Shallow Thoughts : : Apr

Akkana's Musings on Open Source Computing, Science, and Nature.

Sat, 30 Apr 2011

Ubuntu "Natty Narwhal" on the ExoPC

Intel hosted a MeeGo developer camp on Friday where they gave out ExoPC tablets for developers, and I was lucky enough to get one.

Intel is making a big MeeGo push -- they want lots of apps available for this platform, so they're trying to make it as easy as possible for develoeprs to make new apps for their AppUp store.

Meego looks fun -- it's a real Unix under the hood, with a more or less mainstream kernel and a shell. I'm looking forward to developing for it; in theory it can run Python programs (using Qt or possibly even gtk for the front end) as well as C++ Qt apps. Of course, I'll be writing about MeeGo developing once I know more about it; for now I'm still setting up my development environment.

But on a lazy Saturday, I thought it would be fun to see if the new Ubuntu 11.04, "Natty Narwhal", can run on the ExoPC. Natty's whizzy new "Unity" interface (actually not new, but much revamped since the previous Ubuntu release) is rumoured to be somewhat aimed at tablets with touchscreens. How would it work on the ExoPC?

Making a bootable Ubuntu USB stick

The first step was to create a bootable USB stick with Ubuntu on it. Sadly, this is not as easy as on Fedora or SuSE. Ubuntu is still very CD oriented, and to make a live USB stick you need to take an ISO intended for a CDROM then run a program that changes it to make it bootable from USB.

There are two programs for this: usb-creator and unetbootin. In the past, I've had zero luck getting these programs to work except when running under a Gnome desktop on the same version of Ubuntu I was trying to install. Maybe it would be better this time.

I tried usb-creator-gtk first, since that seems to be the one Ubuntu pushes most. It installed without too many extra dependencies -- it did pull in several PolicyKit libraries like libpolkit-backend-1-0 and libpolkit-gobject-1-0. When I ran it, it saw the USB stick right away, and I chose the ubuntu-11.04-desktop-i386.iso file I'd downloaded. But the Make Startup Disk button remained blank. I guess I needed to click the Erase Disk button first. So I did -- and was presented with an error dialog that said:

org.freedesktop.DBus.Error.ServiceUnknown: The name org.freedesktop.PolicyKit1 was not provided by any service files

Dave (who's wrestled with this problem more than I have) suggested maybe it wanted a vfat partition on the USB stick. So I quit usb-creator-gtk, used gparted to make the stick into a single vfat partition, and restarted usb-creator-gtk. Now everything was un-greyed -- so I clicked Make Startup Disk and was immediately presented with another dialog:

Installation failed

No clue about what went wrong or why. Okay, on to unetbootin.

When I ran unetbootin, it gave me a helpful dialog that "unetbootin must be run as root." Then it proceeded to show its window anyway. I can read, so I quit and ran it again as root. I chose the iso file, clicked OK -- and it worked! In a minute or two I had a bootable Ubuntu USB stick.

(Update: unetbootin is better than usb-creator for another reason: you can use it to burn CDs other than the default live desktop CD -- like if you want to burn the "alternate installer" ISO so you can install server systems, use RAID partitions, etc.)

Booting on the ExoPC

[Ubuntu Natty running on ExoPC] Natty booted up just fine! I inserted the USB stick, powered on, leapt for the XXX button that shows the boot menu and told it to boot from the stick. Natty booted quite fast, and before long I was in the Unity desktop, and, oddly, it started off in a banshee screen telling me I didn't have any albums installed. I dismissed banshee ...

... at which point I found I couldn't actually do much without a keyboard. I couldn't sign on to our wi-fi since I couldn't type the password, and I didn't have any local files installed. But wait! I had an SD card with some photos on it, and Ubuntu recognized it just fine and popped up a file browser.

But I wanted to try net access. I borrowed Dave's Mac USB keyboard to type in the WPA password. It worked fine, and soon I was signed on to wi-fi and happily browsing the web.

"onboard" keyboard

What about an onscreen keyboard, though? I found one, called "onboard". It's installed by default. Unfortunately, I couldn't find a way to run it without a keyboard. Unity has a "+" button that took me to a window with a text field labeled Search Applications, but you have to type something there before it will show you any applications. I couldn't find any way to get a list of applications without a keyboard.

