Shallow Thoughts : : Dec

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

Sun, 24 Dec 2017

Saving a transparent PNG image from Cairo, in Python

Dave and I will be giving a planetarium talk in February on the analemma and related matters.

Our planetarium, which runs a fiddly and rather limited program called Nightshade, has no way of showing the analemma. Or at least, after trying for nearly a week once, I couldn't find a way. But it can show images, and since I once wrote a Python program to plot the analemma, I figured I could use my program to generate the analemmas I wanted to show and then project them as images onto the planetarium dome.

[analemma simulation] But naturally, I wanted to project just the analemma and associated labels; I didn't want the blue background to cover up the stars the planetarium shows. So I couldn't just use a simple screenshot; I needed a way to get my GTK app to create a transparent image such as a PNG.

That turns out to be hard. GTK can't do it (either GTK2 or GTK3), and people wanting to do anything with transparency are nudged toward the Cairo library. As a first step, I updated my analemma program to use Cairo and GTK3 via gi.repository. Then I dove into Cairo.

I found one C solution for converting an existing Cairo surface to a PNG, but I didn't have much luck with it. But I did find a Python program that draws to a PNG without bothering to create a GUI. I could use that.

The important part of that program is where it creates a new Cairo "surface", and then creates a "context" for that surface:

surface = cairo.ImageSurface(cairo.FORMAT_ARGB32, *imagesize)

cr = cairo.Context(surface)

A Cairo surface is like a canvas to draw on, and it knows how to save itself to a PNG image. A context is the equivalent of a GC in X11 programming: it knows about the current color, font and so forth. So the trick is to create a new surface, create a context, then draw everything all over again with the new context and surface.

A Cairo widget will already have a function to draw everything (in my case, the analemma and all its labels), with this signature:

    def draw(self, widget, ctx):

It already allows passing the context in, so passing in a different context is no problem. I added an argument specifying the background color and transparency, so I could use a blue background in the user interface but a transparent background for the PNG image:

    def draw(self, widget, ctx, background=None):

I also had a minor hitch: in draw(), I was saving the context as self.ctx rather than passing it around to every draw routine. That means calling it with the saved image's context would overwrite the one used for the GUI window. So I save it first.

Here's the final image saving code:

   def save_image(self, outfile):
        dst_surface = cairo.ImageSurface(cairo.FORMAT_ARGB32,
                                         self.width, self.height)

        dst_ctx = cairo.Context(dst_surface)

        # draw() will overwrite self.ctx, so save it first:
        save_ctx = self.ctx

        # Draw everything again to the new context,
        # with a transparent instead of an opaque background:
        self.draw(None, dst_ctx, (0, 0, 1, 0))  # transparent blue

        # Restore the GUI context:
        self.ctx = save_ctx

        print("Saved to", outfile)

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[ 19:39 Dec 24, 2017    More programming | permalink to this entry | ]

Sat, 16 Dec 2017

Homemade Arduino Part 2: a Bare Atmega328 Without a Clock

Playing with the ATtiny85 I was struck by how simple the circuit was. Sure, I'd made a homemade Arduino on a breadboard; but with the crystal and all the extra capacitors and resistors it ends up seeming like a lot of parts and wires. If an ATtiny can use a built-in clock and not need all those extra parts, couldn't I use an Atmega328 the same way?

[Circuit for Atmega328 on breadboard with ISP] Why, yes, as it turns out. But there are a few tricks.

Wire it

Wiring a bare Atmega chip is easy. You'll want to keep a good pinout diagram handy, like this Arduino ATmega328 Pinout from HobbyTronics.

For the initial wiring, all you need is two power and two ground lines, the pins marked - and +, plus a pullup resistor on RST (something large, like 10kΩ). The excellent tutorial From Arduino to a Microcontroller on a Breadboard is a good guide if you need additional details: the third section shows a circuit without external clock.

Add an LED and resistor on pin 13 (atmega pin 19, called SCK) so you can test it using a blink program.

Now you need to set up the software.

Set up a hardware profile for a bare Arduino

To program it with the Arduino libraries, you'll need a hardware definition for an atmega328 chip with an internal clock. I used the download from the last section of the excellent tutorial, From Arduino to a Microcontroller on a Breadboard. (Keep that page up: it has good wiring diagrams.)

