My programming experience

Go to the bottom, “Summing it up”, for the TL;DR.

The day I turn this website into a portfolio/CV-like thing will come sooner or later, and arguably that’s a better use for the domain gbl08ma.com than this blog with posts nobody cares about – except when I rant about new operating systems from Microsoft. But if you really care about such posts, do not worry: the blog will still exist, it just won’t be as prominent.

Meanwhile, and off-topic intro aside, the content usually seen on such presentation websites everyone-and-their-cat seems to have these days, will have to wait. In anticipation for that kind of stuff, let’s go in a kind of depressing journey through my eight years programming experience.

The start

The beginning was what many people would consider a horror movie: programming in Visual Basic for Applications in Excel spreadsheets, or VBA for short. This is (or was, at the time; I have no idea how it is now) more or less a stripped down version of VB 6 that runs inside Microsoft Office and does not produce stand-alone executables. Everything lives inside Office documents.

Screenshot (30)

It still exists – just press Alt+F11 in any Office window. Also, the designer has Windows 7 Basic window styles… on Windows 10, which supposedly ditched all that?

I was introduced to it by my father, who knows his way around Excel pretty well (much better than I will probably ever will, especially as I have little interest). My temporal memory is quite fuzzy and I don’t have file timestamps with me for checking, so I was either 9, 10 or 11 years old at the time, but I’m more inclined to think 9-10. I actually went quite far with it, developing a Excel-backed POS system with support for costumer- and operator-facing character LCD screens and, if I remember correctly, support for discounts and loyalty cards (or at least the beginnings of it).

Some of my favorite things I did with VBA, consisted in making it do things it was not really designed for, such as messing with random ActiveX controls and making it draw strange-looking windows (forms) and controls through convoluted Win32 API calls I’d have copied from some website. I did not have administrator rights to my computer at the time, so I couldn’t just install something better. And I doubt my Pentium III-powered computer, already ancient at the time (but which still works today), would keep up with a better IDE.

I shall try to read these backup CDs and DVDs one day, for a big trip down the memory lane.

Programming newb v2

When I was 11 or 12 I was given a new computer. Dual core Intel woo! This and 2GB RAM meant I could finally run virtual machines and so I was put on probation: I administered the virtual computers, and soon the real hardware followed (the fact that people were tired of answering Vista’s UAC prompts also helped, I think). My first encounter with Linux (and a bunch other more obscure OS I tried for fun) was around this time. (But it would take some years for me to stop using Windows primarily.)

Around this time, Microsoft released the Express (free) editions of VS 2008. I finally “upgraded” to VB.NET, woo! So many new things to learn! Much of my VBA code needed changes. VB.Net really is a better VB, and thank Microsoft for that, otherwise the VB trauma would be much worse and I would not be the programmer I am today. I learned much about the .NET framework and Visual Studio with VB.NET, knowledge that would be useful years later, as my more skilled self did more serious stuff in C#.

In VB.NET, I wrote many lines of mostly shoddy code. Much of that never saw the light of day, but there are some exceptions: multiple versions of Goona Browser made their way to the public. This was a dual-engine web browser with advanced UI, and futuristic concepts some major players copied, years later.

How things looked like, in good days. Note the giant walls of broken English. I felt like "explain ALL the things"!

How things looked like, in good days (i.e. when it didn’t crash). Note the giant walls of broken English. I felt like “explain ALL the things”! And in case you noticed the watermark: yes, it was actually published to Softpedia.

If you search for it now, you can still find it, along with its website which I made mostly from scratch. All of this accompanied by my hilariously broken English, making the trip to the past worth its weight in laughs. Obviously I do not recommend installing the extremely buggy software, which, I found out recently, crashes on every launch but the first one.

Towards the later part of my VB.NET era, I also played a bit with C#. I had convinced myself I wanted to write an operating system, and at the time there was a project called COSMOS that allowed for writing (pretty limited) OS with C#… of course my “operating” systems were not much beyond a fancy command line prompt and help command. All of that is, too, stored in optical media, somewhere… and perhaps in the disk of said dual-core computer. I also studied and modified open source programs made in C# (such as the file downloader described in the Goona Browser screenshot) for my own amusement.

All this happened while I developed some static websites using Visual Web Developer Express as editor. You definitely don’t want to see those (mostly never published) websites, but they were detrimental to learning a fair bit of HTML and CSS. Before Web Developer I had also experimented with Dreamweaver 8 (yes, it was already old back then) and tried my hand at animation with Flash 8 (actually I had much more fun using it to disassemble existing SWFs).

Penguin programmer

At this point I was 13 or so, had my first contact with Linux more than done, through VMs and Live CDs, aaand it happened: Ubuntu became my main OS. Microsoft “jail” no more (if only I knew what a real jailed platform was at the time…). No more clunky .NET! I was fed up with the high RAM usage of Goona Browser, and bugs I was having a hard time debugging, due to the general code clumsiness.

