Raspberry Pi WIFI bridged access point

I usually rely on a wired ethernet connection in my home office, enabled by a powerline adapter running through the mains wiring to the house, where the other end connects to one of the ethernet sockets on an Airport. Yesterday I took delivery of a shiny new Macbook Pro and was reminded that they now only have Thunderbolt 3 sockets, making my Thunderbolt to ethernet adapter redundant. Thanks a lot Apple, that’s another expensive white adapter to add to my box of random useless adapters, and another one or two to buy (I still need a USB port for a couple of things, and displayport/ HDMI for an external monitor or two).

Luckily I had a spare Raspberry Pi 3 B+ lying around, and after a couple of false starts, I now have a bridged wireless access point in the home office, bridging the wired ethernet connection from the powerline adapter. Bridged works best for me so that I still get an IP address assigned via DHCP from the Airport, in the same IP range – it just keeps things simple. I’ve given the PI access point a unique SSID rather than mirror the one used in the house because sometimes it’s useful to know which one you’re connected to.

Installing and configuring the software

This is the how-to I followed: Setting up a Raspberry Pi as a bridged wireless access point. I’m not going to repeat all the steps here, but for what it’s worth, one of my false starts was the result of this part:-

To use the 5 GHz band, you can change the operations mode from hw_mode=g to hw_mode=a.

Apparently this works for Raspberry Pi Model 3B+ onwards, but it just didn’t work for me – the access point didn’t show up. After changing it back to the default “g” it works fine. The powerline adapters (and the mains wiring they use) already limit the speed of the connection a fair amount, so i’m not too bothered about this.

The other false start was following a completely different how-to, which only resulted in locking myself out of the pi via ssh and creating an access point which didn’t provide internet access!

Freerange Freelance (aka Camper Van Things) integrated into this blog

Back in 2010 I started writing about “Remote Working”, initially on this blog, then split off into a separate “Rick on the Road” blog, written using my own (now abandoned) database-less blog software, which I called “eatStatic”. I even did a talk on this subject at the Anywhere Working event in 2013, talking about a summer spent freelance working from France, while touring France with my family in a vw beetle. A few years later, the blog morphed into “Camper Van Things” where the focus became more about the vehicle used for my nomadic working aspirations, than the work itself. Then I rebranded it as “Freerange Freelance”, to bring the focus back onto the remote working lifestyle. Just like this blog, each iteration eventually got a bit neglected, until some time last year, I mothballed it.

Seeing as I had already written some migration scripts to migrate content from my static blog engine to WordPress, it didn’t take much to adapt the script to pull content from the wordpress API and merge it with content from this blog. You can find all that content under the category “on the road“. I should probably take all of this as a warning about buying new domain names on a whim, and creating niche blogs!

 

My current tools and tech in 2019

I try to avoid jumping on every new trend which comes along in the web world, especially over the last few years, where things seem to have moved very fast, with javascript frameworks becoming obsolete before i’ve even got round to trying them, but I also need to keep my skills and tech relevant. Here’s what i’m using as of late summer 2019.

Editor/IDE

I’ve been consistently using Sublime Text (Version 2 because I never got round to upgrading to 3) for years as my code editor, though i’ve never really taken full advantage of the extensions and customisations available. It just works and I saw no real need to change. One thing it has never done well is working over ssh, or rather from a mounted sshfs folder on a mac. I have occasional need to do this, when using the likes of nano in a terminal doesn’t feel good enough, and it’s one thing that I missed from Coda, when I used that for a while, years ago.

Then after spotting a tweet from an old colleague mentioning remote SSH editing in VS Code (via the Remote – SSH extension), I thought i’d take a look at it. Firstly, having used old-skool Microsoft Visual Studio in the past, I was surprised to see that Microsoft had built and released such a cool free editor, with builds for windows, mac and even linux. It’s already become my default editor – the intellisense and built-in terminal and git functionality is really good. There’s a lot there to explore and a ton of extensions. It also looks good.

Languages and frameworks

Most of my work is currently PHP. I no longer feel the need to apologise for that! PHP 7 is mature, stable and fast. I work on a couple of legacy PHP projects, one of which uses a combination of bespoke MVC code, an old fork of codeigniter (currently being refactored out) and Redbean ORM, and the other uses Zend framework, but is being re-built as a de-coupled app with Lumen (micro-framework by Laravel) on the back end and Vue.js on the front-end.

