Archive for the ‘Computers’ Category

Functional Eclipse Computer

August 8, 2017

I have progressed on the eclipse computer project past a prototype to something that mostly works. There a few minor bugs in the code, but it is usable as-is. I’ve got fixes for them, but need to test before committing. The system still doesn’t use its buzzer for an audible prompt, and I haven’t written anything yet to help take a sequence of pictures showing the progression of the eclipse. I may not get to that for a day or two to deal with travel related issues. I plan on taking it, and a bunch of camera gear, to the Nashville area to view the eclipse.Eclipse ComputerThe picture shows what is nearly the final hardware, but older software. This video shows the current software. The hardware changes between the two are all to help keep everything from moving around in the case, and to keep the barrel connector that supplies power to the upper breadboard close to the board. The connector was moving away from the board too easily and causing a reduction in the supplied voltage.

All of these problems were solved by applying solid copper wires in the right spots. I use solid copper with breadboards a lot because I can cut the wires to the length I need and the conductor is stiff enough to be inserted into the breadboard without tinning or the addition of some connector. I used a few more of these wires to hold down the barrel connector and to apply some pressure against the top of the case. It worked out quite well.

I changed the display from a 16×2 LCD to a 20×4 one just for the additional text. The video shows how I’ve made use of the space. The 20×4 display is a bit dark and needs a backlight to be readable unless it is in bright direct sunlight. The 16×2 display didn’t have this problem; it is more like a common digital watch display in how it handles light. I made and adjusted an automatic backlight control program that gets brightness measurements from a TSL2591 at its minimum gain setting and uses one of the Raspberry Pi’s PWM outputs. It seems to make the display readable enough in bright light and keeps it from being brighter than it needs to be most of the time. I’d rather have a 20×4 that is more like the 16×2, but I haven’t got the time.

I tested the computer running on 8 Eneloop NiMH 2000mAH batteries. For most of the test, the computer was indoors and used the minimum backlight setting. It recorded around 600mW power consumption under these conditions. In brighter light, power consumption got as high as 850mW. Working out a new times of totality can add about 400mW, but I wrote the code to limit how often that occurs.

The batteries kept the computer running so long that I couldn’t finish a battery life test in one day. The combined runtime before exhausting the battery charge was around 25 hours. That was much longer than I anticipated when I decided on 8 AAs. I’m still going to use 8 because I can, and the backlight will make the runtime a bit shorter, maybe 16 or 17 hours, about twice what I need. Also, a smaller battery pack would have more room to move about, and I already wrote low battery detection code based on 8 batteries in series.

I’ve got the Raspberry Pi Zero running Gentoo Linux. I made modifications to the configuration used by OpenRC to boot up the system so that it starts the program that provides information on the LCD and the separate backlight control program. A simple Bash script keeps re-running the software until it terminates without error, or the script is killed. No GUI is installed. I’m going to see if I can get it to set the clocks on my cameras, and bring up a network connection, when the corresponding device is plugged into USB. Nothing critical, but it would be nice. Hopefully plugging in a camera won’t cause it to reboot.

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Eclipse Computer Prototype

July 30, 2017

I’m going to see the upcoming total solar eclipse on August 21, 2017 somewhere north of Nashville. I’d like to get some good photographs of the event, which makes anticipating when certain eclipse events will occur very helpful. For this purpose, I put together a custom computer system to provide me with some information about the eclipse based on my location.

The prototype eclipse computer

The prototype eclipse computer

The computer is based around a Raspberry Pi Zero running Gentoo Linux. I used a GPS receiver from Adafruit along with GPSD to query the location, and NTPD to synchronize the system’s clock with the atomic clocks of GPS. I also used a 16×2 LCD that is readable in bright light, and with the help of its backlight, is readable in the dark. To power it, I’m using Adafruit’s Verter product; it takes 3 to 12 volts in, and produces 5.2 volts to run everything. It makes for a flexible power supply that doesn’t require me to buy a special battery that I might not use much in the future. I plan to use 8 AA batteries.