How Ubuntu looked like when I first tried it. Good times. Canonical, what did you do?

How Ubuntu looked like when I first tried it. Good times. Canonical, what did you do?

For a couple of years, in terms of desktop development, I only made some Python scripts for my own amusement and played a very small bit with MonoDevelop every time I missed .NET. I also made a couple Lua scripts for Rockbox. I learned much about Linux usage and system maintenance as I used it more and more on my own computers and on my first Virtual Private Servers, which I got after much drama in the free web hosting communities. Ugh, how I hate CPanel.

It was around this time that g.ro.lt and n.irc.su appeared. g.ro.lt was a URL shortener that would later evolve into 4.l.to and later tny.im. n.irc.su was a social network built on Elgg, which obviously failed. I also made some smaller websites, like one that would take you to random image hosting websites, URL shorteners and pastebins, so you would not use the same service every time you urgently needed one. These represented my first experiences with PHP programming.

I have no pictures to show. The websites are long gone, not on the Internet Archive, and if I took screenshots, I have no idea where I put them. Ditto for the logos. I believe I still have the source code for the random-web-service website somewhere, at least the front page layout.

All this working on top of free stuff: free (and crappy) subdomains, free (and crappy) web hosting, free (and less crappy) virtual servers. It would take me some time until I finally convinced myself I needed to spend some money for better reliability, a gist of support and less community drama. And even then I would spend Bitcoin, which I earned back when it was really cheap, making the rounds of silly faucets and pulling money out of CPAlead-like offers through the use of multiple proxies (oh, the joy of having multiple VPS…). To this day I still don’t have a PayPal account.

This time, and when I actively developed tny.im (as opposed to just helping maintain it), was the peak of my gbl08ma-as-web-developer phase. As I entered and went through high school, I would get more and more away from HTML and friends (but not server maintenance), to embrace something completely different…

Low level, little resources: embedded systems

For high school math everyone had to use a graphing calculator. My math teacher recommended (out of any interest) Casio calculators because of their ease of use (and even excitedly mentioned, Casio leaflet in hand, the existence of a new and awesome color screen model that “did everything and some more”). And some days later I had said model in my hands, a Casio fx-CG 20, or Prizm, which had been released about a year before. The price difference from the earlier dot-matrix screen Casio calcs was too small to let the color screen go.

I was turning 15, or had just turned 15. I remember setting up the calculator and thinking, not much after, “I want to code for this thing”. Casio’s built-in Basic dialect is way too limited (and after having coded in “real” languages, Basic was silly). This was in September 2011; in March next year I would be releasing my first Prizm add-in, CGlock, a calculator PIN-locking software.

Minimalist look, yay! So much you don’t even notice it’s a color screen.

This was my first experience with C; I remember struggling with pointers, and getting lots of compilation warnings and errors, and run-time errors. Then at some point everything just “clicked in” and C soon became my main language. Alas, for developing native software for the Prizm, this is the only option (besides using C++ without most of its features, not even the “new” keyword).

The Prizm is a horrible platform, especially for newbie C programmers. You can’t use a debugger, nor look at memory contents, the OS malloc/free implementation has bugs (and the heap is incredibly small, compared to the stack) and there’s always that small chance some program damages your calculator, or at least corrupts your estimated files and notes. To this day, using valgrind and gdb on the desktop feels to me as science fiction made true. The use of alloca (stack allocation) ends up being preferred in relation to dynamic allocation, leading to awkward design decisions.

Example of all the information you can get about an error in a Prizm add-in. It’s up to you to go through your binary (and in some cases, disassemble the OS) to find out what these mean. Oh, the bug only manifests itself when compiling with optimizations and without symbols? Good luck…

There is a proprietary emulator, but it wasn’t designed for software development and can’t emulate certain things. At least it’s better than risking damage to expensive hardware. The SuperH-4 CPU runs at 58 MHz and add-ins have access to about 600 KiB of memory, which is definitely better than with classic z80-powered Texas Instruments calculators, but one still can’t afford memory- or CPU-intensive stuff. But what you gain in performance and screen resolution, you lose in control over the hardware and the OS, which still have lots of unknowns.

Programming for the Prizm taught me how it’s like to work without the help of the C standard libraries (or better, with the help of incomplete and buggy standard libraries), what a stack overflow looks like (when there’s no stack protection), how flash memories work, what DMA is, what MMUs do and how systems can be bricked when their only bootloader is not read-only. It taught me how compilers work from an end-user perspective, what kind of problems and advantages optimizations introduce, and what it’s like to develop parts of the C standard library.

