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Brain dead

Kitty Knowles says Daft drillers distraught after DIY iPhone headphone jack prank.

We’d love to think that some of these testimonials are jokers trying to get in on the act, because the reality is a sad one.

As one YouTuber writes: ‘The amount of people that thought that this is real is worrying for the future of the human race.”

When you lay out several hundred dollars for a gadget, is YouTube your resource for how to modify it? With power tools?

Yes, some of the geeks out there don’t think much of the Apple fans and their sense of humor can get rather cruel but really, do the Apple fans have to prove their point?

Or these geeks could be reacting to something I have noticed: when someone starts labeling you the ‘computer wizard’ did you ever stop to think they were engaged in creating interpersonal distance? Instead of engaging with the technology that enables them to do nifty things, they are disengaging and making distance from change and growth. That is perhaps as productive and useful as digging the drill out of the garage to take after your new phone.

Check the graph on dematerialization

Marian Tupy says Computers Allow Us To Accomplish More With Less, and It’s Only Getting Better — “Researchers have just developed a way to fit yet more transistors into less space, creating an even more efficient computer chip.”

Computers have come a long way since the days of ENIAC. The first computer was a $6-million-dollar giant that stretched eight feet tall and 80 feet long, weighed 30 tons and needed frequent down time to replace failing vacuum tubes. A modern smart phone, in contrast, possesses about 13 hundred times the power of ENIAC and can fit in your pocket. It also costs about 17 thousand times less.

A megabyte of computer memory cost 400 million dollars in 1957. That’s a hefty price tag, even before taking inflation into account. In 2013 dollars, that would be 2.6 billion. In 2015, a megabyte of memory cost about one cent. … since 1980 [] the cost of a gigabyte of RAM fell from over 6 million dollars to less than five dollars; a gigabyte of hard drive storage fell from over 400 thousand dollars to three cents.

[computers]also enable a process called dematerialization—they allow us to produce and accomplish more with less.

This last point is supported by a chart from Cato showing a table of 5 by 13 icons from a camera to a level that you might find on a modern cell phone.

I still wonder about spending $3,000 for a TRS 80 model 1 tricked out system compared to a $5 microcontroller loaded with FOSS Microsoft BASIC compatible firmware (the Micromite) that has specs an order of magnitude better in all dimensions (e.g. RAM, ROM, speed, word size, built in peripherals).

It is easy to compare and contrast hardware cost and capability but it is the software side that utilizes the hardware that puts the technology on the table. That is seen in the Cato chart. It is also visible in what is replacing BASIC. The 4k or 16 Microsoft personal computer firmware has made way to Integrated Development Environments supported by massive libraries of pre-built code and support for modern ideas and paradigms in software design.

Compare the old baked in BASIC with the new MicroPython as a REPL (run, execute, print, loop) environment to play with super simple computers. If you learned programming with FORTRAN or BASIC, Python can look somewhat similar. What tells you about how things have changed is when you figure out how Python implements concepts such as aggregate data objects, control structures, and iteration through data objects. There’s some meat for dinner there.

Scientific illiteracy

A good case of illiteracy over at CNN Money: Why more people are suddenly dying on U.S. roads by Matt McFarland.

But traffic safety experts said there was no single culprit for the surge in motor vehicle deaths. Smartphone use, cheaper gas prices, climate change and a strong economy all play a role.

“It’s a very complex system,” said Ken Kolosh, the director of statistical reporting at the National Safety Council. “You can never say emphatically it’s these two or three things.”

Climate change? That’s pulling up the modern era bogey man. Another doozy is the graph showing “fatalities caused by human error crashes.” This one classes speeding and unrestrained in the same class as impaired and distracted. Going fast is not necessarily speeding but it and failure to use seat belts can indeed increase injury risk in a crash but they don’t cause crashes. Drunk driving and not paying attention to driving do increase the risk of a crash but they don’t influence the risk of injury in a crash. Drunk driving may actually decrease the risk of severe injury but that is for another examination.

For example, the NSC found a 34% increase in deaths in Georgia. The state is seeing more single vehicle crashes, lane departures, over-corrections and striking of fixed objects.

“These are characteristics of distraction, and we believe texting to be the primary [cause],” said Harris Blackwood, the director of Georgia’s highway safety office.

The U.S. experienced its warmest winter ever in 2015 – 2016. With better weather, people are more likely to spend time outside on motorcycles and bicycles. Pedestrians are also more inclined to be outside during nice weather, creating more chances to be injured.

