Global Search for Moodle on Centos

My students are using a Moodle VLE to access resources and teaching materials and it became evident that some kind of global search function would help them find things quickly, especially later in the programme when they come to write their assignments.

I’m running Moodle on a CentOS 7.3 virtual private server with Plesk Onyx. The server hosts several other sites running WordPress, bespoke PHP and some other bits and pieces including the usual mail services. Some of the containers require the OS-standard PHP5.4 but a recent upgrade to Moodle 3.3 required me to switch the container to PHP 7.0.

Installing Global Search was a little tricky because of the multiple PHP versions running on the server, but I eventually figured it out to these key steps:

Install the Solr Server

$ cd /opt
$ wget http://apache.mirrors.nublue.co.uk/lucene/solr/6.6.0/solr-6.6.0.tgz
$ tar zxvf solr-6.6.0.tgz
$ cp solr-6.6.0/bin/install_solr_service.sh .
$ rm -rf solr-6.6.0
$ ./install_solr_service.sh solr-6.6.0.tgz
$ chkconfig solr on
$ su - solr -c "/opt/solr/bin/solr create_core -c moodle"

You should be able to visit http://your-domain.tld:8983 to verify the Solr server is running OK.

Secure the Solr Server

By default, Solr is open to the world. You might want to secure it by adding this at the end of /opt/solr/server/etc/webdefault.xml:

  <security-constraint>
   <web-resource-collection>
       <web-resource-name>Solr Administration</web-resource-name>
       <url-pattern>/*</url-pattern>
   </web-resource-collection>
   <auth-constraint>
       <role-name>solr-admin</role-name>
   </auth-constraint>
  </security-constraint>

  <login-config>
   <auth-method>BASIC</auth-method>
   <realm-name>Solr Administration</realm-name>
  </login-config>

Create a file in the same directory called realm.properties containing your chosen authentication details (matching the role above) in a single line:

admin: password, solr-admin

Finally, add this just before the last line in jetty.xml in the same directory:

<Call name="addBean">
 <Arg>
  <New class="org.eclipse.jetty.security.HashLoginService">
    <Set name="name">Solr Administration</Set>
    <Set name="config"><SystemProperty name="jetty.home" default="."/>/etc/realm.properties</Set>
    <Set name="refreshInterval">0</Set>
  </New>
 </Arg>
</Call>

Install the PHP Solr Extension

$ rpm -Uvh https://dl.fedoraproject.org/pub/epel/epel-release-latest-7.noarch.rpm
$ rpm -Uvh https://mirror.webtatic.com/yum/el7/webtatic-release.rpm
$ yum install libxml2-devel pcre-devel libcurl-devel php70w-devel php70w-pear

You’ll need to build the extension using the right versions of phpize and php-config for your version of PHP, in my case, 7.0:

$ cd /opt
$ curl -O https://pecl.php.net/get/solr-2.4.0.tgz
$ tar zxvf solr-2.4.0.tgz
$ cd solr-2.4.0/
$ ../plesk/php/7.0/bin/phpize
$ ./configure --with-php-config=/opt/plesk/php/7.0/bin/php-config
$ make
$ make install
$ cp /opt/solr-2.4.0/modules/solr.so /opt/plesk/php/7.0/lib64/php/modules/
$ sudo service httpd restart

Visit the Site administration / ▶︎ Plugins / ▶︎ Search / ▶︎ Manage global search page in your Moodle installation to configure, index and enable the Solr Search Engine.

I am impressed with how quickly this has been used and appreciated by the students.

get_iplayer broken, version 3.00 available

For those of us who make use of the amazing get_iplayer program to obtain clips and other resources for classroom and other conveniences, it comes as a bit of a blow to find that in the past week or two, it has stopped working. Fortunately, there is a new version of the program available that with a little effort, gets the facility working again.

From the release notes:

The BBC removed all the XML-based data sources used by get_iplayer on 2017-04-26, breaking a lot of get_iplayer functionality. That functionality has been restored, but there are changes to be aware of – get_iplayer has not survived unscathed.

Phil Lewis and the team have (once again) done a fantastic job of quickly responding to changes in the way the BBC delivers its content. Many, many thanks to all the devs and hacks involved in this release.

Finally, my advice to users is to read the release notes carefully. You may also hit issues installing the new dependencies including Mojolicious and Perl as well as the cpan perl repository. Persevere, there is lots of useful advice out there. Finally, finally, the cache updates are much slower than before, although they are now only updated weekly.

Photographer portfolios – Koken

I set up a test site for a photography journal over at http://dev.cullaloe.net/koken/. I’ve been trying a number of alternatives and hosting options: koken is php software that runs on a Linux server over a mySql database and Apache. I happen to have one of those at dev.cullaloe.net.

So far, it looks like it has really nice features, including a tight integration with Adobe Lightroom that allows you to set up a direct publishing link. Most of the images on the site are reduced-size versions of some of my “good” photos.

