I do like the Little Free Library boxes planted in folk’s lawns across the country. I nearly never find a book I haven’t yet read or wish to read (lots of grocery store paperbacks). I’d be even money there are dedicated fans who know the best installations and stake them out early and often. That said, I love the idea of sharing what I love with others.
I have always been a Windows user, although I’m a big fan of opensource and “free” software, like GIMP, IrfanView, Audacity, and others. So I’ve always wanted to dig a little deeper into Linux (I build my own PCs, why not roll my own version of an operating system?) I’ve been intimidated. I learn best when I have a project that lets me root around in the works and figure out the inner workings. I’ve read books and signed up for online coursework, but haven’t really cracked the patient open.
Around the 2016 elections, I landed on another couple of interesting projects, with the same spirit, but digital. SWMNBB took me to the Women’s March and I brainstormed on how we could communicate if wireless internet went down (it did) on purpose or by volume (there were so many people. So many. My knees locked up I was standing stock still for hours). I found a project called PirateBox, which used off-the-shelf hardware, including a travel WiFi router, a USB cable, and an large external battery pack, and a custom DD-WRT distribution that turned the router into a self-contained internet hotspot. Point your phone’s wifi at the PirateBox and users can access documents, webpages, and chat right from a phone that might not otherwise have access to the greater internet.
Of course, I bricked the thing the night before the Women’s March and left it behind.
The PirateBox was fun to play around with. Setup was well documented. But if you weren’t really familiar with Linux and and embedded systems, like me, when you wanted to do something a little outside of the scope of their project, you were in the wild. Like me. When I bricked my little repurposed travel router, finding out how to fix it was honestly more trouble than the $20 it cost and was a skill that didn’t scale up.
A fork of that project is LibraryBox. While the PirateBox tries to live down to it’s name1, LibraryBox is button-down project, serving up digital files in a cleaner interface. It’s for Libraries and as an all in one solution for a specific application it’s super cool, but not for me.
If I was going to customize, I might as well start from the beginning and do it right.
I have a handful of Raspberry Pi sitting around my office, gathering dusts, bought to build projects I’ve considered and invested in, but never completed. For those who don’t know, a Pi is a low cost, low power computer designed for education. Although it can run pretty much any flavor of Linux, the foundation that designs the devices also produces a distribution of Debian Linux (called Raspbian) that drives the hardware. There’s strong support documentation and a robust community built up around the device to help get people with little experience (kids and adults alike) up and learning in no time.
It makes good sense to be the foundation of the TNYGLXY
What The Hell Are You Doing?
I have 3 distinct objectives with the project I will call TNYGLXY:
- To make something (I think is) cool.
- To learn more about interacting with Linux, particularly the command line, and building user-interactive web applications
- To interact with my neighbors and passersby, to share digital media as one would physical media in a Little Free Library, and to stream audio out via FM and Web
The end result will be a self-contained wireless access point, which can’t access the Internet, nestled into a small, waterproof box, tucked away behind a bush in front of my house. Visitors will find/be advised of the SSID and will not require a password to access the device. Once they do, their browser will be directed to a single URL (tnyglxy.lan?), from which they can access digital books, audio files, videos, and a music stream played right from their browser.
It will also broadcast FM radio.
- I bricked my PirateBox trying to change the name of the SSID from PirateBox because I thought people would have their doubts about accessing something called PirateBox if they didn’t know what it was. Note: Don’t use apostrophes in your SSID. There are no dumb mistakes, except for this one. This one is really dumb. ↩