What is the connection between the 34% increase in deaths and the ‘more single vehicle crashes’? The two measures are placed together as if there is some connection but that connection is not described or shown, just assumed.

Then there’s climate change. It looks like the problem is that people like to get out in good weather and we just can’t have that, can we?

Yes it is a “very complex system” so why such simplistic and nonsensical assumptions and assertions? Is there an agenda or two in here providing bias not visible to the illiterate and ignorant?

Must be good. Brickbat quotient is quite high

It’s like the Upstart and Systemd upgrades to the Linux init system. Boy, did that get some people upset. This time around its Snap, Flatpack, and other efforts to solve application compatibility and security issues. (see 2daygeek).

The thing is, software applications often depend upon common libraries of functions. Some of these libraries are provided by the system, some are provided by development environments and some by library builders. These function libraries change as bugs are fixed, security holes plugged, and enhancements made. The fixes and changes can sometimes surprise applications that use the library to misbehave. Different expectations about the system and functions available can create conflicts that make support and operation of the software difficult.

Another problem is that some applications get into system areas where they can do damage. This can be intentional, like in malware, or unintentional due to error or oversight. The term sandbox was applied to techniques to limit this sort of problem. CPU designers have been adding sandbox capabilities at the lowest levels in terms of memory protections and user privilege levels and thread isolation. Systems have picked up on these new CPU capabilities and provided such things as containers and virtual machines and other security mechanisms (see nixCraft).

Like Ubuntu coming up with Upstart and then folding over to Systemd as that became accepted as a solution to startup dependencies and other issues, Ubuntu developed Snaps to solve application issues. Fedora is putting its efforts behind Flatpack. And the bigots and trolls are out in force, again, throwing brickbats. There seems to be a larger ‘hate Shuttleworth and Ubuntu’ contingent in this mob but that may be due to the target being easier to personify and identify. Whatever. The brickbat quotient tells you it is an important issue and effective solutions are starting to appear.

Chrome apps: serial to display platform agnostic

Lucandentella describes a Chrome App that displays serial port information.

During the development of my electronic projects, I sometimes need to develop a graphical user interface (GUI) that talks using serial communication with the devices I create.

In the past, I usually chose to develop those interfaces in C# and using the .Net Framework; framework which allows a rapid development, offers great ways to customize the interface (for example the ability to use custom fonts as in the GUI for RTCSetup) and makes easy to access all the different graphical elements of the operating system

Today I’m going to describe you a way to develop cross-platform applications with the same techniques you use to develop web sites and without requiring external libraries: the Chrome Apps.

In this tutorial I described how you can, using the Chrome Apps, easily develop real cross-platform applications. In this way, you can add a rich user interface to your electronic projects and it will run on Windows, Linux or MacOS (and with an experimental library also on Android and MacOS).

When investigating Kodi on the Raspberry Pi run on LibreELEC, I found that there is app for that, of course. But Kodi also supports control via a web interface. That means I could either install an app on my Android tablet or I could just run the browser to tell Kodi what I wanted it to do. Why install yet another app when I could do the same thing with an app that is already there?

Java was thinking about it but HTML 5 and the other modern web technologies are making a lot of progress towards the standard UI. Lucandentella’s example shows the possibilities.

Computers, microcontrollers, cost points, features

I see Seeed Studio has a special on a Raspberry Pi 7″ Touchscreen Display for $60. Add $40 for the SBC and another $10 for a case and memory and on down the line and you’ve got to wonder about cost effectiveness. You can get a ready to run 7″ tablet for under $50 and Amazon has several to choose from. The tablet probably even has a real time clock and a battery and charger and all the Android apps (the Raspberry doesn’t). So what do you need?

The Raspberry has an ethernet port, four USB ports, HDMI, and the GPIO pins and support for low level protocols such as I2C and SPI.

The Ethernet and USB are sometimes panned on the Raspberry because they are all on a common hub. You could put a hub on a tablet that has OTG USB support and do the same thing. HDMI output stands out, though, as it provides a special capability. As for the low level stuff, consider the micro controller that Geoff uses for his ‘Standard’ Micromite that only requires a $5 chip (Microchip PIC32MX170F256B) and a single capacitor.

Nineteen input/output pins are available on the 28-pin chip and 33 I/O pins on the 44-pin chip. These can be independently configured as digital input or output, analog input, frequency or period measurement and counting. Ten or more of the pins can be used to measure voltages and another seven or more can be used to interface with 5V systems.

