Wednesday, October 07, 2015

Raspberry Pi Finally Conquers Userland

Raspberry Pi developers have had quite a coup on their hands this past few weeks. The "official" Raspberry Pi Linux distribution Raspian was just upgraded to Debian 8, or "Jessie." This provides a huge number of wins - the 4.1 release of the Linux kernel, latest glibc and build chain updates, more native packages (like Node.JS and wiringPi), and device trees. Oh, sweet device trees.

While the current Raspian distribution still relies on wiringPi 2.24, the most recent 2.29 version has a much nicer way of addressing GPIO in userspace by exposing the GPIO ports in /dev/gpiomem. All too often Raspberry Pi developers run GPIO apps as root to access the array of general purpose I/O pins, however this leads to all the lovely security holes and vulnerabilities that privileged access brings. You never want Apache or Python or any user-created apps running as root - so instead you must find a way to export these ports and allow unprivileged users to access them. Traditionally this has been done using wiringPi's export utility, however the latest gpiomem exposure seems to be much cleaner.

With Jessie I've been able to significantly cut the complexity of installing Garage Security and Sprinkler Switch. I don't need to manually install wiringPi, Node.JS, Video4Linux and a number of other packages. Things seem to largely "just work" as one might expect of a modern distro. One example is that Motion has been updated and appears to be pre-packaged on Raspian, and the necessary Video4Linux bcm2835-v4l2 kernel module properly creates a /dev/video0 device. CPU utilization appears to be much lower with the current stack, and it appears that I can just tweak Motion's configs to save videos in an HTML 5-friendly way rather than transcoding them with a script.

Garage Security and Sprinker Switch are being updated now for Jessie and testing is underway... the new Jessie builds are looking very promising so far.

Friday, September 25, 2015

XMPP (Jabber) as a Message Broker

For a long while I’ve relied on Jabber/XMPP support within Google Talk to communicate with back-end systems like my Garage Security monitor. Garage Security could push notifications to me when motion was detected, and I could reply back to ask for camera snapshots or current temperatures. It’s almost as if I was using XMPP and Google’s Talk servers as a message bus; everything was a request/response pair that I could receive as notifications in a nice lil’ mobile interface. This was a superior approach to having a peer-to-peer communication channel over the Internet at large - I could keep my firewall completely closed and instead publish events to a trusted broker over at Google HQ. I essentially treated Google Talk like a hosted RabbitMQ instance.

This "XMPP broker” approach continued to work after Google moved from Google Talk to Hangouts and dropped full XMPP support (notably for federation), however things appear to have become a bit more difficult when two different systems (like Garage Security and my new Sprinkler Switch) want to share the same Hangouts user ID. Previously both systems would receive an inbound message, so I would filter by a token in the message body. If I asked for “garage status,” Garage Security would catch the “garage” keyword and respond while Sprinkler Switch would just ignore it. As Hangouts has turned the XMPP support decidedly more text-message-ish, it seems now the last system to authenticate will starve out the previous system, and only one system will actually receive the messages.

This is not outside of the XMPP spec it seems, and the protocol itself specifies two ways for the systems themselves to deal with the issue:

  1. When connecting to the XMPP server set the priority for your connection. A higher priority is more likely to get inbound messages.
  2. Specify a resource name within your XMPP user identifier. This allows a system to be uniquely addressable with the same username.

The first option doesn’t necessarily help my situation - I want both systems to receive inbound messages. The second option is possible using XMPP’s definition of user IDs… where a user identifier is actually the composite of:

  • The username that is used for authentication
  • The domain that the user resides within
  • The resource that uniquely identifies who is signing in
Using this schema, I could provide SleekXMPP a JabberID (its native user identifier) of and have it uniquely identify Garage Security, while uniquely identifies Sprinkler Switch. It’s not entirely unlike the routing key in AMQP or a topic name in JMS… chuckleface could be considered your message type, could be considered your exchange, and garage could be considered your ID. Or something like that. It makes sense in my head at least.

Hangouts, however, just cares about chat messages. It could give two craps about my resource name. There’s no way to specify that in a contact either… with Hangouts you specify an e-mail address which in turn becomes a username and a domain. That’s fine for chat… but when I want to address an individual system I’m kinda outta luck. Hangouts will just reply back to the last resource that sent it a message - no way to specify a specific resource.

I've posted a demo using Python on GitHub which lets you build a quick XMPP client. An example might be:

>>> from jabtest import Jabber
>>> jab1 = Jabber('', 'apikeyh4x0r5', 'testone')
Opened XMPP Connection
>>> jab2 = Jabber('', 'apikeyh4x0r5', 'testone')
Opened XMPP Connection
>>> jab1.send_msg('', 'Testing One')
Sending message: Testing One

I don't have a fantastic solution for now... so in the interim I've disabled Jabber support for Sprinkler Switch.