It also taught me Casio support in Portugal (Ename) is pretty incompetent at fixing calculators, turning my CG 20 into a CG 10 and leaving two big capacitors out of a replacement main board. In this hardware topic, I learned quite a bit about digital logic from Prizm hardware discussions at Cemetech. And I had some contact with SH4 assembly and a glimpse into how to use IDA Pro. Thank you Casio for developing a system that works so well and yet is so broken in so many under-the-hood ways, and thank you Cemetech for briefly holding the Prizm higher than TI calcs.

I developed other add-ins, some from scratch and others as ports of existing PC software (such as Eigenmath). I still develop for the Prizm from time to time, but I have less and less motivation as the homebrew community has stagnated and I use my Prizm much less, as I went to university. Experience in obscure calculator platforms does not make for a nice CV.

Yes, in three years or so I went from the likes of Visual Studio to a platform where the only way to debug is to write text to the screen. I still like embedded and real-time programming a lot and have moved to programming more generic and well-known things such as the ESP8266.

Getting in the elevator

During the later part of high school (which I started in the fall of 2011 and ended in the summer of 2014), I did more serious Python stuff, namely Mersit, later deprecated in favor of Picored, which is not written in Python but in Go. Yes, I began trying higher-level stuff again (higher level, getting in the elevator… sorry, I’m bad at jokes).

My first contact with Go was when I was 17, because I wanted to develop something that ran without external dependencies (i.e., unlike Java or .NET) and compiled to native code. I wanted to avoid C/C++, but I wasn’t looking for “a better C” either, so Rust was not it. Seeing so much stuff about Go at Hacker News, one day I decided to try my hand at it and I like it quite a lot – I’m still unsure if I like it because of the language itself or because of the great libraries one can use with it, but I think both play an important role.

GolangPicoRed

This summer I decided to give C# another chance and I’m quite impressed – turns out I like it much more than I thought. It may have something to do with trying it after learning proper languages vs. trying it when one only knows VB. I guess my VB.NET scars are healed. I also tried a bit of Java, in my first contact with it ever, and it seems my .NET hate converted into Android API hate.

Programming with grades

University gave the opportunity (or better, the obligation) of having other people criticize my code. The general public could already see the open-source C code of my Casio Prizm add-ins, and even the ugly code of Goona Browser, but this time my code was getting graded. It went better than I initially thought – I guess the years of experience programming in different languages helped, especially as many of the people I’m being compared with have only started programming this year.

In the first semester we took an introductory programming course, which used Python, and while it was quite easy for me, I took the opportunity to learn Python to a greater depth than “language in which to write quick and dirty glue code”. You see, until then I had not used classes in my Python code, for example. (This only goes to show Python is a versatile language, even if slow.)

We also took an introductory computer architecture course where we learned how basic CPUs work (it was good for gluing all the separate knowledge I already had about it) and programmed in assembly for a course-specifc CISC-like architecture. My previous experience with reading SH4 assembly proved quite useful (and it seems that nowadays the line between RISC and CISC is more blurred than ever).

In the second semester, I had the opportunity to exercise my C knowledge, this time not limited to the Prizm platform. More interestingly, logic programming, a paradigm I had no intention of ever programming in, was presented to us. So Prolog it was. It went much better than I anticipated, but as most other people who (are forced to) learn it, I have no real use for it. So the knowledge is there, waiting for The Right Problems(tm). I am afraid I’ll forget much of it before it becomes useful, but if there’s something picking C# up again taught me, is that I can pick up pretty fast skills learned and abandoned long ago.

The second year is about to begin and there’s some object-oriented programming coming, I hope I do well.

Summing it up

I have written non-trivial amounts of code in at least 8 languages: Visual Basic, PHP, C#, Python, Lua, C, Go, Java and Prolog. I have contacted with two assembly dialects and designed web pages with HTML, CSS and Javascript, and of course automated some tasks with bash or plain shell scripting. As can be seen, I’m yet to do any kind of functional programming.

I do not like “years of experience” as a way to measure language proficiency, especially when such languages are learned for use in short-lived side projects, so here’s a list with an approximate number of lines of code I have written in each language.

  • C: anywhere between 40K lines and 50K lines. Call it three years experience if you will. Most of these were for Prizm add-ins, and have since been rewritten or heavily optimized. This is changing as I develop less and less for the Prizm.
  • PHP: over 15K lines, two years if you want to think that way. The biggest chunk of these were for developing the additions to YOURLS used in tny.im, but every other small project takes its own 200-500 lines of code. Unfortunately, most of this is “bad” code, far from idiomatic. The usual PHP mess, you know.
  • Python: at least 5K lines over what amounts to about six months. Of these, most of the “clean” lines (25-35%) were for university projects.
  • Go: around 7K lines, six months. Not exactly idiomatic code, but it’s clean and works well.
  • VBA: uh, perhaps 3 or 4K lines, all bad code :)
  • VB.NET: 10K lines or so, most of it shoddy code with lots of Try…Catch to “fix” the problems. Call it two years experience.
  • C#: 10K lines of mostly clean and documented code. One month or so :)
  • Lua: mostly small glue scripts for my own amusement, plus some more lines for use in games such as Minetest, I estimate 3-4 K lines of varying quality.
  • Java: I just started, and mostly ported C# code… uh, one week and 1.5K lines?
  • HTML, CSS and JS: my experience with JS doesn’t go much beyond what’s needed to modify DOM elements and make simple AJAX requests. I’ve made the frontend for over 5 websites, using the Bootstrap and INK frameworks.
  • Prolog: a single university assignment, ~250 lines or one month. A++ impression, would repeat – I just don’t see what for.