With a keyboard, I was able to find a terminal app, from which I was able to run onboard. It's tiny! Far too small for me to type on a capacitive display, even with my tiny fingers. It has no man page, but it does have a --help argument, by which I was able to discover the -s argument: onboard -s 900x300 did nicely. It's ugly, but I can live with that. Now if I can figure out how to make a custom Unity launcher for that, I'll be all set.

Unity on tablets -- not quite there yet

With onboard running, I gave Dave back his keyboard, and discovered a few other problems. I couldn't scroll in the file browser window: the scrollbar thumb is only a few pixels wide, too narrow to hit with a finger on a touchscreen, and the onboard keyboard has no up/down arrows or Page Up/Down. I tried dragging with two fingers, but no dice.

Also, when I went back to that Unity Search Applications screen, I discovered it takes up the whole screen, covering the onscreen keyboard, and there's no way to move it so I can type.

Update: forgot to mention that Unity, for all its huge Playskool buttons, has a lot of very small targets that are hard to hit with a finger. It took me two or three tries to choose the wi-fi icon on the top bar rather than the icon to the left or right of it, and shutdown is similarly tricky.

So Natty's usability on tablets isn't quite there. Still, I'm impressed at how easy it was to get this far. I didn't expect it to boot, run and be so usable without any extra work on my part. Very cool!

And no, I won't be installing Natty permanently on the ExoPC. I got this tablet for MeeGo development and I'm not welching on that deal. But it's fun to know that it's so easy to boot Ubuntu when I want to.

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[ 12:46 Apr 30, 2011    More linux/install | permalink to this entry | comments ]

Wed, 27 Apr 2011

Three SSH tips

Today I have three tips I've found useful with ssh.

Clearing ssh control sockets

We had a network failure recently while I had a few ssh connections open. After the network came back up, when I tried to ssh to one host, it always complained Control socket connect(/home/username/ Connection refused -- but then it proceeded to connect anyway. Another server simply failed to connect.

Here's how to fix that: on the local machine -- not the remote one -- there's a file named /home/username/ Remove that file, and ssh will work normally again.

Connection Sharing

I think the stuck control socket happened because I was using ssh connection sharing, a nifty feature introduced a few years back that lets ssh-based commands re-use an existing connection without re-authenticating.

Suppose you have an interactive ssh session to a remote host, and you need to copy some files over with a program like scp. Normally, each scp command needs to authenticate with remotehost, sometimes more than once per command. Depending on your setup and whether you're running a setup like ssh-agent, that might mean you have to retype your password several times, or wait while it verifies your host key.

But you can make those scps re-use your existing connection. Add this to .ssh/config:

Host *
  ControlMaster auto
  ControlPath ~/ssh-%r@%h:%p

Eliminating strict host key checking

The final tip is for my biggest ssh pet peeve: strict host key checking. That's the one where you ssh to a machine you use all the time and you get:

... and many more lines of stuff like that. And all it really means is something like

The really frustrating thing is that there's no flag you can pass to ssh to tell it "look, it's fine, just let me in." The only solution is to edit ~/.ssh/known_hosts, find the line corresponding with that host (not so easy if you've forgotten to add HashKnownHosts no) so you can actually see the hostnames) and delete it -- or delete the whole ~/.ssh/known_hosts file. ssh does have an option for StrictHostKeyChecking no, and the documentation implies it might help; but it doesn't get you past this error, and it doesn't prevent ssh asking for confirmation when it sees a new host, either. I'm not sure what it actually does.

What does get you past the error? Here's a fun trick. Add a stanza like this to .ssh/config:

Host 192.168.1.*
  StrictHostKeyChecking no
  UserKnownHostsFile /dev/null

Translation: for every host on your local net (assuming it's 192.168.1), pretend /dev/null has the list you'd normally get from ~/.ssh/known_hosts. Since there's definitely no host line there matching your intended remote host, it will ask you whether it's okay, then connect.