I haven’t done any web projects with Python recently (though i’m keen to try Pyramid), but I have been using it for a custom FTP server, using pyftpdlib (yes, FTP – for an old-skool EDI project – an old, but still very widely used technology where XML and FTP are used to exchange data – probably predating the invention of JSON and REST). I’ve also been using python for a raspberry pi datalogger project, reading serial data from microcontrollers via USB and then relaying it to a REST API.

JavaScript-wise, I still use bits and pieces of  jQuery to get stuff done while I learn Vue.js properly, which is happening as part of a current aforementioned web app rebuild. We settled on Vue.js instead of React because Vue seems to be a popular component in the Lumen/Laravel ecosystem.

For CSS, i’ve settled for now on SASS and Gulp. Sass is a keeper, i’m just using Gulp until I find something that I like better. I tend to use Susy for grid/layout.

Ansible is my go-to tool for devops – I use it to provision web servers and for formerly manual tasks such as migrations of websites, moving content between dev, live and staging on wordpress sites etc. For local development of any sort I almost always use Vagrant now, with an ansible provisioning script, which gives me a very portable set-up, provided I have enough RAM to keep multiple virtual machines running as I juggle projects.

During my last foray back into a day-job (back in 2016), working at an agency, I got a fair amount of experience using wordpress as a CMS, including for some fairly complex projects, relying heavily on the Advanced Custom Fields (ACF) plugin. Now, historically I haven’t always been a fan of WordPress, but it proved to be an excellent tool when used with ACF, making the creation of custom page types incredibly quick and easy compared to other Content Management Systems i’ve used, and even compared to using frameworks which would be my usual preference for custom content. Being able to create custom fields, included nested repeater fields via the WordPress admin, having the field definition saved to the filesystem and then versioned in GIT for seamless syncing to production is a game changer!

 

Down the Rabbit Hole of #vanlife on social media

When I started this blog (as “Rick on the Road”) in 2010, Instagram was yet to be launched, and it was another two years before Foster Huntington popularised the #vanlife hashtag on instagram. There were plenty of campervan-related videos on YouTube, but relatively few dedicated channels – at least compared to the massive amount that exist today. The first channels I remember watching were Chad DeRosa’s “Living The Van Life” and Where’s my office now (both US based) and Campervan Culture (UK based). Campervan Culture in particular raised the bar for the quality of video production as time went on, and was certainly the first time i’d seen drone footage in an “amateur” campervan video.

At time of writing there is a massive amount of choice of vanlife-related youtube channels, most of which have a parallel life in the form of an instagram account.

But what does “vanlife” actually mean?

This is a contentious issue, it seems. It’s a made-up word, with the word van and life joined together, and it seems to refer mainly to people who live in vans. I’ve seen comments on instagram and youtube where a full-time “vanlifer” will angrily claim the term for themselves, but with over 3.7 million instagram posts (at time of writing) using the tag, and i’d hazard a guess that only a tiny proportion of those pictures depict people living full-time in a van, so it’s a pretty generic term covering pretty much anything campervan-related whether it’s living in one, building one, or lying in the back of one looking at a sunrise while you pretend you haven’t just scrambled to set up the self-timer on your camera.

Is it possible to make a living making vanlife youtube videos?

It seems some people are, but they’ve had to work at it – regular videos with decent content, subscribers built up over a period of years, well designed thumbnails to draw people in (sometimes, dare I say, using clickbait tactics!). I was curious to know how much income some of these channels might generate, purely on youtube ad revenue – socialblade is a really useful site, if you want to get an idea. In short, even the most popular channels I watch aren’t making that much – a living possibly, but only if you have no rent/mortgage to pay because you live in a van! Having said that – youtube ad revenue is only part of the story, with sponsorships/ ad placement/ merchandise sales etc. also being a source of revenue. There’s also Patreon which is a sponsorship platform that some of the channels use for subscription-only content.

Vanlife community

While we were planning and saving up for our current van, I started regularly watching van-related youtube channels and it became like reality TV for me. Most of the vans in the videos have their instagram names displayed so potential followers (instagram) or subscribers (youtube) can easily find them online if you spot them in the real world.