In addition to all this, I have some experience launching the programs and services I make – designing logos/branding, versioning, keeping changelogs, update instructions, publishing, advertising, user support. Note that I didn’t say I’m good at any of these things, only that I have experience doing them, for better or worse…

Things I’d like to have more experience with:

  • Continuous integration / testing in general;
  • Debugging code outside of .NET/Visual Studio and printing debug lines in C;
  • Using Git and other VCS in big repos/repos with more people (I want to see those merge conflicts and commits to the wrong branch coming);
  • Server-side web development on something other than PHP and Go. And learning to use MVC frameworks, independently of the language;
  • C++ (and Java, out of necessity. Damned Android);
  • Game development. Actually, this is how many people start, but I’m so cool that I started by developing POS software :)

Utilities version 1.2 is out; Casio retweets

In case you haven’t noticed yet, the version 1.2 of the Utilities add-in for the Casio fx-CG 10 and 20 (known as Prizm) has been released today. More information and download on this page.

Following my announcement on Twitter about the new release, it got retweeted by the official Casio Prizm Twitter account. This is a move without precedents on their part – no 3rd party add-in had ever received the slightest official public recognition. Most likely the social media marketeer retweeted my nice tweet without really knowing what he/she was doing.

However, this had little impact. The tny.im shortlinks you see received less hits by the time they retweeted, than by the time I originally tweeted – despite @CasioPrizm having over the quintuple of followers I have.

Slitaz servers down

Seeing that I’m getting a lot of hits on this blog from people searching about the SliTaz servers being down right now, probably because I have a blog post with the words “SliTaz” and “dead” on the title, which was published over a year ago, I’d like to inform that I know nothing about the server situation other than the fact that the website is unavailable for me too.

(talking about SliTaz, I kinda stopped following the project, even though I find it interesting… note to self: pay more attention to it from now on)

Casio Prizm software

Own a Casio Prizm? Please take five minutes (probably less) to fill my survey on product IDs. It’s as easy as looking at the back of your calculator and typing 15 characters. No personal information is collected. Thank you!

I developed some add-ins for the Casio Prizm series of graphic calculators (fx-CG10 and fx-CG20). The software is available for download directly from a server of mine, sometimes from Cemetech and sometimes from Casiopeia.

Utilities

The Utilities add-in is exactly what its name says: an add-in full of utilities not originally found on the Casio Prizm calculators. This includes:

  • Clock, with time and date and the tools for adjusting them;
  • 20 chronometers (can go up or down) with accuracy as good as the 128 Hz tick allows (it’s better than 1/100 of a second);
  • Tool to fine-adjust the backlight level (from 0 to 244, versus the 1 to 5 provided by the OS);
  • Tools to adjust the poweroff and backlight timeout to values not possible through the OS default tools;
  • Power information (read battery voltage level, power source, battery setting and more);
  • Many lantern types (make an expensive and inefficient lantern out of your Prizm);
  • Calendar with agenda (add, edit, view and delete events on days, search events, week and month views, and much more);
  • Task list (add, edit, view and delete tasks, which are basically calendar events without dates);
  • File manager (rename, move and copy files and folders, with long-file-name support and non-capital letters support). Also allows for opening text files, compressing and decompressing files in a special format, and searching for files;
  • Text editor (create and edit text files);
  • Balance manager (manage your pocket money);
  • Password generator;
  • TOTP authenticator (like Google Authenticator and compatible with it, but on a calculator);
  • Graphical memory usage viewing tool (check how much Main and Storage Memory is used with nice progress bars);
  • Add-in manager (choose which add-ins are available for launching in the Main Menu without having to delete them);
  • Function key color selection (select the color of the function key labels throughout the OS; I recommend blue if you’re tired of black);
  • System information viewer – view the OS and bootloader version and timestamps, calculator model information, Renesas CPU version registers and the unique device ID.
  • Calculator lock with numeric code (like CGlock but more advanced);
  • A way to save the current time as a decimal number to the OS alpha variable T (you can use this on Run-Mat and almost everywhere by pressing ALPHA and then the division key).
  • Lots of settings to make the add-in behave the way you like.

All this in a binary file under 180 KiB!

Version 2.0 of this add-in was released on August 25, 2015, with this most likely being the last release; at this point Utilities is stable and full-featured, as you see in the above list. New releases will only happen to fix bugs, without increasing the feature list. I have tried very hard to make sure this add-in provides something useful for everyone who owns a Prizm.

