Monthly Archives: January 2023

No ads and faster speeds using a Raspberry Pi-Hole

Goodbye ads and hello significant network speed improvement!

So, I set up a Raspberry Pi-Hole yesterday. Well, actually I did much less than that. I purchased a ready-built Raspberry Pi-Hole and installed it into my home network.

Why did I do this? I wanted a clean and efficient way to block annoying ads, pop-ups, and trackers so many websites attempt to download to your devices. I also expected some improvement in network speed. It turned out to be a significant speed improvement loading webpages. For that reason alone, I would recommend a Raspberry Pi-Hole.

1. What is a Raspberry Pi and what is a Pi-Hole?

    Raspberry Pi computer (many come with no case or power supply)

    A Raspberry Pi is a tiny computer, no bigger than a pack of cigarettes. Hobbyists love to tinker with these devices, building and configuring them for any of a number tasks (home digital juke box, attic temperature and humidity monitor, robotic applications, home automation, music and digital sound effects, games, and much more).

    Raspberry Pi computer case

    Raspberry Pi computers can be purchased for as little as US$40 for a bare bones circuit board to up to US$150-$200 for more features such as a power supply, enclosure, cables, and more. Numerous accessories are also available (touch screens, cameras, sensors, etc.).

    So, what is a Pi-Hole?

    A Pi-Hole (pronounced “pie hole”), is software run on a computer which filters out advertisements and trackers. For the network savvy, it acts as a DNS sinkhole, a DNS Cache, and can be configured to block adult content.

    A Pi-Hole has significant advantages over typical software solutions (e.g., pop-up blockers, etc.). It works faster, more efficiently, and blocks ads on not just from reaching your computer, but also your cell phone (when using Wi-Fi), your smart TV, and other devices on your home network.

    Normally, internet traffic, including all the ads and tracking software, etc., comes through your main internet connection, through your router, and gets propagated through your network cables and Wi-Fi network to your computer, mobile device, etc. Once there, you might have a pop-up blocker or some ad-blocking software on your local device attempt to filter out those ads. But those programs take time and computer resources.

    With a Pi-Hole, those ads and trackers are filtered out way upstream, before your router can send them to your computer, mobile device, etc. Not only can you avoid the annoying ads, it can also result in significant speed improvements when surfing the web, watching videos, etc. Additionally, your local device doesn’t have to work so hard blocking the ads using its local software (e.g. a pop-up blocker).

    2. Can you install a Raspberry Pi-Hole yourself?

    To install and configure a Raspberry Pi-Hole, there will be some network configuration skills required:

    I. Ability to log into your router’s Admin page

    You must make configuration changes to your router to use a Pi-Hole. You need to know your router admin login credentials and how to log directly into the admin page of your router. Once on your router admin page, you need to be able to:

    • View attached network devices – You need to see if your Raspberry Pi is on your network, and if so, what is its IP Address.
    • Set a static IP address – Although routers typically grant the same IP address to various network-enabled devices on your home network, the Raspberry Pi must have its own dedicated (aka “static”) IP address.
    • Change DNS settings – After your Pi-Hole is set up, you will need to redirect your router to use the Pi-Hole IP Address instead of standard DNS servers.

    II. (Optional) Build a Raspberry Pi-Hole

    There are many documents and videos that explain how to install Pi-Hole on your little Raspberry Pi. But I was lazy and found a ready-built Raspberry Pi-Hole for about US$125.

    My ready-built Raspberry Pi-Hole

    2. Obtaining and Building a Pi-Hole

    Pi-Hole is software which can run on a Raspberry Pi or on a computer running Linux. At this point, anyone without some computer software skills may be tempted to tune out. However, if you know how to log into your router and make the configuration changes listed above, you can still do this!

    Those interested in tinkering will find countless websites and YouTube videos walking you through the process of installing and setting up your Pi-Hole. The Pi-Hole software is completely free, although donations are recommended to keep the software updated and continuing to improve.

    If you want to build your own Pi-Hole, you will need, at minimum:

    • Raspberry Pi
    • Power Supply
    • USB Keyboard and USB Mouse
    • HDMI cable to connect to an external monitor
    • MicroSD card

    Not comfortable with or interested in building your own Pi-Hole?