The software figures out when totality, the part of the eclipse when the moon’s umbra blocks the sun from view, begins and ends using some data published by NASA. The data shows the irregular shape of the moon’s umbra projected onto the irregular shape of the Earth at one second intervals. Using this, I made the program search for which of the umbra shapes contains the location provided by GPSD. The resulting totality time information, plus the current time and location, cycle across the LCD. Its results don’t exactly match many of the interactive maps available online, but I think they may be using a simplified, maybe circular, umbra shape and may not account for the Earth’s terrain.

At present, the program doesn’t take any user input. I’m considering changing that, but I want it to be useful without input. I’m going to put it inside a sturdy case that is water resistant enough that it should survive a strong downpour, just in case I have to deal with less than ideal weather. The top of the case is transparent, so the current version of the system can be useful without opening the case.

What it doesn’t do right now is show when the very beginning and ending of the eclipse occurs. I’m having some trouble figuring out how to do this. I’d also like it to show the azimuth and elevation of the sun for the current time, the beginning and ending of the eclipse, and mid-totality. I hope to make a time-lapse video of the event, and want to keep the sun in the frame, but do not want to disturb the camera once it starts. I did make an attempt at computing the values based on an algorithm published by NOAA, but what I made doesn’t produce correct azimuth values. Unfortunately, that is the more important value of the two for this eclipse.

I have published my source code as two repositories on Github. The first is a library I wrote intended to provide a C++ happy high-level style interface to using low-level hardware. I called it DUDS, for Distributed Update of Data from Something. I’m not very good at names. The name shows what I’d like to do with the library in the future, but I’ve got to build up other functionality first. It is already useful for this eclipse computer, so I hurried a bit to publish the code.

The second repository is for the eclipse computer program. It also includes a program to test finding totality times that does not use DUDS, and takes longitude and latitude values from standard input.

I’ll be doing more development and testing for at least a couple weeks.

Weather Underground’s security issue

May 1, 2016
Malware download page

Image of the malware download page

I will often use the Weather Underground website to check the forecast, but I may start using the National Weather Service’s site instead. If I leave a tab on my web browser at work on the Weather Underground site, the image in this post will eventually result. The browser is an up-to-date Firefox without Adobe Flash running on Windows 7. It gets redirected to another website, always with a different domain name, and always with two seemingly random numbers in the path (visible in the image when large enough). The page looks like it is for downloading Adobe Flash, but isn’t on Adobe’s website. It sure stinks of malware. It may be coming from something like an advertisement that can sneak a redirection into the web page rather than content generated by Weather Underground, or maybe they have a more direct breach of security. Either way, I’m sure Weather Underground wouldn’t do this, but it is still annoying.

The issue has occurred five times over more than a month, maybe two, on the same computer. I did attempt to inform them of the issue, but I haven’t seen any indication that anyone took it seriously. It has happened twice since then.

At home, I run Firefox on Linux and do have Flash installed, although I usually have it disabled. The issue never happens there. I haven’t yet tried on another system without Flash, but suspect that may trigger the redirection.

What this doesn’t answer is what happens when this malware could redirect a browser, but finds one with Flash installed and enabled instead. I also didn’t accept this download. I’m not employed to do security research, and the IT department is quite distant.

Boost C++ library and the end of the world

November 8, 2015

While working on some C++ code, I made a mistake and got this error:

ERROR: Throw location unknown (consider using BOOST_THROW_EXCEPTION)
Dynamic exception type: boost::exception_detail::clone_impl
<boost::exception_detail::error_info_injector<boost::gregorian::bad_year> >
std::exception::what: Year is out of valid range: 1400..10000

I find two things rather interesting here. The first is that the Boost date_time library isn’t using the Boost exception library. The second is that the date_time library has defined the year 10000 as the last in the Gregorian calendar.

Based on this, I predict that the end of the year 10000 will be the end of the world. Using the Boost libraries to make end-of-the-world predictions should work about as well as using the Bible, right? The end is nigh!

XPS 13 Developer Edition (2015): Rushed

July 29, 2015

Dell’s XPS 13 Developer Edition from 2015 has some nice hardware, but it was rushed to market. The machine isn’t usable as delivered. Either no QA testing was done, or an impossible deadline was imposed. I’m pretty sure it was a deadline. It took the managers a while to realize this is a problem, but they finally decided to act by no longer selling it until they fix it. Someone with basic Linux sysadmin skills and some time to install the various fixes can get it working quite well so long as they aren’t a fast typist; key repeats are only mostly fixed as of now. With the fixes, I find it can still fail to resume from suspend, but it doesn’t happen often and leaves nothing logged to indicate the problem. Overall, I like the machine more than I should.