Download g3a

Thread at Cemetech

GitHub repo

Image viewer

View JPEG and PNG images on your Prizm. Progressive or lossless JPEG and interlaced PNG not supported. Has strip functionality for linking (not embedding) images on eActivites. Stable version 1.0 is out! More information on the Thread at Cemetech, or download the g3a – just copy to your calculator (out of any folder!) to install.

Eigenmath port

Screenshot of my Eigenmath port

Screenshot of my Eigenmath port

I ported the Eigenmath symbolic math engine, by George Weigt, to the fx-CG 10/20 calculators. Version 1.0, stable, is available for download, with all the results matching the ones given by the PC version. Updating is heavily recommended, because there are lots of new features in comparison to the first release, not to mention more ability, stability, and many bug fixes.

This port includes a function catalog, ability to create and execute scripts, draw graphs, and much more. All 100+ Eigenmath commands work. Output is pretty-printed whenever possible, and 200 lines of output are stored for scrolling at any time. Command execution can be stopped. The state of the add-in is optionally automatically saved when exiting. This add-in can also act as a eActivity strip.

Download or find more, updated information on the thread at Cemetech. GitHub repo.

Discontinued software:

CGlock

An add-in that lets you protect your calculator with a 4-digit code. It can be set up to automatically turn off the calculator when it is locked, to not show the Casio logo (and consequently the owner information) at turn off, and to open Run-Matrix after the correct unlock code is entered. If the Prizm is rebooted or the batteries are taken off, the calculator goes unlocked – so this program only provides mild security for your calculator (you can always epoxy the reboot hole and the batteries compartment, but do so at your own risk).

It saves the code and the settings in the main memory. I have some ideas for new features, such as hashing the code for extra safety and implementing CGlock’s own owner information display, since the Casio one is easily crackable, which I’ll implement when I have time and feel in mood.

Download from Cemetech

OverClui

OverClui is a tool for overclocking the Prizm’s CPU based on the work of Ashbad and brijohn at Cemetech. The difference between this and their own tool, Pover, is that this one has a nicer GUI, and is more noob-friendly. It doesn’t let users overclock to 101.5 MHz but only to 94.3 MHz to avoid problems, even though recently I found out some calculators don’t handle the 94.3 MhZ speed and thus can only to 87 MHz safely.

Use at your own risk, no warranty provided. If the calculator shows a “SYSTEM ERROR” message when overclocking to 94.3 MHz, please press EXIT to reboot, don’t overclock to that speed again (which also means you won’t be able to run the latest version of the game Gravity Duck on your calculator) and let me know in the comments.

Download from Cemetech

SliTaz is not dead

My last blog post has been about the fact that ReactOS is not a dead open source project, and that in fact they had just released a new alpha version. So to keep with my line of open-source-projects-journalism, today I talk about another open source project, this time a GNU/Linux distro: SliTaz.

You may have heard about this project before: SliTaz has been around since 2007, when the first “cooking” version of the distro was released. But what is SliTaz? As it says on the official website, it is “a free operating system providing a fully featured desktop or server in less than 30 MB”. And indeed, you download an ISO file that weights at about 30MB, which you can burn to a USB stick, CD or DVD, or run on a virtual machine. From there, SliTaz boots to a complete desktop with various utilities and office applications, server-side software and, of course, a web browser. A nice control panel lets you configure the system and install more applications.

The whole system runs in a small amount RAM, meaning you don’t need to install it to a hard disk to be able to use it; when you turn off the computer, the changes made are lost. So, this is not more nor less than a LiveCD that has a size of ~30MB. It is very fast, even on older computers.

Is this news? No, there have been tiny Linux distros around before, and SliTaz itself has been around for a lot of time, as I told. Damn Small Linux, Puppy Linux and TinyCore are some examples of other GNU/Linux distros that have the goal of being small in size. I particularly like SliTaz because of its uniqueness: a unique packaging system (tazpkg), unique utilities, and a unique look too. DSL and Puppy Linux are already too “big” for me, and TinyCore is too small to be useful to me. So SliTaz just got it right for my concept of “tiny Linux distro”.

I don’t use SliTaz every day – it’s not my daily use distro – but I still like it very much and it’s been useful to me a few times. I use to keep around a USB pendrive with a copy of SliTaz installed – one never knows when it may be useful, specially after you’ve installed office tools like Abiword and Gnumeric. Of course, your idea of usefulness certainly varies from mine, and that’s why I like open source: just change it so it works the way it’s useful to you.

There have been no cooking or stable releases of SliTaz recently, and there was a lack of word from the developers. I started to think that the project was slowly becoming abandoned. Fortunately, today I checked their website, and this is what I see: news! Well, not really in the news section, but a blog post: Lack of news but work never stops.