Here are some of the channels i’ve been watching recently. I’ve realised these are all UK-based channels – this wasn’t intentional but i’ve found the content to be more relevant to me than most of the US-based ones i’ve watched (plenty of good ones, maybe i’ll do another post on those), so i’ve just gravitated towards these channels.

Indie Projects

This is probably the most popular uk-based vanlife channel – i’ve been following Theo and Bee on instagram before they even came up with the indie projects name. Their videos are a mixture of their own van adventures, initially in a VW T4, van tours of other people’s vans, their new van self-build sprinter van and their plans for a homestead in Portugal.

Youtube Channel

Instagram

Website

Beyond the van

Rich from beyond the van popped up in a couple of Indie Projects videos and I started watching his various van conversion and European trip videos. The van conversions range from a Renault Kangoo up to an LDV Luton van. Loads of practical content to be found on the channel.

Youtube Channel

Instagram

Website

From Rust to Roadtrip

A really good travel series from Lucy and Ben, a couple travelling Europe in their self-converted LDV Convoy. Nicely filmed and narrated, plenty of travel inspiration to be found in these videos, even with the frequent breakdowns!

Youtube Channel

Instagram

Website

Houseless not homeless

Martin has some funny content, I started watching this channel when he rapidly kitted out an old BMW estate to go travelling in when his van was off the road – if you’re on a budget and want ideas and a laugh, this is the channel to watch!

Youtube Channel

Instagram

Website

Finding Freedom

Originally a couple travelling Europe in a transit van, currently about Possy building her own LDV convoy camper on a budget – regular crossovers with Beyond the Van – the live streams are fun.

Youtube Channel

Instagram

A Bus and Beyond

All the channels mentioned so far cover self-build vans and vanlife on a budget – Shaun and Lizzy cover the other end of the vanlife spectrum reviewing new stuff that costs almost as much as a house, and staying on actual campsites. Very watchable, and it’s interesting to see what’s on offer to buy off the shelf if budget wasn’t an issue.

Youtube Channel 

Instagram

Website

Vanlife.tv

Lots of practical content on this channel – originally based around a VW T4 similar to ours, now building out a Vauxhall Movano.

Youtube Channel

Instagram

Website

Project Amber

“When life gives you lemons, piss off somewhere and be a hippy”. Wise words. Very entertaining channel following this guys European adventures in a converted ambulance.

Youtube Channel

Instagram

Sarah and the Bear

A relatively new channel, these two are very chilled travelling the country and national trust properties in their white VW T25 (makes me very nostalgic for Rocky, our previous van!).

Youtube channel

Instagram

Northern Explorers

I found this channel when I was looking for information on the retro-looking Barefoot Caravan. Then in a massive coincidence a few days later I bumped into them with their Barefoot at a campsite, and got a real-life tour, it was like stepping through the screen!

YouTube channel

Never read the comments on YouTube!

Youtube seems to attract the best and the worst when it comes to comments – I think the majority of the comments on these channels are positive, but there’s a lot of idiots commenting too – best avoided if you don’t want to come crashing straight back down to earth after a dose of vicarious vanlife!

Freerange Freelance on Social Media

No immediate plans for a Freerange Freelance youtube channel, though I wouldn’t rule it out entirely. But we are on instagram and twitter.

Do you have a vanlife channel/instagram channel that we should be following? Nudge us on instagram and let us know!

 

Running a home office using solar power – part 1

Photonic Universe portable 100 watt solar panel kit

Although I like to use our campervan as a mobile office, I mainly work from a home “office” built in an existing shed. The breeze-block building was already there when we moved in, and luckily it is big enough to create an area where I can work.

It’s a typical “ongoing” project, started a few years ago by partitioning off an end section to remain as a proper shed, and then building out an insulated area with it’s own entrance. Nowhere near finished, it still looks very much like a shed on the inside, but I have plans for wood panelling (inside and out) and stylish lighting to make it instagram worthy!

We do actually have mains electric running out to the shed, so it doesn’t need to be off-grid, but as I already have most of the kit needed, why not?

