network with their IPs and locations. It was shocking. It became something that was not just theoretical. People were (and are) actually trying to hack into my network. That’s when I shut everything down.

Enter Wireguard

I’d heard quite a bit about Wireguard and it sounded like what I needed. I came upon this tutorial which described exactly what I wanted to do and in pretty clear terms:

https://zach.bloomqu.ist/blog/2019/11/site-to-site-wireguard-vpn.html

This all went together really well. It took a bit of learning and messing things up and fixing them, but I eventually got it all working really nicely and doing exactly what I need. Here’s my current setup:

  • Main wireguard server hosted on an inexpensive VPS in the cloud.
    • ufw set up to block all traffic other than specific ports from specific wireguard clients.
    • rinetd to forward any needed ports to my home server. Currently, that’s just the port that my airsonic server is running on.
  • Main wireguard server hosted on an inexpensive VPS in the cloud.
    • ufw set up to block all traffic other than specific ports from specific wireguard clients.
    • rinetd to forward any needed ports to my home server. Currently, that’s just the port that my airsonic server is running on.
  • wireguard client running on my home server.
    • airsonic music streaming server running there.
  • wireguard clients running on a couple of laptops, my Android phone and tablet. Each client has it’s own private key and the public key of the server. The server has its own private key and the public keys of each client.

With this setup I can ssh into the VPS from anywhere in the world, provided I’m doing it from one of the configured clients. Once I’m into the VPS, I can then ssh into any one of the other clients that has an ssh server running. I could use rinetd to forward ssh on specific ports to specific clients. But for now, that use case is not that common. When the world gets back to normal and I’m out of the house more, that will be useful.

I’ve got my airsonic server running on a specific port of my home server, let’s say it’s 1234. rinetd is set up to forward port 1234 on the VPS to port 1234 on the home server. So I can access my music in the browser from any wireguard client, or I can use any one of many subsonic-compatible Android apps and have my music streaming to my phone or tablet no matter where I am.

This setup is pretty flexible, and I will be able to add other services to it just by opening up a port in ufw and forwarding it as needed using rinetd. Important thing to remember is that when I say “opening up a port in ufw” I mean a wireguard client accessible port. Nothing is open on the VPS except via wireguard. Nothing is open on my home server except via the VPS or local LAN.

Monitoring and Recovery

One downside to this setup is that to access my music for example, I’m relying on a chain of multiple links: wireguard on VPS, ufw, rinetd, wireguard on home server, airsonic. If any one of those doesn’t function just right, I’m listening to silence. This has happened a couple of times, especially when I first set things up and had some things not quite right. Actually, if ufw goes down, I’ll still be able to listen to my music, but my VPS will be open. So I wanted to get some monitoring in place. When things were down early on, I’d be making assumptions on which piece was broke and spending time trying to fix it, only to find out it was one of the other links. With correct monitoring, I can now tell exactly what is up and down.

Monitoring with Healthchecks

I’ve been a big fan of Healthchecks.io. You set up “checks” which provide you with a url to ping. If a check doesn’t get a ping within a specified time period, it notifies you via email, sms, or through more than twenty other integrated services. I’ve been using it to monitor my daily backups. If a backup doesn’t happen at a specified time, I know about it.

So I set up a cron job that runs a script every 10 minutes on my VPS, and a similar one on my home server. This script first checks the status of wireguard. If it’s up, it pings Healthchecks. It does the same for rinetd and ufw. My home server checks wireguard and airsonic. Each of these five services is set up as a separate check in Healthchecks so I can see the status of each of them separately. The cron job runs every 10 minutes, so I give it one extra minute leeway – if Healthchecks doesn’t get a new ping after 11 minutes, that service is marked as down.

Recovery

Eventually I realized that if a particular service was down, once I became aware of it, I’d just go to whatever machine and restart it, so why not just do that automatically. So I built that into each of my checks.

If, say, wireguard is down on the VPS, it will NOT send the ping to Healthchecks. So a minute or so later it will be flagged as being down. But in this case, the script will also automatically try to restart wireguard. The next time it runs (10 minutes later), hopefully it sees that wireguard is up and sends the ping.

Healthchecks also has a “grace period” configuration. Once it notices something is down, it will not alert you until that grace period is done. I set this to 10 minutes. This results in the following sequence if something goes down:

  1. Service X is up and Healthchecks gets pinged at 10:00 pm.
  2. Service X goes down at 10:05 pm.
  3. At 10:10 pm, the script sees that Service X is down and fails to ping Healthchecks.
  4. The script also attempts to restart Service X.
  5. At 10:11 pm Healthchecks has not had a ping in 11 minutes and marks Service X as down.
  6. At 10:20 pm, the script runs again. Service X is up so it pings Healthchecks, which marks Service X as up again.
  7. Alternately, the restart didn’t work and at 10:20 pm no ping is sent.
  8. In this alternate case, at 10:21 pm, Healthchecks emails and texts me about the fact that Service X is down.