I wish I could find a way to eliminate the prompt too (I thought that was what StrictHostKeyChecking no was supposed to do); but at least you can just hit return, which is a lot easier than editing known_hosts every time.

And yes, this all makes ssh less secure. You know what? For hosts on my local network, that are sitting in the same room with me, I'm really not too concerned about that.

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[ 16:53 Apr 27, 2011    More linux | permalink to this entry | comments ]

Sun, 24 Apr 2011

WhereCamp 2011

I spent Friday and Saturday at the WhereCamp unconference on mapping, geolocation and related topics.

This was my second year at WhereCamp. It's always a bit humbling. I feel like I'm pretty geeky, and I've written a couple of Python mapping apps and I know spherical geometry and stuff ... but when I get in a room with the folks at WhereCamp I realize I don't know anything at all. And it's all so interesting I want to learn all of it! It's a terrific and energetic unconference. I

I won't try to write up a full report, but here are some highlights.

Several Grassroots Mapping people were there again this year. Jeffrey Warren led people in constructing balloons from tape and mylar space blankets in the morning, and they shot some aerial photos. Then in a late-afternoon session he discussed how to stitch the aerial photos together using Cargen Knitter.

But he also had other projects to discuss: the Passenger Pigeon project to give cameras to people who will be flying over environmental that need to be monitored -- like New York's Gowanus Canal superfund site, next to La Guardia airport. And the new Public Laboratory for Open Technology and Science has a new project making vegetation maps by taking aerial photos with two cameras simultaneously, one normal, one modified for infra-red photography.

How do you make an IR camera? First you have to remove the IR-blocking filter that all digital cameras come with (CCD sensors are very sensitive to IR light). Then you need to add a filter that blocks out most of the visible light. How? Well, it turns out that exposed photographic film (remember film?) makes a good IR-only filter. So you go to a camera store, buy a roll of film, rip it out of the reel while ignoring the screams of the people in the store, then hand it back to them and ask to have it developed. Cheap and easy.

Even cooler, you can use a similar technique to make a spectrometer from a camera, a cardboard box and a broken CD. Jeffrey showed spectra for several common objects, including bacon (actually pancetta, it turns out).
JW: See the dip in the UV? Pork fat is very absorbent in the UV. That's why some people use pork products as sunscreen.
Audience member: Who are these people?
JW: Well, I read about them on the internet.
I ask you, how can you beat a talk like that?

Two Google representatives gave an interesting demo of some of the new Google APIs related to maps and data visualization, in particular Fusion Tables. Motion charts sounded especially interesting but they didn't have a demo handy; there may be one appearing soon in the Fusion Charts gallery. They also showed the new enterprise-oriented Google Earth Builder, and custom street views for Google Maps.

There were a lot of informal discussion sessions, people brainstorming and sharing ideas. Some of the most interesting ones I went to included

Lightning talks included demonstrations and discussions of global Twitter activity as the Japanese quake and tsunami news unfolded, the new CD from OSGeo, the upcoming PII conference -- that's privacy identity innovation -- in Santa Clara.

There were quite a few outdoor game sessions Friday. I didn't take part myself since they all relied on having an iPhone or Android phone: my Archos 5 isn't reliable enough at picking up distant wi-fi signals to work as an always-connected device, and the Stanford wi-fi net was very flaky even with my laptop, with lots of dropped connections.

Even the OpenStreetMap mapping party was set up to require smartphones, in contrast with past mapping parties that used Garmin GPS units. Maybe this is ultimately a good thing: every mapping party I've been to fizzled out after everyone got back and tried to upload their data and discovered that nobody had GPSBabel installed, nor the drivers for reading data off a Garmin. I suspect most mapping party data ended up getting tossed out. If everybody's uploading their data in realtime with smartphones, you avoid all that and get a lot more data. But it does limit your contributors a bit.

There were a couple of lowlights. Parking was very tight, and somewhat expensive on Friday, and there wasn't any info on the site except a cheerfully misleading "There's plenty of parking!" And the lunch schedule on Saturday as a bit of a mess -- no one was sure when the lunch break was (it wasn't on the schedule), so afternoon schedule had to be re-done a couple times while everybody worked it out. Still, those are pretty trivial complaints -- sheesh, it's a free, volunteer conference! and they even provided free meals, and t-shirts too!

