Monday, December 28, 2015

C.H.I.P. First Impressions

Warning:  This review is not suitable for family viewing in some places.

Well, here's my first impressions of the C.H.I.P. $9 computer from Next Thing Company.

Executive summary:  The thing is a $9 piece of chit...chip.

Technical details:

The C.H.I.P. comes in a brown box with a composite cable.  No docs, but for $9 I didn't expect docs.  Hey, it's a little single-board computer.  I know how to use a computer (and make it do "Computer Things")!

My C.H.I.P. was ordered with just the composite video cable, and the only thing I have with a composite video input these days is my TV.  No problem here, just the TV, my 2 amp Raspberry Pi power supply, and a wireless USB keyboard, and we're good to go.

The thing booted up fine the first time into Linux.

The display parameters for composite video (aka TV) made it impossible to see the "CANCEL/OK" buttons at the bottom of the network configuration screen, because the windowing environment was designed for a higher resolution display.  So clearly, the UI was never tested with the composite video output.  I've never been a big fan of GNOME and its interface for just this reason.  If you're going to be so snobbish as to build an interface that doesn't fit a lower resolution display and not even allow users to resize the forms if they don't fit, then you're not fit to be a UI designer.  I discovered the buttons after clicking around the screen and somehow forcing the top of the form to go off the top of the screen, revealing the buttons.  I was able to backwards-tab to the hidden OK button in subsequent screens.

It took me several tries to get the WiFi going, because my passphrase is a long string of random characters, and the network management interface would clear out my passphrase if I typed it wrong and it didn't work on the first try.  Another (said with sarcasm) user-friendly UI experience.  Who designs this garbage?  You know, I never seemed to have this kind of problem when I could open a file with a plain old text editor and change the configuration.

Anyway, I got that set-up finally, and was able to ssh into the computer (I was able to guess the password for the default user on the machine - username and password are both chip.

I got things going and set-up a few changes on my network (DHCP and DNS configuration) so I'd have a static IP address for the C.H.I.P. on the next reboot.

Then I did a "shutdown -r now" as I would normally do after this, and waited for the C.H.I.P. to reboot.

Nothing.  The TV screen went dark.  It stayed dark.  I pulled out the power cord and plugged it back in.  Still nothing.  F**k.

So I turned to the Internet.  I dropped by the Next Thing Company's forums, and the first thing that catches my eye is a topic with the subject "C.H.I.P. dead after 30 minutes".  Look at the topic, and low and behold, there's a couple of people with the exact same problem I had.  Amazing.

Apparently the fix suggested is to reflash the board.  To do so, you need to install VirtualBox (no problem) and grab the entire development environment from github using a utility called vagrant.  This requires a whole bunch of friggin Ruby modules to be installed.  Then to put the board into reflash mode, you short a bunch of pins on the connector, collect the hair of newt, pray to the gods for rain, and do some other incantations that made me roll my eyes and stop reading.  Seriously?  After about 45 minutes I end up with a bricked unit for no other reason than to boot and configure the damn thing...and the only way to resurrect it is to install a whole development environment?  I have now seen what a $9 computer looks like, and I don't like it very much.

I just got done playing with the Raspberry Pi 2 (2B to be exact).  It's a lot less polished than the C.H.I.P., and I expected that.  I don't do "computer things" with a Raspberry Pi.  I hook things to it and make it do l33t h4x0r things with that stuff.  The Raspberry Pi didn't fail to boot after screwing around with its configuration.  Although it did use NetworkManager (a hunk of shit, just like systemd), the unit actually did the right thing.  Of course, if I did screw-up the MicroSD card, I could just reflash THAT and we'd be rolling again.  I expected that the C.H.I.P. would just work and do "computer things" as the creators intended.  I wanted to see it do spreadsheets, and web browsing, and terminals and all that stuff, just like in their video.  I know Linux, and I figured it would run Linux nicely.  Nope.

So my first impressions are not good.  Not good at all.  I now know why the average person finds Linux to be a pain in the ass.  Because as it has evolved, it is a pain in the ass.  Yes, I know how tempting it is to make a fine OS like Linux act like Windows, but all the people who fucked around with desktop environments and automagic shit did was fuck-up Linux.  Pardon my French.  I know that's not Next Thing Company's fault, exactly, but they basically adopted the UI as distributed, without any kind of feedback.  The hardware itself looks interesting -- amazing, actually.  A little tiny ARM-based single-board computer (SBC) that runs Linux and does lots of cool stuff.  But it didn't do it for long.  And they didn't give anyone a way to plug-in a USB flash drive to reflash the damn thing when something went horribly wrong.  No, instead, you use your real computer that does real computer things and actually works, install an entire development environment, and...you know.

So when I don't feel like watching my blood pressure increase to an uncomfortably high level and wrestle with this thing, I'll try to unbrick it.  Until then, the C.H.I.P. will stay in its little brown box waiting.  Waiting to be reflashed.