A potential improvement to this is that after step 4, when Service X is restarted, I could verify that it’s now working and ping Healthchecks. immediately. This way, if the restart works, nothing is marked as down. But I’m going to run it as is for a while and see how this works out. So far, so good.

I’ve gone through and tested each on of these checks, turning the service off and leaving it off. Within 11 minutes it was marked as down and restarted. And shortly thereafter marked as back up. All automatically.

If this were some kind of public service or mission critical workflow, I could easily set up the pings for every minute or so. But the 10 minutes seems perfectly adequate for my purposes.

More Details?

This post is pretty high level. Most of what went into the wireguard setup is covered in the above link. If you want to set up something similar, I’d be happy to go into more detail on any specific points. Just let me know.

version 1.3

Me again, talking about this silly version program still.

Actually, there are some pretty cool updates over the past few point releases. They came fast and on the heels of each other. The idea was posed to use the Linux package manager – apt or pacman or whatever – to get data on a program instead of relying on a hard-coded list.

Background

After some back and forth I warmed up to the idea, but as a backup to the known program list, not as a replacement. My reasoning is that you might have multiple versions of foo installed. Maybe one was through the default package manager, one through some download-and-run-an-install-script method. They might get installed to different locations in your PATH. But when you call foo on the command line, you’ll only get one of them.

If you query the package manager, it’s going to tell you about the one that it knows, which may or may not be the default. But when you run foo -v on the command line, you will get the one that’s going to be actually run in most cases. So that should be the first place we look. If version doesn’t know about foo then it can turn to the package manager.

Details

I decided to tackle two of the major Linux package managers first – apt (used on Ubuntu and most other Debian derivatives) and pacman (used on Manjaro and other Arch derivatives).

On apt, you can find info about a package, say neovim, you’d type:

apt list neovim --installed

This will give you something like:

neovim/focal,now 0.4.3-3 amd64 [installed]

That 0.4.3-3 is the version number that we’re looking for. It took a bit of regex trickery, but I was able to parse that bit out of it.

On pacman you’d type pacman -Qi neovim and the result would look something like:

Name : neovim
Version : 0.4.4-1
Description : Fork of Vim aiming to improve user experience, plugins, and GUIs
Architecture : x86_64
URL : https://neovim.io
Licenses : custom:neovim
Groups : None
Provides : vim-plugin-runtime
Depends On : libtermkey libuv msgpack-c unibilium libvterm luajit libluv
Optional Deps : python-neovim: for Python 3 plugin support (see :help python)
xclip: for clipboard support on X11 (or xsel) (see :help clipboard) [installed]
xsel: for clipboard support on X11 (or xclip) (see :help clipboard) [installed]
wl-clipboard: for clipboard support on wayland (see :help clipboard)
Required By : None
Optional For : None
Conflicts With : None
Replaces : None
Installed Size : 20.45 MiB
Packager : Sven-Hendrik Haase svenstaro@gmail.com
Build Date : Wed 05 Aug 2020 04:16:43 AM EDT
Install Date : Fri 21 Aug 2020 07:37:52 AM EDT
Install Reason : Explicitly installed
Install Script : No
Validated By : Signature

So we can use grep and/or sed to find the one line of that which starts with Version: and grab the 0.4.4-1 part of it.

I then did basically the same thing for dnf which is the package manager on Redhat, Fedora, and derivatives.

So the process is:

  1. Check to see if version already knows about the program. If so, just do what it already does.
  2. If now, check apt, pacman and dnf. First we can just check to see if each one of those exist and only run the one that does exist. It’s unlikely that many people will have more than one of those. If we find one of those, we do the parsing and spit out the version it tells us about.
  3. If those all fail, then we can just tell the user we couldn’t find any information on that command.

Can we do more?

There are all kinds of other package managers on both Linux and Mac. I started making a list of the different ways you can find and install software and came up with

  • snaps
  • flatpaks
  • pip
  • npm
  • homebrew / linuxbrew

There are others, but those all cover a huge amount of ground. And it turns out that most of them were able to be solved with the same general strategy:

  • Does this package manager exist?
  • Does it know about this program and what info does it have?
  • Parse out the version number from the info it returns.

So, now version supports all of those. It just looks at each one of them in turn until it finds one that give an answer.

This also has the added functionality of being able to return the version of more than just executable programs. Package managers know about various libraries and other assets that aren’t directly executable or don’t have any way of querying them directly for their version. But version can tell you about them. Want to know what version of libusb you have installed? Typing version libusb will tell you.

A personal perk of doing this project is that I was forced to really learn grep and sed. Two programs that ranged from confusing to very mysterious in my mind. Now I get them and really like them. I wrote something up about them too: https://www.bit-101.com/blog/2020/09/grep-and-sed-demystified/