    Although I was confident I could build one myself, I had neither the interest nor the time (i.e., I was feeling lazy), and decided to buy a ready-to-install Raspberry Pi-Hole. I found one on eBay for $125. I ordered it and it arrived a week later. I already owned a USB keyboard and mouse, and the Raspberry Pi-Hole came with an HDMI cable which I connected to my TV.

    4. Configuring my Pi-Hole and Home Network

      My Pi-Hole came with a link to a website with step-by-step instructions on how to configure my Pi-Hole. Briefly:

      I. Made Physical Connections

      1. Connected the network cable to a port on my router
      2. Connected USB keyboard and mouse to the Raspberry Pi
      3. Connected HDMI cable between the Raspberry Pi and my monitor (in this case, my TV)
      4. Connected the power supply to the Raspberry Pi

      II. Network configuration
      Following the Pi-Hole configuration instructions:

      1. Connected the network cable to a port on my router
      2. Assigned a static IP address on my router for my Pi-Hole
      3. Chose a DNS server for the Pi-Hole
      4. Checked for and installed Pi-Hole software updates
      5. On my router, set my DNS to point to the Pi-Hole IP Address

      The whole process took me less than half an hour.

      Immediately I saw a significant improvement in web page loading. This was due to two features of Pi-Hole: not having to load all the ads and trackers, and DNS caching, which is built into Pi-Hole.

      I don’t have statistics, but some pages appear to now load almost instantaneously. And I certainly don’t miss all the ads.

      I regularly run a malware scanner. I will be curious to see if the number of malware items found decreases now that I’m running Pi-Hole.

      Interested, curious, wondering whether you can do this? Drop me a line and we can discuss it.

      My COVID Journey

      Day 0 Positive COVID test result

      So I finally tested positive for COVID last month.

      I have taken the pandemic seriously from the start. I got my vaccines as soon as they were available (I’ve received 5 so far). I continue to exercise caution, wearing a mask while I am out shopping, and taking tests before and after symphony rehearsals. I usually self-test before large get-togethers.

      I wrote a three-part blog series about the pandemic. I interviewed friends in healthcare, shared stories of former skeptics, and did my best to convince others to get vaccinated and exercise caution.

      So nearly three years after the start of the global pandemic, I finally caught and tested positive for COVID.

      Information about the virus has been changing and confusing. Different strains of the virus have caused consternation with an ever-changing array of symptoms, varying levels of contagiousness, and rare unknown and troubling long-term effects for some. 

      People have understandably become fatigued by the restrictions, the social isolation, and impact to commerce, and so much more.

      In that kind of environment, it is understandable there are many skeptics, deniers, and even protests regarding safety protocols. This piece does not intend to persuade or convince anyone. It is merely to tell my story, what I have learned, and what conclusions I draw.

      1. Getting Infected

      Day 0

      I started to develop a really bad headache. Bad headaches are rare for me, so I decided to take a nap. For safety’s sake, I took a rapid at-home COVID test. The initial control line darkened, and then I saw the dreaded second line appear. I was positive for COVID.

      I immediately contacted everyone I had seen recently, and they all tested. Out of the group of a dozen, one other person was shocked to find they were also positive. They had no symptoms.

      Although my symptoms ended up being mild, this first day was the worst. My sinuses were completely blocked and I had a splitting headache. Over-the-counter decongestants and painkillers made it bearable.

      Days 1 – 5

      I stayed in bed, hydrated, and isolated. My headache wasn’t bad, and I suffered mostly a runny nose and some coughing. I had no fever, and I didn’t suffer any body aches, difficulty breathing, or other more serious symptoms. I did partially lose my sense of smell.

      I contacted my healthcare provider about getting antiviral drugs, but given my age, relatively good health, and mild symptoms, I was told such drugs were not suggested. I was instructed to just continue to rest, hydrate, isolate, mask, and wash my hands frequently. I was also told not to start testing again until day 5.

      Day 2 Positive COVID test result

      However, on about Day 2 I was feeling really good, suffering only a runny nose. For the heck of it, I tested, and the second line on the COVID test immediately appeared, dark and bold.