The Solar panel

I recently bought a 100 watt portable solar panel kit made by Photonics Universe to use with the camper van, but also wanted to see if it would be possible to use it to keep my home office powered. The kit has a waterproof charge controller mounted on the back, so all you need to do is attach it to the battery, either with the crocodile clips as supplied, or via eyelets. I bought a second connector cable so there is one permanently wired into the van leisure battery and one on the portable battery, making it easy to swap from one to the other.

Photonic Universe portable 100 watt solar panel kit showing charge controller

The “Office” kit

It’s a pretty minimal set-up – like when i’m in the van, I work mainly from the laptop, but with the added luxury of an external monitor, which is pretty handy when i’m working on any visual layout stuff for a website or web app.

My laptop these days is a 2015 era 13 inch macbook pro, and from looking at the plug-in current meter that I use, it looks though this requires about 20-30 watts to maintain an already charged laptop and 40+ watts when charging. The monitor requires a further 25 watts. In addition to this, I plan to occasionally run a USB powered fan and 12 volt LED lighting, both of which don’t require much power – at least in comparison to the mains appliances.

Minimal home office freelance web developer set-up

The Battery and electrics

A while ago I took a spare 90Ah car battery and built it into an old toolbox, with voltmeter, 12volt socket and USB sockets to use as a portable leisure battery set-up, so I have the solar panel charging this. Unlike the leisure battery in the van, this isn’t as proper leisure battery, so I need to be careful not to let the charge get too low, or risk permanently damaging it. The battery box has a fuse box inside with each item running off a separate fuse.

Leisure battery built into an old toolbox with USB sockets and voltmeter

I then wired in another external panel with voltmeter, usb sockets and 12 volt socket, which will eventually be mounted on the wall. I’ve then got plugged into this, an old Belkin 150 Watt (300 Watt peak) inverter that is usually in the van. I’ll likely replace this with something better – a pure sinewave inverter that gives a smoother AC output very similar to mains electricity.

12 volt panel with cigar lighter and USB socket

The challenge

The garden, whilst reasonably private for a city and offering plenty of shade, isn’t ideal for a solar panel. The light only reaches the garden from about 10am, and disappears about 6pm, even in mid-summer. The panel needs to be moved frequently to remain in the sun. I’ve spent time imagining building some kind of automated track system to do this for me, and although I have some ideas, I doubt I will ever have the time to realise them! We also live in the UK, not famed for it’s year-round sunshine…

Solar panel in a shady garden

From experience in the van keeping a powered coolbox going (~60 Watts), the panel will have real trouble providing 75+ watts constantly, unless it’s in decent all day direct sunlight, so the battery will likely discharge throughout the day, depending on when I finish, how much sun there is and how often I get up and move the panel to be in the optimum position.

I’ve already found that my external monitor isn’t happy running from the inverter – it keeps going into standby, then attempting to power up again then back to standby, as if switching it on causes a power spike that then causes it to go back to standby. Not sure if that’s the inverter struggling, or the battery not supplying sufficient current – if the battery is plugged into a mains charger, the monitor stays on, so the inverter is certainly capable, but maybe the battery isn’t. It will be interesting to see if a different inverter would make a difference here, or whether the battery isn’t up to the job.

I need to try this out long-term to get a realistic idea, but i’m sure that I would benefit from a higher capacity battery (or batteries), so I can rely more on falling back to battery power, which can then be topped up from solar charging over the weekend to keep me going during the week. Having said that, if we are away in the campervan, the solar panel comes with us, so that’s not going to work! If I had the budget to do this seriously, I think i’d at least double the solar capacity and the battery capacity.

Heating?

Even though it’s well insulated, there’s no chance of heating the space using solar (photovoltaic) power – any electric heating appliance, such as the Daewoo 2500 Watt oil filled radiator which I use in the winter uses way more wattage than could be provided by my inverter, and even with a high power inverter, massive bank of batteries and thousands of watts of solar panels you would struggle. The only realistic off-grid heating option is a wood burner or something gas powered, both of which aren’t cheap and would need to be carefully installed for obvious safety reasons.

Fitting a swivel seat base to a vw t4

One of the first jobs on the list when we bought Hercules was a swivel base for the passenger seat. T4 vans come with either a double passenger seat, so you can fit three people up front (would be handy actually, as we only have four seat-belted seats), or a single passenger captain seat. Hercules came with the latter.