Really, WhereCamp is an astoundingly fun gathering. I always leave full of inspiration and ideas, and appreciation for the amazing people and projects presented there. A big thanks to the organizers and sponsors. I can't wait 'til next year -- and I hope I'll have something worth presenting then!

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[ 22:40 Apr 24, 2011    More mapping | permalink to this entry | comments ]

Wed, 20 Apr 2011

Making static devices in UDEV

(or: Fixing a multi flash card reader on Ubuntu Natty)

For the first time after installing Ubuntu Natty, I needed to upload some photos from my camera -- and realized with a sinking feeling that I now had the new UDEV, which no longer lets you use the udev all_partitions directive, so that cards inserted into a multi flash card reader will show up as /dev/sdb1 or whatever the appropriate device name is.

Without all_partitions, you get the initial sdb, sdc, sdd and sde for the various slots in the card reader, but since there's no card there when the machine boots, and the reader doesn't send an event when you insert a card later, you never get a mountable /dev/sdb1 device.

But the udev developers in their infinite wisdom removed all_partitions some time last year, apparently without providing any replacement for it. So you can no longer solve this problem through udev rules.

Static udev devices

Fortunately, there's another way, which is actually easier (though less flexible) than udev rules: udev static devices. You can create the devices you need once, and tell udev to create exactly those devices every time.

To begin, first find out what your base devices are. Look through dmesg | more for your card reader. Mine looks something like this:

[    3.304938] scsi 4:0:0:0: Direct-Access     Generic  USB SD Reader    1.00 PQ
: 0 ANSI: 0
[    3.305440] scsi 4:0:0:1: Direct-Access     Generic  USB CF Reader    1.01 PQ
: 0 ANSI: 0
[    3.305939] scsi 4:0:0:2: Direct-Access     Generic  USB xD/SM Reader 1.02 PQ
: 0 ANSI: 0
[    3.306438] scsi 4:0:0:3: Direct-Access     Generic  USB MS Reader    1.03 PQ
: 0 ANSI: 0
[    3.306876] sd 4:0:0:0: Attached scsi generic sg1 type 0
[    3.307020] sd 4:0:0:1: Attached scsi generic sg2 type 0
[    3.307165] sd 4:0:0:2: Attached scsi generic sg3 type 0
[    3.307293] sd 4:0:0:3: Attached scsi generic sg4 type 0
[    3.313181] sd 4:0:0:1: [sdc] Attached SCSI removable disk
[    3.313806] sd 4:0:0:0: [sdb] Attached SCSI removable disk
[    3.314430] sd 4:0:0:2: [sdd] Attached SCSI removable disk
[    3.315055] sd 4:0:0:3: [sde] Attached SCSI removable disk

Notice that the SD reader is scsi 4:0:0:0, and a few lines later, 4:0:0:0 is mapped to sdb. They're out of order, so make sure you match those scsi numbers. If I want to read SD cards, /dev/sdb is where to look.

(Note: sd in "sdb" stands for "SCSI disk", while SD in "SD card" stands for "Secure Digital". Two completely different meanings for the same abbreviation -- just an unfortunate coincidence to make this all extra confusing.)

To create static devices, I'll need the major and minor device numbers for the devices I want to create. Since I know the SD card slot is sdb, I can get those with ls:

$ ls -l /dev/sdb
brw-rw---- 1 root disk 8, 16 2011-04-20 09:43 /dev/sdb
The b at the beginning of the line tells me it's a block device; the major and minor device numbers for the base SD card device are 8 and 16. To get the first partition on that card, use the same major device and add one to the minor device: 8 and 17.

Now you can create new static block devices, as root, using mknod in the /lib/udev/devices directory:

$ sudo mknod /lib/udev/devices/sdb1 b 8 17
$ sudo mknod /lib/udev/devices/sdb2 b 8 18
$ sudo mknod /lib/udev/devices/sdb3 b 8 19

Update: Previously I had here
$ sudo mknod b 8 17 /lib/udev/devices/sdb1
but the syntax seems to have changed as of mid-2012.