For Arduino 1.8.5, download and unpack it in your ~/sketchbook/hardware/ directory, making a directory there called breadboard. Then you'll need to make one change: the 1.6 directory is missing a file called pins_arduino.h", so if you try to compile with this hardware definition, you'll get an error like:

mkdir -p build-atmega328bb-atmega328
/usr/local/share/arduino/hardware/tools/avr/bin/avr-g++ -x c++ -include Arduino.h -MMD -c -mmcu=atmega328p -DF_CPU=8000000L -DARDUINO=185 -DARDUINO_ARCH_AVR -D__PROG_TYPES_COMPAT__ -I/usr/local/share/arduino/hardware/arduino/avr/cores/arduino -I/home/akkana/sketchbook/hardware/breadboard/avr/variants/standard    -Wall -ffunction-sections -fdata-sections -Os -fpermissive -fno-exceptions -std=gnu++11 -fno-threadsafe-statics -flto blink.ino -o build-atmega328bb-atmega328/blink.ino.o
In file included from :0:0:
/usr/local/share/arduino/hardware/arduino/avr/cores/arduino/Arduino.h:257:26: fatal error: pins_arduino.h: No such file or directory
 #include "pins_arduino.h"
compilation terminated.
/usr/share/arduino/ recipe for target 'build-atmega328bb-atmega328/blink.ino.o' failed
make: *** [build-atmega328bb-atmega328/blink.ino.o] Error 1

The problem is that it's including these directories:
-I/usr/local/share/arduino/hardware/arduino/avr/cores/arduino -I/home/akkana/sketchbook/hardware/breadboard/avr/variants/standard
but the actual file is in:

You can fix that by making a link from the "standard" directory in your Arduino install to breadboard/avr/variants/standard. On Linux, that would be something like this (Mac and Windows people can substitute their local equivalents):

ln -s /usr/local/share/arduino/hardware/arduino/avr/variants/standard ~/sketchbook/hardware/breadboard/avr/variants/

Now your hardware definition should be ready to go. To check, fire up the IDE and look in Tools->Board for ATmega328 on a breadboard (8 MHz internal clock). Or if you use Arduino-mk, run ALTERNATE_CORE=breadboard make show_boards and make sure it lists atmega328bb ATmega328 on a breadboard (8 MHz internal clock).

Reprogram the Fuses and Bootloader for an Internal Clock

The next trick is that an Atmega chip programmed with the Arduino bootloader is also fused to use an external, 16MHz clock. If you wire it to use its internal 8MHz clock, you won't be able to talk to it with either an ISP or FTDI.

You'll definitely run into this if you pull the CPU out of an Arduino. But even if you buy new chips you may see it: many Atmega328s come pre-programmed with the Arduino bootloader. After all, that's what most people want.

The easiest way to reprogram the fuses is to use the hardware definition you just installed to burn a new bootloader, which resets the fuse settings at the same time. So you need an In-System Programmer, or ISP. You can use an Arduino as an ISP, but I'm told that this tends to be flaky and isn't recommended. After I had problems using an Arduino I ordered a cheap USBtinyUSP, which works fine.

Regardless of which ISP you use, if you wire up your atmega without an external clock when it's fused for one, you won't be able to burn a bootloader. A typical error:

[ ... ]
Reading | ################################################## | 100% 0.02s

avrdude: Device signature = 0x000000 (retrying)

Error while burning bootloader.
Reading | ################################################## | 100% 0.02s

avrdude: Device signature = 0x000000
avrdude: Yikes!  Invalid device signature.
     Double check connections and try again, or use -F to override
     this check.

The solution is to burn the bootloader using an external clock. You can add a crystal and two capacitors to your breadboard circuit if you have them. If not, an easy solution is to pull the chip out of the breadboard, plug it into the socket in an Arduino and burn it there. (Note: if you're using an Arduino as your ISP, you'll need a second Arduino.)

Plug your ISP into the Arduino's ISP header: on an Uno, that's the header labeled ICSP at the end of the chip farthest away from the USB plug. It's a six-pin connector (2x3), it's easy to plug in backward and you can't depend on either the Arduino's header or the ISP's cable being labeled as to direction; if in doubt, use a multimeter in continuity mode to see which pin is ground on each side, then make sure those pins match. Once you're sure, mark your connector somehow so you'll know next time.