Monday, January 05, 2015

Telling a Tale for Ten Years

Exactly ten years ago I started this ridiculous blog as a way to collaborate with other game developers. At the time I thought I would dig deep and push out at least one title. This eventually led to the "Desktop Distractions" studio concept, and the nascent title Deskblocks. I also worked within the CrystalSpace engine as an entrant to the PlaneShift team. I just couldn't give these projects traction however, so I gave it up and moved on to tinkering.

Even though the driving force behind the blog had faded away, and even though no one else reads this blog (aside from the State of .NET Integration Frameworks post), I kept updating it. Writing - even if it exists only for your own edification - really does help with communication and critical thinking regardless of what you write about. Even though my day job has nothing to do with garage door openers, my posts on my garage door security system helped me organize the build in a way that informed the Hack Clock project. Back in 2006 I began investigating vector processing, and the resulting frameworks have helped me think about and design microservice architectures. Of course, there was plenty of venting as well with my favorite software companies being dissolved or SuSE Linux winning and failing and winning and failing again. All of this writing helped me when performing comparative analysis at work, or designing parallel architectures, or watching trends in software development.

It is hard to believe a decade has slipped by. It doesn't even seem real. I don't think I've evolved much since that one cram session in a crystal chair, but I'm glad to have my collected ramblings to reflect back on.

Sunday, January 04, 2015

Your Garage as a Gas Station

I had evaluated electric vehicles previously to determine if they actually were more efficient than cars with internal combustion engines, and found that (at the time) they did have a lower carbon footprint and would save me considerable amounts on fuel costs. Of course, that was before gas prices dropped nearly 33% in a single week - however I knew the prices were being artificially deflated and would eventually push back up. An added bonus remained that I would no longer be late to work because I had to navigate out of my way and fill the tank.

I was able to take a Leaf out for an extended test drive and make sure it fit my commute - which it did. I couldn't find another auto manufacturer that actually had an EV on the lot aside from Tesla, so the Leaf was the only auto at my price point. Luckily there are many Nissan dealerships in my general area and I ended up picking a Model S Leaf that I have been driving for a few weeks now.

One great thing about an all-electric auto is that your garage is transformed into a "gas station," and you never need to leave your house to refuel. Bear in mind this does not necessarily mean you can use your normal 120V outlets to charge the car (using a Level 1 plugin-in charger) - you will at the very least need a dedicated circuit for charging, lest you blow a fuse from too much load. On my 24-hour test drive I quickly found out that the 120V outlet in the garage was on the same circuit as the master bathroom; when the car's 120V charger was powering up the battery it was consuming 11.3A of power, and a typical hairdryer will eat 12.5A. The combined 24A of load will trip your typical 15A circuit breaker quickly.

Ultimately a 6 kW, 240V/30A (Level 2) charger is necessary for home charging since even a dedicated 120V outlet will require 21-ish hours to go from empty to 100% charge. Normal usage often requires a 10.5 hour charge with 120V, which can easily be done in 4 hours with a Level-2 charger. The good news is that while the chargers offered through the dealership appear to be fairly expensive, Home Depot and Amazon will sell Level-2 30A chargers for under $500. If you add in the cost of an electrician adding a 40A 240V dedicated circuit, you can have a 6 kW charging station for under a thousand bucks. The daily cost per kilowatt will be the same, and while there are some who worry about peak/off-peak charging hours most residential agreements seem to bill based on volume, not based on time of day. 6 kWh at 2 AM is billed the same as 6 kWh at 2 PM.

The technology is changing rapidly. Level 2 chargers are rapidly eating from 20 amps to 30 amps to 40 amps, and Tesla is building a nationwide Level 3 charging network based on renewable energy. It's hard to say how all of this will play out... in 5 years we may have sedans with a 400 mile range... in 10 years we may have self-driving cars in metro areas... in 20 years 25% of new car sales may be EVs. Ari Jay's comparison between the Leaf and the Tesla S85 is a great example of the current state of the market - in the end both cars are great, to serve two different purposes and two different drivers. We're getting past early adoption, sliding past the peak of inflated expectations and heading towards the trough of disillusionment. Sure people are getting a bit anxious on range and worried about cost... but on the other side is mainstream adoption, and the widespread infrastructure to support electric vehicles and cross-country road trips.

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

The Gear-Headed Mentality

The old Saturn Ion that I had been driving is nearly ready to give up the ghost. After nearly a decade on the road, it is time for it to be put to pasture. Even now the car is getting 30 miles per gallon, a completely respectable rate. Still, so much of my traveling is just limited to the daily commute and running errands -
and it is time to look at something more efficient than a controlled explosion eighteen inches from my knees.

The first issue I encountered when shopping for an EV was that dealerships still seem to be getting accustomed to selling all-electric cars. Several salespeople outright refused to speak to me about the Leaf, and instead passed me off to other sales reps. I couldn't find a single salesperson who would let me drive a Ford Focus. After I pried a bit further, it seems like the more "senior" sales staff believe that EV buyers are too high maintenance - the buyers don't understand the range issues, they fear higher return rates, they get cold feet and back out of the deal. Even the sales staff that would talk to me pressed very hard for a commitment, wanting faux signatures and asking for money down prior to delivery. I spoke to lot managers about the Leaf turnover rates, since I felt they had a more accurate sense of how inventory was moving, and they seemed to think the actual return rates were much lower than the rates the sales guys were assuming. For one lot, out of 15 Leaf sales only 1 had been returned.