Although my camera only uses one partition, sdb1, I created devices for a couple of extra partitions because I sometimes partition cards that way. If you only use flash cards for cameras and MP3 players, you may not need anything beyond sdb1.

You can make devices for the other slots in the card reader the same way. The memory stick reader showed up as scsi 4:0:0:3 or sde, and /dev/sde has device numbers 8, 64 ... so to read the memory stick from Dave's Sony camera, I'd need:

$ sudo mknod /lib/udev/devices/sde1 b 8 65

You don't have to call the devices sdb1, either. You can call them sdcard1 or whatever you like. However, the base device will still be named sdb (unless you write a udev rule to change that).

fstab entry

I like to use fstab entries and keep control over what's mounted, rather than letting the system automatically mount everything it sees. I can do that with this entry in /etc/fstab:

/dev/sdb1 /sdcard vfat user,noauto,exec,fmask=111,shortname=lower 0 0
plus sudo mkdir /sdcard.

Now, whenever I insert an SD card and want to mount it, I type mount /sdcard as myself. There's no need for sudo because of the user directive.

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[ 19:22 Apr 20, 2011    More linux | permalink to this entry | comments ]

Mon, 18 Apr 2011

A simple Python mixer (to solve a problem with sound in Natty)

I had to buy a new hard drive recently, and figured as long as I had a new install ahead of me, why not try the latest Ubuntu 11.04 beta, "Natty Narwhal"?

One of the things I noticed right away was that sound was really LOUD! -- and my usual volume keys weren't working to change that.

I have a simple setup under openbox: Meta-F7 and Meta-F8 call a shell script called "louder" and "softer" (two links to the same script), and depending on how it's invoked, the script calls aumix -v +4 or aumix -v -4.

Great, except it turns out aumix doesn't work -- at all -- under Natty (bug 684416). Rumor has it that Natty has dropped all support for OSS sound, though I don't know if that's actually true -- the bug has been sitting for four months without anyone commenting on it. (Ubuntu never seems terribly concerned about having programs in their repositories that completely fail to do anything; sadly, programs can persist that way for years.)

The command-line replacement for aumix seems to be amixer, but its documentation is sketchy at best. After a bit of experimentation, I found if I set the Master volume to 100% using alsamixergui, I could call amixer set PCM 4- or 4-. But I couldn't use amixer set Master 4+ -- sometimes it would work but most of the time it wouldn't.

That all seemed a bit too flaky for me -- surely there must be a better way? Some magic Python library? Sure enough, there's python-alsaaudio, and learning how to use it took a lot less time than I'd already wasted trying random amixer commands to see what worked. Here's the program:

#!/usr/bin/env python
# Set the volume louder or softer, depending on program name.

import alsaaudio, sys, os

increment = 4

# First find a mixer. Use the first one.
try :
    mixer = alsaaudio.Mixer('Master', 0)
except alsaaudio.ALSAAudioError :
    sys.stderr.write("No such mixer\n")

cur = mixer.getvolume()[0]
if os.path.basename(sys.argv[0]).startswith("louder") :
    mixer.setvolume(cur + increment, alsaaudio.MIXER_CHANNEL_ALL)
else :
    mixer.setvolume(cur - increment, alsaaudio.MIXER_CHANNEL_ALL)
print "Volume from", cur, "to", mixer.getvolume()[0]

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[ 20:13 Apr 18, 2011    More programming | permalink to this entry | comments ]

Wed, 13 Apr 2011

GIMP: Build-it

Are you a GIMP user or Summer of Code student who's been wanting to get involved, but having trouble building, or a bit intimidated by the build process?

I'll be running a session on IRC to help anyone build GIMP on Linux, as part of the OpenHatch "Build it" project.

The session will take place on #gimp on (also known as GimpNet), on Fri, Apr 15, 0300 UTC -- that's Thursday night in the Americas. To convert to your time zone, run this command on your local machine:

$ date -d 'Fri Apr 15 03:00 UTC'
Thu Apr 14 20:00:00 PDT 2011
Or try this link: world time server.