I went for a model with the 1920×1080 display and no touchscreen because I don’t like glossy displays. I do like resolution, and this is plenty for the small size. I’ll be using font anti-aliasing for a while longer; probably could turn that off with the higher resolution model.

Dell shipped it in a cardboard shipping box that distinguished itself by including a plastic handle so it can be carried around like a briefcase. Inside that is the power supply and cable, and a black box. A very nice looking black box. Inside that is the XPS 13 with foam above and a plastic tray below that is very well fitted. Clearly a lot of though went into this, more than I have managed to convey. Underneath the computer is a folded paper on using MS Windows. I know the Developer Edition uses the same hardware as the XPS 13 with Windows pre-installed, but I didn’t expect it would include the same, but useless, documentation. Not a big deal, but maybe a harbinger.

When turned on, the XPS 13 quickly boots and brings up a legal document. Fun stuff. After a short delay, although long enough that I thought it would let me read the document, a video starts playing full-screen. The video cannot be stopped, and trying to switch away doesn’t work. Alt-tab brings up the window switching menu, but it doesn’t switch. I also couldn’t mute the audio or change the volume; I’m used to pressing two keys to get the functions like volume control, but only one was required. I eventually figured that out, but it did make the compulsory video rather annoying. What made it obnoxious was that it was just an animation of logos zooming about put to music that meant nothing.

With the video done, I got back to reading the legalese. I needed to scroll the text, so I got to use the mouse. It occasionally quit working for two seconds or so before accepting more input. There is a fix for this from Dell, but not on the part of their website for supporting purchased products. That is, if you were to purchase a XPS 13 Developer Edition, log into your account on Dell’s site, find the item you bought, and try to download fixes, then you won’t find them. The fixes are on Dell’s website, just not there. It is apparently reserved for Windows related fixes and system firmware, aka BIOS. A search engine is the best way to find the Developer Edition fixes. Once applied, the mouse no longer ignores input, but occasionally when trying to scroll with it, the system will respond like alt-tab is down and cycles through the windows super fast. I have no idea how to reproduce the issue. It hasn’t happened in the last couple of weeks, but I’m not sure it won’t happen again.

Soon after that, I got to try typing. It regularly repeated key inputs until another key was pressed. This didn’t take fast typing to observe. A BIOS update mostly corrects it, but people who type really fast report that the change only mitigates the problem. The issue affects Windows as well. Considering that keyboards are common computer hardware that have generally worked well for decades, and that Dell botched it in 2015, it is amazing the rest of the hardware came out as well as it did. The group within Dell that put Ubuntu Linux on the XPS 13 clearly had a hard time dealing with this hardware.

After this, it was time to update the installed software. The Ubuntu Software Updater ran until it got to grub, then seemed to hang on the update while still responding to user input. After waiting half an hour, I killed it and what seemed to be a related process that was eating processor time. Then I used apt-get from a shell and ran whatever command it told me to run when it complained about some problem. Since then, updates have worked correctly. I have to wonder if an uncorrected hung update would render the system unbootable.

Following that, the system needed updates for the graphics to resume reliably from suspend. I still have an occasional issue with it, but matters greatly improved. A remaining issue is how the screen brightness automatically adjusts: it darkens for a mostly dark frame, brightens for a bright frame, and offers no user configurability at all. I was worried this would be an issue for working with photographs, but the screen’s limited color gamut, at least compared to another display I have, has proven a much bigger issue. I just have to learn to avoid over saturating the color.

Other than that is an occasional crash for no apparent reason. I’ve had it happen shortly after booting the computer and starting to browse the web. It was occurring twice a week, but hasn’t happened in a couple weeks or so; maybe something was fixed.

The XPS 13 Developer Edition was in no condition to ship. Asus did a much better job with their Eee PC line; they might have been limited by their Linux distribution, but they worked fine right out of the box. Still, I’d rather not buy a computer with Windows pre-installed, and I like that Dell is going through some effort to support Linux, including getting patches into the mainline kernel to improve hardware support. I’m guessing the XPS 13 issues were unexpectedly time consuming to fix and management didn’t want to wait.