So, in conclusion, it seems the project is still active, the only problem is that everyone is too busy to release cooking versions and write press-releases. And it looks like the team is working to get a cooking version out soon, which is great news, since the latest cooking was in May of last year and it’s out of date when compared to the work that’s been done on the repositories since that time.

To the SliTaz developers: Keep up the great work! :)

Edit 23rd February 2012: Slitaz 4.0 RC1 is out! Check how the new version looks like.

ReactOS 0.3.14 has been released

Looks like ReactOS 0.3.14 has been finally released. See the news here, on the official website.

I can’t say I care a lot about ReactOS, as I mostly use Linux and other *nix and have no interest on NT-based operating systems. ReactOS is one of the OSS projects I follow by keeping a “semi-closed eye” on them. But still, it is interesting to see how the project has evolved since its 0.3.13 release, almost a year ago. They now support Windows XP themes, wifi drivers, ACPI among other improvements.

But again, will ReactOS do any good when it finally achieves full Windows XP capability? I blogged about that some time ago.

Merry Christmas!

I know it’s a bit too late already, but since what matters is the Christmas spirit and not the timings, here are my wishes for a great Christmas and a happy new year 2012. Let the happiness and healthiness be with you this Christmas and new year eve, as well as throughout 2012 and, well, your whole life. I hope all your good wishes come true! 😀

Now, my turn on Christmas wishes: let’s hope my new shiny, cheap Android tablet I bought (Flytouch 3, P041 model, not a Christmas gift!) gets fixed – its internal memory (a microSD card) is corrupt. Now I need to fix the microSD card in a Linux computer. Linux computer? Check. SD card reader? Check. microSD reader? Missing. Trying alternatives… microSD-to-SD adapter? Missing… Santa, all there is on my gifts list is a way to fix that tablet’s microSD, I want a microSD-to-SD adapter or a USB microSD reader (costs $1)!

I’ll let you know if/when I fix the device and get rid of that damn error the Flytouch returns when trying to burn the Linux kernel to said microSD!

Merry Christmas!

gbl08ma / Gabriel Maia

The Raspberry Pi: What it is and why it will make a difference

I’ve met the Raspberry Pi project around three months ago, and immediately fell in love for its concept and idea: to build a extremely cheap Linux box that could be used to teach children the world of programming, Linux and even open source in general. But when I first knew about this project (it was on Slashdot if I remember correctly), me and lots of other people were skeptical about it, specially because of the aim price (USD $25/18,5€), because of the size of the prototype board (the first one presented was no big than a USB flash drive, and in fact, was smaller than many of them), and because their website consisted of a single page with an image of that prototype board and a few technical details; it also said the Raspberry Pi Foundation was a charity (non-profit).

I forgot about the project for a few weeks: like many other people, I thought this was no more than vaporware. Later, when I visited their website again, I found it to be much more complete, and it already had some more information and more facts had been confirmed. From then on, I began to check the website much more frequently and, currently, the Raspberry Pi doesn’t look like vaporware anymore: there are alpha boards built that have been distributed to various people doing software work on them, and the project staff has ran demos of the Alpha boards at many meetings. The Raspberry Pi was and continues to be responsible by news articles, sometimes front-page articles, on many technology sites. They also shown on UK television and radio. All this, and they haven’t released a final product to the market yet!

So what is the Raspberry Pi, in conclusion? It’s a extremely cheap, cheaper than many books, embedded Linux board. At launch, there will be two models: A and B. The model B has better features than the A, they will cost $35 and $25 respectively. Behind the project there’s a charity with the same name, the UK-based Raspberry Pi Foundation.

Both models feature an ARM11 Broadcom CPU clocked at 700MHz and a GPU capable of drawing Full HD H.264 videos at 30fps, and supporting OpenGL ES 2.0; a SD/MMC/SDIO card slot from which the OS will boot. For video output, the Pi has both an HDMI connector and a good old composite video connector, which means the Pi will be able to display not only on a modern LCD with HDMI connectors, but also on older TV sets and displays that feature composite video input(s). The RAM varies according to each model, and is presented stacked on top of the CPU (PoP configuration). Both models have some GPIO (General Purpose Input/Output) pins, although nowhere as many as things like the Arduino.

As for power supply, the Raspberry Pi will ask for a 5V input, and it should run off 4 AA cells. It will use a micro-USB connector for power supply, but note that it doesn’t act as a USB client device (it only draws power from micro-USB, no data). The energy consumption of the board is also incredibly low, and I believe it is lower than the consumption of many devices in standby mode.

The publicly shown Raspberry Pi Alpha board

The publicly shown Raspberry Pi Alpha board

Model A will only have 1 USB port, no ethernet and 128MB of RAM, whereas the model B will feature 2 USB ports, an ethernet jack and 256MB RAM. The final PCB design has been released, after lots of work doing the routing of the tracks of the PCB to ensure the maximum efficiency of the Raspberry Pi; the board will have the same area as a credit card (it’s amazing how could they fit all the connectors in such a small size board).