This is a time that's usually fairly quiet on #gimp -- European users don't fret, since it's pretty easy to get help there during more Europe-friendly time zones. I'll hang around for at least two hours; that should be plenty of time to build GIMP and all its prerequisites.

For folks new to IRC, note that is its own server -- this is not the #gimp channel on Freenode. You can learn more about IRC on the LinuxChix IRC for Beginners page, or, if you have trouble getting an IRC client configured, try this link for mibbit web chat.

Note: The #gimp IRC channel was recently under attack by trolls, and it's possible that it may not be usable at the time of the session. In that case, I will update this blog page with the name of an alternate channel to use, and any other necessarily details.


If you want to get your system set up ahead of time, I've put the instructions needed to build on Ubuntu Lucid and other older Linux distros here: Gimp Building Tips (for Linux). I might be able to offer a little help with building on Macs, but no guarantees.

Mac and Windows users, or people running a very old Linux distro (more than a year old) might want to consider an alternate approach: install Virtualbox or VMware and install Ubuntu "Natty Narwhal" (currently still in beta) in a virtual machine.

Of course, this isn't the only time you can get help with building GIMP. There are folks around on #gimp most of the time who are happy to help with problems. But if you've been meaning to get started and want a good excuse, or you've been holding off on asking for help ... come hang out with us and try it!

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[ 11:50 Apr 13, 2011    More gimp | permalink to this entry | comments ]

Mon, 11 Apr 2011

Plug Computer + Arduino = Proximity Camera

In the last article, I wrote about how to get a very simple webcam demo running on a plug computer, also known as a Sheevaplug.

Okay, a webcam is sorta cool, but it's still a pretty easy thing to do from any laptop. I wanted to demonstrate some lower-level hardware control.

As I mentioned in the previous article, trying to run hardware directly from a plug computer is an exercise in frustration. So what do you do when you want to drive low-level hardware? Use an Arduino, of course!

Add the Arduino

[light sensor and Arduino] Happily, the sheeva.with-linux kernels include the FTDI driver you need to talk to an Arduino. So you can plug the Arduino to the plug computer, then let the Arduino read the sensor and write its value to the serial port, which you can read on the plug.

First I tried a simple light sensor from Adafruit, using the circuit from the LadyAda photocell tutorial.

I wrote a very simple Arduino sketch to read the analog output: lightsensor.pde. I'm allergic to Java IDEs, so I compiled the sketch from the commandline using this lightsensor Arduino Makefile. Edit the Makefile to point to wherever you've installed the Arduino software.

Now, on the plug, I needed a Python script to read the numbers coming in on the serial line. I ran apt-get install python-serial, then wrote this script:

The script loops, reading the sensor and writing the output to an HTML file called arduino.html. Visit that in a browser from your desktop or laptop, and watch it reload and change the number as you wave your hand or a flashlight over the photocell.

Ultrasonic rangefinder for proximity detection

Pretty cool ... if you're extremely geeky and have no life. Otherwise, it's maybe a bit limited. But can we use this Arduino technique to do something useful in combination with the webcam exercise? How about an ultrasonic sonar rangefinder?

The rangefinder comes with a little PC board, and you have to solder wires to it. I wanted to be able to plug and unplug -- the rangefinger also has digital outputs and I may want to experiment with those some day. So I soldered an 8-pin header to the board. (The rangefinder board only has 7 holes, so I had to cut off the 8th pin on the header.)

I ran power and ground wires to 5v and Gnd on the Arduino, and a wire from the rangefinder's analog out to the Arduino's Analog In 2. A little heatshrink keeps the three wires together.

Then I rubber-banded the rangefinder to the front of the webcam, and I was ready to test.

[rangefinder and Arduino] [camera with rangefinder]

Use a sketch almost identical to the one for the light sensor: rangefinder.pde, and its rangefinder Arduino Makefile. I used pin 2 so I could leave the light sensor plugged in on Pin 1.

Now I ran that same script, paying attention to the numbers being printed out. I found that they generally read around 35-40 when I was sitting right in front of it (camera mounted on my laptop screen), and more like 150-250 when I got out of the way and pointed it across the room.