Long commands on Windows with SCons

January 15, 2015

At my job, where one of my tasks is to handle builds for Windows software using SCons, I recently moved from using SCons 1.2 with some custom modifications to an unmodified SCons 2.3.4. The change comes along with a move to using a newer Visual Studio while still supporting builds with an older one. The newer SCons has trouble with issuing some commands, just like the older version. Neither version can run programs that have whitespace in their path if the entire command is longer than some threshold. The custom modifications I made were to correct the problem, but this time I wanted something less custom and easier to support. Here is a link to the solution I developed; read on for the details.

With shorter commands, SCons issues the commands about the same way it does on Linux, and it works fine. Longer commands run into trouble on Windows; I’m told it has to do with the C runtime libraries. SCons works around this by placing most of a long command into a temporary file and then passing the name of the file preceded by a ‘@’ character as the first command line argument. Microsoft’s compiler and linker will read the temporary file for their arguments.

The implementation of this has a flaw that makes it useless using default installations of Visual Studio. SCons first puts together the command line as though no special long command handling is required. If the result is too long, the command is modified to use a temporary file but is parsed incorrectly; the program to run is taken to be all the characters up to the first whitespace. This makes the command to run “C:\Program”, which isn’t a program, or even an existent path. Everything after the first whitespace is put into the temporary file. It may start with “Files (x86)\Microsoft Visual Studio 10.0\VC\bin\cl.exe”, for example.

I found an attempt at getting SCons to use long commands written by Phil Martin. He provided SCons with a different way to spawn processes. Unfortunately, it doesn’t handle the whitespace issue. By the time the spawn function is called, SCons has already modified the command to use the temporary file. Nevertheless, his implementation was a good place to start. Like his implementation, mine also requires PyWin32.

I modified it to detect the use of a temporary file. When used, the spawn function opens and reads the temporary file to rebuild the complete command line. Then it figures out the whole path to the program, including whitespace, and separates that from the arguments. I also made a modification to produce better error messages from CreateProcess().

Finding the path to the program works best when there is some delimiter in the program path. It is common on Windows to enclose paths that have whitespace with double quotes. The command constructed by SCons using the default program paths lack this delimiter. I solved this by supplying new complete paths for all programs used in Microsoft’s toolchain. It is quite a bother, but I did it the best and most complete way I could figure. This includes creating some build configuration options for several paths, and making two build environments: one for x86 targets and another for amd64 targets.

Hopefully this will help someone else. I really don’t understand why this bug has been around for so long considering that whitespace in paths on Windows is very common.

Personal Cloud

July 13, 2014

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A cloud so personal, it senselessly gathers your intimate details that it doesn’t need.

Replacement I2C kernel module for Raspbian

January 8, 2014

A while ago, I got I2C repeated starts and SMBus support to work from the Linux kernel on a Raspberry Pi. I recently built a new 3.10.25 kernel from the foundation’s kernel fork on Github and updated my own fork of their fork with just the I2C update in a new branch. In the process, I managed to misuse git so that commits now attempt to go to the Raspberry Pi Foundation’s kernel fork rather than my own. I tested the module on the copy of Raspbian that I have. It is running the 3.10.24 kernel, but is quite happy with the new kernel module (or for 3.10.37, or 3.12.24) and my MLX90614 test program. I also built the kernel module for the BMP085, but it looks like that requires more than just a kernel module file to get it working. No big deal for me; I’ll just replace the whole kernel.  I just wanted to see if I could make it really easy for someone else.

To use the updated I2C module, first download it. The file will need to replace the one in /lib/modules/<kernel version>/kernel/drivers/i2c/busses. You may want to keep a copy of what is already there. After copying it, check to see if the i2c-bcm2708 module is loaded. If not, load it up and have fun! If it is, you can either reboot or unload the i2c-bcm2708 kernel module. Before unloading will work, any dependent modules must first be unloaded. It wasn’t loaded for me right after boot, so it hopefully won’t be any trouble.