Thursday, November 26, 2015

Things Technology Can't Fix

I had an unfortunate experience today that has left me depressed, and really feeling down on people in general.  I was watching my neighbor's home and feeding their cat while they went away to relatives' for Thanksgiving.  This morning when I went to take care of the cat, I discovered that someone had burglarized their home overnight.  I had the unpleasant job of breaking the news to my neighbor and doing a half-baked job of cleaning up some of the mess so they would have just a bit less to deal with when they got home.  By the way, the police department was nothing but cooperative and professional.

This is the first time in a while that I really just felt like ending my life.  Thankfully, I have a cat and a few people who give a damn.

I've been the victim of a home burglary, and it is not a "victimless crime" or just a "property crime."  It is a violation of the very place we look to for safety and security:  home.  When that place is violated, it rips at the very core of that safety and security.  I have a strong sense of empathy for my neighbor.  I can only imagine how they are going to feel when they come home and see the mess that the burglars left - both of their house, and their lives.

Technology can give us better alarm systems and ways to monitor our homes, but it really can't make us feel safe.  When something like this happens, it affects a whole community.

Years of therapy has told me I need to think of why the person or people who did this did what they did.  It's supposed to be part of the forgiveness/understanding process, and trying to cope with the idea that this wasn't personal.  Perhaps the people were victims of the recent flood and now have no place to live and no money for food.  Maybe they have fallen victim to drug addiction and are having problems finding money to pay criminal enterprises for their next "fix."  It is possible that this person feels that the people in my neighborhood, being somewhat affluent, are the cause for whatever dire straits they are currently experiencing, and they feel entitled to take back what they feel is rightfully their's by force.  Yes, I get that there may be a reason.  But.  The ends do not justify the means.  In spite of their reasons (and I use that word loosely), what they did became personal when they violated someone else's home.  The reason why theft is against the law is because it is a fundamental violation of someone else's rights, regardless of the reason.

I'm really tired of living in a society of entitled people who think they have the right to disrupt other people's lives whenever they fall upon hard times or disagree with someone else or their lifestyle.  Yes, I do understand that things can seem futile and sometimes desperate times can call for desperate measures.  As human beings, though, we are quite resourceful, and there certainly is a better way to handle a crisis without resorting to destroying someone else's life.  Without making a community feel unsafe in their homes.

I suppose we'll all go out and install a security camera system and beef-up our alarm systems.  That seems like a technological stopgap measure to a series of larger, more fundamental, problems.  Some people would say that if we lived in a socialist economic system that it would remove the incentive for people to steal from others.  I disagree.  While that works in theory (and really, only in theory), in reality there will always be someone who is a little "better off" than someone else, and there will always be that entitled prick who thinks they have the right to bring that other person down to their level.  I do believe a contributing factor is that there are too many people (and more on the way) and not enough jobs.  Voluntarily not having more kids for a while would help, but not entirely solve, this problem.  Another contributing factor is the way that we equate success with quantity of things.  This requires a societal shift in thought, and to do so would mean moving toward a more simple lifestyle.  That would result in less consumption of things, and as a result mean that there would be less jobs.  Unfortunately, there is not a single solution to the problems, and even this is an overly simplistic view.

Again, this is a situation that technology just can't fix.

On that note, I will try my best to find a happy place to retreat to for now.  Before I do that, though, I need to console my neighbor, who just called and said they were almost home.

Saturday, November 7, 2015

If you don't have something nice to say...

Someone I know personally and knows that I write in this blog asked me recently why I haven't posted anything lately.  Actually, I was kind of surprised, because I didn't think anyone was actually reading this any more (especially that person).  That is actually one reason why I stopped writing.

The other reason I've kept quiet is because, frankly, I don't have a lot of nice (perhaps positive or pleasant would be better adjectives) things to say.   People who I once respected said things that brought me distress.  I see ignorant actions all around me by otherwise intelligent people that will ultimately affect how I live my life, and it isn't positive.  My creative juices are not flowing.  My job has me under a lot of stress.  Writing something here takes a lot of work, and most days I just don't feel much like venting to the world.

On the other hand, I do feel I owe it to the few people who read this from time-to-time something to read.  So here goes...

You People Are Nuts

YouTube is a great source of entertainment, and I get a lot of pleasure from several channels on that media.  At the same time, it has opened a door into a world of hate that I never expected to ever see.  Today I unsubscribed from several channels because the content was, in a word, toxic.  I have done this before with several channels, but this goes beyond a mere difference of opinion.

Exhibit one:  Thunderf00t vs. Laughing Witch.  A says a lot of things that annoys B (perhaps even provokes her).  B decides to start a letter writing campaign to A's employer to get A fired from his job.  B gloats about how A can't do anything like that to her because B works for her husband (ha-ha!).  B says she doesn't care about what happens to A and what A does about the letters.  People who like A show B that gloating about trying to ruin someone's career and then boasting about how nobody can do anything to her is a really bad idea.  B's life and business becomes a living hell.  B now plays the "victim card" and accuses A of provoking retaliation.