If you troll the EV forums you find that there is some hint of truth to the conception that potential all-electric owners are a high-maintenance bunch. Several complain that they had to wait a whole 5 minutes in a maintenance bay, others are incensed at the 87-mile range, and many aren't quite ready for the anxiety of finding a charger when they need one. If you are planning on using an EV as a secondary commuter car the stress can be much less, however an all-electric primary car can definitely give you an ulcer. Electric vehicles definitely require a cultural fit right now, which may be why there is such friction between buyers and sales people.

As odd as it might seem, Focus/Leaf/i-MiEV/Soul/i3 owners are more akin to Corvette than to Corolla owners. A happy Leaf owner frets over charging temperatures, battery chemistry, wind resistance, regen strength, residential electrical codes, LED vs. halogen amperage - and enjoys doing so. Just as a Corvette owner is worried about properly gap'ing spark plugs, an EV owner is worried about electrolyte conductivity. If you wouldn't enjoy obsessing over the winter tires of a 'Vette, you likely wouldn't like obsessing over the optimum tire pressure for maximum EV range.

In all honesty, I've never been a car guy. I know that the engine belts form a mobius strip to allow for even wear... and... there are cables? And various and sundry liquids? Not sure. However, the mechanics of an EV are much simpler to understand, which lets dullards like me become car guys because there is
so much less to know. As is entirely too apparent, I'm more than happy to obsess needlessly about the baubles of technology... and so I think I can make the shift from the mainstream "it just works" mentality to the gear-headed "how does it work" mentality. Mainstream adoption may not be there for EVs just yet, but wannabe car guys have the perfect inroad now.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Hack Your Alarm Clock

Kids, teens and adults are more inspired to tinker after they learn the basic framework of what they are tinkering with. Electronics and circuit sets are great, but it really helps to jump-start learning with demos or projects that are heavily documented in the box. After you get your bearings on what works and what breaks, you are more free to experiment and add your own ideas.

To that effort I'm working on a hackable alarm clock based on the Raspberry Pi platform along with several Adafruit/Sparkfun components. The idea is that we can build a customized, tricked-out bedroom alarm clock with some general off-the-shelf components to see how hardware and software work in concert to create something useful. After the project is done, I'm hoping its creators will feel inspired to rip it apart or build new features using the pieces.

I've already run these lessons with a few kids between the ages of 5 and 11, and it was pretty interesting to see what they found interesting. They all wanted to start playing music, but they celebrated being able to have whatever number they wished show up on the LED display. To simply type "77," hit "Save" and refresh the display was enough to send them clapping. They also spent a ton of time building their own enclosures out of Lego, designing the perfect case for their clock.

Right now we have made it to Lesson 6 (the AM/PM indicator), however I have only published up to Lesson 4. More are to come, and I have already found some refinements that need to be made in the previous lessons. The lessons are available at, the hardware project is documented on HackADay at, and the Python source code for the clock driver is posted on GitHub via I will keep these sites updated as the project grows.

Let me know if you try out the project yourself. We are already making some fun hacks, such as using the LED display to show the answers to math problems. I'd love to hear what other people devise!

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Out of Gas

I took a Nissan Leaf for an extended test drive today - I borrowed it last night and will return it tomorrow morning. It was definitely good to take an all-day test drive... there were a few things I didn't expect to encounter but are helpful to know.

First off: the range. I drive approximately 53 miles a day just to work and back, and I'm driving in a midwest winter. The temp wasn't terribly cold - it was above freezing - but I needed to run the defogger for most of my trek. I drove in "Eco" mode the entire time as well, and made sure to take advantage of the regenerative braking. While Nissan quotes the driving range between 75 and 84 miles, a single 26.5 mile trek ate 40% of my battery. This places my winter driving range closer to 66.25 miles, assuming a linear discharge of the battery. That ain't good, and is a full 12% less than the advertised range.

I am pretty fortunate to have EV charging stations at work, otherwise I'd be sunk within a year. Right now the plan is to use the regular 240V charger at work, and trickle-charge the battery at 120V at home. This means I need to charge for 4 hours once I arrive at work, and charge for 10.5 hours at home. Not terribly convenient, but doable. If I wasn't able to recharge at work I would definitely be sweating it on the trip back.

For a while I weighed the difference between the S and SL models (the low and high end), but I didn't find a compelling reason to move to the SL. True, the SV/SL models offer CARWINGS, however it uses an old AT&T 2G network that is scheduled to go dark by the end of 2016. There is also the navigation console and full Bluetooth support which is nice... but... meh. Overall I didn't find a compelling reason to upgrade from the base S model, other than adding the quick charge package.

The Leaf is tempting. I will definitely need to change my driving habits and will have to always be mindful of the nearest charging station; already I've petitioned work for additional EV spots. However, if I am willing to bend over backwards I believe I could make a switch to all-electric.