I have found some bugs and irritations: the admin back-end fails completely from time to time, requiring clearing of api file cache over FTP. Themes are limited but they are quite pretty, I think, with development quite straightforward.

The original developer of this programme sold out to a new owner last year, I believe, but there seems to be some investment in bug fixing and development.

So far I don’t think it’s stable enough for a main online portfolio: you should probably just buy yourself a 500px Awesome membership for that and use the portfolio feature of that site.

Browse safer with a VPN

Image attributed to Duncan Hull (Flickr) and used under the Creative Commons Licence 2.0
Image attributed to Duncan Hull (Flickr) and used under the Creative Commons Licence 2.0

According to a popular Internet Meme, Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs has a fundamental extension in the modern age – we all seem to need WiFi in order to function.

This need has created a fabulous opportunity for thieves. The term “WiFi” is a synonym for a Wireless (radio) Local Area Network or WLAN. Some WLANs may be password protected but many are not – these “open” networks are found in public spaces, provided by towns or shopping centres to attract trade. In open networks all devices in range can access the network’s resources – i.e. read what you’re typing.

Given that, why would you broadcast your login details, bank data, personal information and private conversations in an open space for all and anyone to listen to, take note of, and make use of at their convenience?

The best defence is to make sure that all internet activity on your mobile devices is sent over an encrypted, secure, connection. The WiFi providers don’t guarantee this, so you have to bring your own in the form of a Virtual Private Network or VPN.

Many corporate employers provide a VPN for staff to ensure that they are not exposed to commercial risk or litigation from data leaks. If that’s not available to you, you can use a service to keep yourself safe: my own personal choice is GoldenFrog’s VyperVPN. It costs a few dollars a year but has fast support and secure servers worldwide. You would normally use a nearby server for speed but if you’re trying to watch the BBC iPlayer in a bar in Prague, you can just connect via the London server to virtually relocate yourself back home to enjoy the latest episode of East Enders. I recommend you don’t use the apps they provide – they don’t work very well and will more often than not just stop you from using the internet. Manual configuration is the way to go: follow the Vyper guide here.

So, a VPN helps keep you safe by encrypting all of your data sent over WiFi; it also works for 3G/4G; and it can virtually relocate you to somewhere you aren’t. What it won’t do is protect you from stupidity – you still have to take care that you aren’t using easy passwords, you don’t use the same password for everything, and you know who’s looking at your screen, for example.

Finally, the image of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs above doesn’t really need that big box for WiFi. To be understood in the modern age, we should really put WiFi usage in the Belonging or Self-Esteem levels, but be aware that every user should take action to ensure that Safety is taken care of.

Learn code

codeOver fifty years ago, my father was a US Air Force signals operator: he, like any other professional in communication, had to learn the languages of communication, command and control. I still have the LP (long-playing record, what the kids call “vinyl” now, although these weren’t vinyl) record set that he listened to as he learned Morse Code.

Today’s young people live in a world of communication and it is increasingly important for them – and all users – to at least have an appreciation of the languages used by the systems that pervade our modern lives. Learning to code – and the computational thinking that goes with it – is fun and interesting as well as being intellectually good for you. It’s also potentially lucrative: coding skills are at a premium, wherever you are in the world. While there is still a need for certain people to know Morse Code, there are many other languages to know about: from the languages of data to the logic of a sick (sic) 3D immersive games experience.

I have carried a link to CodeCademy on this site for some time because they offer some excellent resources and courses for people to learn how to code. I have used some of them myself and recommend them highly. If you’re not sure where to start, there is  a visual overview of the main programming languages and possible benefits of learning each one to help you make an informed decision. You can find it here: http://wiht.link/learncodeguide.

DISCLAIMER: I am not connected with Codecademy and have received no financial or other incentive to write this post. The infographic is not Codecademy’s and includes links to other free online places where you can learn. It’s just a good idea and a good place to get started. Get on with it!

GNU PSPP on OSX Yosemite

I have a project I’m working on that requires the use of a data analysis tool like IBM’s SPSS but at about six thousand dollars per year, it’s a little out of reach. There is an open source project, fortunately, that provides all the functionality I need for a lot less.

PSPP is, according to the project website:

“…designed as a Free replacement for SPSS. That is to say, it behaves as experienced SPSS users would expect, and their system files and syntax files can be used in PSPP with little or no modification, and will produce similar results (the actual numbers should be identical). The number of variables and cases is limited only by the computer architecture.”

There are a number of ways of getting PSPP depending on your operating system: I am a Mac OSX user running 10.10.5 Yosemite so installed it using MacPorts. As this is a brand new machine I’m installing it on, I needed to install MacPorts first: download and run the install package from the download page, update and then run the install (you need super user privilege):

$ sudo port selfupdate
$ sudo port install pspp

This will give you a working PSPP from the command line. If you want to use the graphical user interface over PSPP, known as PSPPIRE, you’ll need to update your X11 DISPLAY driver by downloading and installing XQuartz which is a community produced X-window server assisted but not supported by Apple. Once you’ve installed Quartz, you’ll need to log out and in again to update the DISPLAY environment. Once this is done you can launch the GUI version of PSPP from the command line:

$ sudo psppire

This allows you to work with your SPSS data sets and command files almost without modification.