Input/Output functions in MMBasic will generate pulses (both positive and negative going) that will run in the background while the program is running. Other functions include timing (with 1 mS resolution), BASIC interrupts generated on any change on an input pin and an internal real time clock.

A comprehensive range of communications protocols are implemented including I2C, asynchronous serial, RS232, IEEE 485, SPI and 1-Wire. These can be used to communicate with many sensors (temperature, humidity, acceleration, etc) as well as for sending data to test equipment.

Built in commands to directly interface special devices such as infrared remote controls, the DS18B20 temperature sensor, LCD display modules, battery backed clock, distance sensors, numeric keypads and more.

Up to five PWM or SERVO outputs can be used to create various sounds, control servos or generate program controlled voltages for driving equipment that uses an analogue input (eg, motor controllers).

Special embedded controller features in MMBasic allow the clock speed to be varied to balance power consumption and speed. The CPU can also be put to sleep with a standby current of just 90µA. While in sleep the program state and all variables are preserved. A watchdog feature will monitor the running program and can be used to restart the processor if the program fails with an error or is stuck in a loop.

With a serial to USB converter, you should be able to talk to nearly any modern computing device. Or you could talk to an ESP8266 for about the same cost and use WiFi to communicate without wires. You also need to keep in mind that blowing up a $5 chip because of pin mis-wiring  is a lot less painful than blowing up a $35 SBC.

The development environment is a consideration as well. Android has a free IDE with a lot of support and those two factors are what make the Arduino and Rasberry so popular.

Ease of development can also be a minus. Even Geoff is going towards plug and chug on touch screen displays. Learning (the hard way) about how these things work is a part of the cost benefit analysis and what learning benefit is there if you don’t have to get down and dirty with the communication protocols?

It gets tough. You don’t get these things because you know what to do with them, you get them to figure out what you can do with them. But then, how do choose which one to play with? Fortunately, the financial risc isn’t that high. Get a microcontroller, Arduino or Picaxe or Micromite for the low level and sensing stuff. Get an SBC like the Raspberry as an aggregation and pre-processing device. Then add an Android tablet for display and control. Or maybe get an old old PC like say ca 1980 and hack with it.   

Never been better for the hobbyist.

Raspberries

Recently, Amazon had a Vilros ultimate Rasperry Pi 3 kit on sale. That was an opportunity. The kit included a Pi SBC, case, power supply, NOOB on a 32 GB card, HDMI cable, heat sinks, and some breakout and prototyping items.

I don’t see this SBC as a hardware hacker’s best choice or even an educator’s best choice. LibreELEC is a very good example of its capabilities. This is a minimal customized embedded effort with a focus on running KODI so the SBC serves as a media center. That utilizes the graphics capabilities, the CPU capabilities for running a complete modern OS, and the built in peripherals to run a display and USB connected peripherals. Where it runs short is in power control and codec licensing (a purchase option for MPEG-2 DVD is available). A key benefit is that the NOOB easily gets you from out of the box to a turnkey media player with minimal hassle.

The SBC shines when it comes to USB or networking to talk to peripherals and supporting an interactive user interface. There are a few GPIO pins available that can be convenient but they are 3.3v digital only. If you want to get into control and sensing applications, you’d probably do a lot better with a microcontroller that has a whole zoo of built in capabilities.

For education, there is the Arduino and PICAXE but those are getting a bit old. Geoff’s Micromite is looking good for this market. Geoff put together Microsoft BASIC compatible firmware for a PIC 32 bit microcontroller. “You can use the Micromite as the intelligence inside any project that requires a medium speed microcontroller but without the hassle of programming in a complex language.” That is a very simple computer circuit with one chip and one capacitor running off a 3.3v supply. The firmware is open source and the project appears to be a good introduction into the world of PIC microcontrollers and PIC has a decent, free development environment to take off on this.

Of course, the Raspberry Pi Zero is a $5 full fledged SBC (see Adafruit) and there is a large pile of < $50 computers and development boards to play with. The ESP8266 is in the <$10 list to provide full WiFi connectivity with Arduino style IDE’s available to make IoT thingies that don’t need much else except a battery. So many choices and so cheap!