There are two main different types of seat swivel – a swivel plate, which fits between the seat and the standard seat base, and a swivel base, which replaces the standard seat base. After a bit of research I chose the latter, on the basis that this would leave the seat at the same height as it would be on the standard base, whereas a plate will usually raise it slightly. I actually used a swivel plate on Rocky, our last T25 camper.

I ordered one from SVB Accessories , on the basis that it was crash-tested and a good price. They also do a version with a built-in safe which I was tempted by, but i’m kind of reluctant to put a (visible) safe in the van, as to me it kind of advertises to a potential thief where you keep your valuables. Or maybe you could double-bluff and have a visible safe as a distraction, but keep your valuables somewhere else!

Having had much older vehicles, I wasn’t sure how long this job would take, but luckily it went entirely to plan. Firstly, I slid the seat all the way back, and undid the allen bolts which hold the seat rails to the base.

Then I slid the seat all the way forwards and undid the allen bolts at the rear of the rails.

Then you can remove the seat, with rails still attached.

Using a socket wrench, you then undo the four nuts on the bolts which attach the seat base to the cab floor.

Then you bolt the swivel seat base in, and attach the rails to it. The base came provided with bolts, but I used the original allen bolts (as they sit flush inside the rails) with the nuts from the provided bolts.

All in all probably 25 minutes, which is a miracle for me, as I have been known to make a 25 minute job last all weekend!

Introducing Freerange Freelance!

Those of you who have followed a link to campervanthings.com might be confused to see a different domain name and site title “Freerange Freelance”. Let me explain!

The first version of this blog was called “Rick on the Road”, which started as a travel blog years ago, when my wife and I started looking at the idea of spending the summer touring france, with our (then) young son while I carried on working as a freelance web developer, attempting to keep an old plastic macbook with a two-hour max battery life charged from an inadequate portable solar panel, and attempting to keep in touch with clients and upload code over sketchy campsite wifi.

After that trip, the blog lost momentum until we bought a camper van and I enthusiastically relaunched it as “camper van things”, and wrote almost exclusively about camper van things.

It then lost momentum again, particularly after we sold the camper. This year having bought another van I thought I would give it a refresh and start writing again, and in doing so, I decided that the name of the blog didn’t really reflect what this blog is about.

So what is this blog about then?

I’ve worked (mostly) as a freelance web developer for over ten years now and the goal has always been flexible working. I’m lucky enough to have built a career that revolves around the internet and remote-working tools, and so most of the time I only need a charged laptop and a decent internet connection (wifi or 3G/4G)  to do my job. Moreover, I prefer flexible work hours, and not having to commute to an office “day job”. All of those aspirations can be difficult to achieve sometimes, which I will talk about on this blog.

But you’re still going on about camper vans?

Yep! As far as i’m concerned, a camper van makes the perfect mobile office, and is the best way to combine travel, adventure and freelance work. Plus I just love camper vans, so they will still feature prominently, particularly the one we own.

Freerange Freelance

Naming a blog is almost as difficult as naming a band. My wife is also freelance (TV/Video production/Copywriting) and we threw around a few ideas before coming up with this, then impulsively reserving the domain name and instagram handle. Twitter username character limit wasn’t long enough, so I left that one as @campervanthings for now. I think Freerange Freelance better covers the scope of this blog and any associated social media accounts.

Web development stuff

I’ll refrain from talking too much about web development on this blog, as I have another blog for that – if you’re interested in code, take a look at rickhurst.co.uk.

Using a cheap Quechua tarp fresh as a campervan awning

Using Quechua Tarp Fresh as campervan awning

We are using a Quechua tarp fresh as an awning/canopy. We already had the tarp, which we used for tent camping to provide some outdoor rain cover or shade. We bought a couple of spare poles to give us more height and options to set it up as standalone canopy.

Our T4 had an awning “C” rail fitted in the roof gutter, and a quick bit of research showed that you can attach a “kador” strip to these. I ordered a length of kador strip off ebay and wondered if I should sew it to the tarp, but in the end I decided to put some brass eyelets in the strip then attach to the awning using toggles and some elastic shock cord.