Oh, and I forgot to say: the Pi also has a 3.5 mm jack audio output; combine this with the small form factor of the board, some portable power supply and buttons connected to the GPIO, and there you have a very powerful MP3 player that also turns into a full-featured PC when you connect a display, keyboard and mice to its USB port(s). Or you could bring a touchscreen and make your very own Android/Ubuntu/whatever Linux tablet!

The circuit scheme of the final boardThe circuit scheme of the final board

As for the software, the board is designed to run ARM Linux distros, but people are already planning on porting other lightweight OS – don’t expect Windows in any way though as a) this device is simply too open-source for Microsoft’s mind and b) There’s not enough RAM to run Windows 8 in any way. Plus, WINE and other Windows abstraction layer software will not work, as these are not designed for ARM. Apart from these limitations (that most certainly don’t affect you unless you were expecting to make a hardcore gaming machine out of it), the Pi will do, better or worse, practically everything you do with a PC: web browsing, email, word processing, spreadsheet, instant messaging… for more advanced users, this is also a perfect server, either for serving files on USB drives, or hosting websites. For those (of any age!) willing to learn (embedded) software development, this is also the perfect device – specially because it’s cheap as hell, when compared to things like the successful Beagleboard.

I guess that we only need to allow time for humans to develop uses for the Raspberry Pi, and some of them will drive our minds crazy I’m sure. Enough presenting the Pi, if you want to know more you can do research…

Why I think the Pi will make a difference

You already saw what the Pi is from my quite long introduction above. I won’t say this is a revolutionary device, that will change the way we see technology. I won’t say that this is going to cause an impact as big as the iPhone caused on mobile phones or as the iPod on digital music, either, specially because a) the Pi doesn’t have an Apple on the back, b) the iPhone/iPod weren’t news either, since things like them already existed before; that fruit company only made them friendly to the masses (and credit to them for that).

Other thing that makes me think the Pi won’t reach the intended audience so fast as some expect is it’s appearance. I don’t want to make more analogies with Apple’s devices, but please allow for just another one: smartphones existed well before the iPhone, and I have an HTC phone from 2005 that did more (has 3G connectivity, for example) than the first iPhone, that was launched much later. Then why didn’t the older smartphones make much success? I don’t think expensive is the problem, but their look: most of them look ugly, to the masses at least, something the iPhone did better (just like with most recent Apple products).

Stopping with Apple analogies (I promise!)… the Pi is an innovative product by its size, its price and its main objective. If enough people know about it, it will suppress many markets, such as the thin clients one. From my point of view, this is the most cheap and minimal mini-ITX you can get, with the detail it doesn’t run Windows, but that is a matter of getting the world used to Linux. Due to its small power supply requirements and the cheap price, it will also bring computing where it is very rare nowadays, enabling people in development countries to have their first PC (or PED – personal embedded device :) ). If we find a way to cheaply connect the Pi to the internet no matter where one is, it is even better, because people that have gain access to the ‘net and to who we teach how to use it, will eventually become better informed people.

In other words, this is a bit like the OLPC project, except that, at least in my honest opinion, and based on what I know from the OLPC project (which might not be accurate), it is being done with much more responsibility and a true knowledge of the requirements of the target audience. It also uses emerging technologies such as Linux for the ARM architecture, contributing to the evolution of the open source universe. But still, I don’t want to say the Pi is the perfect device: the Universe doesn’t allow perfect things to be made, duh. So, not being the perfect device, there’s always space for improvement, specially because one size doesn’t always fit all, and people will always one to thinker with a Pi to make them more like their own definition of “perfect”.

Other important difference in comparison with the OLPC project is that it isn’t just for children: indeed, the first batch of 10000 Raspberry Pies will be more targeted at developers and hackers (that doesn’t mean some “hackers” aren’t as young as me…), however and unlike was wrongly stated in many news, any person can buy it. Detail: I’m not yet sure if the first batch will be sold as a buy-one-donate-another project, making you pay for two Pis whereas you’ll only receive one, having the other going to charity. Please enlighten me on this subject!