In the Arduino IDE, set Tools->Board to ATmega328 on a breadboard (8 MHz internal clock), set Programmer to whatever ISP you're using. then run Tools->Burn Bootloader.

If you're using Arduino-mk instead of the IDE, set up a Makefile that looks like this:

ALTERNATE_CORE = breadboard
BOARD_TAG      = atmega328bb
ISP_PROG     = usbtiny
include /usr/local/share/Arduino-Makefile/
Substitute your ISP, if different, and your location for Then type make burn_bootloader

Program it

Once you're wired, you should be able to program it either with an FTDI board or an ISP, as I discussed in homemade Arduino, Part 1. You should be able to use your minimal Atmega328 to run anything you can run on a normal Arduino (albeit at half the clock speed).

I plan to make a little board with a ZIF socket and connectors for both the USBtinyISP and the FTDI Friend so I don't have to plug in all those wires again each time.

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[ 13:14 Dec 16, 2017    More hardware | permalink to this entry | ]

Sat, 09 Dec 2017

Homemade Arduino Part 1: Programming an Atmega328 on a Breadboard

There are lots of tutorials around for building an Arduino on a breadboard, using an Atmega328 (or the older 168) chip, a crystal, a few capacitors and resistors and a power supply. It's a fun project that every Arduino hacker should try at least once.

But while there are lots of instructions on how to wire up a breadboard Arduino, most instructions on how to program one are confusing and incomplete.

Of course, you can program your Atmega chip while it's in an Arduino, then unplug it from the Arduino's socket and move it to the breadboard. But what a hassle! It's so more convenient to leave the chip in the breadboard while you test new versions of the code. And you can, in two different ways: with FTDI, which uses the Arduino bootloader, or with an ISP, which doesn't.

Either way, start by downloading a good pinout diagram for the Atmega328 chip. I use this one: the Arduino ATmega328 Pinout from HobbyTronics, which is very compact yet does a good job of including both the mappings to Arduino digital and analog pins and the functions like RX, TX, MOSI and MISO you'll need for programming the chip.

Load Programs with FTDI

[Circuit for Atmega328 on breadboard with FTDI friend] An FTDI board is a little trickier to wire than an ISP, but it's less risky because it loads the code the same way an Arduino would, so you don't overwrite the bootloader and you can still put your chip back into an Arduino if things go wrong. So let's start with FTDI.

I use an Adafruit "FTDI Friend", but there are lots of similar FTDI boards from Sparkfun and other vendors. They have six outputs, but you'll need only five of those. Referring to your Atmega pinout, wire up power, ground, TX, and RX. For some FTDI boards you may need pullup resistors on the TX and RX lines; I didn't need them.

Now you have four pins connected. Wiring the reset line is more complicated because it requires a 0.1μF capacitor. A lot of tutorials don't mention the capacitor, but it didn't work for me without one. Connect from RTS on the FTDI board, through the 0.1μF cap, to the RST line.

A 0.1μF capacitor is an electrolytic cap with a positive and a negative lead, but the few online tutorials that even mention the capacitor don't bother to say which side is whick. I connected the FTDI friend to the cap's negative lead, and the positive lead to the Atmega chip, and it worked.

You may also need a pullup on that RST/RTS line: a resistor around 10kΩ from the RST pin 1 of the atmega chip to the 5v power line. Note: the Fritzing diagram here shows pullup resistors on RST, TX and RX. You may not need any of them.

Incidentally, RST stands for "reset", while RTS stands for "Ready To Send"; they're not meant as anagrams of each other. The remaining pin on the FTDI friend, CTS, is "Clear To Send" and isn't needed for an Arduino.

Once the wiring is ready, plug in the FTDI board, check to make sure Port is set to whatever port the FTDI board registered, and try uploading a program as if you were uploading to a normal Arduino Uno. And cross your fingers. If it doesn't work, try fiddling with pullups and capacitor values.

Load Programs with an ISP

[Circuit for Atmega328 on breadboard with ISP] An In-System Programmer, or ISP, writes programs straight to the chip, bypassing (and overwriting) the Arduino bootloader. You can also use an ISP to burn a new bootloader and reprogram the fuses on your Arduino, to change parameters like the clock rate. (More on that in Part 2.)