      Day 11

      I started testing on Day 5, and I was still positive. Testing subsequent days, the 2nd line on the COVID rapid tests grew gradually fainter. Finally, on Day 11, no trace of the second line was visible. My sense of smell gradually returned, too.

      Rapid test results from Days 9 – 16

      I was happy to finally be testing negative, but I continued to isolate, mask, and wash my hands religiously. I decided to sign up for a drive-through PCR test. Two days later I received my result: Inconclusive.

      I scheduled another PCR test, and two days later I again received “Inconclusive.” Frustrated, I signed up for a third PCR test, and after waiting again a couple days, the result came back: POSITIVE!

      2. Confusing Instructions

      Frustrated and confused, I started contacting various healthcare professionals to find out what I should do.

      Various articles from reputable sources suggested that I would only be contagious the first 5 days of my infection, or if I still had serious symptoms. I learned that PCR tests are much more sensitive, and that you can test positive up to 3 months after your infection. 

      The CDC’s website states “Any positive COVID-19 test means the virus was detected and you have an infection.” It continues that you should isolate, take precautions, tell people you recently contacted and monitor your symptoms.

      Elsewhere on the CDC website it says “You may end isolation after day 5” if you have no symptoms after day 5. You are instructed to wear your mask through Day 10. You may remove your earlier mask if you have two sequential negative tests 48 hours apart. Of course, if your symptoms recur or worsen, you should restart isolation and talk to a healthcare professional.

      So what to do with negative antigen (rapid at-home) test results and a positive PCR test result?

      With consistent negative antigen test results, I should be okay to relax my isolation and masking protocols (although I’ve never stopped masking while going out shopping, etc., nor to I intend to). But with a positive PCR test result, the CDC says I should assume I have an infection and take precautions.

      Calling the Red Cross

      I am a frequent blood platelet donor. I wanted to know when I would be eligible and safe to donate again. Calling their donor line, I was told I would not be eligible to donate if I have symptoms, or if I tested positive in the last 10 days. 

      I protested that I was symptom-free and consistently getting negative results from my antigen rapid at-home tests, but got a positive result from a PCR test. They repeated that as long as any test was positive, I should wait 10 days. Conclusion, don’t test for 10 days (unless my symptoms return or worsen). After that, I should be eligible.

      This did not reassure me.

      Calling My Physician

      Although it was a long holiday weekend, I decided to call my physician’s office and speak to the on-call nurse. I received a callback late in the evening. Here is what the nurse told me.

      1. Unless your symptoms remain or get worse, you are only contagious for the first 5 days of infection

      2. You should only test when you have symptoms or if you suspect you have been exposed to COVID

      3. After getting infected, your immunity against reinfection is very high for the first three months

      She reiterated that rapid at-home tests can often detect COVID and report positive up to a couple weeks after infection, and that the more sensitive PCR tests can test you as positive up to 3 months after infection.

      Her message was that testing should be used to a) verify you have COVID, and b) try to determine the start of your infection. From that point, you can start counting the days. 5 days later, you can assume you are no longer contagious. 10 days later you can decide to stop masking. What COVID tests are not good at is for determining the end of your infection.

      3. My Conclusions

      As I said before, given the conflicting and changing information about this virus, it is unsurprising people are confused and will draw very different conclusions. These are the conclusions I have drawn:

      1. I will continue to mask when I am in public indoors even when I feel completely healthy. Two people I know who felt no symptoms tested positive in the last month. So rather than risk either infecting people unknowingly, or exposing myself to possible infection from people who are asymptomatic, I will continue to mask.

      2. I will rely more on rapid tests for the next three months, then try PCR testing after. Previously, I had signed up for PCR tests often. I would test before and after symphony rehearsals, and before big in-person get-togethers. Since I may test positive for 3 months, I will rely more on rapid tests until this spring.

      3. Stay informed. Information continues to come out, new strains of COVID may come out, and recommendations will change. It’s tiring and confusing, but I’ll try to stay informed on the latest recommendations. I encourage you to do so as well.

      Stay safe out there, friends!