The defects of the Raspberry Pi

As I said, this isn’t the perfect thing, and I think it’s important to point out its defects and limitations, because only this way we can improve on them. So, here are the things that according to my thoughts are yet to be solved or better discussed:

  • Peripherals: the Pi can be considered nothing more than a PC’s motherboard; it still needs you to have all the peripherals, from keyboards, mice, SD cards, and specially, a screen where to show things. The screen is the most expensive part, if you assume people can’t use an existing screen because of e.g. the lack of one.
  • Power supply: well, this is a “defect” that comes with every device, so I’m not considering it as a defect, but more of a “thing to discuss” – and many people are already discussing it, fortunately. Even if the Pi consumes such little power that it can run of standard AA cells, the things you’re going to connect to it won’t. And being the Pi basically just what a motherboard is to the PC, it’s pretty useless without some input/output devices – and these will consume much more power than the Pi. Well, we can assume you only connect a four-line character cell display to it, and a USB keyboard for input, and then use the display to show four lines of Linux shell – not very practical, obviously.
  • Memory/CPU specifications: As I said above, it’s not going to run the traditional Windows, nor a recent Firefox on Linux, at least until they stop making memory-hungry Firefoxes. It’s all a matter of studying the capabilities of the device and see if it applies for your project. I think the low specifications of the board also have a positive point: It will teach the young developers how to make apps that don’t use 1GB of RAM after half an hour of use, thus teaching these developers how to manage the system resources.
  • The case: it’s known that the Pi will ship without case. There will be cases available on the online store of Raspberry Pi, but of course these cost some money, increasing the price of the device if you must have a case. Of course, we can’t see just the negative part of this: the lack of a case opens people’s mind to creativity and curiosity, making them poke inside the Pi. If it breaks… well, if you have enough money to buy another, that’s not a problem. However, if we want to incentive children to learn programming with the Pi, it must be made somewhat attractive.

Finished! This is my long essay on the Raspberry Pi… please correct me if you find any errors on the facts presented here, and take the opportunity to express your own opinion by dropping a line on the comments. Oh, and of course don’t forget to visit the official Raspberry Pi website for more amusement! 😉

Now running with nginx!

I was really fed up with Apache on this server. It would use huge amounts of RAM, even after all the visitors left the website. Having done all tweaks to the memory usage of Apache and PHP, the amount of RAM used would never get below 450MB (out of the 512MB this VPS has). Hell, Apache was consuming even more memory than MySQL!

For those who don’t know, nginx is an alternative, lightweight webserver which is generally used (by many popular websites) as a load balancer. However, it can also act as the single web server on a system, like what Apache and Lighttpd do. I had worked with nginx before on some small websites on low-resource servers, and I was quite satisfied with it. As I explained with an earlier blog post, nginx is great as long as the website you want to serve with it does work with nginx – that is, doesn’t heavily depend on Apache rules or some Apache-specific thing. Sure, those rules can be converted to nginx config options, but I never succeeded on making eyeOS 1.x work fully with nginx.

WordPress is one of the scripts that works best with nginx. Since this website is mainly powered by nginx (although I have some custom scripts laying around, mainly the scripts providing alternative WiiMC internet media), I made my mind and decided I would go through the hassle of switching from Apache to nginx. It wasn’t a big hassle after all: apart from having to restart the server at some point due to a RAM outage, the website wasn’t offline much time, and there was no data loss.

After putting Apache off-use and starting nginx, the server was still using 300MB of RAM. I though nginx couldn’t be using so much RAM, and there was another problem laying around. Turns out to be a problem in MySQL config: I don’t need InnoDB functionality, so usually I add a “skip-innodb” line to my.cnf. The problem was, this line needs to be added under the [mysqld] section and in my case, it was somewhere else. So I moved skip-innodb to the right place, restarted MySQLd, and that’s it:

The server is now using 240MB of RAM, which still fits inside the dedicated RAM (256MB), so I’m not taking any of the burst RAM, which resides in the server swap space. The RAM usage is still high, because I have other things running such as dovecot for mail delivery.

It also looks faster to load pages, but probably someone with a faster connection than me will notice a bigger difference.

ReactOS: will they ever get somewhere?

For those who may not know, ReactOS is an operating system that “aims to follow the Windows-NT® architecture designed by Microsoft from the hardware level right through to the application level”. By other words,  the idea is to provide Windows XP-level compatibility with software and hardware.

Looks like a neat idea? Yes, indeed. An “open source Windows” system would has lots of applications, for example, in situations where demand for using open source software and common standards, instead of proprietary solutions, exists (like what happens, in theory, on some country governments).

Why it doesn’t work right? Well, nobody can say the project has been abandoned. It’s progressing, but very slow. I can’t blame the developers for the slowness: the task they’re doing is hard, and there aren’t many developers devoted to the project.

The latest version was released on March 2011, and it was just a tiny improvement over all that’s still missing. My only concern is, when they get a Windows XP compatibility that is good enough, won’t be XP as obsolete as Windows 95 is now? At the end, Windows XP is already more than 10 years old, and even some of the most recent software by its creator, Microsoft, doesn’t work on XP (e.g. IE 9 or the latest Live Messenger).

And another thing: if ReactOS gets noticed enough, won’t Microsoft try to squash them and send some juridical flames regarding e.g. stupid patents? Or even reverse engineering, although I don’t think they can be legitimately accused of doing it? Note that these questions may also apply for WINE and similar software, but up to now, it looks like they have been safe from Microsoft’s hammer.