So I wrote a script,, that basically does this:

  if data < 45 :
    if verbose :
      print "Snapping photo!"
    os.system("fswebcam --device /dev/video0 -S 1 output.jpg")
It also rewrites the HTML file to display the value it read from the rangefinder, though that part isn't so important.

Put it all together, and the proximity-sensitive camera snaps a photo any time something is right in front of it; otherwise, it keeps displaying the last photo and doesn't snap a new one. Sample uses: find out who's using your computer when you're away at lunch, or run a security camera at home, or set up a camera to snap shots of the exotic wildlife that's visiting your feeder or research station.

You could substitute an infra-red motion sensor and use it as a motion-operated security camera or bird feeder camera. I ordered one, but got bogged down trying to reverse-engineer the sensor (I should have just ordered one from Adafruit or Sparkfun).

I'm happy to say this all worked pretty well as a demo. But mostly, it's fun to know that I can plug in virtually any sensor and collect any sort of data I want. Adding the Arduino makes the plug computer much more fun and useful.

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[ 20:23 Apr 11, 2011    More tech | permalink to this entry | comments ]

Sun, 10 Apr 2011

A simple plug computer webcam

I was asked to give a talk on plug computers ("sheevaplugs") at a local LUG. I thought at first I didn't have much to say about them, but after writing down an outline I realized that wouldn't be a problem.

But plugs aren't that interesting unless you have something fun to demonstrate. Sure, plugs can run a web server or a file server, but that doesn't make for a very fun demo -- "woo, look, I'm loading a web page!" What's more fun? Hardware.

The first step to running any hardware off a plug computer is to get an upgraded kernel. The kernels that come with these things can't drive any useful external gizmos.

I've often lamented how the folks who build plug computers seem oblivious to the fact that a large part of their potential customer base wants to drive hardware -- temperature and light sensors, weather stations, garage door openers, servos, whatever. By not including drivers for GPIO, 1-wire, video and so forth, they're shutting out anyone who doesn't feel up to building a kernel.

And make no mistake: building a kernel for a sheevaplug is quite a bit harder than building one for your laptop or workstation. Some of the hardware isn't supported by fully open source drivers, and most Linux distros don't offer a cross-compiler that can do the job. I covered some of the issues in my LinuxPlanet article on Cross-compiling Custom Kernels for Plug Computers.

Fortunately, the sheeva.with-linux kernels include a webcam driver. That seemed like a good start for a demo.

A simple webcam demo

My demo plug is running Debian Squeeze, which has a wealth of webcam software available. Although there are lots of packages to stream live video to a web server, they all have a lot of requirements, so I settled for a simple snapshot program, fswebcam.

The command I needed to snap a photo is:

fswebcam --device /dev/video0 -S 1 output.jpeg
The -S 1 skips a frame to account for the fact that my cheap and crappy webcam (a Gearhead Sound FX) tends to return wildly striped green and purple images otherwise.

So I run that in a loop, something like:

while /bin/true; do
  fswebcam --device /dev/video0 -S 1 output.jpeg
  sleep 2

Now that I have a continuously updating image, I need to run some sort of web server on the plug. Plugs are perfectly capable of running apache or lighttpd or whatever server you favor. But for this simple demo, I used a tiny Python server script:

Then all I have to do is a simple web page that includes <img src="output.jpg"> and point my computer at to see the image. Either refresh the page to see the image update, or add something like

<meta http-equiv="Refresh" content='2'>
to make it refresh

The next parts of the demo added an Arduino to the mix. But this is already getting long and I'm out of time ... so the second part of this demo will follow in a day or two.

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[ 21:18 Apr 10, 2011    More tech | permalink to this entry | comments ]

Wed, 06 Apr 2011

Slanted signs on dirt roads -- what do they mean?

I like to travel in out-of-the-way places. On desert back roads, one often encounters mysteries of one sort or another. And the mystery under consideration today is a prosaic one: road signs.

[slanted dirt-road sign] Dirt roads, especially in the desert, seldom have much in the way of signage. You're lucky if you get an occasional signpost with a BLM route number (which invariably isn't marked on any of your maps anyway).