C channel in the roof gutter of a VW t4, fitted with kador strip

The advantage of this over sewing is that if we need to move the van, the toggles can be removed and the kador strip pulled out, without needing to unpeg the awning. Plus I can’t sew!

Awning attached to kador strip using toggles and eyelets

Our T4 is the short wheelbase version – the awning is slightly wider than the rail so I tie either end down across the windscreen and tailgate.

Awning attached to kador strip using toggles and eyelets

We have a van again!

New (To Us) VW T4 campervan

Far longer in the planning than i’d like, but we now have a campervan again! This one is a 2001 VW T4 2.5 tdi short wheelbase which is mostly converted to a camper already – rock n roll bed, side windows, sink with running tap, leisure battery, insulation etc.

We were considering getting a bare van and doing the conversion ourselves, but with the summer getting closer by the minute I thought i’d see what was around already ready to camp in and this one had just been advertised – we all decided it would be perfect.

So far we’ve added a cooker and table, the cooker is a Vango Combi IR Grill Cooker, which is now screwed to the worktop.

Vango combi IR Grill cooker in campervan

Vango combi IR Grill cooker in campervan

The table is DIY, and attaches to the side unit using a Reimo sliding table rail.

Making the table

Table attached via Reimo sliding table rail

Reimo sliding table rail

Future ambitions include a pop-top, swivel passenger seat (or both seats, but leisure battery would need to be moved), and to create, or buy, a full length side unit for extra storage.

The van came with a cab bunk, but our son is too tall for that now, so during an experimental overnight camping trip we worked out that he could actually sleep on a self-inflating mattress on the floor, mostly under the bed but with head and shoulders in the space at the foot of the bed. Not ideal, and he’ll more likely be in his own tent until we get the pop top, but it’s good to know we can all sleep in the van as it is if we need to e.g. at an Aire du camping or other stopover where a tent can’t be pitched.

Sleeping three people in a two berth campervan

What is a Full Stack web developer?

TL;DR It’s just a convenient term to describe a web developer who does both front and back-end, and maybe some other things .

I label myself as a Freelance Full-stack Web Developer (or Fullstack, for those who like to join two words together into non-existent ones) , but what does that actually mean?

Web developers who write HTML, CSS and (maybe) JavaScript, but don’t do any server-side code (e.g. PHP, Python, Rails etc.) might call themselves “Front-end” developers. Web developers who only do server-side code, and never do any HTML, CSS or (browser-based) JavaScript might refer to themselves as “Back-end” developers.

Therefore someone (like me) who does both Front-end and Back-end code might refer to themselves as a Full-Stack developer.

But there’s usually more to getting a website or web app built and up on the internet than just writing code.

There’s (sometimes) provisioning servers, installing web server software, installing database software and other dependencies. There’s setting up development, staging and live versions of websites, setting up domain records for websites and mail servers and installing SSL certificates. That might be the job of a sysadmin and/or DevOps specialist, but some web developers might take on that part of the job, either by choice or by necessity.

Most web apps need a database, and this database might need designing, optimising and maintaining. That’s a job for a DBA if you are lucky to have one, but i’ve only worked for one company who had a dedicated DBA, so that job usually also falls to a developer.

There’s often plenty more roles that make up the stack – testers, technical project managers, UX, Designers, and in some companies there will be dedicated individuals or teams for all of these roles, but for a small agency or freelancer, often these are taken on by a full-stack web developer.

Now just like Front-end and Back-end are made-up terms, so is Full-Stack. For me it’s just a convenient way of saying that i’m not just a front-end developer, or not just a back-end developer, I do both, and some other things.

Jack of all trades, master of none?

Hey! I resemble that remark! Actually I prefer to say “Jack of all trades, master of some“. I’d like to get better at all of the various roles that make up my workload, but people dedicated to a particular role exclusively will inevitably master skills in that area that I probably won’t.

But there’s more parts to the stack, can you do all those too?

A heated discussion on a local web dev forum had people extrapolating “the stack” to include hardware and low-level operating system code (and maybe beyond?) at one end. I neither do that stuff, or consider it as part of the web-development stack.

At the other end people were adding in any role that could possibly related to the development of a website or web app – account handlers, financial directors, accountants, HR, office manager. Although as a freelancer I have to take on some of those roles myself, I don’t consider them to be part of the web-development stack!