Hello, World! Nice HAT.

Hello World!
Hello World!
Hello World!

For those of you trying to get to grips with the Raspberry Pi’s Astro-Pi Sense HAT… wait, what?

The Raspberry Pi is the amazing, powerful and compact computer-on-a-board that has got children of all ages around the world coding and investigating computational thinking. For less than fifty bucks, this machine includes a fast processor, a decent amount of RAM and USB, Ethernet and HDMI interfaces that let you connect it up to a TV and keyboard and do almost anything you can do on machines twenty times the price (like write this post, for example). If, like me, you like things tidy, you can add a box to put it in and if, like me, you’re a physics teacher, you can add on a sense HAT (Hardware Attached on Top) that is exactly the same as the kit to be used by Astronaut Tim Peake on the International Space Station to conduct experiments in space using the many sensors on board the HAT.

The whole kit cost me £75 including power supply and SD card with operating system (Raspbian – a version of Debian Linux) software pre-installed.

The setting up is simple and step-by-step, I got it working as a stand-alone machine before installing the Sense HAT. I had to take a knife to the official Raspberry Pi box once the HAT was added to the Pi board – it almost fits but just needs a little adjustment near the corner of the lid to make it snap into place. There are plenty of resources on the web to help you get started but development has taken place at such a pace that some of the guides don’t quite match the installed software. The Getting Started with the Sense Hat page at raspberrypi.org is no exception. There is a simple “Hello World!” program:

from sense_hat import SenseHat
sense=SenseHat()
sense.show_message("Hello, World!")

On my Pi 3B, I got an error at this point:

Traceback (most recent call last):
 File "/home/pi/hw.py", line 1, in <module>
 from sense_hat import SenseHat
 File "/usr/lib/python3/dist-packages/sense_hat/__init__.py", line 2, in <module>
 from .sense_hat import SenseHat, SenseHat as AstroPi
 File "/usr/lib/python3/dist-packages/sense_hat/sense_hat.py", line 14, in <module>
 from PIL import Image # pillow
ImportError: No module named PIL

This was because there was a step missing from the sense-HAT installation instructions which should have read:

sudo apt-get install sense-hat
sudo pip-3.2 install pillow

The second line was omitted, leading to the above error. Once the pillow module was installed OK, running the test python script above produced the results I was looking for (see picture). There is a lot of decent documentation at pythonhosted.org that I hope to take a look at in order to get some ideas for physics teaching using the sensors in my new HAT. I’m loving the sense of really playing (and learning) with computers: those of you old enough will remember the same joy of getting a BASIC program to run properly on your BBC or ZX Spectrum. Suddenly, computers are fun again.

The Magic Physics Pixies

On Thursday last week, I gave a short talk on the background and operation of one of my other sites, sptr.net, and the components that make up what I called “a professional community resource”. The event was the Association of Learning Technology Scottish SIG meeting at Glasgow Caledonian University.

The presentation slides can be downloaded as a pdf by clicking on the image on the right. You can watch a recording of the event below. This post is also available on sptr.net.

Last.fm scrobbler v2 doesn’t work

lastfmThis morning, I finally gave up trying to sort out the scrobbling problem I’ve been having since December. The current Last.fm scrobbler, version 2, is just not functioning, so I’ve reverted to version 1.5, losing 4 months’ scrobbles in the process. Not impressed. Why can’t anybody write software that works any more?

The problem has been that although the Last.fm app on my OSX device seems to work, reporting scrobbles normally, these seem to get stuck in cache. In the app, these tracks show as “cached” and do not appear on my last.fm profile.

Long story short, if you’re a Mac user having trouble with last.fm not scrobbling your tracks, delete the last.fm scrobbler, empty the trash and download the older version 1.5 here (dmg).

And(roid) another one bites the dust

I don’t have good experience with Android devices, not that I’ve ever actually bought one. My first device was a Google Nexus I won in a prize draw which was just a flaky piece of junk, even when they eventually sent me a new one after returning the original, with its faulty display, four times.

Luckily enough, I won an Amazon Kindle Fire in the University’s Digital Footprint launch competition, which was handy – my reading list consists mostly of papers and articles that I manage with Mendeley. I can send pdfs automatically using the brilliant Kinsync service, straight to my Kindle.

This morning, alas, my Kindle Fire woke up dead. No response, even to the 40-second reset. I eventually found myself talking to Amazon support, who, because the device is still in warranty, have next-day shipped me a new replacement on the promise (and credit card collateral) that I send them back the dud. They’re even paying the return postage. More than this I can’t ask: it’s certainly better than the “all our customers are morons” experience I had with Google.

So far, my experience with Android equipment has been worth every penny I’ve spent.