(edit:   YouTube content producer and blogger girlwriteswhat has a much more comprehensive and accurate account of the controversy here)

I'm sure that both A and B have their own version of the story and can support the reason for their actions, but as a third party looking in, this is the kind of childish behavior that has no business taking place between adults.  I believe that my bias in this case is obvious, but I do believe that I have the basic facts clear, as a third party looking-in would see.

"What is the subject of the conflict that caused this to happen?" you may ask...

Social Justice Warriors

There is nothing that can be said today that won't be interpreted as being oppressive to some group of people.  The concept of political correctness has been taken to a whole new level, with someone ready and willing to be offended by some comment or action, and thus requiring some kind of online activism.  The base argument between Thunderf00t and Laughing Witch center around Thunderf00t being opposed to the idea of women being a generally oppressed group (which Laughing Witch seems to feel is the case).

I understand that there are individuals under specific circumstances who are oppressed, discriminated against, or otherwise harmed in some way, sometimes even through hateful speech.  These specific circumstances should be addressed and we should move on.  So-called social justice warriors see these individual circumstances as part of a larger, endemic problem against a larger group of people that requires some kind of activism to solve as those people oppressed are allegedly unable to fight for themselves.  The activists utilize people's empathy and emotional responses to the individual circumstances to drum-up support for what is almost always not an epidemic and generalized problem.  It leads to the "you're either with us or against us" behavior that ultimately creates a rift between groups of people.

What happens when women are portrayed as a universally oppressed group of people?  It causes a rift between men and women as a group.  Think about this for a moment.  I know both men and women who are pretty despicable people.  I also know men and women who are wonderful, talented, strong-willed, influential, intelligent, compassionate people.  Where we end up on the scale of either extreme depends solely on our own actions.  Are there men who treat women badly?  Yes.  Are there women who take advantage of men?  Yes.  Are all women or all men bad people?  No.  Most of them aren't.  We may not always agree on every subject, but let's address those differences on the individual topics rather than accusing an entire gender of comandeering society as a whole and making it a living hell for the other gender (because we all know that just isn't true).

This goes equally for all races, sexual orientations, people with specific hair color, whether or not you like The Partridge Family, and so on.  There are actual groups of people who really do espouse radical ideologies and want to impose that on the rest of society.  Social justice warriors could be thought of as one of those groups.  Think about that.  We're very quick to condemn ISL's terroristic actions ("the ends justify the means" in their eyes).  We should be equally ready to be skeptical toward any group of people who's cause operates under the philosophy of "the ends justify the means" and "if you're not with us then you're against us."  You will not effect social change by forcing people to think the way you do.  You will only effect change by showing, by your own action, that the world is a better place when people behave the way you do.

Would you otherwise intelligent, talented, creative, influential, compassionate people do something more constructive than drive a wedge between people?

There Really Are Good Things Happening In The World

I know it doesn't seem like it sometimes, but there really are good things going on.

I admit it - I'm getting old and think today's "music" is garbage and can't stand to listen to it.  I know I'm not alone.  Here are a few ways you can feel connected to the younger generation without compromising your discriminating tastes in music:
  • TheUnsungHeroine (http://www.youtube.com/user/theunsungheroine) (Kristina Hu) does solo piano interpretations of EDM and popular music.  The production quality is near-professional and she sells some of her music on iTunes and amazon.com.
  • PJUB MUSIC aka. Choonstix (https://www.youtube.com/user/choonstix) (Pearl) also does solo piano interpretations of popular music.  Her style is distinctly different from TheUnsungHeroine.  Pearl tends to enjoy what sounds like texturing her melodies through what she plays with her left hand.  The production quality is fairly amateur and music isn't available for sale, but Pearl's performance is worth overlooking these downsides.
  • Scott Bradlee's Postmodern Jukebox (https://www.youtube.com/user/ScottBradleeLovesYa) is a group recommended to me by "Speck" recently, and interprets popular music as different traditional styles.  Be patient with this one because you probably won't like every one of the styles they do, and some of the videos appear a bit "over-produced."  That being said, the production and audio quality is excellent and their music is for sale both on iTunes and amazon.com.  Robyn Adele Anderson (among others) provide outstanding vocals on many of the songs.
I've recently gotten back into experimenting with electronic devices again.  Thanks much to Dave Jones of EEVblog who has given me some motivation to pick up a book again and start learning what I couldn't learn back in college.  After seeing his demonstration of the Rigol DS1054Z oscilloscope, I purchased one and it is as useful as it looks.  Having a four channel digital oscilloscope makes it possible to debug a lot of microcontroller programming bugs, since you can actually see the signals coming out of the MCU.  This really is only scratching the surface of its capability, though, since that use case is really a minimalist logic analyzer.  I am looking forward to learning more about electronic theory (which will involve analog signals) and using the oscilloscope for its real purpose.

A couple of weeks ago, I discovered Kati Morton's mental health videos.  If you don't think you can learn something that will help improve your emotional state and interactions with others, then you probably need that education more than you think.  Kati makes complex mental health issues a lot more understandable and presents exercises that will give you a better idea when you're doing well, and when you can use a bit of outside help.

There's nothing that can lift one's spirits like sitting down with a cat.  I think it's time to do that now.