And yet, quite often out on deserted dirt roads, you'll see odd, slanted signs painted yellow with black stripes. No numbers or letters, and not every road has them. What do they mean?

They don't always seem to slant the same way. I've wondered if they might point to underground cables or other hazards -- but there are usually much clearer signs for such things. Sometimes they run along a fence ... but not always.

[slanted dirt-road sign] [slanted dirt-road sign] Sometimes they come in pairs -- and sometimes the pairs are at right angles to one another, or at some other angle entirely.

Sometimes they seem to be aimed primarily at traffic coming from one direction; sometimes they're posted on opposite sides of the same post and clearly meant to be viewed both ways.

Try as I might, I haven't been able to detect any regularly in where the signs appear or which direction they slant.

And I can't figure out how to search the web. How do you search for "slanted sign with strips on dirt roads"? I've tried, but I haven't had much luck. I've found lots of compendia of standard signs for paved roads and construction areas, but nothing that covers off-road symbolism.

[slanted dirt-road sign] I've seen them in the Mojave, in deserts in other states like Arizona and Utah, and even a few along I-5 through the California central valley. They're clearly a widespread phenomenon, not a regional thing.

Of course, there are lots of mysterious dirt road signs besides the slanted ones: I don't know what the little round ones mean either, nor the little houses on thick posts.

Can anyone decode the signs and solve the mystery?

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[ 10:19 Apr 06, 2011    More misc | permalink to this entry | comments ]

Fri, 01 Apr 2011

Bonorong Wildlife Sanctuary and the Tasmanian Devil

[Tasmanian Devil] The LA Times had a great article last weekend about Tasmanian devils, the mysterious facial cancer which is threatening to wipe them out, and the Bonorong wildlife preserve in Hobart which is involved in trying to rescue them.

The disease, called devil facial tumour disease, is terrible. It causes tumours on the devils' face and mouth, which eventually grow so large and painful that the animal starves to death. It's a cancer, but a very unusual one: it's transmissible and can pass from one devil to another, one of only three such cancers known. That means that unlike most cancers, tumour cells aren't from the infected animal itself; they're usually contracted from a bite from another devil.

Almost no Tasmanian devils are immune to DFTD. Being isolated for so long on such a small island, devils have little genetic diversity, so a disease that affects one devil is likely to affect all of them. It can wipe out a regional population within a year. A few individuals seem to have partial immunity, and scientists are desperately hunting for the secret before the disease wipes out the rest of the devil population. Organizations like Bonorong are breeding Tasmanian devils in captivity in case the answer comes too late to save the wild population.

When I was in Hobart in 2009 for (which, aside from being a great Linux conference, also raised over $35,000 to help save the devils), I had the chance to visit Bonorong. I was glad I did: it's fabulous. You can wander around and feed kangaroos, wallabees and the ever-greedy emus, see all sorts of rarer Australian wildlife like echidnas, quolls and sugar gliders, and pet a koala (not as soft as they look).

[Greg Irons and devil] But surprisingly, the best part was the tour. I'm usually not much for guided tours, and Dave normally hates 'em. But this one was given by Greg Irons, the director of the park who's featured in the Times article, and he's fantastic. He obviously loves the animals and he knows everything about them -- Dave called him an "animal nerd" (that's a compliment, really!) And he's a great showman, with a lively and fact-filled presentation that shows each animal at its best while keping all ages entertained. If you didn't love marsupials, and particularly devils and wombats, before you come to Bonorong, I guarantee you will by the time you leave.

[Tasmanian devil tug-o-war]

A lot of the accounts of devil facial tumour disease talk about devils fighting with each other and spreading the disease, but watching them feed at Bonorong showed that fighting isn't necessary. Tasmanian devils feed in groups, helping each other tear apart the carcass by all latching onto it at once and pulling. With this style of feeding, it's easy to get bitten in the mouth accidentally.

[ferocious killer Tasmanian devil] Of course, I have a lot more photos from Bonorong: Bonorong Wildlife Park photos.

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[ 09:48 Apr 01, 2011    More travel/tasmania | permalink to this entry | comments ]

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