And if you can’t figure out some project to wire up and program, take a gander through Ebay, Seeed Studio, or some of the other hobbyist collections for kits or modules to do all sorts of things. The electronics hobby is not what it used to be. Now you can implement many things that were near impossible in years past, do so without having to invest much of either money or knowledge, and choose your own level of involvement from plug and chug down to designing your own circuits and building circuit boards and everything else.

Finally, Weather service upgrades from RTTY

Anthony Watts reports: NOAA/NWS to stop ‘yelling’ at the public in their forecasts.

New forecast software is allowing the agency to break out of the days when weather reports were sent by “the wire” over teleprinters, which were basically typewriters hooked up to telephone lines. Teleprinters only allowed the use of upper-case letters, and while the hardware and software used for weather forecasting has advanced over the last century, this holdover was carried into modern times since some customers still used old equipment.

Better late than never, but the slow change was not for lack of trying. The National Weather Service has proposed to use mixed-case letters several times since the 1990s, when widespread use of the Internet and email made teletype obsolete. In fact, in web speak, use of capital letters became synonymous with angry shouting. However, it took the next 20 years or so for users of Weather Service products to phase out the last of the old equipment that would only recognize teletype.

Finally! About time!

I note that the 1Weather app and the NWS Forecast Discussion on the web have both gone to mixed case. That is much easier to read.

An appeal to Linux developers: BASH in Windows

The latest news about how Microsoft is going to cater to Linux developers is big news. There is a lot of the computer world hidden in that idea. Peter Bright describes Why Microsoft needed to make Windows run Linux softwareAnd how it could leapfrog Apple as the dev platform of choice.” Microsoft has always been after schools for its platform with the idea that familiarity by students would lead to future development for its platforms. Times have changed and it has been losing ground so now it is time to reset.

Microsoft is positioning WSL strictly as a tool for developers, with a particular view to supporting Web developers and the open source software stacks that they depend on. Many developers are very familiar with the bash shell, with building software using make and gcc, and editing text in vi or emacs. WSL will give these developers versions of these tools that are equal in just about every regard to the ones you get on Linux, because they’ll be the ones you get on Linux running unmodified on Windows.

With that developer focus, Microsoft isn’t supporting WSL as a deployment platform. It might be possible to run, for example, the Apache Web server under WSL, and it might even be useful to do so for development, but the intent is not that applications would ever be run in production with this configuration.

it’s unlikely that the company would make such a move just to provide a few creature comforts to developers. The need goes deeper than that.

Wind the clock back 15 years and Windows was the only serious platform for software developers. Linux was already an important consideration for servers, but on the desktop was even less of a concern than it is today, reserved only for the most hardcore fans. OS X was in its infancy, and only ran on weird, expensive, underpowered PowerPC hardware. This made Windows the development platform of choice by default. There simply wasn’t any good alternative.

But things don’t work that way any more.

Windows certainly hasn’t disappeared completely from view, but it’s no longer the essential, must-have platform that it once was. Why not? Because those two non-contenders in 2000 are more or less viable today. Linux for various reasons still may not be the most comfortable desktop platform (especially for anyone wanting to use it on a brand-new laptop), but it’s much more livable than it used to be. And OS X, thanks to a combination of the switch to x86 and Apple’s fine hardware design, has become an appealing option for a great many developers.

Running Android on Windows is a part of this as well. That is not only an incentive to support a Linux API but it also an entire ecosystem including developers, retailers, and users. You can see the influence of this in Windows 10 with its app store and other user experience changes from earlier versions of Windows. This latest effort is trying to keep up on the development side. The market is speaking. The behemoths are listening. This should be better for all of us.

RTL SDR reference

The Hobbyist’s Guide to the RTL-SDR: Really Cheap Software Defined Radio (affiliate link) by Mr. Carl Laufer is a compendium and compilation that makes it a good reference and an eye opener about what you can do with the inexpensive TV dongles based on the RTL2832U for modern short wave listening.

One aspect is software and Carl describes what is available and how to get it up and running. This provides an insight into the shifts in Amateur Radio from building simple receivers and transmitters out of discrete parts to experimentation with hardware modules driven by software development.

Another aspect is learning about how the radio spectrum above HF is actually used. There are many services from aircraft beacons to monitoring systems that can be heard and decoded. The dictionary of such services in Carl’s book describes these services, how they are used, and how to listen in with a RTL2832 and appropriate SDR applications.

At 272 pages, this book has a lot of meat and very little fluff. It is most definitely worth consideration as a convenient place to find answers about using the RTL2832 as well as about what is going on in the world in the spectrum between HF and WiFi.