You can use an Arduino as an ISP, but it's somewhat unreliable and prone to unexplained errors. A dedicated ISP isn't expensive, is easier to wire and is more likely to work. A common type of ISP is called a "USBtinyISP", and you can buy one from vendors like Sparkfun or Adafruit, or search for usbtinyisp on sites like ebay or aliexpress.

Update: I've been curious about this flakiness: why does "Arduino as ISP" work fine for some people and utterly fail for others? One person I asked thought it had to do with the way Arduinos reset the RESET line whenever the serial port is opened: so RESET gets toggled at the wrong time as the bootloader code is being transferred. An alternate method that may get around this is Gammon Forum's Atmega bootloader programmer, which includes the bootloader bits as part of the code so it doesn't need to re-open the serial port. Someone else says a 10 uF capacitor between reset and ground should prevent that from happening; and another person says it should be a 100nF capacitor between RST on the programmer and RST on the AVR-chip plus a 10k pullup resistor, Most Arduino-as-ISP tutorials, including the official ones on, don't mention either capacitors or pullups, so that may explain why the method works for some people and not others.

Arduino ISP pinout ISPs typically use a six-pin connector (2x3). It's not always easy to figure out which end is which, so use a multimeter in continuity mode to figure out which pin is ground. Once you're sure, mark your connector so you'll know which pin is pin 1 (MISO, the pin opposite ground).

Once you have your ISP pins straight, refer to your handy-dandy Atmega328 pinout and connect power, ground, MOSI, MISO, SCK, and RST to the appropriate Atmega pins.

All wired up? In the Arduino IDE, set Programmer to your ISP, for instance, USBtinyISP or Arduino as ISP Then use the Upload button to upload sketches. If you prefer Arduino-mk instead of the IDE, add this to your Makefile:

ISP_PROG     = usbtiny
(or whatever ISP you're using). Then type make ispload instead of make upload

Once you have your FTDI or ISP working, then you can think about making an even simpler circuit -- without the external clock and its associated capacitors. But there are a couple of additional tricks to that. Stay tuned for Part 2.

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[ 15:44 Dec 09, 2017    More hardware | permalink to this entry | ]

Mon, 04 Dec 2017

Los Alamos Raspberry Pi Club Starting Up Thursday

[Raspberry Pi Zero W with LED] Are you interested in all things Raspberry Pi, or just curious about them? Come join like-minded people this Thursday at 7pm for the inaugural meeting of the Los Alamos Raspberry Pi club!

At Los Alamos Makers, we've had the Coder Dojo for Teens going on for over a year now, but there haven't been any comparable programs that welcomes adults. Pi club is open to all ages.

The format will be similar to Coder Dojo: no lectures or formal presentations, just a bunch of people with similar interests. Bring a project you're working on, see what other people are working on, ask questions, answer questions, trade ideas and share knowledge.

Bring your own Pi if you like, or try out one of the Pi 3 workstations Los Alamos Makers has set up. (If you use one of the workstations there, I recommend bringing a USB stick so you can save your work to take home.)

Although the group is officially for Raspberry Pi hacking, I'm sure many attendees will interested in Arduino or other microcontrollers, or Beaglebones or other tiny Linux computers; conversation and projects along those lines will be welcome.

Beginners are welcome too. You don't have to own a Pi, know a resistor from a capacitor, or know anything about programming. I've been asked a few times about where an adult can learn to program. The Raspberry Pi was originally introduced as a fun way to teach schoolchildren to program computers, and it includes programming resources suitable to all ages and abilities. If you want to learn programming on your own laptop rather than a Raspberry Pi, we won't turn you away.

Raspberry Pi Club: Thursdays, 7pm, at Los Alamos Makers, 3540 Orange Street (the old PEEC location), Suite LV1 (the farthest door from the parking lot -- look for the "elevated walkway" painted outside the door).

There's a Facebook event: Raspberry Pi club on Facebook. We have meetings scheduled for the next few Thursdays: December 7, 14, and 21, and after that we'll decide based on interest.

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[ 10:44 Dec 04, 2017    More hardware | permalink to this entry | ]