Update: I finally got the code up on Github. I hope the kernel module has been working out for anyone who has tried it. Please do leave a comment about any success or failures with it. I have yet to get any feedback, so I only have my own test case to claim that it works.

Adafruit’s Puft Cloud

September 9, 2013

There is a nice post on the Adafruit blog about the networks of stuff. It features this wonderful picture:

Adafruit's Puft Cloud

Adafruit’s puft cloud grabs hold of everything

A very happy looking cloud is grabbing everything in sight. It seems like the artist tried to think of the most harmless thing; something that could never possibly destroy us. The post is a short summary of a way to tame the puft cloud put forth by Limor Fried. There is also a Google+ page for it. The basic notion is to keep things open so that what is collected is known and how it is used can be limited and controlled by users. Given how companies love to keep everything proprietary, we may be doomed. But, maybe after a few more incidents like the Samsung Smartly-taking-away-your-privacy-through-security-flaws TV, companies might finally get the idea when users demand security they can verify. If no one outside the originating company can verify their device’s security, it is only a short matter of time until someone outside that company verifies the device’s lack of security. Such lacking security of a device used in the presumed  privacy of one’s home is a problem most people would rather not have, but a few will want to profit from.

I2C repeated starts implemented on the Raspberry Pi

July 13, 2013

Update: If you just want a kernel module for something close to kernel version 3.10.25, look here.

I’m working on a project that uses the Raspberry Pi and various sensors. One sensor is a MLX90614 IR thermometer; this communicates using SMBus. One of my goals is to avoid making the project specific to the target hardware, the hardware that actually runs my code. I want the code that communicates with the sensors to be Linux specific but not Raspberry Pi specific.

Communication with a MLX90614

Communication with a MLX90614

One of the problems a lot of people have had with the Raspberry Pi is with getting SMBus communication to work. SMBus is built on I2C, a way of managing serial communication between many devices with only two wires: clock and data. I2C is more flexible, while SMBus is made to be more reliable. As part of guaranteeing reliability, mostly in a multi-master setup, SMBus requires the use of I2C’s repeated starts for read operations. The I2C master driver for Linux on the Raspberry Pi does not support this, and I have been unable to find a patch or custom version anywhere that adds support. Most people have solved the problem by using code that directly interfaces with the Raspberry Pi’s hardware, ignoring the Linux kernel support altogether. This solution not only fails to meet my goal of avoiding code specific to the target hardware, it also won’t work well if more than one process on the same host attempts to use the I2c master hardware.

I decided to solve the problem by modifying the Linux kernel’s support for the I2C master of the Raspberry Pi. I succeeded. My implementation may not be the best or bug free (works for me is a weak guarantee), but it does allow for communication with a MLX90614 using the user-space (unprivileged code outside the kernel) SMBus interface provided by Linux. Since examples with SMBus are more difficult to find than I2C, here is my test code. I also tested with a BMP085 sensor using the support for it already in Linux. This sensor uses I2C rather than SMBus, and it also functions correctly. It doesn’t need a repeated start, but it gets one anyway.

To avoid causing extra trouble, I implemented repeated starts for a subset of conditions under which they could be valid. I focused on SMBus communication. With I2C, a slew of messages going back and forth can be requested, all with repeated starts, but this isn’t normally done or required.  Also, the hardware requires that once the first message has begun transmission, the second message be setup in the registers ahead of the stop condition. To make matters worse, there is no interrupt condition for this, so polling in a busy wait is required. I stuck all this inside the bcm2708_i2c_master_xfer() function of i2c-bcm2708.c so it isn’t in the interrupt handler. After the second message is configured, the interrupt handler is used to receive the data. That avoids additional polling at the cost of not allowing additional repeated starts.

If you’d rather see the kernel change in source control, I stuck it on Github. It is a 3.6.11 kernel, but not the latest revision out there. I’m still using it for now. There is no kernel or kernel module for download here because I’m running Gentoo on my Raspberry Pi and I build my own kernels. If I gave you my kernel, you may well find that something doesn’t work anymore.


False Steps

The Space Race as it might have been

keithlugcom.wordpress.com/

You Control The Action!

High Frontier

the space colony simulation game

Simple Climate

Straightforwardly explaining climate change, so you can read, react and then get on with your life.